I cannot think of a duller description of a trail by a lake than "lake shore path." That phrase narrows down the possibilities to only a half zillion areas of trampled grass along a half zillion lakes. But say the words "Lake Shore Path" to Kelly Hayden, village administrator of Fontana, Wisconsin, and her voice brightens over the phone.
"It's where I go to walk, talk and gawk," Hayden said. "A complete surprise to anyone when they discover the Lake Shore Path for the first time."
What is surprising is that the trail -- leading from touristy Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, on one end of Geneva Lake, to almost-as-touristy Fontana on the other end - doesn't just meander along the shore. It is, perhaps, the most unique trail on the planet. The planet, I tell you. Consider the following:
The shoreline of Geneva Lake is 21 miles, and nearly the entire trail that circles it crosses private property. So every homeowner, from the residents of Rockefeller-type estates to the hut dwellers, has signed a public easement allowing the trail.
"It's not a contested area," Hayden said. "The easement has been around since anyone can remember, so that when someone buys a property, it's not an issue."
Hayden said walking the entire 21 miles has taken her seven hours. And rather than being flat as one might expect, 25 percent of the trail is rough and rugged - perhaps the best part of the trail, Hayden said.
Hayden made it clear that if I really wanted to get to know the Lake Shore Path around Geneva Lake, the person to talk to would be John Palmer of Fontana.
Palmer, 41, a husband and father of two children, owns and operates John Palmer Personal Training. He was born and raised in Fontana, graduated from Big Foot High School and then the University of Wisconsin. Prior to forming his own personal training company, he opened a gym in Whitewater. In 2001, with investors, Palmer opened Four Lakes Athletic Club, a 70,000-square-foot sports and training facility.
His own athletic feats include completing the Race Across America on a two-man team in nine and a half days. Palmer also kayaks, canoes, skis alpine and cross country, ice skates, swims and runs. His silent sports skills have seen him through 70 triathlons, including Ironman distances along with half, Olympic, and sprint triathlons. His marathon speed approaches three hours flat, which is really something when you consider his non-Ethiopian, 6-foot 1-inch and 220-pound frame. (He also sky dives on occasion.)
Palmer shared the Lake Shore Path's history with me, and his enthusiasm for the trail was contagious.
"Native Americans put in a lot of the trail's original path as they walked to different hunting and fishing areas," Palmer explained. "The trail re-routes away from the shoreline only a few times and only by several yards for safety reasons when the shoreline itself doesn't allow a safe passage at its edge."
Palmer said he believes Geneva Lake is the only lake of its size in the country with a trail all along its entire shoreline with as much as 85 percent being private property.
Trail as training tool
Palmer's personal training programs for his clients focuses on the Lake Shore Path, and despite his own physical strengths and silent sports prowess, he encourages walking the Lake Shore Path, not running it.
"Every October, I set up a walk around Geneva Lake, arranging aid stations with food and promoting it as a full walk around Geneva Lake, not a run," he said, adding that it's often a dream of people who visit the area to walk around the entire lake. Few of these people are prepared for the time it takes, however.
"I get satisfaction when a typically sedentary person opens a door that turns healthy pastimes into a lifestyle because they actually enjoy it," Palmer said. "They don't train because they have to, but because they discover the fun. And there's nothing that plays into it more perfectly than the Lake Shore Path."
Palmer breaks down the Lake Shore Path into 3.5-mile segments. He knows where the flats are and where the challenging hills are, and guides clients according to their abilities. After a year or so, clients find themselves making the full trek around Geneva Lake, and start asking themselves, "How can I do this faster?" That's how some walkers turn into runners.
"But whether a walker or a runner," Palmer said, "the trek around Geneva Lake is a tangible goal, and it becomes a huge accomplishment no matter how long it takes."
Palmer detailed the uniqueness of the Lake Shore Path. He noted Williams Bay, the Yerkes Observatory and old and new estates that will take your breath away. At points along the path, it's like walking through the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
From Williams Bay to Lake Geneva, the trail is clearly defined, level and easy on beginners. The south side of the Lake Shore Path, from Lake Geneva to Fontana, is more off road with more varied terrain and woods. Some short segments must be walked due to the challenge of the trail.
"Interpretations of the rule that requires homeowners to make the trail passable vary," Palmer said. "Some properties are more woodsy; overgrown with vines and tree roots you would expect on a trail run. Other homeowners set out pavers you hopscotch over from stone to stone. Others have grass the texture of carpet, and others have built wooden or stone bridges. At most times, Geneva Lake itself is an arm's length or two away."
"There is no issue with the homeowners," Palmer insisted. "They add to the experience because they have embraced the path. Many have put out water fountains and benches for travelers along the path. Several homes, including one called the Expect a Miracle Estate, provide walking paths around the estate itself with inspirational sayings posted along the way, as well as journals for people to write down their thoughts."
A runner's perspective
Palmer's enthusiasm got me thinking about running the entire path myself. With the walk he organizes coming up on October 1, Palmer said, "We'd love to have you. Come on out."
My only cause for hesitation was the fact I had never run farther than 17.5 miles - the distance between Leroy Oakes in St. Charles, Illinois, to the end of the Great Western Trail in Sycamore, Illinois (ending there only because I know where the Sycamore Park District keeps a 35-cents-a-can soda dispenser).
Nevertheless, I showed up in Fontana for the fourth annual John Palmer Lake Walk and soon learned I would be the only runner. Palmer's wife, Jane, and several assistants had matters in hand: checking in participants, stocking aid stations, transporting backpacks and identifying locations for the best photo opportunities. I met several walkers who looked incredibly fit after losing 30 to more than 100 pounds by following Palmer's training programs.
At 7:30 a.m., with temperatures in the low 30s, the crowd swelled to over 30 friendly walkers. Jane provided each of us with a map delineating all the rest stops, bathroom locales, sights to see, mileage and cut-off times and phone numbers to hail a SAG wagon if need be.
At 7:45 a.m., I took off as the walkers cheered me on. I found the staircase to the path along the north shore toward Lake Geneva. While there are a few steeps along the way, such as at the five-mile mark, most of the north shore is quite runable. The trick for me, though, was taking in the beauty of homes on my left and the beauty of the lake to my right without falling victim to a tree root or paving stone.
As advertised, the path took me along the shore, meandered over lawns and decorative bridges, and through segments of forest and gardens, both natural and formal. I skipped past boat launches and homes until the town of Lake Geneva opened up before me in one broad sweep.
On the south shore heading back toward Fontana is where the real challenges unfold. At least 5 percent of the trail here is not safe to run, especially many of the downhills on man-made staircases or steep grades criss-crossed with tree roots. I had to stay alert, which took my mind off the miles and fatigue. The scenery here, too, kept boredom at bay. It was also along the south shore where I met scores of smiling walkers, a few runners and many residents. True to Palmer's word, several homeowners showed their hospitality by having set out benches for Lake Shore Path users.
At Linn Pier Road, about three-quarters of the way around the lake, the finish line town of Fontana appeared in the distance. As I kept running, the town seemed to stay stubbornly in the distance no matter how much I advanced on it. And the dome of the Yerkes Observatory across the lake on the north shore seemed to never fall behind me either.
There's a set of steeps about a half mile from the finish that felt steeper than it should have because of the nearly 23 miles I had run at that point. (The Lake Shore Path is 21 miles around, but this columnist managed to get himself lost, which would be no surprise to people who know me well.) I managed to run to the top and found Fontana laid out before me. I rushed to the finish. The parking lot was full of cars but no human being was there to welcome me back after more than three hours and 45 minutes of running.
While John's program is geared for walkers, I personally felt I had to run the Lake Shore Path at least once. But along the way I gained greater respect for the walkers. It took seven to eight hours for Palmer's crew to complete the journey. I was back home in St. Charles, Illinois, by that time, expecting to be mugged by a nap at any moment. I learned later that all but one walker finished the entire loop, too.
Frankly, the walkers got to enjoy the scenery more than this runner. Being careful not to trip over the vagaries of the terrain, my view looked a lot like the tops of my running shoes. And apparently there was champagne at the end that this runner missed out on.
The walking program is key to John Palmer's efforts to help turn the sedentary into recreational enthusiasts. He's fortunate that the Lake Shore Path provides irresistible inspiration on its own. I congratulate those who completed the lake walk and welcome them to a new healthy lifestyle among friends. Next year, I think I'll join you by taking a walk.
For more details on the Lake Shore Path or John Palmer Personal Training, go to www.johnpt.com.
Bruce Steinberg is a father, husband, lawyer an novelist in St. Charles, Illinois.