Antigo’s Joe Jopek is as much a symbol of the Ice Age Trail as the iconic mastodon that serves as its’ mascot.
Jopek, who has devoted much of his life toward creating and expanding the 1,200 mile footpath, has received The George and Helen Hartzog Award for lifetime achievement, among the highest honors that can be presented by the National Park Service.
The plaque was presented at the 2011 annual conference and membership meeting of the Ice Age Trail Alliance held over the weekend in Wausau.
Other award recipients included the Antigo Daily Journal, cited for its support of the Ice Age Trail program in Langlade County since its inception in 1973.
Mike Wollmer, executive director for the alliance, presented an award for media publicity to the Antigo Daily Journal, which was nominated for the honor by Jopek, who had prepared a book with clippings and data on the trail and work on its Langlade County segment dating to 1958 — long before the trail became a reality.
Jopek’s award was presented by Dan Watson, volunteer coordinator for the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, who originally nominated him for the honor.
Watson said that Jopek has provided a level of commitment and service to the Ice Age Trail that is unmatched and, until now, largely unheralded.
“Like the glaciers before him, Joe has left an impressive mark along the trail and the people who use it,” Watson said. “Like the glaciers, Joe’s influence on the area and his presence throughout the story of the trail, dates back many years.
Watson cited Jopek’s involvement in the Langlade County chapter as well as his work in the establishment and evolution of the entire trail system, calling it “nearly four decades of visionary influence and day-to-day toils on behalf of this great addition to the National Trails System.”
Jopek’s involvement in the rail system dates to his career as a community resource development agent with the Langlade County University of Wisconsin-Extension.
In 1973 he participated in the first tri-county organizational meeting which sought ways of establishing an Ice Age Trail prior to either state or federal designation.
A year later Jopek was instrumental in establishing the oval chapter and pushed through a Langlade County Board resolution allowing the trail to be constructed through county-owned lands and encouraging private landowners to cooperate with the projects.
On Jan. 11, 1977 Secretary of the Interior Thomas S. Kleppe designated four segments of the Ice Age Trail in Langlade County—Kettle Bowl, Lumber Camp, Old Railroad and Parrish Hills—as National Recreation Trail components.
“Joe Jopek and his Langlade County volunteers had personally built each of these segments,” Watson said.
His work has continued unabated in the years since, maintaining and supporting new trail segments, leading hikes and promotion and interpreting the area’s glacial geology, land use, resource management and history.
“From the very early stages of what was once merely a collective dream of a few trail pioneers, through the difficult challenges of instilling enthusiasm and organizing the resources to get the job done, and the eventual satisfaction of seeing 37 years of dedication pay off, Joe Jopek has most certainly provided ‘enduring service’ on behalf of the Ice Age National scenic Trail,” Watson said.
Watson concluded “a gentleman of such unassuming yet remarkable achievements deserves to be recognized in such a fitting way.”
Accepting the award for the Antigo Daily Jurnal were Fred Berner and Kay Schroeder.
Berner thanked the alliance for the award adding that watching the development of the system over the years was a pleasure.
Wollmer told the crowd that it was the largest annual conference in the history of the alliance, and credited the central location in Wausau as helping fuel the interest.
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail is a 1,200 mile footpath that will one day span the entire width of Wisconsin. Fifty-three miles of continuous trail exist across Langlade County, with only a stretch from Antigo southwest to Marathon County remaining in the planning stages.
The route follows the edge of the last glacial advance dating back more than 10,000 years. The glaciers left an impressive array of geologic marks upon the land in the form of kettles, moraines, eskers, drumlins and kames that are so unique that at one time there were efforts made to create a national park along the route.