Bill Ziegler

Motorists driving in and out of Yankton along ‘Chalkstone Hill’ on Highway 52 may have seen Bill Ziegler and not thought twice.

Others have honked. Others have stared, perhaps with a puzzled look. Why is that walker wearing a giant backpack?

“I’m just an old guy trying to stay in shape,” Ziegler joked, while putting the 45-pound pack around his back before a morning walk this summer.

There’s a very good reason, you see, why Ziegler — a Second Assistant Chief with the Yankton Volunteer Fire Department — does this.

The 65-year-old man is passionate about his craft.

Ziegler wakes up at 5:30 every morning and then primes himself for what’s to come: A three-mile walk with his firefighter pack on his back.

“I’ll sit there, watch TV and think, ‘Do I want to do this?’” he said. “I have to get myself psyched up. It’s tough, but I always know I’ll feel better after.”

It’s been part of his morning routine for seven years.

Ziegler, who retired two years ago, originally began his walks after work, but found that to be too challenging — especially in the summer months, when the temperature would be at its highest.

Now they come in the mornings.

He will park at the Mount Marty University west lot, pack up, and walk west down ‘Chalkstone Hill’ and out to Timberland Park Road, and then walk back up the hill.

Ziegler said he often gets asked by motorists or other walkers what he’s doing, or more specifically, what he’s doing it for.

Each time, he gives the same answer.

He does it for his fellow firefighters.

“I don’t want to be a burden to them,” Ziegler said. “I don’t want them to have to feel like they need to worry about me out in the field.

“I want to be reliable.”

The original idea for walking with the full pack on his back was sparked when Ziegler and the other members of the fire department would go through a ‘pack test’ where they would walk three miles in 45 minutes. It was part of a physical test to prepare firefighters to help battle wildland fires — they have to get certified every year, according to Ziegler.

Ziegler said he has been called to battle wildfires in the Black Hills a few times during his career — he travels to the hills with either the Yankton department or an area department.

On one trip with the Lesterville department, Ziegler said a fellow firefighter at one point told him, “You’re doing pretty good.”

Ziegler said he remembers thinking, he was glad he did those daily morning walks.

“If I hadn’t done those, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it,” he said.

“This really helps me.”

There are times on his walks that Ziegler gets a call — he carries his radio with him — and will have to turn around and come back.

“I can’t run, so it takes me a while,” he said.

If he’s not interrupted, it usually takes close to an hour start to finish, so it affords Ziegler plenty of time to do some thinking. What does he think about while he walks?

“I’ll keep playing the last song I hear in the vehicle over and over the entire time,” he said, with a smile.

When he’s back to his vehicle after his three-mile journey, Ziegler knows it was worth it — even through the pain: He’s had a shoulder replaced and battles sore knees.

“It gets harder each day,” Ziegler said.

“It is painful, but I don’t claim to be any kind of athlete,” he added, with a smile.

Athlete or not, Ziegler is still passionate about his position with the fire department.

Five years ago, the age limit was raised from 60 to 65, he said, and he wanted to make extra sure his body was up to the task. Some of the firefighters in the department are in their 20s or 30s and a handful are close to Ziegler’s age.

Do his morning walks inspire younger firefighters?

“I really hope so,” Ziegler said.

“There used to be another guy who would walk with me sometimes, but he and his wife just had a baby.”