Winging southward

Late in August I set out early one Saturday morning to follow the Badger State Trail all the way to its end at the Illinois state line, and then the Jane Addams Trail in IL all the way to its end in the city of Freeport.

There are, I have to admit, no particular natural history destinations on this route; instead I largely practiced some lackadaisical trailside botany. In late August things are already starting to wind down, but in the shadier parts of the path – mostly former railway-cuts running deep between walls of fern-bedecked rock – there was a good amount of pale jewelweed (Impatiens pallida):
Pale jewelweed (Impatiens pallida), Badger State Trail between Monticello and Monroe
and I don’t know what sort of ecotone I crossed, but somewhere south of the big trail crossroads in Monticello, the shaded trail surface started to become host to plentiful liverwort, along with the moss found to the north:
Liverwort, Badger State Trail, between Monroe WI and Illinois state line

In Monroe I stopped for lunch, and while digesting it I contemplated this very appealing display of the remainder of the trip:
Monroe & Freeport IL, Badger Trail and Jane Addams Trail, 8/14

… moderated only by the knowledge that I was going to have to climb back up that altitude in the morning.

There’s no campground that I could find particularly handy to Freeport, so instead I left my camping-gear at home and spent the night at the Baymont Inn and Suites, which is essentially right on the trail. It’s not the ritziest hotel in the world, granted, but it’s pleasant enough, and provided a bathtub and a Coke machine. Plus, they were chill about letting me keep my bike in the room, which always helps me rest a little easier. Once I’d rinsed off I wandered out to see the sights of Freeport; in a previous post I’ve already shared pictures of the leopard frog and great blue heron from the Wetland Preserve. In the city proper there were multiple markers of its most famous historical event, the debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas:
Debate Square, Freeport IL: Lincoln and Douglas
and what looked like a fine, though closed, public library.

Heading back in the morning, ballasted by a continental breakfast, I rode uphill through a very grey morning, but was cheered by some decent bug sightings. Just north of Monroe, a membracid perched on top of a wild mint in full flower:
Wild mint and a membracid, Badger State Trail just north of Monroe
In Monticello, where I stopped for second breakfast, there was a huge and magnificent crane-fly that hovered down to the base of a streetlamp while I was unlocking my bike:
Crane-fly, Monticello WI
and on the paved stretch of trail, just south of Madison, the first woolly-bear of the season:
Woolybear caterpillar (Pyrrharctis isabella), Badger State Trail, Fitchburg
An unmistakable harbinger of autumn.

By the time I reached the paved section, the morning clouds had cleared and it was a spectacular afternoon to roll home in.

Leave a comment

Filed under Expeditions

Some highlights, August-September 2014

So I do have some expeditions and observations to write up, but after the final post on the Mississippi trip, my day job revved into crisis mode and has more or less stayed there since. I’ll get back to a regular schedule soon, I hope, but in the meantime here are a few snippets from the past couple of months:

More milkweed denizens

This year I have seen a great many things on milkweed, though not, alas, any monarchs of any stage; but other people have been seeing them, which is good news. I did see this striking milkweed tiger moth (Euchaetes egle) at Curtis Prairie in the UW Arboretum:

Milkweed tiger moth (Euchaetes egle), late-stage larva, Curtis Prairie, UW Arboretum

and at Starkweather Creek, rather late in the season I thought, these amorous red milkweed bettles (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus):
Red milkweed beetles, Starkweather Creek

Freeport wetlands

More on the ride I did in late August, following the combined Badger State/Jane Addams trail system all the way to its end in Freeport, Illinois, anon; but just past the trail’s end – and right off the highway – Freeport has a nice little Wetland Preserve Park, where I snapped this leopard frog (Rana pipiens) in the grass:
Leopard frog (Rana pipiens), Wetlands Preserve Park, Freeport, IL
and, just outside the gates, this great blue heron (Ardea herodias):
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Freeport, IL
When I lived in Redmond, Washington, I used to see blue herons on my commute all the time; they are still common enough there that the stylized one on the city’s logo is not inaccurate. Vying with the heron for pride-of-place in Redmond iconography is the penny-farthing bicycle, and though I saw plenty of bikes during my 2 years in Redmond, I don’t think I ever saw a penny-farthing, so there you go. To be fair, penny-farthings are terrifying and hazardous to ride; there’s good reason that the currently-dominant frame design was originally dubbed the “safety bicycle”.

Fall fungi

Okay, I realize having favourite things about fall has become a cliche. But, there it is: more than pumpkin ale, more than jumping into piles of dead leaves, I really like walking in woodlands full of fungi, and the one outing I’ve managed in September – just to the UW Arboretum, through Gallistel Woods and Wingra Woods – has not disappointed.

Here some millipedes are equally pleased:
Mushrooms & millipedes, Gallistel Woods, UW Arboretum

Splash cups (Cyathus striatus):
Gallistel & Wingra Woods, UW Arboretum

El is a Sound of Joy

On the Labour Day weekend I took a bus down to Chicago to observe members of my species about one of our most admirable characteristic activities, making music – specifically the Sun Ra Arkestra, still led with style by saxophonist Marshall Allen at the age of 90, closing out the Chicago Jazz Festival with a bang.

In a crowd of thousands at Millennium Park, I didn’t get very close, but there was a screen at the back of the stage for a closer look at the musicians:
Sun Ra Arkestra, Chicago Jazz Festival

Chicago itself, where Sun Ra spent a fair chunk of his early career, made a terrific backdrop as the sun sank down:
Chicago Jazz Festival

Leave a comment

Filed under Observations

True journey is return

To be whole is to be part; true journey is return.
-Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed

(Previous posts from this trip: Black Earth energy receptor fields, The Wisconsin desert, Mother of Waters)

The silence of a country road in the Driftless Area at dawn Sunday morning is deep, though not uninterrupted: it was broken by the odd rooster, a dog here and there, the siren of a single Crawford County Sheriff’s Department car blasting down the lane on its way to some rural emergency, and me getting short of breath and cursing Google Maps for its propensity to direct me down hilly back-roads instead of flatter if busier main arteries.

In about an hour I reached US-18 and from there things were smoother: rolling, but without so many bastards of hills. For several miles I kept passing Mennonites in carriages; the driver would lift a dignified hand in greeting, which I would attempt to return. I think I got the lifting part down. At any rate, it was another hour and a half or so of that to Fennimore, where I stopped for two breakfasts – again featuring blueberry pancakes exceeding my head in diameter, and if you haven’t seen my head it’s one of those long, lantern-jawed Irish deals, I have a hard time finding hats that fit – and then another couple of hours to the city of Dodgeville.

My initial plan had been to roll into Governor Dodge State Park, do a little hiking there, camp, and head home; but once I reached Dodgeville and the head of the Military Ridge trail, it struck me that it was only 1 in the afternoon, and the rest of the way was mostly downhill on trails, with a couple of possible spots to break for the day if I really couldn’t push on. So I kept on going, and ended up home at around twilight: a distance of about 107 miles. That’s my first century, though I feel it was so lackadaisical that it’s hardly worthy of the name.

And so there ended up being no natural history to speak of on that leg of the trip, though the highway did pass through some striking rock-cuts, and there were plenty of butterflies along the trail. I put in my headphones and enjoyed just being out there. When the going got difficult in the last dozen miles or so, I did switch my listening to the heavy inspiration guns: “Northwest Passage”, and the main theme from Pacific Rim. And then I was home, ready to shower, eat, and collapse, in no particular order.

I’ll close out with some of the pictures I didn’t find a place for earlier, and some random thoughts. From Cross Plains, the first morning, this delightful mammoth sculpture at the Ice Age Trail office:
Mammoth sculpture at Ice Age Trail Alliance HQ in Cross Plains WI

A ladybird pupa clinging to a blade of grass, right by my front wheel, at Tower Hill:
Ladybird pupa with bike, Tower Hill State Park

A rock-cut just past the river crossing at Boscobel:
Roadcut on Hwy 60 just outside Boscobel WI

A view towards the lip of Pictured Rock Cave at Wyalusing:
Above Pictured Rock Cave, Wyalusing State Park

and a plaque commemorating the entry of Père Marquette and Louis Joliet – and 5 Métis voyageurs, who are generally not named and not even mentioned by this inscription, but who doubtless did the heavy lifting and navigating – into the Mississippi from the Wisconsin, 300 years and a few weeks before I was born:
Marquette and Joliet commemorated, Wyalusing State Park

All in all, despite some tough bits, it was an excellent trip. If anything went less well than hoped, it’s that really clear nights have been in short supply this summer, meaning that even though I was in fairly dark-sky locations there wasn’t much by way of stargazing to be had. Which is especially sad, given that Wyalusing State Park has its own observatory! But otherwise the weather co-operated, and even the bugs weren’t too bad.

One thing I noticed, though, is that after 2 days of serious riding (60-70 miles), my appetite for adventure on the third day is greatly lessened. Next time I do this, I’ll plan on following every 2 days of hard riding with a down day, probably of 25 miles or less, to relax and recuperate. On that plan, I’m thinking a 350-mile roundtrip over a week, though probably not until next year. Still contemplating possible destinations; possibly the complement to this year’s trip, following the Fox River to Lake Michigan at Green Bay.

Leave a comment

Filed under Expeditions

Mother of Waters

(Previously: Black Earth energy receptor fields, The Wisconsin desert)

O it’s fine to get up all in the morning
With the lark flying high in the sky,
And pack up all your belongings …
-John Tams

July 19th; second day of the Mississippi trip. In a way it wasn’t until I was packing up to head westward that I was really conscious of having an adventure: rather than turning around to go back home as I usually do on weekend trips, I was pressing on to fresh fields and pastures new.

I picked up the bike trail for a few miles to the very small village of Gotham – pronounced “Goe-tham” – where I joined Highway 60, which winds along with the Wisconsin River. Wooded bluffs rose on my right hand:
Highway 60, west of Gotham WI
and the river with its many islands shimmered on my left:
Wisconsin River from Hwy. 60, between Gotham and Orion
and for the first hour or so, traffic was almost non-existent.

One of the bluffs that I passed bears the curious name of Bogus Bluff. In his book, The Wisconsin: River of a Thousand Isles, August Derleth has the following to say:

Around Bogus Bluff in the town of Orion has sprung up a really remarkable rigmarole of legend and fact. There is, for instance, the account which is purported to have appeared in print in the Vienna (Austria) Courier of a cave near the bluff in which abounded the bones of prehistoric animals, and the skeletons of a vanished race. One S. von W., supposedly the author of the account, wrote: “Fragments of rock were everywhere, amongst them the bones of prehistoric animals. Here and there were also fragments and antlers of deer and elk … I cannot describe the horror I felt. The bottom of the cave was covered with skeletons of a vanished race. Skulls were everywhere…”

But it is the counterfeiters who lend something of authority to the fascination of Bogus Bluff. There were counterfeiters, apparently…[t]he variety of the stories handed down is infinite.

Orion is a ghost-town now, but just across the river is Muscoda, Morel Mushroom Capital of Wisconsin. Though alive and well, Muscoda was not yet really awake. I stopped for a rest at a park with a war memorial and an appropriately-decorated Little Free Library:
Little Free Library and war memorial, Muscoda WI
which contained a copy of Susan Cooper’s Silver on the Tree, the final book in the Dark is Rising sequence.

From Muscoda westward again, on a path running through Big Cat Slough, and then onto Highway 133 and through Blue River. It was getting on towards mid-morning, and people were out and about as they hadn’t been in Gotham or Muscoda; people sitting out on their stoop waved to me. Looking south from the main drag of Blue River you could see a striking series of high, isolated bluffs rising out of the floodplain, with the sun shining on their tops, so I can well imagine that sitting outside is popular.

And beyond Blue River is Baraboo. Notable in trivia as the birthplace of the Gideons, and home town of Senator Blaine, the architect of the repeal of Prohibition, it was of interest to me in that moment largely as the location of the Unique Café, a popular little spot where I wolfed down two breakfasts in one sitting.

With that ballast, I crossed the river once more. The remaining 25 miles of riding, and particularly the last 10, were a heck of a slog which I won’t go into great detail about; except to note that the precipitous hill climb on the way into Wyalusing State Park was beyond grueling, and in fact for a substantial chunk of it I gave up and walked my bike, and for a percentage of that chunk I just flopped on a bank of grass and got my breath back.

Not far past the top of the hill is a little store selling odds and ends just outside the park entrance, where I stopped for a cold Coke and chatted with the woman who ran it. When I explained that I’d come from Madison on my bike – though, you know, not all that day – and climbed that freaking hill, her reasonable question was “What on Earth possessed you to do that?” The park ranger who checked me in asked more or less the same question.

Inevitably, there was another climb to get to my campsite, but after a couple of litres of water I was able to face that and make camp. I just rested my noodly legs for about a half hour, but then pulled up the trail map and went for a hike.
Sugar Maple Trail, Wyalusing State Park
This trail wound past Pictured Rock Cave:
Pictured Rock Cave, Wyalusing State Park
and down, across a road, across train tracks, to the waters of the Mississippi, where I took off my shoes and waded in the cool shallows:
Wading in the Mississippi, Wyalusing State Park

Just a couple of hundred feet from the water’s edge the Sentinel Ridge trail begins. This climbs fairly steeply up the ridge in several stages, eventually taking you a few hundred feet above the water. It was steep enough that I kept worrying my legs, given all they’d already been through that day, would just give up. But apparently they were willing to do pretty much anything, as long as it wasn’t getting a bike up that damn hill on County Road C. I had to stop and catch my breath several times, but even before reaching the heights there were significant rewards. The constant reader will not be surprised that by “rewards”, I mean “ferns”; lip-ferns (Cheilanthes) to be specific:
Fern (Cheilanthes sp.), Sentinel Ridge Trail, Wyalusing State Park
This is my first Cheilanthes in Wisconsin, though I saw several in Yosemite.

At that point I thought I was close to the top of the ridge, but no – there were yet more steep pathways and steps to traverse. Finally I emerged onto a grassy swathe which ended in a parapet overlooking the river. Set into the bricks was a monument to the last Wisconsin passenger pigeon:
Passenger Pigeon Memorial, Wyalusing State Park
and spread out far below was the delta where the Wisconsin flows into the Mississippi:
View of confluence of Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, Point Lookout, Wyalusing State Park
It was an amazing sight that brought tears to my eyes. I don’t know that it entirely makes sense, but something about having reached that point under my own steam, having bicycled and camped and walked and climbed from my front door, was an answer to those questions from earlier: why I had undertaken the whole weird journey in the first place. Whenever a freight train passed over the tracks, the sound would carry across the water and upward, reaching the ear as a distant, muted and evocative clatter.

About the rest of the evening there is not much to tell, except that a little farther on, at the north end of the park, was a small concession-stand operated by the Friends of Wyalusing State Park, whose primary dinner offering was microwaved cheeseburger. I ate one, and then sheepishly went back for two more. It had been a good seven hours since breakfast in Baraboo, and those cheeseburgers tasted ambrosial. I wandered downhill and back to my camp-site, and read until I started to doze off, which did not, unsurprisingly, take long at all.

Concluded in Part 4: True journey is return.

Leave a comment

Filed under Expeditions

The Wisconsin desert

(Part 2 of the narration of a three-day bike trip I took in July 2014. Part 1: Black Earth energy receptor fields)

The Spring Green Preserve lies off of a quiet country road, about halfway between the village of Spring Green on the flat banks of the Wisconsin and a long, steeply-rising bluff. Between laneways with farmhouses at the end is a little gravel parking lot with a Nature Conservancy sign. Just past the parking lot the path into the preserve begins; it is no more than a few steps before you realizing you are walking in sand, and prickly-pears – mostly gone to seed by that time, but one or two still blooming – line the path to either side.
Late prickly-pear flower (Opuntia sp.), Spring Green Preserve
It is properly a sand-prairie rather than an actual desert, but the effect of sand and cacti is strange enough in the Upper Midwest that you feel thousands of miles have been travelled between one step and the next. Once there was a great deal of sand-prairie; the Spring Green Preserve is one of the few remnants. On a hot July afternoon it hums with life. Though I saw none of the several species of lizard and snake – to my disappointment – there were, for example, plenty of butterflies. There were painted ladies, and a profusion of American coppers (Lycaena phlaeas):
American copper (Lycaena phlaeas), Spring Green Preserve
Grasshoppers were a multitude, flying up in all directions every time I moved. On the sand, velvet-ants (actually a kind of wasp) zoomed about so fast I could not even get decent video, let alone still pictures; distinctive looking genuine ants moved at a less frenetic pace:
Ant, Spring Green Preserve
and scarabs, looking as though they had escaped a wall of hieroglyphics, skittered along the path:
Beetle, Spring Green Preserve
The open sand-prairie gave way to a cover of oak-trees, and then it was time to turn around and head back to my bike.

From Spring Green it was only about another ten miles to my campground. I followed the highway to the village of Lone Rock, and picked up a bike trail that paralleled the highway to go the remaining few miles. The trail is not quite so well-maintained as some of the state-managed gravel trails, but the prairie scenery to either side was fine, and before very long I was able to make a quick dash out across the highway to the campground.

To my surprise the campground – a private one, not DNR-run – had pretty decent WiFi, and I was able to check for crises at work and let people know how my trip was going. After that I pitched my tent, deployed the contraption that turns my Thermarest into a makeshift chair, pulled out a can of beer and my e-reader, and presto: all the necessities. I read and rested my legs. The site smelled of pine-trees, which slowly rained down tiny droplets of resin. Reading was increasingly interspersed with dozing, and at nightfall I crawled into my tent – no need to put up the fly, even – and fell deeply asleep. It had been a fine first day of traveling.

Resting at Fireside Campground after day 1; the Typhoon among the pines

Continued in:
Part 3: Mother of Waters
Part 4: True journey is return

Leave a comment

Filed under Expeditions

Black Earth energy receptor fields

July 18th, 2014, early morning: the air still cool and the Sun not yet above the trees. Saddlebags packed, water-bottles filled, coffee drunk, and it’s time for me to roll out on my first multi-day bike adventure (not counting overnight camping trips) in 4 years.

The first stop is not a spectacular one: it’s the local laundromat, so I can lay in a stock of quarters. With those clinking in a pocket of my messenger bag, it’s off through still-dozing Madison. Lake Mendota reflects the rising Sun in red and orange, for the enjoyment of the stalwart runners and anglers who are already out, and for mine. It’s all well-trodden ground for the first hour, until I reach Airport Road in Middleton and start heading towards Cross Plains.

This is the first of a series of little towns on the way to the Wisconsin River, like a ghost outline of the old railway: Cross Plains, Black Earth, Mazomanie, Arena. Apart from a steep hill I go down towards Cross Plains, and a climb up to the junction with highway 14 in Mazomanie, the road is mostly level and, until I hit 14, almost entirely free of traffic; with the air temperature just about perfect, riding seems like no effort at all. It’s like being on a carousel.

It’s a little more work following 14 past Arena to Tower Hill State Park, particularly the last mile or so, which is, unsurprisingly, hilly. The main feature of Tower Hill is the old Helena Shot Tower, which was used, before technology overtook it, to create round lead shot by dropping molten lead from a considerable height into water. After it fell out of use, it was acquired by Unitarian preacher Jenkin Lloyd Jones – the architect’s uncle – and then on his death donated to the state. It’s still in good shape, and extremely popular with bats, whose chittering echoed from the dimly-lit rafters.
Looking down the shot tower, Tower Hill State Park
While it was still operating, the shot tower was visited by Captain Frederick Marryatt, author of Mr. Midshipman Easy, who writes:

Finding a shot-tower in such a lone wilderness as this, gives you some idea of the enterprise of the Americans; but the Galena, or lead district, commences here, on the south bank of the Wisconsin. The smelting is carried on about twelve miles inland, and the lead is brought here, made into shot, and then sent down the river to the Mississippi, by which, and its tributary streams, it is supplied to all America, west of the Alleghanies.

The short, forested path up the shallow side of the bluff to the tower is home to a great many unobtrusive but subtly attractive moths:
Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers Trip, 7/2014
and on the way back down, I was lucky enough to see this splendid ebony jewelwing:
Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata), Tower Hill State Park

Rolling out of Tower Hill I pick up the road again, which winds past Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin to the bridge across the Wisconsin and into the town of Spring Green.
Wisconsin River at Spring Green

Once into Spring Green I pull into a Culver’s for lunch. I have to confess, that when I’m on a bike trip my tendency is to go for predictable, fast, plentiful food in lieu of culinary adventures. Over lunch I enjoy the contemplation that I’ve already done the bulk of my planned distance for the day – it’s only about ten more miles to the campground I’m booked into. And so, I head farther up the road to the Spring Green Preserve, confident that I have plenty of time for a relaxed wander there.

Continued in:
Part 2: The Wisconsin desert
Part 3: Mother of Waters
Part 4: True journey is return

Leave a comment

Filed under Expeditions

A topographic anomaly

Despite falling in the middle of a spell of humid and stormy weather, the Fourth of July this year dawned with almost perfect weather, and I took advantage of it by heading to Blue Mound State Park for the day.

Last fall I posted a view of West Blue Mound, seen through mists from the trail winding past its foot:
Blue Mound in mist, 9/8/2013

And this summer, the view from the top, in sunshine:
View from West Observation Tower, Blue Mound State Park, 7/4/14

That’s from the top of one of the observation towers helpfully provided, since in summertime the view would otherwise be confined to what you could see through the trees. The tower is not incredibly high, all things considered – just enough to be over the treetops – but it was an epic enough climb for me, given my lack of head for heights, that getting to the top without a panic attack felt like a considerable achievement. The view (as you can see) really was worth it.

When I reached the ground again, I was met by a bedraggled but still striking Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus):
Blue Mound State Park, 7/4/14
I often see butterflies gamely continuing on with very torn-up wings, and I’m sure it’s anthropomorphizing but I always find it moving. Particularly those last few tatters of iridescent blue that you can see in the tail there.

The Flintrock Trail runs down from the Tower and around through the northwest section of the park; as the name suggests there are many boulders and outcroppings of chert along the route. Apart from being visually striking, the masses of chert on West Blue Mound are a strong going explanation for why it has stayed a high point:

Blue Mound State Park, located in the state of Wisconsin (USA), is host to a topographic anomaly known as Blue Mound. This mound is the western of the two mounds that make up the park, and it marks the highest elevation in southern Wisconsin. Unlike its eastern sibling, Blue Mound possesses an unusual chert cap that may have protected it from erosion, thus preserving its stratigraphic integrity. Although Blue Mound’s unique chert armor was noted in 1927 by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, no published work has satisfactorily explained its origin.

The plentiful chert outcroppings and boulders also support a variety of plant-life, from mosses and liverworts, to rock polypody:
Blue Mound State Park, 7/4/14
and even flowering plants, such as these tenacious harebells:
Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), Blue Mound State Park, 7/4/14

Perching on a rotten log was an ichneumon wasp with an ovipositor as long again as the rest of its body:
Blue Mound State Park, 7/4/14

Mourning-cloaks flitted around like little scraps of shadow:
Blue Mound State Park, 7/4/14

The cooperation of the weather with the holiday really was striking; the day before and day after were both dismal. The bison statues next to the bike path in the Midvale Heights neighbourhood of southwest Madison were decorated for the occasion:
Bison of Liberty, Midvale Heights, Madison

Leave a comment

Filed under Expeditions