(Part 1: Up the airy mountain)
Parfrey’s Glen enjoys the distinction of being Wisconsin State Natural Area #1, of more than 650 at time of writing. (And, indeed, there is a #666, Swan Lake Tamaracks.)
To get there from Gibraltar Rock was not exactly a hop, skip, and a jump, but close enough: following the road a few miles ’round to the Merrimac ferry-dock:
…across the river, and then another few miles up Bluff Road to County Road DL – someday I will learn why Wisconsin county roads have these double- and triple-barreled monikers – to the parking lot. I will complain briefly that this is yet another SNA with car parking but no bike rack, and reiterate my willingness to pay higher trail-pass fees, or contribute to a crowdfunding campaign, or whatever it takes to avoid the perennial Hobson’s choice of “tree in a stand of poison ivy” vs. “park sign that people need to use”, and leave it there. For now.
Just past the parking lot is a mown picnic area, with washrooms and picnic-tables. This area was thick with white-tailed skimmers (Plathemis lydia), which I didn’t see at any point beyond; they were skittish, but at one point I saw no less than 4 resting on a table. The trail led from there through some savannah-ish landscape; here the dragonflies were not to be seen anymore, but, constantly flitting in the peripheral vision, there were an equal number of hackberry emperor butterflies (Asterocampa celtis):
Now I know what you are probably about to say. “Hey, isn’t that poop in the shot with that beautiful, delicate butterfly? What’s that doing there?” I hate to, Swift-like, burst anybody’s bubble, but:
The adults do not visit flowers, but feed on rotting fruit, tree sap, dung, and animal carcasses.
So, there you have it.
A little farther on the tree-cover deepens and the sound of the glen’s stream, running over rocks, immediately becomes loud in the ears. The trail gets sketchier and sketchier and you start having to cross the stream on rocks, or, if you are cavalier about wet feet – which fortunately have never bothered me much – just by wading up to the ankles. You begin to see more and more of the Cambrian quartzite that the stream has cut through:
The walls grow higher on either side, deepening the shadow; as you push on, the sense of entering a different world grows. I was reminded of Ryhope Wood from Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood: an old-growth woodland where the lines between myth and reality are blurred, and by taking the right paths you may end up in a landscape predating the Ice Age.
The Baraboo Hills of Wisconsin – of which Parfrey’s Glen marks a southeastern outpost – are what’s called an exhumed mountain-range. In Precambrian times they would have rivalled today’s Rockies; later, about 500 million years ago, they sank down and were buried under sediment; it is this sediment which became sandstone and then the “plum-pudding” quartzite of the glen, conglomerated with larger stones, as seen here:
In the past few million years the land around the range has lowered once more and the Baraboo Hills, though a shadow of their former eminence, are estimated to stand once again at about the height they last reached in the Late Cambrian, when trilobites lurked on the sea-bed. There doesn’t appear to be a consensus on when, exactly, Parfrey’s Glen was cut into the rock; it could be as recent as the Pleistocene, 3 million to 10,000 or so years ago.
After leading you to clamber up some very damp boulders, the ghost of a path reaches a waterfall, a good place to sit and rest:
And then, retracing your steps, you finally emerge blinking into daylight, feeling like a month or a century might have passed. Sitting on the top tube of my bike was another hackberry emperor, calmly wandering around the Ruby sticker, proboscis coiling and uncoiling, undisturbed by my proximity:
Given the aforementioned about the emperor’s feeding habits, I could have chosen to take some offence – my beloved bike in no way resembles rotten fruit, carrion, or poop – but I decided to view it as a benediction instead.
Once it flew off I unlocked, remounted, and headed back homeward.
(Part 3: Afterword)