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Vital signs

Some of early spring’s usual pioneers are unmistakably showing themselves above ground. There is skunk cabbage, thermoregulating its way up, and hardy Siberian squill. Looking just about ready to flower are significant patches of cut-leaf toothwort (Cardamine concatenata):
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
Also, some clumps of leaves that I think will shortly become Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica):
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
Ready to take advantage of this new growth there are a multitude of tiny flies, and a few bees, all keeping down near the ground; one fly obligingly settled on my sleeve:
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
… and, alas, already roving and prepared to take advantage of more active mammals, ticks:
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
By the looks of it, Sister Tick here has already had a pretty good meal.

There was even a garter snake basking, which I startled into taking cover under dry leaves before I could get a good picture. Well, it’s not like I don’t have plenty of garter snake pictures already posted.


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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.

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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

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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

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Under milk weed

So far this season, one trip northward, one southward; leaving two cardinal points to cover. I’d been meaning to drop by the CamRock Café & Sport in Cambridge again, since it recently re-opened under new ownership; and Sandhill Station, just down from the bike trail, is a nice little campground that generally has room even with a few days’ notice; so, to the east then.

There were possible thunderstorms in the forecast, but I figured, since it was only one night away, it’d be a good opportunity to field-test my camping gear, which I hadn’t used in rainy conditions. If I got soaked, worst case was I’d come home first thing Sunday morning, dry off, and use the rest of the day to make up for lost sleep.

Despite my resolve to head out at sparrow-fart and avoid traffic on Cottage Grove Road, it was past 7 and already pretty bright when I hit the road – sunblock time already! Fortunately the traffic was still sparse, and before I knew it I was sauntering into Cottage Grove’s Olde Town Coffee House for an espresso. Inasmuch as anyone can saunter, covered in sweat and carrying two panniers and a shoulder-bag.

And just beyond the Olde Town, the trail. When I went up to Gibraltar Rock and Parfrey’s Glen the previous week, I didn’t notice a lot of milkweed; but by this time the trail-sides were thick with it wherever there was no tree canopy. As I went past I tried to keep an eye out for monarch caterpillars – or, indeed, adult monarchs – but didn’t see any of either. There were plenty of butterflies, though, such as this Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui):
Glacial Drumlin to Cambridge and Sandhill Station, 6/28/14-6/29/14
– with thanks to the iNaturalist community for helping me narrow down to species of Vanessa – and this skipper:
Glacial Drumlin to Cambridge and Sandhill Station, 6/28/14-6/29/14

Just after seeing those I veered off the trail to ride the few miles of road into Cambridge for a very welcome second breakfast at the CamRock; while I was inside the sky opened in a torrent, and then cleared by the time I finished eating – very convenient. Afterwards I headed due east to check out Red Cedar Lake State Natural Area; which, at least at the entrance I used, offered very little to the land-bound, with only a short path near the boat landing. It looked great from the roadside though:
Red Cedar Lake SNA, nr. Cambridge, WI

After that I’d planned one or two more stops – Rose Lake SNA, and maybe a trip into Fort Atkinson – but after only about 25 miles of riding I found myself worn out, and headed up to the campground. Which has, in passing, the most civilized approach possible:
Bicycle entrance to Sandhill Station

The short trail into the campground was edged with considerable milkweed, supporting a variety of denizens; for instance, this swamp-milkweed leaf beetle (Labidomera clivicollis):
Swamp milkweed leaf beetle (Labidomera clivicollis), Sandhill Station
… this stealthy green insect that I have yet identify:
Glacial Drumlin to Cambridge and Sandhill Station, 6/28/14-6/29/14
and plenty of very active orthopterans:
Glacial Drumlin to Cambridge and Sandhill Station, 6/28/14-6/29/14

There followed a relaxing afternoon of lazing around in the Sun on my air-mattress, drinking beer and reading, which is not very relevant to the focus of this blog. At one point, a gorgeous Virginia ctenucha moth wandered over and landed on my pillow, but flew off before I could bring the camera to bear.

During the night more thunderstorms came through, and I got the field test I’d been intending; but the rain-fly and groundsheet bore up under the wind and intense downpour. So ultimately, after a few minutes of tensely wondering if the whole thing would come down around my ears, it was actually pleasant to lie safely in my tent and read.

In the morning, with everything still dripping, I packed up early and hit the trail homeward. Riding in the early morning I sometimes feel like the only person awake, but truck-drivers and anglers are up before me – several of the later were already out, trying their luck in Rock Lake. A little beyond them, a courting pair of sandhill cranes, calling like the rusty hinges on a door to the underworld; one let me get close enough for quite a decent picture:
Sandhill crane, Glacial Drumlin State Trail
before they creaked off over the lake.

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The year’s midday, Part 2: Down the rushy glen

(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:
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
…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):
Asterocampa sp., Parfrey's Glen
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:
Waterfall, Parfrey's Glen
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.

Tree-roots and cave, Parfrey's Glen

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:
Plum-pudding quartzite, Parfrey's Glen
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: Waterfall at far end of Parfrey's Glen

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:
Asterocampa sp., Parfrey's Glen

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)

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The year’s midday, Part 1: Up the airy mountain

Though campsites proved impossible to find, I was determined this year (weather permitting), to at least go for a good long ride on the Summer Solstice and see some new natural places. Gibraltar Rock State Natural Area was on the list, and is under 30 miles away, so I planned to go there for sure; and if I was tired after that to just meander back home, otherwise press on to Parfrey’s Glen, just across the Wisconsin River.

The longest day of the year began in considerable fog; so much so that “dawned” doesn’t seem the correct verb. The fog shrouded everything and, given the near-absence of traffic, seemed to muffle sound, making my breath loud in my ears as I pedaled northwards out of town. What features could be seen in the near distance appeared strange and desolate:
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
After a couple of hours’ riding I stopped in Lodi, where blue sky and sunshine were beginning to show themselves, for a revitalizing espresso. And then out of town again, passing Lake Wisconsin to my right:
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
… and on to Gibraltar Rock State Natural Area.

The eponymous rock is an outcropping of the Lower Magnesian escarpment, which I talked about in my account of visiting Lodi Marsh last fall, rising some 200 feet above the surroundings. There is a gravel trail that leads straight up, and a path that meanders through forest for awhile before climbing sharply to the top; that was the one I took up. In the shadows there were a considerable number of ferns; on one of them I spotted this striking little membracid:

Bug (leafhopper?), Gibraltar Rock SNA
… and also, in part thanks to the recent spate of rains, there were a couple of new (to me) slime-molds! Firstly, white-coral slime (Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa):
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
(Apologies – the picture is a little bit washed-out by the flash. The non-flash pictures just came out too blurry.) Secondly, a patch of charmingly-named dog-vomit slime (Fuligo septica):
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
If Wikipedia say true, Scandinavian folklore has it that dog-vomit slime mold is actually the vomit of troll cats, which are apparently also a thing in Scandinavian folklore. There’s a citation, for a University of Minnesota press book entitled Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend. To no one’s surprise, the Stoughton Public Library has this book, so I’m ILL-ing it as we speak and will keep you posted. (ETA: more details in Part 3.)

From the shadowy forest, a sudden steep scramble up a rocky path and you are at the cliff-top, with a fine sunny view, even for those who – like me – will not go within four feet of the drop:
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
Birds of prey could be seen riding the thermals, and from far below drifted up the sounds of a rooster crowing and a tractor starting up. I took the short route back down. By the trailside I spotted an old friend, the assassin bug Zelus luridus:
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
There was a couple who had passed me on their way to the top coming back down when I took that picture, and wanted to know what it was of. So I explained, briefly; managing to stop myself before I could launch into the bug’s gloriously icky method of feeding, or the Canadian stamp that features it.

I was already on my bike and rolling out of the parking lot when I spotted, but could not get a close-up, of this butterfly – a red-spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis), I’m fairly sure:
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14

This was the point in my day-trip where I’d planned to decide whether to push on to Parfrey’s Glen or slope back into town. It was not quite 10AM, and it was neither too hot nor threatening rain, and so taking a poll of my energy levels I decided to head on; so, rather than rightward to retrace my path, leftward to take the road to the Merrimac Ferry.

(Part 2: Down the rushy glen)
(Part 3: Afterword)

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