Monday, March 20, 2017

Somber skies and solitude at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center

View of the lake from the bluff-top observation tower
Snow lingers on north-facing slopes and the shadowy parts of the forest. Out in the open the meadows and prairies are mostly bare and brown. It is that time of the year when the land is lusterless. If you pay close attention, there are small signs of spring here and there. Pussy willow catkins have fuzzed out and there are a few more bird calls than I've been hearing on my winter walks. But, especially on this overcast day, the mood is somber.

Pussy willow catkins

On this moody Saturday morning at the cusp of spring there are a half-dozen or so cars in the parking lot of the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center. But the great room of the main building is quieter than usual. As I walk the trails I see surprisingly few people. I am having a blast, however. I love the solitude. And the monochromatic landscape offers up enough photographic opportunities to satisfy my appetite. Here is what I found.

A log tepee within sight of the main building.

The tracks of a pair of geese leading into a large puddle of melting snow.

As if herding together, intermingled tracks of geese, humans and a couple of other creatures.

Birches in one of the ravines.

Ice shrinking to the edges of the ponds and wetlands.

Shriveled leaves still clinging to branches, looking so out of place that I was reminded of the Cornelia Parker sculpture of suspended chunks of chalk at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Many dead trunks and limbs that have provided a feast for the woodpeckers.

Flattened reeds, like a natural tapestry, between the bluff and the beach.

Sand embedded in curiously shaped ice formations at the base of beachfront shrubbery.

A single fellow traveler enjoying the solitude of the urban wilderness.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Thousands flock to candle-lit Three Bridges Park


The candles ran the length of Three Bridges Park, from the Domes to the Urban Ecology Center and for several hours a constant stream of people braved frigid temperatures to enjoy the outdoors. I’m not sure which was the more remarkable: the sheer numbers—it was clearly in the thousands—or the fact that so many who came had never been to Three Bridges Park before. There were people who traveled to Milwaukee from all over Wisconsin to participate in this family-friendly event.

Billed as the first-ever Urban Candlelight Hike in Three Bridges Park, the route and the crowds actually spilled over the Menomonee River into Stormwater Park and past Palermo’s Pizza—which was open and doing plenty of business.

In addition to pizza, participants could get free hot chocolate and churros at the Menomonee Valley branch of the Urban Ecology Center and toast marshmallows and make s’mores thanks to volunteers with the Friends of the Hank Aaron State Trail. One of the organizers reported that over 1,000 people were served s’mores before they ran out of their 1,300 marshmallows, 16 boxes of graham crackers and 16 boxes of chocolate bars.

After unseasonable temperatures that reached into the 70s earlier in the week, the multitudes clearly were undeterred by the resurgence of winter. Icy blasts drove wind chills well below freezing. However, the vast majority of the people I saw were suitably bundled and enjoying the outing. The diverse crowd of all ages included many children, some young enough to be pushed in baby strollers.

An ice sculptor named Christopher Andrews was on hand in Stormwater Park at the site of the former chimneys that once marked the Milwaukee Road rail yards. To commemorate the history of the site he spent the afternoon sculpting a train engine from a 200-lb. block of ice. Many who passed by on their way to the bonfires admired the resulting sculpture. One onlooker was overheard saying, “As a kid my dad would drive us by here and point to the field to say that this is where he used to work. The train in the ice looks like it could drive right off the stand to continue work.”

Official event sponsors were Menomonee Valley Partners,Inc., the Urban Ecology Center and Friends of the Hank Aaron State Trail. NEWaukee also sponsored an after party at Third Space Brewing, one of the Menomonee Valley’s newest businesses. I didn’t catch the after party, but if it was anything like the main event, the place had to be hopping!

I don’t believe I’ve seen so many people in Three Bridges Park all at once even in the summer.

Full disclosure: I am on the board of directors of Friends of the Hank Aaron State Trail, former artist in residence for Menomonee Valley Partners, and a great fan of the Urban Ecology Center.