Sunday, November 12, 2017

Chasing autumn in Milwaukee area parks

Noyes Park, Milwaukee
For many people, myself included, this is the best time of the year. But let’s face it. Autumn 2017 in Milwaukee has been disappointing. Blame climate change or natural variability but it was unusually mild early in the season. While that’s hard to complain about as the prospect of another Wisconsin winter nears, it seems to have dulled the colors. Many tree species, oaks in particular, seem to have gone directly from green to brown. Others have remained green far longer than normal. Some, like the maples, were finally turning as the calendar went from October to November.

Vernon Wildlife Area, Waukesha County

I finally found a few brilliant sparks amid the embers of the season but it was more challenging than last year. Here is a selection of five area parks that I visited recently. Two of them—Holy Hill and Greenfield Park—are old favorites, worth revisiting often. The other three were new to me: Glacier Hills in Washington County, Vernon Wildlife Area in Waukesha County, and Noyes in Milwaukee. If you act quickly, you too may still be able to capture a little of the fading glory of autumn.

This story was published in my column at Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to read further.

Here is just one of the photos from each of the five parks included in the story:

Glacier Hills County Park

Ice Age Trail at Holy Hill

Vernon Wildlife Area 

Greenfield Park

Noyes Park

 To see the rest, click here.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Sanctuary Woods at the Milwaukee County Grounds gets national recognition

The Cultural Landscape Foundation lists the Wauwatosa property as threatened in its Landslide program

Sanctuary Woods in Wauwatosa has attracted a lot of attention over the past year as concerned citizens reacted to a controversial plan to develop portions of it. As of today, that attention has gone national for the first time. This morning The Cultural Landscape Foundation, a prestigious non-profit organization based in Washington DC, unveiled its annual call to action in support of important places it considers threatened. Following a rigorous application, jurying and vetting process, Milwaukee County’s Sanctuary Woods has been included among 13 at-risk landscapes from all over the country.

The mission of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) is to connect people to places, to educate and engage the public “to make our shared landscape heritage more visible, identify its value, and empower its stewards.” One of the ways the foundation does this is through a program it calls Landslide: Open Season on Open Space, which draws attention to threatened places. The purposes of Landslide are to reveal the value of identified places, to highlight and monitor at-risk landscapes, and to save our heritage for future generations. This year Sanctuary Woods shares the Landslide spotlight with 12 other new entries that range from a tiny pocket park in Manhattan to the million-acre Boundary Waters Wilderness Area in Minnesota.

The Landslide designation recognizes that the southeast corner of the Milwaukee County Grounds, popularly known as Sanctuary Woods, is far more than a patch of woodland. Preservation advocates and development promoters alike have largely focused on its wildlife habitat and recreational value. As important as those things are, they do not tell the whole story. TCLF defines cultural landscapes as ones “that have been affected, influenced, or shaped by human involvement.” They can be repositories of cultural narratives and expressions of regional identity. Not only does Sanctuary Woods have a rich and compelling history, but fragments of that narrative are still evident in the landscape.

This story was first published at Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to continue

Monday, October 16, 2017

Photo essay: New Munster Wildlife Area and KD Park in Kenosha County

New Munster is in western Kenosha County, off Highway 50. The drive there took nearly an hour. Gambling with dueling forecasts, one of which showed overcast skies and the other suggesting partly cloudy, I left in the dark and arrived shortly before dawn. The gamble paid dividends when the clouds parted just before the sun rose. Having seen a lake on Google maps in a Kenosha County park across the road from New Munster State Wildlife Area, I went there first. I caught this lovely sunrise and had almost an hour of beautiful light before another cloud bank rolled over.

KD Park is being developed by Kenosha County into what they plan (according to the rather grand sign at the entrance) to call a Sustainable Living Education Park. Sounds interesting. So far it's a looping paved driveway with several small parking lots in a broad grassy clearing that slopes down to the lake.

234-acre KD Park was developed on a former gravel quarry. Its primary feature is the 39-acre lake, which provides opportunities for fishing and non-motorized boating. According to the park website, there are over 4 miles of trails maintained for hiking and cross-country skiing.


When the sun died I crossed the road and parked in the tiny dirt lot at the entrance to the New Munster State Wildlife Area. I'd never heard of it before. Since my recent tour of edible plants at Theresa Marsh I've been on an email list for DNR-sponsored hikes and this one was the next on the schedule. This hike was billed as a birding tour. I always love learning about birds. However, the gloomy overcast sky that had settled in motivated me to use a tripod for my photos and I found myself mostly hanging back peering through the tripod-mounted camera while the birders ranged ahead peering through their binoculars at the cedar waxwings, warblers and whatever else I missed.

The birds were mostly small and high in the canopy, so I focused in on other things.

 The New Munster Wildlife area, established in 1947, encompasses 1226 acres. The DNR website describes it as "predominately oak woodland, lowland woodland, shallow marsh, grassland, and agricultural fields." The DNR stocks the area with pheasant for the hunters. My eyes were opened to this when I asked our guide, Diane Robinson, about the sign: No pheasant hunting after 2:00 p.m. The stocking takes place after 2, she told me, so that there will be birds for the hunters in the morning.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Photo essay: First ever Milwaukee boat parade

A lucky few got to witness firsthand on Saturday Milwaukee's first ever boat parade. If you were not among them then here you have it. Not as good as the real thing, but it'll give you a flavor. The event, which was billed as a first annual, was sponsored by Milwaukee Riverkeeper and Harbor District, Inc. and was held in conjunction with the annual Harbor Fest, which took place on Greenfield Avenue in front of the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences. Participating boaters were invited to decorate their boats and compete for prizes in two categories: paddle boats and motor or sail boats. The Milwaukee Riverkeeper boat (above) began at Lakefront Brewery, near the Holton Street Bridge on the Milwaukee River. It proceeded downstream, picking up boats along the way.

No, the cruise ships did not join the parade. The kayak did.

In addition to the large elephant (complete with squirting trunk) and human figures, this boat had a large band playing lively tunes.

This boat didn't win an award (I'm guessing it was hosted by one of the sponsoring organizations, which were ineligible) but it was my personal favorite. In case it isn't clear in the photos, the "fish" are fishing for humans!

The pirate canoe in the foreground won second place in the paddler category.
Wearing the banana costume in the shark kayak is Johnny Waldschmidt, who received the first place award in the paddler category.

Kudos to all who participated. If you're a boat owner, watch for next year's boat parade! 

Full disclosure: I am a former board member of Milwaukee Riverkeeper and the current artist in residence for the Harbor District, Inc.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Edible wild plants: A guided tour at Theresa Marsh


Theresa Marsh State Wildlife Area is not small. From County Highway 28, which cuts across the northern end of it, a vast sea of cattails stretches nearly to the horizon. I’d never heard of it, however, until I went there recently for a hike led by Dianne Robinson, a naturalist with the Wisconsin DNR.

Sandhill cranes

I’ve seen the Wildlife Area before—many times in fact. It is adjacent to Interstate 41, which I’ve driven often on my way to points north. But the small wooden sign identifying the marsh has escaped my notice and the wetland is out of sight from the freeway, beyond a tree line.

Hunters know the area though. That was easy to tell and not only from the numerous signs indicating where they could and couldn’t hunt. I wasn’t there long before a group of hunters came out of the marsh with two canoes and two brace of enormous-looking goose carcasses.

But I wasn’t there to hunt. I joined about a dozen other folks who came to learn about edible wild plants. The “hike” turned out to be a short stroll along the dirt road leading to a gravel parking area next to the marsh. The edible plants we found there were mostly very common ones like dandelions, yarrow, chicory and even cattails. Believe it or not, cattails produce more edible starch per acre than any other green plant! Whoa. Who knew? (Well, the U. S. Army did. There was a plan to use the plant for the war effort during World War II, according to a website called “Eat the Weeds.”)

As you might expect, the edible parts of many wild plants don’t often look like recognizable foods, except for berries and salad-like leafy greens. The most obviously food-like plant we found was wild grape. Although smaller than commercially grown blueberries, let alone grapes, they hang in clusters just as you can imagine.

Clusters of wild grape on the vine
The other thing about edible plants is they tend not to be photogenic, especially when the edible parts are underground as with wild parsnip. We learned that if we were to dig up the root it would look very much like the ones in the grocery store. However, although it has an edible root, wild parsnip is better left untouched. If broken open it oozes a chemical that can cause severe, painful burns when exposed to the sun. The resulting blisters can leave long-lasting scars.

I did manage to get some photographs of a few of the plants, edible or not, as well as of the surrounding landscape. Robinson, our guide, said that her primary purpose in offering the hike was not so much to educate people about the plants as to acquaint us with the marsh. I am following that lead. She told us that, unlike most parks and except for sections designated as refuges, you are free to wander around off trail in wildlife areas such as this one. (I would be cautious about that during hunting season, though! Wear bright colors.)

Robinson with milkweed, the fresh shoots of which are edible. The sap of the plant, however, is toxic. “I would never eat any plant in the wild unless I knew it was safe.” Robinson repeated this advice like a mantra every now and then during the hike. Milkweed, of course, is a well-known food source for monarch butterflies if not humans.

The berries of the hawthorn are edible, if you can safely pick them from among the seriously threatening thorns! And then, after you have braved your way through the thorns to grab a handful of ripe berries you must remember to spit out the seeds. They contain cyanide. Yes. Deadly. (See Robinson’s advice, above.)

The Rock River spills out of Theresa Marsh at the point where we were hiking along the road. Across the wetland surrounding the river we could make out the rooftops of Theresa Station.

The tiny unincorporated hamlet consists of a dozen or so buildings along a dead-end road leading to, yes, a railroad. I assume it once had a station.

Smartweed, which grows in and near the wetter places, blooms from June through September. Not edible but pretty, said Robinson. Eat the Weeds claims it is in fact edible, but so strong and spicy as to not being worth the effort—like eating “a piece of burning paper.”

Robinson holds up a wild cucumber. The name might easily fool you into thinking it is edible. The spiky “cucumber” is a seedpod and is as inedible as it appears! 

Considering our topic, I should note that foraging for certain types of edibles, such as berries, nuts, and mushrooms, is legal on state lands like this. You are not allowed to harvest other parts of plants, including seeds and roots. The official guide is on the DNR website.

On my way back to Milwaukee after the tour ended I found another lovely view of the marsh beneath a sky dotted with Georgia O’Keeffe clouds. Widely dispersed clumps of brown-eyed Susans and goldenrod appeared almost to mirror the stippled sky. If you want to go there, Theresa Marsh State Wildlife Area is just off Interstate 41 between Highway D and Highway 28 and only a few miles east of its more famous neighbor, Horicon Marsh.