Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Hank Aaron State Trail goes west!

I know I should have done it before now. I’ve been meaning to ride the west extension of the Hank Aaron State Trail (HAST) since the new Valley Passage and Menomonee River bridge opened way back in November! (See previous post.) With apologies to friends at the Friends of the Hank Aaron State Trail for my tardiness, I’ve finally biked the section of the trail that runs from Miller Park out to 123rd St.

It was clear from the start that plenty of other people had discovered it. As I rode up the incline from the Valley Passage, I passed a steady stream of bikers coasting down. I thought I knew what to expect: The trail was established on an old railroad line, which is common enough to have its own Rails to Trails national program. This railroad line ran due west from the Menomonee Valley, through urban neighborhoods of Milwaukee and West Allis. I expected to see a lot of houses, businesses, and industrial buildings.

Well, Okay, I did see a lot of those things, but I also saw a lot more than I expected, including some interesting bits of nature. I didn’t expect to see any wildlife, the corridor being so narrow, but I soon caught out my own bias in this regard. Richard Louv observes in his new book, The Nature Principle, that many people think only of animals when they think of wildlife. There is even a term for it: “plant blindness.” I guess I’ve been guilty of this on occasion.

Some of the bikers on the trail speed along without glancing around, focused on fitness perhaps, or trying to reach a destination. Some ride in pairs or groups, making the trail a social experience. I saw at least one girl riding along with one hand gripping the handlebar and holding a cell phone up to her ear with the other. I hope there were a few who enjoyed discovering the flowers and other plants as much as I did.
Among my favorites was the wild rose, which I saw frequently. Many of the blossoms had already started to wilt, but enough were fresh to brighten up the lush green foliage with their delicate pink accents.

 At Wood National Cemetery I passed a hillside full of daisies.

I found a tall stand of newly planted wild rye grass near Miller Park to be surprisingly dazzling in the bright afternoon light.

Unfortunately, many of the plants, even attractive flowers like this multiflora rose bush, are non-native. This is a common problem throughout the urban wilderness, of course. Not all non-native plants are invasive and many have been planted deliberately, but they do tend to compete with the native species and limit biodiversity.

The trail passes through the State Fairgrounds where I found some decidedly unnatural curiosities.

The pavement ends at 94th Place but a gravel trail continues quite a bit farther. Eventually, it will be paved all the way to where it will intersect with the Oak Leaf Trail near the Milwaukee County line. But it passes under the Zoo Interchange where I-94 meets I-894 and Highway 45. The whole interchange is due to be rebuilt in a few years. Paving the HAST will follow that huge enterprise.

After riding for several miles in relatively narrow confines, the west end of the trail begins to seem pretty wild by comparison. There is no illusion of wilderness, what with the freeways and power lines, but the character of the trail changes and more open.

 Cattails grow in puddles alongside the trail.

The trail itself becomes a dirt track crowded with weeds. This lovely crop of yellow flowers is, sadly, invasive. When I sent the picture to a plant-knowledgeable friend to confirm its identity as bird’s foot trefoil, she added “ick.”

Currently the HAST doesn’t quite reach its intended destination. The abandoned rail line continues on but old railroad ties remain in place, making it impossible to ride that way. I had to make a short detour on the road to finish up and return home via the Oak Leaf Trail.

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