Saturday, November 19, 2016

A magnificent autumn in Milwaukee’s parks

This story first appeared in my column at Milwaukee Magazine on Nov. 16, 2016.

Oak Creek Parkway, South Milwaukee
I’d come specifically to see the autumn colors and was not disappointed, but it was when I saw the fox that I really felt like I’d been transported to somewhere utterly wild.

It didn’t happen right away. I’d been hiking for a good part of the afternoon. I had made my way past a large lake fringed with cattails. Tangled thickets of buckthorn walled the trail and loomed overhead. Beyond that I clambered through an upland forest resplendent with the golden hues of maple leaves. At the crest of a wooded hill a fort had been erected from fallen timbers propped up like a tepee. The trail circled around a marsh. Piles of cleared buckthorn made it possible to see out over tawny reeds to distant woodlands.

Grobschmidt Park, Franklin
The trail turned away from the marsh and led up another hill towards a meadow. That was when I saw it—sauntering up the trail away from me. At first I thought it must be a coyote, because of its size. It stopped abruptly and turned to stare. We locked eyes. The shape of its body, full and healthy-looking, and the telltale color were convincing. It was the largest red fox I’d ever encountered. And there was nothing tame in those suspicious eyes.

It bolted into the tall meadow grass before I could get a bead on it with my camera. But the image of the fox staring me down remained, a mental reminder that I am blessed to live in a landscape shared with such wild creatures. Blessed, in other words, to live in Milwaukee County. Because this wasn’t somewhere in northern Wisconsin but Grobschmidt Park, which is wedged between Greendale and Franklin, just minutes from downtown Milwaukee.

Grobschmidt Park, Franklin
It is autumn, a magical time of year. I am hardly the first to laud its appeal, of course. People often travel great distances to see the changing season in places like New England or Colorado. Here in Milwaukee a popular pastime is to leave town and head up north to view the colors in one of Wisconsin’s many beautiful parks and forests. I must quickly confess that I did just that in the first week of October.

Insterstate Falls, Wisconsin-Michigan border
Although I knew my ultimate goal would be to explore the possibilities right here in the metro area, I had been invited on a scenic tour of Iron County. Trees near home were only beginning to turn. It seemed like a great opportunity to jump-start an autumn adventure. Iron County lies on the shores of Lake Superior, abutting Michigan’s upper peninsula. Its vast hardwood forests are threaded with wild rivers and breathtaking waterfalls. We couldn’t have planned better conditions. The weather was mild and colors peaking. I felt privileged to be able to enjoy such bounty.

Appetite whetted, I returned with a mission: visit as many local parks as I could squeeze into one month and document autumn in Milwaukee. Because there are many who don’t have the means or opportunity to leave town as I had and because I’ve long advocated for what I’ve termed “urban wilderness” experiences, I decided that it was time for me to demonstrate my fundamental belief: You do not have to go up north to enjoy autumn—or indeed to enjoy nature at any time of year. In fact, you do not even have to leave the city.

Menomonee River Parkway, Milwaukee
I began, somewhat inauspiciously, in the northwest corner of Milwaukee County. My first stop was along the Menomonee River Parkway just south of Mill Road that I knew to have wide views of unkempt marshland. But when I got there it appeared completely barren. Most of the trees were already stripped of leaves. Seeing mostly shades of brown and grey, I wondered with momentary panic, if I had missed autumn while I was away.

Kohl Park Community Garden, Milwaukee
Continuing north to the county line, I was calmed to find that, far from missing autumn, most of the foliage in Kohl Park remained a luxuriant green. In the sprawling community gardens there the most colorful accents were cultivated flowers. Across the line at the Mequon Nature Preserve I finally found a woodland with colors near peak. All on my first day out. This Goldilocks effect would prove one of my biggest challenges all month as I traveled around the county trying to discover which of the parks were just right on any given day.

Grant Park, South Milwaukee
My joy of discovery as well as persistence eventually took me to every corner of the county and occasionally beyond. I walked beaches and lakefront bluffs from Doctors Park in Fox Point to Bender in Oak Creek. I marveled at the wide diversity of habitats in Franklin, from rare oak savanna to deep hardwood forest to broad expanses of prairie and marsh.

Wilson Park, Milwaukee
There are plenty of beautiful places right in the heart of the city, too. From Havenwoods State Forest and McGovern Park on the north side, Kosciuszko and Wilson on the south side, Greenfield and Hoyt Parks on the west side to Three Bridges Park and the Hank Aaron State Trail in the Menomonee Valley. In fact, nearly nine out of ten people who live in the city are within a ten-minute walk of a park, an invaluable statistic that is coveted by other urban regions and one that goes far towards improving our quality of life. 1

Hoyt Park, Wauwatosa
In my quest to visit a maximum number of parks I sometimes paused only briefly to grab a few photographs. But some, like Grobschmidt, Grant and Seminary Woods, are either so large or majestic that I carved out entire mornings or long, languid afternoons in order to soak up the sunshine and bask in the glow under a golden forest canopy. It is these longer excursions that have the power to rejuvenate, that salve the anxious soul.

Seminary Woods, St. Francis
It is November now. The trees are largely bare. With my tally of parks approaching 60, I consider my month of autumn exploration to have been successful beyond even my high expectations. And yet I know that there are more natural wonders awaiting future adventures. With over 150 named parks and 15,000 acres, 2 the Milwaukee County Park system alone would take years to thoroughly explore. Add to that the state and municipal parks and I would be at a loss to enumerate them, let alone attempt to visit them all. The ability to venture just slighter farther afield can take you to the Kettle Moraine State Parks, the Ice Age Trail, and more.

Menomonee River Parkway, Wauwatosa
I went out again yesterday, back to one of my regular haunts along the Menomonee River Parkway, full circle. Only a few hardy ash trees retained brilliant yellow leaves. The late-autumn sun, already nearing the horizon in mid-afternoon, lit up the understory, where even hardier, non-native buckthorn remains green under stripped limbs and branches reaching skyward. Along parkways on both sides of the river there were houses now visible in places where a week ago they were hidden. But I knew my way and chose paths that led not simply to the deepest parts of the forest but into the wild place in my heart that is nurtured there.

Along the way I scared up a noisy flock of mallards that, in defiance to instinct, likely will winter over here. A great blue heron also squawked its disapproval of me as it disappeared upriver. Unlike the ducks, the heron will head south soon. The unseasonably warm fall has kept it here longer than usual. And me? I will winter over, too, of course. And continue to visit the parks, feeling blessed to live in Milwaukee.

Oak Leaf Trail, Bay View Park, St. Francis

Don't miss my Flickr albums of the Penokee Hills and Vicinity (Iron County) and Autumn in Milwaukee 2016 .

Great blue heron, Lincoln Park, Glendale

This is the seventh and penultimate in a series of posts about autumn in Milwaukee. This post began with a story about Grobschmidt Park. Each of the other posts includes additional stories from one or more parks.

Kletzsch Park, Glendale

2. Milwaukee County Parks Department:

Again, there are many more photos in my Flickr albums of the Penokee Hills and Vicinity (Iron County) and Autumn in Milwaukee 2016 .

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The constant lure of adventure: Kayaking a surprisingly wild urban river

I expected adventure, but no new surprises. For several perfectly rational and utterly absurd reasons I thought I knew the Menomonee River—my river—too well for that. How very wrong I was!

Little Menomonee River

One of our small company gets a dunking right off the bat. Even before we’ve launched our kayaks, the slippery bank where we put in exacts a toll. “Well, at least that’s out of the way!” is the cheerful response to the undignified baptism. We settle into our low-slung fiberglass hulls and push off, immediately sliding beneath the Highway 100 overpass.

We’d parked our cars in the vacant lot of an abandoned Beauty School. Little did we know then that, except for a couple bridges, that unfortunate structure was the last of civilization we would see for several hours. We had embarked on our journey for the very purpose—to escape civilization and our quotidian lives for a little while. The first surprise was how quickly and thoroughly the river obliged.

After paddling no more than a hundred yards the first of many logjams blocks our passage. Staying dry was never an option. I do try to avoid the suction of fetid muck as I clamber over and around logs, dragging my kayak behind.

The confluence of the Little Menomonee with the Menomonee

We’d put in on the Little Menomonee River, a narrow tributary of the Menomonee proper. At the confluence with the wider river clear water rushes over gravelly shallows. I am reminded that several miles of the Little Menomonee once had been biologically dead, its reconstruction the subject of a federal Superfund clean up project over a decade ago. For much of the Twentieth Century a wood preservative factory had dumped toxic waste into the water. I wonder how much of that chemical stew lingers in the stream banks and sediments of the revived river?

“Restoration is about accepting the brokenness of things,” wrote author and bioregionalist Stephanie Mills, and “reinhabiting exploited and abandoned places.”1 When is restoration complete, I wonder? And yet here we are, kayaking a once abandoned stream.

Drifting peacefully

Passing the concrete pillars of the Hampton Avenue Bridge we drift peacefully into an intensely green world that suddenly seems remarkably remote. The very air has a richer sensation, redolent of freshly unfurled foliage and ancient forests. I feel transported to a simpler, more native time and place. Trees toppled with the unmistakable marks of beaver prove that more than adventurous humans have reinhabited this river. Enchanted, I float with the current in quiet contemplation.

The Menomonee threads its way through the most densely populated region of Wisconsin. Like so many urban rivers, historically it has been intensively used, sorely abused and thoroughly altered. Why have we chosen this river for our little adventure? Our motivations reflect varied backgrounds.

Kurt Chandler

Kurt Chandler, former editor of Milwaukee Magazine and instigator of our outing, told me “I’ve lived within 200 yards of the Menomonee for nearly 16 years. I’ve hiked its banks, crossed its bridges, and seen it flood and freeze over. But I’d never been on its waters until now. I don’t know why it took so long.”

Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee Riverkeeper

As Milwaukee’s official Riverkeeper,* Cheryl Nenn has the most pragmatic reasons for joining the team. Caring for the condition of the rivers is literally part of her job description and “there is no better way to assess threats to water quality and wildlife than to get in the water and paddle downstream.” She also tells us that “the Menomonee is undergoing a renaissance of sorts” and to keep an eye out for recent restoration projects.

Denny Caneff, Executive Director, River Alliance of Wisconsin

Another seasoned professional; Denny Caneff is Executive Director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin.** Denny is “always interested in good paddling trips” and is particularly fond of urban streams, which, he says, “are almost always better than people expect.” But Denny also came with a specific and admittedly quirky agenda. “I'm keeping track of the rivers I've paddled in Wisconsin,” he says, “and this year my goal is to hit rivers with the same name. For example, there are three White Rivers, two Blacks, two Reds, three Yellows and four Pines as well as the Menomonee, the Menominee, and the Menomonie.”

And me? This is a journey delayed far too long. Nearly 20 years ago I began a six-year process of exploring the Menomonee watershed, a project that culminated with the publication in 2008 of my book, Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed. Like Kurt, I live near the river and have spent countless hours communing with it without ever getting in a boat and running it. To paraphrase Thoreau, the river is a constant lure, as it flows by my door, to enterprise and adventure.2 Finally in a kayak, I am ecstatic, floating in more ways than one.

Flotsam backed up behind a logjam

A mountainous logjam brings me back to earth. Or rather to the water’s surface, which is filthy with backed up scum and flotsam. The others are already pulling kayaks up a nearby bank. We drag them along a riverside trail and slide them back in the water.

Hours pass in this fashion: periods of calm, drifting beneath a high, arching canopy, scanning for wildlife, alternate with brief struggles to get over, under or around logjams of various proportions. In that time we see exactly two other people: the mountain biker who is merely a flash of colorful spandex in the foliage and a man on the grassy bank watching his dog frolic in the stream. We don’t catch a glimpse of the elusive beaver, nor of mink or otter, which Cheryl assures us also have reinhabited the watershed. But there are birds aplenty, plying the riverside as well as enlivening the nearly unbroken canopy overhead.

Great blue heron

“You could fool people into thinking we’re in a wilderness,” says Denny. Indeed. That’s been a major part of my mission as a photographer. But it’s not a deception to identify and celebrate the wildness in our midst.

Thoreau’s famous dictum, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” was parsed by author David Gessner in a book about his own urban river voyage. “While wilderness might be untrammeled land along the Alaskan coast,” Gessner wrote, “wildness can happen anywhere…. It can happen…on a city river.” His conclusion resonates as I duck my head and guide my kayak under a particularly hoary tangle of brush: “It is of vital importance that we not define this wildness as wilderness, that we not construct intellectual walls between the natural and the human.”3

That the natural coexists with the human and we can enjoy it in a city represents a fairly recent, but essential shift in ecological consciousness. In a dramatic and welcome break with conventional civic promotion—traditionally the province of Chambers of Commerce—cities now vie for the title of “greenest” and tout sustainability, parks and bike lanes. Long-established natural areas like the Menomonee River Parkway, irreplaceable assets that they are, now compete with exciting, new and reimagined urban spaces like New York’s High Line and Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley.

Currie Park Golf Course

We emerge from the Capitol Drive overpass, abruptly confronted with open, sun-drenched sky and the highly civilized landscape of Currie Park Golf Course. Two golfers in spotless whites waiting to tee off wave as we paddle by. We drift past gently rolling fairways carpeted with closely cropped lawns running down to the river’s edge. The next obstacle to our progress isn’t another logjam but the concrete slab of a golf cart crossing.

We stop there for water and granola bars. Cheryl explains that Milwaukee Riverkeeper had lobbied to have the dam-like structure replaced with a more fish-friendly one. But some higher-up determined that it didn’t impede fish migration enough to warrant the cost. The recommendation was ignored.

From previous experience I had been certain that Currie Park would be a pivotal point beyond which our reverie would become increasingly marred by intrusive signs of our urban circumstances. The moment we disembark from the concrete slab, however, I am dealt another pleasant surprise. Like Alice falling down a rabbit-hole in a suburban hedge, we plunge again into unanticipated wilds. The golf course surrounding us vanishes completely, marvelously. The wild river carries us on.

 Currie Park

And so it goes for the rest of the day. After all the exploring I have done before and all my research about the Menomonee River, nothing has prepared me for being on the river like this. An hour or more goes by between bridges. We catch occasional glimpses of people walking or cycling beside the river. The gothic tower of Mount Mary University looms briefly in the distance. Mostly we drift in peaceful solitude. The gurgling on a rocky decline and cheerful birdsong grow louder than the sound of traffic.

While there are far fewer obstructions and no more logjams on this middle leg of the route, we now contend with low water and a rocky bottom. I get out and walk several times to avoid scraping the kayak. Denny says that after a rainfall, with sufficient water in the river, some of these riffles could be considered Class II rapids (which means gentle rapids with smaller waves, clear channels that are obvious without scouting, possibly requiring some maneuvering.4) Not bad for a modest urban waterway.

On the final leg of the journey I begin to feel like we are returning to civilization. Through the trees on a steep bluff we can easily see the picture windows of houses situated to exploit the view. After passing through the tunnel-like North Avenue Bridge, I feel something whizz by just over my head and duck instinctively. Thwaackk! A golf ball smacks the shallow water and ricochets off a rock inches from the end of my paddle. A dangerously eroded bank hides the golfer from view. As I speed down the rapids another ball bounces silently on the green across the river.

Bank erosion at Hanson Golf Course

More erosion reveals a bank failure caused by the recent addition of a multi-use path alongside the newly redesigned and rebuilt Menomonee River Parkway road. Being a cyclist myself, I am among multitudes grateful for the new off-road path on this busy stretch of roadway. However, this represents an unusual dispute that erupted among normally allied environmental groups about how to improve the parkway. Safety and cycling, rather than riverbank stability won the day. None of the improvements are visible from the river, however, and Cheryl makes note of the problem still to be addressed.

The Parkway becomes Hoyt Park and after that Hart Park in the Village of Wauwatosa, the most intensively used segments of the Menomonee River. More houses, bridges and people come into view. We endure the roar and screech of a freight train where tracks run next to the river. Despite it all, however, once again I am surprised to find the experience at water level hardly less wild and invigorating than it was upstream.

Hoyt Park suspension bridge

It is in Hoyt Park where we see the most obvious evidence of restoration efforts. Looking decidedly unnatural, gleaming white limestone riprap adorned the banks at several places. We notice also wide breaks in the riparian woodland that were cut to allow heavy equipment access to the water. In 2015 four long-abandoned sewer crossings that had acted like dams were removed to improve fish passage.

I run the newly freed rapids with satisfaction. Here, where the damaged condition of the river is most visible, we also find the most hopeful signs. We have become a society that cares enough to repair the ecological damage done by previous generations. Healing the river is a necessary prerequisite to healing our relationship to nature and natural processes. Our future and our children’s future depend on this.


Kurt and I both live next to Hoyt Park. It is as familiar as a backyard and yet, even here, the kayak affords an experience both unprecedented and unforeseen. Denny’s prediction proved true: it was better than expected. Summing up the expedition, he says, “For an urban amenity I found it surprisingly appealing—a blue and green ribbon winding through a densely settled urban area, a place that feels remote and removed even though the city thrums nearby.” After a somewhat arduous six hours on the river, when we finally pull the kayaks out at Jacobus Park, everyone agrees they’re ready to repeat the adventure—the river already is luring us back.

Go to my Flickr album to see additional photos relating to this story. 

*Milwaukee Riverkeeper is a non-profit organization, associated with the international Waterkeeper Alliance, whose mission is to protect, improve and advocate for water quality, riparian wildlife habitat, and sound land management in the Milwaukee area watersheds.
**The River Alliance of Wisconsin is a non-profit organization whose mission is to advocate for the protection, enhancement and restoration of Wisconsin's rivers and watersheds.

1.Mills, Stephanie. In Service of the Wild: Restoring and Reinhabiting Damaged Land. Beacon Press, Boston. 1995. p.2.
2. Thoreau, Henry David. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Princeton University Press. 2004 (originally 1849)
[Rivers] are a constant lure, when they flow by our doors, to distant enterprise and adventure….
3. Gessner, David. My Green Manifesto: Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism. Milkweed Editions, 2011. pg. 110.

This story first appeared in City Creatures blog at the Center for Humans and Nature, posted on July 11, 2016.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Humans & animals: Lake Park and Schlitz Audubon

Part 1: Lake Park

I was walking slowly along the bluff top path in Lake Park the other day, carrying my camera and tripod, trying to catch the colors of autumn as I had been doing in parks all over the region. A young man sidled up to me so that I would pay him attention. When I did he asked me softly, Do you mind if I give you my philosophy about cameras? *

Inwardly, I had to smile. After all, I had taught photography to young men like him for 30 years and not once did any of them confront me with such a bold, straightforward request. His earnest expression piqued my curiosity. Please do, I said.

He told me, The landscape isn’t the best subject for photographs. Because it is always there. Noting my quizzical expression he quickly added, People are the better subject. They are always different, moment to moment. Intrigued, I accepted his statement as a challenge, although it was clear he didn’t mean it that way. For when I said, Alright, how would you like to be my subject? he was startled.

He recovered quickly though. Where do you want me? he asked. I put the question back to him and, turning towards the woods, said, Not near the lake. That’s too powerful a force. I admired his perception: Don’t want to compete with Lake Michigan, I guess. He agreed.

I introduced myself and he told me his name: Raekwon. As he was now my subject, I sized up his gold hoodie and eagerly steered him towards a ravine where I had spied some maple trees with the exact same shade of leaves. Usually I have to settle for whoever comes by and often wait in vain for someone to enter a composition wearing the right clothing to match or contrast with the surroundings. And here was Raekwon, not only wearing the perfect color but ready to pose for me. In fact, by posing the question he had precipitated the photo session.

As we walked towards the ravine I asked how often he came to Lake Park. This is my first time, he said. I was thunderstruck. Well you picked a great day for it, I offered. It was one in the string of unseasonably warm days we’ve had this month. Isn’t it beautiful? I added. Maybe it was my imagination, but he seemed to look around as if seeing the trees and the leaves and the blue sky for the first time. Yes, it is. I think I’ll come back again.

So, what brought you here today? I asked. Just killing time before I have to go to work, he told me. Well you picked a good place for it. Lake Park is one of my favorites. As I framed up the portrait , his head haloed by the autumn leaves, I felt blessed by his presence, as if by divine intervention. After I shot a few frames of him, we parted. Later, when I wanted someone to be in a shot of the ravine bridge, I took a cue from Raekwon’s philosophy of cameras. Instead of waiting for it to happen I asked someone passing by to pause for me. “Look over the railing, just about there, please,” I said to him when he politely agreed to do so.

Because you can always count on the landscape and people are ephemeral.

*I was not taking notes and my memory for quotations is unreliable so I am paraphrasing the gist of what I heard. My apologies to Raekwon if I haven’t captured his eloquence accurately. And my thanks for his inspiration.

Part 2: Schlitz Audubon Nature Center

Saturday was “Extreme Raptor” day at Schlitz Audubon, one of the most popular events of the year. On top of the excitement that seeing raptors up close engenders, we had yet another warm and sunny day. I knew it was going to be mobbed. It was so crowded, in fact, that all parking was diverted to a nearby middle school and the multitudes queued up for shuttle buses that came every 5-10 minutes.

While the animals were the draw, the focus clearly was on the visiting public. In other words, the Nature Center is all about people. People experiencing nature, that is. I shot mostly birds, like everyone else—whether they had a cell phone or a DSLR and telephoto lens. But I remembered Raekwon’s philosophy as I wandered through the carefully designed and thoroughly educational landscape.

Mostly I let the birds stand in for the people in my portraits. They each had names, expressive faces and individual personalities that led them to react to the inquisitive humans in their own unique ways. Although I generally prefer my nature less populated, I felt privileged to be able to enjoy the center, the expertise of the staff and volunteers, and of course the raptors—as well as the sunshine, warmth and autumn splendor.

On such a day in November—in Wisconsin!—it wouldn’t have mattered to me where I went as long as I could feel the earth underfoot and see the sky overhead. Eagles, falcons and owls were an extraordinary bonus.

Here is a selection of what I saw.

Brown screech owl

Peregrine falcon

Karl with injured gray screech owl

Snapping turtle lurks in pond vegetation
Snowy owl
The celebrities of the show were the two bald eagles, which truly are impressive birds. They each had their own scheduled times for viewing. This one is named Valkyrie (below).

Like all celebrities the eagle was surrounded by admirers at all times. Some of them wore face paint to emulate the raptors.

This is the seventh in a series of posts about autumn 2016 in Milwaukee (with one more to come!)

Here are links to the others:

You can also see more photos of Milwaukee's magnificent parks and natural areas in other seasons on my Flickr album.