Thursday, December 14, 2017

Photo essay: Milwaukee River Greenway in white

Riverside Park
Another gloomy winter day made lovely by gently falling snow. The landscapes of the Greenway look faded, like sepia-toned etchings discovered in a disused trunk. The starkness of the season, paradoxically, increases the sense of wildness while simultaneously making it hard to ignore the urban in the urban wilderness.

Shelter 1, Riverside Park
Winter tapestry, Rotary Centennial Arboretum
Renegade cyclist, Riverside Park
Shelter 2, Riverside Park
Gordon and Riverside Parks from Locust Street Bridge
Riverside Pumping Station
Shelter 3, Cambridge Woods
Tunnel to nowhere, Cambridge Woods
Bluff trail, Cambridge Woods
Grafitti, Cambridge Woods
The river, Cambridge Woods
Red sandstone cairn, Riverside Park

Sunday, December 10, 2017

First snow in Menomonee River Parkway: A photo essay

But for the snow it would have been a gloomy day. But the first snowfall is almost always joyous—especially if it falls on a Friday night or Saturday morning, as it did yesterday. Fortunately, I didn’t have to venture far from home to enjoy it. I headed for one of my favorite haunts along the Menomonee River Parkway.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Kratzsch Conservancy in Washington County is a treat


Scheduling a tour outdoors in early December can be risky. Cold rain had been in the forecast. But our recent string of unseasonably warm days held through the weekend and on Saturday morning, bright sun lit the colorless landscape like a torch. It turned out to be a perfect day to tour Kratzsch Conservancy, a 73-acre preserve located near Newburg in Washington County.

Our guide was wildlife biologist Ryan Wallin, Stewardship Director for the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust (OWLT), which owns and manages the site.  Wallin considers himself fortunate. Not only did he recently land his current position, which enabled him to move back home to Wisconsin from a stint in distant Washington state, but he also gets to live in this beautiful place. The historic Kratzsch family farmstead has been turned into a private, live-in headquarters for the OWLT stewardship program.

We hiked the circuitous 2-mile trail system that looped through a surprising variety of undulating glacial terrains. The property contains 14 acres of wetlands, 24 acres of forests and 37 acres of grasslands. Wallin explained that the trails are being managed in a way that tries to balance the needs of wildlife with the expectations of human visitors. For example, trails are designed to circumscribe open areas because cutting a trail through the middle of a prairie would degrade it as a habitat for certain species, particularly ground-nesting birds. Trails, it turns out, also are used by carnivores as well as humans!

As recently as 2012 much of the property was still being farmed. Those sections that are currently forested were mostly wooded pastures for grazing livestock. A few mature oaks are all that remains of the historic forest. OWLT has planted hundreds of new trees, including paper birch, white oak, red oak, burr oak, sugar maple, white ash and black cherry.

The grasslands are likewise newly planted with prairie grasses, along with some trees. Wallin explained that the whole area once was forested and most will be allowed to follow a natural succession process that will gradually replace the grasses with woodlands.

We passed by a very solidly built hunting blind that overlooks one of the prairies. It is raised high enough for visibility but not so high that it can’t be accessed via a ramp. Not being a hunter myself—or disabled—it had never before occurred to me that there might be a need for an accessible blind. The ADA compliant blind was built in 2014, Wallin said, and sees moderate use.

Kratzsch Conservancy has 2,500 feet of frontage along the east/west branch of Milwaukee River and can be accessed from the water by kayak and canoe. It is strategically situated along an environmental corridor among other protected properties in order to increase connectivity and enhance wildlife habitats. 

Goldenrod gone to seed

Monday, November 27, 2017

Thanksgiving at Cuyahoga National Park


On Thanksgiving Day I found myself in the vicinity of Cleveland with a couple of hours to spare on my way to Pittsburgh for a family dinner. This was no coincidence. I have long wanted to explore Cuyahoga National Park, which is shoehorned into the densely populated region between Cleveland and Akron, OH. Talk about urban wilderness.

Ironically, since I-80 bisects the park, I have driven through it innumerable times on my way to and from the east coast. Until now, however, I have not taken the time to get off the interstate to see it. In other words, I have been as guilty as anyone of seeing the destination as more important than the journey. It was a great pleasure, even in this largely colorless season, to wander up and down the Cuyahoga River and get a taste for the lovely landscape.

Wikipedia has an entry for the term “urban wilderness.” However, the description of the “key traits” that constitute such a place could also describe any other kind of wilderness. It leans towards things like biodiversity, soil quality and an “unstructured aesthetic.” All important to the wilderness half of the equation, certainly. No mention, though, of the proximity or intrusion of a built environment.

As you can see from my photo essay, the built environment is a major component of the Cuyahoga National Park experience—as I see it.

In fact, one of the highlights of my visit was walking across the Brecksville-Northfield High Level Bridge, which—as the name accurately suggests—provides panoramic and breathtaking views of the Cuyahoga Valley in both directions. It does, that is, if you bother to get out of the car. Unfortunately, that is not encouraged. I had to park some distance away and walk along the road to get to it. Although the bridge itself had adequate shoulders, there were no trails or sidewalks approaching it from either direction.

I learned that the reason for this curious omission was probably deliberate. After only a few minutes of peering over the edge with my camera, a police car pulled up next to me. The cop asked me if I was “just taking pictures.” I smiled and said yes, but must have given him a quizzical expression. He informed me that this bridge was favored by those with suicidal tendencies. I assured him that it hadn’t occurred to me and he drove off.

I had already been thankful for the beautiful day and the remarkable park set aside amidst such surroundings, but Thanksgiving suddenly took on another and more profound level of meaning.

Add caption
Brandywine Falls, a major attraction
Brandywine Falls overlook
I-271 overpass

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Horicon Marsh and the Niagara Escarpment

It was cold and blustery when I arrived at the marsh that day, but the first thing I saw was a huge flock of cranes idling on the edge of open water. I managed to squeeze off a few shots as they took flight. Within minutes they were all gone.

I had been invited to attend a meeting at the Horicon Marsh Education and Visitors Center, which is in the State Wildlife Area in the southern third of this vast marsh. Not to be confused with the National Wildlife Refuge, which makes up the northern two thirds. Did you know Horicon is the largest freshwater marsh in the country?

Speaking of largest, I've heard that we grow the largest muskrats in the country right here in the marsh, too. And in great abundance. I can't say whether this guy is fully grown or not. He/she slipped underwater shortly after I made the shot.

The mammoth is a kind of mascot for the Wildlife Area. Horicon Marsh was home to them before they went extinct 10,000 or so years ago. The cause may have been hunting or--get ready for it--climate change.

I was there for a meeting of a group called the Niagara Escarpment Resource Network (NERN). The Niagara Escarpment is a geologic feature that runs over 1,000 miles from Southeast Wisconsin through Ontario to New York. The Niagara Falls fall over it. This is a visible outcropping of the escarpment just east of Horicon Marsh on property recently acquired by the Milwaukee Audubon Society. During the Ice Age, two lobes of the continent-wide glacier split along the escarpment. On one side it scooped out Green Bay, Lake Winnebago and Horicon Marsh. On the other it scooped out Lake Michigan.

My NERN guides also took me to see this long-abandoned iron mine in a section of the escarpment nearby. It is owned by the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee, which enables the DNR bat program to study the tens of thousands (give or take) of bats that hibernate inside over the winter.

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.