Sunday, November 28, 2010

Hunting for a place to hike in the Kettle Moraine

What were we thinking?!! Well, we were thinking the way we think: that we had a day to be together; it was a nice sunny day; we like to hike; and we are near the Kettle Moraine State Forest. Ergo, let’s go for a hike in the Kettle Moraine.

We clearly were not thinking about hunting, or hunters, or that this was the first day of hunting season! But, as soon as we left West Bend on Hwy 45 north, it became abundantly clear. Next to every vacant field, it seemed, cars, trucks, SUVs, were parked and out in the fields were little orange people carrying rifles. Now, if you’ve ever hunted none of this is news. In fact, even if you don’t hunt, many of you are probably scratching your heads wondering how naïve Mr. Urban Wilderness could be! (How long have I lived in Wisconsin?) But at that moment our innocent, if naïve, intention to hike in the woods was abruptly called into question and I was reminded why I’d always made it a point not to go out in the country during hunting season. And so, although I certainly knew about hunting, it was a revelation to witness the social phenomenon first hand as it plays out in one of my favorite parks.

We didn’t witness any actual hunting, mind you. At infrequent, irregular intervals we heard shots off in the distance, but never saw any action. What we saw were clusters of vehicles wherever there was a place to pull off the park road. We glimpsed blaze orange glinting through the trees and saw orange action figures wandering in full sight around the edges of fields. Some merely sat, like this one (above) we drove past on our way to one of the few designated “no hunting” zones in the park. An hour or so later, after our hike, he and two others standing nearby didn’t seem to have moved. As I popped out of my car to take the photo, I wondered uneasily what would happen if a deer ran between me and him. I quickly got back in and drove off.

In places the hunters were so thick they put me in mind of the “backwoods humorist” Norman Pettingill, who made innumerable drawings of Northwoods culture, many of which depict the foibles of hunters. In his crazy cartoons hunters fill every available space between trees, blast away indiscriminately, drink incessantly, etc. Coincidentally (?), we saw a display of Pettingill’s work, done over five decades of the Twentieth Century, at the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan the same afternoon. Here’s a sample (below) to give a sense of his scabrous humor and graphic style. His depictions made it clear I’m hardly the first to wonder if the woods are more dangerous for the hunters than for the deer. (By the way, nature lovers as well as art lovers will enjoy the Kohler's animal-themed main exhibit, called Animal Magnetism. Check it out.)

We stopped at the Ice Age Trail Visitors Center to inquire about safe places to hike and were rewarded by a friendly ranger who gave us the map – and lent us each an orange vest. Thus fortified, we made our way to Mauthe Lake and the Tamarack Trail where we did enjoy a delightful walk around the lake. Unlike the vast majority of the park, which welcomes hunting, here we had the trail to ourselves, and although it was quite cold, the bright sun made for a lovely stroll.

This curiously sawed stump reminded me of a human variant of the beaver sculpture I found a couple weeks ago (see previous post.)

The interpretive signage in this section identified it as a cedar swamp. The cedars have shallow root systems and therefore fall over easily. In some places there seemed to be more fallen ones than were left standing. The monochromatic late autumnal colors conspired with the apparent devastation to make the landscape seem apocalyptic. To my eye, all of it was beautiful, none of it picturesque.

We saw only three people the whole time. Two looked like puffy blaze orange snowmen, sitting awkwardly at a picnic table in the campground. The third was this lone kayaker making his way up the Milwaukee River, which both feeds and drains Mauthe Lake. We exchanged greetings as he paddled underneath the trail bridge. Then he disappeared silently around the bend.

A great fusillade of shots somewhere beyond the tree line reminded us of the orange army that has invaded the park. My thoughts turn toward their target. For the record, I have no quarrel with those who kill deer – as long as they do it responsibly. (In the tiny, tenth-of-an-acre urban wilderness that is my front yard, the deer are nothing but plant-killing pests. I rarely see them; only their night time rubbings and chewings.) I, however, find the quiet sounds of nature itself more agreeable than the sound of guns. The sigh of wind in the trees and the honking of geese high overhead fill me with peace.

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