Friday, November 12, 2010

The Menomonee River wilderness in Wauwatosa

I love to walk in the woods beside the constantly changing river. The flowing water and the scent of moldering leaves soothe and invigorate. I recently revisited one of my favorite stretches of the Menomonee River, between Capitol Dr. and Hampton Ave. This is no ordinary stretch of urban river and a hike in the woods along either side is far from your typical walk in the park. It was this stretch, as much as any other, that helped me to refine my understanding of urban wilderness when I began my project several years ago. A leisurely two hours allowed me to complete a loop up one side and back the other while shooting a few pictures along the way. (The pictures slow me down. This hike could be done in half the time.)

I welcomed the invitation from an outdoors group at Unitarian Universalist Church West to lead a hike for them as it provided the impetus to see this special mile of river again. Although these relatively wild riparian paths were among my most frequent destinations during the six years of my urban wilderness book project, it has been at least two years since my last visit. I was eager to see what changes the intervening time had wrought. Change can happen very quickly indeed in urban wild lands.

Erosion. Rivers flow and inevitably erode the land, an eternal and natural phenomenon. But too much erosion too fast can quickly destabilize the banks and diminish the absorptive qualities of the floodplain. The river seems to flow in a deeper channel than before, one lined with the exposed roots of trees nearly everywhere along the banks. Many magnificent trees have fallen into and across the river. In several place they are heaved up into gargantuan logjams. It gives me pause to think of the force of water that can move whole trees this way.

Some things don’t change: pollutants still plague the quality of the water.

The always distinct characters of the two sides of the river have become reversed. I’d always found the west to be the wilder side, but now an officially marked and well worn mountain bike path makes that side the easier to navigate. The east side, away from the paved Oak Leaf Trail, is the place where I found a former riparian path to be disused, overgrown, entangled, wild.

On a beautiful, unseasonably mild day I met more people than I was accustomed to seeing: a young woman walking with her two enormous white Labradors; an elderly couple sauntering with walking sticks; two teens in black garb sporting metallic facial piercings; even a fashionably dressed woman who told me she was visiting from out of town. One free spirit sat in lotus position on a spit of land where two channels converge, deep in meditation.

As I had in years past, I saw clear evidence of recent beaver activity, on both sides of the river. The most surprising discovery, right along the paved trail near Hampton, was what I can only describe as a “beaver sculpture.” I’ve never seen a beaver chew like this before. Here are a few “gallery shots” of the “work.”

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