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 .

1 comment:

  1. WE do have a lot to be thankful for. Your photos say it all. cheri