Saturday, November 5, 2016

Autumn in the Parks: Cudahy Nature Preserve & Falk Park

Falk Park

I had wanted to explore Barloga Woods, a part of Falk Park, for quite a while. It was reputed to be one of the more pristine forested areas in the Milwaukee County Parks system. I drove to the dead end of 20th Street looking for a way to enter the woods. Houses and private front yards faced the street the whole way, or so it seemed. I consulted the parks system map again. It showed the two sections of Barloga Woods divided cleanly by the private land except for two tiny strips of green that connected to the street somewhere near the middle. I must have missed them.

I drove slowly back and sure enough there was a short space without a yard fronting the street. No sign identified the park and no obvious trail led into it on either side. I parked on the shoulder and chose the more inviting side to the west. Although I never found a trail the ground was remarkably clear of undergrowth. And the canopy was spectacular, like an autumn-hued stained glass ceiling in the cathedral of nature (above and below.)

How fitting, I thought, that this lovely place was so hard to find. Richard Barloga, for whom it was named, had been characteristically reserved and a little hard to penetrate. Unless, that is, you got him started about the native plants of Milwaukee’s natural areas, which were his passion. He knew all the best places and the names of all the species you could find in them. And he devoted his life to protecting them until he died in 2014.

I spent only a short time in the woods. I knew I would have to return for a more thorough exploration. I had already spent hours that morning walking the entire loop trail in the main, easily accessible section of Falk Park. There I had been disappointed in the foliage. I found a few splashes of orange and yellow, but much of the forest was either still green or already gone brown. Knowing where and when to go to see the best autumn colors has been tricky this year.

As I drove away from Barloga Woods I stopped again briefly on 27th Street. I could see the forest in the distance across a drab landscape of fallow fields (below.) 

Even the canopy at which I had marveled just moments ago was muted. The distant view gave little hint of the natural wonders that could be found on the inside. But what was immediately clear was the pressure of development. A sprawling condominium complex ironically called “Colonial Woods” had already colonized any actual woods that might have been in its place. The fallow field between Barloga Woods and me most likely will follow before too long.

Cudahy Nature Preserve

I “discovered” this magnificent park last spring thanks to Milwaukee County Parks Dept. Natural Areas Coordinator Brian Russart. When I first wrote about it then it was the luxuriant spring flowers that blew me away. So I’ve been waiting with enthusiastic anticipation to see what it would be like in the fall. I went there on Oct. 22 only to find that the forest remained largely green.

I persevered and when I reached the southern edge of the preserve I stepped across the threshold to see what it would look like from the outside. As you can see, the “edge effect” was striking. The south-facing trees were much further along than those inside the forest. (Just as striking, of course, was how abrupt was the transition from forest to lawn.)

A week later I returned and was rewarded with what has so far been the most magnificent display of intense autumn color I’ve seen in Milwaukee this season. The photographs can barely suggest the splendor of being immersed in such a sea of color, which ranged from quickly yellowing shades of green, through gold and on into orange and rusty red.

Cudahy Nature Preserve is located next to one of the flight paths of Mitchell Airport. When the wind is right the planes take off and land almost directly overhead. Periodically one is subjected to the tremendous roar of ascent. But they are mostly invisible from the depths of the forest.

Access to Cudahy Nature Preserve is from College Avenue. This is a view of the preserve from Rawson Avenue, which is to the south. The canopy of the woods is just visible in the background, beyond the truck distribution facility, another reminder that this is an urban wilderness.

This is the sixth in a series of posts about autumn in Milwaukee (with 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.

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