Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017: A year in the urban wilderness

Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area

2017 was a very active year in the urban wilderness of Milwaukee and beyond. As is my custom, I bring you a recap of the year, although it was harder than usual to narrow down the selections. In part, this was because I made a decision early in the year to limit my blogging activities to this, my Urban Wilderness blog, and to discontinue Arts Without Borders. In a very real sense I am sorry to see it go, as I continue to value the arts and find great pleasure in my outings. However, the more singular focus has enabled me to expand on the themes of this blog.

Lobster Claw, Mitchell Park Domes
Another reason for the growth of this blog is the project I began in 2017 with Preserve Our Parks, of which I am a board member. We’re calling it A Wealth of Nature. The intent is to celebrate and promote parks and wild places in Milwaukee and vicinity. Yeah, I know: it sounds a lot like what I’ve been doing for years. And it is! But the project has given me new enthusiasm and gotten me out intentionally to discover many places I had yet to explore for myself. Stay tuned. The project is just beginning. A new website is under construction.

And so, the (edited) year in review. Follow the links in each blurb to read the whole story and see the photo essays. (Note: I am including columns written for Milwaukee Magazine as well as my own blog.)

Autumn in Noyes Park, Milwaukee
Or just check out the year in pictures as you scroll down.

Sanctuary Woods and Medical Complex from Co Grounds Pk

2017 began with a bang as the City of Wauwatosa, where I live, unveiled a master plan that included roads and dense, high-rise developments in the last remaining parcel of green space on the Milwaukee County Grounds. “Sanctuary Woods” became a rallying cry for both sides in a contentious (and on-going) debate that I revisited many times over the course of the year:

Candle-light hike at Three Bridges Park
February brought out the best in people as Three Bridges Park held its first ever candle light hike and winter celebration. It was a smashing success, despite frigid temperatures.

March found me revisiting a favorite spot. My largely monochromatic photo essay:

Oak savanna at Indian Community School, Franklin
April brought spring and another, more colorful seasonal photo essay:

In May I took a tour of oak savannas, a rare and endangered ecosystem:

Things got real busy in June.
I visited four Milwaukee County parks and one Ozaukee County park to highlight “hidden gems:”

Showy lady slippers at Cedarburg Bog State Natural Area
I returned to Ozaukee County for a tour of the “Treasures of OZ:”

Beulah Bog State Natural Area
Then out to Walworth County for a first look at:

In July I revisited the Rotary Centennial Arboretum in Riverside Park for a special tour highlighting edible and medicinal herbs:

In August I reported on what I learned and experienced at my first ever City Parks Alliance national conference, in Saint Paul, Minnesota:

Kayak tour of Milwaukee's inner harbor
I served as Artist in Residence for the Harbor District, Inc. from January to September. In August I took one of two kayak tours of the inner harbor and filed this photo essay in September:

Another seasonal photo essay:

September found me learning even more about edible plants, this time at Theresa Marsh in Dodge County:

Prairie clover, Lakeshore State Park
Did you catch Milwaukee’s first ever boat parade and decorating contest? Here’s a photo essay:

Cuyahoga National Park, Ohio
In October I went to Kenosha County for a photo essay of two parks:

In November I filed my final seasonal photo essay from five parks in Southeastern Wisconsin:

I also took advantage of a road trip to a family Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh to stop off at Cuyahoga National Park near Cleveland, OH:

Kratzsch Conservancy, Washington County
December took me to Washington County where I joined in another tour:

Kenosha County Sustainable Living Educational Park

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