Elroy-Sparta Trail still a Wisconsin gem

Tunnel No. 1

Some 50 years after becoming the nation’s first rails-to-trail conversion, Wisconsin’s 32.5-mile Elroy-Sparta State Trail is still a great place for folks to enjoy a range of trail experiences.

My son and I biked the trail June 24 with 10 of Sam’s fellow Boy Scouts in Troop 293, sponsored by Trinity Lutheran Church. Eight adults also made the trip, which included overnight camping outside of Elroy, where the trail’s eastern terminus meets up with Wisconsin’s 400 Trail, and at the western end in Sparta, where it joins the Lacrosse River State Trail.

Elroy-Sparta introduced me to Wisconsin’s incredible trail system three years ago.  The system is among the best in the country, and Elroy-Sparta makes an excellent destination for users of all ages and abilities.

Seeing it once more with many of the same scouts and adults from that 2014 trip was a pleasure, because it was one of those great reminders of the value of working together to reach a common goal.

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Something for everyone

Elroy-Sparta’s web site (www.elroy-sparta-trail.com), run by its friends of the trail group, notes that the trail was established in 1965, but other sources put its inception in 1967.  The trail’s birthdate may depend on how one chooses to define that.

Some say it began the year the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad pulled up its rails between the two towns and offered the right-of-way to the former Wisconsin Conservation Department (now Department of Natural Resources) for $12,500.

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Leopold Center, Portage good bookends for Ice Age Trail connector

Marker at Aldo Leopold Foundation

The holiday-weekend photo of a corpulent governor lounging on a New Jersey state-park beach, closed to the general public through government shutdown, seems an apt metaphor for both our political and natural environments.

Greed can be described in many ways. A pithy one is, “He would skin a gnat for its hide and tallow.”

Aldo Leopold, a great adopted Wisconsinite, had the rare ability to go both short or long when describing our relationship to nature.  He said, “Industrial landowners and users, especially lumbermen and stockmen, are inclined to wail long and loudly about the extension of government ownership and regulation to land, but (with notable exceptions), they show little disposition to develop the only visible alternative: the voluntary practice of conservation on their own lands.”

Whether one’s preference is brevity or a more drawn-out elegance, we see that selfishness and lack of community spirit keep business, government and individuals from working together on important things in life.

Public lands, Leopold, limited access, and pesky little critters are this week’s topics while recounting  another jaunt along a section of the Ice Age Trail.

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Bill collectors calling? Must be outdoor recreation time …

Blue skies over Green Circle Trail

We are in the thick of “Throwing Money into the Recreation Industry” season, and I am pleased, shocked and regretful to report that my family is doing its part to indenture its parents into several more decades of servitude to fund its outdoor activity.

It all starts with children who outgrow their toys (primarily Dad), but continues with more basic needs, such as food and fashion.

The spies in our microwave oven – if you’ve forgotten about these, just ask the president’s minions – were highly effective in detecting my susceptibility to outdoor-related purchases in July. A couple of tactical e-mails later from said spies and I committed to two purchases, demonstrating just how mindless and thoroughly patriotic I have become in support of my outdoor habit.

But that’s getting ahead of the point of this column, or perhaps just distracted from it.  Or maybe there’s no point whatsoever.  Who can tell?

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In any event, this week is about last week’s first-ever, single-day circumnavigation of the Green Circle Trail by yours truly.  It’s also about bears, books, bike shops, burgers and by-gosh any other thing worth bandying about while planning where to go next.

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If you can put up with the Dells, you’ll love Mirror Lake

Morning coffee and park guide

State parks are family, and we love them unconditionally. But sometimes it’s harder to tolerate the hangers-on who family members bring along as baggage.

That’s the case with Mirror Lake State Park, which is like your cool brother who has a lovely wife. Let’s just call her Rocky Arbor State Park, and let’s just NOT talk about her father, the highly successful but brash and overbearing guy whose name is Wisconsin Dells.

OK, let’s.  You can’t discuss Mirror Lake without the conversation turning toward the obnoxious father-in-law, who, truth be told, has his good points.

So this week’s column will be about bad weather, good shelter, wonderful trails, high prices and everything else that comes with a foray into Wisconsin’s most beautiful and overpopulated tourist attractions.

Plan B for “beautiful” 

The intent had been to drive Thursday to Devil’s Lake State Park, south of Baraboo, and hope we were lucky enough for a first-come, first-served camping spot before another busy weekend.  A week before, the online reservation system had shown no reservable sites available at Devil’s Lake, but there were still multiple sites available at Mirror Lake, just up the road.

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Knowing what we know about non-reservable sites, we figured we at least had a shot. They’re often available during the week, but we needed a backup plan.

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Setting the record straight on “Waupaca”

“Menominee Morning Song” by James F. Frechette, Jr. Photos by author; permissions courtesy of Mike Hoffman and UWSP Museum of Natural History

Seeing clearly often means going directly to the source, and when it comes to native Wisconsin terminology, there’s none better than one of our few remaining speakers of the Menominee language.

A couple of months ago, I wrote about a hike on the Waupaca River segment of the Ice Age Trail and devoted two short paragraphs to the puzzle of why the Waupaca River is named “Tomorrow” on its upper half. In doing so, as I noted in a later column, I passed on some incorrect information regarding the meaning of the Menominee word “waupaca.”

The mistake did give me, however, a chance to visit with Mike Hoffman, a Menominee elder who is one of perhaps a dozen remaining fluent speakers of Menominee. We conversed over coffee in June to talk about the Waupaca, among other things.

Trying to get to that place  

The dual-named river is the result of a great deal of storytelling and misinformation. Incorrect or inaccurate interpretations of the name are published in multiple places, including the main web page of the Waupaca Historical Society (which notes that it is a Menominee word meaning “tomorrow” or “pale water”).

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