A walk around Schmeeckle

This is my  Oct. 22 column for the Portage County Gazette.  The paper’s web site is not quite there yet, but it’s coming soon.  I’ve been a bit distracted lately by my day job, including chairing a faculty search committee.

A swing at the pond on Schmeeckle's Trail of Reflections.

A swing at the pond on Schmeeckle’s Trail of Reflections.

Bad circulation, bad sleeping.  Bad bones, bad muscles, bad mood.  Mental decline.  Shorter life.

Bad week?  More like a bad month.  Or maybe it’s been a month and a half. I don’t remember.

The good thing, though, is a short walk with an old friend reminded me of something I can do to fix those things.  Thanks, Schmeeckle.

I write, of course, about Schmeeckle Reserve, one of the most spectacular offerings of any kind that we have in Stevens Point.  The 280-acre conservancy just north of UW-Stevens Point drew me back for a walk recently, and like any good friend reminded me of the things I already knew but was neglecting.

Among those are the extraordinary benefits that come so freely to us if we just make the effort to get off our tushes and onto the trails – or sidewalks or back streets, for that matter.  Regardless of the route we choose, walking blesses us with the opposite of my list above: better circulation, better sleep, stronger bones and muscles, a longer life, and a hedge against mental decline.

Those are six of the 12 benefits of walking listed on the Arthritis Foundation’s web page encouraging folks to walk.  I must confess, though, that I’d never heard about the calf acting as a “venous pump,” which probably sounds pretty weird to most folks but just means that the muscle contracts while walking and helps pump blood from the feet and legs back to the heart, reducing the load on that muscle.

It’s not that my friend Schmeeckle reminded me to look stuff up on web sites.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

I’d been having a pretty stressful series of weeks, despite my day job being one I really love.  And by “day job,” I mean it’s like many other folks’ employment:  I could do it 24-7 and that would probably just mean more work would come rolling down the mountainside onto my back.

A day before my most recent trip to Schmeeckle,  I’d been at the office from 9 a.m. until almost 9 p.m., with a brief trip away at about 4 p.m. to buy some cookies for one of my two post-5 o’clock meetings.  After I finally got home and ascertained that my family still remembered me, I ate an abbreviated dinner in my home office, then spent another couple of hours grading student work before turning in shortly after midnight.

So I needed my walk in Schmeeckle the next day. It took me primarily around 24-acre Lake Joanis, where I made special note of the various types of benches that were there, including one I had not seen before – a beautifully carved and finished work of art with a shoreline scene of turtles on a log, reeds in the water, lilypads, a butterly, and even a 3-D rabbit nestled into one arm.

Remarkably, every bench I passed had nobody on it, but one of the great things about Schmeeckle is there are plenty of places to sit even when it’s slightly busier on the trails, and virtually all of them will allow a little bit of peace and privacy. It was a fine day to sit for a few minutes in the warmth of the sun and watch a couple of geese enjoy the water, see the still-vibrant fall golds and a few reds among the  evergreens on the shore, and forget all the tasks still waiting back at the office.

Eventually I had to head back, but decided to take a short detour on the always-wonderful Trail of Reflections, the short loop with a treehouse built into the canopy of a white pine, a frog pond with a swinging bench, and words of wisdom about nature, scattered about on wooden signs to remind us of what’s important.

I walked in one direction on the half-mile loop, and as I neared its end, I could already find myself thinking about work and mentally preparing myself to rejoin the concrete walkway headed straight back to the brick walls housing my office.

Then I took a look at the sign on which Enos Mills, the long-departed “Father of Rocky Mountain National Park” in Colorado, told me that it’s not the arrival that’s important, but to go gracefully.

So I turned around and did the loop one more time.  Maybe not so gracefully, but slowly, attentively, and already in a better mood.

WHAT’S NEW, WHAT’S NOT

The “new” carved wooden bench with the wildlife scene that I saw for the first time at Schmeeckle, which sits on the eastern edge of Lake Joanis, has been there for a bit longer than I thought.

“That’s been here a couple of years, maybe a year and a half,” said Megan Espe, outreach coordinator for the reserve, who looked at me a little quizzically when I asked about the bench.  That was one of the reminders that I really needed to get out to Schmeeckle more often.

And there’s always plenty of reason to do so. Among the changes visitors will be able to see there in the near future, she said, are a new seating area near the visitor center and other improvements to the Trail of Reflections loop.

Opened in the 1980 (famed Wisconsin senator and governor Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day, attended its dedication), the trail celebrates many of the icons featured in Schmeeckle visitor center’s  Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame. It is the only designated handicapped-accessible trail in the preserve.

The Friends of Schmeeckle, an organization dedicated to supporting the reserve through volunteer work, fundraising and other activities, is heading up the effort.

“A new seating area is one of the bigger, more high-profile things we’ve got going on right now,” she said. “We’ve carved out that area, we’ve put down granite slab for a sort of patio-seating area, and on top of that pretty soon will be four oversized, sculptural, hand-carved chairs.

“There will be a big round table in the middle of those four chairs, so it will be a place to gather, have a picnic lunch, maybe meet your friend who’s going to come join you for your walk.”

The chairs will also have a quote adorning their backs and the designs will feature the four seasons, she added. They are being made on site and the goal is to have them finished within just a few weeks.

TRAIL RECREATION AT SCHMEECKLE

The reserve has what it calls a trail recreation internship, Espe said, staffed by a student who generally majors in forest recreation in the College of Natural Resources. One of the intern’s tasks is to maintain trail counters throughout the reserve.

Those are infrared devices inside camouflaged PVC pipe,  similar to the sensors that open grocery-store doors for customers, she said.  They allow staff to estimate with some degree of accuracy how many people use the trails annually – about 125,000.

That number is based on formulas that factor in such considerations as people walking side-by-side and where people might enter and exit the reserve.

The intern also surveys users and handles other tasks that allow Schmeeckle staff to make decisions about its offerings, which are not focused solely on leisure, but two other primary tasks – research and  preservation of a critical urban natural area.

It may be the walkers among those 125,000 annual trail visitors who appreciate those tasks the most, because many of them are very frequent visitors – such as Randal Kleitsch, who I stopped on the trail to ask a question of and ended up chatting with for a few moments.

He said he’s on the trails every day, usually at daybreak, for a few miles of walking.  He sees a lot of regulars himself and estimates that six to 10 of them are about as regular as he is, although a couple of them might drop out for a day or two when the temperature gets to 30 below.

Asked how often she herself gets out, Espe laughed and said, “Quite a bit. I love the fall.

“The problem is when you work at this place and go for a walk, you notice what needs to be done and it’s not real stress relieving.  You just come back with a list of things to do.”

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