Screen-free weekend turns out picture perfect

My kids are driving me crazy.

I know – that’s sort of a “dog bites man” lead sentence.  Not exactly earth-shaking material.  Some might even call it redundancy in its most basic form, or simply stating the obvious.

But when I walked down the hallway last Thursday morning and found that my 7-year-old daughter was up about 45 minutes before we normally wake her, playing a computer game, I instituted what is sure to become the first of many weekends free of handheld screens in the Hill household.

The discovery encouraged me to get a little more creative with how we’d spend the weekend. Ultimately, it led us to an entertaining late afternoon in the woods and a reminder of how to properly spend family time.

Before we get to that Sunday outing and end on a mostly positive note, let’s get an ugly issue out of the way.

Look before land is gone 

This past week, I was flabbergasted to learn that as part of our last state budget, the Department of Natural Resources is required to sell off 10,000 acres of DNR-owned land by June 30, 2017. Or, to put it another way, get rid of OUR  land.

That’s right.  The budget included a seemingly arbitrary amount of our heritage to dump.

Approval for the biggest part of this sell-off took place even as I put the finishing touches on this column.  On Feb. 24, the state’s Natural Resources Board, which oversees DNR actions, rubber-stamped the ideal of selling 82 parcels around the state totaling 5,900 acres,  most of it to private owners.

Waupaca’s Patrick Durkin, a longtime hunting, fishing and archery writer, did a nice opinion piece on this travesty in his Feb. 19 column for the Wisconsin State Journal, detailing a number of questions we should ask ourselves about this sell-off.

I’ve seen both liberal and conservative attacks on Durkin’s past work, which is a pretty good indication that he’s a writer with a balanced perspective. The questions he asks here, such as how many people will lose access to recreation and how much of the land being sold could have merged effectively into existing DNR projects, show he has a clear big-picture view of public land ownership in Wisconsin.

Durkin also points out that this may very well be an issue of dogma: some misguided folks believe public ownership can never be as good as private ownership. That’s like saying bratwurst is always preferable to cheese.

If Durkin is correct, what we’re seeing is a state sacrifice to the false idol of private ownership, for no other reason than a bunch of tyrants believing that if more people can enjoy something, it must be bad.

We have no one to blame but ourselves for the loss of this land.  Our so-called leaders have shown themselves to be short-sighted and narrow-minded, so it’s up to us to keep them in check.

In any event, we’re selling our outdoor soul.  With this in mind, I took the kids and set off on Sunday afternoon to try to see one of the pieces of land being put on the chopping block.


Learning is as good an excuse as play to get out 

Just south of Wautoma and between County Y on the east and State 21 on the west is a 15.4-acre wooded tract that’s adjacent to part of the White River Fishery Area.  The DNR notes that the White River has an international reputation because of its “phenomenal” density of brown, rainbow and brook trout – up to one trout per lineal stream-foot in some portions of the river, according to a 2009 DNR memo.

The unnamed spot was our destination because we “own” it now, but won’t before long.

The tract is approved for sale despite the clear need the DNR notes for more access to recreational lands in Waushara County, which already draws people from outside Wisconsin and the U.S. because of its great fishing.  That’s obviously a boon for the economy of Wautoma and the surrounding area.

I had been trying to figure out what I could take the kids to do on the weekend to distract them from the no-tablets period. Forecasts of temperatures in the 30s or 40s promised a good bit of slushiness, so we’d be committed to getting dirty and probably a little wet if outdoor fun was going to happen.

I decided a simple lesson on public access was in order.

Our daughter was up for it, but 13-year-old Sam had to be “convinced.” After politely declining a couple of morning and early-afternoon invitations to accompany us, he found himself at the receiving end of a couple of vague threats about lost privileges, including further screen-time limits.

But then came the magic words. “We’re just going to explore some woods,” I told him.

“Really?” Sam chirped. “OK.”

We also invited our 8- and 12-year-old neighbors, along with neighbor dad, who had meltwater patrol in our shared and sloped driveway.  He ruefully passed, but agreed to let the kids go (a little less ruefully).

Out on the road, Sam’s job was to read Durkin’s column, peruse an illustrated DNR description of the plot for sale, and review a couple of printed maps to get a feel for where and why we were going. Then he had to explain it to the other kids.

I got a little pushback, but knew it was working out when he asked a couple of questions about who was responsible for the action and why it was occurring.

We had gotten a late start, so we didn’t arrive until shortly after 4:30.  As we spilled out of the car, I started to explain that we would have to hustle to make it to the tract, but nobody heard.

All four kids were off like a shot and, literally within seconds, rolling around in the wet snow of the field just beyond the pull-in track and small circular parking area.

There were supposed to be two other parking areas somewhere on the County Y side of the woods, closer to the tract that was actually for sale.  I had already perused Google’s street view enough to know we probably wouldn’t find them, so we started on the west side off of 21 and walked southeast toward our destination, which was about a mile and a quarter away.

The dense brush and generally 6-to-8-inch-deep snow made it slow going, as did the kids’ fascination with any downed tree, of which there were several.

That included one whose root system appeared to be virtually severed off just below ground level, making it look like a 13-foot-round dirt pancake standing vertically on the ground, stuck into the end of a very, very large wooden fork.

Evidence of deer was everywhere. Their tracks marked a number of paths through the snow that seemed remarkably firm, at least compared to the trails we sunk into the white stuff as we wandered about.  I assume the deer traveled them fairly frequently.

There was scat, scat and more scat.  Especially near and in the snowless areas under some trees where I speculated deer had been bedding – but I’m not a hunter and am just making a city-slicker guess.

The kids mounted and scooted along every fallen tree they could. They alternated that with snowball fights, checking out an animal den, and occasionally laying down in the snow out of pure joy and feigned tiredness.

We came to a boggy creek that I didn’t see identified on maps but am guessing may have been Little Lunch Creek.  A crystal-clear and free-flowing stream of just a few inches’ depth, it was close to the eastern border of the plot we were exploring.

Further down, I knew, it would flow into Lunch Creek, a Class I and II trout stream which is clearly marked, and eventually into the Class I White River.

Our youngest neighbor, slogging about in the bog, sunk into a quagmire of dark-chocolate mud.  Trying to pull free, he popped right out of one of his boots, leading me to discover he had no socks on.

And here I’d thought my kids were the only ones in the world capable of such looniness. I liberated the boot, played stern-substitute parent for a moment, and then joined the youngsters in another snowball fight.

In an hour, we didn’t even make it halfway to our destination, but we’d achieved our major goal of family fun. We followed our trail back as a sunset the color of egg yolk and blood oranges formed a backdrop for the parking area.

After rewarding ourselves further with a meal in Wautoma’s El PoPo Mexican restaurant, which the kids proclaimed the best ever, we hoped – perhaps in vain – that we’d have a chance to come back to these lands some other day.


This post originally appeared in the Feb. 25, 2016, edition of The Portage County Gazette.


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