Time to start asking questions about Rib Mountain proposal

(Originally published Nov. 17, Portage County Gazette)path

Some potentially bad news confronted me last week, reminding me of what we should all do when that happens: ask lots of questions, and head for the mountains.

Or the mountain.  Because I’m writing literally, not metaphorically.

I am not talking about the possibly apocalyptic farce that is our so-called election or its aftermath.  I’m talking about Rib Mountain State Park, which apparently is still the target of ski-slope expansion plans.

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Who’s planning it?  Why?  Is it viable?  What will it do to our beloved state park?  On balance, will the costs be greater than the benefits? Who exactly will this benefit?

Most importantly – should we go hike more trails over there right now?  The answer to that is yes.

Ski-expansion plans hanging around; so is great hiking 

I had lunch with a couple of friends from the Wausau area recently, and one mentioned that there is still a move afoot to expand the Granite Peak Ski Area, which is leased from Rib Mountain State Park (that means from me and you, dear readers; let us never forget that, at least for the short time in which the notion of public land may still exist, we are the owners of it).

When a Facebook post about a petition regarding this move came over my feed a couple of days later, I decided that was a sign to revisit the park, which I’d written about just two weeks ago but didn’t get to visit fully. Turns out that what’s at least a precursor plan was publically discussed in December 2014, with possible groundbreaking as early as this past summer.

My goal became to check out the area in which the expansion might be occurring.  Spoiler alert: I didn’t quite make it that far, but I did get pretty close to its edge, as far as I know. For now, because any expansion appears to be a way off, I’ll get to the really good stuff.

That is, there are some spectacular portions of the park that I simply hadn’t seen before.

They could be impacted by ski-slope expansion, and those plans therefore will be a topic for future columns. Although I talked to a number of folks who live, work, or were raised in the Rib Mountain area, it was all for background knowledge that can wait.

The important thing for everyone to know now is that there exists a fantastic trail system to the west of the park’s peak. It leads to areas which make me wish I could trade places with my 14-year-old son, assuming that dad would still drop me off in the woods of Rib Mountain.

It’s a playground of boulders, forests, trails, ravines, and – best of all – a quarry that somehow I did not know existed until I saw the anti-expansion petition on Facebook, a picture of a moonscaped gash on the earth that somehow looks both utterly out of place and completely natural.

It was the picture that struck my fancy, but not as much as the reality.

After a wrong turn that lengthened the beginning of my trip on the Red Trail, just below the park’s observation tower on the crest of the mountain, I wandered for a mile of taxing, rock-dominated trail along slopes covered in birch, maple and mixed northern forest, along with large fields of boulders.

I’d meant to take the more direct Blue Trail from the peak to the Quarry Trail, which ends up at a former quartzite quarry.  I wanted to have plenty of light to then move over to the Dynamite Trail, near the northern border of the park where it meets Grouse Lane, somewhere in the general vicinity of the proposed expansion.

I’d missed a juncture of the Blue and Red Trails in trying to put some space between myself and a couple that clearly wanted some alone time, and by the time I realized it, I’d moved downslope enough and far enough away that it wouldn’t save me much time to backtrack.

Enjoy the extra walk, I told myself – even though it’s strenuous, the kind of hike that requires, if not sturdy legs, at least very sturdy hiking shoes or boots.  Thick, gripping soles will save a lot of wear and tear on the feet, and given that autumn detritus carpeted everything, the combination of loose leaves and smooth rock can be quite dangerous for walking, especially downhill.

I enjoyed the rambling. Winding up and down, through boulders and trees, the path took me through a landscape that reminded me of playing Daniel Boone or monster hunter in the woods of childhood, a place where trees muffled sound and built a sense of isolation, mystery and wonder.  But when I finally hit the juncture of three trails, the true awe hit.

This week’s appropriate trail name: Turkey … Vulture 

Where the Quarry Trail joins the Homestead Loop and Turkey Vulture trails, the old quarry opens up like a falling away of the earth.

One moment you’re in a forest that’s open enough to see through for dozens or even a hundred or more yards in a given direction, but intimate enough to help you feel alone. Suddenly, you’re at the edge of the entire world opening up to the west, with farms and hills and tiny people moving like ants below you in the dug-out space of the quarry.

I suddenly really missed my kids, wishing they could be there to clamber about with me on the scary heights of the massive rocks. Those offered views of birch stands along the tops of quarry walls, sticking up like straight pins massed into a square of styrene.

A purple, pink and gold sunset was behind the clouds and hills to the west.  It was a gorgeous scene that made me want to run away from home and find a cave to live in – especially knowing election day was near.

I hung around as long as I could, then headed along the Homestead. As the woods darkened, I had to make a choice between pushing on toward the Dynamite Trail or circling back on the upper branch of the Homestead toward the peak.

Reluctantly I headed back at the turnoff, but head back is something I’ll do again.  Rib Mountain is too much of a treasure to ignore, and perhaps too much to rent out for more downhill slopes.

We’ll revisit that soon.

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