author’s note: this is the original version of a piece I shortened for use in the March 9 issue of the Portage County Gazette
“How long do you think they can run like that?”
The question was posed by my frequent hiking companion Chris Sadler, who for the first time was filling the role of cross-country skiing buddy.
We were watching eight deer streaking across a flat, icy expanse of McMillan Marsh Wildlife Area, about a hundred yards southeast from where we glided along a low dike, heading back to Chris’ car.
The dike road ran between the marsh on our right and the forest on our left, where the Little Eau Pleine River winds about on its way toward an affiliated reserve, the George Mead Wildlife Area, before ultimately draining into Lake DuBay more than 20 miles to our east.
It was a perfect winter day. The midday temperatures were hovering around 10 degrees with westerly and northwesterly winds hitting no more than 10 miles an hour – enough to chill our faces thoroughly but not bring any substantial discomfort.
The skies were a sharp winter blue and the bright sun highlighted the differences between various darker-barked trees and the white-barked birch along the trail. Or maybe the latter were aspen, and the sunlight was primarily illuminating my ignorance of trees.
I knew that birch and aspen can look similar, especially in their leafless winter states. I have since learned that those who want to tell the difference can check for a chalky feel on birch bark, which peels off in thin wispy layers.
Otherwise, those with questions can hang around until warm weather brings out aspen’s heart-shaped leaves or the long, oval leaves with coarse-toothed edges characteristic of birch.
Apparently McMillan’s forest management plan includes promotion of aspen where it exists. This is according to a 2011 document on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources web site. In any event, I’ll wait for another visit to determine more precisely what we were looking at, because after a fine couple of hours spent at McMillan, it is now among my many area favorites.
Located in southwestern Marathon County just north of the Wood County line, McMillan also offers summertime biking, plenty of wildlife viewing and photography, and hunting and trapping among its recreational opportunities. I’ll be returning to check out the biking and more cross-country.
A good day to share the trail
Sometimes this winter has seemed as if it’s nothing but a giant electric heater, turning on and off every few minutes to melt whatever snow we’ve had. Combined with too many scheduling pressures and other issues, the spotty weather had me resigned to a season without cross-country skiing.
But a lengthy cold snap and some decent snow sent us off to Marshfield to check out an area I haven’t yet visited.
It was Chris’ first time on skis in a couple of years – he had a new pair, along with some new shoes – and we decided to give it a go despite knowing almost nothing about the marsh except that cross-country was one of the major recreational activities listed on the management area’s web page.
It was a good decision, as it really wasn’t any more challenging than getting used to the chill on our faces and the slippery nature of an ungroomed trail. We parked on the eastern boundary at a lot on the end of Marsh Road, having no previous idea of where we might actually get on a trail.
But the trail commenced at the lot. It had seen plenty of other traffic from both skiers and snowmobilers, meaning there were Gordian knots of grooves all over the path, but the trail was about as level as a pool table along the roads edging the marsh and forest.
We ran into one snowmobile – the first I’ve encountered up close while recreating in Wisconsin. That’s primarily a reflection of where I’ve hiked or skied in winter, which is mostly on the Ice Age Trail or Green Circle Trail, neither of which allow much (if any) motorized traffic.
The driver was accommodating, slowing almost to a duck’s waddle when reaching us on the trail. Although Chris and I both commented on how we didn’t understand the attraction of loud motors on a quiet winter day outdoors, we both accept the occasional need for sharing space for the greater good.
Snowmobilers definitely get the better end of the deal – there are about 25,000 miles of snowmobile trails in Wisconsin, according to the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs. This compares to some 2,730 miles of hiking trails, according to the DNR. Those are in state parks, forests, recreation areas and wildlife areas, as well as along other trails (such as rail-to-trail conversions for biking and other uses).
In another era, I might call up an ice storm of curses on snowmobiles. But as our state’s so-called leaders continue to weaken the environmental standards that have made Wisconsin the great outdoor state that it is, I’ll save my profane wishes for later and be grateful for any friends nature has.
One of Wisconsin’s great outdoor columnists, Paul Smith of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wrote this past week of the growing awareness of Wisconsin’s outdoor advocates – most notably, the state’s major hunting and fishing groups – of the destructive efforts waged by soulless legislators against wetlands in particular. While mechanized users are often at odds with silent sports, there’s enough crossover among rec advocates to count them as allies.
Despite the snowmobile, McMillan was such a pleasant surprise, with its expansiveness across the white-blanketed marsh and the openness of the sky overhead, its contrast of shadowy forest and brightly lit wetland flats, that I simply ignored any thoughts of politics or my usual unwillingness to share the trail with noisy engines.
It really was too fine a day to dwell on anything but the joy of breathing fresh air and getting some brisk exercise. We distracted ourselves by examining the tracks of the deer where they had emerged from the Little Eau Pleine bottom on our left, bolted across the trail and out over the marsh, and made a beeline for the opposite treeline, about a half-mile across the marsh.
The deer seemed almost to simply materialize from the banks of the river. Their tracks across the marsh didn’t match tracks coming from the river; it was as if they’d been napping in a snowy, brush-covered den just off the trail, suddenly bolting out of bed to head into Marshfield for lunch.
That’s a notion we found attractive, but not before we skied a litle more, including the time when Chris wondered how long they could keep the pace. I’ll return to that.
Long may we all run
We did eventually retire to an excellent meal at the Blue Heron BrewPub in Marshfield – a favorite which Chris had not yet tried. He had the “grown-up mac and cheese” (six cheeses, panko bread crumbs and green onions) and I had a goat-cheese, arugula and red-pepper aioli burger with a side of seafood chowder.
We tried a flight of beer samples and spent longer at the restaurant than we had on the trail. We also had an entertaining conversation with owner Paul Meier about his travels and other topics.
When Chris raved about the pub’s smoked ale and mentioned some of the history related to that beer, Paul brought Chris, as a souvenir, an empty bag (“for your man cave”) that once carried the Bamberg barley malt used in making that Blue Heron offering.
Anyway, back to the deer. On another outing, I might have brought the full force of my smart-aleck humor to bear on the question of how long those ungulates could run.
Much would seem to depend on how well we support both deer and marshes in our wonderful state. But as lost as I was in the enjoyment of our rare experience – a day so fine that even many of the good ones we’d had already had on Wisconsin’s trails couldn’t match it – I instead thought of the lyrics of Neil Young’s classic song “Long May You Run.”
Young noted that the song was about both a woman and a car. My interpretation is that the car outlasted the woman in the story, with the singer wishing the woman well and waxing nostalgic about the car, which may have lived on more strongly in the imagination.
It’s hard to beat great music about a trunk full of memories and driving down the road to the ocean. But head over to Marshfield for some time on McMillan’s trails and you may find it’s an experience that brings equally long-lasting satisfaction.