Sandhill Wildlife Area offers a smart weekend choice

Of all the things that can delay getting outside to recreate, I didn’t expect last weekend’s to be my 15-year-old son being smarter than me.

We were itching to get out on his new clearance-sale cross-country skis, but weather and other circumstances haven’t cooperated. A half-foot of snow early in the week gave us another shot, so I rousted him from bed Saturday with a request to eat quickly, as the sun was brilliant and temperatures climbing.

My wife had made some lovely pineapple pancakes with pineapple and coconut syrup, and that’s where Sam’s intelligence came in: he decided he wanted protein over carbs and sugar. So he made eggs and sausage while I impatiently waited.

Finally out of the house, we aimed for the Sandhill State Wildlife Area just west of Babcock. We drove toward Wisconsin Rapids as Sam pulled on his ski boots in the front seat, but with each passing minute my dismay increased.

The further we drove, the skimpier the snow became. By the time we began skirting the edge of the Wisconsin River near Port Edwards, we were seeing more sodden, chocolate-brown soil and decaying vegetation than blankets of white on the ground.

Sam didn’t seem to care. Having recently started a junior-high debate class and being assigned the affirmative case for a universal basic income, he was interested in hearing about a Time magazine article on the world’s 2,043 billionaires controlling enough wealth to end extreme poverty seven times over.

He was also impressed by the riverside parks on our left and the prosperous-looking neighborhoods on our right, as well as massive piles of fragrant wood chips at the mill in Nekoosa and the cranberry bogs we began passing once out of town, asking questions about all of them.

Don’t get me wrong; Sam is a pretty normal kid. By the time we arrived at the wildlife area, our conversation had turned to the relative merits of turning one’s brain to mush on computer solitaire games as opposed to first-person shooter games on the PlayStation.

He sees the latter as more challenging, because, as he asserted, “With solitaire you can always convince yourself you won even if you didn’t.”

I’m not sure I buy that, but any discussion was welcomed. Hiking is generally more talk-intensive than skiing, and snow was definitely lacking at the wildlife area.

Conversation or no, Sandhill is a fine place. Its 9,150 acres have plenty of marshy expanses where flowages provide wonderful bird habitat, but it takes its name from gently rolling, sandy ridges that were part of the bed of ancient Glacial Lake Wisconsin, according to the Department of Natural Resources website.

On one of those eroded ridges is North Bluff Tower, offering a spectacular vista of some 20 miles. We didn’t make it there, sticking instead to roads near the East Potts and Bullgrass flowages and the Swamp Buck Trail, with an eventual loop back to the headquarters in the southeast corner of the area.

A friend, learning we visited, waxed rhapsodic over many visits to Sandhill while growing up near Babcock – especially the three sunrises he’d seen from North Bluff.

The tower is one of three on the property, including the Bison Barrens Tower (yes, there are bison) and the Gallagher Marsh Tower, noted for views of sandhill cranes, geese, ducks and other wildlife in season.

Sandhill apparently is outstanding for wildlife. Although we saw only a crow or two in our three-to-four mile walk, we were impressed enough to know we’d return to explore further. What we saw helped us understand that Sandhill rivals our better-known George Mead Wildlife Area.

With more conversation on the way home – over Wisconsin’s lumber industry, the potentially ruinous impacts of retaliatory tariffs on exports of U.S. cranberries, and other topics – it was both a relaxing and invigorating day, despite any disappointment I might have felt about not getting to ski.

Sam, for his part, never skipped a beat and seemed perfectly happy from waking up all the way through to our arrival back home.  As I said, though, he’s a bit smarter than I am.


This post originally appeared in the March 16, 2018, edition of The Portage County Gazette.


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