Merrill School Forest a great first, second or third choice

Lesson learned: always bring snowshoes.

Frequent hiking buddy Chris Sadler and I were reminded of the need for winter preparedness during a not-so-well-planned trip to hike the Turtle Rock Segment of the Ice Age Trail last week. We set out to knock a few more miles off the IAT, but Chris forgot to prompt his hiking buddy to prompt Chris to bring the paraphernalia required to negotiate the trail.

I suppose I could blame any addle-brained behavior on my part to osmosis. After all, it was Chris who spent the previous three weeks in South Carolina, where temperatures in the 40s apparently cause most of that region’s population to hole up, barring their doors until everything blooms again and they can hear ice cream trucks jangling down the street.

Truth be told, this was just one of those trips where I agonized over a destination, and thus never picked one until shortly before Chris came to pick me up. I asked when he arrived if he’d brought snowshoes, and because he hadn’t, we decided to skip them.

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Winter walk at Mead overcomes the snowplow blues

The season of man versus nature has arrived.

It’s that time when Wisconsin can’t decide what it wants and the temperatures bounce around with variations of 30 or 40 degrees over the span of days – or even hours, which is where man and nature come in.

More specifically, it’s when a man has to battle for control of his sidewalk over the nature of that one snow-plow driver.

You know – that guy who shows off his prowess at clearing the street in front of your house when all the conditions are just right.

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Short day at McMillan Marsh long on satisfaction

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

Deer tracks across the marsh

“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.

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Nobility not required, but courtesy is nice

winding-trackI ran into the Queen of England on the Green Circle recently.

At least I think it was The Queen.  Y’know, the one with the little corgi dogs who have the run of the kingdom, because they’re Royal with a capital “R” and I’m definitely not.

That’s “not” with a lower-case “not on your piddly little life, peasant.”

But there were two corgis, right on the groomed cross-country skiing trail, being walked by The Queen Her Own Self.

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Hoffman Hills Recreation Area: Lovely destination, or just rest stop

6Trips to the Twin Cities area are always fun for me and my family, but even though Minnesotans are right up there with Sconnies when it comes to good Midwestern manners, the big city still seems to sicken plenty of folks with various forms of affluenza, common coldness and rudella, among other diseases.

So, if you’re headed in that general direction and need a breath of fresh air and a slice of natural beauty before hitting the urban jungle, consider the Hoffman Hills Recreation Area as a stopover.

Least visited?  Not this past week 

I’ve mentioned Tim Brewer’s guidebook, Wisconsin’s Outdoor Treasures, as a source that has yet to steer me wrong.  Because I was making a trip to Hudson last weekend – which as far as I’m concerned is merely an extension of Minneapolis-St. Paul despite being on the eastern bank of the St. Croix River – I followed Brewer’s advice for a visit to Hoffman Hills.

Just north of Menomonie, this small state park is characterized by Brewer as one of Wisconsin’s least visited, even on weekends – perhaps because its scenery is less spectacular than so many other northwestern Wisconsin natural areas.  But it does have relatively tall and steep hills, as the last glacier to cross Wisconsin didn’t hit the area.

Apparently I hit it on just the right – or wrong – weekend.  The 707-acre park’s main parking lot, which appears to hold just under 40 cars, had exactly two spaces left when I arrived.

There’s a slightly larger overflow parking lot down the road, on the edge of the Catherine Hoffman Hartl Memorial Wetland. I don’t know how many cars were there, but given the number of people I saw and heard in the park, it probably had a few.

A large party of adults and kids enjoyed a group picnic and playing games in the open space just past the parking lot.  No matter. Once I hit the Tower Nature Trail, billed as a two-mile loop to the park’s 60-foot observation tower atop a high point in the park, things quieted dramatically.

Although I could frequently hear exuberant, youthful shouting ringing through the hills from more than one direction, the peaceful woods enveloped me.

 

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Hoffman’s well developed trail system seems to funnel everyone toward the tower atop one of the highest points in Dunn Count.  The park’s topography, excellent signage and the cleverness of the trail system seem to make it almost impossible to get lost. Virtually every trail offshoot still heads in the general direction of the tower and rejoins the path to the top.

At the same time, those offshoots meander to quiet, wooded areas of the park that allow both privacy and longer hikes with plenty of scenic variation.

Because I had less than two hours before I had to get back on the road, I was acutely aware of staying on a relatively direct path to the top. I also noticed that I never lost my bearings.

Each time I came to a trail juncture offering alternative paths, I could correctly guess which trail I needed to take for efficiency’s sake before confirming it on the map.  I also saw that, given more time, I could always take the less-efficient choice and still be heading in the same general direction.

I was startled by the contrast with many of my home-area favorites, such as Hartman Creek and state natural areas featuring the Ice Age Trail to our east, as well as Portage County’s Standing Rocks Park. There, I’ve become more easily disoriented simply because of the different physical layouts of those areas and the way trails are developed.

That’s not a criticism of those places – a great joy of nature is the privilege of feeling lost (assuming you don’t need to find your way somewhere quickly) and the challenge of knowing your location.  It’s just that Hoffman seems uniquely suited to wandering about on various loops and never stumbling off your path.

The tower offers fine, distant views stretching from the southeast to the southwest, with only direct southerly views being obscured by the park’s high hills. For about 320 degrees of a full circle, visitors to the tower see miles upon miles of landscape covering about 320 degrees of a full-circle view.

The most spectacular fall colors had apparently passed, but there was still plenty to see from up top, including large bands of golden yellow and all of the burnished shades of brown, copper, chestnut, chocolate and fading red, plus fields varying in color from emerald to straw. A few prosperous-looking farms and silos, distant hills and valleys, and plenty of blue sky lay all around.

Trails are wide enough for snow-grooming tractors, as the park is a popular cross-country skiing destination. It looks fun and challenging – perhaps a bit beyond my current skill in many places, as I’m not yet so great at stopping and controlling my downhill speed.  Hoffman has a few places where there are strenuous slopes for walking either up or down and plenty of more gentle inclines for walkers that would make for stimulating skiing and fantastic exercise.

Hoffman has a very nice group campsite with a small tiered fireplace area and an open-sided shelter with picnic tables partway up the tower trail.

Outside of the wetland area, the park is heavily forested and hilly, so the winding trails, changing elevations and fine trees (a dozen major types of oak, pine, hawthorn and others) make a great natural experience not too far from the big city.

 

(Originally published Oct. 28, 2016 in The Portage County Gazette)