Night Hike

Day 2             August 31

Mile 190 – 437

LaCrosse, WI to St. Croix State Park, MN

I got a late start this morning… er, afternoon, and began a winding journey up the Mississippi river on the Wisconsin side.  I won’t say it was a poor choice of route, because it was certainly lovely, but I quickly realized that I would never get to my destination before dark on that road.  It was too late to take the really direct and unlovely route up to and through Eau Claire, but I tried to cut over to it from Menomonie up towards Spooner.  I was so concerned about getting where I was going that I nearly missed hitting the tension zone somewhere in central-northern Dunn County.

The “Tension Zone” in Wisconsin (and Minnesota) is the area demarcating the boundary between the southern (prairie and savanna) and northern (forest) “floristic provinces.”  Within the tension zone, species from both habitat types mix, and form a transition between the two.  In western Wisconsin, the tension zone is not far from the line marking the farthest advance of glaciation in the last ice age, and that unglaciated portion of southwest Wisconsin is known as the Driftless Area.  The steep bluffs and scenic ridges of my last post are characteristically “driftless,” whereas the northern and eastern regions of the state (and the Midwest as a whole) are relatively flatter, with less abrupt topography. [A good reference on this kind of stuff, for those who have suddenly become fascinated by my thrilling description, is The Vegetation of Wisconsin by John T. Curtis.]

If this is getting too technical for most of you, let it suffice to say that, somewhere north of Menomonie, I all of a sudden looked around and saw, in place of towering bluffs of oak savanna, flat roads lined with forests of aspen and pine.  It’s not too much of a coincidence that Menomonie also marks the farthest extent of my familiarity so far – I am now traveling unexplored territory.  I’m much more of a southern (Wisconsin) girl, so the great North Woods is a novelty for me.  One could say that crossing the tension zone takes me out of my comfort zone.  If one wanted to say something cheesy…

Anywhoo, I did eventually get where I was going: St. Croix State Park near Hinckley, Minnesota (  It more or less straddles the tension zone, for those who were following the previous discussion.  If it were in Wisconsin, it would be almost as far north as you can go.  Instead, it’s in Minnesota, and only a little more than halfway up the state!  It is characterized by sandy and clay soils, and the jack pines that inhabit them.  I didn’t really care about any of that when I rolled in, though.  I had made a reservation a few days earlier for the Crooked Creek Backpack campsite, in order to get myself in shape for Isle Royale.  However, it was already 7:00 and dusk was closing down when I checked in.  The office staff said that the trail was an easy and highly visible one, so I decided to go for it.

They were right – the path was wide enough for two vehicles to pass, and almost perfectly flat.  But six miles is still a long way to go with a heavy pack, and the mosquitoes were horrendous!  When I came to a main splitting-off of trails, I couldn’t read the faded trail sign, and thought that it was the intersection marking the halfway point.  “Wow,” I thought, “I’m really making good time.  It must be some combination of flat ground and the bugs making me hurry.”  So I slackened my pace a little bit and trudged on.  An hour later, I reached the next intersection, and boy was I disappointed to find that this was the second intersection, and I still had half of the distance left to cover!  Luckily, by this time it was completely dark, so I was finally able to remove the head-net that had been protecting me from the blood-sucking insects, and I picked my pace back up again.  Now, normally I love a new moon for the stars it lets shine through, but I really wasn’t looking up too much on this particular hike.  The stars w

Even in the dark, the Willard Munger State Trail is difficult to lose!

Wow, was it ever a relief to see this sign!

ere definitely amazing, when I had a chance to glance at them, but I wouldn’t have minded a little light on the ground, too!  A dark and sweaty hour later, I got to the intersection marking the home stretch – and immediately lost all the adrenaline that had been keeping me going!  Unfortunately, the trail also picked that time to become hilly, and I stumbled up and down the last mile or so into my campsite.

I had been fearing the worst – that the shelter at the site would be a roof and a wall with some supports on the side, and that I would have to set up my tent, anyway, for protection against the mosquitoes.  And I was sure there would be a bear sitting by my fire ring when I arrived, gnawing on some irresponsible camper’s leftovers.  It was a very, very welcome sight when I dragged myself into camp a little before 11 pm

The Crooked Creek Backpacker Camp - a welcome sight!

to find two separate buildings, solidly built by the CC with intact screens and doors that closed tightly.  Oh, and no bears (though I later saw a few squirrels…).  I didn’t waste too much time exploring the area, but ate a pb & j  sandwich, made my bed, and fell asleep!

Next post: Exploring St. Croix State Park; travel to Duluth.


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