Tag Archive | river

Still Winter

It has been warm for the past few days, but today snow fell again, to remind us that winter hasn’t let go just yet.  I’m getting antsy for spring to begin, but in the meantime I’ll continue to showcase the joys of the winter wonderland we live in, here in the frozen North.

A couple of weeks ago, I took a morning to go cross-country skiing on a trail system I’d never visited before, in Niagara, WI.  Afterwards, I headed across the river to Michigan to hike the trail in to Piers Gorge, and check out some more frozen waterfalls.  I thought I’d share some of the experiences of that day.

IMG_0056The trails in Riverside Park feature 17 winding km of groomed classic skiing.  Despite living only 20 miles away, I hadn’t even known that this trail netweek existed, until I went onto SkinnySki to look for some new adventures.  I highly recommend that site for information about trails near home or in unfamiliar locations, at least in the upper Midwest.  The trails lead through some pretty scenery, from IMG_0053recent aspen clear-cuts and red pine plantations, to fields, spruce swamps, marshes, and riverfront.  There are some hills, but most of the terrain is flat (in the Menominee River floodplain), or rolling at best.  Despite being just outside of town, it feels like skiing in more remote parts of the Northwoods (which I’ll get to in later posts).  My only criticism is that it could use some maps.  There are a lot of loops, most of which eventually connect up at some point, but it would have been nicer to have been able to plan the journey better.

A view of the frozen Menominee River from a spur of the Riverside Trails in Niagara, WI

A view of the frozen Menominee River from a spur of the Riverside Trails in Niagara, WI


IMG_0074Though tired from skiing, I wanted to see how some of the more turbulent portions of the river were looking in frozen condition.  I crossed over into Norway, MI, and hiked up the snowy trail to Piers Gorge.  It is beautiful in any season, and this was no exception.  It’s hard to capture the intricacies of the ice buildup without more sunlight to provide contract… which should be an excuse for you to come and visit it yourself sometime!IMG_0078









Views Near and Far

From the top of Cactus Bluff, within Ferry Bluff State Natural Area, there is a view that no one can resist photographing.  I could probably do a series of posts just on the many views of the Wisconsin River that I’ve taken there over the years!  That’s probably proof that I have more than enough pictures already and don’t need to take any more, but I always do.

Of course, even when you’re not standing on the edge of the 300-ft cliff, there are some amazing things to look at.  As a 400-acre State Natural Area, Ferry Bluff has been preserved as habitat for the rare plants and animals that inhabit it.  It is an important Bald Eagle roost, and is closed from November through mid-April to allow the eagles undisturbed access.  Dry prairie remnants dot the cliff tops, showing some of their best colors when I was there last week.  Recent management, including several prescribed burns, has helped to restore the oak savanna and woods on the south and west facing slopes, and the steep north-facing slope at the back is full of woodland ephemerals.  When I was there, one of my favorite plants was beginning to bloom – Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepius tuberosa), so that’s what I’m showcasing here – both from Ferry Bluff and from another dry bluff-top a few miles to the north.


…And don’t forget that it’s your last chance to voice your opinion about this week’s Mystery Photo, from the previous post!

Butterfly Milkweed mid-bloom

Looking east…

Looking west…

Butterfly Milkweed near the top of Cactus Bluff

Why it’s called Cactus Bluff


Thanks to all who voted in my first multiple-choice style “mystery” post.

The correct answer, garnering 71% of the votes, was a Hooded Merganser!

I spotted these birds on a peaceful early-morning kayak down the Pine River, in Florence, Wisconsin.  I was on the relatively wide and slow-moving stretch just below the popular “Oxbow,” taking in the sights and sounds of nature on this undeveloped Wild River, when a bird flew out on front of my boat, splashing back and forth across the river.  Between the speed and all the spraying water, I couldn’t clearly see what it was, or why it was doing what it was doing… until I looked over and saw these cute little guys pulling away from the shoreline behind me.  I got several (mostly blurry) photos in before Mamma spotted her ducklings and got even more excited!  I could almost translate her squawking word for word: “What are you guys doing?!  I told you to stay put!  You never listen!  Get back in the bushes!  No, wait, come up here!  But hurry, as fast as you can!”  And the little ducklings did as she commanded, all four of them getting back to their mother’s safety before the menacing kayaker could cause them any harm.

Female Hooded Merganser flying in feigned distress









Uh-oh! Is this little guy going to catch up?


Phew, he made it!


It’s experiences like these that make every journey down one of our Wild Rivers exciting, even in a year like this one with low water levels.  Although I greatly enjoyed watching the fascinating behavior of this Hooded Merganser family without ever seeing another human on my trip, I could have done without the extremely slow-moving water and constant scraping along the bottom.  I probably won’t paddle the Pine again until we get some significant rain fall, but I may pull the fishing pole out for some stretched of rapids farther upstream.

Luckily, though, we have more rivers in our small county, and later on the very same day that I saw these ducklings, I found myself on the Brule River, which forms the border between Wisconsin and Michigan.  The flows there are much more consistent and paddle-able pretty much all summer long.  It is a wider river than the Pine, though, at least below where the Paint and Michigamme flow into it, and just before it becomes the Menominee, which forms the rest of the border down to Lake Michigan.   There is one nice little rapids that you can either go around (as my friend did) or through (as I did,

Common Mergansers on the Brule

with a little trepidation).  If you’re in a canoe or kayak, I would use some caution and planning even on those rapids, but if you’re in a tube, just go for it – it’s a lot of fun! We saw several cool things on our trip that afternoon, despite the fact that it is more developed and we were greeted by homeowners and boaters frequently along the way.  One of the neatest was several Common Mergansers along the way – I’ve never seen both the Common and the Hooded practically next to each other like that, and I was surprised at how big the Common Mergansers were, close up  – from a distance, I thought they were geese!


Haven’t voted yet on the Mystery Duckling Poll?  Well, here’s another clue – a vague photo of the distressed mother!  Get those votes in, and you’ll be rewarded by some less-vague photos and a nice story tomorrow!

A National River – Part 2

I went back down to the lower parking area, saw that the crew was back and busying itself to make dinner, and sought out the leader, Ken Smith.  He graciously accepted me into their little group, showed me where I could pitch my tent, and the crew invited me to eat with them.  Over the next 36 hours, I got to know this bunch of kind and passionate people, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been part of such a great project, if only for a

Ken Smith, warming by our camp fire


The first thing that I learned was that any story of the Buffalo River had to have Ken Smith at its heart.  He was instrumental in the movement to preserve the river in its free-flowing form, and it was that process that eventually resulted in the creation of our first National River.  That designation turns out to mean something between “National Park” and “Wild and Scenic River.”  The latter term is used for a river that has been preserved without dams and artificial control, but does not necessarily have public ownership along the river.  In the case of a National River, the lands around the river are owned in large part (if not wholly) by the National Park Service, which preserves and protects lands in its care, as well as providing for responsible public recreation.  Today, most of the National Rivers are also part of the Wild and Scenic River program, but are protected to a greater degree.

The Buffalo River, like many others, was threatened in the middle of the 20th century by the proposed development of large hydro-power dams, and locals sought to preserve the river’s natural flow among steep cliffs and rock formations.  The Ozark Society was founded to lobby for protection, and was ultimately successful when, in 1972, the Buffalo National River was signed into law by Richard Nixon.  Ken Smith worked for the park service for ten years int he 1960’s and 70’s before leaving to become Education Director for the Ozark Society in 91974.  Today, he is officially retired, but continues to live out his passion for preservation of the BNR, by working towards the creation of a comprehensive hiking trail to span the length of the river.  He does this by bringing together teams of volunteers, then providing tools, campsites, food, transportation and – most importantly – expertise in trail engineering for a few weeks every year.

I had happened into the middle of all this, and despite the fact that the other volunteers had paid for their opportunities (to cover the costs of all of the above), they welcomed me into their fold and shared what they had.  Upon waking up in the frosty cold, they shared the warmth of their fire as we all bustled about, eating breakfast and making lunch while we warmed our toes.  By mid-day, though, after some hard labor on the new trail, we had stripped off a few layers and were happy to sit in the shade as we ate our sandwiches.  I arrived at the end of the week, so the finishing touches were being put on the trail surface – I was given shovels, garden rakes, and pulaskis, and alternately asked to pile rocks for cairns, chop out roots that might cause a stumble, or rake the trail into its final smooth surface.  Even the boring work was made entertaining by the great and dedicated folks who I had the opportunity to work with, and who told their own stories of life-long commitment to the Buffalo River as we worked.

Fall Colors in the Ozark hills along the Buffalo River

I'd never seen an armadillo in the wild until I spied this one, nosing the leaves for a tasty meal.











That night, the crew invited me to dine with them again, and then we sat around the fire for a couple hours… it was the last night of the fall trail-construction week, and I had graciously offered to help the guys finish the beer they had along, so no one had to pack it up in the morning.  We went to bed early, though, after a long day, and I snuggled deep into my new down-filled sleeping bag, protected against the chilly November night.

Looking south along the Buffalo River at Tyler Bend on a fall evening

Some of the many uncommon rock formations on the Buffalo River







I was very happy to delay my trip north for a couple of days for this opportunity, and hope to get back to explore the Buffalo in greater depth.  If you’ve ever been there, or to any of the other National Rivers, leave a comment below and let me know about your experience!

St. Croix State Park

Days 3 – 4         September 2-3, 2010

Mile 437-463

Hinckley, MN

St. Croix State Park is, according to their literature, the largest Minnesota state park (with over 34,000 acres), and contains two wild and scenic rivers (The St. Croix is a National Wild and Scenic River, and the Kettle River is designated as such by the state).  It was originally developed as a park by the National Park Service and mostly constructed by CCC workers, and was intended to showcase excellence in recreation development.  That is does, as the facilities here are by far the most varied I have ever seen in a state park.

Kettle River Highlands

St. Croix River

In addition to two backpack camps (Crooked Creek, where I stayed, and Bear Creek), there are several maintained canoe campsites, a large campground, and an equestrian campground.  There are probably a hundred miles of multi-use trails criss-crossing the area.  Moreover, there are two fully-equipped guest houses for rent, two “trail center” pavilions with fireplaces, tables, and shower facilities, and a lodge and nature center. The former CCC camp now houses the Minnesota Conservation Corps, as well.  Without doubt, you can find something to suit your needs here!

Barrens in St. Croix State Park

The park also has some ecological interest, though it is not quite as remarkable in this regard.  Most of the area was cropland before being purchased from failing farmers during the Great Depression, though the federal wild-and-scenic designation now restricts any development (or even parking) along the St. Croix.  The reason the farmers didn’t do so well may have been due to the sandy soils in the area (in large part a result of glacial outwash, according to one interpretive display), and those same poor soils now support a limited array of vegetation.  Jack pines, adapted to grow in those dry areas, are the primary species of the majority of the park today – in the form of forest, woodland, and barrens.  In my meanderings, I did not see any great examples

Restoration in progress (left side of the road) at St. Croix State Park

of the first two, but there are some bits of barrens along the St. Croix that I spotted.  For the most part, the park was very overgrown and was not putting as much effort into ecological management as into its recreational facilities (pretty much the norm for a state park), and I found maple and aspen to be the dominant species throughout much of the area.  One interesting feature, though, is that the entire park is in the low-lying river valley, so that any time the level of its well-drained sandy soils dipped down a few feet, it became damp enough for an entirely new set of species.  One could go from barrens to wetland to forest over the course of a few hundred feet, which I thought was pretty cool.

All in all, I liked St. Croix State Park, but I think the facilities really tipped the balance for me.  The mosquitoes very nearly tipped it back – on my six mile hike out on Thursday morning, I killed at least 600 of the buggers on just my hands and forearms!  I had been planning to take a little break, but no dice – they

Maples (small-diameter trees) invading woods (larger-diameter tree is a red oak).

swarmed me if I slowed up at all.  And counting them was about the only way to break up the monotony of the uniform scenery.  It’s definitely a great place to go if you want to practice backpacking – since you don’t have to pack a tent, they supply firewood out there, and the trail is super easy (one caveat: water is not easily available at the sites).  I think the Bear Creek backpacking site would be a little more exciting than the one I was at, and I would definitely recommend going in a drought year – or really early or late in the season.  Actually, I bet it would be a pretty nice place to see some fall colors, and the bugs should be mostly gone by then!



Dear Readers: This is one of the most often-viewed posts on this site, and readers seem to often get to it based on internet search results.  So I’m curious:  Did you find what you were looking for here?  What information would be more helpful?  What was the most useful or entertaining?  Thanks for sharing your thoughts!