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stoney path

Posted Sep 21 2008 12:00am

Let me bring you songs from the wood:
to make you feel much better than you could know.
Dust you down from tip to toe.
Show you how the garden grows.
- tull

I’d always wondered. Two bridges about a half mile apart. If I had to guess, I assumed they went over the same stream. Sure you could check a map, but what fun is that? So yesterday it was time to explore a theory. While in the end I learned that was one stream did indeed connect these bridges, what I underestimated was the lost world in between.

Devil’s Lake State Park here in Wisconsin is a popular destination with well over 1 million visitors each year. Still like all natural areas, the tourists tend to keep tight to the public areas and rarely wander into the vast forests and hills. Beyond the pavement and gravel trails the world still feels young and un-discovered. It’s within these hills where I often go to get my head together. A place to find a quiet peacefulness that has been mostly peeled away from the surface of the earth.

Out in the Steinke Basin to the east of the lake itself, the land rolls through swamps, forests, glacial moraines and the remnants of what was a productive farm. The trails pass through a variety of mini-ecosystems, each with their own character and often vastly different as you turn each corner. A lone windmill spins in the breeze marking the place where a farm once stood. Here lilies planted over a half century ago still bloom. Their gaudy beauty seems somehow out of place against the backdrop of this mostly recovered natural landscape.

A popular trail heads south through the basin toward the hills to the south. It is on this trail where I’ve often stood upon a small wooden bridge and let my gaze linger on a small picture perfect waterfall just below. Each spring the ice cold water rushes down the rocks in a thunderous roar. By autumn the water often slows to a trickle and disappears into a small stand of marsh grass and cardinal flowers. On the far side a small trickle of water escapes the swamp and meanders through loose stone before slipping into a dark curtain of Oak, Maple & Basswood forest. A pang of curiosity had often tempted me to follow.

Of course you have to be careful of those pangs and the piper’s merry path they want to lead you down. These days we tend to be so jaded that we don’t recognize the inner voice of Pandora who couldn’t leave the jar alone. Even trekking off into an “urban” wilderness has risks. It’s too easy to write off a seemingly half mile stroll. Yet ask a whitewater paddler what difference a half mile can make, or a wilderness rescue team what troubles a half mile of forest can cause. You still have to be careful.

It’s a good idea not to be too over confident and to take time to run through a check list of possible risks even in a seemingly benign situation. Just couple years back a 14 year old got lost while hunting with family in these woods and spent a chilly November night sleeping in the leaves before walking out onto a road the next day. A fun day out can suddenly complicated by a simple twisted ankle or wrong turn. Not to mention the area supports a strong population of rattlesnakes! With that in mind I brought a compass, noting a main road would be north of us the whole way. I also carried a GPS which as I had expected lost it’s signal as soon as we slipped under the forest canopy.

Not far into the woods the stream bed opened to a wide swath of loose stone as if some giant had drug a plow through the woods. There was a suggestion of ominous power written under the dappled sun. Broken branches hung in the trees marking the high water of the floods earlier in the year. It was hard to imagine just how high the water was that funneled down this path! Trees along each side had been ripped from the earth, while new cliffs and corners were formed. In places where lone trees had fallen and were pinned against others, seemingly tons of stone were held back to create new dams, waterfalls and holes that must have been amazing when the torrents flowed.

Along the way we found small pools water where small fish darted below the rocks. One couldn’t help but wonder how they made their way to these pools. Often the only sign of flowing water was the sound of a goggle echoing in the stone beneath your feet. Tree frogs and toads would often leap away from your steps. A clutch of snake eggs hidden in a small hole under a tree suggested the destruction of the floods caused them to try again. Of course the low slung sun did not bode well for the new family.

We continued down the slope as hills rose higher and higher on each side of the path forcing us to continue jumping stone to stone on the stream bed itself. In time the sounds of voices in the distance told us we were in fact coming to the end of our journey. I could extrapolate that a popular hiking trail that I was familiar with must have been just a short distance away. The stone swath began to thin and fall in sharper descents cause us to do a bit more jumping and climbing than actual walking until at last the land leveled out again and the flowing water that had continued under the stone was once again revealed.

In the end the GPS grabbed just enough data to tell us that we had actually hiked just under 2 miles as we followed the twists and turns along the way. Much longer than the half-mile “as the crow files” distance. As we walked out of the trees onto the manicured grass and paved parking areas we could feel muscles tightening and a sudden pang of hunger. We were, exactly where we thought we’d be. We relished in the little victory. It was time to go home. We had come to the end of another little adventure that made a typical autumn Saturday just a little less ordinary.

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