Sunday, May 22, 2016

Hiking to the height of inspiration!

Such a lovely spring weekend, we decided to return here the next day and enjoy the long, ascending hike to Hanson's Rock, before things got overgrown and the views weren't as expansive. We loved this hike so much, we tripled one longer segment. More on that later.

As we set off, we realized early on we'd be taking on a fair amount of elevation today. As with much of the valley, the bluffs rise up from the base of the Kickapoo and its many tributaries. We started out near the Weister Creek campsites, heading along the low area of the West Ridge Trail until our climb began, which wasn't too very long at all. We transitioned from low wetland meadow to towering pines with maples mixed in, creating the perfect setting for carpets of trilliums covering the forest floor.

We enjoyed seeing them spread out before us and beyond us and wandered a bit off trail, but there were heights we had to climb, so we continued along on a perfect spring morning.

We met but a few others out today. At the start of our climb, we met a mom and kids with a dog, perhaps some of the folks who'd set up camp near our starting point today. As we climbed up and up and along some rocky outcrops, we met one fellow coming back down, perhaps seeking mushrooms....or maybe pursuing the Hiking Challenge as we were.

As we continued along, enjoying a dip back down into low-lying areas, we took in that wonderful spring sense, where some trees are just beginning to show green and others remain skeletal, as if wondering whether it was safe for the leaves to burst forth yet. We were back in a low area, looking out over ponds and wetland and thinking.....weren't we supposed to be heading *up* today? While it hasn't happened too often, we realized that we'd once more missed a critical point if we hoped to get to Hanson's Rock and then back down. One of the side effects of taking in the sights and sounds of the KVR.

We'd already put quite a few miles on our boots and had a decision to make at this we go back up that hill where we took a wrong turn, or come back another day to head there? We'd already hiked a significant trail segment twice. This would make it three times. We figured....that first haul up the hill through the deep forest was a burner. We're already past that, so maybe it makes sense to just finish what we'd planned to do today and take the wrong turn trails as our bonus. Back on that trail we went, paying attention to the signs directing us where we'd planned to hike in the first place.

While we could feel the effects of the extra miles and the sun rising higher, we still enjoyed the hike up to Hanson's Rock. In the winter, we'd come about as far as the trail from the south end following the West Ridge Trail and debated continuing on up. That was another of the times we'd missed a turn or two and decided to save this one for another time. We're glad we didn't wait too much longer than today, because the trees were already beginning to impede on the sweeping view from the overlook.

While there are some nice tie-ups across from the view for the horses carrying their riders through the KVR, none were in evidence yet today. We spent quite a bit of time drinking in the view as well as water from the water bottles. We also took note of the small things nearby that could be missed when presented with such a vista. Hoary Puccoon, which seems to love these ridgetops, was peeking up not far from the precipice of Hanson's Rock. We've seen this in shades of orange, but today it appeared in yellow. Different variety or maybe earlier in bloom? Not botanists, we simply enjoyed the fact that it was there....and that we'd noticed it. We bemoaned the fact that we never think to pack lunches when we head out for a day, because if ever there was a perfect picnic spot, this was it. We'd surely worked up an appetite by now!
We were happy to have made the choice to repeat part of our hike not once, not twice (which is a common thing for this challenge) but three times. We'd hiked a decent hike yesterday already, and were beginning to feel the effects, but the days are getting longer and we had nowhere to be, so we enjoyed a leisurely return back to our parking spot. We briefly considered doing the Ma and Pa Trail, since we were so close, but we'll save that for another time.

KVR Trail Challenge segments hiked today....Segments 2-5, 7-8 and 27

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Remote trails and water crossings

As members of the Kickapoo Reserve, we get regular notifications of different events taking place, and we knew today was the "Tromp and Chomp" race. Knowing the course would have lots of activity near the areas we'd been hiking, we figured it only made sense to pick a different area for our hike. The weather has finally shifted from....Will spring ever come? (We had snow last weekend during our rummage sale) to It's here! Spring is here! No sweatshirts or winter caps anymore!

One of the more rugged suggested hikes is the Billings Creek Trail, in the northern part of the Reserve. We knew we'd have a major water crossing as well as the possibility of smaller ones along the two miles of up and down trail we'd be wandering. We were ready! It's been quite some time since we've had the pleasure of rolling up our pant legs and wading through spring fed waters. We arrived at the trailhead near Bridge 8, greeted by a large colony of Cliff Swallows trying to set up housekeeping under the bridge, and taking wing anytime another paddler came along. We found the traihead nearby and we were on our way.

We'd last hiked the Reserve at the beginning of May, and the wildflowers carpeting the forest floors were varied and many. Imagine our surprise today when we encountered at least as many, even some scattered patches of Spring Beauty, which dominated the forest a few weeks ago. Many Trilliums literally covered the hillsides, though the pinkish tones in some blooms told us if we'd waited much longer, we'd have missed that show. Wild Geraniums, which my mom calls "mayflowers," were abundant, and skunk cabbage has gone from the curious little purple hooded thing poking up from the soggy places to huge green leaves.

We climbed up above to the edge of a ridgeline, but still in deep shade along the blufftops that paddlers below could enjoy. From time to time, we caught glimpses of those enjoying the river by kayak, and momentarily wished, hidden from view as we were, that Dick had brought his banjo so he could sit on a stump and play "Dueling Banjos" anytime someone paddled round the bend. Twisted, yes, but it would be fun to try sometime! Part of the time we were hiking along the property line, with old fields on the other side of the fence. This delighted me, because I knew that's the kind of place I might get to hear the crazy song of the Bobolink, and sure enough, they were out there. After hiking up high, we'd find ourselves from time to time crossing a small little trickle from a spring, charging down a deep ravine toward Billings Creek and ultimately the Kickapoo. At one such very deep ravine, movement caught my eye near the bottom. Could it be? Dick had to indulge me for quite some time here, as I had a pair of Waterthrushes down there, working the trickle of water. Deep shade made it tough, and I just couldn't be sure until later, I heard the singing of...Louisiana Waterthrush. Yes! I had originally hoped to join a birding trip in Wyalusing State Park where the trip leaders could find what I never could down there...or anywhere. This bird. Though life interfered with my original plans, I was rewarded with this life bird sighting. Naturally, since this was a hiking excursion and not a birding one, I had the small camera along. I am convinced that leaving the good camera behind will always ensure something cool is seen.

We were glad for the deep shade, as that spring-like weather was rapidly feeling like July. We went up to ridgelines and down to valleys a few times before we were faced with...The Crossing. Some of the photos we'd seen showed several large blocks of stone creating steps to jump across. While our spring has been dry, the water had some of them submerged. Off came the shoes, up rolled the pants and Dick led the way. Though the creekbed looked sandy, there were very sharp rocks hidden there at times, so our pace was as glacial as the ice sheets that missed this area. Spring fed waters are never much warmer than 50 degrees and after almost two miles of hiking, that crossing was mighty refreshing!

The trail on this side was quite different, with tall sumac, alder and other lowland vegetation. We were glad we did this one now, rather than in the depths of summer. We passed an open area that had been burned. When we were here a few weeks ago, that burn was taking place but we weren't sure exactly where. Now we know. We followed a deciduous forest with maple as the predominant tree until we came to County F, our turnaround spot. We turned around.

Returning as we'd come, we knew we'd be back at the water crossing before long. Off came the shoes once more, up went the pant legs, and while Dick did as much rock hopping as possible, I just chose to get good and wet in a more direct approach. It felt great!

We'd met no one else the whole time we were on the trail, but after donning the socks and shoes and heading up the trail, we met three Amish boys, carrying a picnic lunch and all ready for that water with bare feet. We said hello and "Nice day" and the older brother charged with the two seven-ish boys said...""Nice week." It has been a nice week at last. We saw our trip from the opposite vantage point this time, and sometimes spotted things we'd missed on the way out. Though the trail is just over two miles, we'd doubled our mileage, which is a typical pattern out here in the Reserve. This was a really enjoyable trail, one we'd never experienced before today.

KVR Trail Challenge segments hiked today....Segments 54 and 55

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Views from the ridgelines

During the week, though our tax returns say "retired," we provide daycare for our two grandkids. Now that both of them are in school for full days, we have a little more weekday freedom, but we had yet to try a hike down here during one of those school days. Today we'd see how that worked out. It's about an hour drive from home to the Reserve, depending on which part of this vast recreational area we wish to explore, so we tried to pick trails a bit closer to home. We also picked trails that weren't quite so lengthy as some others, then set a time by which we'd better be back to vehicle....and we were off!
We set off on the Jug Creek Trail first. It promised to be a fairly short, but climbing, out and back hike, and it kept that promise. Though there is a well defined trail, it appeared to have minimal traffic. We could see why after a short while. We started with a climb that skirted the west face of the hill to the ridge. Every so often, we'd stop to "take in the view," which was shorthand for "I need to catch my breath!" As we neared the ridgetop, the ascent ended and we were heading east atop the ridge. The landscape felt more open, with a view in all directions now, and the vegetation changed from mostly deciduous to some tall pine stands thrown into the mix.

The sun streamed over that open landscape, and little clusters of spring epheremals popped up in spots. We'd hiked other areas of the Reserve a couple weeks ago, and were awestruck with the wildflowers that day, so finding so many again today was a surprise...a welcome surprise at that.

Once we'd reached the top, it was time to turn around and head back down, discussing our options for more hiking in the time we still had left. We'd started with a variety of choices, this one being the furthest from home for our starting point. The next logical starting point was Rockton, pretty much the middle point of the Reserve. We started along one of the Rockton trails, but this time of year, expecting me to keep moving in the face of singing birds in trees with little leaf cover is expecting a lot. When we do these hikes, I deliberately leave my 'good' camera behind, knowing that between its heft and its possibilities, we'd never get more than a half mile hiked. Still, here was a Rose Breasted Grosbeak, singing his heart out, right over my head. Surely with some time and effort, I can capture this in a small way. I did my best, thinking that next time, I should bring my bridge camera instead of the pocket junk camera, at the very least. I tried, and after being indulged in this way, only stopped to enjoy the many other returning migrants we heard and saw along the way.

The Rockton trails head out in different directions from the small town of Rockton. Some of the trails are designated equestrian trails, with parallel multi use trails. This caused us a bit of we hike this one, too, or does hiking one count? Our already tattered map was consulted many times as we faced these life changing decisions! We wandered around, sometimes along the river's edge, sometimes alongside farm fields, always watching for those wonderful signs of life that spring brings.

We were able to navigate all those Rockton trails, and found ourselves with time remaining before our self-imposed "gotta be back to the car" deadline. We continued along part of the Indian Creek Trail, finding other surprises along our way here.

Throughout the Reserve, remnants of the lives that once were, family farms and homesteads, can still be found. One such remnant that is always welcome when working up a mighty thirst are the old artesian spring wells. Once drilled to provide water for the Valley's pioneers, they flow freely yet today, providing a cold drink for tired hikers.

After refreshing ourselves and finding new energy, we continued along, happy to have underestimated our hiking ability today. This trail brings one to the lower ground of the Reserve, in this case streamside of Indian Creek, one of the many spring fed streams to feed the Kickapoo. We enjoyed the difference in plant and bird life in these lowlands, as contrasted with the ridgelines we'd hiked earlier in the day. Eventually we arrived at one of the bridges crossing the Kickapoo, our turnaround point for today.

The surprises weren't quite finished, even though we were hiking back along trails we'd already hiked this early afternoon. It's a lesson in observation, one we've experienced while geocaching as see things differently once you pass by them and then return from whence you'd travelled. We took one more drink at the artesian spring, then happened to look more closely at the other side of that trail on our way out. How did we *not* see that before??? And why is it here, anyway? With just enough time remaining, we had to investigate more closely. We came away with more questions and no answers, a true measure of a day spent exploring well.

KVR Trail Challenge segments hiked.....Segments 33-37, Segment 39

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Will there be ice in April? Wandering Little Canada

While this past winter wasn't all that harsh, once the calendar says "spring," any traces of winter seem like it's dragging on, even for those of us who enjoy the season. Our hike today took us through areas we typically love to explore in winter...the ice cave trails. This would be a different way of exploring, as we were hiking with light jackets snow!

We weren't very far down the trail when we were met with a different kind of delight...wildflowers *everywhere!* Spring Beauty carpeted the hills alongside the trail. The treetops were just beginning to show that soft green haze of emerging buds, allowing the welcome sunshine to penetrate the forest floor. Spring ephemerals could be seen along the trails, varying based on the terrain and vegetation. We had trouble making any forward progress, with so much to capture our attention at every turn.

A good portion of our hike today involved a big loop through Little Canada and the Ice Cave Trail, so we didn't have as much of the doubling up that has become so familiar here. Our loop meandered through pine forests as well as open deciduous woods, the ones letting the light through for those wonderful flowers everywhere. Did I mention? They really were everywhere in abundance.

Over the years, it has become a winter tradition for us to explore the ice caves scattered at certain elevations within the Reserve. Some we visit as part of group tours, often led by Chuck Hatfield, but other times, we use what we've learned on those tours and look for them on our own. Nestled somewhere along today's hike is one we've visited many times, referred to as the Valley of the Ice Grotto. We've led groups there ourselves, but always coming in from the river level. Would we even recognize it traveling on top? Would there be any ice left? Sometimes, after a particularly long and icy season, ice can still be found in these shelters well into the beginning of summer. This past winter, things weren't as spectacular, since we had repeated thaws and freezes that compromised the quality of the ice sheets, so we weren't surprised to ice remaining.

While there was no evidence of remaining ice in any of the ice caves, we found streams into which it likely melted, making its way to the Kickapoo River and guaranteeing some water movement for the paddlers to come in the months ahead...including ourselves before year's end!

KVR Trail Challenge segments hiked....Segments 6, 10-12, 14 and 15

Saturday, March 5, 2016

A quiet hike of musings

Our hike today was one we've done other years in this season as well as spring and early summer. The southern end of the West Ridge Trail is where we always begin our winter ice cave exploring. We've found geocaches in the spring and summer that went along this path. Our mindset was...we know what to expect. How wrong it was to begin with such preconceived notions!

We had hoped on our last hike to get out to the dam, but we wore ourselves out. This, too, is a spot we've visited before, one that holds a really interesting history. The Kickapoo Valley has been prone to flooding, sitting as it does down low and surrounded by steep, resistant cliffs. Some of these floods have been devastating, and have caused entire towns, such as Soldiers Grove, to simply relocate higher above the flood plain. In the 1960s, Congress authorized the LaFarge Dam Project, which would create a large recreational lake. Families were uprooted, the highway was rerouted, and the project begun, only to meet with many obstacles along the way. By 1975, part of the dam structure had been built, but a re-analysis requested by Senator William Proxmire into the cost/benefit ratio was requested. At that point, the project was halted once that analysis was complete. A more complete history of this long and contentious project can be found on the Kickapoo Valley Reserve website.

One tower of that half-completed dam remains, nature attempting to reclaim the land around this concrete monolith. Our travels took us along the Kickapoo, flowing in spite of the cold, and brought us to the tower to once again, to wonder at misguided intentions and their impact on the area and the people who called it home.

So there we were, face to face again with this reminder of a plan gone wrong, as well as a dead end. Time to turn ourselves around and hike back out, a common theme hiking these trails is this doubling of the hike distance. We were ready to head up the West Ridge Trail, a familiar path in our many trips to the area ice caves. We had only recently enjoyed another guided hike to some of them during the KVR Winterfest celebration. Parking our vehicle, we considered the need for snowshoes, but again decided to leave them in the car and hoof it in boots. We knew to expect the long steep climb from the town shop at the trailhead, rising up alongside open prairie, now sleeping for the winter, and eventually reaching the ridgeline leading us into the woods. All of that felt very familiar for a bit, until...we found ourselves confronted with clear evidence of current logging operations. Big messy muddy gashes in the trail. Piles of stacked trees. Brush all over. Trail markers missing or probably hiding under the snow. While we knew these trails well, they looked nothing like our memories due to all the logging. More than once, we mistakenly followed a branch that appeared to be trail, only to discover that it was just...a trail to logging, ending precipitously at the edge of those famous cliffs!

I was talking at a later date with a friend who is on the Board for the Reserve about the apparent devastation we saw, but he assured me that the logging, as well as generating revenue for the Reserve, was necessary from an ecological standpoint, and the plan is a very good one. It just didn't look very pretty this winter and our timing for this trail segment was not the best from an aesthetic viewpoint. Live and learn. We're members of the Reserve, and probably could have read the newsletter ahead of our hike to discover all this!

We tried to enjoy our hike in other ways, and birds were present, so that helped. Nothing unusual, just the typical woodpeckers and chickadees, but they're fun to watch, even in their "ordinariness." Really, I don't think anything about feathered creatures who survive our winters is ordinary, no matter how common they may be!

After we'd finally passed the mess of the logging, things became more serene and lovely. We were down in a valley again. where the snow was untouched. This was too short, as we met the connection with the Hanson's Rock trails, and turned ourselves back around and out. Fortunately, having figured out where the trail really was on our way in, we knew where we needed to be to get back out. Once more, we met no one during our hikes today. We enjoyed musing about the area history, the changes on the land even as it's been preserved and just the beauty of the river called "Kickapoo."

KVR Trail Challenge segments hiked....Segments 1 and 26

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Warm winter hiking, warm memories, cold noses

Though we've hiked many of these trails and bluffs and paddled as far as Bridge 14, this is the year we hope to explore all of the nooks and crannies of this favorite playground of ours, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. This is the year we've taken on the KVR Hiking Challenge, a challenge to hike all the trails within over 8000 acres of blufftops and river valleys and everything in between.
Though the ground was snow covered, the day was rather balmy for February in Wisconsin. We had our snowshoes in the vehicle, but could see that with the wet conditions, they'd be a hindrance rather than help, so in the car they remained. We chose to hike a trail near the Visitor Center, the Wintergreen Trail. It's an easy one to overlook, tucked off behind the building as it is. We had never hiked it ourselves until a couple summers ago, and we loved seeing it then. What would it be like today? Some segments were nearly snow-free, but close in and lower along the bluff, we had icy patches to slow us down. Being slowed down is not a bad thing. We're fast walkers by nature, even as we've slowed down a bit with the addition of years of life. One of the challenges for us will be...slow down! Look around and enjoy the journey more deeply. We hiked out to the end of this trail, which stops at a precipitous overlook of the Kickapoo River below. Another challenge will be accepting that though there are sixty miles of trails, we aren't going to be able to accomplish this by hiking only sixty miles. One of the wonderful qualities of the Reserve is the limited roadside access to the interior trails, and this first segment illustrates that well. Hike out .93 miles, then hike back out that same distance!

Before we hiked all the way back out, we discovered something our faster pace had missed on the way in...a small ice cave. This valley is known for the many ice caves that form under the ridgetops and we've enjoyed exploring many of those, both with KVR sponsored hikes and on our own. We even developed an EarthCache that highlights one of these, and have guided groups out to it a couple times in past years.

                                                          Taking a GPS location of this small ice cave.

We decided we could try to hike the trails that are close in to the Visitor Center, or at least as many as our muscles could manage for the day. Most of these segments are not very long, meant more to encourage visitors to begin their exploration of the Reserve. We headed out down the hill, along the rustic steps and found ourselves enjoying a classic KVR scene...rocky bluffs rising above the twisting river. We listened for birds in the floodplain forest, stark in its winter dress. Woodpeckers and chickadees are always present, but the hope for a Goshawk is always there. Today we'd have to settle for the woodpeckers and chickadees, but they're a treat any time of year. I'm sure with exploring the riverbanks, looking for birds and checking out little things here and there along the way, we added to our day's mileage...but again, that's kind of the point.

After hoofing it down and back up those stairs, we still had a fair amount of energy and figured...keep on hiking. We walked up part of Old 131, which is now a multi-use trail, but back in the day was the actual highway that the families who once lived in this valley traveled to get to their farms. We followed a couple of branch trails and made some neat discoveries as we did so.
We'd hoped to hike the dam trail, but we realized....none of this has to be rushed. A good amount of our shared recreational life the past ten years has been dominated by geocaching, and while we choose our caching based on scenery and hiking, the focus is different...find that box in the woods! Hiking the trails with no other agenda than to see what's around the next bend is a refreshing change to our time spent outdoors. We came into that geocaching stuff with a love of hiking and exploration already developed, and choosing to pursue this challenge helps bring us back to those shared roots. We ended our day completing six listed trail segments of a total of sixty, with an estimated four miles of hiking. Hiking these bluffs, with their dramatic elevation changes, can feel like more than that, but we ended our day with pleasantly aching muscles and lovely memories on the trails.
Ending the day's hike under winter skies

KVR Trail Challenge segments hiked today were...Segments 20-25.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Our journey begins....

"Begins" is hardly the correct word. The Kickapoo Valley Reserve is a place we've visited, hiked, paddled and explored for many years. Every time we visit, we discover a new corner of this quintessential Driftless landscape.

Driftless? What's that? you might ask, particularly if you don't live in this part of Wisconsin. For unknown reasons, the area along the Mississippi River in southwestern Wisconsin, northeastern Iowa, southeastern Minnesota and far northwestern Illinois escaped the most recent glaciation. Other areas show remnants of glacial movements...moraines, eskers, piles of rock, all otherwise known geologically as "drift." No glacier, no drift. Driftless. From the standpoint of scenery, the difference is striking. Tall rugged limestone bluffs, cut deep by river systems and lacking in any true lakes are hallmarks of the region. This valley, created by the winding Kickapoo River, is a stunning example of this geological region.

This is the Driftless....rocky outcrops and bluffs, with trees clinging to the top.

While taking part in the annual Winterfest, visiting an ice cave on one of the guided hikes there, we discovered that a hiking challenge is being offered for 2016. Every time we visit, there's something new to discover; what better way to keep on that journey? While there are many marked trails, one of the many joys of this vast area is the freedom to wander....wherever. So throughout this next year, we plan to wander the Reserve in all seasons, looking forward to what we might find at each turn.