Wisconsin River, 3/21/18

Yesterday was the vernal equinox, and I would have liked to have spent a lot of time outside, but there was heavy wind and I ended up getting a migraine. I felt mostly better today (just slightly irritated with the sun) and the weather was much more pleasant. I knew where I wanted to spend my time: down by the Wisconsin River.

My choice of destination was the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway- Arena Unit. It’s not too far from Madison, just over the Iowa County line. There’s quite a diversity of habitat there, including a barrens, cattail marsh, and pine plantation I have yet to explore, but today I stuck to the riverbottom forest and sand bars.

I had to cross this but fortunately there were dry spots.

I like forests in general, but riverbottom is my favorite type. In spring many of them are flooded, but I had a feeling with how dry it’s been it would be worth checking out. The forest was almost bone-dry, with only a small part containing water. Like many of these forests, the one at Arena has an undulating terrain, with the low spots often constituting ephemeral ponds or temporary channels. They tend to have an interesting assortment of fauna, but not so much in march. I only saw one bird I wouldn’t have seen at home: my first-of-year American woodcock (Scolopax minor). I startled it as I walked into a deeper trough and it flew away quickly.

dry channel- low, long, and almost devoid of trees

I walked for over half an hour, then decided to rest on the soft soil. Still being slightly sensitive to light, I covered my face my with cap. The sounds of the forest became amplified after a while. I heard familiar birds moving around me. I heard twigs snapping. Was that something large or was I just that in tune with my surroundings? The comfortable ground did its job. Feeling rested, I got up and moved toward the shore.

roughly where I decided to rest

For being such a short distance away, the sandbars were practically the opposite of the forest: sunny, slightly breezy, and much more open. I had views quite a ways up and down the river valley, seeing things from fishing boats to an eagle nest. I walked around and drew patterns in the sand with my footprints and my hiking stick. Even in March I feel playful on the beach.

Another solar holiday well-spent!

Patches of sandbar willows (Salix exigua) make up much of the vegetation on the Wisconsin River’s sandbars.
the view downstream
Unidentified plant with burrs
spiral time


Ridgeway Pine Relict SNA, 3/17/18

I like hiking off trial. Yes, it’s harder than walking through a groomed area, but that’s the point. You have to push through brush. You have to look at the lay of the land and plan each twist and turn. You have to prepare for the possibility that even though you know where you are, you still don’t know exactly where that is.

Yesterday I went hiking at the Ridgeway Pine Relict State Natural Area with the Madison LGBT Outdoors Group. Five of us showed up for what ended up being my most adventurous hike of the year so far. The SNA covers almost a square mile of land, but don’t let that make you think the SNA square- it follows Driftless Area valleys. It’s a steep hike down from the prairie restoration on the ridge to the relict, but it’s worth it. The forest, a mix of deciduous trees and pines, is a sparkling jewel. A pine relict is a type of forest that is left over from a colder time when the glaciers were leaving Wisconsin. As a result, relicts often resemble the vegetation you’d expect farther north. Like others in the area, the Ridgeway Relict in in a sheltered valley.

One of the trails heading down into the valley

There is an old logging road that leads partway down from the Ridgevue Drive parking area, but it doesn’t go very far. As with many SNA’s there is no designated trail. At some points there are deer paths or worn routes from previous hikers but for the most part it was up to us to decide where to go. The trickiest part of navigating the SNA is that it doesn’t perfectly follow the valley floors and we’d wind up hitting private property. To figure out how to get around these areas, we had to know where in the SNA we were. A combination of a parcel map (provided at the trailhead) and GPS was helpful. Even with that, we still disagreed about our exact location sometimes. That’s just part of the experience.

The highlight of the hike for me was the rock formations. Composed of warmly-colored sandstone, they dotted the hillsides. Most were on steep slopes and hard to get to. I’m glad that while I was growing up I was able to gain experience on this type of terrain; it reminded me of when I was a kid and would play in the woods in western Dane County. I’m definitely going to go back and explore the hills and rocks more. I think spending several hours there someday soon would be a good idea.

The world’s luckiest person has a deer stand on top of this rock

An added bonus is that I get to expand on the theme I started with my previous post. Blue Mound was in my line of site at the top of the hill on Ridgevue Drive and was only about 8.4 miles away. Since the two points both lie in a high area, there were other hills that got in the way of Blue Mound and it could only see it from the crest of the hill.

From foreground to background: prairie restoration, pine relict, nearby hill, Blue Mound
Blue Mound is marked in blue, the approximate point I was standing on the road is marked in red

A View of One Hill from Another

On Saturday I had the privilege of hiking at Gibraltar Rock near Lodi with my friend Zach. It’s a short but beautiful hike through mixed woodland, and at the top we were greeted with a gorgeous view from the cliff. I’ve never spent more than several minutes up there, but I’d like to stay up there for an hour or two on a summer day sometime.

What interested me the most on my visit as that you can see Blue Mound from up there. I shouldn’t have been too surprised. Blue Mound is the highest point in southern Wisconsin (1719 ft. above sea level) and it’s visible from many locations. Still… it’s pretty fascinating that you can see from southwestern Columbia County into eastern Iowa County. This led to an idea that I’m more than happy to act on: a series of blog posts on places you can see Blue Mound from. What better way to celebrate this local landmark than to get pictures of it from all angles?

Let’s start it off:

The first picture is zoomed in quite a bit. In actuality, the hill was just a tiny part of the horizon…

Can’t see it? Click on the image to see it full size.

Being nerdy enough to want to represent these two hills using a map, I did exactly that.

Blue Mound is represented by a blue dot in the lower left and Gibraltar Rock is represented by a red dot in the upper center. The two points are about 25 miles apart.

This will be just the first of a handful of posts of this type I will make throughout the year. I’ll take a lot of pictures from close points, but I’m also curious to see what farther places, like Gibraltar Rock, the hill is visible from. I’ve even heard rumors you can see Blue Mound from Devil’s Lake State Park. Stay tuned!