The Wisconsin River Headwaters

The Wisconsin River is the largest river in the area. I consider it something along the lines of a “spirit river” or a “home river.” It’s not a river it’s the river. Down here, it is wide and surprisingly deep at its center. It serves as a border for many counties. Up north it has a very different personality. Rivers are smaller at their headwaters and the Wisconsin is no exception.

After a year or so of yearning to see my river’s beginning, my parents invited me up to Vilas County along with my brother, his girlfriend, and two family friends. It was early September and I was 30 minutes from Lac Vieux Desert, where the Wisconsin River first drains out of.

On the second day up north I got in the car and made the drive. After a few back roads and smaller highways I got there. It was a humble roadside stop, a marker near the lake and another marker a few miles downstream. The parking lot is not right on the lake, and it’s a short but pleasant walk to the actual headwaters.

Lac Vieux Desert

The River first empties through a culvert into a shallow pool. After that it winds adjacent to the path, then cuts through the forest.

Right after the culvert
By the parking lot

To say the river starts off small is an understatement. It doesn’t look like something that would normally be called a river, but it has to start somewhere and at some size. That size just happens to be about as wide as my car at some points. What a dramatic change from the stream that flows out of Lake Vieux Desert to the mighty river that empties into the Mississippi! As I drove home, I noticed the changes the river makes as it winds its way south. Near Rhinelander it gets slightly larger, but it doesn’t begin to look like the river I know best until the Wausau area. Down near Portage, now that’s something I’m familiar with. That’s where I left the river; it had to work its way west and I had to go south. As it heads farther downstream, and goes past the final dam at Prairie Du Sac, it is the wide and sandy lower Wisconsin River I’ve always known. Somehow it’s all the Wisconsin River, even the parts that seem like a whole different entity. It just has many different sides as we all do.

Smith-Reiner Drumlin Prairie SNA

There are different ways to categorize prairies. One of them is by how old they are. Put broadly, Wisconsin has remnant prairies and restored (planted) prairies. Remnants are the artifacts of the vast prairie ecosystem that once dominated the southern part of the state before the habitat was largely destroyed. Planted prairies are recent attempts to restore the land to its previous state. Remnant prairies are, unfortunately, incredibly rare here, and planted prairies aren’t all that common either. Wisconsin has changed a lot in the past dozen decades or so.

Remnant prairie with agricultural land in the background. The flowers in the foreground are rough blazing star (Liatris aspera).

I’m glad there are organizations that protect and restore our native landscapes. One such group is The Prairie Enthusiasts. They own and operate dozens of sites in the Midwest, one of which is Smith-Reiner Drumlin Prairie State Natural Area, the location of a field trip I recently attended.

This particular prairie in is southeastern Dane County. Its 40 acres partially cover two drumlins (long, narrow hills composed of glacial sediment). The tops of the drumlins have prairie remnants, and the rest of the property is in the process of being restored.

The west drumlin

A restored prairie, especially in its infancy, looks quite different than a mature remnant. Restored prairies are often tall and thick, with plants like big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) dominating. Remnant prairies on the other hand are often shorter in height and less dense. They have more diversity of plants, and many tall grasses and forbs only grow in small clusters. As opposed to young restorations, they are easy to walk though without a path.

Restored prairie at Smith-Reiner
Remnant prairie on the east drumlin

The two remnant prairies have distinct personalities. The east one is drier and rockier. The main flowers are blazing stars. The west one is a little less rocky and a little grassier. Still, they have more in common with each other than they do with the planted prairie surrounding them.

Dwarf blazing star aka cylindrical blazing star (Liatris cylindracea)

The SNA is located near Cambridge on Clear View Road. There is a small gravel parking lot. An access trail leads a quarter mile in from the road to the site. Everyone I’ve spoke to recommends going in late summer to see the rough blazing stars, and I concur, but I would also like to add the field trip guide said it is a good birding spot during migration and winter.