A bucket list picture

Prairie grasses fascinate me. I don’t know why, really. Maybe it was 10 years spent in Kansas. Perhaps because I believe myself a creature of Wisconsin’s glaciated prairies and woodlands. Whatever caused the intrigue with prairie grasses, they’ve been hard for me to picture to my satisfaction.

For years I’ve hunted for the scene that’ll generate what I feel when looking at prairie grasses. Native flowers are awesome, breath-taking, and demand pictures. The grasses, though, are laid back; backgrounds and unassuming. It’s hard to see the grass for the grasses. I’ve tried and I think I have some fun pictures of prairie grasses. But not “the” picture.

One fine Wednesday afternoon I was in Walking Iron County Park adjacent to the Village of Mazomaine. I’d been delayed getting to the park and once in the park walked into an active logging operation. The trail was obliterated so I was picking my way into the edge when a log skidding machine began approaching me. Because I was inside the logging zone, the operator decided to make contact probably thinking he’d have to tell me to read the damn signs and stay away.

Likely Prairie Dropseed, but it has Indian Grass properties
and those of Tufted Hair Grass or Big Bluestem.

More on page 2

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Lake View Sanitorium

Lake View Sanitorium
Now home to offices for the Dane County Department of Human Services

It was here, at Lake View Sanitorium, where my father came to recover from tuberculosis. This is an example of how going about taking pictures can lead you down some unexpected trails. I knew my dad had TB and had spent time in the sanitorium. And I was aware of the building as it is obvious to all perched on top of a big hill. But I never visited and didn’t think much about it until one day I went to get pictures of people sledding.
There I was, up close to the building thinking, “my dad once stayed here. Right here, right where I now stand.” Questions tumbled around in my head. Which room was he in? How long was he here? When, exactly, was he here? What was it like for him? My dad had TB long before I was born. My mom told me once he’d been sick and had to go to a sanitorium, that was all the info I had to go on. So I consulted my older sisters. Neither of them had any specific memories. Both were very young at the time. One recalled his return to the farm and the kids had to be quiet so he could rest in the afternoons. The other had some vague memory of going up to the building for a visit but couldn’t tell me anything specific.
No doubt there are county medical records somewhere I can look up. Haven’t got that far yet. Even with that, what’s missing is the story. What was it like for him? Did he get TB because he was a farmer and the close association with cows? What’s the bigger context? Building sanitoriums was a public response to a health crisis. Sanitoriums sprang up in many places. That’s a very different response to a public health crisis than the response we’re currently experiencing.

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Island Lake

Island Lake
Island Lake

Island Lake is a small body of water located south of Madison, Wisconsin in Dane County. Much of my youth was spent in and around Island Lake. Horseback riding, walking, swimming, hunting, (but oddly, never fishing) were all part of the spot. I still don’t know if there are fish in Island Lake. There are no fishing reports that I am aware of.
Water levels have fluctuated wildly over the years. I remember at least one season when neighboring farms grew crops almost to the island shore. More recently, water levels have gone up and the surface water area has expanded. The island is a genuine island right now. It’s just my guess, but at the time this picture was taken there was 600 or 800 acres of water. That’s just a wild guess.
For me, Island Lake was and is an inviting intrigue. The island is hard to get to because you need a shallow draw boat or kayak. There are bogs and muck to get stuck in if you’re not careful. Once when I was 10 or so, I decided to cross on the ice one cold January day. I got lucky and learned about ice, and springs, and getting soaked in sub freezing weather far from home. The ice gets thin over the top of a spring. You now know that, too! Lucky? Yeah! I got out and got home to safety so I am alive to pass my knowledge along. Or to confess my youthful stupidity.
More often, the trip to the island was made in a flat-bottom boat. Once, and only once, on a horse. Swimming a horse over was stupid, too. Boats, not so bad; just a certain amount of grunt work pulling on the oars. You can put your dog in the boat. You can hunt ducks from the boat, too.
What’s the island like? As a kid, it was mysterious if for no other reason than you had to put so much effort into getting there. Basically, it was a woods surrounded by water. While I haven’t been back in many many years, it looks the same from the road. I never spent the night out there but I knew a few people who claim they have.
One day, I plan to rent a kayak and return to its shore. Hmm, maybe I’ll take along a little tent and spend a night…

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Memory Vault

Abandoned Silo
Abandoned silo

The image may invoke or imply a number of things. But this abandoned silo found along the Verona Segment, Ice Age National Scenic Trail, is a memory vault for me. You can see the ladder on the roof by the open hatch and another coming up the side from below. Ladders are for climbing, right? So that is what I used to do. Our family farm had a very similar silo. There were also rungs on removable doors inside the chute you see on the left of the old silo. Climbed up and down that route, too.

You’re looking at a concrete block silo likely built in the late 40s or early 50s. The concrete blocks were tongue-in-groove so they’d lock together usually with the help of mortar. Rolled steel rods were wrapped around the whole thing and tightened with a type of turnbuckle. Early models used steel roofing but that quickly gave way to aluminum. The chute also is aluminum. (go to page 2)

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That kid

It took only a few minutes for Peter to begin seeing the difference between a red raspberry and a ripe, black berry. The black berries are good, sweet and juicy. The red berries are still sour and tart not yet ready to pick. He wouldn’t try either. But using his young eyes he could spot the black ones and point them out.


Soon, he reached into the bush to pick some of the berries. Doing so, he learned another difference. Ripe berries slide off the stem easily. Berries not yet ready to pick cling tighter to the stem. Peter then examined the berries more carefully. Black berries defend themselves with prickly stems and hide under leaves. He learned that, too, using his magnifying glass.

Seeing these real time, real world lessons take hold is like watching a miracle. How much any of this will stick with a three-year-old down the road I do not know. Yet, there was cause and effect, reason, memory, logic. Lots of little gears get turned.

The COVID summer of 2020 is a classic example of a monkey wrench jammed in the gears. Everybody is affected to one extent or the other. My family and I are privileged and fortunate enough to have coped successfully. At least so far.

Our success isn’t without its sacrifices. My plan for the year was to finish hiking the eastern half of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. What was left was roughly Mauthe Lake, east of Campbellsport, to Potawatomi State Park in Door County. In the midst of a COVID storm, I decided to forgo my notion.

Besides, there are more important things. First is to take care of the family as well as possible. In that, the Summer of COVID created a remarkable opportunity. Two days a week, I have traveled to Milwaukee to take care of my grandson, Peter. Preschool ended abruptly for him. No word, no heads up, just one day open next day closed. Peter’s mom and dad both work as essential employees. It was a scramble to find care in the face of a pandemic and I was blessed to have two days a week to jump in.

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Symmetry and chaos

Symmetry and chaos

The majority of the time, I make only basic adjustments to my pictures. Usually only enough sliders to make the picture better reflect what I recall seeing when I took the picture. My recollections about a picture are no doubt influenced by what I want or think I saw; yet, most of what I adjust is pretty common stuff.
My attempts at using the bigger toys available in the photo software usually leave me feeling unsatisfied and uneasy. It’s a step too far for my tastes. While I love the abstract and distorted, fully creating an image in software, or twisting an image into something else lays beyond my creative vision and ability. I’m pretty lame.
The other day I was out taking landscape pictures during a snowstorm when a scene snagged my eye. Two birch trees, side by side, with wet snow clinging to the bark. Their trunks created a symmetry against a chaotic background of snow-covered bramble and branches. Snow was still falling heavily muting the world into a shadow less quiet. What drew me to this little spot I do not know. It was a feeling as much as anything.
Later, in the software, one of the versions of the pictures I took of the two trees made the initial cut. Then it made a second cut and I started working on it.
All of the standard things I tend to do to a picture in processing left me flat. There was a feeling taking that picture, on that day, at that time, in a snowstorm, and I wasn’t feeling it as I went through my routine. So I went to bed.
During the next day I kept thinking about that picture. Could I somehow use the photo software to get close to the feeling I had when I snapped the picture? It was a discouraging question since I have only limited experience to pull from. Starting with a raw image and taking it from there to a specific result, one I could only feel, was annoying. Maybe I need to know more about my feelings; or maybe I need more technical mastery; or perhaps I should forget about it.
Finally, I went back to the picture. The process I typically relied on didn’t work so I decided to reverse everything I normally do when editing a picture. Intuitively, I started using the software to soften, mute, paint. It was unnatural to me. Several times I went back and forth on a single move abandoning it to try something else. More than once, I returned to steps taken earlier to see if it’d make a difference with a new set of conditions. I walked the dog, ate something, tried to nap, turned music on and off, walked the dog again, returning the picture after each interlude.
Then I stopped. I kept looking at the image that emerged on the monitor. It had a feeling I liked but I was wary. After all, I was pretty far down the river on these two dumb trees and they’d not been a study in objectivity. Could I trust my feelings? So I went to bed.
Following a decent sleep, oatmeal breakfast, a languid coffee time, and a sub-zero walk with the dog, it was time for a fresh look at my two trees. As with so many pictures, you arrive at a take it or leave it moment. No matter what you started out to do, there’s a point where there is no more you can do. In the freshness of morning, my two trees seemed good enough. To me, at least, the picture was mellow and still while holding onto the strength of forest timber. That was it.

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A volunteer opportunity

Bob Conners Article

Bob Conners Article

Once in a while you get to use what you know for a good cause. This summer, the Ice Age Trail Alliance magazine Mammoth Tales, carries an article I did for them regarding a philanthropist. It was interesting to do and outside my usual sandbox.

As of this writing, the alliance hadn’t yet posted the magazine online but the dead tree version is arriving in mailboxes. Hope it does some good. There are an endless number of good causes to support, many which are more pressing than the Ice Age Trail, but the trail is part of the puzzle of life quality for everyone.

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Whenever I get around the sites and artifacts of ancient peoples, I’m conflicted with both wonder and rue. Aztalan State Park encompasses the ruins of a native American culture. Based on the Wikipedia accounts, some of the village’s wooden stockades were still standing when the first white people turn up. Likewise, the mounds and other structures were visible and in place.
You can fill in the blanks after that. A few people fought to save what they could. Other people leveled off mounds for farming and carted away the materials there for filling road potholes and the like. Much of the place is preserved and replicated somewhat offsetting the overall loss.

A sense of wonder and mystery pervades the site. The “Princess Burial” is one of the most high profile mysteries at Aztalan. Native Americans still protest that the remains be returned.

School kids visit Aztalan by the busload and people from all over the world with interest in ancient people find their way to the site. It’s a small place; perhaps 20 acres. Aztalan makes for a mystical stroll. Informational kiosks placed along the trails are helpful if somewhat intrusive. And, of course, like all state resources, the site is under constant budget assault.

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Tune up hike

To get ready for the hiking season I decided to tune up with a hike around Lake Monona.

Lake Monona

Lake Monona from Madison side.

The bike trail “Lake Loop” is listed at about 11 miles. My hike started at the central campus by the Animal Sciences building, went around the lake, paused at Memorial Union to visit with good friends and then concluded where I started.

An urban walk is certainly different from a walk in the woods. For majority of the time you’re walking on a hard surface be it concrete sidewalks or asphalt streets and bike trails. Instead of woods and meadows, you’re going by houses and businesses. There also are cars, busses, trucks, and many people. It’s all interesting. On the positive side, you can stop at a park and have pizza delivered. Or, you can walk into a coffee shop or restaurant for refreshments. And, if you want out, you can get on a bus or call a cab.

A walk around Lake Monona is a potpourri of city life. Where I got on the loop near Williamson (Willy St.) is an older part of the city. As you go along the lake you see older houses lovingly restored and others not so much. Here and there you see newer houses shoehorned into a few small remaining lots. Mostly it’s early settlement charm. Continue reading

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Another 18 miles on the Ice Age

Seven plus hours on the Ice Age National Scenic Trail boiled down to a slice of instants. The hike started on the east side of Delafield and included the Hartland, Merton, and Monches trail segments and their connector routes. I stopped walking on the Waukasha/Washington County Line and met Cory for my return ride at Ox & Cat’s Sports Bar and Grill. Ox & Cat’s make their own pizza.

As for the pictures; there are more than 21 images in the camera, certainly. But several things contribute to the scant number of pictures taken and the subsequent yield. This hike took place December 18 giving me a short daylight window to start with. Since I really wanted to be done hiking before it got completely dark I needed to keep moving. The time available to pause and snap pictures of wonderments was limited by the time and distance involved.

Mellow times walking along Bark River, Hartland

Mellow times walking along Bark River, Hartland

This is also the most suburban hike I’ve done on the Ice Age. From Delafield through Hartland and beyond is settled with homes and businesses taking advantage of the

Naga-Waukee Golf Course

Naga-Waukee Golf Course

remarkable natural settings. At Delafield you start at a golf course. Even the more rural areas reflect people with interests beyond agricultural endeavors. At one point you pop out in front of the Milwaukee Polo Club Grounds. It’s all very cool and interesting but I don’t take a lot of pictures of people’s houses.

Hartland and its trail segment reflect the effort and love of the local Ice Age chapter. It’s a genuinely charming hike to take. Even the connector routes through the suburban neighborhoods are fascinating for a guy who has spent his entire life yearning for the next paycheck. There seem like miles of boardwalks and bridges guiding you over and around streams and wetlands. Following the trail connects you to parks and points of interest. In the Village of Hartland the trail has you duck through an alley where you emerge on the bank of the Bark River which you then follow along.

Hartland and the Bark River approach

Hartland and the Bark River approach

There’s serious legwork to do covering the connector on a town road to get to the Merton Segment. The reward was stepping off the street into the woods and walking right up to a herd of deer bedded down in the trees. It was a case of mutual surprise. More legwork follows on The Bugline bike trail where the Ice Age piggybacks the route. It’s also where you walk away from the Bark River and enter the Oconomowoc River Valley.

Human interactions along the trail sometimes get awkward. At a small road crossing a guy stopped his car to talk to me. He was nice but he’d stopped right on the road just over a hill with a blind curve. Of course, a car appeared and had to brake hard as he was telling me he is one of the people maintaining this section of trail. The entire length of the Ice Age Trail is kept up by volunteers like this guy, now parked in the road in front of me. I thanked him for the effort and sincerely, these are well kept trail segments. A second car had to brake for him. “Time for me to go, but your trail is awesome,” I said, taking the moment to start moving.

The world changed at the Monches Segment trailhead. A sense of urgency had begun to creep into the hike as the sun edged lower. I’d fooled around taking pictures back on the Hartland Segment, eaten lunch in a park, and followed a loop trail through a wetland, and earlier I’d walked past a trailhead and into an industrial park where I had to backtrack. Ahead, the Monches Segment is listed at 3.1 miles. On level ground my short, fat legs do three MPH with some ease. But, this is, after all, the Ice Age National Scenic Trail (bitches).

Rail bridge at the Monches Trailhead entering Oconomowoc River Valley

Rail bridge at the Monches Trailhead entering Oconomowoc River Valley

At the trailhead is a double arch, concrete railroad bridge with the river flowing under one arch and the street going under the other. The bridge is heavily tagged with ominous messaging. Shadows seemed to darken and lengthen by the moment so I decided to get on the trail where I bumped into a hiker going the other way. He wanted to chat.

Tim was startled when I answered “Delafield” to his question about where I started. “Yeah, I’m going up to Monches,” I added. “Oh,” he said. “Well, this is a rough trail.” Tim gestured back at where he’d come from and explained it was icy and he’d almost fallen a couple of times. “And it’s steep and gets real narrow and then the river gets real deep,” he continued, and paused, “there’s a little wood bridge.”

Good to know there’s a bridge. “Anyway, Tim, thanks. I better get going, eh?” I said with my goodbye. Tim’s info was mostly correct, including the bridge, but he never mentioned the waterfall.

Thus far in the winter season we’d had some ice-forming cold but I was out walking because the daytime high was peaking at about 45 degrees. Nice walking temperature plus I don’t think feet swell as much hiking on a cold, frozen surface. All day I’d found ice and snow in the deeply shaded and north-facing spots but there wasn’t any snow cover and most of the trail was open.

Glacial waterfall

Glacial waterfall

The waterfall came as a jolt. It was glacial, frozen and flowing all at once as it tumbled down the ravine over the boulders and rocks. Water was flowing above and below the ice, swirling around the rocks, gurgling. It took me a minute or two to absorb what I was experiencing. Pictures had to be taken. Pictures take time. The spot already was in deep shade and getting deeper. Time was running out.

Somewhere ahead was steep, narrow, and a wooden bridge. So I snapped a few pictures to document the place, clipped the camera back in place and leaned into the remaining hike. This is a gorgeous three miles. The Oconomowoc River makes it way down the narrow valley producing rapids and eddies flanked by wooded hills and marshes. As you hike north the valley gets narrower and sure enough there is a wooden bridge with its network of boardwalks to get you to the other side. It is the kind of crossing you take one step at a time especially as evening darkness approaches.

There’s some unwritten rule somewhere that the steepest hills always come at the end of the day. After walking for almost seven hours those last couple of hills mean something. I’m not sure what but the challenge is clear.

As you near a trailhead at this time of day the trail runners appear with their dogs. They race by or race past sleek bodies wrapped in the latest running gear. Two damn dogs came out of nowhere and confronted me barking and growling. They broke away and soon their owner came running up the trail. I really wanted to grab a limb and smack the bastard but he had a third dog at his side. Anyway, I thought such thoughts as he went by without a word.

Ox & Cat's Sports Bar and Grill, Monches

Ox & Cat’s Sports Bar and Grill, Monches

Suddenly the trail turned steeply down and through the openings I could make out Monches with its church and the sign for Ox & Cat’s saloon. There were cars parked at the trailhead and I wondered which one belonged to the guy with three dogs. I minded my business, hiked up to the tavern snapped a couple of quick pictures then went in the front door to find Cory.

Everybody was in there waiting for me; the whole bar full of people looking and grinning. “Dad, you’re kindofa legend,” Cory said. “I’ve been telling them about you.” So I say, “Does being a legend get me a free beer and a burger?” We didn’t stay. Cory hauled me back to my car then we went and had dinner at Panga, a trippy little tavern under the interstate between two lakes.

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