Thursday, October 22, 2015

Fall Colors and Conservation Giants

Rural panorama (please click on photos for a larger version)
Earlier in the summer we had made a trip to Taliesen through the driftless area of Wisconsin (trip report here). At the time, I resolved to return to the area in the fall, imagining it to be beautiful in fall color. I also wanted to visit a couple of sites celebrating two giants in the land conservation movement that we had not had time to visit on our last trip. October arrived and with it Kathy's annual trip to St. George, Utah for the Huntsman Senior Games volleyball tournament. Rocky and I decided to take a road trip.

I left early on a Tuesday morning to beat the rush hour and headed for the Mississippi River valley. The weather was cloudy, cold and threatening rain. Not the best for photos or sightseeing. Last trip we followed the river on the Wisconsin side. This trip I stayed on the Minnesota side, crossing the river at LeCrescent. Once past LaCrosse, I chose the back roads, hoping to see some pleasant scenery. The driftless area is full of small, picturesque farms surrounded by limestone bluffs and hardwood forests. Small cold water streams flow from the limestone toward the Mississippi. Twisty, small roads follow the terrain, connecting small towns and make for an interesting drive.

Mississippi River Bluffs.

Wisconsin back roads.

My destination this day was Mirror Lake State Park. I arrived in time for a short walk around the park before dinner. The clouds were breaking up, allowing moments of late afternoon sun. I had planned to put a kayak in the park's namesake lake but the weather was a bit too chilly and damp for me in the waning day. I settled for a walk in the woods.

Mirror Lake.
Mirror Lake woods.

I picked a nice spot to camp in the mostly empty campground and made dinner.

Mirror Lake camp at sunset.

I had noticed the TPMS warning light as I backed into the campsite but didn't think much of it as I had recently reset the pressures and figured one of the tires needed some more air. After dinner as I was putting things away in the truck, I noticed the passenger side rear was flat! It was already getting dark. I decided to tackle the tire change in spite of the dark as I didn't want to be delayed getting going in the morning. This would be interesting because I hadn't ever changed a tire on this truck. I had always meant to do a practice run at home in the driveway to make sure everything worked but had never got around to it. My owner's manual had been taken in a summer burglary of the truck so I had no guidance. I used my phone to consult the all-knowing internet. The hardest part was getting the spare out from under the truck. In the dark I couldn't see the mechanism and had to figure it out by touch. I had bought a heavy-duty hydraulic jack when we got the camper but hadn't used it yet. Long story short, I got the tire changed without too much trouble. The issue was quite apparent- a very large torx-head screw was nicely lodged in the center of the tread. Not having a plug set with me, I decided to travel the rest of my trip without a spare rather than lose half a day getting it repaired. Risky, but we do have roadside insurance and it worked out ok.


Brand new spare mounted in place.

The next morning after a breakfast of oatmeal and a hot cup of chai tea, I was off to visit the Aldo Leopold Foundation and pay my respects to Aldo Leopold's shack on the Wisconsin River.

From the Foundation website:
Considered by many as the father of wildlife management and of the United States’ wilderness system, Aldo Leopold was a conservationist, forester, philosopher, educator, writer, and outdoor enthusiast.
 In 1935, he and his family initiated their own ecological restoration experiment on a worn-out farm along the Wisconsin River outside of Baraboo, Wisconsin. Planting thousands of pine trees, restoring prairies, and documenting the ensuing changes in the flora and fauna further informed and inspired Leopold.
A prolific writer, authoring articles for professional journals and popular magazines, Leopold conceived of a book geared for general audiences examining humanity’s relationship to the natural world. 

A little more than a year after his death Leopold’s collection of essays A Sand County Almanac was published. With over two million copies sold, it is one of the most respected books about the environment ever published, and Leopold has come to be regarded by many as the most influential conservation thinker of the twentieth century.
A Sand County Almanac was instrumental and affirming in my mid-life career choice of land conservation and a visit to the shack is a time-honored pilgrimage for any person concerned with ecology, land conservation and living in harmony with the natural world.

 “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
 “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
-Aldo Leopold

The Foundation is located in a beautiful, environmentally advanced building on the site where Aldo Leopold died fighting a fire on a neighbor's property. There is an exhibit covering Leopold's life and information on his children who created the Foundation. The land where the shack is located is a couple of miles down the road. The shack is not open to the public except by tour. Tours are held on Saturday afternoons. I decided I didn't want to share my visit with a crowd of people in order to see inside. On Wednesday I was mostly by myself.

I spent some time in the exhibit, learning about the 5 Leopold siblings, all esteemed scientists in their own right, enjoyed seeing artifacts from Leopold's life and then drove to visit the shack.

Levee Road- to the shack.

Aldo Leopold Foundation

The entrance. The building has the highest LEED certification.

The farm with the shack (a former chicken coop) was the second home and experimental laboratory for the Leopold family. They planted over 30,000 seedlings and documented the natural processes of the land and river. While the site is not pristine, or even "correct" in terms of the original vegetation that would have existed absent the hand of man, it's transformation from the ruined, barren farm is a lovely testament to Leopold's philosophy.
 "On this sand farm in Wisconsin, first worn out and then abandoned by our bigger-and-better society, we try to rebuild, with shovel and axe, what we are losing elsewhere. It is here that we seek- and still find- our meat from God." -Aldo Leopold

Walking path to the shack.
The pines were all planted by the Leopold family.

First glimpse of the shack.
The shack in all its glory.

Discovered on a walk in the woods.

The "Parthenon."

Sand blowout persisting since the 30s.

The Wisconsin River adjoining the shack property.

River floodplain.
Another view of the shack.

Sitting on Aldo's bench.

The iconic bench.

Another view.

"In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks."
 “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
"When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world."

"Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean."
-John Muir

 My next stop was a small county park established on the site of John Muir's boyhood home. John Muir is another giant of the land conservation movement. Called by some as the patron saint of wilderness, his writings helped save Yosemite among other great natural places. He was a founder of the Sierra Club in 1892. Born in Scotland, his family moved to Wisconsin in 1849, settling on 80 acres adjoining a small lake. Muir attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and became known for ingenious clocks and inventions carved from wood. Some are still on display in the student union there.

Muir eventually landed in California and traveled the West, becoming passionate about saving the wilderness. John Muir attributed his interest in the environment to his time growing up on the farm. The Fountain Lake Farm, as it has come to be known is a National Historic Landmark. The second farmhouse built by the family, known as Hickory Hill, still stands and is in private ownership not open to the public. I visited the John Muir Memorial County Park and enjoyed a nice walk with Rocky, imagining Muir as a young man spending time in the same place.

Memorial to John Muir.

Sign erected by the Sierra Club.

An informative display at the trail head.

Panorama of Fountain Lake Farm.

Fountain Lake, now called Ennis Lake.
Fall color.

Rocky enjoying the walk with me.
The view from the side of the homestead.

Another view of the lake.

After spending a nice afternoon at the park and having some lunch, I drove to my next camp at Devil's Lake State Park. Devil's Lake State Park is the largest and most visited state park in Wisconsin. Established in 1911, the park surrounds a 350 acre lake which sits in a 1.7 billion-year-old gorge carved through purple quartzite by an ancient river. Tall cliffs and vast talus slopes border the lake on three sides. Two glacial moraines deposited 15,000 years ago plug each end of the gorge, making the lake. The park also includes several ancient effigy earth mounds dating from 800-1100 AD. The park offers spectacular hikes up and atop the cliffs, as well as through the interesting landscapes surrounding the gorge.

I spent two nights here and enjoyed some challenging and beautiful hikes and pleasant evenings by the campfire.

Camp at Devil's Lake State Park.

Evening campfire: where there's fire, there's smoke.

Back roads around Devil's Lake.
Another road...

And another road.

Hiking up the talus slope.
Rocky surveys the scene.

View from on top- we started at the beach below.

Trail scene.
Balanced rock.

The long view.
Another overlook.

Rocky poses at Devil's Doorway.
Beautiful quartzite.

Another overlook.

Colorful fall foliage.

Narrow path through the quartzite.
Steps up through a crack in the rock.

Long view to Devil's Lake.

Colorful leaf on a log.

Looking up at the Talus slope.

Plaque at one of the effigy mounds in the park.

Earlier plaque at the same mound.

I visited another interesting site near Devil's Lake- Parfrey's Glen. Eroded by water flows through ancient sandstone, the glen is the first natural area designated in the state of Wisconsin (1952) and a fascinating place. Embedded in the sandstone layers are pebbles of quartzite making an unusual geological layer cake. The glen was stripped by a massive flash flood in 2008, washing away all the improvements made over the years, including a boardwalk, and carving a new channel for the stream that still flows there. My walk was quiet and serene, accompanied by the sound of the wind in the trees and a blizzard of falling leaves.

Beautiful fall woods scene.
Creek flowing through Parfrey's Glen.

Parfrey's Glen.

Rock layer cake.
Quartzite pebbles encased in sandstone covered by limestone from ancient sea.

More interesting rock.

Serene stream view.

On Friday, the weekend crowds started to build in the park and I headed for home. I retraced my path to some extent and found new back roads to follow. Having the GPS-linked computer with detailed maps helped me find some scenic routes without getting lost. I enjoyed the pastoral landscapes and discovered some interesting sites.

Fall farm scene.

Another fall scene.

Young buck makes a break for it.

Fall color along the back roads.

Fall scene with old farm building.

More beauty on the back roads.

Fall "color" unexpected on this back road.

Overlook from Wildcat State Park.

Wildcat panorama.

Nice to have GPS when exploring.

I came across this conservancy traveling the back roads. This particular site is called the Tunnelville Cliffs State Natural Area- 2278 acres along the Kickapoo river. It is great to see this private conservation work going on in rural places like this.

Tunnelville Cliffs Preserve

A view of the Tunnelville Cliffs preserve.

I had planned to camp one more night at Great River Bluffs State Park in Minnesota, overslooking the MIssissippi River. Unfortunately the campground was already full by the time I got there. Since I was only a couple hours away, I decided to head home. I got home after dark, having enjoyed a fine fall color trip and feeling inspired by the examples of leadership, stewardship and forward thinking I had seen.


  1. Thanks Al.Always nice to see fall color.

  2. Thanks, Frank. I think I was about a week early for peak color but it was still beautiful.