Seeking winter isolation? Try a little “Mead time”
When it comes to getting outside in late February, we should make a way while the sun shines. I didn’t do that this past weekend, but it may have been a better outcome.
Saturday was practically summery, with temps in the upper 50s and golden sun promising an early spring. But I’ve been trying to do family outings on Sunday, so I spent all Saturday morning in the office and arranged with my friend Zach, the neighbor dad, to head out to the George W. Mead Wildlife Area the next day so we could let our kids run around and walk Zach’s dogs, or vice versa.
Sure enough, as our estimated 2 p.m. departure time approached, it started raining. The kids began doubting. Zach and I started discussing.
We had both looked at the radar, but where I saw a passing shower he saw a growing storm – a prognostication supported by an increasing patter of raindrops on us as we stood in the driveway.
I was adamant, as one of the things you do when you live in Wisconsin is buy stuff that helps keep you dry. Everyone else insisted on staying, although Zach, to his credit, was just as reluctant to back out as he had been the previous weekend, when he was unable to join us on our trip to the White River Fishery Area near Wautoma.
Zach closed the deal when he observed, “Looks like it could work out so you get some Steve time.”
The thought had crossed my mind, I admitted to myself as they all headed to the Companion Shop downtown, where a special doggie basement awaited.
I hopped in the Subaru and headed west on Highway 10 during what was indeed becoming a bit of a shower. It’s a quick trip to Mead from the center of Point – just about 25 minutes – but by the time I arrived, a cold front had softened the rain to snow.
Mead offers spectrum of year-round activity
A few things about Mead are worth knowing in advance. It’s a facility dispersed over three counties and focused on the Little Eau Pleine River and a number of adjacent flowages.
At more than 33,000 acres, it is one of the largest wildlife areas in the state and comprises the largest contiguous set of state-owned wildlife lands.
To give some perspective, that makes it more than three times as large as Devil’s Lake State Park, at 10,200 acres the largest in the state park system, whose 66 units combined include slightly less than 61,000 acres.
The Mead Wildlife Area has a fine website and blog at www.meadwildlife.org, where I got a lot of good information and an overview of the physical layout. But there are also plenty of other great sources, such as Tim Brewer’s 2004 edition of “Wisconsin’s Outdoor Treasures,” first published in 1997 but not updated for more than a decade now.
Mead is the epitome of multi-use lands, and there’s plenty of hunting going on, along with snowmobiling, dog training and other traditional Wisconsin outdoor recreation. Birders, bikers and silent-sports fans in general will find plenty to do, but this is a facility shared by all.
The Berkhahn Rookery Bicycle Loop, for instance, is open from May 15 to Sept. 1, and a number of refuge segments are closed altogether from Sept. 1 to Dec. 10.
Mead is a place that can appeal to virtually everyone. But that’s not who was there when I visited.
Yes, those scientists know what they’re talking about
When I arrived at Mead, I was probably slightly underdressed by Southern standards, or even sensible Wisconsin standards, but recently, the latter have become as rare as a genteel and fruitful presidential debate.
I figured I’d be OK with my long-sleeved, thick T-shirt, a sweatshirt and a light waterproof jacket, in addition to gloves and a beanie, plus good jeans and boots.
As it turns out, that was plenty. I set out from the small parking area near the start of the Berkhahn Loop. There was one other vehicle there, and as I headed down the loop road I saw its owner (a beagle) and the guy being walked by the beagle coming off of the Audubon Prairie Nature Trail.
I exchanged pleasantries regarding the lovely weather (with the guy, not the beagle) and quickly entered the woods and headed toward the E/T Boardwalk Trail. The snow kept blowing in sideways, as it would for my entire visit, but for the most part the woods blunted the strength of the norther and I stayed warm enough.
By “warm enough” I mean that I was relatively comfortable except that I kept taking off my gloves to play with the camera on my phone, because I decided to learn to take close-ups. And by “learn” I mean “guess,” as any fool who’s not going to wear a thick winter coat on a February walk in the Wisconsin woods can’t be expected to actually read instructions about stuff in advance.
I was pleased to find that my smartphone does a credible job of focusing on nearby objects, such as a drop of water on a twig. I was also pleased to reconfirm the scientific knowledge that heat leaves us most quickly through such appendages as our gloveless hands or our heads (mine remained covered, although I’m not sure there was much heat-generating activity up there).
I was never uncomfortable, however, especially as I have a high tolerance for some physical agitation, especially when it is balanced with the extreme pleasure I gain from an absence of modern noise.
Other than the wind thumping through the woods and my boots crunching through the remaining crust of snow on the boardwalk, there was almost nothing to hear.
That’s the really great thing about Mead. I was on a tiny, tiny portion of its jigsaw puzzle of parcels, but even though I was at its very heart, near its surprisingly large and modern visitor center, I found it fairly isolated. Especially after the other guy left.
When in Mead’s open spaces on a blustery day, a visitor sees an expansive vista all around and gets a real sense of Wisconsin’s winter: windy, chilling and pleasingly lonely, with hills in the distance, flat and frozen and empty wetlands all around, brown marsh grasses clattering and waving about madly, and very little to stop nature from seeping into the bones.
When I came out of the woods near the sturdy birdwatching blind on a marsh east of the visitor center, and walked along the dike edging the marsh while making my way back my car, I believe I heard a single car passing by on County Road S.
By that point, I could also hear the furiously spinning windmill at the visitor center, but I’m not at all bothered by the lightning-quick “thwap-thwap-thwap” of clean energy. It also was more than offset by a distant flock of geese, whose concert I could not see but happily listened to.
For the second consecutive weekend, I’d been utterly renewed by a winter walk of far less than two miles in an hour. The previous weekend’s trip, with four kids, had been a different sort of rejuvenation.
This past Sunday, solitary was the way to go.
Amazingly enough, this marked my first Mead experience. The many impressive things I learned about it in preparation for my visit, however, will just have to wait for future columns. It’s a remarkable place, but one I’ll leave in silence for now.