Spring arrives in all its noisy glory
With the first sunny Saturday of true spring having arrived last week, Portage County was treated to a mass migration of wildlife – winter-bound Wisconsinites going from inside to out, with all the joys that entails.
Local college students were out in force, with almost every second or third house around campus hosting a shirtless, music-filled, can-stacking homage to the second season. I heard from a University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point colleague that a renowned visiting artist was left aghast by the animal behavior of at least one young woman in a campus-area yard.
The visitor declared he had not seen anything like it in any of the college towns he’s visited all over the world.
I suppose a little bad decorum is inevitable, but all those people make me want to find a quiet spot away from the masses. I set my destination – the Bitzke Bird Walk in Marathon County – but was forced, once more, to practice the subtle art of parental cajoling with my young daughter.
When I mentioned Wausau, she asked whether we could venture to Barnes and Noble in Wausau. I assented, then added, “And we’re going to go on a bird walk.”
“Oh, no … not again,” she said. “Last time we almost got lost.”
This wasn’t true. I’d made a joke near dusk on one of our outings in the woods, but she hadn’t forgiven it and suddenly wasn’t as excited about Wausau.
From that point on, no matter what I promised, she wasn’t ready to go hiking. We settled on a bike ride toward downtown and the Wisconsin River.
Our first stop was near Edgewater Manor, where there were still some thin remnants of ice hanging around the riverbank. The young one had to hop off her bike and make her acquaintance with the ducks.
She walked slowly and in mincing steps toward them, arms hanging straight down in an unthreatening pose at her sides, while the waterfowl sauntered at an equal pace away from her no matter how much she followed.
She gave up when I called her over to look at about 20 inches worth of a slowly decomposing fish that apparently had gone to the Big River in the Sky sometime during the winter.
“Eeww,” she said. “Can I take a picture of it to school?”
And that was the extent of our nature walk, as she wanted to go to KASH Park across the Clark Street Bridge. It was a madhouse, with probably 160 or more kids and parents making up the largest crowd I’ve yet seen at the playground.
I sat and watched as long as I could tolerate the multitude, then offered my daughter ice cream at Emy J’s. A perfect spring day for her – and another chance for me to ponder which parental strong-arm tactics I’d need for our next nature outing.
Even in dreary weather, Bitzke soothes
Grading, family and social obligations ruled out any Sunday venture, so I had to wait until early Monday evening to head for Marathon County’s Harrison-Hewitt Forest and the Bitzke Wildlife Refuge.
Monday was, of course, steely and bleak-looking after Saturday’s sparkling weather. My arrival at the muddy parking lot with its Spartan toilet building, weather-beaten trailhead signage, and vista dominated by dormant grasses and scattered, bare trees didn’t foretell the experience that awaited me.
I’m pretty happy being in the outdoors no matter what, so the fairly innocuous beginning of Bitzke’s 2.5-mile trail system didn’t rouse any disappointment. To be honest, I wasn’t as attentive as I should have been; the workday had been as bleak as the weather, part of an already long and hard school year, and my mind was cluttered with too many concerns.
I kept my eyes open but saw little beyond the stark leftover vegetation of fall and winter. A few twitterings and tweetings hinted at birdlife, and I could hear a few vehicles rushing by on County G, but they weren’t obtrusive.
I came to the first fork in the trail, where there’s a bench and an interpretive sign. The refuge’s kid-friendly exhibits use lots of exclamation points! This one was about the spring peeper and gray tree frogs, the eastern garter snake and the four-toed salamander!
The signage is actually well done and in good shape, and I could see that kids would get a lot out of the refuge if you can just get them there.
The refuge’s trail system is basically a large figure eight of about two miles, plus two short out-and-back spurs at South Steinke Pond and West Steinke Pond. I headed toward Steinke Pond in the center of the refuge. (Bet you can’t guess the names of the other two named ponds on the refuge map.)
In that central portion stands an observation platform with some excellent interpretive exhibits on the main wildlife in the area – bear, beaver, muskrat, raccoon and coyote.
It was when I climbed the platform that I finally focused, and Bitzke hit me smack in the head, just as I needed.
It was a wall of sound, with none of it being cars.
The trilling of red-winged blackbirds was the constant harmony among the bird notes, but featured solos included the honking of Canada geese and the mesmerizing calls of the sandhill crane, which writer and birder Christian Martin notes is the loudest bird in the world. There were at least a half-dozen of the cranes hidden in the marsh around West Steinke.
Martin wrote a fascinating piece for the North Cascades Institute blog “Chattermarks,” listing some of the varying attempts to describe the sounds the cranes make. Wisconsin’s own Aldo Leopold had a fine effort: the “tinkling of little bells, the baying of some sweet-throated hound, and a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks and cries.”
I would have characterized it as pulling wood across large, sturdy balloons stretched over some broad-mouthed urn; the sound struck me as booming, rhythmic and rubbery.
In any event, it’s a sound that must be heard to be really appreciated, and I did. My concerns were forgotten, and I stayed on the platform well beyond the time I needed to leave in order to be home at dinner, as I had promised.
On the way back to the car, my attention drifted away from work and instead narrowed to the subtle contrasts in natural color even in the rapidly diminishing light. The range of tans, yellow-whites, and light browns of grasses and reeds, the papery white or seal-gray bark of trees, and the blues, grays, whites and purples of the cloudy sky were far better entertainment than the concerns of the office.
Despite spending substantially more than an hour at the refuge, I completed less than half of the trail system. But that’s why we have return trips, and Bitzke’s on the list.
Getting to Bitzke and other considerations
From Stevens Point, the fastest way to Bitzke may be up Interstate 39 to Wisconsin Highway 29, then east to Marathon County Q, which can be taken north for about 15 miles until it terminates at County Highway G. From there, it’s almost five miles east to Rocky Road on the left side of the road, where a hard-to-see sign marks the entrance to the forest unit and the refuge parking lot about a half-mile north.
The county website notes that trails are open year-round and the public is required to stay on the marked trail from Sept. 1 to Nov. 15. Hunting is prohibited from Sept. 1 to Nov. 15, meaning there is no waterfowl hunting, but visitors do need to be aware of the need for vigilance (and probably blaze orange) during deer season, as deer hunting is allowed in the refuge.
The refuge is about six miles due north of another favorite Marathon County site – the Dells of the Eau Claire and its wonderful campground. The county website notes, however, that camping can be done with a permit in the forest unit around the refuge.
On the way, I got a little turned around by relying on my knowledge of the area, which was insufficient this time when combined with a lack of GPS or Google Maps entries.
I first ended up on a more southerly stretch of Rocky Road that dead-ends in a different part of the Hewitt-Harrison Forest. It was an interesting area in a “Deliverance” sort of way – some of the private property looked like makeshift bonfire/deer camp/trash dump sites, complete with an assortment of cheap plastic lawn furniture scattered about.
In another spot, I saw an old mattress stretched out on a three-by-five trailer, sitting in the woods by its lonesome.
My trip also had other unexpected pleasures, including a fantastic sign on County J for a masonry contractor that included the real front end of a pink Cadillac Coupe de Ville bursting out of a painted depiction of a cinder-block wall.
I also spotted what I took for two giant “Hook ’em, Horns” hand signs outside a building in Ringle. Turns out they were metal-fan hands at Route QZ, a concert hall where folks can hear the likes of Metal Church, Hatchet, Death Valley Dreams and Killing Rapunzel.
I didn’t see the sandhill cranes anywhere on the club’s bookings, but that doesn’t necessarily rule out the big birds, either.