Rain may fall, but Mead keeps rising above
Because of the scintillating mind-expansion exercise we call the 2016 presidential election, many Gazette readers may have overlooked more subtle aspects of life in these parts recently, such as the fact that someone has been dumping the Atlantic Ocean on our heads for the last week.
Even if fall’s colors seem late this year, autumn is officially here, meaning winter is not far behind, meaning we have two choices: pull our Packer-themed Snuggies out from under the bed and hunker down, or get tough and get back outside.
It’s been too long since I’ve visited a Wisconsin outdoor treasure. So, rain be damned, I headed out to the dikes, ditches and ducks of the George W. Mead Wildlife Area to get a bit of exercise.
Hunting fowl produces fair income for Mead
Getting wet was a given, but deciding on something new or something known was the big question for this week’s nature walk.
The clincher was a discussion with a friend who has been visiting Mead often with her spouse and toddler; she was so raving about the place that it took me back to my first visit there, in snowy February when I fell in love with the area’s isolation and peacefulness.
“We’re not churchy people, so that’s where we go,” she said in explaining the spiritual pull the outdoors, especially Mead, has on them.
Church in nature is an idea with a long, distinguished intellectual history. At least as long as the most recent presidential debate, which was interminable.
Folks like Wisconsin’s own John Muir and Aldo Leopold are among the many who have explored the relationship between nature and our souls, and anyone who still has a soul left just six weeks before Election Day should really consider Mead.
I decided to see portions of Mead’s 28,208 acres new to me, so I parked near the visitor center, crossed Marathon County S on foot and headed down the dirt road immediately west of the center toward the Honey Island Flowage.
The period between Sept. 1 and Dec. 10 is when substantial portions of Mead serve as refuges for waterfowl to rest and feed undisturbed by humans. That means most trips to the Honey Island, West Honey Island and North Honey Island flowages, as well as beyond, are out-and-back efforts instead of circumnavigational loops at this time of year.
Visitors need to pay attention to where roads are closed and foot travel prohibited. Gates and signage are generally clear, although it takes awareness and map interpretation to determine when areas that look open are actually closed. I almost turned back at the edge of the Honey Island Flowage, which on the map provided by Mead is the start of the off-limits area.
But I knew there should be access to the road along the dike that runs northeast toward the Little Eau Pleine River along the North Honey Island Flowage, so I kept going until I got to that road, which is next to a pump house on the northeast corner of the flowage’s refuge area.
On the map, the pump house shows up too far east of the dike road, just as the road to the flowage looks to be north of the visitor center instead of its true due-west origin.
These are minor issues. First-time visitors simply need to be aware and read the landscape and maps before setting off too quickly. This is especially true because Mead is a multi-use area, but it’s not inaccurate to say that its primary use is hunting.
That’s because hunting provides 97 percent of Mead’s funding and the area was created, to a great extent, to support hunting, Mead wildlife technician Patrice Eyers told me. It’s a lot more than that – obviously, a refuge and major conservation area, as well as a birdwatching mecca, a biking destination in the spring and summer, a place for joggers, and a favorite for numerous school groups to learn about nature.
The visitor center is open only during normal weekday working hours, so weekend walkers and wildlife watchers need to be particularly attentive to hunting seasons, refuge boundaries and other circumstances that might limit their activity.
I recall a great deal of puzzlement, before my first visit, regarding how safe Mead is for walking, despite carefully reading Mead websites (there are at least two major ones – one from the Department of Natural Resources and another, more extensive one put together by the Friends of Mead/McMillan Association).
It didn’t help that on my first visit, I had set foot out of the car in the first parking area I came to and nearly stepped on a four-inch, unspent cartridge. (I’ve got nothing against hunting – I just want to know whether I’m in the middle of it.)
Really, though, if non-hunters seek information and bring along a little good sense, everything will be perfectly safe.
So I borrowed some good sense from my wife (she keeps a large stock in our basement pantry), grabbed a poncho and headed to Mead.
Walking in the rain: a fine idea
Apparently, the good sense fell out of my pocket early on my walk. Despite gray, soggy weather, I kept the poncho off because I didn’t want to hear it flapping in the mild wind. The sky sprinkled, but a pullover, long-sleeved T-shirt and pair of jeans were enough to repel the droplets for most of my walk, which lasted a little more than 90 minutes.
The water on long, still-green grass and weeds along the road dampened me most, eventually soaking through my stout walking shoes and wool socks. The day was chilly, but Wisconsin has helped me learn that, despite decades in Texas and the south, I’m a “Sconnie” at heart. I was never uncomfortable.
I spent a charming afternoon wandering along flowages and remembering days when I was a kid, occasionally swimming in forbidden irrigation ditches near Fresno in California’s Central Valley (once, aptly enough, with someone apparently whizzing a couple of warning shots over the waterway we were in).
At Mead, the only sounds were leaves, grasses and rushes rustling in the wind and the swish of my feet over the soggy trail.
Eventually droplets became drops, my head got soaked and my glasses spotted and steamed over. I took them off and enjoyed a softer focus and revitalized colors of fall on the flowage, where the contrast of various greens and browns was most of the scenery, but quite agreeable.
I finally donned the poncho and, by the time I had completed most of my doubling back, had a pleasing heaviness and minor stiffening of feet and calves.
The walk had been relaxing, and as I headed home toward the season’s first hot chocolate, I was already looking forward to exploring more sections of Mead.