A magical morning on the Forked Aster Trail!
By Eddee Daniel
The trail opens out in front of me like an alluring dream. An expanse of rolling land that seems one part meadow, one part prairie, one part forest, and six parts imagination—all made even more magical by being enveloped in white. I think to myself, where am I? Yes, I know it’s Milwaukee, but take another look! How is this Milwaukee? More importantly, how on earth did I not know about it?
I went out early, in the still-blowing snow and without a specific destination in mind, to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the freshly flocked landscape. That’s predictable and unsurprising. But this time I am astonished to discover a lovely segment of Milwaukee County’s Forked Aster Trail close to home that I’d never hiked before (which you see in this photo essay). How have I missed it all these years?
It’s not that I was unaware. Is there something that you’ve always wanted to do, that you could easily do at any time, but which you’ve never gotten around to? I don’t remember when it was that I first noticed the trail leading away from the parkway road—because it was so many years ago. And over those years, when I’ve driven down that stretch of the Little Menomonee River Parkway between Appleton Avenue and W. Mill Rd., I’ve often glanced wistfully at that trail and thought about pulling over and exploring it. What made me stop this time? The trail now captivates me along with the magic of the morning! The dreamlike quality of it all has as much to do with my amazement as with the shroud of snow.
The trail is unmarked where it meets the parkway road, the edge where a large meadow meets woodland. Since you can park anywhere along the road, there is no special lot for it. Easy to miss (though I can’t claim that excuse). I pull against the curb and get out of the car. Another car flashes by, spewing streams of slush, then dissolves into the squall. (Little did I know at the time that would be the last human I would see for the next two hours!)
I stroll slowly; enchanted by the snow-covered scenery and marveled by the unfolding terrain, which seems to go on endlessly—in defiance of all my expectations. Take nothing for granted! In our urban wilderness there is often more than at first meets the eye.
To my left, the meadow opens like a window on eternity. To my right…, well, in summer I might have described it as a wall of dense foliage, but now more like a gossamer veil behind which lies a mysteriously enchanted forest. Every now and then, where there are openings into it, I peer into the woodland. Deer tracks diminish and disappear into the depths of tangled undergrowth, like worm-holes into uncharted and otherwise impenetrable galaxies.
Sadly, prosaically, much of this undergrowth is invasive buckthorn.
I wonder about the spiky shrubs that sweep across the meadow, so serene and splendid in their fluffy attire. Probably buckthorn as well. Easy to ignore the threat of invasives when everything is shrouded and mysterious. Like the dwindling park system budgets, snowballing over decades, that have made it challenging for park crews to keep up with things like controlling every infestation of invasive species.
I explore a couple of side trails and discover that they are connections to the neighboring streets on the north side of the Parkway. This is where, because there they are marked, I learn that I am exploring a segment of the Forked Aster Trail. There are 30 disconnected segments, all unpaved nature trails, in different parks all around Milwaukee County. Now that I’ve stumbled upon this one, I look forward to visiting just one more so that I can claim to have hiked all of them!
I had expected that the trail would simply run in a short curve around the edge of the meadow adjacent to the road. But at the top of the curve the trail cuts around a gorgeous stand of very tall, exuberant pines and then continues on into what suddenly appears to be a vast prairie. While I admit that the ongoing blizzard may contribute to this impression—reducing the observable world to white suggests infinity—there is no question in my mind that this is an unexpected treasure of open space. I do hope the neighbors appreciate what is here in their backyards!
That is, of course, the central virtue of a local park, as well as a central theme of this website—nearby nature: accessible without traveling far and wide. But do we access them? Or, are we guilty, as I have been, of driving past or even through them without pulling over, parking, and taking that hike? Always driving farther on to reach another destination. Savor what is right before you.
Right before me the trail leads deeper and deeper into a hushed and waiting wilderness. Although my head tells me that Appleton Avenue is somewhere up ahead, my heart dismisses the notion as idle gossip. If there is traffic, all sound of it is muffled by the snow. My solitude seems complete. Here in Milwaukee; largest city in the state. This is the experience I treasure—wonderment at the raw power of its ethereal beauty—whenever I revisit our urban wilderness.
Taking photos while snow is actively falling is dicey, because of the obvious need to keep snowflakes from falling onto the lens, but also because snowflakes out in front of the lens can also ruin an image. But I went out and shot in the blowing snow because I knew—the temperature being above freezing—that it would begin to melt as soon as it stopped falling. In fact, the trail is quite slushy and I have to negotiate a number of sizable puddles along the way.
Finally, after what feels like hours, I emerge from the forest to see that I’ve completed a long loop and am back at the original meadow. This is where I find a kiosk that is hard to spot from the road, tucked away behind an archery range. The kiosk is bare except for a trail map, which conveniently reveals just where I’ve been all this time. I discover that I haven’t even seen it all! I’ll have to come back another time.
Following my hike I contacted Jessica Wineberg, Trails Coordinator for Milwaukee County Parks and asked about this segment of the Forked Aster Trail. She says it has surprisingly diverse migratory wildlife species and plenty of deer. And, she adds, if anyone wants to volunteer to keep an eye on the trail, report issues, and possibly do basic trimming, please reach out to her at: ParksTrails@milwaukeecountywi.gov
Did you notice the snowy morning that I’ve been writing about? I don’t mean the snow itself, for of course you couldn’t miss that! I mean that the snow came on the last day of March—one last roar of the lion in the month supposed to “go out like a lamb.” (How, I have to wonder, does this bode for April, the “cruelest month”?) Inadvertently, this blog post completes a quartet about March of 2022, in which I have explored new places, examined the vagaries of the season, and experienced the thrill of adventure in our wealth of nature. In case you missed them, below are links to the previous three.
You can use our Find-a-Park map as your source of places to go for your hike—it includes parks and preserves all over SE Wisconsin.
Milwaukee County Parks Department is a project partner of A Wealth of Nature. Eddee Daniel is curator of The Natural Realm.