A Magical Mystery Tour of the Milwaukee County Grounds
March 23, 2023 | Topics: Articles
By Eddee Daniel
The soft wintry glow coming through the windows when I awake can mean only one thing: a fresh layer of snow outside. I quickly discover that it will be the only light for an indeterminable time. There is no power. The outage, I learn from my phone, covers most of Southeastern Wisconsin. A big one! I turn back to the window. The sky has hung its clouds on all of the roofs, cars, and trees like drapery in a vacant mansion. Snow is still falling and it’s magnificent. Outside is where I want to be.
I head out, trudging through ankle-deep snow on the unplowed cul-de-sac, towards Hoyt Park. It’s nearly rush hour and the Menomonee River Parkway is eerily empty of traffic. The park is similarly empty of people. My own footprints in the snow are the first of the morning, quite a contrast from my escapade in a previous snowfall, in which I encountered numerous people out enjoying the snowy scenery. Today, everything appears to be covered not with snow but a heavy sugar coating, as if out of fairy tale. I venture on alone into the mystery.
I cross the river to the wilder side of Hoyt Park, though as for that the whole world seems to have gone completely and blissfully wild like some vast arctic hinterland. The ice-free Menomonee River surges with an added burden of snowmelt from the ongoing storm. There is a profound silence that seems less like the absence of sound than something whole and tangible in itself.
The clear black lines of the railroad tracks separating Hoyt Park from the County Grounds indicate the recent passage of a train. Crossing them I struggle up the steep berm and then, gaining the top, brace myself against a blast of snow gusting across the sweeping expanse of the east flood detention basin. It is my usual entry point into the more than 500 acres that make up the many and diverse landscapes known collectively as the Milwaukee County Grounds. And although I’ve stood on this spot innumerable times, today all the familiar landmarks are veiled in mystery. The impression of being in an arctic wasteland increases. The wind howls in my ears and pelts my face with fine particles of wet snow.
At least it’s not especially cold, which is why the snow hangs so heavily on all the trees and shrubbery. I am happily immersed in, if not an actual wilderness, a wonderland where civilization as I know it (Wauwatosa to be specific) is largely erased. It seems magical. I make my way west on the snowbound track that runs along the top of the basin, still blazing the first trail. Trees loom out of the murk before me as I approach them. Shrouded and unfamiliar as though I’m walking into a foreign land.
As I reach Swan Boulevard I see just one car struggling slowly up the hill. It isn’t a day suited to modern technology of any sort! Instead of continuing along the basin trail as usual, I switch to Underwood Parkway, which at least has been plowed. It is no mystery why there is no one using the golf practice range, which looks particularly forlorn this morning against its backdrop of snow-laced evergreens and evanescent birches.
I swerve past the Hanson Golf Course Clubhouse and return to the west basin perimeter trail. Together the east and west detention basins provide over 65 acres that are designed to fill during a catastrophic flood situation within the Menomonee River watershed. As heavy as this snowfall is, it won’t qualify as a flood. The rising sun tries to peek through the briefly thinning blizzard, but it can’t quite shine.
Up ahead rises a wall of trees, faintly at first, then with increasing power as I draw near. In the absence of the usual landmarks and trappings of civilization my mind is free to imagine the great fictional forests of Middle Earth or the very real, but historical forest that once stretched from this very spot unbroken all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. It is, I believe, one of the reasons we preserve and value these remnants, however small, to remind us of our roots in the natural world. And one of the reasons I enjoy tramping around in a blizzard is to leave all the inoperable (at least for the moment) technology behind and reconnect with the wild spirit of the Earth.
I plunge into the trees. This 45-acre woodland, long known as Wil-O-Way Woods due to the presence of Camp Wil-O-Way on its western edge, has taken on new life and a new persona as a Forest Exploration Center. The “center” in that title is still aspirational, but the newfound popularity of the forest itself testifies to the success of recent efforts to market it as a place to explore. True to form it is here that I first encounter another person after an hour of solitude in the “wilderness.” Although the crushed gravel trail, carefully designed to be accessible, has completely disappeared under the snow, it is still easy to make out the informative signage along its path, lending spots of color to a world gone totally black and white–and mostly white at that!
After the forest primeval, I head for the wide-open prairie that makes up the official, eponymous County Grounds Park. The land rises and rises, not quite mountainous, but substantial nevertheless. It never ceases to amaze me how many different habitats fit into the 500 acres here. In the blizzard, especially, it seems ever so much larger!
By the time I circle round back to the east detention basin the blizzard has petered out somewhat and the sun is making a comeback in the sky. I skirt alongside Sanctuary Woods without entering because the snow is already beginning to fall off the tree limbs in clumps, making the scenery less magical. Sanctuary Woods, about which I’ve written many times, is the latest addition to County Grounds Park and the protected lands around it. I push on home through still trackless snow, wondering if there will be power when I get there (there won’t, I later learn, not for another eight hours).
This is the way the world ends, wrote T. S. Eliot, not with a bang but a whimper. Perhaps. The lights will go out, everything will grow cold, and civilization as we know it will slowly cease functioning. As I re-cross the Menomonee River, the sun is still trying to break through the gloom. This is the way the world begins….
Note: The Milwaukee County Grounds is jointly owned and managed by a number of different agencies and organizations, including the Wisconsin DNR, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, Milwaukee County Parks Dept., Forest Exploration Center, and Friends of County Grounds Park.
Eddee Daniel is a board member of Preserve Our Parks and Friends of County Grounds Park.