Autumn Odyssey 5: Size matters, except when it doesn’t!
By Eddee Daniel
In his book-length treatise on The Maine Woods Henry David Thoreau described the place this way: “It is a country…with innumerable lakes and rapid streams, peopled with trout.” His point was to subtly and creatively impress on his reader the relative absence of humans in the landscape. He famously sought seclusion in a cabin in the woods to write his more well-known book, Walden. Yet he never became a hermit, never isolated himself from society, and could easily stroll through the woods from that cabin for a home-cooked meal whenever he wished—and did so regularly.
Society is not the opposite of nature, or even wilderness. They are intertwined, preferably literally, but definitely conceptually. Not only do we humans—especially urban-dwellers—need the balm of nearby nature for our mental, physical and spiritual health, but nature/wilderness needs us. Without our willingness to preserve and care for—in a word, love—the natural world that is all around us, it would slowly disappear. The good news for us here in SE Wisconsin is that we don’t have to travel to Maine or Colorado (or even northern Wisconsin) to experience nature. We have a wealth of local places and opportunities to do so.
My Autumn Odyssey is an ongoing effort to acquaint you with a few of the possibilities. Autumn isn’t so much the subject of my adventures as it is the stage designer that maximizes the drama of the settings. It is these settings, the parks and preserves in our region, that I hope to highlight for you in hopes that you will go outdoors to explore and discover them for yourselves. To quote Thoreau once more, “Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness.” Although none of these places are unexplored in the conventional sense, until you’ve explored them yourself, they may as well be!
Kettle Moraine State Forest – Northern Unit
I begin this week with the region’s big kahuna: the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. This place is both literally big and prominent in the minds of most who live in this corner of the state. Perhaps this is the reason that until now I have not added it to the Find-a-Park map on this website. But I was motivated to do so by my Odyssey and some of the most dramatic autumn colors I found this fall.
This park has, somewhere in its over 30,000 acres, something for just about everyone who loves the outdoors. Its more than 125 miles of trails traverse its glacial topography and include trails dedicated to foot traffic, cycling (both on pavement and mountain biking), cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and horseback riding. Lakes for boating and bathing. Campgrounds for those who like sleeping with nature. And do you know what river runs through it? Believe it or not, a branch of the Milwaukee River (we all live downstream, as they say). Its defining features, kettles, kames, eskers and moraines, are joined by plenty of meadows and wide-open prairies.
No blog post could do justice to the endless diversity of this special place and it is not intended as a guide. Just a reminder of what is out there, waiting for us whenever we need the tonic of wildness.
John A. Margis Wildlife Area
Next we jump south to Racine County, where we can find John A. Margis Wildlife Area, which, at 44 acres, is miniscule compared to the Kettle Moraine. Most of those acres are water! Lakes and wetland. A dike with a trail along the top divides the water, and a long boardwalk crosses through the cattails in the wetland. The Racine County Parks Department website recommends it for fishing and canoe/kayaking, both of which seem like excellent ways to shake off the residues of daily life.
Smaller still is a lovely patch of forest and gently rolling terrain called Pavcek Preserve. This 32-acre preserve located in southwest Washington County is owned and managed by the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust (OWLT). The forest includes sugar maple, oak, hickory, basswood and woodland perennials. An esker (glacially formed ridge) rises 35’ in the northeast corner of the property. Although you can’t see it through the trees, Holy Hill, the locally famous hilltop shrine, is nearby. In fact, I’ve been known to opt for a nice solitary hike in Pavcek when I’ve driven all the way to Holy Hill only to find it bursting with visitors. Thoreau would empathize. He wrote, in typically acerbic style, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”
Kettle Moraine State Forest – Loew Lake Unit
Since it’s also nearby, the day I skipped Holy Hill for Pavcek I went on from there to Loew Lake—which is another unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. (Did you know that? Ah, but do you know how many units there are? Put your answer in the—new—comments box at the end of this post and I’ll let you know if you’re right. But I digress.) At 1,250 acres the Loew Lake Unit is large compared to Pavcek and Margis, but small compared to its northern namesake. It is notable especially for two trails. As it does for most of the (how many?) Kettle Moraine units, the Ice Age Trail runs from end to end. The other trail is the Oconomowoc River. Very popular for kayaking, canoeing, rafting, and paddleboarding from the Hwy Q boat launch to Loew Lake and back (which is the subject of a related story).
In conclusion, I do hope that by sharing the stories and images of these places that you will be inspired to explore them yourself. But for now, just enjoy the scenery I present you here! These and the many other nearby parks that you can find on our Find-a-Park map. I’ll leave you with a final thought from Thoreau: “We can never have enough of nature.”
For more information—and photos—about the featured parks:
Previous installments of Autumn Odyssey 2022:
Eddee Daniel is a board member of Preserve Our Parks. The featured photo at the top of the page is from Pavcek Preserve.