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crowded woodland trail

Coping with COVID: Meetings and distances

May 13, 2020  |  Topics: Spotlight, Stories

By Eddee Daniel

I met Michelle and her daughter Corinne, along with the horses they were riding, Georgia and Savannah, at the Short Road Trailhead in Caledonia. We had arranged to meet through Caledonia Conservancy, which owns and manages the property. Michelle warned me to stay back at least six feet from the tail end of the horses, not for social distancing but to avoid being kicked!

Michelle and Corinne on Short Road bridle trail
Michelle and Corinne on Short Road bridle trail

They walked their horses at a pace I could keep up with along the bridle trail through the woods. The leaves were just beginning to bud. Bright sunshine spilled through the open canopy onto the forest floor, perfect for the glorious array of spring wildflowers we passed through. We spotted another couple riding on an adjacent trail. Social distance comes naturally when you’re on a horse!

Spring Beauties
Spring Beauties, Short Road Trail, Caledonia

As we walked we chatted as best we could about the place, the Conservancy and the Covid-19 crisis. Later, Michelle emailed me the following reflections:

“I fell in love with the Caledonia Conservancy trail system in 2008, when we first got horses. To be able to ride for hours and not ride a trail twice is amazing! I have always enjoyed being out in nature, but doing it on horseback is a bonus. Often, it’s just me and Savannah in the quiet of the woods. We ride all year round when the trails aren’t wet or icy. Favorite spots include the Short Road trail, especially the upper section, where you can get into a nice trot or gallop, and the Trout Ponds, with its yellow coneflowers and goldfinches flying over you, along with the ability to ride right into the Root River.

Woodland bridle trail
Woodland bridle trail, Short Road Trail, Caledonia

“Caledonia Conservancy was started by a group of horse people 25+ years ago. I am a member of both the Stewardship and Equestrian Committees. We maintain the trails and host fun rides and activities for local riders. Unfortunately, with the shutdown our plans are currently on hold, as many boarding stables in the area have been closed as non-essential. Just recently, they have started re-opening on a limited basis, just riding, no training or lessons as yet. In spite of that, I have noticed an increase in horse activity, as it seems that many who house their horses at home are able to get out on the trails more, whether because they’re now working from home, like my daughter Corinne, or not working at all.

Hepatica, Short Road trail
Hepatica, Short Road trail, Caledonia

“I’ve also observed much more foot traffic on the hiking trails, people enjoying the spring flowers or just walking their dogs. Some of the trails are reserved for hiking, others are shared. If you are hiking and you encounter someone on horseback, don’t hide. Say hello and make yourself visible so that the horse realizes that you’re a person and not a lurking predator!

Riding through woodland wildflowers
Riding through woodland wildflowers, Short Road Trail, Caledonia

“Studies show that being in nature is great for your mental health, but when you add a horse, it becomes something magical. My husband can always tell when Savannah and I have been out on the trails!”

Trout lilies, Short Road trail
Trout lilies, Short Road trail, Caledonia

*  *  *

When I met Paul Akert by chance on a walk in Seminary Woods, in Saint Francis, I almost did a double-take, thinking I might be encountering the ghost of John Muir wandering that superlative glade. His resemblance to Muir is not lost on Akert, who often impersonates the famous naturalist in his vocation as a storyteller. But Akert’s commitment to nature goes far deeper than masquerading as a conservationist or walking in the woods. We quickly arranged to meet again—at the appropriate social distance—in Grobschmidt Park in Franklin, where Akert is an active member of the Friends of Grobschmidt Park.

Paul Akert, Grobschmidt Park
Paul Akert, Grobschmidt Park, Franklin

We begin our hike on the wide, mostly graveled main trail that circles Mud Lake, which hosts a variety of migratory waterfowl, including the occasional loon. Akert had warned me about the possibility of mud and I am prepared with my Wellingtons when we do in fact have to slog through a couple unavoidable patches. After a while we leave the main trail for the more appealing, narrower (and drier) Forked Aster Trail, which winds through woodlands and around a large wetland. As John Muir said, “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”

Except between the two of us, there was no danger of violating the rule of social distancing; we met no one else on the narrow dirt trail.

Forked Aster Trail creek crossing
Forked Aster Trail creek crossing, Grobschmidt Park, Franklin

An official sign at the entry, the two trails and a few judiciously placed benches are the only indications that this is a Milwaukee County Park. In contrast to most parks in the system, Grobschmidt has been left almost completely to nature. The kind of nature that one can expect in a 21st Century urban environment, that is. Akert describes the seemingly endless efforts to control buckthorn and other invasive species; and when the trail skirts a large prairie recently mowed by the Parks Department, he tells me that he invariably has to explain to neighbors and other hikers that the mowing is a good thing because it aids the propagation of native species. “I’m looking forward to seeing what kinds of wildflowers bloom in the prairie this year,” he says enthusiastically.

“The battle for conservation will go on endlessly. It is part of the universal battle between right and wrong.”

~ John Muir.

Gravel trail and mowed prairie, Grobschmidt Park
Gravel trail and mowed prairie, Grobschmidt Park, Franklin

*  *  *

Most of my meetings this week were virtual, of course, thanks to the pandemic, including the Friends of County Grounds Park. How ironic for a Friends group not to be able to meet in their park—like the congregation that can’t meet in the church.

But the happiest meeting of the past week was a reunion. Finally, after two months of self-quarantine, when everyone remained healthy, we invited our daughter to bring the grandchildren to move in with us so that we can all stay safer at home together! No more blowing kisses on Zoom every day. And I quickly discovered a surprising upside to the shutdown. One of our favorite activities has always been to walk over to Hoyt Park, where, despite all my efforts to divert them into the woods along the river, the kids would make a beeline for the playground. This time they stared wistfully at the vacant slides and silent swings for a moment or two, then headed straight to the river for some satisfying rock throwing.

Walking on a log, Mound Zion Park, Brookfield
Walking on a log, Mound Zion Park, Brookfield

Hoyt, however, is so popular and crowded that it’s challenging to keep the naturally friendly and gregarious children from getting uncomfortably close to strangers, some of whom still seem oblivious to social distancing. I prefer to take them to quieter parks. Lynncita, who is eight and has always considered “park” to be synonymous with “playground,” is drawn immediately to mud puddles to stomp and logs to balance on. I try to interest her in the loveliness of wildflowers but she is impatient to get on with the business of play.

* * *

Most of the places I visited this week were far less crowded than Hoyt Park. Here they are, along with a few of the people I met.

Tori and Lisa hunting morels, Wil-O-Way Woods, Wauwatosa.
They found just one, too small to harvest.
Tori and Lisa hunting morels, Wil-O-Way Woods, Milwaukee County Grounds, Wauwatosa.
They found just one, too small to harvest.
Sean and Becky, Cliffside Park, Racine
Sean and Becky, Cliffside Park, Racine
Sophia and Max with the fish they caught with their hands, Cliffside Park, Racine
Sophia, Max and the fish they caught with their hands, Cliffside Park, Racine
Diane and David canoeing the Milwaukee River, Lincoln Park, Milwaukee
Diane and David canoeing the Milwaukee River, Lincoln Park, Milwaukee
Ron and Barb hiking through a patch of Dutchman's Breeches in the Hardwood Forest State Scientific Area, Muskego Park
Ron and Barb hiking through a patch of Dutchman’s Breeches in the Hardwood Forest State Scientific Area, Muskego Park
Michelle and Richard atop a beaver dam, Muskego Park
Michelle and Richard atop a beaver dam, Muskego Park
I saw no one else at all the day I went to Engel Conservation Area in Muskego, so I made this selfie.
I saw no one else at all at Engel Conservation Area in Muskego, so I made this selfie.

This is the eighth installment in our “Coping with COVID” series. Here are the previous ones:

Schools are closed, events cancelled, but parks are open!

Coping with COVID-19: People seek out nature!

Coping with COVID-19: People enjoying our parks!

Coping with COVID photo essay: All over the map!

Coping with COVID: Getting away from it all!

Coping with COVID: An Earth Day tribute!

Coping with COVID: The new normal?

Coping with COVID: Spring Beauties!

Our “Find-a-Park” map can help you locate an uncrowded park too. Please observe safe personal hygiene and social distancing guidelines when you head out for fresh air, exercise and a healthy dose of nature. And, as always, take only pictures and leave only footprints.

To see the complete set of chronological images from over 100 different places taken during the COVID-19 shutdown, go to Eddee’s Flickr album.

The featured image at the top is from Muskego Park. Eddee Daniel is a board member of Preserve Our Parks and A Wealth of Nature Project Director. All images in today’s photo essay were shot in the past week.

Paul Akert will be available as a storyteller again once it’s safe to do so. Check out his website.

Caledonia Conservancy and Milwaukee County Parks are project partners of A Wealth of Nature.