Sunday, February 23, 2014

8 kids and a dog at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve

What to do on another cold, snowy day with the kiddos? With winter hibernation settling in quickly, we turned to the hills and trails of our neighbors. The Kickapoo Valley Reserve(KVR) sits on 8,000 acres between the villages of La Farge and Ontario in southwestern Wisconsin. We went out for a day of "low-impact tourism".

The kiddo's ambivalence and impatience during the meandering car ride turned into snow-filled glee when we arrived at the reserve. Half the kids immediately disappeared into a snow pile. The visitor center was closed so we set off with a lot of energy, a little falling snow and no map.

We had the whole place to ourselves.

"The world I found was inside a book, and then that world was made up of 
even more books, each of which led to yet another world. It goes on forever and ever. 
At nine I thought I must get to Narnia or die. It would be a long time before I understood
 that I was already there."
Laura Miller, The Magician's Book: A Skeptics Adventure in Narnia

 We walked through the Narnia-like woods as if we had just rolled out of a wardrobe and the White Witch would appear at any moment. I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when I was young. It's one of the few fantasy books I can remember loving...talking animals, magic wardrobes... snow-covered landscapes.. I didn't connect with all of the Christian elements of the story but loved the idea of being transported to an alternate world. And here we were. It was real.

"Wildness reminds us what it means to be human , what we are connected to 
rather than what we are separated from.
Terry Tempest Williams

As we walked by all of the natural wonders, under the falling snow and through the trees, the magical place rose up around us. 

We didn't see any woodland creatures. Or any witches. We did walk through rolling hills, over bridges and up and down trails.
I was just glad to be joined by 8 kids and a dog. Magic is always better when shared.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Growing Down at Justin Trails

As we drove through the rolling hills of Western Wisconsin,  I thought about the cozy little cabin we had reserved for the next couple of days.  Justin Trails, in Sparta, Wisconsin, is known for its outdoor recreational activities but we were in the midst of a record-breaking cold-spell. Our cross-country skiis seemed destined to go unused. We bundled up as we carried stuff into our cabin. It was 25 feet away. It was -10 degrees.

The cabin was really toasty and welcoming when we walked in. I am not usually a bed & breakfast person, preferring the anonymity of a hotel. When I go away for a few days, I love the idea of holing up in a spot and reading and watching movies for hours on end. My husband is the opposite. He wants to go outside and do things.

 Inevitably, I realize that his plan is more fun (most of the time) and we end up having a great time in the woods, on the trails, sometimes getting wet and cold but then warming up inside somewhere.

 The proprieters at Justin Trails, Don and Donna, were definitely quirky. When I saw our cabin and took in the huge snow hill and the pet llamas, I decided eccentric was the best word for it.
I later learned that their property had been in the family for generations as a working farm which endeared me to it. Also, Martin Sheen had stayed in the cabins. Apparently, after Donna showed him to his cabin, another guest said, "Do you know you have a famous person staying here?!" Donna said, "Nobody told me they were famous."

The thing about staying close to home and picking a spot that has both a nice indoor and outdoor space is there is time to enjoy so much. We didn't spend a lot of time driving and once we unloaded the car, all of our free time descended on us for the next two days.

Snow tubing was a blast.

The snow was covered in a layer of ice so we went flying down the hill at about 30 miles per hour.

A huge bonus to this place was they accepted dogs. Our dog went racing around the property, running as fast as he could behind our snow tubes, wandering ahead of us on the ski trails.

To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature.  Most persons do not see the sun.  At least they have a very superficial seeing.  The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and heart of the child.  The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

We took a lot of breaks inside. I took a deep breath each time we plunged outdoors again. Returning to a toasty fire in a little cabin was all the more beautiful. 

I still wanted to read and sit around, of course. 

The beauty of this place is you're welcome to do both.

"You will find more happiness growing down than growing up."
                                                   --Author Unknown

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Visit with the Birds

As we pulled up to the feeding area at Goose Island, we watched a bird flit out of an outstretched hand in the truck in front of us. We hopped out of our car loaded up with bird food. Mike filled my dad's hand with food. A bird immediately landed in his hand and he was so startled he threw the food out of his hand. He decided to just watch Mike feed the birds.

The snow fell as birds landed all around us.

Goose Island is located in a La Crosse county park in the middle of the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife Refuge.

Whether you're walking the trails, hanging out at a campsite or canoeing around the island, the wildlife is visible everywhere. 

Red Bird
Red bird came all winter
Firing up the landscape
As nothing else could.
Of course I love the sparrows,
Those dun-colored darlings,
So hungry and so many.
I am a God-fearing feeder of birds,
I know he has many children,
Not all of them bold in spirit.
Still for whatever reason-
Perhaps because the winter is so long
And the sky is so black-blue,
or perhaps because their heart narrows
As often as it opens-
I am grateful
That red bird comes all winter
Firing up the landscape
As nothing else can do.

...Winter's gift is this, and it is my heart.
The warm and singing heart of the witch of the quiet cold.
Ariel Llewellyn, excerpt from Winter

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Walk in the Woods on Thanksgiving

Nothing about my Thanksgiving turned out as I'd planned. We made plans. Plans were broken. We made plans again. Plans were broken. Our plan became no plan. I think it was the best plan of all.
We grabbed the dog and hopped on the trail. The great thing about this particular spot is that within a few minutes you can be standing on the edge of a bluff with a mile-wide view.

Though this wasn't the first Thanksgiving I'd spent without my parents, it was one of the few and it did feel a little strange.  Though both of my grandparents are now gone, I still imagine our holiday rituals. We sat around their big dining room table with the grandfather clock chiming in front of me, my grandpa sitting to my left making little jokes, my grandma rushing things out to the table and my dad saying a simple prayer.

Our family traditions mostly revolved around food. My new family traditions with my husband and step-kiddos also revolve around food. That grandfather clock now sits in my living room offering me the chimes of my childhood.

Variety is the spice of life but routine and ritual is what grounds us. We looked out over our city with the frozen marsh below us, the rocky bluffs all around us and a train rumbled by down below.

I wondered if this hike would become a tradition and hoped it would. 

We tromped around on the cold ground, my hands went numb taking pictures, it was invigorating. 

Hamlet raced ahead and then looked back, raced ahead and then looked back.

I thought about the "Grace" photograph with the old man praying over a loaf of bread that hung over my grandparents' table. Eric Enstrom, the photographer, said he liked the photograph because "this man doesn't have much of earthly goods, but he has more than most people because he has a thankful heart." 

I felt grateful that we were heading  home to a warm house with a turkey in the oven and our grandfather clock chiming away in the corner.

For each new morning with its light.
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food,
For love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson-'Thanksgiving'

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Camping Under the Bluffs

Where the Tremepealea River meets the Mississippi River. That's where we pitched our tent. Perrot State Park has over 1,270 acres of ecosystems, wetlands, woodlands and river bank views. I stared at the three stuffed owls on display as the park attendant discussed the park rules. She stopped to take a phone call from a hunter with a lot of detailed questions about hunting squirrels in the park. One of the rangers came in. I remembered how much I like state parks. Yes, they can be loud. The campsites are sometimes too close together. When you find a beautiful state park like Perrot, though, there is so much to love. There is a ranger station with helpful people, plentiful wood, riverside camping spots and hiking trails full of scenic views.

We snuck in a quick beer at The Trempealeau Hotel on our way to the campsite.

I beat Mike at PIG.

And we zoomed into Perrot to head out on a hike.


We hiked 500 feet up to Brady's Bluff for some of the most spectacular views of the Wisconsin Driftess area.

We set up our campsite. Mostly Mike set up our campsite while I sat around.We rested. We poured wine and listened to the radio. We talked. I kept adding layers as the temperatures dropped.

After a lot of rustic camping, Perrot State Park was a welcome reprieve. The colors surrounded us on all sides with the last breath of Fall.

I recently listened to a reverend describe how he struggles with Fall because it spells the quick passage of time. Most autumn poems are foreboding, bemoaning the upcoming winter season. The crisp air, warm colors, tasty apples and falling leaves make for such a great season. Even the coming winter doesn't make me sad as it means fires in the fireplace, cuddling under soft blankets, a quieter atmosphere. February is another story, of course. After wading through a lot of very depressing poems about Fall, I happened upon John Updike's happy, simple poem about the season:
The breezes taste
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel-
Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Burning brush,
New books, erasers,
Chalk, and such.
The bee, his hive,
Well-honeyed rum,
And mother cuts
Like plates washed clean
With suds, the days
Are polished with
A morning haze.
--John Updkike