Friday, August 12, 2011

Into the North Woods

We left you last in southern Wisconsin.  We're now leaving the North Woods that we've traversed for a few days and about to explore the famed Door Peninsula. 

We started this segment in Frank Lloyd Wright territory -- his famed home Taliesin is a few miles from the route we took, and he spent many of his early years in this area.  He designed only one warehouse in his career, and we passed by and photographed it in Richland Center.  It's known as the A. D. German Warehouse and was built in 1915.  Architectural historians lump it in Wright's "Mayan" period, with good reason as you can see.  Just outside Richland Center we passed what is referred to as a "natural bridge."  A stream does indeed flow through the hole in the rock toward the viewer, but calling it a "bridge" seems a stretch too far, though it is certainly picturesque regardless of its pontine qualities or lack thereof.

Then, for three days, we did about 90 of the 100+ miles in the Elroy-Sparta trail complex.  We'll let this sign tell the story of the Elroy-Sparta.  It was so successful it was extended in both directions, ending up in three additional names for the three additional segments.  One website calls it the Four-In-One Trail.  Anyway, this is our fourth time on one or more of the segments, the only trail we've ridden that much other than ones in our home turf of the Puget Sound area.
Once again, it's tunnels that provide a big draw.  Here's one of the two shorter ones that are about 1400' long and navigable without a flashlight, sort of, though it is dark enough in the middle third that you cannot see the side walls without your own light, only aim at the elusive Light At The End of The Tunnel.  The third one is 3800', the longest rail trail tunnel in the country until Washington State opened the Snoqualmie Pass Tunnel a few years ago. And the Elroy-Sparta does draw in the cyclists -- we saw over a hundred in our three days, pretty good for a trail that's over 100 miles from the Twin Cities, Milwaukee or any other city of significant size.  Here's Louise chatting with a couple in their 70s who are biking from their home in Illinois to someplace in the Dakotas, and then Melanie and Trillium, two sisters from Bellingham who started in Boston and are pushing hard for Trillium to get back in time for classes at Western Washington University.  If they can average 65 miles a day for the next 6 weeks, they'll have it nailed.  We exchanged email addresses and hope to hear from them again as they head west.

The last of the four trails brought us out to the Mississippi River near Trempeleau WI, where we took a side road right along the river to Perrot State Park.  We parked the bike at the ranger station and climbed over 500' up to Brady's Bluff for some more terrific shots of the river, including one with a barge headed upstream and another with a train headed downstream.  We spent the night in Trempeleau, and during the hours we were awake heard trains headed up or down the river about every 60-75 minutes, and that was just on the Wisconsin side where the BNSF tracks are.  CN has tracks on the MN side that are almost as busy.  And those are not short trains -- we counted cars on four that went by as we walked to and from dinner and/or during our meal, and they ranged from 97 to 137 cars behind the locomotives.  That lone hill, known as Trempeleau Mountain, is a piece of the limestone bluff that the river once ran to the right of before shifting to the left, leaving only this little bay that is rapidly turning into what is known as bottom land as it silts in and becomes terra firma once again.

We crossed the Mississippi to Winona Minnesota and it was easy as pie -- first took a trail past some houseboats and two railroad bridges, one clearly abandoned, and then a bike path on the bridge itself that looks narrow but was perfectly fine. 

The next day we rode up the Minnesota side to Wabasha and a fascinating visit to the National Eagle Center, where we learned more than we knew we could learn about these grand birds.  This area attracts numerous bald eagles, in large part because in winter the fast water of the entering Chippewa River stirs up the Mississippi enough to keep it ice-free for quite a few miles.  The center houses a half dozen eagles injured enough to be unable to return to the wild, and brings them out for talks several times a day.  Here's Louise checking out an eagle egg that was passed around and one of the eagles showing us his wingspan and his bad left eye.  Rabbit was on the menu on the day we were visiting, not as interesting according to the guide as rat day, although the twinkle in his eye told us that his story of eagles slurping up the tail like spaghetti was a tall tail -- er, tale.  Not all the eagles in the area were in the center -- they had telescopes on a balcony that we used to see two others perched in trees across the big river, looking for rabbits, rats and other delicacies on their own.

We crossed the Mississippi for the seventh and last time at Wabasha and headed into the Drifless Area, a section of Wisconsin that missed being steamrollered by any of the four major continental glaciers that covered the northern part of what's now the U.S. between 20,000 to 10,000 years ago.  Lucklily we only crossed a small part of it before getting into the valley of the Chippewa River for a flat ride into the interior.  These hills are challenging, but the scenery sure is interesting back in these valleys!  We had a short day and went canoeing in the afternoon on the Chippewa, and it was one of the most interesting canoe trips we've taken.  The river was exceptionally high though not quite at flood stage, so it was flowing fast.  We were taken by truck 10 miles up the river, and without paddling all that hard found ourselves back at the boathouse 2 hours later!  Even more exciting, we had four flyovers by bald eagles, three adults and one brown-headed juvenile. 

We find ourselves answering questions about where we're headed almost every day.  One of the most frequent questions we get after folks hear the kind of mileage we're putting on is "what roads do you bike on???"  It's usually spoken in a way that seems to actually ask, "You guys aren't crazy enough to head down the Interstate, are you . . .?"  Well, on this trip so far about 35% of the miles have been on trails, mostly fairly safe and uneventful places for a bike ride, but every now and then . . .

Except for that little problem, our ride across the width of Wisconsin was pretty easy for the first third of the way, done on the paved Chippewa River Valley Trail shown above.  The next third was a bit more challenging, and involved covering some big miles in an area with few paved roads.  Adding to the equation was a powerful tail wind that promised to blow at 15-20 mph for two days.  That's great when you go with the wind, not so great when you go 90 degrees to the wind, as we would have had to do to stay on back roads that jogged here and there for a few miles at a time.  So we tried the fast highway for about 50 of those 100 miles through central Wisconsin, and it turned out just fine.  In fact, it was faster still, since we got an additional boost when large trucks went by.  For those two days we averaged 18 mph while on the back roads, over 19 mph on the shoulder of the highway.  In case you're wondering, the rumble strip wasn't all that rough to ride over, and when there were long breaks in traffic we did cross it to ride on the slightly smoother cement surface.  But the smooth part of that asphalt shoulder is wider than it looks, and was no problem to ride down -- particularly with the wind as our additional partner!

That road is Highway 29, the last major road across the state even though it's only about half-way up the state.  But the vast majority of the state lives below it (it runs from a point near the Twin Cities through Eau Claire to Green Bay), and the area above it is generally referred to as the North Woods or sometimes Northwoods.  Hwy 29 roughly parallels the 45th parallel, staying just a mile or two south at the closest approach.  For West Coasters like us, that doesn't seem very far north -- even Portland OR is north of that line -- but in the eastern half of the country it is the north, as 45 degrees marks the northern border of NY and Vermont, and runs quite a bit north of Bangor ME.

For the last third of our passage across Wisconsin to Green Bay we rode 80 miles of the Mountain Bay Bike Trail, and it truly felt like the North Woods.  For one thing, we had dense woods on either side of the trail 95% of the way.  More importantly, we almost never had a road running nearby.  Most rail trails have nearby roads because railroads got there first and took the best routes, then roads generally squeezed in next to them to take advantage of that route.  The railroad that became our trail did the usual thing of making a bee-line regardless of direction when it was on flat ground, and winding gently around hills otherwise.  But the roads hereabout stayed on the north-south-east-west grid that defines midwest geography, and so we rarely saw roads except when our trail crossed one, every 2-3 miles.  Since houses need roads for access, we almost never saw houses either.

Sounds boring, but it wasn't.  Jeff especially was busy staying on track, as it were, since the smoothest part of the trail was the track to either side of the median, and there were occasional sticks to avoid or animal burrows built right on the trail by critters that clearly didn't read the trail user rules.  But those deep woods kept changing, we stopped a few times to talk to a couple from Virginia to take this trail, to explore this once-busy railroad station that used to watch 65 trains a day go by, and to visit a small town nearby for lunch.  We also had to be sure to take the correct branch when another trail joined ours for a few miles.

And we also had a great North Woods experience at Konkapot Lodge.  It was built by an extended Mohican family on the Mohican Reservation here in northern Wisconsin, and the folks running it were as friendly as the place was inviting with its glowing log architecture.  We had a terrific dinner a mile down the road at an Indian casino -- best vegetables of the entire trip, in fact -- and we slept like lambs with the windows open to the quiet woods surrounding the lodge.

We're spending a rest day in Green Bay, which also coincides with a prediction of 70% chance of rain all day.  Hopefully we'll figure out how to navigate the local buses to the National Railroad Museum for some mostly indoor activity.  After that, we're on to the famous Door Peninsula for a week and a half.  We'll tell you all about "The Door" in our next blog.

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