Here in Wisconsin, it is a rare year indeed when Super Bowl Sunday features bright sun calm winds and temperatures in the mid 40s. We knew as early as September that a strong El Nino weather pattern was developing in the southern Pacific. The local TV weather meteorologists predicted above normal temperatures and below average precipitation.
Today, those predictions kept intruding as I parked atop Dunlap Hollow Road and headed for the trailhead at Phil’s Woods County Park in Roxbury. Nestled in the northwest corner of Dane County it is so small that Dane County Parks neglected to include it on the county parks map. It barely has a parking lot, which is plowed shut for the winter. What Phil’s woods has in spades is a spectacular view of the Wisconsin River Valley and Baraboo Hills.
A gift to the county by the Lafollette family, this park was part of the farm owned by the former governor. Its steep terrain declares this place has refused to succumb to snow and ice that covered most of Wisconsin and ground its rough features clean. Its slopes are a crazy mix of oak, hickory, birch and cedar, intermixed with cherry and black walnut that are obvious newcomers to this place.
As I cross an open field at its top, newly restored from cropland to prairie, I am following in the tracks of a man and his dog. The dog rarely moves from his master’s side despite having the fifteen acres to romp. At the ridge, an old fence line marks the southern boundary of the park.
Along the edge of honeysuckle separates parkland from the adjoining farmer’s field sits a well worn Leopold bench. One end is soggy but the left side is dry and inviting. Before me looking back across the slumbering prairie opens a magical vista; eons of natural history woven together to create a scene so beautiful it invites skepticism. How is it that this setting is real and not the contrivance of a Hollywood cinematographer? How is it that I am here at noon on Sunday feasting on it alone?
The air is mostly still with only an occasional murmur in the treetops. The only sound is the rhythmic boom of shotguns coming from the gun club off County Road Y. While some of my lefty friends might find the rumbling disturbing, I find it reassuring. These are the guys I have worked with for forty years. They are out sharpening their skills for next fall’s pheasant and quail season. But those “environmentalists” who mistake them for blood thirsty thrill seekers could not be more wrong. Hunters are outdoor enthusiasts first.
Hunters are overwhelmingly ethical with a deep understanding of the outdoors; spending far more days and nights in the woods during the off-season than they do hunting. Not only do they pay license fees to support wildlife management, but most belong to groups like Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, Quails Forever and Trout Unlimited. Their volunteer efforts are responsible for restoring and protecting the world-class waterfowl resource know as Horicon Marsh, as well as the renown trout fishery in the driftless area of southwestern Wisconsin.
My musings are suddenly disturbed. But rather than breaking the mood, this interruption is more like the timely stage direction meant to complete the scene. Moving low above the treetops coming from Praire du Sac, a bald eagle climbs higher circling the Wisconsin River in broad sweeps from northeast to southwest than back. Each time climbing a bit higher into my view. Being noon, the Sunday brunch at the dam is finished and it is time to check out the hunting downstream. This time of year, eagles concentrate around those small patches of open water that afford a chance for an easy meal. And my day is all the more blessed for their presence.
On the walk back, I notice that portions of the park seem well cared for, while others are choked by prickly ash and buck throne. Along with the honeysuckle that bordered the prairie, these invasive shrubs remind me that the price of maintaining natural areas is high. Park volunteers, naturalists and contractors battle to protect our beautiful woodlands. Most parks have “Friends” groups that provide much of the labor needed.
Back at the car, I head home but stop to visit Dwight at his ice shanty on Lake Monona. The ice is slushy but he assures me there is still 8 inches; plenty of ice for walking on. The perch were biting earlier, but are apparently tailgating this afternoon, ahead of the Super Bowl. Dwight tells me the cold weather forecast for the coming week will likely improve the fishing. A tip-up flag jumps and Dwight is scrambling the twenty yards that separates him from his next victory. I take that as my cue to head home and prepare for the big game.