The good life: trails network, wild flowers

It was a good week indeed when out on the trails of Washington County I could claim first sightings of 1. A patch of Trilliums, 2. A small swamp full of Marsh Marigolds, and 3. An early bloom of a few Wild Geraniums.

Even though I would never compete in such an ethereal arena, I was one-up on Kine, my hiking and flower expert wife, who was otherwise occupied at a retriever field trial. Life is good. In her absence, I also came upon an eye-popping bright yellow mushroom growing from a dead tree. My wife went on the web and we suspect it was chicken-of-the-woods. Made my day.

Those are some of the small joys that come from living in a community where trails are looked at as investment in family health and quality of life. That investment over the last couple of decades is all around us in Kettle Moraine country and along the beautiful Milwaukee River and its three tributaries.

Let’s assess the trail development that has turned our city in what Kine calls “Walkable West Bend” and our county into “Hikeable and Bikeable Washington County.”

First and foremost is the west bank of the Milwaukee River where the Riverwalk is progressing at an amazing pace. It will be finished by this summer to take advantage of the Milwaukee River in the heart of the downtown. Fifty years ago the river was a mess. Now it has been cleaned up and close to being pristine. Anglers have discovered that they can catch edible fish right downtown. Three rapids there add to the visual charm.

Also moving along at an impressive pace is the nation’s fourth National Scenic Trail – the Ice Age Trail — that is entirely in Wisconsin. It runs along the southern perimeter of the mammoth glacier, three miles thick, that receded some 10,000 years ago. The Ice Age Trail Alliance publishes a magazine called “Mammoth Tales,” and its recent edition reported that the completed miles now total 683.7. That compares to 570.5 20 years ago. The Alliance staff has grown from seven to 21, and the volunteer hours have doubled to more than 84,000 per year in the same period.

Luke Kloberdanz, executive director and CEO, “Those numbers do not reflect the incredible growth and enthusiasm for the trail in the past ten years. As more people turn to the trail for personal wellness, it’s rate of use accelerates.” The end goal is about 1100 miles. Each unfinished segment presents its own challenges. The timing has to be right for property owners who sell or donate a trail extension or an easement for public use.

Patty Dreier, president, added, “The Ice Age National Scenic Trail offers us a way to live our lives better, healthier, and in service of something bigger than ourselves.” Membership has doubled to more than 5,000. The Alliance is on a roll and we just have to believe that in another 20 or 40 years the trail will be completed.

My favorite segment of the trail in Washington County is the piece on the west side of Lucas Lake that can be reached from the city’s Ridge Run Park and the stretch off Paradise Road just north of West Bend Mutual Insurance.

Concurrently, more than 40 land trusts in Wisconsin have been flourishing in their areas of responsibility. We are blessed with two trusts in our county. Both the Cedar Lakes Conservation Foundation (CLCF) and the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust (OWLT) have grown in stature and capability. They are now both professionally managed and have substantial financial footings in the millions through remarkable levels of donations.

As a result, both land trusts add several parcels every year. CLCF concentrates on the Cedar Lakes watershed. My favorite there are the trails for cross-country skiing and hiking around Fox Hill. That’s where I saw the bursts of wildflowers last week. The first were big banks of spring beauties that my wife discovered before I did. Dang!

OWLT concentrates on precious lands alongside the Milwaukee River and its tributaries and along the west shore Lake Michigan. My favorite stretch there is the trail at Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve, now owned by Ozaukee County, that drops 200 feet precipitously to the Lake Michigan beach. The public loves that project.

Another fabulous stretch that is currently being added south of Port Washington is called Cedar Clay Bluffs. It was made possible by generous private donations and a $2.3 million grant issued by Gov. Evers. I can’t wait to hike that trail when it is finished.

Some parts of the country are known for their healthy outdoor lifestyles. Is there any doubt that Wisconsin is developing the same reputation?

P.S. My definition of a SAM – a Sensitive American Male – is a guy who can identify wild flowers.

Trail Image: By United States Department of the Interior
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