Close Encounters of the Natural Kind

Wisconsin is a state of unrivaled dairy, verdant farmland and friendly neighbors. It’s also a singular font of natural wonders. For three days we camped at Franklin Lake in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Imagine our surprise upon arriving to campsite with a moving carpet — dozens of miniscule frogs, each no larger than a nickel. Their hippity-hoppity welcome wagon was but the first of our Northwoods fauna encounters.

The forest surrounding our camp possessed a canopy so thick that sunlight merely trickled in in patches. Loons filled the air at all times of the day with their signature call. Unseen animals scurried about in the undergrowth. Clusters of skinny white-barked birch trees held leaves that rustled  gently in the occasional breeze, shimmering in the light. Franklin Lake itself is a hidden gem of pristine water, its tranquility preserved by an undeveloped shoreline. Hardly any boats disturb its placid waters which offer respite from the oppressive afternoon heat and ravenous insects.

One day we had to go into town for provisions. Zoned out in the passenger’s seat on the way back, I suddenly noticed an irregularity in the greenery outside. Before my brain had a chance to register what the dark form was, Tim exclaimed, “Did you see that?! Was that a bear?” Before I could answer, I felt the car moving in reverse. Outside of the rear window a black bear lumbered along the shoulder of the road. We had come within ten feet of it just seconds before.

The next day we embarked on a fishing expedition through the Eagle River Chain o’ Lakes. (Not kidding – it’s officially spelled “Chain o’ Lakes.”) This vacation community is highly developed, its shores crowded with summer homes, lodges, private piers and dockside restaurants. It is not the kind of place I would expect to have any Steve Irwin adventures. A couple of hours into the trip found us quietly casting our lines into the depths of Eagle Lake. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a bald eagle appeared in the sky! My jaw literally dropped as it soared overhead. Up until that point, the bald eagle had been a mythical creature to me, a fabled endangered species of grade school text books and American coinage. In the flesh this eagle was far greater than any photograph. After it flew away a hungry osprey grabbed our attention. It dove into the water in front of us and shot back up with a fish in its mouth, just like a scene out of Nature. Nearby, common loons likewise dove into the water, then skimmed the surface wailing and elaborately displaying themselves for any loon ladies in the area.

We lazily explored six or seven lakes that day and caught no fish. On the way back to the marina we sped through the waters where we could. Lucky for us we entered a “Slow No Wake” zone at just the right place. Perched upon an old tree stump at the edge of the shoreline  sat a humungous golden eagle. It was about two feet tall with nutty brown plumage, sharp golden talons and blazing yellow eyes. It rotated its head around nearly 360 degrees, scanning for prey. As we crept around the corner, coming within 15 feet or so of this imposing raptor, it did not flinch or otherwise indicate that it considered us to be any higher on the food chain than it.

That night we may have settled for a weenie roast instead of fresh fish for dinner, but we did not go back to camp disappointed. Nature had provided such an excitingly singular experience for us that day that it was hard to complain. She did, however, tax us in the form of overly-aggressive mosquitos, tent-loving spiders and huge black beetles that randomly rained down from the trees. Still, I’ll never forget my exotic Northwoods safari. The morning we left Eagle River to head north, Nature threw in one last freebie: a second bald eagle perched atop a telephone pole bid us farewell.

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Madison…It’s Like Davis in the Midwest

I’d heard Madison called the “Berkeley of the Midwest” before, but I think it’s more like Davis. It’s a slow-paced, bicycle friendly, culturally diverse university town. But it gets bonus points for being an attractive state capitol, having a supremely vast arboretum and for being situated across four lakes. Downtown Madison itself is an isthmus, laying between Lake Menona and Lake Mendota.

This morning we rambled around downtown, the hub of activity every Saturday morning when the Dane County Farmers’ Market takes place. Today it was extra crowded with a huge art fair taking place concurrently on the Capitol Square. The variety of beautiful produce was familiar, and I found it interesting that Californian spring crops like peas seem to be summer crops in Wisconsin. Booths hawking cheese curds (“They’re squeak-a-licious!”) and local brews gave the market an unmistakable Wisconsin flavor. Lunch consisted of New Glarus Spotted Pig ale and savory stuffed pastries called kolaches.

After lunching we explored the State Capitol building. This elaborate beaux arts building puts Sacramento’s Capitol to shame with its lavish interior. Vibrant glass mosaics, rococo sculptural elements and gold leaf ornamentation abound. I was particularly amused by the four badger sculptures guarding each compass point of the building.

Badgers and Wisconsin – they go together like Nilla wafers and banana puddin’.

Tomorrow we continue north to Eagle River, Wisconsin to make good use of our fishing licenses. If all goes according to plan, we’ll be frying up a couple of fresh fish fillets for dinner at least once this week. If not, we’ll have an opportunity to hone our sandwich-making skills. It’s a win-win situation, really.

CUBS WON!(?)

Yes. Yes they did. I saw it with my own eyes.

Today we topped off the trip with a much-anticipated architecture tour down the Chicago River. Ever since reading The Devil in the White City, I’ve been eager to learn more about this city’s architectural history. The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s river cruise did not disappoint. Our delightfully snarky docent exuded true Chicagoanness, and his passion for the city provided an engaging and entertaining history lesson aboard Chicago’s Leading Lady. I do wish we had time to take a walking tour of the Loop’s architecture. It is the birthplace of the skyscraper, the area in which many of Burnham and Root’s buildings, including the Rookery, are located. Next time I’m making it a priority.

Tonight’s our last night in Chicago. For the tail end of our trip we’re staying downtown at the Allerton Hotel. It’s a lovely place right on the Magnificent Mile. Last night we walked up to Tim’s parents’ old neighborhood, the Gold Coast, and had ourselves the ultimate deep dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria. I’d had deep dish in Chicago before, and it was nothing to write home about. In fact, the stuff they served up at Uno’s was pretty terrible. But if you’re looking for that perfect pie – thick buttery crust that  holds up honorably to layers of fresh mozzarella, peppery homemade sausage and tangy-not-sweet sauce thick with tomato chunks – Lou Malnati’s is your place.

Tonight we realized that our destination for tomorrow still had a question mark next to it. We’d entered the unplanned chapter of the Walkabout. It felt kind of odd, but liberating. This is the freedom of the Great American Roadtrip! The plan now is to drive back up north through Wisconsin (apparently we can’t get enough of America’s Dairyland) and explore Kettle Moraine State Forest. Totally new and mysterious territory for both of us. Glacier land here we come!

Chicago and the 3rd of July

View from the John Hancock building

There’s something in the air here. Something that makes Chicago feel like home. Indeed, after spending the better part of a week riding the “L” and walking miles and miles of its perfect grid, I feel as though I’ve reacquainted myself with an old friend. We’re staying in the cutest little apartment too in the neighborhood of Norwood, northwest of downtown along the Blue Line.

Home Away from Home
Wednesday was by far the highlight of the week, it being the day we chose to celebrate the holiday. I spent the morning gallivanting around the Loop, watching the Grant Park Orchestra rehearse in Millennium Park and spending a good three hours at the Art Institute of Chicago (not nearly enough time). I’ve got to hand it to the city when it comes to accesible arts and culture events. All summer long, the Grant Park Music Festival showcases a variety of artists in concerts that are free and open to the public. Even the venue’s architecture is a spectacular experience, with its beautiful thick ribbons of brushed steel.
Concert Hall Quality in a Public Park
With a wee bit of symphony as the soundtrack for my morning, I caught the Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity exhibit at the Art Institute. It was a trifecta of Drea-tuned interests, impossible to resist! I could have spent the entire three hours just on this exhibit alone, but was surprised and delighted by every other turn I took through the seemingly endless galleries. Perhaps the biggest highlights for me – in addition to 19th century fashion plates and garments – were Van Gogh’s The Old Guitarist and The Bedroom. Seeing such monumental, iconic works in person was pretty jaw-dropping.
On the deck of the Odyssey
That same evening Tim took me on a fancy pants dinner cruise aboard The Odyssey on Lake Michigan.  It was incredible! Leaving from Navy Pier, the ship slowly wound its way up and down the Chicago shoreline, providing enchanting views of the city skyline. Cloudy as it was when we embarked, the skies cleared up well in time for the holiday fireworks show. Surrounded by a motley crue of sailboats, yachts and other vessels, multicolored lights shining all around, countless faces aimed in the direction of the fireworks barge, dance music blaring in the distance, and the air thick with anticipation, it felt kind of like Burning Man. Imagine my disappointment when no 40-foot-tall effigy was burned to a fine crisp for the finale! Still, a very special time.
As for the actual Fourth of July, Tim and I celebrated with one of the finest of American traditions: lazing about. Yes! We stayed in, had ourselves a lazy day, watched Django Unchained and made Filipino food. We even enjoyed hours of fireworks, as viewed from our cozy little apartment in Norwood. Being in a place with far fewer fire concerns than California is pretty damn exciting on Independence Day.

Twin Lakes, You Irresistible Temptress

View from our canoe on Lake Elizabeth

So I lied. Over the past two weeks, instead of writing about New Orleans, I did nothing but chill lakeside. Lake Elizabeth beckoned me to take lazy dips in it and explore its glassy waters by canoe. Marvelous thunderstorms commanded attention, hurtling crisp lightening bolts through the sky, splitting it in half day and night. Wisconsin cheddar and bratwust seemed to rain down from the heavens. And each day a veritable brick of a novel consumed me at length; I got to know that cozy wraparound porch very well.

Today Tim and I returned to Chicago, NOLA’s soul sister. New Orleans has had to wait. Contemplating her the placid environment of Twin Lakes just wasn’t in the cards. She did not bide her time quietly, oh no. She’s been clamoring for attention, and I’m just about ready to give her what she wants.

My time in New Orleans is like a fantastic and convoluted dream to me. Surreal flashes of sensory input swim around in my brain. The brassy blare of a trumpet here, the smell of hot beignets there, and through it all a swirling mass of bold colors. It was such an otherworldly experience that I’m still decompressing from it. It’s too big to write about in a single post. As such, I’ll endeavor to break up my tale into a series of posts, each centered on a different theme. For tonight, dear readers, I’ll leave you with some highlights from Twin Lakes.

Another fine day for swimming in Lake Elizabeth
Tim’s brother and nephew fishing

Friday Night Fish Fry at Mad Dan’s

Float boat time