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.


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.

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

Twin Lakes, Wisconsin

Panoramic of the Twin Lakes Property

Ah, finally a break. For the next two weeks we’re kicking back at Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, where Tim and his siblings whiled away the summers of their youth. Several generations of Tim’s family have spent long, lazy summers at this house, stretching back to the early 1900s. Back then you could order blue prints for a house out of a Sears catalogue before, you know, recycling it for toilet paper.

Tim: Captain of the Float Boat

Last year was my first summer at Twin Lakes. After just a few days I came to understand the magic of this place. Playing, swimming and fishing in the cool water, swinging languidly in the hammock, reading for hours underneath the awnings of the wraparound porch until the fireflies caught my eye. Never before had I seen Tim so completely at home, in his element. He knew exactly where everything was, how everything worked. Knick knacks, Archie comics and boat keys were still in the same places they had always been for decades.

Now I find myself once again in the cozy embrace of Twin Lakes. Here, where time has the consistency of blackstrap molasses, I will gradually unfold a marvelous tale of New Orleans.

Days 13-19: Seven States in Seven Days

Wigwam Village on Route 66 in Holbrook, AZ

When Tim mentioned this morning that we’d been to seven states in the past seven days I was sure his calculation was off.

Petrified Forest in Arizona

It wasn’t. In fact, today makes eight for me.

Day 13: Grand Canyon, AZ – Gallup, NM
Day 14: Gallup, NM – Pueblo, CO
Day 15: Pueblo, CO – Salina, KS
Day 16: Salina, KS – Kansas City, MO
Day 17: Kansas City, MO – THE ENTIRE STATE OF IOWA –  Minneapolis, MN
Day 18: Minneapolis, MN – Edgar, WI
Day 19: Edgar, WI – Minneapolis, MN – New Orleans, LA (flight)

I’m saving our Grand Canyon tale for a singular post, but here are some highlights from the past week.

Day 13: Grand Canyon, AZ – Gallup, NM
Read post.

Day 14: Gallup, NM – Pueblo, CO
Read post.

Day 15: Pueblo, CO – Salina, KS

Steadily becoming a better hand at Parking Lot Lunches. I can slap together turkey and cheese on wheat while squatting over a cooler like nobody’s business. Also, I have no shame. Kansas is a flat land that threatens to blow you away in a tornado. NOT COOL, KANSAS. Not cool. The Smoky Hills Wind Farm is a freaky thing to suddenly see at night – miles and miles of red lights surrounding you and all flashing eerily in unison.

Day 16: Salina, KS – Kansas City, MO

BARBEQUE. Go to Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City for their “Burnt Tips Platter.” It will make you cry and wonder why you’d ever leave Kansas City. Yes, it’s in a gas station. No, it doesn’t taste like gas station food. The line is long at dinner time (probably more so at lunch), but they’ve got that Disneyland magic that speeds you through, and somehow there is always a table available in their crowded seating area. Stay at the Hotel Phillips near the convention center for charming art deco surroundings and proximity to the hip new Power & Light District. We enjoyed an overpriced drink and bowling at Z-Strike Bowling.

Day 17: Kansas City, MO – THE ENTIRE STATE OF IOWA –  Minneapolis, MN

Clouds, clouds everywhere. Pizza Lucé  in Minneapolis has yummy food and exceptionally friendly bartenders.

Iowa. Much like Kansas.

Day 18: Minneapolis, MN – Edgar, WI
Crossed the Mississippi River. Minnesota and Wisconsin are so green! Suburban homeowners in California spend a fortune on futile efforts to keep their lawns green, but here it comes naturally and with such vibrance. Farms with their red barns and shiny silos in the middle of green fields are postcard images of pastoral America. Homes are made of brick and wood, not stucco. Edgar is a lovely small town in which you won’t find fences demarcating property lines. The openness that exists between houses is comforting. Here I had the great pleasure of meeting Tim’s Uncle Mike, Aunt Vicki and his cousins. I’ve never met anyone in Tim’s family I haven’t liked, and this was no exception. They are some of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and I appreciated the warmth with which they welcomed us into their home.

We had to be in Edgar by yesterday for Tim to meet up with his dad for their fishing trip, hence the speediness. For the next week they’ll be doing fishermanly things while I am down in New Orleans playing hooky with a dear friend of mine. WOOHOO!