Especially on a day like this Saturday – cool, yes, starting off cool, but breezy and bright and altogether beautiful.
The segment where we are to work is one of my favorite local ones – near Gibraltar Rock and the Wisconsin River. Even the drive to it is lovely. And seasonal.
It’s a big volunteer day on the trail. I've rarely seen so many eager able bodies willing to give their time to this project. We join the prairie reconstruction group – hacking away at the aggressive sumac and cedar to create space for the natives that are just barely hanging in there.
At noon, the crew breaks for lunch. We nibble a little, but we’re mostly in a hurry to get going. Our plan is to head west. We hike out along the trail...
...and hit the country roads, weaving past a winter-ready landscape...
...making our way to Iowa.
Iowa. The most neglected by me neighbor state. It's not on the way to anywhere that I typically drive, and it has rarely been a destination state. I went there once, to a conference in Des Moines, many many years ago. But this week, during one of those “let me distract myself” web searches for good backpacking within a reasonable drive of Madison, I came across the Yellow River State Park. In Iowa.
It’s an easy trip. Two hours along the Wisconsin River.
We pick up a Subway foot-long five-buck sandwich and eat it by the road, listening to the birds outside. My, Wisconsin is a pretty state.
Then, over the Mississippi...
... to Marquette, Iowa...
...and a dozen miles north until we reach the state park.
The Yellow River State Park is, I read, Iowa’s best hiking experience. Two dozen miles of trails, wild camping permitted, bluffs, heavy inclines – we read all this and it sounds nearly perfect.
But it’s late when we get there – just before 4. The ranger station is closed. No matter: we've printed the maps and there are additional ones posted outside.
We top our water supply at the one park water spout, amidst a bevy of hunters.
Hunting season here? I ask, knowing too well that Wisconsin’s hunting season is as complicated as anything, but then, we’re not in Wisconsin.
Oh yes, the hunters tell us. Muzzleloaders this week-end.
Ed explains to me the concept of hunting this way but I hear only one thing – quit worrying: they can't shoot far, nor with great accuracy. Sort of like shooting with a barn door – he tells me.
I imagine small barn doors trying to make their way to a target, but not quite making it.
We don’t have anything blaze orange, I remind him. And what good is my bright orange t-shirt? It’s getting cold. I need my jacket over it.
Still, we set out into the forest, with my t-shirt off and plastered to my backpack. Sort of like a flag. (I’m surprised that no one else is wearing blaze orange. Except for the hunters – for them it’s mandatory.)
We set out just as it turns 4.
I’ll say this about late afternoon hiking: the colors are pretty.
But it’s slightly disconcerting to watch the sun go down without any idea as to where you’re going to pitch the tent. We pass one clearing intended for backpackers. It’s pretty enough, but it seems early to stop.
An hour later we pass another. We had expected slow going and high inclines. We find it quite the opposite – easy stuff and, therefore, rapid progress over fairly untaxing ascents and descents.
We’re still not ready to stop. We discuss the idea of pushing forward. There will be very little light left if we continue to the next clearing. And we’ll have to take it, however good it is, because there wont be another chance before darkness falls.
And so it would be our unfortunate luck that the one other group of backpackers in the entire state park has already set up camp there. Not wanting to camp within eyesight of anyone (I know, I'm not reasonable here, but to me -- this is why one camps: to have nothing between you and nature), we take a side path that seems not to be part of the trail system.
And this time we’re really lucky. After making our way across a stream, we arrive at a lovely, if a tad overgrown clearing. Before us, a ridge creates a natural boundary. The moon is now bright and the quiet is magnificent.
We pitch the tent and tonight we know to put the cover in place. Ed boils water for a pack of Curry in a Hurry (basic rice and beans with spices and a lot of organic language on the cover; we’ve had it before – it’s quite satisfying if you've hiked long enough to not mind the ho-hum nature of it).
The stove is out, the garbage is packed away. It's 7:30 and quite dark outside.
How many New Yorkers did you bring? – Ed asks.
One. Didn’t you take some?Left them in the car. Can we split yours in half?
Of course, We never read late anyway. By eight, the flashlights go off and the first wave of sleep hits us.
...until the late night howl. It seems just a few steps away, even though I tell myself noise carries well on a quiet night.
It's a wolf? -- I ask. Ed has woken up too, it's that close.
No, probably not.
Coyotes then?That sounds right.
I don’t remember, do coyotes pounce on people? I say this, at the same time that I am in awe of a night where coyotes send off a cry into the dark.Go to sleep.
What’s that other noise? A moan, repeated again and again.A cow. Go to sleep.
Attacked by the coyote pack?Go to sleep.
It is cold in the tent. Even with the cover, we are definitely feeling the chill. Both Ed and I bury deeper into our bags, using the hoods to keep the head and face warm.
I’m asleep again, until someone flashes a light into our tent.
Ed, someone’s out there. I listen to the crunch of retreating footsteps.Go to sleep.
A hunter. Yes, we’re just about an hour before sunrise. They can start shooting now. And they do. We listen to the sound of rifles from the hills.
I want to see the sun come up, and so I force myself to crawl out of the bag to raise the tent flap. The cover is brittle and stiff. Flakes of ice fall on my arm.
Deep frost has come to Iowa.
Let’s stay put until the sun thaws us out, Ed suggests. He’s picked up his half of the New Yorker again.
No, no – we need to get going!Soon.
At least, can we have breakfast?
Out comes the pot, the water, the coffee, the pouches of instant apple cinnamon oatmeal.
And once you’ve moved yourself this far, you may as well pack up and head out.
Still, it’s almost a quarter to ten before we’re on the trail. (Compared to last week’s 8:15.)
But it is warmer now. Ed has put away his flannel shirt, and I’m down to two layers to keep me warm.
The trail is a mixed bag of hiking segments, horse trails and dirt road. There are designated campgrounds where you can camp with your horses and we pause there to watch people get their horses ready.
A rather significant creek runs through this park (the Big Paint Creek) and there are opportunities for trout fishing as well.
Iowans are justifiably proud of these wooded hills.
At the look-out points, we come across an occasional person who’ll ask where we’re from. We then get the standard line – most people drive through on 80 and never get to see this! They wave their hand over the expansive view onto the ridge that borders the creek below.They wait for our affirmation. And we oblige. Best hike in Iowa! -- we confirm.
And it is magnificent. But what you do not want to say is that we’re spoiled there, on the other side of the state line. We have so many ridge lines and lakes and streams that it seems almost unfair. Minnesota robbed Iowa of its rightful share, it seems. Their best is like one of our many. Or, is it that I have become fully addicted to our state's unique beauty?
Still, it is quite pretty here on a Sunday afternoon. We munch on nuts and dried apricots again and spend a while listening to leaves fall. I do ask one local hiker – how come the leaves have mostly dropped? We’re further north, and we’re not done yet in Madison.
The warm spells, followed by these cold nights – he speculates. It’s as if one day they were just starting to turn and then they dropped.
We climb down the ridge (so many leaves, so easy to slide down and land on your butt – and I do...) and rejoin the road to the car.
Back over the Mississippi...
... to our own cornfields (and pastures). These particular fields come with a modern twist.
Life. The familiar, but not so much as to keep you rooted to one place (one state?), or to one way of proceeding. Even if after you do try something else, you're so happy to return home.