THIS STORY IS PART OF MILWAUKEE MAGAZINE’S HIKES FEATURE. CLICK HERE TO READ MORE.
There’s a stand of cottonwoods right over the fence from my home in Madison. As I approach my front door, I pause and head out back to stare up into their shivering leaves, a sort of white (green?) noise, almost hypnotic. All else fades away, and for a moment I can forget I am surrounded by concrete, cars and the cacophony of city life.
I grew up in a small town with unfenced backyards full of trees approaching the century mark. We climbed them and skinned knees, swung from weeping willow branches like Tarzan. My grandparents lived on many acres of farmland reclaimed by wilderness, and there my grandmother turned me on to birding at a very young age. Field guides – to trees, birds, mammals, rocks, mushrooms – found their way on to our bookshelves. Surely, this is where it all started.
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I get out on the trails now to reconnect with that larger-than-humans world, with the hustle and bustle of birds, bees and butterflies, birches and basswoods, lines of marching ants and the swaying rhythms of prairie grass and wildflowers. Turn over any leaf or rock and another reality is revealed. Growing up, I never knew it – not scientifically anyway – but trees actually communicate with each other in a variety of ways. Now, though, it just makes sense. When I step onto the trail, I take my place in these interconnected worlds.
Hiking is holy communion with that Life (with the big L) so far beyond my daily sound and fury over trifles. Science suggests that being out in nature is good protection against anxiety and depression, that kids with ADD can find neurological benefits. There’s the Japanese practice shinrin-yoku – forest bathing – opening up all your senses, being a receiver rather than a transmitter. All I know for sure is that when I am out there, I am not distracted; I am focused, in the best of ways.
Kevin Revolinski, author of Hiking Wisconsin and several other travel and outdoors books
Cherokee Marsh North Loop
Length: 4.4 mi.
Elevation Gain: 137 ft.
This one’s for the birders. Eagles, sandhill cranes and osprey are all known to frequent the wetlands, plus a lot of smaller feathered friends like blue jays, woodpeckers and swallows. The trail traverses restored prairies, oak savannas and woodlands. There’s also a boardwalk that wraps around the deep marsh and Yahara River. “[It’s] a go-to hike when you have a moment,” Revolinski says.
The long and short of hikes
ASSESSING THE DIFFICULTY of a hike can be tricky. Consider length, elevation, trail surface, shade and current temperatures. Ten miles is a long hike, even if it’s flat. But a steep bluff climb might not ruin you for the day if it’s just a quarter-mile. Do either of them in direct sun or in a buggy lowland after a rain, and the challenges become different. A lot of up and down might make that mere 50 feet of elevation into a cumulative 500. Some tips to consider:
ON YOUR FEET
Rustic trails such as the Ice Age may require good hiking boots’ sturdy soles and ankle support, but a 3-mile loop on packed gravel can be fine in running shoes. Grassy trails wet with dew may warrant waterproof footwear.
If you are a power hiker aiming for the finish line and have a longer stride, figure an hour per 3 miles. Stopping for photos? Meditative stroll with birding moments? Now it’s closer to 2 mph. Most of us fall in the middle. For longer distances, add rest time and count on slower mileage as the day goes on. The kiddos may be taking twice as many steps, so consider the shorter nature trails, which often feature educational signs or booklet activities available at park offices. These trails are often no-pets-allowed.
In all cases, packing water is a good idea, according to the heat and the elevation change. Do you want that bottle in your hand for three hours? Use a daypack or one with a water reservoir (such as Osprey or CamelBak). State park maps are typically clear, but use your phone’s compass app and pre-download maps – the GPS will likely still work. In any event, always let someone know what your plan for the day is. Most bad hiking stories in the news involve someone who didn’t. And keep an eye on severe weather. Watch for and avoid poison ivy/oak, stinging nettle or wild parsnip, and check for ticks afterward.
This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine’s July issue.
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