Wandering Wisconsin

While pouring over maps trying to decide our destination for the next couple of days, we spot an attraction called Wisconsin Concrete Park.  “Nah”, I said to John, “it’s probably just a big skateboard park.”  Wrong-o!  It’s a sculpture park, all works by Fred Smith, who lived and worked in the area until his death at the age of 89 in 1976. 20141013_105311 The Park is now part of the Price County Park system, and includes the Smith family home.  It’s a curious spot, well worth a visit.  The sculptures are concrete, inlaid with pieces of glass, which seem to be primarily from colored bottles.  20141013_110915Apparently, he used real horse skulls in some of the horse sculptures to ensure that he had the heads shaped correctly. 20141013_10402720141013_105052This one was called Double Wedding.20141013_104834This one was Sun Yet Sen, a “China Woman”.  Not sure what’s with the mustache.20141013_104501 Many of the sculptures are still in need of repairs to replace fallen-out pieces of glass. Others have been restored. 20141013_10412920141013_10533620141013_110709 This one was my favorite because of the old Standard Oil Red Crown on the driver’s head.  My dad was a Standard Oil agent for many years, and we had a Red Crown (from the top of the old gas pumps) in our garage for years.20141013_105442Moving on, we steam toward Governor Thompson State Park.  Along the way, we notice a variety of fir tree which is bright yellow.  They are gorgeous.  But, after a bit of internet searching, it seems as though these trees may be on death’s door, as the result of some type of mite.  In any case, we saw hundreds of them along the road.  I hope they are just some variety of ‘evergreen’ which isn’t, but I fear they are doomed.20141013_115559As the miles pass, we reflect that we’ve stayed in lots of pretty cushy campsites lately, and have gotten away from the National and State Forest campgrounds we love.  So, as we pass a sign pointing to a National Forest Campground, we make a snap decision to change plans.  And so, we find ourselves camped at Richardson Lake Campground in the Nicolet National Forest, near Wabeno, WI.  Great decision!

We pull into an empty campground, having our choice of 27 spectacular sites.  We drive twice around, and finally pick site #1. 20141013_160228 All the sites are HUGE, well wooded.  The pit toilets are pristine – it looks like no one has camped here for quite some time.  There are some yellow leaves on the treetops, but the paths into each campsite have not been driven into.  We quickly established camp before the rain began.  It rained for 14 hours straight, quit for about six, and has been raining every since.  Oh well…..we set up our Thermarest awning (attaches right to the Fireball) and also another awning over the picnic table for some cooking space.  We created a Dutch oven dinner of short ribs braised in red wine with carrots, butternut squash, and dried shiitake mushrooms.  Enough for two days.  Yum!

During the lull in the storm, Jezzy and I strolled around, hiking out to the highway where we saw these two amazing barns on a nearby farm.  They were enormous.20141014_14014020141014_140052Tomorrow will take us back into Michigan, as we begin to wind down our northern adventure.  No hurry, but we gotta get home one of these days….

Mellow Yellow

Although we turn south and east, we resist any thoughts of making a beeline toward Grand Rapids. We’ve still got a couple of weeks before our arbitrary Get Home date, and we intend to stretch them out.

So, Copper Falls State Park, near Mellen, WI is our destination. Arriving early on a Friday afternoon, we anticipate a campground reserved to the max. What a surprise to find the opposite. We score the absolutely perfect campsite – the one usually reserved for the Camp Host. It has electric, and is the most perfectly level, isolated, private site we could ever wish for. John even foolishly wishes for rain so that we could test the perfect drainage of our dream site.20141010_150255 20141010_152900Our arrival is marred only by the fact that one of us doesn’t really know how to back the Fireball into a campsite. There’s an incident, the Firetruck’s bumper is dented, one of us gets weepy, the other one is tearing out his non-existent hair, and there’s a general ruckus. One of us needs more practice backing up.wpid-20141012_173749.jpgWe set up camp, and decide to hike to the Red Granite Falls. Our reasoning is that the next day (Saturday) will bring a flood of visitors. We need to get one of the two major hikes done before the crowds arrive. We are totally fooled by our map, and turn a 2.5 mile hike into a 6 mile odyssey.wpid-20141010_164413.jpg But, it’s worth it. Beautiful cascading falls, with the reddish cast that we’ve become accustomed to (a result of tannins in the water from the cedar swamps which feed these creeks and rivers).wpid-20141012_130916.jpg As we leave the falls, we come upon a couple of hikers who say to John, “Are these the Falls? We’ve been walking FOREVER!” John smiles knowingly, and points.

Curiously, our campground stays uninhabited. It’s the most perfectly quiet evening we’ve had in weeks of camping. We absorb the silence, and celebrate with a  campfire.

Saturday morning, we wait for the chill to leave the air before setting off with Jezzy to explore the Copper Falls/Brownstone Falls Trail. When we arrive at the Trailhead, we are dismayed to find that it’s a No Pets Allowed Trail. Damn! So we hike back to camp with Jezzy. She’s gotten a good walk, and is content to be left behind with a few treats while we cycle back to the Trailhead. It’s a gorgeous day.

If you live in an area where you’ve never experienced a perfect walk through piles of fall leaves, I feel sorry for you. Not only did we have picture perfect waterfalls, we had ankle-deep crispy leaves on a trail and the haze of golden air surrounding us. 20141011_15040020141011_144656We had to stop walking to carry on a conversation – our feet were making that much noise shuffling through the leaves. The best part of the hike, for me, was the section where we came into an area where there were only the maple trees which turn bright yellow in fall. The air was the most perfect bright yellow, and the forest floor was covered with thousands of tiny two and three-leaved saplings, covered by their one and two-foot tall cousins. They of course were protected by a full canopy of elders. 20141011_135055Sounds corny, but it was delicious walking. We hiked along the North Country Trail for a bit, and wandered past a backpacker camp area and rapids. High sandstone walls, with trees perilously hanging on to on the edges rounded out a perfect scene. 20141011_140610It was the perfect storm of circumstances –light, scenery, weather, and location. Could not have been a better day.

Our original plan had been to head out Sunday for a new camp somewhere. But, the weather forecast for Sunday was for more perfect weather, and we decided not to waste it driving. So, we paid for another day, and spent it on the bike and hiking trails, followed by cycling into the town of Mellen.wpid-20141012_113050.jpg I topped it off by cycling through the campground, collecting abandoned firewood.  wpid-20141012_151900.jpgLet me say one thing about mountain bike trails…..they are beautiful when covered with bright yellow and red leaves, although that obscures the hazards below. Six inches of mud covered by two inches of beautiful leaves is still six inches of mud. You just can’t see it coming. That’s all I’m going to say….

Although the color here is past its peak, it’s still beautiful here. We’re in love with having this incredible park to ourselves. Sunny days, calm evenings – perfect for campfires, clean bathrooms with hot showers.

Mellow yellow.

Random Musings

After six weeks of being on the road, a few things keep coming to my mind.  Here they are, in no particular order.

  • Coolest town name ever:  Castle Danger, MN.  Nothing else even comes close.
  • Camping in cold rain is not as much fun as camping in warm sun.
  • Many nights by the campfire have been ruined by swirling smoke.  It’s annoying to have to move every couple of minutes.  The solution?  The Campfire Lazy Judy.  I envision this as a large collapsible ring of some type that has a center hole large enough to fit over a 4′ fire ring.  The edges will be wide enough to accommodate a camp chair.  When the smoke swirls your way, simply rotate the Lazy Judy (your foot against the edge of the fire pit) until your chair is no longer in the line of smoke.  No more disruptive getting up and running around!  I need some engineering work, and then a Kickstarter campaign.  Sounds good, right?
  • We have some friends in Arizona who are from Minnesota.  They’ve used the phrase “Minnesota Nice” in conversation.  Now, I know what they’re talking about.  Should be “Minnesota Super Nice”.  People here are amazing.
  • Ashland, Wisconsin has the worst laundromat I’ve ever been in.  Best is the Loads of Fun in Marquette, MI.  There’s one in Beaver Falls, MN called The Mother Load.  That makes me smile.
  • Hope I never get tired of riding my bike.  They are essential for us.  But, I am concerned that we’ve done so much casual riding that I may never be able to hop on my road bike and really roll.  What if my top speed now is 12mph?
  • On the other hand, I see able-bodied folks in campgrounds who DRIVE to the bathrooms.  Seriously?
  • For six weeks, we’ve seen Lake Superior every day.  It has so many faces and shorelines.  Here are a few.  I’m really going to miss this.
    Porcupine Mountain SP, MI

    Porcupine Mountain SP, MI

    Near Bay View Campground

    Near Bay View Campground, MI

    Gooseberry Falls SP, MN

    Gooseberry Falls SP, MN

    Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, MI

    Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, MI

  • Favorite town (so far):  Duluth, MN.  Hands down winner, for me.
  • Favorite campsite:  Bay View Campground in Hiawatha State Forest, MI
  • Worst campsite:  Lakehead Marina, Duluth.  But…location, location…..
  • When you’re traveling, seek out local food purveyors.  Sixth Street Market in Ashland has the best brats I’ve ever had.  Heard their ad on the radio….
  • Don’t think I would mind if I never had TV again.  But, I get really cranky when we’re in a location with no radio stations, and no cell service.
  • The bed in the Fireball is 70″ x 50″ (slightly smaller than a standard double bed).  John is shoehorned into one half.  Jezzy gets about 28% of my half.  My next dog will sleep on the floor!
  • This town has 181 residents, and one is a cop?  A bit of overkill, perhaps?wpid-20141008_130754-1.jpg
  • I get a kick out of sending postcards to John’s folks.
  • John is the Dutch Oven King.

As we sat around the campfire last night, John looked over at me and said, “This really is the life, isn’t it?”  Agreed.

Island Camping

Camping on an island.  Bundling up the Fireball, taking it on a (thankfully, brief) ferry ride to a beautiful Lake Superior island, and setting up camp for three nights.  What’s not to like?  Now picture, camping in 40 degree rain for three days, complete with 20mph winds (gusting to 30 at times).  Now how does that sound?20141002_160544The Apostle Islands are 20+ islands located off the northernmost tip of Wisconsin in Lake Superior.  Madeline Island, the largest of them, contains Big Bay State Park, the village of LaPointe, and also a township park/campground, as well as many private residences.  Our destination was the State Park.  Roundtrip ferry charges were about $90 for the Fireball/Firetruck, plus the three of us.  Not unreasonable.

Before the deluge began, we did get a chance to explore the campground and adjoining beach. There are some fantastic sites here – large and wooded.  We earmarked a few trails for exploration in the coming days.  It was cold, and the wind was howling as the sun began to dip. 20141002_152615 As Jezzy and I made the last lap of her pre-dinner stroll, I noticed a bicycle loaded with panniers rolling past.  “Where did you ride from?” I hollered.  “Iowa!”  So, we invited him over for cold beer, hot coffee, dinner, and campfire. Our new cyclist friend is Rusty Easton, a bike mechanic from Waterloo, who has cycled to work every day for over 16 years.  After warming up by the roaring fire John had established, he wandered back to his own campsite, refusing our offer of dinner.  Nice encounter.  The first of the big rains had already begun.

By late morning, the rain had stopped, and we decided to bicycle around the Island.  Big Bay Town Park was the first stop. 20141003_12534820141003_124405 Lots of campsites, but many were submerged!  This would have been a great place to camp – terrific bathrooms, and no traffic.  Continuing around the north end of the Island, we came to the pavement’s end, and off onto gravel roads. 20141003_13390620141003_141117 Perfect for our mountain bikes.  Lots of fall color, combined with glimpses of Lake Superior made it a terrific ride, despite the chilly wind (how can it always be a headwind?)

Back at camp, the rain begins.  Thru the night.  Gawd, this is SO tiresome.  Towels haven’t been dry in days, floormats are caked with wet dirt, and everything is just nasty to the touch.  We can’t keep a decent campfire going – when the flame is flaming, the swirling winds make enjoying the fire impossible – we have to rotate our chairs like a lazy susan.

Day three is Hiking Day.  Cold drizzle makes me want to leave Jezzy behind, but the pleading looks from both Jezzy and John force me to relent. 20141004_135534 Off we go on the Lagoon Ridge Trail, which apparently does not see too many sets of feet upon it.  Overgrown, with deep mud in spots, it’s a real slog. Came across these mushrooms, which were the weirdest orange-y green shiny color ever! 20141004_134114 Other mushrooms looked like a good bet for dinner.20141004_125253But, we do get a few nice views of the Lagoon, a large body of water, separated from the Lake by just a narrow barrier strip of land.  Our return hike is via a boardwalk, which runs between the two parks on the Island.  It’s a pleasant stroll.20141003_12552020141004_15002020141003_133344We’re sorry that we don’t get to explore the other Apostle Islands.  Seems like it would be an ideal place to kayak, although windy/rainy/October/Lake Superior doesn’t sound like a good time to learn. Yeah, I’ll put that on the (long) list of stuff I gotta get to.

Heading out on Sunday morning, we manage to get on the 9:15 ferry.  We’re pleased, because we anticipated having to wait.  The entire campground was packing up on this Sunday morning, and it’s a fairly small boat.  We lucked out.  On the road to Duluth, we cut in to see part of the Apostle Island National Lakeshore at Little Sand Bay.20141005_10123920141005_10174420141005_101458 There’s a defunct fishing operation.  The Lake is wild – crashing up over the breakwater.  It’s freezing!

We roll into Duluth, where we have a three-night reservation at Lakehead Marina and RV Park.  What a laugh!  It’s no park – they should call it Lakehead Marina and Parking Lot, which perfectly describes this place.  It’s awful!20141005_142324-1 We decide to stick it out for at least one night, then play it by ear.  When near an urban area, we like to be close to the city, to make exploration easy without getting in the truck.  We’re right across the river from downtown Duluth, and the iconic bridge and drawbridge fill the view from each side of the Fireball.

As I write this, we watch a large Coast Guard vessel slide beneath the raised drawbridge.  in the morning.  Distant freighter horns beg us to get on our bikes and see what’s happening out there.  The sun is out!  Maybe this will be okay.


Michigan’s in the taillights now.  Wisconsin! Cheese!  Green Bay Packers!

Our planned first stop is a short hop to Ashland.  I’ve seen photos of the murals in this small town, and want to check them out.  We find a municipal RV park, right on the shores of Lake Superior, and decide to stay for two nights. 20141001_190250 It’s windy, cold, and very dreary.  The dominant feature of the Ashland landscape is the Ore Dock, built over 100 years ago when Ashland was a main shipping point for the ore and timber extracted from the area.  The ore dock extends nearly a half-mile into the Bay.  The superstructure has been dismantled, leaving the dock base stretching out into the water.20140930_175352 You can walk at least half-way out.  Lake Superior laps at both sides of the huge metal dock.  It’s cool.

The other distinguishing feature of Ashland is the EPA shoreline cleanup site.  There’s the biggest tent you’ll ever see, complete with enormous air-handlers and smokestacks.20141001_190702 Contaminated soil from the area is brought inside the tent by truck, and the debris is sorted.  Soil is baked in an adjoining kiln, heated to 1200 degrees.  After baking, it’s tested and redistributed.  Non-treated debris is hauled off to some other site for disposal.  The entire project is slated to take eight months, after which Ashland will have its harbor back.

Our municipal campground is directly between these two spots.

We establish camp, haul the bikes out of the Firetruck, and hit the road – armed with a brochure of the murals.

Two mural artists have decorated the historic Main Street district of Ashland with murals depicting the history of the community  the first in 1998, and the most recent in 2012.  They’re glorious – colorful and informative.  Some, painted directly on the brick buildings, are a block long.20140930_160923 They are fabulous.  My favorite was probably the Ore Dock, which included many smaller portraits of its significance to the community.20141001_10250320140930_15494820140930_15575320140930_16202120140930_15460320140930_154126Even McDonald’s got into the act, and had a mural painted in their dining room.20140930_163012Hey, guess what?  There’s a brewery in Ashland!  South Shore Brewery.  Beautiful setting.  Beer….so so.  Their claim to fame is their Brown Ale, which is not our favorite, but John enjoyed.  I tried an Apple Ale – good at first, but it got pretty tiring by the bottom of the glass.  John’s whitefish sandwich was good.  My steak salad was ok.  End of review.

We spent a morning wandering around the city, grocery shopping by bicycle.  There’s a wonderful food co-op here, and an old butcher shop with award winning brats.  We stashed away a couple of frozen packages, hoping they will sustain us through the next leg of our trip.

On my afternoon walk with Jezzy, we strolled to the ore dock.  There, sitting on a piling about 50 yards from me sat a bald eagle.  I had my binoculars along, so I just parked myself nearby and watched him watching me for about 10 minutes.  I was hoping he would find himself something for dinner while I was watching, but no.

We’re headed offshore – Apostle Islands.  Taking a ferry to Big Bay State Park, where we’ll camp for three nights.  The weather forecast is miserable.  Oh well.  It’s all about the adventure.20140930_174931