Thursday, March 5, 2015

Ice “Caves” of Wedges Creek

Snowshoeing cures the cold. That biting cheek and nose burning cold doubled down by even the faintest breeze. The day wasn't a wind that just rattles the remaining oak leaves of late winter, but rather one that needed to be respected and prepared for. Wind chills generally seem overblown by TV forecasters and playground supervisors. “Freezing skin in five seconds” and all that hyperbole-just dress right has always been my thought.

Cross country skiing and fatbiking tend to fill my winter schedule, but when the really cold drops in for a visit, I pull out the snowshoes. Moving slower and working hard through deep snow warm the body quickly-if anything, overdressing is a problem. A wicking layer and a shell to cut that wind is usually adequate to keep one comfortable in very minus zero temps. Add a thin layer for every sub 10 degrees and you're set.

It's now March and winter is quickly waining with 40s expected next week. The season wasn't quite done yet and would hit us with a couple more days of just single digits. Fresh snow had fallen and I had the urge to explore a new area by snowshoe and see what other living things had been up to.

Wedges Creek in south west Clark County meanders for about 20 miles before emptying into the Black River south west of Neillsville. It's nearby and I've managed to canoe and fatbike and snowshoe different stretches of it from time to time. Lately, with the cold temps sticking around, the lab and I tackled a few yet undiscovered sections-unknown to us anyway.

Wedges flows with tannin stained water, and moves constantly even in the harshest winters. Caution is the word of the day and snow covered ice hides all too thin spots, which from time to time the dog and my 'shoes exposed. After a while, one can read the surface of the creek- a slight bow or rise in the ice means it's hollow underneath and water has eroded the strength of the frozen sheet. Plunk! A foot would break through-both mine and Mollys when we didn't decipher the sign correctly. It's more an inconvenience than anything, ice instantly freezing to the webbing in the snowshoe weighing it down. We're not in danger, for the water is shallow and the truck not too far distant. A walking stick probing suspicious spots usually sounds the alarm when the tone of the ice changes. We learned quickly.

The “creek,” actually a small river at this midpoint, has carved some beautiful sandstone formations which reach high above the opposite flood plain. Each curve in its course usually leaves a tall rocky bank on one side and a low sandy snow covered beach on the other. Higher water earlier this winter left foot thick “ice sheets” cracked and strewn at crazy angles on the shore. The cliff sides sprout ice formations, similar to their famous cousins in the Apostle Islands to the far north. Not exactly “ice caves” but there are places with frozen formations not only clinging to fissures in the rock, but also clutching the “ceilings” of undercuts along the shore. Gold stained colors flow still-frozen in the ice and coloring the deposits unexpectedly in this white winter world.

Care is taken as we approach each outcropping for usually the gurgling flow of the stream beneath is loudest on these banks. The dog seems to sense this and is wary for she's been in the drink more times than I. Water working its way from deep within the sandstone expands when solid and at times breaks the fragile surface, crumbling it below. The hues are wonderful-especially contrasted with the snow and the somehow surviving microscopic plant life-tiny green ferns with a foothold on sliver ledges here and there.

We work on way downstream late in the day, finding no new animal sign, just faded tracks wandering from bank to bank. Although the days are noticeably longer, the sun is low now casting even warmer tones on the shoreline and long shadows on the white blanket we tread. Time to climb up and out of this minor canyon in the county forest. Sapling oaks offer handholds and the snowshoe cleats dig deeply up the steep hillside. Soon a small deer trail we're ascending delivers us to the top. From this vantage point the amber sunset fills the creek bed below painting a soft tepid glow on the rock faces. This is a good place to be and I don't notice the cold-forgotten completely while traversing the solid river below. The wind and sun are soon to be at our back, helping guide us thru thick slashings to the pickup a mile or so away. We'd be out before the colors in the western sky fade and would watch over the other shoulder the full moon rising. A moment was taken to look both ways before unstrapping the 'shoes and gesturing the lab into the truck. Yes, snowshoeing has tamed the cold.

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