Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Rails of the Wisconsin


Amber waves of grain.” That line echoed in my head as the kayak slid through narrow, surprisingly current laden channels of the upper Wisconsin River just north of Rhinelander. Grain, not as in wheat , barley or oats, but rather what belongs here-wild rice.
My friend Mitch Mode, an avid bird photographer (when his sporting good store releases him) and I took a rare chance to venture into the “northwoods” and slip the boats into water. Although Mitch loves photographing pretty much any winged creature-I've grown to see he has a soft spot for shore birds-birds most of us, including myself, never give much thought. They generally migrate north in the spring and return early fall to embark on the long flights to wintering grounds in the southern US and South America.
Sora Rail

Every year when I purchase my migratory license and fill out the HIP information, I'm asked the standard questions: Do you plan to hunt rails, snipe or gallinules? Although I'm an avid bird hunter, I couldn't ID many of them, for they're not game I'd seek out.

The 1300 acre Rhinelander Flowage extends upstream from Boom Lake, another back water of the Wisconsin River, formed by a major dam in downtown Rhinelander. Above the flowage, the Wisconsin twists and turns a hundred times as it snakes it's way south of the Rainbow Flowage near Lake Tomahawk. The river here has a much different character than what it transforms to in the southern part of the state. Until it empties into the rice filled flowage where we paddled, it's narrow and meanders through dense forest-quite unlike the wide flats and sand bars of the lower Wisconsin.

It's said one should use the right tool for the job, and I was totally out-gunned by Mitch's set-up. He's done this before. His kayak was a smallish plastic drab-painted and ghillie suited affair, perfect for slipping into close quarters with wildlife. The camo-theme continued with paddle, hat, shirt and long lens on his camera. No problem-I'd be sure to scare everything away with my 18' bright white kevlar sea kayak, orange vest and hat! Being a long hard chine boat was not ideal here where I'd have to twist and squeeze through narrow passages filled with tall rice stands, weeds and lily pads. No matter-I was on new water (to me) and could sit back and watch how Mitch maneuvered to get some beautiful shots. I'd keep myself and my boat out of the way.

Rhinelander Flowage

I'd probably seen Sora Rails while duck hunting out west or even instate, but to me they were just another tiny shore bird flitting around not earning my attention. As soon as we set the boats down at the launch, Mitch's ear was tuned to their call. A loud clap of his hands invoked a hail of “weep” calls from this small secretive bird. As we paddled, any loud sound would shock the unseen rails into various calls. The long high descending “whinny” was my favorite and it seemed the entire marsh was a chorus of them when Canadian geese set them off.

Although we could hear them, it took some time before one of the little marsh walkers exposed himself at the “shore” of the channel. The slate blue/grey bird nervously sauntered across water lilies in its search for small invertebrates and vegetation. Mitch pointed the tiny bird out and started shooting, while I clumsily made a wide turn and made my way back to drift in for a closer look. The rail picked along the edge, happily chirping out a “quink-quink-quink” from time to time while feeding, unconcerned with us. 

Mitch-Fully outfitted


Sora Rails are fairly easy to identify-they have a small yellow bill with a black face and “mohawk.” A short tail flashes white underneath when it's walking or launches into the air. Legs and feet are oversize for such a modest sized bird.

I think Mitch would have been quite content to spend the entire day floating and photographing here and skipping out on “real” life in town. I could see why-the rice beds attract a host of waterfowl and other wildlife. A pair of eagles soared high above, Marsh Hawks (Northern Harrier) floated just above the vegetation hunting and a copious supply of wood ducks and teal were happy to make this part of the river home among the muskrat huts.

I love nature like this. Marshes and swamps may not be as glamorous as a majestic mountain or forest, but they team with life. That spicy snappy smell you can only find here and with the slow flowing water that binds it all together. These are good and important places.

The outside world all too soon pulled Mitch from the water, but he insisted I stay an explore-which I felt obliged to do. The long boat changed gears and set about to investigate more of the deceptive passages through the rice. As long as I kept an eye on channels with moving water I felt assured I wouldn't get lost. Hopefully. 

Among the Rice


With some satisfaction, I did manage to navigate a few narrow corridors and wind up back at the launch. From time to time, I'd try Mitch's hand clap and chuckle at the response from unseen rails tucked nearby in the weeds. Cheap entertainment I guess. This flowage will have to be visited again-spring would be best, with many more migrating stop-overs passing through. A better camera (than my iphone), proper attire (and different boat??) would be along next time. As Eiseley eludes to-these are magic places and must be returned to.

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water. -- Loren Eiseley






Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Away to the Waters


Paddling the Potters

I have need of the sky, I have business with the grass; I will up and get me away where the hawk is wheeling lone and high, And the slow clouds go by. I will get me away to the waters that glass the clouds as they pass. I will get me away to the woods.” -- Richard Hovey

There is a mystery inside me that perhaps I never am aware of, but one I realize with time spent outdoors. It's what Hovey speaks to here-a need, an obligation to myself to be outside, to see something that gives me pause, to discover a presence of what can only be experienced outdoors. I like that I never know what it'll be until it's recognized, and it's never a conscious effort.

A lot of my interests “get me away to the woods,” hunting, fishing, biking and skiing and even my job as a wildlife technician. Stepping out the door begins the best part of my day.

As if I needed another distraction, paddling entered my life full swing this summer. I've dabbled in it from time to time, and in a way, kind of feared it, because I knew I'd be pulled toward the water away from trails and other pursuits. I finally gave in...and love it.

Being inches above the water, slipping silently forward as the shores pass by, it's much different that most anything else. Quietness, save for an occasional misplaced paddle dip that splashes clumsily alongside the boat. I'm still not smooth at this. In a kayak or canoe it's easy to be taken back in time, when Native Americans used their small boats to move from place to place or inuits skillfully surviving harsh waters in the north to survive. I have a whole new appreciation of their skill.

As important as that connection to the past a kayak offers, maybe more-so, it slows me down. Mountain bikes and skinny skis tend to propel us through the woods at breakneck speed and we miss much. These boats slide calmly in the water inviting more pause, more observation, maybe even reverence of the surroundings. Speed has little place here.


These thoughts were at the surface the other day as the kayak and I pushed off from shore in central Jackson County into Potters Flowage, a 250 acre lake 20 miles east of Black River Falls. I'd known about “Potters” from fishing friends who try their luck from time to time summer and winter, but I'd never visited it. Looking at a map, it appeared perfect for a paddle-it's a drainage lake with lots of little fingers off the main body of water, and one, several miles long to the South begging to be explored.

The put-in is located at Merlin Lambert County Park off McKenna road, once the site of the bustling lumbertown of Goodyear. Nothing but elusive foundations exist east of the campground now, where in 1898 the timber supply was exhausted in less than six years. The same dwindling fate met the towns of McKenna and Zeda further to the South, now sparsely populated and covered with cranberry marshes.

Potters Flowage is best known for it's bass and panfish abundance and rumor has it muskie fishermen hit it hard in the fall. A few boats trying their luck were my only company on the water-no complaints, this is not a lake for the power boat crown. The lake has a max depth of 24 feet, but just a mean of 7, so it's shallow and weedy on the edges. Water quality is moderately clear.

I stayed along the shorelines wanting to partially circumnavigate the main part of the lake and then head down into the inviting narrows. Even with a brisk headwind, my 18' boat made it across surprisingly easy and eventually sliced through a broad expanse of lily pads to the original flooded streambed of Hawkins Creek. A ribbon of clear water here guided my adventure south deep into the county forest.

If one didn't know better, you'd swear the boat was slipping into the wilds of the boundary waters or Canada-the shore mostly lined with towering white pine-remnants perhaps of saplings loggers missed 100+ years ago. This part of the state is better known for squatty Jack Pine, Aspen clear cuts and gnarled red oak than majestic straight pine. The further I paddled, the better my surroundings became.

Morrison Creek (different from the Morrison flowing into the Black River) feeds Potters from the far east near the boat launch, while the Hawkins section of the flowage forms the wide channel I venture into, gradually narrowing and winding its way to the McKenna Creek spilling in from the far south. There are several small fingers stabbing into the forest on either side with one across from a primitive landing off Larb Lane on the west bank where folks were camping. Going around each bend was like turning a page in a book to discover something new-I never tire of that.

Potters Flowage finally squeezes down to a fork in the road so to say-one short arm leads west and vanishes, the east bound one heads further and finally succumbs to the skinny alder lined McKenna. Trails end for me. I brace the paddle far to the side and swing the long boat around to start my journey back. Skies had start to darken and I seem to remember a forecast of possible rain, so what was a leisurely cruise took on a more purposeful stroke of the blades through water. Even with some urgency, I did stick to the opposite shore than when I entered-still time to explore I thought.

Arms and back started to ache, but no complaints from the boat-she steadily cut through the water and around reeds and occasional water lilies on the return trip. I'd make it back fine-the threatening sky stayed at bay for the moment.

Campers at the county park busied themselves with Labrador retrievers, swimming and prepping small boats for perhaps a bout of fishing. I slid into the shallows near the landing and managed to extract myself from the cockpit (still tricky) and hoist the kayak on shore.

A few sore muscles were fulfilling indicators that I'd done something worthwhile, that I'd “gotten away to the waters that glass the clouds as they pass.” That “need” and obligation to myself to be outdoors had been met...for this day, and I'd be back.