William O’Brien State Park: A Feast for the Eyes

One of the tranquil views from the Prairie Overlook Trail in William O’Brien State Park.

Russ and I meandered south a couple of hours to camp along the St. Croix River in William O’Brien State Park. We chose the park mainly for the location – we wanted to visit the river towns of Stillwater and Afton, both of which are not far south – but we plan to return again someday because of the great accommodations and the views – oh, the views!

Visitor can choose from two campgrounds at the park. We chose the Riverway Campground because it was closest to the river, and we are water people. After setting up camp our first night, we visited Stillwater and took advantage of its foodie options. We ate at the Marx Fusion Bistro – excellent food and drinks – much better than camp food. That was a treat for us — who usually camp in the middle of nowhere.

Back at our trailer, we enjoyed a fire and a visit from three fat racoons who quickly checked our site for food. Finding none, they waddled off to the next site.

The next morning, we walked the 1.6-mile Riverside Loop Trail near the campground. The trail passes through old white pines along the river and then turns inland a bit, meandering by Lake Alice, which is named after the daughter of William O’Brien, a lumberman who used to own the land that’s now the park. Two bald eagles graced us with their presence, performing aerial acrobatics.

Later, we took a nine-mile (round-trip) bike ride to the small town of Marine on St. Croix. We explored its short main street and stopped to visit an old lumber mill site featuring a short trail and interpretive signs. The mercantile in town looked like it could accommodate any forgotten food needs, plus there’s a coffee shop that touts its cold-press coffee as “best in the valley.”

We sipped our coffee while sitting in the town’s gazebo/band stand in a small park just across the street from the shop. The town was so quaint and picturesque, I felt like I was in a gosh darn Hallmark Channel movie.

A view of the St. Croix River from the Riverside Trail. I call this one, “X Marks the Spot.”

After supper, we revisited the Riverside Trail and made good use of one of its benches to watch the moon rise above the clouds lining the river. Barred owls hooted their “who cooks for you?” calls and Canada geese honked as they flew to their nightly roosting waters.

As we fell asleep back inside our trailer, the quiet of the night was interrupted by a pack of coyotes who yipped to each other.

On our final morning in the park, we drove a few miles to hike the Prairie Overlook trail through a restored oak savanna. The trail loops around a small lake. As I hope my photos attest, everywhere we looked was a feast for the eye. Seas of sumac had turned red and lined the trail.

The day was overcast, and the rain conveniently waited until we reached our car to begin. The drops came down, steady and persistent, so once back at the campground, we packed up and headed home.

Lullabye Lumber Camp, a Bedtime Story

Once upon a time on Outer Island in Lake Superior, a lumber company cut much of the remaining old growth hemlocks and other trees to make baby furniture. The lumberjacks lived in a camp near sandstone ledges on the shore. They used a railroad built by previous loggers through the middle of the island to haul the heavy logs to a dock for shipping to shore. Eventually, the crew built an air strip so they could go home on weekends.

The company that used the wood was Lullabye Furniture of Steven’s Point, Wisconsin. By the 1960s, logging on the island cost too much, so the men left their camp. They also left behind the buildings, old trucks, a stove, a water tank.

Slowly, the forest took its revenge. Snow knocked down the buildings, the trucks rusted, animals carried away seat cushion stuffing for their nests. The forest regrew, swallowing the lumber camp and reclaiming the land as its own.

The End

Outer Island Lighthouse and the Research Project that Wasn’t

Outer Island Lighthouse in 2012.

Last month, I meandered out to the most remote spot in Wisconsin: Outer Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Lake Superior. Now, the folks on Washington Island off the Door County Peninsula in Lake Michigan might argue that they live in the state’s most remote spot. I guess it’s all in how you define “remote.”

The Milwaukee Journal gives Outer Island this distinction. However, the rest of the internet says it’s Washington Island.

To check on which place is really the remotest, I consulted with the Wisconsin State Cartographer’s Office. Jim Lacey, associate state cartographer, said he has not tried to define such a spot in the state yet. Is it defined as the farthest outpost of civilization that a person can easily reach, or is it the place farthest from any roads and the hardest to reach?

We went back and forth a couple of times about a worthy definition. Lacey agreed that it wasn’t very hard to get to Washington Island – all a person needed to do is pay for a ferry, drive their car onto it, and they’re set.

The spiral staircase that leads up to the top of the tower.

Outer Island, on the other hand, is twenty-eight miles from the port of Bayfield, Wisconsin, has no ferry and no roads. To get there, a person either needs to have their own boat, spend a couple days paddling a kayak, or pay a small fortune for a water taxi. A water taxi is basically a private motorboat ride. That’s how I traveled to the island last month.

Lacey said, “To sum it up, I’m afraid I don’t have a very satisfying answer for you! I think this is one of those situations where a deceptively simple question gets very complicated, very quickly.”

But, to my way of thinking, the difficulty of access and the lack of civilized conveniences makes Outer Island the “winner” for the remote spot title.

Anyway – I had a great time camping on the island. Visiting the place again reminded me of a research project, which never quite worked at the lighthouse, in part, due to the island’s remoteness.

Nine years ago as part of my job with Wisconsin Sea Grant, I accompanied Chin Wu, a researcher from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to Outer Island. His goal was to install a webcam atop the lighthouse to track the development of rogue waves and wave patterns off the island’s coast.

Hooking the webcam up to the solar power grid on the lighthouse.

The National Park Service was cooperating with the project, so they drove our small research team out to the island for the installation. Once at the island, the park service staffer let us into the lighthouse and led us to the top of the tower.

We installed the camera and plugged it into the solar power system atop the lighthouse. Thankfully, the day was calm and warm, so hanging around outside ninety feet in the air wasn’t too scary.

I took some great photos, but they were never published because the project didn’t pan out. Why? The webcam needed a cell phone signal in order to transmit the photos. Back then, the cell phone system wasn’t powerful enough on the island for this to work.

The doomed webcam.

Even smart people need to learn things the hard way, sometimes, I guess. It just goes to show that science doesn’t always work out despite the best of intentions. But these photos are too cool to waste, so here you go. Mr. Wu has since gone onto conduct other projects in the Apostle Islands, which were much more successful, such as this WISC-Watch website, which provides tons of info about wave and wind conditions.

Outer Island Sunset

Russ and I meandered to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore last month. We had the privilege of camping on Outer Island for two glorious, warm nights. Lake Superior was so calm, we could hear ore boat engines quietly throbbing even though they were dozens of miles away as they passed the island.

I took this shot from the beach near the lighthouse. You can just see the lighthouse over the tops of the trees by the dock. A wave-worn rock provided a perfect foreground. Can you feel the peace?

A Time for Photography: Madeline Island

I’ve never had time to just hang out somewhere and take photos for a week. That’s what I was able to do (thanks to my awesome workplace) earlier this month. I took a landscape photography class at the Madeline Island School for the Arts.

Madeline Island lies off the Bayfield peninsula in northern Wisconsin. It’s adjacent to (but not part of) the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

The class focused on sunrise and sunset photography. This made for long days, but it was worth it. The class was life-changing and life-affirming. I knew I had a good eye — I told my fellow students I learned photography “by osmosis” from my mother — but I’ve never had any formal training in it. An F-stop? ISO? What are those? I got a crash course and affirmative feedback, but am still learning.

I’d like to share some of my favorites from the week with you. Locations include Joni’s Beach, Grant’s Point, Big Bay State Park, Black Shanty Road wetlands, the art school grounds, and Devil’s Island.

As always, feel free to use my images, but please give me (Marie Zhuikov) credit.

Enjoy the show!

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Russ and I spent three full days in North Dakota over Memorial Day Weekend. I’d passed through the park on my way West several times in the past and decided it was worth more time. I’m so glad we did it. Even though not many touristy things were open yet, we kept busy exploring the natural wonders of the park and area surrounding the town of Medora.

For my next few posts, I’ll be sharing photo stories as inspiration strikes. This first is about “concretions.” These were a highlight of our visit to the North Unit of the park.

These cannonball-shaped formations are made of sand grains from an ancient river that were cemented together by minerals dissolved in groundwater. That’s the official word. Unofficially, I’d say they remind me of Godzilla eggs.

Concretions and sky.
Godzilla egg in a nest.
An eroded clay/sediment deposit found near the concretions.

Snowshoe Moon

The moon was too gorgeous to be denied. We went out to greet it on a frozen lake.

We snowshoed past this cozy cabin with a little Christmas tree in the middle window. You can almost see the tree in in this night-blurry photo. Silent night. Inspiring night….

The Lake That Speaks: Mini-Minnesota Vacation #3

Lac Qui Parle, viewed from the Upper Campground

Russ and I have been sticking close to home lately, but not that close. Our last mini-Minnesota trip with our Scamp took us to the western prairies. We visited Lac Qui Parle State Park, which in French means “the lake that speaks.” (Or “lake which speaks.” But I can’t bear to use a “which” when a “that” will do.)

We lucked out, launching our weekend trip on a couple of the last unseasonably warm days of the season. We arrived at our Scampsite (in the Upper Campground – better view of the lake) on a Friday evening. We ate our supper on a picnic table overlooking this natural impoundment of the Minnesota River, formed by glaciers long ago. The lake earns its name because it’s a migratory stopover for thousands of birds in the spring and fall. A better name for it, perhaps, would be “the lake that sings.” During those times, visitors will hear a chorus of quacking and honking. Not many birds were around during our stay, but we did hear some Canada geese and murmurations of starlings.

Watching the orangey sunset in the big sky, we felt like we were stealing the last warmth before fall. Unlike our previous mini-trips to Lake Superior’s North Shore, trees were scarce at this campground – only a few, since we had crossed over into prairie country. We awoke in the morning to the sounds of gunshots – pheasant hunting season.

Our Scamp makes friends with one of the only trees near our site.

Saturday was forecast for warmth, so we planned to visit a farm where Russ’s daughter works and spend a few hours canoeing down the Chippewa River with her. I must admit I am spoiled by northern Minnesota Rivers. The Chippewa, which flows through agricultural land, looked a bit murky, but the cloudy water was overshadowed by the brilliant golden fall colors of the trees along its banks. The park offers canoe rentals if you want to explore the lake or the river. We were lucky enough to score our watercraft from the farm.

Water levels were low, so we needed to be on the lookout for shallows. We navigated many rapids – most Class I, which would have been more fun in higher water. Eagles visited us on the way, along with some mysterious waterfowl we never got close enough to identify.

The Chippewa River

On our last morning, we hiked the mown trail from the campground down to the lake. Then we walked up to the road and crossed it to see the largest cottonwood tree in Minnesota. One would expect a tree like this to be near the water, but it was up a hill and down the other side, many hundreds of yards away from the lake.

This grandmother tree is truly impressive. My pictures do not do it total justice. I thought I had seen large cottonwood trees before, but they pale compared to the girth of this one.

Just part of Minnesota’s largest cottonwood tree.

Here are some pros and cons of the Upper Campground at Lac Qui Parle.

PROS

  • The campground was quiet during the day and night.
  • Sites are spaced far enough apart to feel private.
  • Hiking trails are nearby and so are towns, if that’s your thing.

CON

  • There are hardly any trees in the campground, but this is a prairie, after all!

That’s it for our mini-vacations. Snow has arrived and we’ve stored the Scamp for winter, resting up for future adventures.

You would be hard-pressed to find a more scenic outhouse anywhere.

Temperance River State Park, Minnesota

When last you saw us, Russ and I were thwarted in our attempts to bike along the North Shore of Lake Superior by cold weather and lack of appropriate clothing on my part. As an alternative, we decided to hike somewhere we had never been before. This turned out to be along the Temperance River.

The trailhead is extremely easy to reach – it’s right along Highway 61, with parking on both sides of the road. (The trailhead is on the side opposite Lake Superior.) Russ and I had driven past the park roughly a bazillion times but were always going somewhere else. We were so glad we stopped this time!

The first part of the trail takes you to a plunge pool, which is at the base of a waterfall hidden back in the rocky clefts. At the end of the Ice Age, the waterfall wasn’t so hidden. Torrents of melting glacier ice cascaded over the rock ledges, creating a waterfall that was 300 feet wide, or so said the interpretive sign along the trail.

We hiked along the river gorge on the Superior Hiking Trail about eight-tenths of a mile to the upper falls and then backtracked to return to our car. With lots of rocky ledges to clamber and scenic river vistas around every turn, this trail would be a perfect way to get sullen teenagers excited about nature. Although there are some stairs to climb, most of the trail is relatively easy if you are able-bodied.

The river gorge is super gorgeous. I kept wondering why I’d never heard my friends who know the North Shore rave about it, because it certainly is rave-worthy. My photos only capture a minor part of the beauty.

If you do go to the Temperance River, please remember to practice social distancing and carry out your trash. The park looked clean when we were there, but I know that some parts of the shore are being over-loved and over-travelled lately.

The hidden falls.