Sunday, July 31, 2011

Canoe-Birding the Mighty Milwaukee River (Part One)

♫ ♪ Ol' man river, dat ol' man river he mus' know sumpin', but don't say nuthin', he jes' keeps rollin’, he keeps on rollin' along. ♫ ♪♪

The Milwaukee River begins in the Kettle Moraine State Forest Fond du Lac County, with the most recognizable “starting point” flowing south out of Long Lake near the tiny village of Dundee, WI. It rolls south past Grafton to into downtown Milwaukee, where it finally empties into Lake Michiganbeneath the yellow arch of the Daniel Hoan bridge. Cedar Creek, the Menomonee Riverand the Kinnickinnic River are its three main tributaries, fueling its motion towards the big lake. There are 31 automobile and four train bridges over its Milwaukee county run alone. Several inviting parks line the banks of the Milwaukee River. These include Estabrook, Gordon, Kern, Lincoln, Pere Marquette, Pleasant Valley, and Riverside Parks in Milwaukee, Kletzsch Park in Glendale and Hubbard Park in Shorewood.

In an effort to connect the natural current of the Milwaukee River with a current of business and leisure activities, the City of Milwaukee launched the RiverWalk Initiative in 1988. The City and Business Improvement District (BID) together share the price tag of RiverWalk construction and other RiverWalk capital expenditures in accordance with the terms of a Development Agreement. Property owners with a RiverWalk constructed on their river frontage are solely responsible for maintaining such riverwalks to a standard acceptable to the City and the BID. In September of 2009 the Milwaukee River was named to be one of “10 great places to stream through cities”. According to Kit Cramer for USA TODAY, the Milwaukee River is on her list of “great places to take a boat ride.”

With all those worthy reasons to enjoy the Milwaukee River in mind, plus the possibility to see some birds while traveling the waterway; Barbara and I decided put the Canoe-dle to “play.” Utilizing the wonderful and comprehensive map created by the Milwaukee Riverkeepers, I chose a likely non-threatening place to “put-in” at Kletzsch Park, just below the bucolic waterfall. A persistent angler was working the eddy below the churning white water with a fly-fishing rig as watchful Canada geese lingered nearby. We nimbly carried our aluminum steed from our street-parked vehicle from the nearby (parallel oriented) Milwaukee River Parkway, down a gentle gravel embankment and scuffed it into the water; ready for our trip down river. We each took turns carefully getting in, becoming situated, and eventually shoved off; scraping plenty of rocks as we eased into slightly deeper water.

The 3.5 mile journey downriver was quite pleasant. The Milwaukee’s current, was more than enough to maintain forward momentum with only general course corrections necessary. The temperature was around 75 degrees at 9:30 AM and the sun was beating down through a mixture of clouds and clear sky. Private residences dotted the shoreline on each side, however not tightly packed together. It seemed as though those who were either fortunate or intelligent enough to initially locate their dwellings along this rather quiet stretch of urban river, had decided to stay the course and maintain occupancy, if not to actually have established a permanent dock or mooring. There were few actual piers or launch areas to be seen amongst the thick undergrowth that lined the riverbanks, let alone any actual watercraft. Smallish tributaries, (akin to neighborhood drainage causeways) joined with the main body of water as we drifted along the main river channel. Concrete storm water outlets pierced the embankments at various intervals; trickling a few gallons per minute into the flow, from some unknown runoff source, and the traffic noise was nearly nonexistent.

Mighty Beltedkingfishers, and four different kinds of swallows (Barn, Tree, Cliff and Rough-winged) were the birds of the majority, as well as the occasional Northern cardinal, American robin, American goldfinch, Mallard, Canada goose, Several sandpiper varieties (Solitary, Least, and Spotted), Dunlin, Yellow warbler, Eastern kingbird, Blue jay, and American crow. Binoculars were welcome equipment, however nearly unnecessary due to the close-quarters sightings. One backwater area we canoed into was literally "swimming" with large carp in very shallow and muddy water. We paddled upstream in this channel until we almost ran aground; rough fish zipping this way and that to avoid the hull riding over their scaly backs, clouds of brown muck in their wakes.

Human beings were few and far between on our journey; mostly seen at overpasses as they stood to look out and downward at the glistening river. The color of the water was decidedly brown and murky, however lacking any objectionable odors. Painted turtles could be seen sunning themselves on the occasional shoreline-captured log; slipping quietly into the cool wetness as we passed too near their comfort zones. Slight sprinkles kicked up from passing rain-fattened clouds, but nothing steady developed. The shade actually brought small amounts of fleeting relief to the sun-baked reflective aluminum. I called out each bridge (street) name to Barbara as we slipped underneath them; watching the swallows darting to and fro catching the plentiful water striders from the rusty surface of the river.

The gentle and relaxing trip took about two and one-half hours from put-in to take-out, just ahead of the Estabrook Park Dam. The Estabrook Dam was put into service in 1937 to elevate water levels in the Lincoln Park area after a prior project to blast bedrock from the bed of the river to minimize flooding drastically reduced water levels. The Dam creates an impoundment or small lake behind it that has been loved by local residents, and used by both motorized and non-motorized users alike as a recreational area. Unfortunately, the Estabrook Dam has been on a long decline in the past several decades, and Milwaukee County has not addressed several outstanding maintenance and repair requirements per State Dam Safety regulations. It is currently the subject of much debate and argument as to whether it should or must be saved from dismantlement. Total costs to keep/repair/renovate the dam include $4.8 Million to $6.3 Million depending on amount of sediment removed. Environmental opponents argue that removing the dam would yield the greatest positive impacts on river ecology, flood management, water quality, sediment management, fish and aquatic life, terrestrial wildlife, and recreation. They further argue that dam removal will help restore the natural and wild aspect of the Milwaukee River for current and future generations. Additionally, they maintain that the ecological health created by a free flowing river offers greater long term value than maintaining the present lake behind the dam.

Before we became entangled in the upstream portion of the decrepit concrete structure, we landed on shore at the designated (signed) spot. Either that or the sign that clearly stated "Canoe Take-Out" was for fast food pick-up intended for canoeists only.  We reversed the process on board the Canoe-dle in order to set foot on dry land. The temperature was now over 90 degrees and it was time to carry the canoe to the previously spotted second vehicle. You see, if you intend to have a splendid and relaxing time going down river, not intending to paddle (and perhaps fight) your way back against the natural flow; you need to plan ahead. We had done so before driving the canoe to its launch site, however one critical step had been overlooked; I had left my set of keys three and one-half miles upriver in the other vehicle! Well, as my father had sagely told me time and again (in what should have been my formative youth); “what you don’t have in your head, you gotta’ have in your feet,” off I embarrassingly went with the awesome Usinger’s liver sausage sandwich and can of sparkling water (intended as a post-trip picnic) in hand, to walk the distance as my self-imposed penance for being stupid.

Forty weary minutes later, after passing far too many bone-chilling, union-backed Sandy Pasch for 8th District senate lawn signs (I much prefer the duly-elected Alberta Darling myself) and going through my water supply faster than my perspiration was running; I arrived at the car. I cursed my decision to wear less than adequate footwear not truly fit for schlepping my sweaty body, however the Mercury Mountaineer's AC controls set to sub-zero quickly took the sting out of my shame and frame. I texted Barbara that I would be driving back to her shortly, and pulled away from the curb chuckling to myself, while my wracked brain mercifully decided to give my (second-guessing) subconscious a rest - No sense ruining my own glorious day. Loading up went quick and Barbara was all too gracious in excusing my truck keyless faux pas. I thanked her for a fantastic time and promised that “next time” the keys would ride down river with me.

Rivers are always changing with constantly flowing, moving water. Spring (melt-away) snows remodel their slumbering wintry banks, recovering their jutting bottom rocks with off times explosive seasonal rebirth. Renewing rains freshen and refill the waterways like welcoming breaths of oxygenated vigor. Rivers turn and twist; meandering a bit here and there, but always with a purpose…rivers unlike lakes; go places. Similarly, I turn, I twist, I meander with purpose (mostly)…I love going places (sometimes even without the proper equipment). I guess rivers and I have a lot in common. Plus…there’s always the mutual communion of “canoe-birding”…and anything combined with birds is always a winner in my book.
Part Two – Goin’Downtown…stay tuned.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Birding the Bong

Camping at BONG
The Richard Bong State Recreation Area once designated to become a jet fighter base beginning December 1, 1955, is named after Major Richard Ira Bong, a Poplar, Wisconsin, native, born on September 24, 1920, the son of a Swedish immigrant, was America's leading air ace during World War II, flying in his P-38 Lightning in combat, downing an impressive 40 enemy planes. On August 6, 1945, while half a world away the Enola Gay dropped the bomb on Hiroshima; Bong stepped into an airplane for the last time. His Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star malfunctioned just after take-off, and while he bailed out, he never had a chance. He was just too close to the ground. After surviving two years of combat flying, Richard Ira Bong met his end while on a routine acceptance flight. Richard Bong's decorations included the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star (with 1 OLC), the Distinguished Flying Cross (with 6 OLC's), the Air Medal (with 14 OLC's), and many other American and foreign medals.

The decision to close the unfinished base was due to the realization that the B-58 Hustler could be accommodated at other bases through the elimination of B-47 Stratojet units ahead of schedule. Bong Air Force Base was declared excess on August 23, 1960.  The fighter base project was abandoned three days before concrete was to be poured for a 12,500-foot runway. Secretary of the Air Force James H. Douglas, Jr. later explained the decision to close Bong by saying: "Finally we realized that by 1961-62 when Bong would be ready, we would have several other medium bomber bases empty of squadrons & we really don't need Bong." Thus Bong AFB was abandoned before ever being completed.
Local citizens had the foresight to protect this open space for future generations and in 1974 the State of Wisconsin bought the land making it the state's first recreation area. The recreation area encompasses 4,515 acres of rolling grassland, savanna, wetlands and scattered woodland.

While Bong offers a myriad of recreational uses from camping to model rocketry; bird-watching was the primary reason Barbara and I chose it, to spend our 4th of July weekend.  With bicycles and canoe along; we scoured and explored a great portion of the area around the Sunrise Campgrounds which are not surprisingly on the east side of the recreation area.  Sandhill cranes browsed amongst the tall grasses next to the model airplane enthusiasts. One of the more curious finds was a Great egret, on the very farthest reaches of its northernmost range, wading through the tall reeds and an equally surprising nesting pair of Common moorhens with young, hiding in a shrub near the lake.

The July sun was extremely hot and the cicadas were singing loudly, however there were few mosquitoes to interrupt the overall outdoor enjoyment.  Peddling along on two wheels was by far the best way (besides driving a vehicle with the AC on full blast) to keep cool, so that’s what we mostly did.  The recreation area is dotted with small bodies of pond water and one larger “lake” now called Vern Wolf Lake.  “East Lake” (created when an irrigation ditch was dammed in the 1960s) features two deep 18’ holes in the lake bottom which are remnants from the Air Force Base construction. They were apparently trying to reach bedrock to support a refueling station. “East Lake” was formally dedicated on August 12th, 1995, and renamed to honor Vern J. Wolf, one of the original volunteers at Richard Bong State Recreation Area. He was a longtime Burlington resident, a journalist, poet and teacher.

We had our canoe along (The "Canoe-dle"), a well-worn, battle-hardened, 17' aluminum Grumman which was gifted to us from Barbara's parents; Robert and Joanne Bart.  Together we cast off on it's maiden voyage (as our mutual possession) into Vern Wolf and paddled along for over two hours looking into every tiny inlet for something interesting.  We saw a multitude of Red-winged blackbirds and heard many other Marsh and House wrens along the shores.  Painted turtles sitting in the sunshine atop mostly-submerged logs, slipped into the water as we passed them by, and the sounds of children laughing from within the beach area, wafted out across the water.  Native plants and grasses; each emitting their signature smells, accompanied us as we stroked and sculled our craft.

Our two bicycles proved to be our transportation mode of choice within the park to traverse from birding area to birding area, however a 5.5 mile hike was also included in our weekend's activities.  There are many, many miles of well-groomed trails within the park.  Mown grass constitutes the majority of the multi-use ones so the ground is mostly level.  Each trail offers a variety of scenery from woods to prairie and lakes to marshland.  A graceful pair of Mute swans could be seen in a quiet, out of the way emerald-green pond adjacent to a nearby private golf course.  Yellow and Common yellow-throat warblers were also seen in abundance, as well as the sounds of the Great-crested and Alder flycatchers.  Canada geese, Great blue heron, Turkey vulture and American crow showed their presence along the trail as we slowly walked and looked. 

An older guy passed by us a few miles into the wilderness, jogging in the opposite direction in the 90 degree heat, with no visible water along to hydrate himself.  We wondered aloud as to his sanity.  Later it came into question with clarity when we encountered him again running up and and down a set of railroad tie steps.  "I come out here to train for a stair climb", the man breathlessly said.  "Ohhhh...great!" was our reply as we shook our heads in utter amazement, and walked on.  Barbara remarked, "I guess there are no other stairs anywhere to practice on".  I laughed.

A stalwart and predictable American robin visited a certain evergreen in our campsite each dawn and dusk to sing his robin song at the top of his tiny lungs, and a pair of friendly 13-lined ground squirrels trundled over the grasses in and out of their hole, perilously close to our lit fire pit.  Bull frogs thunder-croaked and lightning bugs cheerily lit the early evening skies with their iridescent glowing bodies.  The smell of wood smoke and hot forest drifted to our noses while we sipped cold beer in our red Walmart folding camp chairs; an small electric fan clamped to the tent creating the only feeble breeze.  This was pure 100% America on the eve of it's birthday, and I was damn glad to have been born in it.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Stephen Sherman, June, 1999. Updated June 28, 2011.
The Bong Naturalist Association

Meat on a stick anyone?