On a late-autumn Sunday afternoon, we chose to leap-frog.
It seems we leap-frogged across the seasons and centuries as well.
NATURAL BRIDGE STATE PARK
On a blustery, late-November afternoon, early winter was practicing at misery. My wife Dianne and I had brought bikes along for a day-adventure in case we found some new Wisconsin back roads, but the north winds convinced us otherwise. We left the bikes on the hitch-rack and instead hiked into the woods at Wisconsin’s Natural Bridge State Park. The hardwood forest would provide some shelter. Inside the woods it was late autumn again.
The park, established in 1973, lies 15 miles southwest of Devil’s Lake. Its namesake sandstone arch popped into view when we turned a corner on the Indian Moccasin Trail. The natural bridge spans 80 feet across a valley, capping a 15-by-25-foot oval-shaped hole in the sandstone, eroded over the eons by wind and water. The brown and yellow layered arch sits atop its bedrock base like a giant old-time telephone receiver on its mount.
At the base of the arch, time had carved another indentation, a rock shelter that was home to some of the Midwest’s earliest inhabitants. At 60 feet wide x 30 feet deep, the rock shelter revealed its story to archaeologists through remnant meal-bones, mollusk shells, and fire-pit charwood dating back to 10,000 B.C. Paleo-Indians sheltered at this site as the nearby glaciers retreated. Ancient soot is still visible on the sandstone walls.
A spur off the Moccasin Trail leads to a cliff face overlooking the edge of the glacier-free Driftless Region. The bluff top prairie is graced with Indian grass and little blue-stem as well as numerous ferns, and even cacti.
Back on the main trail and beyond the natural bridge lies a hardwood forest and a guided trail indicating how Native Americans used the forest plants and trees: quaking aspen bark for pain relief and poultices; witch hazel for skin irritants; wild black cherry for coughs and colds.
As we left the autumnal shelter of the woods, we re-emerged into the blustery winds. Twelve thousand years ago we might have stocked the rock shelter with supplies for the upcoming winter. Instead, we took refuge in the Honda and drove away.
PARFREY’S GLEN STATE NATURAL AREA
It was a good day to keep driving, so we sailed seven miles east of Devil’s Lake to our second stop at Parfrey’s Glen.
The glen, or valley, was settled in the mid-1800s, the fast-moving Parfrey’s Glen Creek offering power for an assortment of saw and grist mills. It takes its name from its last inhabitant, Robert Parfrey, who ran a grist mill there from 1865 to 1876. The site remained a favorite of visitors thereafter, and in 1952 it became Wisconsin’s first State Natural Area.
Hiking upstream through Parfrey’s Glen is like pacing out a song that starts softly with violins, builds steadily, and crescendos with crashing cymbals, timpani, and bass drums. The first quarter-mile edges gently enough through the prairie alongside a kittenish stream that tumbles out of the forest and hurries across scatterings of well-worn stones.
But the serene bottom-glen is deceptive. The change begins gradually, with the forested creek edge giving way to small outcrops that the stream burbles past. From there, by twist and turn the path leads upwards into an increasingly steep splashing Jurassic-Park-like gorge of purplish quartzite.
In its uppermost reaches, the rock walls of the glen are 100 foot sheer drop-offs carved into the angular bedrock 12,000 years ago by glacial meltwater. Potholes dot the ledges, round-shaped hollows in the rock scooped out by swirling boulders that had been caught up in the eddies of the rushing meltwater.
This wasn’t the first time the glen had seen dramatic waters. The walls of the glen are sandstone embedded with quartzite conglomerate—rounded pebbles and boulders seemingly cemented in the sandstone. These were formed on tropical seashores 500 million years ago when equatorial storms tossed and smoothed the stones before they settled to the ocean floor and mixed into the hardening bedrock.
Cool summer seepage from the rocks creates a microclimate, harboring more-northerly, and often rare and threatened species of plants and animals like northern monkshood, false foxglove, cerulean warblers, and diving beetles.
On this November day the glen, protected and warm, felt like spring. Green leaves still clung to the wind-sheltered trees. Trunks and boulders were green with abundant moss. Stream water rushed everywhere, cascading off boulders, pooling into rock-lined ponds, and sliding through the gaps.
The uppermost reach of the gorge is fed by a waterfall. Here the stream exits a serene forest and plunges into the time hole before emerging calmly again at the lower end of the glen.
Our hike wasn’t wall-to-wall people, but it wasn’t solitary either. At the lower reaches of the glen we watched two young siblings testing their ability to hop-scotch across the stream atop a few exposed boulders while their parents encouraged them. Further up the gorge, young couples crawled across the ledges and leaped across stream crossings. While an early winter wind blustered outside the park, inside the glen it felt like a new vernal season had just begun.
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Summer days are meant for big parks with lakes for swimming and kayaking and long, challenging trails that work up a sweat. In the off-season we chose to visit two tiny parks instead.
Almost forgotten, Natural Bridge State Park and Parfrey’s Glen took us to forgotten time as well, leap-frogging us across the seasons and across the ages.
-- Kevin Koch