Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge

Steve and I love visiting National Wildlife Refuges, there is something about the “possibility” of seeing wildlife that keeps us visiting every one we find.

While out for an afternoon drive, we stumbled on the Trempealeau NWR. We hadn’t planned to do any hiking, so we opted for the Prairies Edge Loop Tour. This self-guided, 4 mile drive takes you through sand prairies, backwater marshes and hardwood forests. This year, spring made a late appearance in Wisconsin and we’ve had copious amounts of rain, so our early June visit was filled with wildflowers high water.

We picked up a brochure at the entrance and began the drive. I was amazed by the riots of yellow and purple flowers…

Trempealeau NWR-2530

Trempealeau NWR-2522

The brochure pointed out a number of invasive species which have found a home in the refuge. One of these plants is called Leafy Spurge and while it looks pretty, it is taking over large areas…

Trempealeau NWR-2526

Wild prairie roses and berry bushes compete for space…

Trempealeau NWR-2520Trempealeau NWR-2525

When we saw a gentleman with a very large lens on his camera, we stopped to see what he was looking at. High up in a dead tree was a red-headed woodpecker…

Trempealeau NWR-2550

The rains have flooded low lands and the calm winds that day ensured lovely reflections…

Trempealeau NWR-2533

We stopped at the visitor center and talked for quite a while with one of the rangers. She was incredibly knowledgeable and gave us ideas for other places to visit while we are here. Afterward, we walked to the observation deck and I knew, we would have to come back one day with our kayaks…

Trempealeau NWR-2534

It was neat to try and identify all of the turtles we saw, this plaque was a big help…

Trempealeau NWR-2544Trempealeau NWR-2515

I think we saw at least 4 of the varieties!

As we rounded a bend in the road, we were happily surprised to see a deer grazing in the field…

Trempealeau NWR-2538

And a thirteen stripe ground squirrel bid us adieu at the end of the loop drive…

Trempealeau NWR-2551

It was a peaceful way to spend the afternoon and thanks to the ranger, we now have lots of suggestions for places to explore!

Do you like visiting NWRs? What is the most exciting animal you’ve encountered?

A Visit to the Wegner Grotto

When Paul and Matilda Wegner emigrated from Germany in 1885, I doubt they envisioned their retirement years building what would later become the Wegner Grotto. It all started in 1929 after Paul retired from owning and operating a Ford garage. Neither Paul nor Matilda had any formal training in the arts, but they definitely had a vision. Their “grassroots art” started on their small farm outside of Cataract, Wisconsin. They were no longer living on the farm full-time, but spent summers there. They began by building a fence around the property. Concrete pillars decorated with thousands of shards of broken glass…

Wegner Grotto-2310

Little by little, special pieces were added, a prayer garden…

Wegner Grotto-2308

A birdhouse and other decorations…

Wegner Grotto-2319Wegner Grotto-2324

I was bummed the skies were threatening to drench us as we walked along marveling at the artistry. I can only imagine how brilliantly the shards must glint in the bright sunshine. Glass flowers adorn the top of a pillar…

Wegner Grotto-2313Wegner Grotto-2314

The grotto began to take on a life of its own. Perhaps the crowning achievement, is the glass church. Paul wanted to represent all “mainline denominations”. And did so in stunning fashion…
Wegner Grotto-2339

Wegner Grotto-2333Wegner Grotto-2340Wegner Grotto-2343Wegner Grotto-2353

And a peace monument…

Wegner Grotto-2331

Later he built a replica of their 50th wedding anniversary cake…

Wegner Grotto-2305

And the very symbol of the country he loved…

Wegner Grotto-2351

Paul died in 1937 and is buried at a little cemetery just up the road from the grotto. His gravestone, as well as Matilda’s, are a tribute to the beauty he created…

Wegner Grotto-2359Wegner Grotto-2360

Other family members’ graves are also decorated with glass shards…

Wegner Grotto-2366Wegner Grotto-2365

I wondered where they were able to find so much broken glass. I doubt colored glass was an inexpensive item to own in the early 1930’s. Some of it appeared to be carnival glass, shiny and still lovely, though only a shard…

Wegner Grotto-2370

Have you ever been moved by “grassroots art”?

Kayaking the Black River

I had big plans for Thursday and was pretty exited when I awoke to beautiful, sunny skies. This was the day I would take the 14.5 mile solo kayak trip from Black River Falls back to Lost Falls Campground. 

Screenshot_2019-06-16 Watersports Lost Falls Campground

Lost Falls Campground rents canoes, kayaks, SUP (Stand Up Paddleboards) and tubes (doubles, singles and cooler). We shuttle guests to one of 3 different landings and everyone arrives back at the campground, hopefully, having enjoyed their day on the Black River.

Steve outfitted my kayak with a phone mount, now I can take pictures and videos, hands free…

Kayak From BRF-2474

We’ve had A LOT of rain this spring and the river was moving pretty briskly as I set off. It didn’t take long before all I could hear was the sounds of nature, the river churning and a chorus of birds. The evidence of high water was all around me. Some of the smaller trees were barely above the waterline…

Kayak From BRF-2478Kayak From BRF-2484

You can see the wet line on the trees, overnight, the river had gone down at least 18″. Usually there are lots of sandbars to stop at…

Kayak From BRF-2480

But most were still underwater. It was a lazy paddle for me. I let the river current do most of the work while I steered occasionally and just enjoyed being on the river. I hadn’t seen another sole in hours and was surprised as I came around the bend to see these 2 “people” watching from the bank…

Kayak From BRF-2483

I chuckled to myself as I floated by, a good reminder, someone is always watching.

The Black River State Forest borders a large stretch of river and offers campsites for paddlers…

Kayak From BRF-2485

After passing Mason’s landing I came across a tall limestone bluff…

Kayak From BRF-2499

I could hear the sounds of rushing water so I set off to investigate. I had heard there was a gorge with a waterfall near here so I was hoping I had found it. I was a bit disappointed with the “waterfall”…

IMG_7571

But decided to get out and stretch. As I walked along the banks of the creek, I found lots of white trillium thriving in the shadows…

Kayak From BRF-2508

The cool water felt good on my feet as I walked along as sun dappled tree stood sentinel over me…

Kayak From BRF-2505

Kayak From BRF-2511

Back on the river, I saw a slough and decided to check it out. There were lots of turtles sunning themselves on the fallen logs…

Kayak From BRF-2495Kayak From BRF-2492

When I reached Hansen’s Landing, I knew I only had 2.5 miles to go…

Kayak From BRF-2512

I had spent the first 12 miles being lazy, but wanted to make a time lapse video of the trip from Hansen’s Landing, so now it was time to paddle! It took me 28 minutes to reach the shore of Lost Falls Campgound, so the video is only 28 seconds, whew, what a workout…

It was a peaceful, relaxing way to spend the day. I can’t wait to do it again!

Where is your favorite place to kayak?

The Devil Is In The Details

Finally, a day off with no chores. No groceries to shop for, no laundry to do. Just a day to go out and have some fun. The weather could have been better, the forecast called for on and off showers and cloudy skies, but that wasn’t going to deter us! After visiting one of our favorite websites, Atlas Obscura, we knew we had to take the 30 minute drive to Sparta, Wisconsin and visit FAST Corporation. FAST stands for Fiberglass Animals, Shapes and Trademarks.

We’ve all seen larger than life advertising or roadside attractions, you know, that 20′ tall strawberry at the fruit stand or the giant cow standing in front of the farm. If you are like me, you’ve probably never given a second thought to where did it come from or who made it? But, chances are, it came from FAST Corp.

When we pulled into the parking lot, I didn’t know where to look first. Acres of fiberglass molds and finished products beckoned me. As we walked around, familiar characters stared back at us under dreary skies…

Fast Corporation-2376Fast Corporation-2378Fast Corporation-2386Fast Corporation-2387Fast Corporation-2390Fast Corporation-2388Fast Corporation-2384Fast Corporation-2395

Some items where purely decorative, while others were more functional.  It’s easy to picture this hippo water fountain at the zoo, just across from the lion bench where tired parents watch as the kiddos get a drink…

Fast Corporation-2403

Fast Corporation-2383

In my mind, I can hear the squeals of delight as the kiddies come down the water slide…

Fast Corporation-2397

As we walked passed the cows…

Fast Corporation-2381Fast Corporation-2382

The familiar shape Hard Rock Cafe guitars caught our attention…

Fast Corporation-2409

FAST Corporation has kept every fiberglass mold they have ever created. After being used, they are taken out back and put in the “graveyard”. Acres and acres of molds await the day they may be called for again. Who knows when someone might need a giant bear…Fast Corporation-2410

Or an elephant…

Fast Corporation-2415

How about an ice cream cone…

Fast Corporation-2429

What if Chevy needs another boulder?

Fast Corporation-2443

Here are some of the other neat molds we saw…

Fast Corporation-2426Fast Corporation-2441Fast Corporation-2434Fast Corporation-2432Fast Corporation-2431Fast Corporation-2452

Fast Corporation-2448
The mold for the lion bench

Fast Corporation-2444

Behind one of the shops, there was a sculpture of 2 boys rough housing, I think this will be used to create the mold. It looked like it was carved out of some type of dense foam…

Fast Corporation-2455

There were also finished products, waiting to be shipped…

Fast Corporation-2464Fast Corporation-2473

If you are ever in Sparta, Wisconsin and find yourself on County Road Q, stop in and visit FAST Corporation! It’s a pretty neat place!

Up next, my first kayak trip on the Black River…

Kayaking with Aligators

We only had 2 days to explore the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, not nearly enough time considering it covers 630 sq miles. The swamp is only part of the Okefenokee experience, there are also vast wet prairies, pine uplands and cypress forests. This mosaic of habitats makes the Okefenokee a “Wetland of International Importance.” The swamp itself is 38 miles long and 25 miles wide and remains one of the most well preserved and intact freshwater ecosystems in the world.

Day One

We stopped at the visitors center and asked about the 120 miles of water trails. Like hiking trails, they range from easy to difficult. We wanted to plan an easy paddle, maybe 4 or 5 hours in total. A trip to the Cedar Hammock canoe shelter sounded just right.

With the next day’s kayaking plan in place, we had the rest of the afternoon to explore. We took the 7.5 mile Swamp Island Drive. The ranger told us to be on the lookout for several species of carnivorous plants and orchids blooming along the borrow ditch. She explained the ditch was created when workers “borrowed” the material to build the road.

Okefenokee NWR-1944
Rose Pogonia
Okefenokee NWR-1945
Butterwort
Okefenokee NWR-1938
Pitcher plant

 

We crossed onto Chesser Island, which was named after the family who settled there in 1858. A short path led us to the homestead…

Okefenokee NWR-1913Okefenokee NWR-1914

 

 

It’s hard to imagine what life was like in 1927 when Tom and Iva Chesser built the homestead. The yard was kept free of vegetation to reduce the fire hazard and  to increase the chance of seeing any snakes that might wander by. There are many remnants of family’s life on the island…

img_7436img_7440

img_7438
Cane syrup hearth

Our final stop on the Swamp Island Drive was the Chesser Island Boardwalk…

Okefenokee NWR-1917Okefenokee NWR-1919

We kept our eyes open for wildlife. The ranger told us a bobcat had been hanging around the boardwalk, but alas, I had to settle for lizards…

Okefenokee NWR-1923Okefenokee NWR-1924

We climbed the 40-foot Owl’s Roost Tower for a view of Seagrove Lake…

Okefenokee NWR-1929

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day Two

Our first plan was to be at the refuge early, but when I woke up, it was a chilly 63 degrees. I decided I wasn’t in a hurry! It was almost 10am when we arrived warming up quickly. We signed the paddlers’ log, we began our adventure.

We followed the Suwanee Canal for about a mile and a half before finding the entrance to the Cedar Hammock trail. Along the way, I marveled at the reflections in the tannin rich waters…

Okefenokee NWR-1960Okefenokee NWR-1964

We saw a few alligators in the canal. Despite being in a kayak, I did not feel threatened by their presence.  Okefenokee NWR-1990

Although, one surfaced so close to the front of my kayak, I could see it’s eyes but not it’s snoot. A little too close.

We left the motorboats behind when we entered the trail. They had all been courteous, slowing down to no wake speed when they passed, but I was happy to head deeper into the swamp…

Okefenokee NWR-1966Okefenokee NWR-1969

The trail was peaceful, with scores of water lilies blooming along the way…

Okefenokee NWR-1973

At the end of the trail there is an overnight shelter and outhouse.

Okefenokee NWR-1975

I got out to stretch and watch the alligator swimming by…

Okefenokee NWR-1977

As we were leaving, I noticed a baby alligator among the lily pads…

Okefenokee NWR-1982

Steve took the lead on the way back to the canal. I wonder if he saw this guy…

Okefenokee NWR-1983Okefenokee NWR-1986-Edit

 

 

I loved every minute of our paddle! From the anhinga…

img_7457

To the turtle…

Okefenokee NWR-1991

It was amazing!

Would you kayak with the alligators? Do  you think we’re nuts?

A Trip to Canaveral National Seashore

Nature in harmony with science make Florida’s Space Coast an adventure not to be missed. I have been to the Space Coast twice, the first time in 2012 and again last week with Steve. There are several components making up the coast, you have the Canaveral National Seashore, consisting of 57,662 acres, the Merritt Island NWR, consisting of 140,000 acres which includes NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

On both occasions, my main objective was to visit Merritt Island NWR, specifically the Black Point Wildlife Drive. Both of my visits were in late March and I was surprised by the differences. The water levels were much higher in 2012 and my visit coincided with a prescribed burn.

2012March30-120330-2502012March30-120330-241

It’s natural for the water levels to fluctuate and we haven’t had a lot of rain this winter.

Merritt Island NWR is home to over 1500 species of plants and animals, including 15 federally listed species. It is also an important stop on the Atlantic Flyway. You never know what you might come across during a visit.

The wildlife drive is a 7 mile, one-way road through various habitats, from shallow marsh impoundments to pine flatwoods…

2012March30-120330-025

With spring in the air, wildflowers are blooming, attracting lots of butterflies…

2012March30-120330-0432012March30-120330-0472012March30-120330-0612012March30-120330-242

 

 

 

 

 

In 2012, I was lucky enough to be visiting when a large flock of white pelicans were resting in the marsh…

2012March30-120330-191

This year, we saw quite a few northern shovelers which are in the spoonbill family…

Merritt Island NWR-1362

While we were photographing them, a grackle made his presence known. He was finding a meal in the fallen palm fronds. When I got too close, he retreated to my spare tire.

Merritt Island NWR-1662Merritt Island NWR-1657

 

 

We saw flocks of blue billed ducks. I haven’t quite identified them yet…

2012March30-120330-015

And tons of coots…

Merritt Island NWR-1670

The one animal you are almost guaranteed to see is alligators…

Merritt Island NWR-16952012March30-120330-0872012March30-120330-114

After we finished the drive, we decided to head over to Canaveral National Seashore. On the way, we were lucky enough to see a sandhill crane with its chick…

Merritt Island NWR-1707

Using our America the Beautiful Pass, we entered our first national park of the year. I don’t think we will visit as many parks this year as last (15 in total), but we love not having to pay the entrance fees.

Our first wildlife encounter was with an armadillo. I’m fairly sure this little guy was completely blind. He was unfazed by my presence and at one point nearly walked into me…

Canaveral National Seashore-1732

We also saw what I think was a box turtle on the side of the road…

Canaveral National Seashore-1734

Only one of our encounters came with its own warning sign…

Canaveral National Seashore-1739

I have to admit, we were a bit surprised. The seashore has 5 areas with beach access and apparently clothing is optional at beach 5. Who knew?!?!?

The one area we haven’t visited yet is the Kennedy Space Center. I’ve heard you can spend the better part of a day there, so it will have to wait until next time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

The Denali Hwy and an Abandon Igloo

When driving the 135 mile Denali Highway, you should not take the word highway literally.  Only 24 miles are paved and the rest is a “2 lane” gravel road. That being said – DRIVE IT! Many rental companies don’t allow you to drive the Denali highway, but some do. If yours doesn’t, there are several companies that rent Jeeps so you can get the full affect. Luckily, we have a Jeep so none of that was a concern to us. We started in Cantwell. I hadn’t really planned on driving the entire 135 miles to Paxson, but with such scenery, who could resist. There are some interesting fact about the highway here.

Almost as soon as the road turned to gravel, we came across an open field and we were treated to a view of Mt Denali in the distance…

Denali Hwy-9451

 

The scenery only got better with every mile…Denali Hwy-9471

Denali Hwy-9514Denali Hwy-9551

Denali Hwy-9571
Breathtaking!

Most of the beautiful reds were courtesy of blueberry and cranberry bushes taking on their fall hues…

Denali Hwy-9663
They were SO tasty!
Denali Hwy-9595
Ready for picking!

It took us nearly 6 hours to drive 135 mile because I had to stop so often. I think my favorite view was the cabin on the hill…

Denali Hwy-9615
Doesn’t it just scream Alaska?

But the rivers and lakes come in a close second…

Denali Hwy-9619
Hard to contain my excitement!

What a road…

Denali Hwy-9647

The only bad thing was now, we had to drive back to Healy. We decided not to go back via the Denali Highway, but to go through Fairbanks instead. On the way, we saw glaciers and parts of the Alaska Pipeline…

Denali Hwy-9707

Denali Hwy-9731
I was surprised how accessible the pipeline was.

Steve had planned a surprise for me on our last day in Healy. As always, he had checked Atlas Obscura when we arrived. He found the perfect place for me to get my abandon building fix, Igloo City. You know that little voice you have that says, “Don’t go in there, it isn’t safe”? Ya, I don’t have one…

Abandon Igloo-9770Abandon Igloo-9774Abandon Igloo-9777Abandon Igloo-9790

Abandon Igloo-9797
It’s only 4 stories tall, what bad could happen with no safety rails?

Apparently, Steve’s little voice was missing too…

Abandon Igloo-9800

Abandon Igloo-9806
What a view this room would have had

 

 

Hey, look, I can see the Jeep from here…

Abandon Igloo-9808

I was surprised how little trash and graffiti there was since it was so easy to get inside. Perhaps its remote location, half way between Anchorage and Fairbanks, keeps it off the radar for the local teenagers. But, you will always have some “art”…

Abandon Igloo-9793

The other buildings were interesting as well…

Abandon Igloo-9827Abandon Igloo-9829

On the way back to Waldo, we had our final magnificant views of Mt Denali. Of course, I couldn’t resist a couple more shots…

Abandon Igloo-9831Abandon Igloo-9838

And so ends our Alaska adventure. It’s been great having you along to enjoy it with us. Up next, wildlife in the Yukon and British Columbia.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!