When I got to the stream it was flowing the wrong way. Bull grouse drumming, the boomingest I’ve heard. Spring beauty and ramps on the spongy forest floor. I kicked a brook trout out from overhanging weeds, it skipped across the stream, held in the sunlight over weeds and gravel, convinced that stillness was invisibility in this context.
Clam shells and snail shells. Bloodroot. The markings on a brookie's back are described as "vermiform," worm-like, but I would choose serpentine, or byzantine.
Why the stream was flowing the wrong way, it was the wrong stream, that's why. I was following--or thought I was--the path of the main watercourse, but from some distance back from its banks, in the woods of black oak and white pine where the walking was easier than along the alder-crowded stream. I knew the feeder stream was there, I expected and hoped to come upon it, but now I had walked too far, so I thought, and needed to see some familiar terrain, a known piece of water. I turned eastward from my southing path, and soon came through a patch of gray dogwood to find a creek roughly the size of the main branch I was shadowing--but flowing the wrong way.
These sorts of streams, of this northern-west-central part of Wisconsin, which fall somewhere between the southwestern spring creeks and iron-tinted northern rivers, are highly variable in size. In the course of a couple of hundred yards this one changed from a quick, open meadow brook you could nearly step across to a much wider, shaded stream sliding past limestone cliffs. And back again.
There was plenty of beaver sign and I kept looking for the dam. There it was at the very mouth of the feeder. Icy water flowed under it into the main stream; I wondered if brookies could get up past it, to take refuge in the colder water when summer warmed the main branch.
This walk had no purpose, as aimless as this tale. To tramp about the countryside, that was as focused a goal as I could propose. It's a wonderful time of year for a ramble, without the tall grasses, nettles, thick brambles that overtake the woods by midsummer. Without the heat, the bugs. And the countryside displays intriguing forms that summer will hide.
Following the main branch now, I wandered farther downstream than I had ever fished before--all my previous visits to this place, I'd been wearing waders, carrying a fly rod--found this inviting rustic bridge. A little cabin stood off at a distance, at the edge of the woods and a hayfield. I did not approach. Crossed the bridge instead and went back up through the woods on the other side.
I reflected as I walked, and have several times since, on how lucky we are to have lands like this, open to all. I strayed on to private land at that bridge, I know, but there were no postings, no menacing signs or fences. Most of the land I crossed was public, county land, where anyone may hunt, fish, hike, birdwatch. No amenities here--oh, one fishing parking lot now has a paved path down to a sort of deck-like structure overhanging the stream, I call it "The Pontoon Dock," for some reason. But no picnic tables, shelters, trashcans or port-a-potties. Just a natural place, surrounded by farms.
The people who live near it probably do not see it as an oasis. But more than once, fishing here, I've encountered a youngish grandmother with her grandson. They spend a couple of hours drowning worms before she has to go to work, she's told me. The grandson is intense. He always wants to know what I've caught, and what I caught it on. He wants to see the fish. They don't catch much. They're just there to have fun, the grandma says. The grandson might differ. He's got that fisherman's hunger, burning through his wiry eight-year-old frame.
By the end of my walk, coming back to the car, I do now find a definite purpose to my ramble, as I knew I would. The woods are full of ramps already, in this very early spring. I have borrowed the Japanese digging knife I gave Mary for her birthday last year, which I find to be an ideal tool for separating a few ramps from a clump, leaving the rest to keep on growing. We've used ramps in a couple of dishes already this year, but you don't want to overdo it too soon. They've got a strong flavor, and you can get sick of them if you're not careful.
So I gather just a moderate portion, and most of that I'll wind up giving away. There are so many, it's hard to stop, but they will be there next week, and the week after, and likely the week after that.
Just across the dirt road from the little parking turnout where the Jetta sits there's a metal gate, and the land is
TRAPPING OR TRES-
PASSING BY WRITTEN
That's on one of the wooden posts of the barbed wire fence. And on the adjacent one, there's this:
Which made the no trespassing notice seem just a little more friendly.
Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw