Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Snowshoe walk to Arboretum springs

One of my favorite places to go on a short walk in winter is down to the springs along Lake Wingra. Although you can ski to the springs, it is more direct to go by snowshoe, or just hike with sturdy boots. If you start in the parking lot on the north side of Arboretum Drive, just east of the Visitors Center, you can walk down the hill through the woods. If you want to ski, you have to go around the long way, because the Arb doesn't want people skiing down the slope. Besides, it's pretty steep and twisty for XC skis!

I am always amazed how well-worn the paths are in the middle of winter. Even though we got over 18 inches of snow just a few days ago, the path can easily be walked in boots. It is cut about 9 inches into the surrounding area, with the base well packed down.

The Big Spring is a large area of open water all winter that is filled with water birds in even the harshest conditions. If there are still berries on the trees, or during late fall and early spring migrations, you can also see and hear small birds flitting through the brush along the Big Spring.

Father down the path, you come to a stream flowing out of the hillside and towards the lake. Amid the white, black, grey, and spots of brown that are the winter palette, the springs show a bright green in the snow. Although it looks sort of like pond scum, this is actually watercress.

This is why I love this walk. The green in the middle of the winter reminds me that life continues, even in the deep snow.  There is copious water coming from these springs, and no matter how harsh the weather, the streams flow and support the plants. Here are some notes from a walk by an Arboretum naturalist that had some similar thoughts in December.

In the summer, the walk to this area is along a boardwalk through a wetland. As explained in this set of notes from another naturalist led walk back in 2007, this is a fen, a wetland that has a more basic water and soil than many of the bogs of northern Wisconsin.

Not being a morning person, my walks often start in the afternoon, and by the time I am ready to head back home, the light is often low. I always think that my photos are going to be too dark, and Saturday I even forgot my camera and had to use my cell phone. But the cameras on cell phones have gotten much better, and I was actually quite pleased with how some photos of the spring came out in the low light.

The image to the right is a bit farther into the wetland. I don't think you wouldn't be able to access this area during the summer, although the boardwalk may continue this far. After this, I tried to follow a small trail worn into the snow, but I think it might have been made by some of the UW researchers that work in the Arb, because it got very tangled up in the brush after a few hundred yards. I turned back, realizing that I'd probably end up out on Nakoma or Monroe St, if I kept going - if I got that far.

In the fresh snow, red blood stains where an animal ate a squirrel stood out. At first I thought it would have been an owl, but after seeing a couple locations, all deep in the underbrush, I decided it was more likely another mammal that finished off these squirrels. Maybe a fox? The pictures didn't really come out well, so I didn't include them.

As I climbed back up the hill, away from the lake and into the woods, the patterns created by the drifting snow caught my eye. There were circular depressions where the snow had drifted around the trees, and little mounds, like goosebumps, where bits of brush and twigs had accumulated more snow.

Even though the deeply worn trails multiple tracks show that many others have come before me, I always feel that this walk is a little secret of mine. While the prairie woods near the visitors center are popular place to ski or hike, you sort of have to know that the springs are down the steep hill. Most people don't go looking for open water and green plants in the depths of winter, especially after the amount of snow that came our way last week. But the Arboretum always shows its gems to those that are willing to explore.

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