April 2015 – It had taken a few long hours to work our way from the shoreline of the Wisconsin River at the south-eastern corner of the Sauk Prairie Recreation area to this… a fence. The fence marked what was once the guarded border between the former Badger Army Ammunition plant and Devil’s Lake State Park. Not to say that you’d find hikers and beach goers near by. No, this fence is on the southern edge of Devils Lake’s South Bluff. The closest thing to wilderness you’ll find in the state park. Now the real adventure would begin.
We walked up and down the fence line looking for the best place to cross. While I’ve been told that the gate at Burma Road has been opened now, really, the whole fence should come down. It’s no longer protecting our national interest and is doing more harm than good by blocking the free travel of various animals from one area to the next. For us, climbing the 8 foot tall barrier wasn’t easy either. We finally found a spot where a small tree and a post worked together to create a sort of ladder. Getting up was easy, getting down the other side, not so much. Somehow we managed to get across without a tear in our pants!
We decided to head north through an overgrown farmstead. Not that you would recognise it easily. The spot was simply more open than the surrounding area. The give-away to the historic farm is a small grove of apple trees. No wonder we found an old camouflage chair rotting away under one of the trees. If you’re looking for deer, look for apple trees! Hunters are some of the few people who make it into this area. Sadly some of them all too often leave their trash. Uncaring hunters are one of the reasons we can’t have nice things!
While it was easy to work our way through the quasi-open land we soon realized that it was bordered on all sides by prickly ash. The farmstead was a walled prison. Fence on one side, thorny briar on the other three. Now, you’d like to think you could just push through prickly ash. Maybe. For awhile. But how far do you push through? Finally we surrendered. I knew there was another way. We simply had to move west and travel through a wetland. I was trying to avoid that. After a bit of a discussion we decided wet feet was better than drawing (more) blood. Accepting that; what seems easy at first glance isn’t always, we turned around and navigated the prickly ash, raking raspberry thickets, buckthorn and brush back to the fence.
Many of us know that the Baraboo bluffs were once mountains. In fact, they are older than the Rockies or the Himalayas and they used to be much taller. What I find interesting is that while we often assume the bluffs were “worn down” over time, they were actually buried by sediment! The historic “foot of the hills” as it were, lies hundreds of feet below the land we now walk upon. Underground, the foundations of the bluffs create a large dam separating the deep waters of the north and the Wisconsin River watershed to the south. It also means a lot of water builds up on the bottom of the south bluff with nowhere to go. Water we were going to have to walk through.
With a resigned sigh, we stepped into the marsh. The cold water quickly filled our shoes and wicked up our pants. We tried as much as we could to stay on the high ground, but sometimes it’s simply not possible. At least we were not moving north again and without having to constantly remove thorns from our flesh.
The wetland area at the bottom of the South Bluff is beautiful. It’s as if you had suddenly been dropped somewhere in the Boundary Waters on the border of the US and Canada. We expected a moose to show its face at any moment. We did disturb a few geese and wood ducks. I was also stunned when I surprised a coyote who had been dozing in the tall grass near the water. It rose, looked at me for a moment, then in a flash it disappeared into the woods. Too surprised to move quickly, I only managed to get a blurry, “Squatchy” sort of photo.
After an hour or more of squishing through the water and tall grass, we were finally working our way out of the swamp and up the south bluff. The swamp is fed by a variety of springs somewhere atop the bluffs which over the centuries have created a deep valley; Beautiful to see, A bear to climb out of! We worked our way up through the forested slopes. Thankfully there was not much growth in the understory and the only thing slowing us down was the climb. It was quiet and beautiful. There was a slight wind rotating the tree branches above us. Even here, we discovered occasional patches of garlic mustard at our feet!
I’ve never understood how people become lost in the Baraboo hills. We’re not urban by any means, but at the same time, this is not the wilds of Canada either. Really, if you can keep track of your general directions, North, South, East, West.. you can never get too lost. There will be road within a few hours walk from even the deepest locations on the bluffs. That said, we still take a navigation aid with us on our treks. It’s just good sense. On this day I was testing a new App called iArrow. Here’s the pitch;
“iArrow provides navigation where there are no roads. The app will show you the way back to your car, campsite or hotel and help you reach the nearest settlement if you get lost. This app features a built-in database of 2,000,000 localities around the world and does not require internet or cellular connection.”
I set the iArrow app to lead us across the top of the south bluff to a waypoint spot that marks a series of springs. These springs can lead a hike through a valley with some amazing waterfalls and down the other side of the bluff into a place called Roznos Meadow. Well, I’m glad we knew where we were. The app actually struggled to keep us in the right direction. I found that if I regularly shut down and restarted the app it would correctly orient again for a time, before slowly going astray. In a desperate situation I wouldn’t put my trust the app. But then again, an old fashioned compass, a map and a bit or orienteering experience should always trump a phone app in the wilderness. Most of the time, your phone won’t find a signal anyway!
The top of the seasonal falls start subtly. Walking through the forest, you will notice the appearance of small wet areas, and rivulets that wind and occasionally merge to create a stream. The land nearby is mushy but not “wet”. Moss is a bit thicker on the rocks and trees. With a quick glance around you can get a sense of direction. From here you can follow the streams. As you walk more springs, more trickles merge into one large central stream. In time another stream comes in from the east and tracks alongside the original stream until the first real drop into the valley where the two streams will finally merge. It was somewhere in here that we found more broken camouflage chairs and fading cans of energy drinks.
We walked along the streams. Their regular twisting meant that we often had to jump or rock-hop from one side back to the other to keep moving north. We knew we were heading down by this point as walls of forest and stone began to rise on either side of us. The streams merged and accelerated. Soon the first falls were beginning to appear. It’s worth repeating here, that the falls in this area are seasonal. Usually by mid-summer you’ll find nothing but boulders and dry stream bed. On our adventure, in early April, we were treated with rushing falls.
Hiking down through the valley and gorge is a real challenge. The walls get steep and you are forced to traverse the wet rocks, fallen trees and fast currents of the stream. In the back of your mind you know that if you twist an ankle or something worse, you’re in trouble. Cell Phones won’t work, there are no nearby roads and even if there were, help is a long way off. There is a lot of motivation to think and review every foot placement and handhold as you navigate down the slippery slopes.
Near the bottom of the falls and the foot of the bluff, the railroad tracks create a dam in front of the stream. The water fans out into a small floodplain before dropping down a hidden culvert and disappearing under the tracks. We of course, had to climb up the banks and cross over the tracks, then descend down the other side. From this spot we could see the east bluff ahead of us. Devil’s Doorway to our far left and Roznos Meadow and Hwy 113 to our right. We hiked north. First though forest, then through a prairie, then through a punishing swamp where every step was an uneven march through tall clumps and deep holes filled with water. If there was a moment to want to quit, this was it. On the other hand, you’re in the middle of a swamp.. you can’t quit.
Back To Familiar Ground
In time we marched out of the swamp and followed and old fence line to South Shore Road. We walked the road for a bit. Thankful for the flat ground beneath our sore and tired feet. Then we turned north again and made the ascent up the Ice Age Trail to the top of the East Bluff. After hiking for hours through dry prairie, wet swamps, then up one bluff, then down the falls, then more swamps, the climb up the east bluff sucked!! Yeah, we had a trail under our feet now. Yeah, we knew we were on the last leg of the journey, but climbing the bluff just sucked. Sucked.
At the top of the park’s east bluff, we followed the Uplands Trail which would eventually take us back to our car that was parked out on Steinke Basin. We hike the Uplands trail so often that we could do it in our sleep. On this day, we probably did! Eventually after what seemed like forever on the uplands, we could see the parking lot and our car. Better yet, we could see the restroom!! After a long deserved potty break, we slid our packs off of our sore shoulders and fell into our car… never to get up again… Well, it felt that way..
The hike from the Wisconsin River to the Steinke Basin Parking lot ended up covering some 14 miles. In the process we covered every sort of terrain, including ascending and descending two bluffs. Along the way we got pretty scratched up and played host to a good number of deer ticks. Still, we did it in a day and had quite a wonderful adventure without really leaving our backyard. We certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone trying this unless they have some real experience in the wilderness, they have the right gear, and realize that there are some real risks. That said, if this is something you are prepared for, it’s amazing that we have such a wonderful opportunity right here in the Baraboo Hills.