History Hike at Wisconsin’s Newest State Park

Originally posted on the blog of the Heritage Initiative, one of my partner-clients:

It was a half winter, half autumn day last week when I joined a friend on a hike along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail where it passes through Straight Lake State Park. We met at a friendly café in Lucky, Wisconsin and drove a few miles out of town to the trailhead, where we found the woods and parking lot covered in light snow, which had fallen a few days before.

We wound through the hardwood forests for a short while, passing by a 10-foot high boulder next to the trail, indicating the glacial nature of this path. Such boulders are a common sight throughout our region: A glacial erratic, it was carried here by glaciers and dropped as they melted.

The Ice Age Trail follows roughly the edge of where the glaciers reached into Wisconsin during the last Ice Age. Later, I learned that Straight Lake State Park is shaped by a rare and significant glacial event. More on that in a bit.

When we emerged at the west end of Straight Lake, the sun was dipping toward the horizon. A stand of tamaracks in the boggy area next to the lake glowed orange as only tamaracks can glow in fall.

Straight Lake is easy on the eyes. One tiny island juts out of its middle, no more than 50 feet across and topped with bushy white pines. Ridges rise up from both sides of the lake, covered in oak and other hardwoods. On the other end, a clump of nice pines on a point stood out in their greenery.

As we walked along the north shore of the lake, the narrow path soon joined the historic Clam Falls Trail, a historic road which once carried settlers and loggers from St. Croix Falls to Cumberland. According to the Luck Historical Society, one story of how the town got its name is that travelers on the trail were said to be “in Luck” if they made it there in one day from St. Croix Falls. From there, they would have followed the trail, including the section we now trod on, to Cumberland and Spooner, many of them looking for jobs in the logging camps and mills.

Our route continued along the lake to where the Straight River pours out of it over an old dam which is basically a pile of rocks. We hopped across on stepping stones, much like people do at the headwaters of the Mississippi in Minnesota’s Itasca State Park.

When we reached the pines at the east end of the lake, we followed the trail a little farther to Rainbow Lake, where the contrast between the north shore – orange, brown, and autumn – stood in stark contrast to the south shore – which was white and wintry.

Cutting over a ridge, we came to the Straight River where it flows down its valley. This is where it is said one can witness a significant glacial feature. A “tunnel channel” forms the valley which contains Straight and Rainbow Lakes and the Straight River.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, a tunnel channel is created when “meltwater erodes sediment and/or bedrock beneath the glacier.” Later, the river under the glacier moved slow enough to deposit a ridge of sandy sediment, creating an esker down the middle of the valley.

The sun sets early these days so we were soon our way back through the dimming woods. Straight Lake State Park is known for its solitude and beauty, but it was also a unique experience to follow both a logging-era road and a glacial channel.

I first heard about the park from Gregg Westigard of the Inter-County Leader at one of the Heritage Discovery Workshops last year, and was glad to finally make it here and experience the stories it has to tell for myself.