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.
It’s a silly thing to drive to the North Shore and back in a day. And it’s sillier when it’s snowing. But Ryan was in town for the first time since January and had not seen the big lake in too long. So we pledged ourselves to coffee, music and conversation and drove on up the road.
We turned off the road some miles past Duluth and then drove up to a Superior Hiking Trail trailhead Ryan was familiar with. The parking area, next to some sort of wastewater holding tanks, not far from giant taconite tailings basins, was not exactly the idealized version of the scenic North Shore, but we just needed a little patch of woods to wander in.
We left the trail not long after setting out. We dropped down to the river and made a small fire in a stand of cedars on its banks, only burning enough wood to make a cup of tea. The snow was falling ever silently, the river was half-frozen.
After the tea, we hiked a mile or two down the river to a series of falls that crashed through cataracts in the rock. Our timing was good and we hiked back out in the dwindling daylight and got back to the car as the world disappeared into swirling snow and early wintertime darkness.
The drive to Duluth and another 30 miles past was slow-going. The snow was at times heavy; we were driving Ryan’s capable four-wheel drive and he knew our best bet was to keep our speed down. We stopped for refreshments at Fitger’s in Duluth. When we arrived back at my car at his parents’ house hours later, all was windy and frozen.
This morning, Bill McKibben stood in the pulpit at the church that Katie and I have been going to for a few months. The author and climate change activist gave a brief talk–not a sermon–about where things stand with climate change and the work to do something before it’s too late.
McKibben is the founder of an effective and respected advocacy organization called 350.org. Last October 24, they organized what CNN called the “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history,” comprised of 5,200 actions in 181 countries. McKibben’s 1989 breakthrough book, “The End of Nature,” was originally published serially in the New Yorker when he was a staff writer there.
One thing I learned was the origin of the “350” thing. It’s quite simple. In 2008, NASA scientists published a paper saying that 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere is the breaking point for global warming:
If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm, but likely less than that.
McKibben briefly covered much of what has been most widely discussed: the big, noticeable effects of global warming, like the melting Arctic and the vanishing polar bears. He warned that the climate bill that will be introduced in the U.S. Senate in 10 days by Sen. Kerry and others might as well have been written by the electric utility industry, is full of loopholes, and simply will not arrest the accelerating progress of global warming.
As far as President Obama’s actions, he paused at length and then said that Obama has done more on climate change than any previous President. Then he said that he had also drunk more beer than his 12-year-old niece.
I have lately been frustrated that the problem with a lot of environmental work is that there simply are too many humans. Other efforts can feel like treating the symptom, and not the cause. I got a kick out of the Center for Biological Diversity’s campaign of handing out condoms on Valentine’s Day with illustrations of endangered species printed on them.
The question of population growth was the first question put to McKibben after the service and he responded with some surprising information. He said that fertility rates are dropping and the planet’s population is expected to top out at about 9 billion in 20 or 30 years, I think. He said that obviously 9 billion is beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, but there is a bit of a fertility bubble right now and birth rates will soon start to slow.
McKibben then repeated something that I’ve been hearing more and more about lately, which is that programs that seek to educate and empower women in societies around the globe are proving remarkably effective at slowing population growth. Once women have options beyond just having a bunch of kids, they go from having six to maybe two. He also said that he is the proud parent of one child.
The population argument is also somewhat inconsequential because people in countries like the United States where birth rates are relatively low consume so much more of everything–including energy–than people in developing countries where birth rates might be higher. An American family uses as much energy between midnight on New Year’s Eve and dinner on January 2 as a Tanzanian family uses in a year.
There’s a lot of hype out there regarding climate change. McKibben impressed me as someone who had given a lot of information and theory and science a long, dispassionate examination, and was now very passionate about spreading what he had learned. He was in Minnesota for less than 24 hours, landing last night and catching a flight right after the second service. He speaks again tomorrow night in Portland, Oregon and the next night in Seattle. In fact, his touring schedule would put just about any rock and roll band to shame.
McKibben has a new book out, which also explains the furious tour. It’s called “Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet” (the second “a” in “Eaarth” is not a typo, the author said to “channel your inner-Schwarzenegger” when pronouncing it).
Our friends Brian and Rachel joined us for the service and we had breakfast afterward, then Katie and Rachel left to do some “crafting” and Brian and I ran an errand or two and then went back to our house, where we had a few cups of Oolong tea and played a game of chess. The sun was spilling in the bay window and the view to the lake was starting to be obscured by the burgeoning green on the trees.
We weren’t sure what to do with ourselves and the beautiful afternoon and decided to try to the samurai method we had been discussing earlier, which was that any major decision can and should be made in the length of time it takes to drink a cup of tea. We had a few cups of tea–I recently read that Oolong is considered to be best after three or four steepings (it’s on Wikipedia, it must be true!)–and considered our options as we played.
We talked about the game a bit, again visiting on the idea that it is so enjoyable and endlessly complex, and also that it is a perfect distillment of war. But later I got thinking and realized it’s completely inaccurate in regards to war because in chess, the two sides start out perfectly equal, as far as numbers of soldiers, equipment, and resources.
What war has ever been fought between two perfectly equal forces? Underdogs can and often do win, but the very imbalance of the opposing forces and how their leaders respond to their own and their enemy’s strengths and weakness is the true test of a strategic mind.
About the time we were drinking our third cup of tea and finishing up the game, I decided that some part of me wanted to get into Wisconsin. We packed up the dog and some provisions and pointed the car east. The iPod provided the Black Keys, Gorillaz, and lots more, but the music had to compete with the wind rushing in open sunroof and windows.
When we crossed the St. Croix, I figured out where I wanted to go and we navigated to a little county park with a lake where we had gone to swim and canoe and fish a few times in the past.
The gate was locked across the road when we got the park, but that actually proved to be fortunate. There were a few other cars parked there so we joined them and set off walking up the road and into the park. It’s not a big park and if we’d driven in we might not have gotten much of a walk. And, in this season of so many ticks, walking on the road was frankly sort of relieving.
The road climbed a big hill through dry grassy hills and I felt like we were walking in some parks I remember in western North Dakota. Lola ran ahead, checking out the tops of the hills on both sides of us. After reaching the top, we were able to see the valley to our right where there were a couple horse farms nestled in between the ridges and not much else around. It exceeded my arbitrary aesthetic standards. It looked like heaven, really.
Although I thought we would just walk on the road down to the lake where Lola could swim, we spotted a trail that headed that way and decided to check it out. It was a beautiful trail which wound down the hill through woods, primarily planted red pine, which I can’t help having a fondness for.
The trail was beautifully-constructed; often it was inexplicably carpeted in moss. Rocks and timbers had been well-placed and erosion-preventing waterbars had been placed generously. The trail slowly cut down the hills sideways and soon, the lake began to appear shimmering through the woods. It is a cold, clear lake not open to motors and is home to stocked rainbow trout and the biggest largemouth bass I’ve ever caught.
Down at the lake, Lola finally got to swim. She had been driving for the water from the moment it came in sight and one could feel her happiness when she finally plunged in.
There were some other folks fishing around a bend, but otherwise there was no one around. We took a break at a picnic table in the shade before heading back up and a loon splashed around on the lake and called one short call while we sat and watched the water.
It is once again possible to leave the house to go for a hike at 3 p.m. and have plenty of daylight left and then some. That’s what we did on Saturday. The last leg of the drive out toward the St. Croix valley had five humans and two dogs in the station wagon “Apollo.” There were three or four other vehicles at the usually empty parking area, the warm spring sun and the cool spring breeze had drawn many of us today.
We hiked across the top of the falls and then down the top of the valley to near its bottom. We paused there on top of the ridge as it dropped, a big valley on either side of us, each with sandstone cliffs and waterfalls at the top of each. The one on our left was a much shorter gully and the ledge where its water would fall has been dry for a long time, but its valley remained.
We dropped over the edge to our right, the falls back a half-mile. We had walked across them at the beginning and would now walk back up in the valley. Little flowers, more delicate than egg shells but of similar color, here and there sprouted from underneath the leaf litter at the base of the sandy cliffs.