Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Oh! Oh! Eau Claire!
Long before the Republican Party decided to torpedo the state of Minnesota, we had made plans to spend the 4th of July weekend in Wisconsin. The plan, specifically, was to ride the Red Cedar Bike Trail from Menominee to the Chippewa River and back, spend the night in Eau Claire, explore that city, hook up with a few segments of the Chippewa Valley Trail the next day, and be home in time for the evening news.
What a marvelous itinerary! The Red Cedar Trail follows that river for fourteen miles, and for most of its length it seems more like a very flat two-lane logging road than a rail bed or an improved bike trail. That’s nice. It often hugs the river, though there are very few places where you can actually get down to the banks to soak your feet. Along the way you pass groves of locust and basswood and sumac and box elder, limestone quarries, swamps, and rocky cliffs covered with jewelweed and moss and topped with majestic white pine.
The spiderwort was blooming in profusion on the trailside, and there was yarrow and bindweed and purple vetch here and there, too. At one opening in the trees we spotted some Sandhill cranes in a corn field. Much of the trail is covered in dappled sunlight, though on one of the sunny stretches we came upon a family of lark sparrows in a stunted oak tree. I hadn’t seen one of those for quite some time. A few hours on (we stop a lot) we finally came to the bridge spanning the Chippewa River. The river is wide and edged in dunes at that point. It makes you want to get out your canoe. We proceeded on to the T and headed south toward Durand for a few miles before turning back. Along the way I suddenly came upon a very large snake on the path—definitely not a garter snake. Looking at photos and distribution maps later, I would guess it was a Eastern Hognose snake or a Western Fox snake. I didn’t see it very well in the shadows of the forest before I ran over it. I let out a shriek but couldn’t swerve in time. It slithered off into the underbrush before we had a chance to view it carefully.
By the time we got back to the bridge across the Chippewa a number of boaters had arrived at the beaches. Several teenage boys were jumping off the bridge with mid-summer braggadocio. Everyone seemed to be having fun, though to me it looked excruciatingly hot out there in the full sun.
We made our desultory way back to the car and drove the back roads to Eau Claire, arriving on the outskirts via County C. I suppose that city is a tangle no matter how you approach it. It’s shaped like a horseshoe with the downtown on the rim, the Chippewa River below, and both the campus and Carson Park occupying the lowland in the center. There’s also a half-moon-shaped lake nestled within the arc of the horseshoe, which doubles your chances of hitting a dead-end or otherwise veering off your intended path. Neither the freeway nor Highway 53 get anywhere close to downtown. I suppose most people don’t care.
We spent a good deal of time going back and forth down Menominee Street, Clairmont Avenue, and Craig Road, and passed Lakeview Cemetery several times before finding our way into Carson Park. Evening was approaching and the park was simply gorgeous. Anglers were congregating on the pier at marshy Braun’s Bay, and the parking lot in front of the handsome limestone ballpark a hundred yards away was beginning to fill up. Families with picnic baskets and young couples were also approaching along trails through the woods. (The Eau Claire Express was playing the Wisconsin Raptors.) I caught sight of two uniformed players in the sunlight out on the field as we crept by, and was visited by a memory of that anticipation that greets any player prior to a game—relaxed but nervous.
We drove on through the pines past several less substantial ball fields before coming to a reconstructed logging camp and the Chippewa Valley Museum. Both were closed, which was just as well. We were content to sit on a park bench and look out across Half Moon Lake toward the city in the gathering twilight.
On our way out of the park we passed the longest string of horseshoe pits that I have ever seen. Returning downtown, we sat on a bench and watched a congeries of college kids floating quietly downstream on a variety of colorful plastic flotation devices. What a pleasant summer custom!