I sometimes fool myself into thinking that I could spend the rest of my life on a wildlife refugre. The problem is that I love to eat, and I really like my InterWebs connectivity — so I know that while the idea sounds lovely I wouldn’t really be able to do it.
That said, Wednesday’s road trip to Sandhill State Wildlife Refuge was for me the highlight of the summer. We were there at the wrong time of a day that was way too hot for good wildlife viewing and still it was the most special time of the summer.
We started off by going South to Plum City. We have been hearing about the Bittersweet Bakery in the tiny town of Plum City for months now. And just how a town of 600 population can support it’s own old fashioned style bakery in this day of fast-food everything is beyond me but we had a deliciously tasty breakfast in the adjoining dining room and got off to a good start for the day.
At 140 miles from Highland Ridge the Sandhill State Wildlife Area isn’t exactly “across the street” – you have to want to go there. And after several summers in this area for at least a couple weeks we have long since passed the point where there are nearby places of interest that we have not seen. So, this summer our days-off forays have been fewer and further afield but this is the choicest of the lot so far.
The Sandhill Wildlife Area is the larges block of state managed land in Wisconsin which manages a total of some 90,000 acres. The area here is about 9600 acres — about 10% of the state’s total wildlife management.
This area has seen immense changes — perhaps the attempts in the early 1900’s to drain the lowlands for farming, and the turning the land to disuse in the 1930’s when those failed projects ended up bankrupting farmers who were being taxed to death and the farmlands fell into tax delinquencies. This property is the result of a contemporary to Aldo Leopold who bought the land and turned it into his own private game farm, conserving the land, and raising deer, grouse, and waterfowl that he sold to posh restaurants in Chicago and New York City. The property came into State ownership in 1964.
The bigger changes took place much further back in the geological past — the results of glaciation, the cessation of the glaciers resulting in the formation of Lake Wisconsin and dropping tons and tons and tons of sand — the results of the glacier’s scraping and scratching the face of the earth. The soil here is sandy — hence the name: Sandhills. It’s difficult for typical Wisconsin forest plants to get enough nutrition to grow to full size and age — also with great changes in water table levels the water frequently drops low enough that the tree root systems cannot reach water and suffer shortened lifespans as a result.
One of the restoration projects underway here is to bring back the oak barrens. What’s an oak barren, you ask? An Oak barrens is a fire-dependent savanna terrain dominated by oaks, having between 5 and 60% canopy, with or without a shrub layer. Black oak (Quercus velutina) and white oak (Q. alba) typically dominate the scattered overstory. Much of the area of restoration does have such a shrub layer here. The density of growth in this entire area was reall stunning.
There is a 17 mile auto route. We saw all of ONE other vehicle enjoying the property as we were enjoying our stay. Along the route are 17 points of interest from an overlook where you can see the resident bison herd (kept at between 8 and 20 animals) to marsh overlooks and a variety of informational stops. A two hour run through the 17 mile route is what they project but you could easily spend the day here, or longer — depending on your interest, the time of year, and the heat. We happened to be here on a 90+º day and a lot of the critters were out of sight — which did nothing to dampen our enjoyment. If it wasn’t so far from Highland Ridge or Milwaukee we would visit more often.
Thanks for stopping and I’ll be here again tomorrow. Why not stop by and say hi!