Monday, February 13, 2017

High Cliff State Park, WI

The other day while I was cleaning my apartment, I looked into my gear closet with all of my outdoor supplies and saw my tent, my beloved Eurkea Taron2 I got as a Christmas present a few years back. It was sitting there on a shelf, next to my rock climbing rack and backpacking pack. "Gosh I miss my tent," I murmured to myself. I sprinted into my bedroom which is also my wannabe-home-office and checked my work schedule. I had off Thursday and Friday morning until noon. Cool, I'm going to go winter camping. "You're nuts!" are the words that always come out of my mother's mouth when I tell her about some adventure I'm going on. Yes, winter camping is nuts, but if you have the right cold weather gear you can have an absolute blast. Therefore I do.

I loaded up my Gregory Baltoro 65 backpack, pulled together some rations for two meals, grabbed my snowshoes and hit the road. The destination for this mid-week adventure was High Cliff State Park located up in Sherwood, WI. I had the cruise control set at 65mph and Coldplay's legendary "A Rush of Blood To The Head" album playing. I can't believe that album came out fifteen years ago, I remember listening to it with my dad when it first came out in 2002. I was twelve. High Cliff State Park sits on the northeast coast of Lake Winnebago, the biggest lake in Wisco. It's a spectacular state park home to the Niagara Escarpment.

This mass of limestone rock stretches 1,000 miles across Wisconsin towards the tip of Door County and then onto, you guessed it, Niagara Falls in New York. Parts of the cliff or ledge, reach 20-30 feet high in some places and it's exposed here along the shore of Lake Winnebago. Inside the state park is a 125-acre state natural area dedicated to preserving the escarpment and its surrounding vegetation and talus forest. According to the DNR, the settling and hardening of limy ooze at the bottom of the Silurian Sea (which flooded the state some 400 million years ago) caused the escarpment to form. Over time, the dolomite was tilted downward southeast by earth's powerful forces and left the higher western edge exposed at the surface, which you can easily see here at High Cliff State Park (and at the lush Horicon Marsh region of the state). Here's a meaty article from that talks more about this incredible geological phenomenon.

When I got to High Cliff State Park, I registered and went to the group campground to set up tent. In the winter, the main campground is closed but you're able to camp in the group campground (sites are not plowed, you pay the standard $18 per night rate). I found a site right in the woods with views of Lake Winnebago off in the near distance. There were some fairly gusty winds blowing off the lake so I grabbed a large rock to place in the vestibule of the tent for weight and tied a strap around a large branch I had placed behind the tent. I've already had my tent blow away once in Moab, UT at Arches National Park when I had thought it was weighed down enough haha.

I strapped on my MSR Evo snowshoes and went hiking for a few hours. At High Cliff, you can hike both above and below the escarpment ledge that protrudes towards the lake. I started above and snowshoed along the tops of the cliffs. It's fascinating and just wild to see this big rocky, craggy formation up-close. Sharp edges jut out down the hill towards the water and into the perfect blue sky above. As a rock climber, seeing these makes me want to climb literally everything. The Indian Mound Trail takes you past a few, sacred Indian burial mounds before  connecting to the Red Bird Trail which straddles the top of the escarpment. The views are dizzying in some places, glancing down into the towering rock formation below you. You have to have crampons or snowshoes, simple microtrax you wrap around your shoes will not cut. You need legitimate blades or sharp spikes because it's very icy around the ledges and a fall into one of them would make for a tricky search-and-rescue operation. In places you feel like your standing above a slot canyon, it's awesome. I then wandered around below at the base of the escarpment, super intrigued by their prominence and shape. So, so, so cool. I could spend hours walking along the base of the escarpment, studying each ledge.

I continued heading down the trail towards the lake, walking admits a city of trees that I was geeking out over. hackberry, ash, basswoods, sugar maples (our state tree), elm and even willows. You guys...the trees are amazing here! Including a ginormous cottonwood tree that was a familiar sight. Familiar how you may ask? Well true story- three years ago when I was hiking here, I struck 'love at first sight' with that exact tree and later had it tattooed on my left arm. There's a moving quote that pairs with the ink. I'll blog a story about that coming up soon. It was perfect waldeinsamkeit, the solitary feeling of being alone in the woods.

With the sun falling over the southwestern corner of Lake Winnebago, I continued on snowshoes through the old lime kiln ruins and up to the 40ft observation tower. The one thing I remember about this park is that the sunsets up here are spectacular. Colors of blood red, vibrant orange, yellow and pink filling the sky and reflecting down onto the frozen icy surface. Stunning. I arrived back at my tent and crawled inside to warm up. My Eureka Taron2 does a superb job of blocking the harsh wind. This past Christmas, my father got me a MalloMe cooking mess kit and I was anxious to try it out. (The cooking set was so good and useful- I’ll do a little write-up of it later on the blog). Since the winds had picked up noticeably, I set-up my stove in the tent’s vestibule and started boiling up some bacon and potatoes soup. Throw some ripped up bread in the pot and you’ve got a delicious hot treat to enjoy after some exposure to the cold.

Temperatures dropped to around 0 degrees into the evening so I curled up in my 0-degree down sleeping bag from OutdoorVitals I spent some time journaling and reading more of Edward Abbey’s highly-addictive book, “Desert Solitude.” The moon above shined astonishingly bright, lighting up the forest my tent was residing in. I turned my headlamp off and saw everything around me in the tent. Crazy. The strong winds blew through the trees, wracking all sorts of loud pops, snaps, cracks and creases throughout the night. Laying there in the tent, I could hear a pair of great horned owls perched above somewhere nearby singing to each other. Everything else… was silent.

The next morning, my watch beeped at 7:15am and I lit-up the stove for some granola oatmeal. The sun was shining and temperatures slowly crept upwards into the teens. At around 8:15am, I took down my tent, loaded my pack and hit the road. The 90-minute drive got me back to my apartment in Cedarburg with just twenty minutes to take a quick shower and make lunch. I flung-out my sleeping bag, pad and tent on the floor to air out in the sun, got in uniform and brewed a coffee to gulp down on my way to work. Because micro-adventures like these keep me going throughout the week and are the very best.

If you have yet to visit High Cliff State Park, please, I urge you to make an effort in doing so. It’s one of the most unique parks in Wisconsin and exploring the Niagara Escarpment should be on everyone’s adventure bucket-list.