Monday Morning Blogging: Ray Zillmer and the Ice Age Trail

This is one of a series of posts about conservation losses in Wisconsin in 2015.  It looks at the loss of state funding for a dozen or more conservation non-profit organizations. This is my attempt to learn more about each of the organizations, and to write about their history, their programs and services, – what they do for the state of Wisconsin.

Not too long ago I found an “old friend” I thought was missing – it was a book – 50 Hikes in Wisconsin by John and Ellen Morgan! It fell open in my hands to the dedication page: “To the Ice Age Park and Trail Alliance and its army of unwavering volunteers . . . .”  It ends with “In Memory of Ray Zillmer.” I was instantly reminded that yes, I did want to write about the Ice Age Trail Alliance.

I wanted to write about them, in part, because they are one of the conservation-minded groups to lose state support in 2015, but also because they are derived directly from the single-minded perseverance of one man with an idea. And single-minded though he could be, in pursuit of an idea, that man – Raymond T. Zillmer (1887-1960) – left more than one story to be told.

A National Park Service outline of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

A National Park Service outline of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Zillmer was a lifelong Milwaukeean – except for his student years at Madison and one at Harvard – and an intrepid adventurer. He was a husband and father, and active in civic organizations and the state and local Bar Associations. No doubt though, it was his involvement with the Izaak Walton League that best reflected what drove Ray Zillmer: a passion to get outdoors. And not just to hike or camp.

Zillmer went mountaineering, and exploring, and trekked through unmapped parts of British Columbia for 2 and 3 weeks at a time, year after year in the 1930s through the mid-40s. Then he published long accounts of these trips, such as “The Exploration of the Source of the Thompson River in British Columbia,” in American Alpine Journal, and others in the Canadian Alpine Journal. At the end of his life the American Alpine Journal said this about Zillmer:

“Exploration and elucidation of new country were more important in his eyes than mere climbing, and he carried out punishing journeys at an age when many another would have sought easier activity.”

As intense as those experiences must have been, Zillmer is also credited by the Morgans (in Fifty Hikes,) and others, with a deep appreciation for the natural wonders of the world wherever he could find them.  “In particular,” write the Morgans, ” Zillmer was intensely enamored with the rambling hilly area just west of Milwaukee where he would go on weekends with his family for adventuring.” This favorite haunt of Ray Zillmer’s would become the southern unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest

The Kettle Moraine State Forest, Southern Unit; the sign face north.

The Kettle Moraine State Forest, Southern Unit; the sign face north.

As early as 1933, Zillmer was named “Man of the Year,” by the state chapter of the Izaak Walton League for his work in the development of the Kettle Moraine State Park.   From 1941-49 he was chairman of the Kettle Moraine Committee for the Izaak Walton League of Milwaukee  and from 1954-58 he held the same role for the state chapter.

There is much in those years that is covered extensively by another blogger, Drew Hanson, (also a hiker, formerly of the IATA staff) at Pedestrian View. Hanson writes:  “During the 1940s-1950s, Ray Zillmer hounded Wisconsin governors and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources . . . to focus more resources on land acquisition of a corridor of land in the Kettle Moraine. . . .(Zillmer) was considered an authority on the subject and a persuasive advocate.”

As one gets to know more about Zillmer, it becomes obvious that during those years he also began to see the conservation of the Kettle Moraine as the most important work of his life. He said exactly this in a letter, July 1, 1948, to Acting Governor Oscar Rennenbohm, Again, from Drew Hanson’s blog, Pedestrian View:

In the Northern Kettle Moraine, October 2013. (A "Badger & Whooping Crane" photo)

In the Northern Kettle Moraine, October 2013. (A “Badger & Whooping Crane” photo)

“Zillmer introduced himself and the Kettle Moraine State Forest: ‘I have given a great deal of my time to the Kettle Moraine project. . . . I would like you to give consideration to extending the purchase area so that the northern and southern areas are connected to form a line 100 miles long. As far as the State of Wisconsin is concerned this will be one of your most important acts.  I consider my own efforts in the promotion of this project the most important contribution in my life’. “

Sometime in the next decade, Zillmer’s personal vision for the Kettle Moraine began to grow into something larger. Instead of just a state project he began to hope for the creation of a national park – the Kettle Moraine as its nucleus – that would include a long, 500-mile hiking trail tracing the outline of the presence of the glaciers as they receded from the land. In December of 1958, Zillmer founded the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation – the forerunner of the Ice Age Trail Alliance of today.

A snowy ski trail in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. (photo by the WI DNR)

A snowy ski trail in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. (photo by the WI DNR)

Of course he couldn’t have known then, but in that action he was passing the torch to the future. Zillmer was dead two years later, and from that day to this, the story of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail has grown by many chapters, including detours and delays, but with the torch always being carried forward by the board members of the IATA, by its staff, and by the volunteers and hikers by the millions.

With Zillmer’s death, the Milwaukee Journal reminded the people of Wisconsin and those in the conservation movement nationally that they were “deeply indebted to Mr. Zillmer. His boundless energy and his dogged determination in behalf of worthy causes . . .” had become legend.

Creating State Parks for Wisconsin

A month or more ago, I wrote a Monday Morning blogpost about a lovely late fall day in Peninsula State Park, and I knew then I’d be writing again about that wonderful Wisconsin resource before long. I wanted to share some of the facts and figures about this park – Wisconsinites’ favorite place to camp – and some of its history.

Thousands of words can be found online celebrating the Door Peninsula, and in particular the peninsula-shaped park which balloons out to the west and north from the larger peninsula. I think the very best description of the area, the one that is the most fun to read, was written more than a century ago by John Nolen, landscape architect and city planner from the East. Nolen’s description is in his 1909 report, State Parks for Wisconsin, published by Wisconsin’s first State Park Board. (The quotes that follow here are from an online facsimile of that report, at The Wisconsin Historical Society’s “Turning Points in Wisconsin HIstory; I quote from Section IV, pp 32-3.)

Looking at Peninsula State Park to the north; from the water. In Door County, WI, Sept. 5, 2015. On Lake Michigan: Near Peninsula State Park, Door County, WI, Septe

Looking at Peninsula State Park to the north; from the water. In Door County, WI, Sept. 5, 2015.

Nolen could hardly contain himself as he recommended this site: “. . the finely situated peninsula between Ephraim and Fish Creek. . . including some 3,000 acres, more than eight miles of shoreline with a number of deep water harbors . . .” as a future state park for Wisconsin.

“Would it not be worthwhile for Wisconsin to have such a park?”

Nolen said this site was “wild and as yet unspoiled;” that with nearly every step new vistas opened, alternating between woodland, cliff, land, and water. He also said this: “Reminding one constantly of the coast of Maine, the shore is a never-ending delight. It sweeps from point to point, here a beach of fine sand, there of gravel, then, in contrast, precipitous limestone bluffs. . . the purest of air laden with the fragrance of balsam and pine, with unexcelled facilities for sailing, boating, fishing . . .”

At the Eagle Panorama in Peninsula State Park. (Photo taken in November, 2015)

At the Eagle Panorama in Peninsula State Park. (Photo taken in November, 2015)

This was a place, he continued, that “might easily become a famous pleasure resort of the highest order,” comparing it to Mackinac Island State Park in Michigan, which, he asserted, was “not one whit more attractive than the proposed Door County park might easily be.” He further noted that the Michigan park contained only 1,000 acres, yet was valued at two million dollars and was visited annually by 200,000 persons. “Would it not be worthwhile for Wisconsin to have a state park with such a record and to secure such a tangible return?”

As we know, the Wisconsin lawmakers of the day said “yes!” The rest, as they say, “is history.” Today a million visitors a year enjoy the use of the same deep harbors that Nolen talked of. They enjoy those same vistas he hoped the state would protect. In other words, John Nolen’s proposal for creating that state park, has worked out perfectly for us, the citizens of the future he envisioned.

John Nolen’s Good Idea

In addition to fishing, boating, and sailing, as Nolen suggested we might do, we also go hiking and birding in the park, and kayak off its shore line. Many have family traditions involving an annual ride on the Sunset Bike Trail (“Whatever you do, don’t miss the sunset,” advises the Travel Wisconsin website.) And we fill its five campgrounds: Weborg Point, Welker’s Point, Tennison Bay, and Nicolet Bay South and North.

Other things we might do there? Work on our game at the park’s 18-hole golf course. Enjoy performances under the stars by the professional actors of the Northern Sky Theater; or revisit the past at the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse and Museum. Until recently, a large percentage of visitors – on at least one of their park visits – climbed it’s 75 foot observation tower, (now closed; see more information about this below the tower picture). In the winter the park is a top destination for cross-country skiing within the state; sledding and snowshoeing are other options.

The observation tower at Peninsula State Park: closed in May 2015 because of disrepair. Hopes are high for its repair or speedy replacement. (Photo taken in November 2015)

The observation tower at Peninsula State Park: closed in May 2015 because of disrepair. There seems to be  strong sentiment for its speedy repair or replacement. (Photo taken in November 2015)

It All Started with Madison’s Park and Pleasure Drive Association

Here is just a little more history about “noted landscape architect John Nolen.” Who was he? What brought this city planner from Massachusetts to our north woods in the early 20th century?

In 1908 the leaders of Madison’s Park and Pleasure Drive Association (the forerunner of today’s City of Madison Parks Division) contacted Nolan for help with their vision for improvements in their city. Nolan would eventually become known as “the eminent city planner.” But this was early in his career, and his most notable commissions were all in the future. Nolan had recently graduated from Harvard’s new School of Landscape Architecture (in 1905), where he studied with Frederick Law Olmsted. Nolan had returned to school for this opportunity, having earlier earned a degree the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

An information board on the Eagle Terrace includes a picture of John Nolen and the story of the origins of this park. (Photo taken in November 2015)

An information board on the Eagle Terrace includes a picture of John Nolen (on the right) and the story of the origins of this park, and some of its history that followed. (Photo taken in November 2015)

With the help of the Madison civic visionaries who had recruited him, Nolen received at least 3 commissions in the state, including one to draw up a plan for Madison as a Model City. According to this 2011 article in Madison Magazine, this Nolen plan has been “pretty much followed for the last 100 years.”

He also received a commission from the University of Wisconsin, and from the State of Wisconsin – the one which resulted in Nolen’s recommendation for a state park system. Among the four new parks that Nolen suggested, three were established by 1917. Peninsula State Park was established in 1909 , the same year Nolen’s State Parks for Wisconsin was published.

Devil’s Lake State Park was established in 1911. Wyalusing State Park was established in 1917 (originally as Nelson Dewey State Park and renamed in 1937, after a second park was established in honor of Dewey, Wisconsin’s first governor).

Looking across at Horsehoe Island, from the top of the bluff on the Eagle Panorama. (Photo, November 2015)

Looking across at Horsehoe Island, from the top of the bluff on the Eagle Panorama. (Photo, November 2015)

Monday Morning Blogging: Late Fall, Peninsula State Park

Is fall your favorite time of the year? I ask that question because that phrase is one I’ve heard so often this year, and it’s not one I usually agree with. I think of myself as a summer person. I love summer and everything about it; and always hate to see summer’s end approach. Because of that, probably, the season that replaces summer often can make me glum.

Looking north across Eagle Harbor from the Eagle Terrace of Peninsula State Park.

Looking north:  Eagle Harbor from the Eagle Terrace of Peninsula State Park.

But yesterday in Peninsula State Park, against all odds, and to my immense surprise, I found myself delighted by the charms of the glorious late fall day – and just really loving the season.


The woods were warmed by the sun.

It really is late fall now, and the glories of the season – the scarlet and gold and crimson and bittersweet leaf-topped trees – those are all gone. Even so, tracing the perimeter of Peninsula Park, along Shore Road, starting near the Ephraim entrance, I stopped often for short walks and photos. High above Lake Michigan, walking the Eagle Terrace, and looking across Eagle Harbor to the village of Ephraim, and then, at the top of the park, looking across to Horseshoe Island from the Eagle Panorama, the color of the lake was as intense as you’ll find it – many different shades of blue, from turquoise to indigo.

Looking at Horseshoe Island from the Eagle Panorama.

Looking at Horseshoe Island from the Eagle Panorama.

Eventually, after Shore Road curves back toward Fish Creek (the other park entrance), the route brings you much closer to lake level. At stops near Nelson Point and then Weborg Point, the lake seemed to have come alive with waves and swells, as it was pushed to shore by a strong breeze from the west.


At Weborg Point.

Before that though, I took a diversion into the woods along Bluff Road, stopping at the White Cedars Nature Center for a look at the Monarch Waystation (which had been a flower bonanza when I photographed and wrote about it in August).

The woods come to a point at the intersection of Shore Road and Bluff Road.

The woods are empty now, but not unwelcoming.

The monarch garden at rest; at the park's White Cedar Nature Center.

The monarch garden at rest; at the park’s White Cedar Nature Center.

The woods, empty now of both birds and leaves, were warmed by the sun and still lovely to be in. The whole park seemed not empty, nor forlorn (as I might have expected). Instead, it exuded a spirit of something else – a contentment, maybe, or a satisfaction with all that has been, in the season now passed, and all that will come again. This really was a gorgeous day – as beautiful in its way as any day in the entire year. Bravo, Fall.


The indigo waters of Lake Michigan, dancing with the wind.

Looking for Winter Fun? It’s All Outdoors in Wisconsin

Look at all the winter fun to be had in Wisconsin and yes, it’s all outdoors. There are snowy owls to see, and winter hikes, and snowshoeing and skiing by candlelight. And this blog post will bring you links to all of it.

I should add, though, this little caveat:  use the phone numbers or email addresses at each site, to check on any last-minute changes. Even in Wisconsin, outdoor fun can be canceled by really-really cold conditions, or other bad weather features, such as cross-country ski trails that have turned to ice. Make no assumptions – not every event is canceled by seemingly impossible weather; others are canceled for things you’d never know about by just checking temperatures.

I made a New Year’s resolution to get outdoors more in 2015, but I could be doing better at it. How about you? Need some suggestions for motivation?  Without, further ado – here are some links!

Four Door County Hikes

I’m definitely going to do one or two of these soon: from the Peninsula Pulse in Door County, 4 Must-Hike Winter Trails. There’s one trail each for the four state parks within the county, each one described in some detail by the naturalist or park ranger at that location. The hikes range in length from a half-mile nature trail to 2.5 mile trails “best taken on with a good pair of hiking boots or snowshoes.”

A winter wetland in Door County, January 2015.

A winter wetland in Door County, January 2015.

After taking a short hike and getting in a little better shape, would you be up for a night of cross-country skiing or snowshoeing? Through the woods on torch-lit trails? Good, because many state park locations all over the state – with the help of their dedicated “friends of the park” volunteer groups – have offered an event like this.

Ski and Hike by Candlelight in Wisconsin’s State Parks

Here is a good list of participating parks from the Wisconsin Trails website, through January and February. You can see there are still a good number to choose from, but again – this coming weekend, if single digit temperatures won’t automatically keep you home, do check for cancellations. I’ve spoken with one park naturalist, Michelle Hefty at Newport State Park in northern Door County – “just too cold,” she agreed, “we’ve had to cancel.” Plus, she added, the snow cover this year just has not been the best. But the park’s Lind Point-Fern Loop hike – the hike with the most Lake Michigan shoreline access, and one of the hikes described above – is always popular and always available, she added.

Outdoors in Wisconsin: Follow a winter trail, January, 2015.

Outdoors in Wisconsin: Follow a winter trail, January, 2015.

Sometimes the cold just doesn’t win. Just when you’re not expecting it, you find an event like this:  Way up at the top of Wisconsin, on Lake Superior, the Book Across the Bay, a 10-K race, on the ice, across Chequamegon Bay from Ashland to Washburn – that event is most definitely NOT canceled.

The 10-K Book Across the Bay Race

I spoke with someone at the local Chamber of Commerce, answering the phone for the volunteer group that puts it on every year. It’s never canceled she said, looking up the projected temps while we spoke. “We tell everyone to dress appropriately. And there are day time activities scheduled with this too.” The race has become a staple in the communities and is described at the website as “one of the coolest ski and snowshoe events around,” (hmm . . . I thought about the single digit weather, and wondered about that word, “coolest.”)

Here’s a delightful description (from the website) of what you’ll experience at Book Across the Bay if you go: “The course is lit by the stars above and up to 1,000 candles in ice luminaries that line the entire route.” And some history: This ski and snowshoe race was started in 1996, partially as a winter boredom buster, and partially as a fund-raiser for the organizers’ favorite causes – the Tri-County Medical Society and the Washburn Public Library. They were hoping for maybe 100 folks to come out and support them, but 350 showed up the first year. This year you can multiply that number of participants times 10, then add a few more hundred. In other words, this is an uber-popular event. Good thing there’s a heated tent set up on the lakeshore and the post-race chilli feed waiting in Washburn for all those participants!

Seeing Snowy Owls

If you’re a birder, you know. And if you’re not, you’ve most likely have heard, or read, or have seen a picture somewhere of the big white-faced, striped and fluffy adorable-looking Snowies. These owls from the Arctic have invaded the midwest and east coast of the U.S., and the southern regions of Canada, in large numbers, this winter and last – a phenomenon that you will sometimes see described as “once in a lifetime.”

More than 300 Snowy Owls were recorded in Wisconsin last year, according to Chelsey Lewis, writing at the Wisconsin Trails website. Early in December observers were predicting that even more may be seen in Wisconsin this winter.

Their visit here is officially called an “irruption.” This is defined as “an unpredictable invasion” by Project SNOWstorm, which is a website for the study of “the ecology of wintering snowy owls.” According to Project SNOWstorm, arctic owls come down from the north in a such large numbers infrequently, and “for reasons that are not fully understood.” The website is a collaboration between dozens of scientists and organizations.

This Snowy Owl Image is by By Neil McIntosh from Cambridge, United Kingdom (Snowy Owl Uploaded by Magnus Manske) From Wikimedia.

This Snowy Owl Image is by
By Neil McIntosh from Cambridge, United Kingdom (Snowy Owl Uploaded by Magnus Manske) From Wikimedia.

Looking around the website (use the Latest Updates tab for their blog) you’ll learn how scientists are tracking them, and what they are learning, and which ones from last year have come back again. You’ll see that Snowies absolutely LOVE ice, and that even the worst days of winter are like a day at the beach for a Snowy Owl. If you haven’t seen a Snowy yourself, but would like to, you need to get busy. Remember, their presence here in great numbers may not happen again soon.

Here are two suggestions for seeing them, one is via guided field trip, and the other is to do it yourself with some guidance from Wisconsin Trails. And here are the details: the Natural Resources Foundation is offering two field trips, with only a few spots still open in each trip. Sign up for one on Sunday, February 15th, at Horicon Marsh, or another on Saturday, February 21st at Collins Marsh (between Manitowoc and Lake Winnebago) by calling Diane Packett, 1-920-219-2587. These field trips, which are fund-raisers for the NRF, have a fee of $50 per person.

If you’re going looking for Snowy Owls on your own, I’d suggest you read the Wisconsin Trails story about them. It identifies 5 known hotspots for the Snowies here in Wisconsin.

Ready for a Change of Pace?

After hiking, skiing, freezing, and searching for Snowies, you just might be ready for a complete change of pace. And here it is – in another (mostly)outdoor article from Wisconsin Trails (with a grateful nod in their direction) about 8 special places to seek and find solace in Wisconsin. This article, “8 place of Solace,” is a reprint of a 2010 article by former Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel writer Jackie Loohauis Bennett.

A winter scene along the lower Wisconsin River. (Photo courtesy of WI Department of Natural Resources.

A winter scene along the lower Wisconsin River. (Photo courtesy of WI Department of Natural Resources.

Two of the places included are associated with a religious faith, but they were featured by the writer for their aura of “spiritual calm,” peace and solitude, the same as the others. From the centuries old Joan of Arc Chapel on the Marquette University campus to the Scuppermong Trails of the Kettle Moraine, most of the eight will probably be familiar to Wisconsin readers.

But there will also probably be at least one surprise on the list. For me it’s the Montello Falls, in Marquette County: “four sparkling waterfalls that cascade over granite outcroppings in the center of town.” I had no idea.

Are you a Wisconsin reader? Was there a surprise on this list for you?