Friday, December 21, 2012

Snow day good for reflection

By David Horst 
There’s something magical about a snow day even when you haven’t had to go to school for more than 30 years.
It’s like bonus time — unplanned hours. Time to decorate the tree and order those last-minute gifts. It also gives us the outdoors reborn with a fresh coat of beauty.

The office for my day job shut down because of Thursday’s snow. I would have made it in OK, but eight hours of heavy snowfall and gusty winds would have kept me from getting back up the steep driveway that takes us up on the sandhill we call home.

I’ll take some of the bonus time to look back on random events from the year in nature.

•  Wisconsin has 110 fewer wolves after the first hunt since reintroduction. Hunting wolves was always going to be a reality to stay within the goals set by some real smart guys at the DNR. My objection is that more than half of the “harvested” wolves had to endure leg-hold traps before being dispatched.

•  We have one more eagle than we might have. When an adult bald eagle flew into the grille of Brian Baker’s pickup truck as he traveled down State 10 in Weyauwega last June, it seemed the bird had no chance. Baker called the sheriff’s department, which called DNR warden Ted Dremel, who gingerly pulled the eagle’s head from the plastic shards of the grille. New London bird rehabber Pat Fisher and vet Jim Ziegler nursed the eagle back to health and, a month later, I was able to watch it leave Ziegler’s gloved hands and fly back into nature. The story was picked up by CNN and a picture Baker snapped with his phone made the DNR’s top 10 list of wildlife photos for the year.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Expert says crane hunt inevitable

By David Horst

The offer was more than I could refuse. Sit on the bank of the Wisconsin River on pioneering environmentalist Aldo Leopold’s former farmstead, watching thousands of sandhill cranes with an international expert on the big birds.

The evening, and the conversation, didn’t go as expected.
Stan Temple         Aldo Leopold Foundation photo

The program was offered by the Aldo Leopold Foundation, located between Portage and Baraboo. The expert is Stan Temple, a retired University of Wisconsin professor of wildlife ecology. He has helped in the recovery of many bird species, including the sandhill, peregrine falcon and California condor.

It was a great opportunity to talk with a man who held the same seat the great Leopold had 80 years earlier. I asked him how cool that was. Temple said it was so intimidating that he didn’t mention it much when he had the job. Now that he has retired, he uses it for instant woods-cred.

He also rubbed elbows with “Silent Spring” author Rachel Carson as a boy working at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. He remembered being thrilled by getting a set of birding binoculars that were the same model Carson used.

Unfortunately, there was little to interrupt the conversation, especially cranes. It was Sandy’s fault. Winds from the hurricane made the bend in the river where the observation blind is located inhospitable for cranes. Complicating things further, an imposing adult bald eagle was perched above the cranes’ usual evening hangout. First time I ever regretted seeing an eagle.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Paddle locks up season three

By David Horst

See photos on Flickr

Check on plans for Fox-WIsconsin Heritage Paddle 2013 at

Season three of the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Paddle ended last Saturday (Sept. 29) on about the most perfect day you could order up.

With the temperature in the low 70s and the wind just a whisper, kayak and canoe paddlers launched from Lutz Park, passed through all four Appleton locks and landed 6.5 miles later at Kimberly's Sunset Point Park.

I was the member of the Heritage Paddle organizing committee who questioned whether the locks paddle had run its course. People may be thinking, been there, done that. Cars with boats strapped to their roofs started arriving early, and kept coming. In the end, 147 boats took to the Fox River. So much for me having my finger on the pulse of the paddling community.

The perfect weather had drawn them all out. The woman with the pristine wooden boat. The two boys with matching recreational boats. The guy paddling his young daughter and her two stuffed dogs. They all paddled with a smile.

Monday, August 20, 2012

De Pere trip leaves paddlers winded

By David Horst

The 78 boats easily fit in the De Pere Lock.
GREEN BAY -- The scouting report was not good. Two-foot waves rolling off Green Bay driven by a forecasted 20 mph headwind out of the north.

Our plan was to launch the 78 kayaks and canoes that had arrived at De Pere’s Bomier Park and travel eight miles down the Fox River to the Green Bay Metro boat landing, paddling into the wind and waves with paddlers having varying levels of experience ... in the dark.

This was the Moonlight Paddle of the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Paddle series on Aug. 10, and the plan had to change.

Before launch, we made the decision to cut off the final three miles, where we would be paddling into the worst of the wind. Only the most experienced kayakers bristled at the compromise.

We would take out instead at Zeller’s Ski and Sports, a paddle shop about five miles down river where several of us had purchased our boats. The owners welcomed us. The parking was sufficient. All that remained was to reschedule the shuttle bus from the Green Bay landing to Zeller’s.

That recalled to mind the one item on my to-do list left unchecked: “Get contact info for shuttle.”

The arrangements had been made by Jeff Mazanec, whose brainchild this whole paddle series had been. He was driving back from a business trip. I punched his number on the cell phone and asked him if he had the number for the bus company in his phone. He wasn’t sure, and there was a traffic situation up ahead so he’d have to call me back.

He was laughing when the return call came in. Out of the traffic jam outside of Kenosha, a bus changed lanes ahead of him. Painted on the rear of the bus was, “Go Lamers,” with the 800 number. The Green Bay-based bus company was providing our shuttle. A call to the dispatcher solved our problem.

But the bigger problem was yet to come.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Injured eagle lifted by helping hands

By David Horst

WEYAUWEGA – Healing hands loosen their grip and, with a few quick beats of powerful wings, a bald eagle lifts into an endless blue sky, back to where he belongs.

That he can fly at all is testament to the power of luck – and people who care.

A month earlier, the eagle was diving in to feed on a muskrat carcass. It’s the nature of a scavenger, and the reason Ben Franklin thought he was unfit to be the national symbol.

Unfortunately, the muskrat had met its end on a 65 mph segment of State 10 near Fremont. The eagle swooped into the path of a moving pickup truck.

“He sees this flash of brown and, before he knows it, it was in his grille,” Department of Natural Resources warden Ted Dremel said of the driver.

It was about 6:30 a.m. Brian Baker of Pittsville was on his way to work in Appleton.

He saw the eagle fly north over the highway, but didn’t expect it to circle back.
The force of the collision smashed the grille and left the eagle embedded in the front of the truck – his head, wings and one leg snagged by the broken plastic.

“It’s not something you’re expecting,” Baker said.

The first act of caring was Baker stopping and calling the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Department for help. They, in turn, called out Dremel.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Our state's heritage is green

What if Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had lived 25 miles apart in central Wisconsin? How big of a point of pride, how big of a tourist draw would that be?

The environmental equivalent is true. The father of our national parks and a founder of modern environmental thought spent intellectually formative years within easy walking distance for one of them.

John Muir, who surveyed mountainous future national parks on foot sustained only by hardtack and tea, developed his excitement for nature as a boy on a farm in Marquette County. The area is now John Muir Memorial County Park.

It was a shallow launch on from Indian Trial Landing.
Aldo Leopold, who pioneered a land ethic that recognizes all of nature is interconnected, pondered the concepts that led to his classic "A Sand County Almanac" at the weekend retreat northwest of Portage that he called the Shack. It has been preserved by the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

Why are these not major eco-tourism destinations?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Shiocton eaglets' popularity soars

By David Horst

See more photos  ||  Watch a video of the banding  ||  See Fisher's photos

Like most celebrities, they seemed small in person.

They’ve been on camera almost constantly this year, even though they aren’t able to walk yet. Clearly these are the stars of Wolf River Cam — Shadow and Feather, two eaglets growing up in a towering white pine outside of Shiocton.

Hundreds of Internet users may be tuned into their live web feed at any given time. Last weekend, the show went beyond the usual feeding time rituals. The main act involved pulling Shadow and Feather from the nest, checking their health and returning them with identifying bands clamped to their legs for future tracking.

This is the work of Pat Fisher and her Feather Bird Rehabilitation Center near New London.

MJ Electric provided a lift truck able to carry two people to the upper reaches of the 80-foot tree, where they will pluck the baby eagles from their nest, under the watchful eyes — and menacing talons — of their parents, George and Martha.

The first ascent misfires. The truck needs to be jockeyed into a little better position. On the second attempt, the bucket rises, carrying MJ Electric lineman Dan Verhagen and Feather volunteer Don Baumgartner.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Tree's bark worse than its blight

By David Horst

SPRING GREEN, Wis. -- A tree fell in the forest and we happened to be nearby. I can state conclusively, it made a sound. A big sound.

It happened on day two of the first Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Paddle of the season. The previous morning, Friday, May 18, we had launched from Wisconsin Riverside Campground in Spring Green and paddled to Gotham. (Say it like Go-thum, not like the New York nickname, if you want to sound like a native.)
See more photos

We were 10 people and two dogs in eight boats -- mostly kayaks and a few canoes.

The dogs were a 3-year-old yellow Lab named Sophie and a 6-month-old golden retriever named Savanna. Both were incredibly content in their humans' canoes, though Sophie let it be known with a whimper when it was time to beach at a sandbar to take care of business. Savanna's challenge was containing her exuberance for meeting new people at the landings.

This is the third year for the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Paddle. While we have added a way for likely participants to notify us from our website (, we never know how many will show up until we get to the landing.

Ten was the smallest turnout to date, but this was the first Friday daytime paddle. We traveled 13 miles through the beauty that is the lower Wisconsin River. This section is part of a state scenic area that limits development and requires that buildings not be visible from the river when trees are fully leafed out.

You are left with thick woods and towering bluffs as the backdrop for your paddling.

That brings us to Saturday. Our numbers had grown to 18 people in 15 boats -- and still two dogs – for the 13 miles from where we left off at the Buena Vista boat landing in Gotham to Blue River.
The wind was blowing stronger than the day before and was living up to the paddlers' truism: "If the wind is in your face, you know you're going the right direction."

We came to a spot in the river where the woods seemed to funnel the wind. We heard a loud crack, a pause and a series of louder cracks. We looked river left to see what must have been a 40-foot hardwood collapse into chunks and drop to the forest floor.

It reminded me -- small scale -- of ice calving off the face of a glacier.

What are the odds? We were in just the right spot at just the right time in a five-hour paddle to see this lone tree near the shoreline give up its well-rotted remains.

It was a highlight of the weekend, though one we couldn't savor too much for too long. We had miles to go and a stiff wind in our faces.

As we approached our 26th mile in two days, even strong paddlers at the front of the group were hoping the next bend in the river would bring into view the bridge that marked the take-out at the Port Andrew boat landing in Blue River.

It had been two full days of paddling, separated by a long evening of new friendships forming around the campfire.

Sunday, feeling like the slightest suggestion from anyone would have sent us on our nearly three-hour drive home, we instead took time for a leisurely paddle with a small group. We went to Long Lake, a narrow two miles or so river left behind when the Wisconsin had carved out a new course years ago.

It was easily worth the delay and only geared us up for the next Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Paddle 2012 event -- June 9-10, the Eco-Heritage Paddles, in the Wisconsin and Fox rivers near Portage. (Details at

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Jake relives Portage-to-Portage paddle

Jake Stachovak, the guy who paddled 5,000+ miles form Portage to Portage, will present narrated slideshow about his journey Saturday, May 12, at Divepoint, a new store in Wausau. It's a great story and he tells it well. More at

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Baby owl bed check is dangerous duty

By David Horst 

NEW LONDON -- I've seen Don Baumgartner hold a bald eagle in his lap, the huge bird's treacherous talons stretched out in front of him.

I've seen him handle an adult osprey – a fish-killing missile – without breaking a sweat.

So when I saw fear in his eyes as we approached the nest of a great-horned owl, I knew this was dangerous duty.

Not dangerous for me. I was hanging back by the entrance to a large metal building shooting photos. Don – wearing two leather jackets, arm-length gloves and a European-style firefigher's helmet – prepared to climb a ladder up to the nest of a great-horned named Ms. Harvey and snatch her off of her three babies.

Great-horned owls are more aggressive than eagles, he said. "They kill everything." Ms. Harvey, in fact, smelled of skunk.

Don has volunteered with bird rehabilitator Pat Fisher for more than 20 years. We are in the woods behind Pat's home near New London. This is also the site of The Feather, her nonprofit shelter for injured birds.

The purpose of this fool’s errand was to check the health of the owlets, weigh them and band them so their movements can be tracked as they grow and leave the nest.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

One stray cat quickly becomes a colony

By David Horst 

We didn’t seek to become one and we’d rather we weren’t.

Somehow, we’ve become a certified feral cat colony up on the sand hill we call home.

It started innocently enough. This multi-colored cat from somewhere in the neighborhood moved into our barn. She had two babies. We had them fixed. They and their mom disappeared almost right away.

Mom came back carrying another litter. Before very long, her babies started having babies.

I can see how a kindly, older woman is discovered to be living with 50 cats. If you aren’t willing to send feral cats to pretty certain death at a shelter, and can’t spare the $100-plus a vet typically charges for spaying or neutering, it can happen quickly.

We’re not up to 50, but, unaddressed, it wouldn’t take long. The experience gives meaning to the term “exponential growth.”

The old farmer’s way of dealing with excess cats involved either a .22 rifle or a gunnysack and a pond. We don’t have that in us.

Instead, we fed them, gave them toys, old dog beds and a heated water bowl. I just don’t understand why we can’t get them to move out.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ideas on roads, wolves need rethinking

By David Horst 

From time to time, a columnist needs to purge his notebook and produce a mishmash of this and that from bits too little to be a column but too much to be ignored.

Complete streets
I attended the annual meeting of the trail advocacy group Fox Cities Greenways and
heard a presentation by Jack Zabrowski of the La Crosse County Health Department,
who coordinates the county's "complete streets" efforts.

It is a term I had not heard before. The concept is to commit to designing streets not just for automobile traffic, but for all of the functions they serve — safe routes for bicycles, pedestrians and school children. That means more than adding bicycle lanes, Zabrowski said.

It may involve building in such features as bump-out crosswalks as in downtown Appleton, raised crosswalks that serve as low-grade speed bumps, curb cut ramps at intersections, shared bicycle and parking lanes and bike-only lanes. In rural areas, it may be as simple as paved shoulders and 14-foot-wide traffic lanes.

Area communities have done a good job of insisting on recreation trails as part of major highway projects. This is the next step.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Wolf River eagles ready for their closeup

By David Horst

New London -- Last winter, productivity slumped in offices across the country during feeding time at an eagle nest in Decorah, Iowa, where three eaglets became webcam stars.

Since this nest-eye view went online in February 2010, the site has recorded more than 212 million views from more than 20 million unique viewers.

This season, a new show comes to a URL near you featuring a nest in the backyard of a Shiocton-area family. The people behind it are hoping for even a small share of Decorah's visibility.

I went along the Saturday before Christmas when Pat Fisher, who runs the New London bird rehabilitation center The Feather, led a small, mechanized crew of volunteers to wire up an 80-foot-tall white pine for the season premier.

The installation came courtesy of Gary Bunnell, known to area fishermen and hunters for his underwater fish cams and deer cams at He got an assist from a bucket truck and crew provided by Great Lakes Line Builders in Greenville, a division of M.J. Electric Inc. The conservation group Shadows on the Wolf helped pay for the camera.

"It's a three-way deal," Bunnell said. "We're able to educate and entertain, and help Pat and help Shadows on the Wolf."

Lower Wisconsin - May 18-20, Spring Green to Blue River