Winter Water

Tour group on Icke Boardwalk looking at a sedge meadow

Tour group on Icke Boardwalk looking at a sedge meadow

I was pleasantly surprised that 45 people turned out for Sunday afternoon’s hike. At least for some, competition from (ahem) a certain sports event was apparently trumped by warm and favorable outdoor conditions.

Our purpose on this tour was to discover some of the forms water assumes in winter. To that end and to the best of our ability, we followed the course water takes in one particular Arboretum complex – Teal Pond and its associated features.

I always kind of wish for a snow shower during this tour, if only to justify discussing my personal favorite form of winter water. No such luck on this day, but I will mention snowflakes anyway.

One good reason to do so is that January 15th had marked an important anniversary. 130 years ago on that date, the first photomicrograph of a snowflake was taken, in an unheated barn in Jericho, Vermont. Wilson Alwyn “Snowflake” Bentley connected a camera to a microscope, captured a snow crystal on a black-painted board, moved it into position using a feather, and quickly snapped its image. He would go on to photograph thousands of snowflakes in his lifetime.

Bentley was captivated by the beauty and individuality of snowflakes, even as he found the brevity of their life heartbreaking. He wrote that each one “is an idea dropped from the sky, a bit of beauty incomparable, that if lost that moment is lost forever to the world”. (A Caldecott Award–winning book about Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin is available in the Arboretum bookstore.)

Improvements in camera equipment and techniques now allow photographers – Kenneth Libbrecht among them – to make much more spectacular images of snow crystals. But Bentley’s were a wonder in their time. So between now and February 9th – the 150th anniversary of Bentley’s birth – please take a moment to honor the loveliness of these tiny, common, ephemeral things, and the people who seek to preserve that beauty for the rest of us.

On Sunday’s tour, our most striking wildlife observation came long before we got to any wetlands. As we were about to enter the Curtis Prairie trail, we spotted a female Cooper’s hawk perched in a nearby tree. She stayed put long enough for everyone to have a look, and at least one person to take pictures. Then she swooped over the prairie and looped back above the service drive to hide herself in a still-leafy oak.

I began the “official” part of the tour with a brief passage from The Immense Journey by the contemplative natural-scientist Loren Eiseley (1907–1977). It opens, “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” Sets the tone, I think, for a hike focused on the liquid that enables and sustains all of our world’s life.

The Teal Pond wetland complex is just one of many such communities in the Arboretum. Runoff-fed and extending over some 21 acres, it begins with a stormwater input located where Arboretum land meets the West Beltline Highway and abuts commercial property. Approximately 64 acre-feet of water come in annually at this point, making it one of the smaller inputs affecting the Arboretum.

From there the water flows north, first through an experimental Stormwater Management Research Facility, next creating Pond 2 and contributing to Teal Pond, then continuing mostly north and eventually ending at Lake Wingra. Along the way a cattail marsh, traversed by the Icke Boardwalk, and the overlook known as Skunk Cabbage Bridge are part of the system.

We made it to most of those places on our tour. We stopped at the Teal Pond viewing platform to see a full-thickness-frozen pond; traveled the Icke Boardwalk above its winter-dried cattails and horsetails; and followed Gallistel and Wingra Woods trails which roughly parallel the watercourse. Due to the size of our group, time limitations, and potential slipperiness of the boardwalk portion of that particular trail, we did not get all the way to Skunk Cabbage Bridge.

We did admire several flowing springs where Wingra Woods meets the lake: two smaller ones, and then the unimaginatively-named Big Spring, with its overlook point. Standing at that railing, I read a Ho-Chunk legend called “The Sky Man”, documented in the 1930s by Wisconsin state archaeologist Charles Brown. The storyteller was Mrs. Peter White Eagle, said to be a resident of Nakoma, and the spring referenced in the story may be the very one at which we stood. Can’t get much more local than that.

Trekking back uphill and then cutting slightly south, we enjoyed an excellent view of Lake Wingra itself through the bare trees. Wingra of course does not freeze solid; currently its ice thickness is estimated at about 7 inches. This winter it froze over on Nov 14th, a bit earlier than usual. Folk wisdom about Lake Wingra calls for it to freeze over by Thanksgiving, and to be thawed by April Fool’s. This closely mirrors the research data – median freeze date is Nov 29th, and opening is March 25th. Equal parts poet and naturalist, I always enjoy the crossroads of cultural and scientific knowledge.

By tour’s end we had observed several manifestations of still water and moving water. Other possible winter forms might include hoarfrost, icicles, and sleet. Perhaps on another January day?

Kathy Miner