Signs of the Ice Age in Wisconsin's Kettle Moraine
Updated 4:24 pm, Wednesday, October 19, 2016
CAMPBELLSPORT, Wis. (AP) — The directions I found online for following the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive in eastern Wisconsin seemed daunting. Go south two-tenths of a mile, then north 1.7 miles, then east 1.3 miles — on and on, with dozens of turns, for 115 miles. Adding to my trip-planning anxiety were road names like County ZZ and parenthetical instructions like "Past Old Plank Road Trail."
How would I figure this out while driving around a place I'd never been? I not only can't read maps, I can't even follow verbal instructions from my GPS without getting lost. I called the Kettle Moraine State Forest headquarters and asked, "Isn't there an app for this route?"
"Just stop at every intersection to look for the signs," a ranger told me. "You'll be fine."
Her advice was spot-on. My two-day drive through the Kettle Moraine was wonderful and not at all confusing once I got behind the wheel. The Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive's green-and-white acorn-shaped signs are easy to spot, often tacked to plain wooden posts at the edge of a field where two country roads intersect. Some of the signs looked so picture-perfect — framed by wildflowers, snaking vines and tall grasses — that I stopped to take a photo. Soon I was thrilled to be freed from the mess of paper maps littering my passenger seat. And it was liberating to shut off my bossy, often incomprehensible GPS device and the tyranny of Siri on my iPhone.
Instead, those friendly old-school Kettle Moraine signs became my lodestars, making it easy to follow a meandering route through a rustic landscape of farms, forests, wetlands and prairie. This, I gradually remembered, was how we traveled before apps, GPS devices and websites, and it was a lovely way to enjoy fall scenery in an uncrowded, beautiful part of Wisconsin.
It was also a nice contrast to a hectic few days I'd spent rushing around to visit must-sees elsewhere in the state — the Milwaukee art museum, the Madison farmers market, Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin and more. My two-day tour of the Kettle Moraine — one day in the state forest's southern unit, another in the northern unit — did not include a list of places to check off. All I did was experience the landscape, stopping dozens of times just to gaze at a lonely farmhouse or take a closer look at a colorful flower swaying in the breeze by the side of the road. I also took a half-dozen short hikes, enjoying places like the Scuppernong Trail near Eagle and the Parnell Observation Tower near Plymouth. I stood beneath towering evergreens, listened to the wind rustle tall stalks of wild grass and noticed how the color green was giving way to autumn's golds and reds in the woods and meadows.
I even learned a little bit about Ice Age geology. The Kettle Moraine's hills, woods, wetlands and prairies were formed thousands of years ago by the movement of glaciers. In addition to signs for the Kettle Moraine, when you drive through the area you'll also encounter signs for the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, a 1,000-mile route located entirely within Wisconsin.
I'd never heard the terms esker or drumlin before visiting this region, but they're words that kept coming up in conversations about the Kettle Moraine, and now that I've seen these phenomena, I understand what they are. On a trail at Butler Lake, just steps from the parking lot, I walked on an esker — a ridge formed by retreating glaciers, with steep slopes on either side of the path and a kettle lake, formed when soil covered a large piece of ice that eventually melted. And from the top of a tower at Lapham Peak, near Delafield, I watched a group of elementary school students identify drumlins in the landscape miles away, and found that I could spot them, too: They're hills that are flat on one side, smashed smooth by a glacial push.
The Ice Age ended roughly 20,000 years ago. But here, in the Kettle Moraine, it's everywhere. All you have to do is look for the signs.
If You Go...
ICE AGE VISITOR CENTER: http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/kmn/naturecenter.html
This version corrects name of road to Old Plank instead of Old Plant.