Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Canoeing the Shell Rock River, Floyd County, IA, December 6th, 2015

Shell Rock River Paddle
Nora Springs to Rockford, Floyd County, IA
December 6th, 2015

December in Iowa is not traditionally canoe season, but December in Iowa is also not traditionally 45° and sunny. But even before we knew the forecast, we had planned this trip, hoping the date would afford us some isolation and unique views of the riverside and valley. We, here, is myself and Steve, one of the few people I know with the affinity and willingness to enjoy the outdoors as I do in the part of the country, and my frequent travel companion.

We had gotten a good amount of precipitation, both rain and snow, in the weeks before our trip, and so the river was high without being too aggressive or unpredictable. We launched, conveniently, from Steve's backyard in the middle of town, but because of the soaring bluffs that started almost immediately down stream, and then flood plain beyond that, we saw few buildings. Our trip was on the Shell Rock River, a tributary of the Cedar River that flows from Albert Lea Lake in southern Minnesota and joins the Cedar near Janesville, IA. Our trip today would be about 10 miles in the middle of the river, from below the dam in Nora Springs to just above the confluence with the Winnebago River in Rockford.

Shortly after departure, we approach two bridges in sequence. The new, modern highway bridge that was maybe 40 feet above the water, sterile but safe from regular floods, and then a block later the older, lower, arched concrete bridge. I can only think that the trend of small, rural towns turning their main streets into highway like roads, eschewing any concern for visual appeal or pedestrian comfort, is a band-aide to declining traffic, and not a way to reverse it. Though, on a river that floods like the Shell Rock does, the new elevated bridge will do much less to constrain and focus the river during a flood and instead gives unmitigated access to the flood plain the river needs.
We pass under the second, ornate concrete arch bridge and pass two fishermen, like us enjoying the unseasonable weather, say a quick hello and drift on. A doe is on the bank too, sheltering in town no doubt on this opening day of deer hunting season. A sign of wilderness to many who grew up in the nearly deer-free mid-century Iowa, these animals now exist in such numbers they are more pest than joy to many others because of a lack of wilderness. The have no competition from other large herbivore like elk (native to Iowa) which cause more crop damage than deer and are eradicated when they do show up; nor predators, as wolves are generally unheard of in Iowa and can still be shot when seen. In an interesting sign that nature will find a way to bring balance, coyotes have started to display more wolf like behavior to take advantage of the food opportunity and are packing up and attempting to take down the larger deer.

Deer are symptoms of a lack of wilderness, but also harmful to what remains. Deer do amazing damage to woodland under-stories, making recovery from flood or fire much more difficult as they graze on seedlings. They are even sometimes more at home in town than the country and I personally feel they don't deserve the high esteem many give them.

Past the deer, we pass under and old steel pass-through bridge, where the truss is above rather than below the deck you drive on. Steve tells me it is closed to vehicles and remains just for bikes and pedestrians. I take this as a sign that towns are starting to recognize the value of recreation and active transportation, and save assets like this bridge to be developed some day. 

Below the bridge are some very minor rapids, shoals really, but as my hands were on my hot chocolate and not my paddle, a good reminder that it was December, and tipping would be more dangerous than in July. At 40° water temperature, we'd have maybe 30 minutes before losing consciousness. We will be avoiding that today.

Past the water treatment plan, we had one last visage of town. A once grand brick estate on 10 or so acres of pasture right along the river, now a shell of itself. Apparently the owners have no desire to restore or sell it, and so Nora Springs will probably eventually lose this little piece of cultural history like so many grand homes in so many small towns.

After the estate, the river became wooded on both sides. On the left, the western bank rose up a wooded slope that was a county conservation area, then downstream turned private, any home that was up there was hidden for the most part though. The right, east bank was a more typical bottom land floodplain forest, full of strong trees like White Oak, Bitternut Hickory and Willow. Trees that withstand the occasional flooding and frequently saturated soil. On the left we scare up a deer. As I noted before, this is deer hunting opener, and she has a pretty severe wound on her rump, though it looks like a coyote attack more than a bad shot based on how focused and bloody the wound was. She hobbled off deeper into the woods. Moments later a shape in the water caught my eye. A deer carcass? Steve was confident it was just a boulder, as we had been tapping the river bottom with our boat and dodging some rocks. But to satisfy a gentlemanly bet, we paddled up to it, and it was indeed a young spike buck. He had no signs of injury, and may have fallen in when there was a thin sheet of ice. The lack of decay indicated it was probably a recent death, though also that the imbalance of predator and prey was such that a scavenger wouldn't even stand in ankle deep water for a free meal.

As we approached the dull roar of the US-18 bridge, homes were closer to the river and more visible. An impressive set of stonework and concrete appeared to the the remains of an old saw or grain mill, a reminder of a more independent and industrial time in North Iowa. We pass under the bridge imagining the passing motorists, if they even notice us, to be calling us crazy fools, braver than them. But I really do doubt many would even notice. South of the bridge are again more homes down near the water, I suppose to balance out having to live next to an interstate highway. Apart from one, they are modest homes, set on a short bluff to avoid flooding. Fortunately, after this development we will only see one or two more homes before landing.

Around the bend from the homes, the banks generally open up and we can see cornfield stubble and grassy pastures. Occasional silos or windmills dot the horizon. With the surroundings being flatter here and having more loose topsoil than in the woods, the river starts to braid and meander more, developing small islands. We see one off to our left that appears to come back to the main channel in a hundred yards or so, and decide we have enough time to explore. The fact the water seemed to be flowing out of the inlet rather than with the river should have been a sign, but no, it must have been an illusion, right?

40 feet up what was of course the mouth of a tributary stream we knew that no, this did not connect back to the river. And of course we could not turn around by the time we realized this, and moving backwards shifted the weight in such a way we struck bottom and couldn't move. So we paddled another 15 feet up until we could get the bow against the bank that was not a four foot embankment, and I could climb out followed by Steve. 400 lbs lighter, the craft spun effortlessly, and save a single boot getting a little damp, we launched back into the Shell Rock without fanfare.

Shortly thereafter a monstrosity of a “log cabin”, still actively being landscaped, arises on our left. If it weren't so grandiose, it's position high above with a gentle slope to the river would make it a perfect place for a river rat to live, but I'm pretty positive whomever owns this house would not use the term river rat on themselves. Luckily, there is an island here, and we paddle to the far side, quickly hiding the house. In fact, were it not for that house, the island, a sort of savannah mixture of grass and trees, would have made a great lunch spot or even overnight stop. The surroundings on this stretch of river are almost entirely grassland, and threes would offer a good windbreak and place to hang a hammock. Of course, it's private property, so maybe not.

Just below where the river comes back together around the island is a small bridge, the only one for 5 miles in either direction. We had considered this as a stopping point during our planning, not knowing the stretch of river we were going to be on or how tolerant we would be of the cold. Now slipping under the bridge I was very glad we opted for the longer challenge of Rockford for a stopping point.
Past the bridge was the expansive Nagle Wildlife Management Area, providing us with uninterrupted grassland on both banks for over a mile. Only in the far distance could we see even a tall silo, and when we beached the canoe to look around, we could see even less signs of development. Sturdy evergreens popped bright and loud against the brown, monochromatic tallgrass that ran off to the gray-blue horizon, rolling over the sort of hills that while significant up close, fade quickly into a flat prairie background. The grasses, too, were so much more different up close than when viewed en masse. A dozen or more species every square foot, stalks of varying height, girth and shape. Blades of grass, seed head striped bare. Even some scattered flowers, petals still clinging but turned brown again, almost like they just want to belong.

We linger at Nagle only five minutes or so, making a loop on foot and commenting it could be a fun place to camp in the summer when being earth bound (i.e. not in a hammock) wouldn't be so cold. Back in our boat, the banks of the river slowly take on an almost Northwoods feel as bedrock is again exposed and pine and other evergreens become more dominant. The river briefly winds north, and we are buffeted by a wind that had hitherto had kept us moving at a brisk pace, and really was still unseasonably warm, but as the river turned south, we were quickly disrupted by something much better than cold.

A large trumpeter swan entered the water from the bank at sight of us and began paddling ahead. It's a little redundant to say a “large” swan. With five foot wingspans and large bodies, they are some of the heaviest birds in North American skies. Our swan, an uncommon but no longer rare sight since being reintroduced to Iowa in the mid-1990s, stayed a few yards in front of us for several minutes, allowing us to get as close as we felt appropriate (which was not very). As we rounded another bend around a floodplain grassland, this swan turned to face us. But before we could get a good picture, a hawk swooped from a long tree, catching out eye. Either scared itself or sensing us to be distracted, the swan began it's long take off, running and flapping, slapping the water loudly on its way upstream and back around the bend. We sat for a moment in awe of our experience with this more exotic charismatic megafauna.

The next mile or so we were quiet, and while there were more quiet, and while there were no obvious houses, someone had flooded a pasture right up to the water, the barbed wire removed any false hope of wilderness, and though the opposite bank was more rustic, there were signs of habitation as well, like a (vacant?) deer blind. But the steep slope did at least hide the cornfield beyond, more than we could say for most of the final stretch of our trip. The river has a decent bugger strip of grasses, but for the most part, corn stalks or a barren field were always just a few yards beyond.

But we did have one last reminder that wilderness once ruled here. As we passed another rocky outcropping, Steve spotted a bald eagle making slow circles above the river, occasionally disappearing beyond the trees. Then, it landed in the barren crown of an oak tree, just on the bank. As I attempted to catch it in my binoculars, I suddenly noticed another eagle in the same tree, and they started screeching, or really a loud chirp. Eagles do not make as impressive a sounds as TV would have you believe. And then, the nest. It was not as a grandiose as the other nest I know of locally, but still massive. As the nest does not appear in any satellite imagery, and breeding season is right around New Years, I believe this was, so to speak, a pair of newly weds preparing to be yet another boost to the recovering Bald Eagle population in the Midwest.

We left the lovebirds and rounded a corner again surrounded by two columns of flood and fertilizer buffering grass strips with cropland beyond. Soon, houses start to line the banks, marking the outskirts of our destination town of Rockford. There is, oddly, a jet ski parked behind one, and I'm glad it's too cold for that person to be out ruining my quietude. There was a serious of small rapids leading into town, making the last half mile of our trip someone more exciting. Helping, too, were the several hundred geese that took off as we arrived at our park, the thunder of wings making it almost impossible to hear my shipmate.

With the water at a winter low, we had to take a few steps in the river pulling the canoe out, but with the truck a few steps away, we weren't concerned. In the same park, last spring, a black bear was spotted and tracks were cast, one of at least two, and as many as six bears that were roaming the northeast corner of the state at the time. I am anxiously waiting now to see if any return this year.
When we depart, we check out a recently removed low head dam father downstream in Rockford, a restorative effort for the river which we appreciate, and we talk about how we could pass here via canoe if and when we paddle the last few miles of the Shell Rock.

This would end up being my last trip of the year, and the weather combined with the relatively undeveloped portion of the river combined to reinforce my belief there is wilderness to be found, and even more areas that should be protected and restored. There are animals big and small, beautiful vistas of grass and water, and quiet.

We drove the canoe home to Steve's house and I returned home. I decided I would buy my own life vest and paddle, and begin planning my 2016 adventures, because to me, half the fun of travels outdoors is the planning, when time off from work and endurance are unlimited, and anything can be conquered.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Hiking the Rolling Prairie Rail Trail, Franklin and Butler Counties, Iowa

Hiking the Rolling Prairie Rail Trail
Franklin and Butler Counties, Iowa
October 10th - 11th, 2015

Enjoying the outdoors in the Midwest can sometimes mean being exposed to some great, unknown experiences. It can also men, and maybe more often does mean, taking advantage of what comes your way. And because the Midwest is largely private land, this means accepting whatever public land you can get onto as good, public land which often comes in the form of vacated railroad Right of Ways, laid out to bring hordes of people west, stopping every 5 or 10 miles to load up on water for engines and grain for market, but now surpassed in efficiency by trucks and cars for moving commodities and people.

Various groups, nationally spearheaded by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, have been working to take these right of ways and convert them into bike trails. The logic is great as these paths are already graded and ready to be paved (a casual biker, like a train, doesn't do well going up a slope greater than 5%) and they connect existing places. In the rural Midwest especially, these trails can serve as valuable drivers of tourism and economic growth as bikers want amenities like cafe's and bars to make a trip complete. The Rolling Prairie Trail, between Coulter in Franklin County and Shellrock in Bulter County, Iowa, is one of the these trails, spearheaded not by the Rails to Trails Conservancy by the County Conservation Boards, with a goal of making this nearly 40 mile trail an attraction for Iowa's very active bicycle community.

However, in the time between being a path for trains and a path for bikes, this trail, like most, sits as just a very long, narrow, conservation easement; open in most places to hunting and all places to hiking, though without a designated “trail”. And because it was once a railway, there are few houses near the trail. All of which combined to make it a perfect east overnight for me and my friend Steve. As the date grew closer, the unseasonably warm weather also meant it would be a great chance to try hammock camping.

My wife and I picked Steve up from work on Saturday afternoon and made the trip south to Hampton quickly. Despite not being the end of the trail, Hampton is the largest town on the route, and getting on the trail as late as we did (4:38 pm) we didn't want to risk walking through here later when we might violate the city's park curfew. Plus, this got us to the secluded areas much faster. With our backpacks and hiking book, I'm sure we looked odd to the joggers and bikers we passed, but by a mile or so out of town, we were alone.

Like most Rail Trails in the Midwest, Rolling Prairie is generally arrow straight, however decades of lack of use have at least allowed nature to reclaim some of the sides and trees and bushes now give us a little change of scenery. Also changing was the path under our feet, from paved to hard pack gravel to dirt with smatterings of railroad ballast. At some points, the ballast grew large, even melon sized; this feature is probably the most difficult and off-putting aspect of the whole trail.

I had anticipated this first section of trail would be more well trodden and have more signs of use, but in all reality, it was not that different from the more remote sections we would cross later on. Except in one regard. Roughly three miles out of Hampton the trail crossed a road and there was a “road closed” sign across the walking section. Beyond, the trail looked more well maintained than behind, so we assumed it had no impact on us and was to keep people from accidentally turning here, being as there was an intersection just a few yards away. Of course, we went around the sign and enjoyed the well packed trail. A half mile ahead, the reason for the road closed sign became evident, and it did impact us.

As I would later learn, in 2013 the Franklin County Conservation Board received a gift from the North Iowa Community Endowment Fund to install functional bridges over creeks in this section of trail. And this, a 100 ft long wooden beauty, made our walk much easier in the starting to fade sun. Wide enough for an emergency vehicle or trail groomer pulled by a snowmobile, but filled in enough to allow crossing by bikes and people. No skipping from tie to tie for us this night. Instead we could stop and take some pictures of the setting sun, a tractor in the distance combining corn, racing the same dark we were. We would cross another shorter, though just as attractive bridge just a short distance away where we stopped to relax and watch cows watch us. 

Shortly thereafter, we passed through Hansell, a town of under 100 people 5 trail miles from Hampton, and exactly the sort of place that will benefit most from the trail when completed. But for now, it's just a grain elevator and a place we breeze through, aware of the sinking sun and a barking dog we are not quite sure is fenced in.

Out goal for the night is a conservation area adjacent the trail where we can hang our hammocks out of sight, because even though we are within the law, we don't feel like dealing with inquisitive locals. Once it came safely into view, though, we felt it was okay to pause and view the blazing sunset behind us. The uninterrupted Iowa horizon giving us a nearly 180° view of orange and red and purple. 

We regretted, a little, waiting so long, as it was pitch black by the time we did make it to the trees. But after a short amount of fumbling, first through what I was afraid might be a marsh but was just grass, then over a berm into the trees, we found a suitable place to hang out hammocks, without cover tarps in the 50° warmth, and set about making supper. The dehydrated chili was, as should be on any long hike, much more delicious than it could possibly be on a normal day. We crawled into bed by 9, having hung our food a hundred yards away and were treated to quite the show of stars through the trees.

In the dark, in the openness of a hammock, the small Iowa woodlot did take on a more unearthly wilderness than I expected. Of course, this being October in Iowa, a combine ran most of the night, and a grain dryer all of it. Buy beyond that, the natural world made itself much more known. Paws crushed leaves and scratched bark. At one point, something suddenly, I don't know, screeched (?) an cawed in a nearby tree, loud as if startled, but made no other noise then or the rest of the night. We spent some time wondering aloud what it could be, but eventually drifted to sleep.

A brisk but not brutally cold, sunny morning woke us. No sign of our mystery beast, though we did realize walking another 50 feet would have given us much better options for hanging hammocks, We ate a quick breakfast of cold oatmeal and were on the trail by 7:30 or so. 
We quickly cross the next road, the county line, and the difference on the trail is stark. Franklin County, where we are coming from, has maintained most of the trail to a level of passibility throughout. Butler County, where we are entering, has opted to focus on certain sections more in-depth, this western edge is not one of them. The trail is thickly covered with tall prairie grass, brambles and bushes. The ground looks intentionally broken up to dissuade passage. We push on. Eventually trails made by deer, or hunters, become passable, and human activity is obvious. A washing machine in the ditch hints why the county might have made the trail impassible. ATV trails and a bridge hand-made from a pallet hint that plenty of people don't care.

Here, we again feel more isolated though, with the thick trees and a slight ridge to the north blocking our views. We saw some wildlife, a deer, a pheasant, an maybe most interesting, a black skink, a sort of lizard native to Iowa, which was warming itself in the sun at the mouth of its burrow. We also saw indications of an older type of agriculture, with hog huts hidden deep in the woods, from a time when pigs were free range instead of manufactured. And, at a home just outside Dumont, horses, now pets instead of instruments of farming or transport.

And at Dumont (population 633) we stepped off the trail to poke around, refresh our water, and make comfort adjustments to boots and packs. I am quite sure anyone who say us thought we were homeless hitchhikers, but to their credit, said nothing. We walked through downtown and up to the city park, then wound through residential streets past the vacant school.

Dumont, at about 13 trail miles from Hampton, is another town that will benefit from a functional trail. They already have that small downtown with a cafe (to be fair, I'm not sure it is in business or not) and a bar, as well as space adjacent to the trail where a pavilion could be built. And there is at least a convenience store where we stopped to get water (the park water was off and we didn't want to try our filter against the heart of Iowa farm country water if we didn't have to) and snacks. Again, I'm sure we were discussed after we left.

Just outside Dumont we came to what I think will be the biggest roadblock to completing this trail, as well as the defining feature (again, this will be a good thing for this town!). 400 ft long, 20 ft over the confluence of two streams is a massive, but damaged rail bridge, this time with no fancy covering. The base seems sturdy, but some ties across are missing and other have been burnt or rotten beyond passage. 
After some time surveying from solid ground, we took a few steps out. The bridge seemed solid, so I proceeded as far as the where the burnt gaps started, but Steve held back. It seemed he has having some vertigo issues, and felt crossing the span wouldn't be the est for him. He opted to follow the river to the road and meet on the other side, while I inched across.

The worst area was about 100 ft out, where 3 and 4 ties were missing at a time, and even the supports showed signs of having been burnt. Someone, it seemed like they were out here regularly, had laid ties over the supports perpendicular to their normal direction, so at least there were 6 inch balance beams to cross on (with ample hand holds). I slipped off my pack so as to improve my balance, and scooted it in front of me while I crawled almost on all fours. The opening gave me a good view of the impressive structure holding the whole thing up, a little comfort to know the whole thing probably won't collapse under me. I just need to stay on top. Massive pillars of wood two feet wide where they sink into the river at 10 foot intervals, with a trellis of equally impressive beams building up to the deck I should have been able to walk over much more easily than I was. Once I was past the gap though, walking became much easier, and at the middle of the bridge where the truss system transitioned from wood to metal, I was able to stop and take in the scenery. 
I was standing above the confluence of a relatively large but unnamed stream with the West Fork of the Cedar River, which occurred in the middle of a woody cow pasture. Aside from some fencing and the bridge itself, I could see no sign of man, not even the cows. Even in October, most of the trees still had leaves here down along the river, and many prairie flowers still bloomed. The water here moved quickly, and there were an assortment of well worn logs washed up on the banks of braced across the pylons of the bridge. The water was clear, and I could see fish. I would later learn the West Branch is an official water trail, and now I can't wait to pass under the bridge I was walking over.

I continued to the other side, know I have some time to kill before Steve catches up but not wanting to make him wait. At the east end, I make a quick descent to the water to fill a sample bottle for a citizen-science project on micro-plastics in water, run by an organization called Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. This sample, along with hundreds of others will be analyzed at a lab in Maine to build a model of how and where these pollutants are entering the world's waters.

Strapping the sample into my pack, I proceeded on what may haven been the most idyllic portion of the trail, a place someone clearly cared about and for. A think, brushy tunnel 10 feet wide and arched 10 feet tall as far as the eye could see. This was something out of a story book. Twigs were trimmed back cleanly and there was no debris or trash anywhere. But while it was pretty, it had a more urban park feel than wilderness, and so I was glad to leave it behind in a sense as well. It would be the last time on this trip I would have to worry about that.

I met Steve where the trail crossed the next gravel road. He looked hot and uncomfortable, and said he had to walk along the highway rather than the river because it was too marshy. We ducked off the road onto a much more overgrown and shadier section of trail, alternately following deer or ATV tracks, We passed a Christian Service Camp, but the most interesting thing we noticed was the rock we walked on.

It varies radically, sometimes every few hundred feet. Different sizes, colors, textures. Clearly it was fill from the construction of the rail bed, and the variety indicated they were bringing in whatever they could to fill fast enough to keep construction on schedule, not just relying on small local quarries. 
When we wandered into Bristow, a down that despite being farthest from a completed trail was obviously excited and expectant. The new town welcome sign even had a metal bicycle on it, and was positioned where the main through road crossed the trail, visible to both driver and biker. On the far side of town though we found the trail was essentially non-existent. There was an obvious right of way, but no mowed path or deer trail or even shorter grass growing out of rocks. Nature had seemingly totally reclaimed this section. But it was barely lunch, and we wanted to take advantage of our time out, so we pressed on. Luckily the hidden ground was stable and level, and only after a few hundred yards we opted to stop for lunch in a small clearing rather than eat on the go where we couldn't walk without looking at our feet.

Not long after that then, the path did open up, and we were treated to something I had expected much more of, wide open views. This section of the trail was largely pasture, prairie and farmland, where the western end of the trip ad been more woodland and farms. The constant wind rustling through the blue stem and high, midday sun gave us much more in adventure feelings than the mostly distant farm houses took away. There were several short bridges to cross, again no problem despite being untouched since the last trains went over them, and we spent a fair amount of time deciding when we should tell our ride, Steve's wife, to pick us up.

About four miles from our chosen destination, after passing through a grove of trees near a home that had started to be cleared, apparently for the trail, we could see we'd have one more tree covered hill to surmount. It's rise on the horizon, with the cut of the trail right up the middle, was quite the landmark, though the ability to see we'd be making such a straight line all the way to the horizon did detract from the experience somewhat.

The rise was, as this was an old rail bed, gradual. I would suggest to anyone building a trail here in the future to use any adjacent public lands to create short, winding, more difficult trail to garner some more interest. But at least as we did go up, trees again became more present. There were signs of old culverts and stonework as well. Sumac was present here but nowhere else along the trail, and perhaps most oddly, there was an obvious spring that made our walk much wetter than expected, so much so that eventually a small stream formed adjacent our walkway. 
This is the section of trail I would most like to return to and explore. The tipping point came near the peak, just half a mile from Allison, our destination. A short trestle bridge, maybe 20 feet across, was positioned over a seemingly man-made cut in the hill, below which was an exposed concrete culvert, complete with an ornate arch, that allowed a small creek to flow from one side of the hill to the other, as if the hill had been built over the creek, or the creek diverted from a different route.

Only now, too, as I remember and record this trip, does this odd location stand out as an especially important spot. Wilderness, the outdoors in general, in the Midwest is an awkward balance of actual unique features and nature holding strong against the crush of humanity, and the pure reality of human desolation. While Iowa is actually an urban state (more than half the population lives in cities) it also has townships with fewer than 20 people, or .5 people per square mile. We are not the endless loneliness of the Sonora, or the Great Basin, but nor are we the megalopolis New England, and we never were. But we were a much more crowded pace a century ago, like Appalachia or the Adirondacks, places that now have wilderness within them. And I think we need to look at Wilderness here in the sense of Eastern Wilderness, to an extent, not Western Wilderness as our position relative to the Mississippi River would dictate. 
We should leverage our loneliness, and our remnant patches of tall grass and bottom lands and meandering rivers, and not be discouraged or dissuaded by an old shack or pilot mound station. There is great beauty and much to be learned from uninterrupted horizon of grass, but also from the first peoples to try and live here, among the “wild” and establish our modern culture. And besides, if we want our wilderness to be totally virgin of the human existence, I think there are some tribal groups we ought to speak to. 
Past the oh-so-strange bridge, the trail descended quickly towards a highway. There had been a bridge here the last time I passed through, but it was narrow to go under for cars, so I assume they cleared it to widen the road for “safety”. Beyond the gap we could see the paved trail start and head into town, then on beyond our view another 15 miles.

When this trail is complete, it will be a slight loss from the limited isolated natural areas we have here, but such a gain for all the small towns it will touch. And it's a needed gain. Our ride meets us on the edge of the road, and on our ride home on this Sunday afternoon, we drive through town and town looking to have a beer and a burger, and in four towns, each of well over 1,000 people, we find none. Wilderness indeed...