Travels with Tom

About two or three times a year we have a “dinner date,” Tom Watson and I. Generally we’ll select a nearby steak house that serves a decent wine, ribeyes or pan fried walleyes. The wine comes in small individual  bottles; just enough to almost fill a standard wine glass. This time, though, we chose a relatively new Mexican restaurant in his hometown of Appleton which has both his favorite el camarón and my blessed carnitas. And, we opted for margaritas as our choice of beverage. 

Tom is an outdoors writer who writes kayak-based articles for a paddling website, nature columns for weekly newspapers around the region, well-chronicled guidebooks as well as articles for various magazines. Having a nearby writer friend is a blessing, and besides our interests in silent water sports and the outdoors in general, we don’t need to highly define or explain what we have faced professionally. 

Most nights after our dinner we will end up either on my deck or his, although his has a huge hammock chair where he often sits with a cigar as classical music from the local MPR channel drifts across the driveway from his garage. We’re not so fortunate here. Prairie winds and whatever birds are available for song.

Our first stop was to capture native sawtooth sunflowers in the the rich, fading sunlight.

On our last dinner I asked if he would mind if we took a drive to the nearby “twin bridges” that crosses a narrows of Lac qui Parle Lake with my hope of seeing and photographing an American avocet wading along the muddy edges of the shallow waters. We were blessed with great light for imagery. As we left the restaurant he suggested a detour that turned out to be a narrow graveled, minimum maintenance road that cut between the Marsh Lake dam road and the Twin Bridges.

I don’t know if this graveled lane has a name other than perhaps “the short cut.” My river-based friends have called it that for as long as I’ve lived here. The Marsh Lake road is Ct. Rd 51, and 119 cuts across southwest from Appleton over the Twin Bridges and onward to Dawson if you don’t take the Madison fork. Dusk was on heaven’s door as we veered off the beaten path into a patch of near wilderness along the short cut and it was immediately obvious our little detour might offer some interesting possibilities. I reached for the camera as we entered the prairie’s edge and the marshy woodlands just in case. 

The heron flew from a marshy area to perch behind us on the limb of a dead tree.

I was immediately rewarded. First to beckon was a field of sawtooth sunflowers being kissed by the lowering sun. A couple of quick images were made just as the flowers went into the deep shadow of the oncoming nightfall. So on we moved, slowly, and it seemed every few turns of the wheels was like slipping past the layers of an onion with new sights being presented with each peal. A great blue heron lifted from a backwater slough, then turned to land behind us on a sturdy branch of a long dead tree. Again we stopped, and I leaned through the door for a couple of images. 

Then a stand of long weathered whitened trees stood tall and defiant against a timbered growth of younger trees, ghosts of an earlier time. And so it went, layer after layer, until we reached the Twin Bridges road. We then passed a small deer partially hidden deep in the cattails before moving onward to the marshy lake views as the light that made Monet famous descended upon us. As we neared the second bridge a sudden and unexpected sandhill crane crossed the sky over the marshes. A singular bird, and we couldn’t find its landing nor mate. 

I’ll admit being a sucker for the whitened skeletons of long dead trees.

Ornate views were offered on both sides of the bridges, to the east an afterglow glistening off distant clouds, and to the west, the fading remnants of the sunset. Although the afterglow was more colorful, you couldn’t help but take a deep breath to breathe in all the goodness of the surrounding nature and the beauty unfolding around us.

“Sometimes when I see a forecast for a Northern Lights display I’ll come down here to attempt a shot,” said Tom as we slowly rolled on down into the access point to turn around. “There isn’t much light pollution.”

The afterglow showing the “rainbow” sky above the lake at Twin Bridges.

Two nights later another old friend and I drove down in anticipation of the Aurora display, but the traffic was too heavy to safely stop for the long exposures seemingly necessary to capture the full array of the painted skies. We would quickly drive up the short cut road to the Marsh Lake dam where we were able to secure a decent half dozen shots before the flares died down for the night. If not for the short cut we would have missed the short display that lasted well under 30 minutes.

Taking car forays with the camera is something I frequently do, although it’s more commonly done around my Listening Stones Farm in rural Big Stone County. My little acreage is surrounded by beauty, by both prairie and woodland, and offers perhaps the last remnant of the original Prairie Pothole Biome left behind by the last glacier 10,000 or so years ago. All but one percent of that biome no longer exists.

Tom had mentioned the bridges as a possibility of capturing Northern Lights, which led to this image two nights later at Marsh Lake dam … which we reached early enough by taking the short cut road.

Some might argue that the nature Tom and I witnessed the other night along the short cut road wouldn’t have existed back in time, for about the only trees native to the prairie were burr oaks within savannas on the northern slopes of the sometimes rolling terrain of the prairie or along the carved out banks left behind by the Glacial River Warren, or further toward the northeast of us, on the distant moraines and occasional esker … what is called the “glacial ridge.” Lake country. 

As we left the Twin Bridges to drive back toward Appleton darkness had settled over the prairie. At Tom’s place he built a brief bonfire and we shared a glass of wine before I headed for home. My short drive was accompanied with a smile in acknowledgment of a long and fine friendship along with those few unexpected images from the little shortcut he had suggested ­— those travels with Tom was a nice dessert not long after such a delicious Mexican dinner.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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