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For at least 40 years, my family and I have called Wisconsin’s Northwoods our summer home. For a large portion of that time, I’ve spent time in a specific forrest that has been my ‘special place’. It has served as a place of refuge, cleansing and renewal.

Several years ago, I had a chance to write about the trail for my ‘Nature Writing Course’.

“Conflict, Compromise, and Coexistence on the Raven”

My Sanctuary

Northern Highland American Legion Forest   Woodruff, Wisconsin

For many years, I told people the Northern Highland American Legion (NHAL) forest was “My Forest”.  It felt that way.  Most visits to the forest’s Raven Trail were isolationist experiences, the chance to enjoy Mother Earth without the interference of other humans and prying eyes.  The forest became my long-sought antidote to civilization, a place where I could sort out the messy and complex web of accumulated crap.  The center of my universe exists at the edge of Clear Lake, on a wooden bench facing the crystal clear water with a shoreline of polished pebbles tapering to soft sand.  I flee to this refuge, far from life’s noise, to restore balance.

                             “Meditation Bench” on Clear Lake   Woodruff, Wisconsin

As the morning unfolds, black crows caw as they fly high above branch to branch.  The thick fog on the lake restricts my visibility, waiting for me to wade in.  In time, but not yet.  First, the ritual requires attaining attunement, accomplished by focusing my awareness on the various elements surrounding me: the wind through the trees, the scent of moist pine, the feel of sunshine on my skin.

Finally ready and assured of privacy, I wade into the cool lake unhindered by any layer of fabric, step carefully over sharp stones and pebbles, to sit in the soft sand.  I feel soft nibbling about my legs and notice a school of small fish cleansing my skin of impurities; I am at peace.  The fog is still dense but clearing.  After a long moment, I look up and am overcome with awe by the sight of a loon twenty yards away engaged in a similar early morning grooming ritual.

The elements of this environment: a symphony of birdsong, the soft wind’s caress of the pine branches high above, the soft carpet of moss and pine needles under my feet, the invigorating cold lake, all acted to simplify and deconstruct my life in turmoil.

 Then, the trail was opened to a new user group: mountain bikers.

            You must understand, at one time, I ran the five-mile hilly boulder-strewn trail blanketed with dead pine needles.  My loud inhalation of the pine-scented air and noisy gait drove away all manner of native life, surely disturbing the peaceful forest.  Still, when the intruders arrived on the scene, my illusion of entitlement was threatened at the core.  Even the smallest notion of sharing “My Forest” grated my nerves to no end.  Could anyone else even begin to understand the importance of this place in my life?  Even though miles and time separated me from my sanctuary, the knowledge of its continued existence has always been a ready source of comfort.  It would be many years before I would accept a compromise.

The First Human Intruders

                 Sleigh-Haul Logging Road circa 1890         Woodruff, Wisconsin

A similar scene could be envisioned from 171 years previous when the forest’s first user groups conflicted over entitlement. 

          In the heart of Lac Du Flambeau country about 1842, Shainya sits cross-legged on the shores of the lake her community depends on for all aspects of sustenance.  The summer sun has dawned on another clear day.  Clothed in a simple cotton garment, the woman is silent and motionless except for her softly-whispered prayer.

Aaniin Gizhe-Manidoo, (Greetings Kind Spirit)

N’Gwunajiwi (My Love)

Niminwendam  (I am happy)

Kina go! Kina! (Everyone all together)

          Soon, she wades into the clear water after removing her garment, allowing the morning’s cool breeze to dance playfully through her long dark hair.  Diving headfirst into the sacred waters, she completes the ancient purification ritual necessary to attain connectedness with spirit and is at peace.

          Suddenly, a loud crack echoes from across the lake.  Followed by another.  The piercing sound of dogs, approaching quickly with an excited and high-pitched squeal.

Heart beating rapidly, the native woman cries out, “Ningotaaj!” (I am afraid!).  She flees through waist-deep water, to the safety of the family wigwam.

A group of five Lumberjacks, wielding axes with long wooden handles, establish themselves on the opposite shore of Pokegama Lake, across from the Indian Village built in 1745 when Chief Keeshkemun led the band to the area.

            “Henrik, did you catch sight of the Indian Princess across the way?”

            “Nope.  Missed that.  Them squaws better clear out before I get at em.”

            Later in the day, the jacks gather for a meal around the campfire.  Across the lake, Native children are heard laughing, splashing, and swimming unaware their futures will be forever changed as the forest is ravaged in the name of progress.

            “Them savages must be taught to cover themselves in the sight of God.”

            “Amen to that.  Swimming naked is not natural.”

            Lumberjacks proceeded to clear timber for sale, the settlers moved in, and the environment changed beyond comprehension becoming barren wastelands with non-descript clapboard huts.  The Native inhabitants of Lac du Flambeau were constricted to an area of land depriving them of necessary sustenance obtained through daily rituals and activities.  Today, gambling is the prevalent source of income for the reservation.

Whose progress is more important?

The beautiful woman wearing headdress feathers of birds. American Indian girl in native costume,potrait,model posing in forest

Quieting the Noise

The Raven Trail – Multi-Use Section – Woodruff, Wisconsin

            Public access to State Forests is both a right and a responsibility.  When user groups with conflicting agendas jeopardize the fundamental purpose of land preservation, objectivity and the prioritization of goals is of paramount importance.  Over the past ten years, a modern-day battle over land use has played itself out in Woodruff, Wisconsin’s NHAL forest as bike use has increased on the Raven Trail increasing the risk of potential conflict with other users also seeking an individual forest experience.

            Faced with the possible closure of trails due to early degradation, volunteers stepped in. “In 2008, the Lakeland Area Mountain Bike Organization (LAMBO) was very helpful in the construction of sustainable trails in the Raven network,” NHAL State Forest superintendent Steve Peterson said in a 2009 interview.

            The goal of LAMBO in developing the single-track (width of one bike) trail network was to preserve the watershed, minimize erosion, and be part of the NHAL experience for many generations.  Members unofficially logged close to 2,500 volunteer hours at the Raven Trail since organizing just a few years previous.

            While the design features targeted sustainable practices to minimize degradation to forest lands, it was clear other hikers (like me) felt the mountain biker’s presence was a noisy intrusion. I would need to speak directly with all user groups.

Setting out on the trail for a hike, I was intoxicated by the fresh pine air.  This Saturday morning provided intermittent showers and a light breeze keeping bugs at bay.  I was anxious to reach my meditative destination: the wooden bench on Clear Lake’s shore.  I wondered about the sound of barking dogs and bells heard faintly from somewhere deep within the trail system.

            I walked a good thirty minutes through a mix of newly-budded birches and mature evergreen before first encountering the middle-aged hiker and her two dogs.  Her cell phone conversation echoed throughout the forest as the older woman spoke animatedly while herding the unleashed dogs up and down various side trails.   Approaching, I was met by the excited black Labs with cowbells hung from their collars.  Still talking on her phone, we exchanged hushed greetings.  I introduced myself as a student writing a story about the trail and offered to walk with her.

            Over the next ten minutes, Deb Carlberg proceeded to share her important views on the shared-use of the Raven Trail and her reasons for visiting the trail each day.

            “Dogs were not meant to be on leashes, they want to be free,” Deb said.  “My dogs will run at the bikes but they know a lot of us are out here walking our dogs.”

            We walked quickly and I struggled to keep up on the hilly trail, her years of cleaning houses and daily hiking clearly evident in a strong pace.   She felt the trail system provided enough open space for everyone to enjoy the trail system without conflict.

           Later, I learned from a DNR Officer that unleashed pets are forbidden and the source of frequent complaints.           

Urban Greenways in Peril

             Conflicts between mountain bikers and hikers are not specific to Wisconsin’s North Woods.   A few hundred miles south near the Milwaukee River Greenway Corridor (MRGC), trail users were given an opportunity to make their case at a forum this past October as an advocate group formed in September of 2012 attempted to stop mountain bike use on the wild paths on the east and west bank of the river.  The principle concern is that the trails are too narrow resulting in unavoidable collisions between hikers and bikers.   Environmental issues are also at stake.

            The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission identified over 18,000 acres of high-quality natural communities and critical species habitats within the basin.  There are 16 endangered, 26 threatened and 65 special concern plant and animal species, and 30 rare aquatic and terrestrial communities documented within the basin.  Repairing and re-routing some of the trails had caused damage due to erosion and seeping.  Volunteers were engaged to mitigate degradation in the corridor.

Andrew Mishlove explores the river trails. Photo by Jason McDowell.

           “We did not feel comfortable kicking out existing users” said Ann Brummitt, director of the MRGC. “The trails as they are have worked okay, but we understand they can be improved,”

           On the Milwaukee River Advocates Facebook page, founder Sura Faraj asks, “Remember when you could walk the trails and it was like an undiscovered gem? Remember meeting other walkers, maybe passing by silently because you were both in mild meditative or euphoric states? It was easier to see wildlife, because they weren’t as scared.”

           The consensus is that mountain bikers have volunteered many hours to improving the trail system and should not be restricted from use.  Providing education on trail etiquette that is not common sense, including messages concerning the impact of unleashed pets and littering, could decrease conflict and facilitate the coexistence of both user groups.  While past years saw increased conflict between bikes and unleashed animals, better enforcement of existing leash laws and changing attitudes has made this a non-issue; Milwaukee pets may not want to be free.

Researching Attitudes

           In 1980, researchers Jacob and Schreyer suggested the concept of conflict between user groups was a form of dissatisfaction in which the person experiencing the dissatisfaction feels that the attainment of his or her goals has been interfered with by another user-group.  In a study conducted at Wilder Ranch State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Southern California, the true conflict was found to exist perceptually rather than concretely.  In my experience on the Raven, I perceive my ability to hike the trail meditatively as being thwarted by noisy mountain bikers while, in actuality, this may not be the case.

           In an interview conducted as a key component of the study, Mayor Cecilia Scott said, “I am a cyclist.  I ride for transport.  I don’t own a mountain bike.  When I go onto a natural land I prefer to walk.”  While Scott feels mountain bikes cause land degradation, she described feeling very uncomfortable sharing trails with bikers.   

           In the same study, Superintendent David Vincent felt it was a perception issue while Keith Kelsen, President of the Mountain Bike Organization of Santa Cruz, felt hikers used the perception of erosion damage to keep their sanctuary. 

           “All users need to be able to have their own experience,” Kelsen concluded.

           In order for bikers to participate in trail activities without the fear of aggressive animals or hikers who simply want to enjoy the tranquility of a forest trail, a clear solution was necessary.

Restoring Harmony

Single-Track Trail for Bikes Only on Raven Trail

            In 2011, Rose Perry was knocked down by an unleashed dog on Oshkosh’s Wiowash Trail sustaining a sprained ankle and leg bruising.  “I have ridden on that trail for many years without an incident but now am very careful,” said Rose.  Not having easy access to ‘bike only’ trails, it is a source of anger and frustration for Rose motivating her to travel further to find suitable locations.  She has become a visiting user of the Raven.

NHAL Forestry Supervisor Jeff Olsen envisioned a trail system that would be enjoyed by multiple users.  “The trail design features are targeted for sustainable trail use over the long haul,” said Olsen.  “Some steep and sandy surfaces were bypassed or modified to accommodate mountain bike traffic and keep the bikes from roaming through the woods.”

In years past, logging operations on the Raven destroyed some hand-built trails requiring a great deal of work to restore.  It was a mess.  “One of the things I’ve noticed with volunteer groups is their numbers really jump up when there is an issue such as the possible closure of trails,” said Trail Coordinator Tony Martinez.  “Then, as years progress, the number of volunteers decline and you’re left with only a few hardcore volunteers.”

            On the Raven Trail System, bikes have exclusive access to both a skills course and other trails traversing the hilly landscape in exchange for a fee.  Hikers can walk meditatively without the threat of being run over or distracted while bikers can be assured there will be no collisions or encounters with animals.  There are also ‘shared trails’, used by bikers and hikers alike with courtesy and respect for the diverse habitat and wide range of users.  It is a trail system in harmony just as the natural habitat coexists with uninvited guests.

The Human Story

Beginning years ago, when the first settlers encountered Native peoples and forced them into life-confining reservations in order to reap newly discovered treasures (i.e. lumber, minerals, water, etc.), disrespect among various land users continues to be predominant across the nation and globe.   The examination of existing conflicts between Mountain Bikers and Hikers is a microcosm of a much larger issue, the peaceful coexistence of human beings on our planet in the face of great diversity, changing attitudes, and a wide variance of values. 

Henry David Thoreau found a conception of human life and human potential that became his ideal —that the human soul, deep within, is divine, and that this divinity is to be found throughout nature.  This conception is fundamentally at odds with society’s focus on some activities that are more profitable than others. 

On the Raven, bikers must pay a fee for use and these funds contribute towards maintenance of the public lands.  Also, the DNR relies on timber sales to bring in much-needed revenue in order to safeguard public access for generations to come.  Does this mean that bike use and timber sales are more important than the non-revenue producing activities of free users?  It definitely seems that what the Native Americans encountered two centuries ago continues to be perpetuated at some level but may be unavoidable due to our societies focus on development and monetary reward.  Instead, peaceful coexistence requires compromise.  Prior to human intrusion, the non-human inhabitants of the forest (i.e. vegetation, wildlife, etc.) were required to adapt in order to survive.  In addition, a symbiotic relationship exists widely where interdependency is required in the forest for survival.  Could not the hiker’s ability to continue using the trail due to the collected fees for bike use be counted as being mutually fulfilling and symbiotic?

On the Raven, multiple user groups can now take part in their activity of choice without great conflict due to the availability of exclusive trails and wide open spaces.  Having once been problematic, mountain bike volunteers have taken the initiative in re-designing trails for sustainable use and maintaining the network for all users.  In addition, education and signage provides clear instructions.

In his book “Walden”, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “we need the tonic of wilderness.”  He further explains that our need to explore and learn all things requires some remaining mystery to be pondered.  In the NHAL forest, I see this exhibited by both hikers continuing to meditate on the interdependency of the forest’s inhabitants and by bikers encountering the environment’s challenging obstacles.  Both pursuits are important. 

The deer and other wildlife, once driven away by the noise and confusion of intruders, are slowly beginning to return as peaceful coexistence, once again, provides a nurturing foundation for all of the forest’s inhabitants. 

“Coexisting Ecosystems of Clear Lake”           Woodruff, Wisconsin

End Notes

4  In the heart of Lac Du Flambeau country:

Ojibwe History.  Retrieved May 22, 2013 http://www.mpm.edu/wirp/icw-151.html

Lac Du Flambeau Band of Ojibwe History. Retrieved May 22, 2013

http://www.glifwc.org/publications/pdf/SandyLake_Brochure.pdf

4  Aaniin Gizhe-Manidoo, N’Gwunajiwi , Niminwendam, Kina go, Kina: 

Noongwa e-Anishinaabemjig: people who speak anishinaabemowin today

Retrieved May 27, 2013 http://www.umich.edu/~ojibwe/

4  Shainya cries out, Ningotaaj:

Retrieved May 22, 2013 http://www.ojibwe.org/home/pdf/ojibwe_beginner_dictionary.pdf

4  Henrik, did you catch sight:

McBean, T., the Lumber Camps of Long Ago, 1915, “Preserved in a scrapbook in the

Wisconsin Historical Society Library; Online facsimile at retrieved May 22, 2013 http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=1367

4   Them squaws better clear out before I get to em:

Phylena McMaster’s historical account of Lumberjack’s treatment of women.

http://hsl.wikispot.org/Phylena_McMaster

6   In 2008, the Lakeland Area Mountain Bike Organization: LAMBO set to unveil Raven

Trail skills course for single track riders.  Etten, Douglas.  August 25, 2009. 

6    Members unofficially logged close to 2,500 volunteer hours: LAMBO set to unveil Raven Trail skills course for single track riders.  Etten, Douglas.  August 25, 2009. 

7   Conflicts between mountain bikers and hikers: Advocates clash over mountain biking in  the Milwaukee River Greenway Corridor.  McDowell, Jason.  Retrieved from onmilwaukee.com May 15, 2013.

 9   In 1980, researchers Jacob and Schreyer: Studying recreation attitudes among hikers and        bicyclists: analyzing land-use conflict between hikers and mountain bikers in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California.  Osbaldeston, T.P.  Retrieved from  www.scruznet.com/~landauer/LiverpoolStudy/ May 15, 2013

 10   In an interview conducted:  Studying recreation attitudes among hikers and bicyclists: analyzing land-use conflict between hikers and mountain bikers in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California.  Osbaldeston, T.P.  Retrieved from  www.scruznet.com/~landauer/LiverpoolStudy/ May 15, 2013