Even when I have a bad day, my job now is infinitely better than sitting behind a desk, at least for me. I get to explore parks and public lands along the Mississippi, including many that are not well-known. Sometimes I find great views, sometimes a quiet place, but I usually can count on a good hike. Cassville Bluff State Natural Area, just south of the town of Cassville, Wisconsin, is one of those lesser-known public preserves. I hiked the natural area last year but got turned around and never found my way to the top of the bluff. (You probably think any idiot can find the top of a bluff, but you’ve never been hiking with me.) Saturday afternoon I had some spare time on an idyllic late summer day and wanted—needed, really—to get outside and hike. With few options in the immediate area that appealed to me, I went back to Cassville Bluff to try again.

This time of year, the trails at Cassville Bluff—such that there are trails—are mostly obscured, with brush that was well above my head at times. The natural area gets little traffic, so I was constantly fighting through spider webs, at least until I picked up a fallen twig and started waving it in front of me, like Glinda the Good Witch of the North with a tic disorder. Before I started hiking, I took a picture of the “trail” map, so I could use it as a guide, and I think it helped, although, given the lack of trail maintenance, the map offered more promise of guiding me to the top than it actually delivered. Fighting my way through tall brush, up steep hills with loose dirt, and around brambles that stretched across the ground in a low arch (nature’s way of ensuring that I have at least one dignity-denting tumble), I finally reached the top, I think. I was disappointed. The views of the river are nearly totally obscured by trees. After catching my breath and poking around a little more, I gave up and headed back down.

For much of this hike, I raced through the natural area, feeling driven to get to the top and back as quickly as possible. I don’t know why, truthfully. I had no reason to rush. I started hiking about 5:30 in the evening, but there was plenty of daylight left, so that was not a worry (and I brought along a flashlight, just in case). On the way up, the quick pace contributed to the plastering of my face with spider webs but little else of consequence. On the way back down, though, I tripped twice. The first fall, on top of the bluff (but not near the edge), was the most painful; I tripped over low brush and fell flat, banging my shins on downed tree limbs. The second fall was caused by a single strand of barbed wire that was low to the ground and nearly impossible to see. The wire snagged my shoe (lucky for me it didn’t grab any part of my body higher than my feet), and I went down again, this time foolishly grabbing a tree to try to break my fall; I still fell hard and managed to mess up my left shoulder, too.

As I brushed myself off and continued, I heard a muffled bark/growl from a nearby hill that didn’t sound like any dog I recognized. I thought “Hmm, coyotes live in these parts”, so I pulled out my pocket knife and opened the big blade; walking around with a sharp knife in one hand is probably not a great idea for someone who has already tripped twice. As I reached a clearing, I heard a whisper of wind but didn’t feel anything. I looked up and saw a large flock of birds flying by.

After safely crossing the field (no more barking/growling), I put my knife away and started to descend the last hill when I got caught in another patch of brambles and, at almost the exact same moment, a very loud rustling sound very near startled me. I exhaled a pathetic yelp, then watched as a turkey vulture flew out of the low brush. Catching my breath (and searching for my dignity), I reminded myself that I was not in a rush, extracted myself from the thorns, and walked down the rest of the hill. After wobbling across a shaky log that was the only way to cross a shallow creek, I was back at my car a few minutes later. At the end of the hike, my hair was soaked with sweat, my clothes were dotted with burrs, my legs and shoulder hurt from the falls, and I couldn’t wait to get back to my room to shower and grab a beer.

I’ve hiked just about every piece of public land between the Quad Cities and La Crosse and have enjoyed them all. Until now. This was simply unpleasant from start to finish and didn’t even have a decent prize at the end, like a good view. Maybe the hike would be less dour in the spring. Hiking in September, however, was tough, painful, grueling—simply dreadful.

If you are a naturalist or a plant geek, you may enjoy this area more than I did. According to the website, the natural area has a variety of ecosystems and rare plants. I didn’t take the time to catalog the plants and can barely identify poison ivy, anyway. The website also has a picture of a goat prairie that I obviously didn’t reach. Damn. I made it to the top but didn’t have the patience to check out the area long enough to find the goat prairie. Looks like I may need to try one more time… Ugh.

© Dean Klinkenberg, 2009