You’re listening to Parks and Landmarks, an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
Over the past week, I’ve been listening to more of WORT’s evening programming than I usually do. My goal was to generally know our content better, so I could better talk about it for the pledge drive, but I’ve noticed some specific things along the way.
For instance, did you know that, starting around the third week of September, roughly half of all radio news features start with some variation of the declaration “well, it’s fall now!” Fall is in the air, the leaves are changing, sweater weather is back, time to fire up the ol’ Crock Pot, has anyone noticed how chilly it’s getting lately? Only a month ‘till Halloween, gang!
Look, I’m not going to pretend that I’m better than my fellow news writers. I only noticed this pattern because I was in the middle of writing a couple features that start the exact same way. I think, genuinely, this is not a cliche born of laziness. Early fall is Wisconsin’s best weather season, and those of us who know that are excited to evangelize it to anyone we can. In another month, I’ll have to dig my humidifiers out of storage, and start wearing hats again, but for now, I just want to luxuriate in the ability to wear pants! I can finally make fashion choices other than “whatever makes me the least sweaty!”
And, while it’s prime hornet season for another couple weeks, the mosquitoes and biting flies are already starting to fall off. This, more than the direct effects of the temperature, is what makes autumn such a great time to explore your local parks. So many places around here are otherwise gorgeous, but rendered unbearable by summer bugs. Even the people who run our parks know this, and this year the Rock County Parks department is embracing it head on, with a “Fall Fun Challenge.”
From September 22nd to October 31st, you can complete a series of goals, all related to properties administered by Rock County. You can find these goals on signposts at the parks, or online. There are thirty of them, and though they’re printed out sort of like a bingo card, you don’t need to line them up. Completing a single goal enters you to win a prize, and each goal is another entry; there are no bonuses for four-squares, five in a row, or anything like that. If you started today, you wouldn’t even need to do one a day to finish them all, and most of them are quite manageable. It’s things like “clean up litter,” “learn how to use a compass,” “go birdwatching…” There are a few specific ones, like “Take a tour at Beckman Mill,” which will require actual forethought and scheduling, but those should also be proportionately more rewarding to undertake. If I were to try to complete every goal, “Ride a Horse on a Rock County Park Horse Trail” would probably stump me. Has the Monty Python joke of galloping with a pair of coconuts been run into the ground?
Perhaps it’s better if I start with an easier one. I completed a challenge item by visiting a park which is new to me. I visited Carver-Roehl Park, which up until now, I had only seen pictures of. Also, I had only read its name in print. The second half of the hyphenate is spelled R-o-e-h-l, so I assumed it was pronounced “Carver-Roll.” But no, it’s “rail,” I think, if a guy on YouTube is correct.
Carver-Roehl is a 52 acre park, some ten miles east of Janesville and Beloit. Apparently, it’s Rock County’s second-oldest park. I would love to know what the first oldest one is, but that information was not readily available on the Rock County Parks website. In any case, this park feels old. The amenities are modern enough, but something else about it, maybe it’s the terrain, or the wooden bridges? The property does feature the grave site of the first white settlers to the area, but the history of this place goes much farther back than that. Over millennia, the vaguely-named Spring Brook carved away at the limestone beneath its bed, creating ten-foot cliffs that shade its slow-flowing pools. The stream is not very deep, and the cliffs aren’t especially tall, but the darkness of both make them feel like they hold secrets beyond their stature.
Again, at 52 acres, this is not a huge park, but the terrain and vegetation help to blur its edges. Still, the property is narrow, focused around the valley that spring brook cuts through. At most times, you can see either the adjoining road or farm fields. The park’s main feature is its hiking trail. Though it branches off in places, the main trail is a single loop that roughly travels the perimeter of the property, forming a circle about a mile and a half long. From this trail, you can see everything Carver-Roehl has to offer. There are some hills and rocks, so it’s not for everyone. But for the most part, it’s pretty accessible. A few wooden bridges cross the brook, giving you an up close look at the water, and the rocks it has carved away. The stream is a bit shallow for most fish, but a Google reviewer claims they caught crayfish here. Who knows what else might be discovered in the shallows!
Other reviews on Google Maps are quick to complain about the park’s mosquitoes. I’ve never been here in the summer, but that tracks. Most of the park is shaded by a canopy of mature trees, and the stream flows slowly enough that mosquitoes could easily find spots to lay eggs along its banks. This is why Carver-Roehl, along with many others in our state, is a park best explored in the fall. Now, the mosquitoes are gone, and the only airborne nuisance is the occasional falling walnut.
Years of dodging their missile-like fruit have left me well-acquainted with the black walnut, but if I didn’t know how to identify them, this would be a good place to learn. In addition to the standard printed map, the park’s information kiosk offers a tree identification course, free to visitors. As you hike around the park, you’ll discover signposts, marking nineteen unique species of trees. They’re printed in full color, and include pictures of the tree’s leaves and bark, as well as some trivia facts. This is not a feature unique to this park, Lake Kegonsa State park comes to mind as having implemented something similar. But in this instance, it’s really well-done, and it adds depth to an otherwise short hike.
The center of the park is the only space without tree cover. There’s not room for a large parking lot, so the driveway loops around, and has some gravel spots along the edge. In the middle of the loop is a medium-sized modern playground, and a shelter with picnic tables, reservable for events. This space is meant for birthday parties, and not much more. The only restrooms are a pair of pit toilets, and half the reservation rules are basically warnings not to overload the circuit by plugging in too many Crock-Pots.
At least once a year, Carver-Roehl gets to test its limits, and it’s annual Fall Fest returns this weekend! This Sunday, from 11:30am to 2:30pm, the friends of Carver-Roehl will fill the park with as much fun as it can fit. There will be nature walks, a petting zoo, hot food, a chainsaw art demonstration, live music, horse drawn carriage rides! And best of all, it’s all free. It’s a fundraiser for the park, but you get to decide how much that’s worth to you.
There’s also a raffle, and from what I can tell, the prizes are legit. There must be smaller ones as well, but the press release only mentions a weed whacker, a kayak, and a two hundred dollar gift card to a local butcher shop. Again, all proceeds go directly to the park, or at least to its “friends of” organization. One more time, the Fall Fest is at Carver-Roehl park, from 11:30 to 2:30 on October 2nd.
If you don’t feel like driving an hour south, maybe a park in your neighborhood deserves a fresh look. Unless it’s a beach of some kind, basically every park in Wisconsin is at its best right now. Just get out and explore somewhere, you really can’t go wrong.
If you’d like to suggest a topic for Parks and Landmarks to cover, please send it my way, at email@example.com. Tell me about your favorite underrated spot outdoors, or whatever you feel is related. This segment’s title is intentionally broad, so just go for it. I’d love to hear from you guys. Again, that’s s-e-a-n dot b-u-l-l at w-o-r-t-f-m dot org. For WORT News, I’m Sean Bull.