You’re listening to Parks and Landmarks, an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
I’m not much for new year’s resolutions. As I write this, we’re halfway through the first month of 2023, and very little in my life is different than it was this time last year. I suppose no change isn’t the worst thing, but I’ve never stuck to a new diet or kept daily journaling for more than a couple weeks after December 31st. I could attribute this to unmedicated ADHD if I’m being charitable, or a general lack of discipline if I’m being honest; but the truth is, big sweeping changes are hard for everyone.
Instead of traditional resolutions, I’ve found it much more fun and effective to make a long list of things I want to see and do over the year. The key is to not put too much thought or consideration into this, I aim for quantity of ideas over quality. The only rule is that generally these things should be doable, start to finish, within a single day. Individually, they don’t mean a whole lot, but when these experiences are stacked at the end of the year, they should have made me a more experienced and well-traveled person. At least, that’s my hope.
This year’s list includes all sorts of items that could be relevant to this show. There are half a dozen big Wisconsin parks I want to visit. I want to bike the Elroy-Sparta State Trail. But what tops the list isn’t a vacation, or an experience, it’s an animal; one that has evaded me for too long.
The North American beaver is the world’s second largest rodent, beaten only by South America’s capybara. They are herbivorous, semi-aquatic, and fairly adaptable when it comes to preference of habitat. Their natural range extends to parts of 49 states, though I wouldn’t be shocked to hear one had cut a tree into a raft, and surfed all the way to Hawaii. Though the fur trade nearly brought them to extinction, they have since rebounded to a population of at least ten million. Yet, despite their apparent ubiquity, I entered the year 2023 having never seen one. Not in the wild, not in captivity.
This is strange, isn’t it? I’ve lived in Wisconsin for most of the part of my life where I could form memories. I’m not the most outdoorsy person, but I was a boy scout, I get out into nature. Meanwhile, beavers are supposedly everywhere, and they’re not subtle creatures. They’re 45 pound, thickset rats. They build huge dams and mounded lodges out of sticks, they leave tree stumps chewed off in distinct conical spikes, they slap their tails on water to loudly warn their friends of danger. These are things that should be easy to observe, but I’ve never seen any of this during my travels around southern Wisconsin. So in 2023, I decided to fix that. My first goal was to see even a single beaver, in-person.
I asked around, and got all sorts of leads. Some of these were less promising than others. I’m sure there are actual beavers that live around Madison, but unless someone can supply a lot of detail with their beaver sighting story, I have to assume they actually saw a muskrat. It’s an easy mistake to make, especially from a distance. Muskrats are also brown, semiaquatic rodents that swim well, propelling themselves in part with their scaly tails. Like beavers, muskrats also eat a lot of sticks and reeds. Their homes are also very similar, both species live either in burrows dug along river banks, or domed houses that they construct. The main visual difference between the two is their tail shape and overall size. Beavers have that characteristic flat tail, and are much bigger; they can be ten times as heavy as a muskrat. These signifiers are hard to see from far away, and muskrats are common throughout human-built environments. So if anyone says they’ve seen a beaver in Dane County, I’m treating it for now as a false lead.
To see actual beavers in the wild, it seems I might have to venture out to the northwoods, or at least the backwaters of the Mississippi. I’ll take that trip someday, but to check this off the list, I decided to go for more of a sure thing. It turns out, that means heading up to Baraboo.
Ochsner Park consists of twelve acres of woods and fields, perched above a bend in the Baraboo River. That is, most of it is on relatively flat ground, set slightly back. On the park’s west side, the land slants sharply down, then levels off again, and meets a paved trail along the river’s edge. Both stone steps and a paved ramp connect the riverwalk to the park above, but I didn’t go looking for beavers along its banks. The waterfront, as I came to learn, is only a small part of this park’s appeal.
Did you guys know Baraboo has a zoo? Not counting trips to Devil’s Lake, I’ve probably visited the city of Baraboo a dozen times, and until a couple weeks ago, the Ochsner Park Zoo completely escaped my notice. In fairness to me, it’s kind of subtle. The fence as you drive by on 8th avenue is relatively low, and obscured by shrubs. The whole zoo eschews flashiness, as they’re trying to make the best of a limited budget. Despite being supported by a smaller city, and not charging admission, they really have built something worth visiting. The exhibits, though often small, are in good shape, and the animals seem to be healthy. There are dozens of species on display, and for the most part, the focus of the zoo is clear.
Except for on special occasions, the zoo only displays birds and mammals, the majority of which are found in North America. This is what I want from a small, local zoo: I know you don’t have the budget for elephants or zebras, so show me what’s special about the ecosystems around here! There are plenty of Wisconsin animals at Ochsner Park which I likely couldn’t get close to outside of this context. They have a couple opossums which have grown used to human visitors, you otherwise couldn’t approach without triggering them to play dead. There’s a skunk, sealed off behind a spray shield of glass. And my holy grail: two beavers, their lodge and dam replaced by a concrete pool and huts.
But when I first approached the beaver exhibit, they were nowhere to be seen. I was afraid this might be the case. Beavers often don’t start their day until sunset. So, I wandered to check out some other exhibits, hoping they would at least have breakfast before the zoo closed at 4. Like I said, there’s a surprising amount to see. Tucked in a shaded corner, the zoo hosts a family of Mexican wolves.
I’ve long assumed, mostly from cartoons, that the coyote was the top predator of the American Southwest. Today, that’s more or less true, but there was a time when real wolves roamed Northern Mexico, and its bordering U.S. states. They aren’t a fully distinct species from what we think of as regular gray wolves, but they are uniquely adapted to the environment in which they lived. As such, efforts are being undertaken to restore their population as if they were their own species. In the seventies, all that was left of the Mexican wolf population was evacuated from the wild, and brought to zoos. From there, they were bred, and strategically released into wild land between Arizona and New Mexico. The Mexican wolf’s future is tenuous, but it’s brighter than it’s been in decades. Their numbers now total several hundred, and Baraboo’s humble little zoo is a small part of that.
Heartwarming as that may be, I came to Ochsner Park for a different icon of the American wild, and I was afraid I had somehow botched my chance to see him. With the zoo closing in fifteen minutes, I made one more lap around the exhibits. I paused at the skunk, hoping he might decide to emerge early from his burrow. Then, through the back of the glass, over an adjoining fence, I saw a round, brown shape. There was no mistaking it.
One of the beavers had come up from his lodge for breakfast. He was hunched over on all fours, head buried in a stainless steel bowl. As I rushed to the fence, I could hear a faint crunching as his teeth shredded and pulverized his food. I admired his dense pelt as it shone in the setting sun, and I instantly understood why my ancestors wanted so badly to wear his ancestors as hats. Not in a violent way, I just wanted to pick up this intact, alive beaver, and put him on my head. He looked warm.
For his part, the beaver paid me little mind. He paused a moment when he cleared his bowl, then moved on to a second, identical bowl next to it. I think that one may have been intended for the other beaver, sleeping somewhere beneath the exhibit, but she never popped up to claim the sweet potato within. I couldn’t quite believe it. Seeing a beaver eluded me for nearly twenty five years, and Baraboo’s little free zoo, of all places, let me check that off my list. If you have some bucket list animals of your own, Ochsner Park may be able to help you out. The zoo is open from 9 to 4 during the winter; I’ll link some relevant sites online, at WORTFM.org.
Before I go, I’d like to bring the topic back around to where we started. Though it’s not a resolution, I did commit myself to one big change this year: I’m going back to school. With a full load of classes, I can’t commit to continued weekly episodes of Parks and Landmarks. Thank you all for listening; the WORT community has made these segments a joy to produce! That said, I’m not completely disappearing. You’ll hear me host the 6pm news from time to time, and who knows? I might find the time to write a special edition Parks and Landmarks down the road. With that in mind, if you’d like to suggest a topic for me to cover, please send it my way, at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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’ve loved hearing 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.