The Crossing, Part One
I made four forays into the Navarino Wildlife Area three Fridays ago. The first was from the trailhead just east of the Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran Church, founded by Norwegians who had crossed the Atlantic on "sailboats" to come to the U.S. in the years following the Civil War. The first Norwegian worship service in Shawano County was conducted in a home on what is now Highway 156 in 1869 by the Rev. E. J. Homme. Another was held a month later, with Pastor Homme promising to offer two services a year from then on. In 1870 and '71, however, Pastor Homme offered 4 services each year, and by 1873, two congregations were meeting every other month. One of the two congregations became the present day Navarino Lutheran Church; the other became Jerusalem Lutheran, which was officially organized in 1874. Eight years later, Pastor Homme established an orphanage in Wittenberg which, as a ministry of Lutheran Social Services, still serves young men with a history of trauma who need help to "overcome their past and live out their potential" as they cross from adolescence to adulthood.
Walking south on the trail east of Jerusalem Lutheran, I recognized some parts of the trail I had hiked early this spring: an intersection a half mile in and evidence that the trail had been completely covered by water. But I never saw any of the east or west bound trails I remembered. It may be that they were choked with foliage. I did not attempt to plunge into the woods on “potential” trails. I've had enough of those kinds of trips lately. The trail ended as a dead end, but there were some blackberries to eat. I'll return when the foliage dies back and will likely reveal an entirely new system of trails.
In that forest, the light that has fallen to the floor though the gap that was a tree-eater’s trail inspired an incongruous assembly of plants: cattails and Canadian thistles you don't often see deep in the woods, their seeds apparently having sailed into the woods to settle there in the fertile mud.
Since that forest trail was relatively dry, I hoped the next trail I wanted to tackle – a trail completely exposed to the sun – would be drier still. So next I drove down to the Town Line Road trailhead for the Sedge Meadow Trail. Which was indeed dry, but which was almost completely obscured by a five-foot tall wall of goldenrod, pink Joe Pye Weed, and white flowering boneset and flat-topped asters. If I hadn't known a trail was there, I would have never seen it. The picture I took of it doesn't capture the surprise and peaceful feeling I felt upon seeing how those flowers had filled the trail and a meadow that was in spring nothing but acres of flattened straw. Seeing all those flowers reminded me how remiss I’ve been at reporting the abundance of monarch and cabbage butterflies I've seen on my last two visits to Navarino and at how industrious pollinators of all kinds have been: they’ve been so focused that I’ve waded through hundreds of them, and they haven’t bothered to rise from their labors to ward me off. They were working that day until the sun had almost set.
“The problem” with the Sedge Meadow “Trail” is that the acres of flowers completely obscure the deep, narrow, wandering water channel that is the trail, so I couldn’t see the grass hummocks that clog it. As slowly and carefully as I ventured each foot forward, I'd stumble on a hummock or I'd step on the side of one them which would bend my ankle or bounce one my feet in front of the other. Staggering and stumbling for maybe a half mile exposed to the hot sun wore me out; I turned around, no longer able to endure crossing a labyrinth whose course I could not see.
The third trail I tried was the last one I’ve taken from the road that is the far eastern boundary of Navarino. The trail headed west but not nearly far enough to reach the Shioc River, ending at a privately owned Tree Farm.
Driving to that trail, I noticed a road I remembered from one of the Navarino maps: Wildlife Road. I was pretty sure there was a parking lot at the very end of that road, but as I drove along, it narrowed to one lane of dirt craters and ruts and signs warning that the road was a driveway and that trespassers would be prosecuted. This unnerved me, as isolated as I was. So did the enormous open compound fenced in with barbed wire that bordered the road that featured an acre of dead trees standing in mud and a homemade pond surrounded by mounds of mud. Canada geese stood around the pond as motionless as decoys. Near outbuildings, I saw an enormous deer stand mounted on a platform with truck tires. If that was their idea of deer hunting, I wondered how those folks would hunt down trespassers. I was very happy when Wildlife Road turned to the south and ended at a Navarino parking lot.
The first glimmer of hope I had that this trail was a trail I've been hoping to find for a couple years was that it is marked with the new snowmobile signs, like the ones I found the first time I'd tried to cross the Sedge Meadow. Yes, the price tags were still on them. Maybe, I was thinking, this is the trail that can connect the farthest northeast corner of Navarino to the farthest southwest corner of Navarino, so that I one day I could circumnavigate the entire 15,000 acres. The Navarino authorities usually don’t go to all the trouble to mark a trail with snowmobile signs if it's going to be a dead end. It's fine if hikers are led an hour into the woods for a dead-end trail, but snowmobilers: they’re important people; no way they’d ever be led to a dead end, no siree bob.
The second reason I had to hope that I had finally found the northern end of the Sedge Meadow Trail was that it was gradually taken over by sedge meadow flora: I entered another spectacular stand of grasses, cattails, goldenrod, Joe Pye Weed, Canadian thistle, white and yellow clover, turtle head flowers, and white flat-topped asters and boneset, all often standing six feet tall. A narrow canyon of flattened blades of grass and flowers seemed to me to be deer trails, since at times spaces for reclining creatures would offer me respite from stomping along my way. My feet are not that wide, but they are a couple times wider than the hooves of deer, which makes the passage of deer so graceful, so unobtrusive.
Finally, the last stand of woods looked familiar. Many of the trees stood leafless, presumably because they couldn’t live in the soggy sedge meadow. The gray wood of the dead trees was strafed by squadrons of woodpeckers. Beyond the dead and dying trees, I could see the trail was lined with a wall of willows that ended in a meadow, the extent of which I could not determine. I was out of time. It had been an exhausting day of stumbling, staggering, and trail-blazing under a hazy sky lit white by the hot sun.
Those Norwegians who had risked their lives to come to this country: once they got on a "sailboat," there was no turning back. A sketch of their courage was shared by "Mrs. Almon Mathisen," a Shawano County Historian, on the occasion of "the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Jerusalem Lutheran Church at Lunds."
Some of these people had left their homeland in 1866 in Sailboats which took fourteen weeks or more to cross the ocean. They told about food being packed for these long voyages, among which were butter, cheeses, “flatbrod,” and dried meats. Sometimes because of illness (seasickness) the food remained untouched in the chest. On stormy days the waves frightened them terribly, and they had to hang on so as not to be overthrown by the motion of the boat. A young mother (the wife of one of our charter members) was terribly ill during the entire voyage ... and died three days after the boat landed. Another of our charter members brought along a little baby girl who had been born on the ocean three days before they reached land.
These stories echo in the stories of the thousand-mile treks many young families have made in recent years to attempt to cross our southern border to find a better life in here. Though our current regime has cruelly prohibited such crossings, welcome for immigrants runs deep. We are all immigrants, after all, having trespassed on land that supported the civilizations of indigenous people for 10,000 years. Welcome for immigrants runs as deep as the Bible itself in its concern that “aliens” be treated as though they were citizens (Leviticus 19:34).
Besides having run out of time, I was too tired to try to cross the Sedge Meadow that afternoon. Had I continued, night would fallen. I’m pretty sure the Navarino authorities would have been alarmed if I had stayed overnight out there like an immigrant on a boat from Norway or Cuba or Syria or Libya or like an immigrant from Central America in a desert in Mexico. Still, tiny creatures like the Monarch butterfly, who must obey God and not human authorities, fly to Mexico every year on their firm but fragile wings. Oh, to be one day as stout as a butterfly.