Saturday, June 15, 2013

Baraboo, the Leopold Shack, and Rare Cranes

We've had two spectacular days in a row, weather-wise -- blue sky with puffy white clouds and temperatures in the mid-70s -- as we travelled from Geneva, Illinois to Baraboo, Wisconsin. Our travels took us on Interstate 90 and on smaller highways and back roads, the latter being the most preferred. This is the land of cornfields, farm ponds, small woodlots, prairie remnants, gently tolling topography, low wooded hills, and wide open spaces in between sprawling cities and less prosperous small communities.

My parents and I spent yesterday in Baraboo, Wisconsin at two special places north of the town proper: the Leopold Center and Shack and the International Crane Foundation.

In 1935, Aldo Leopold bought a worn out farm on the Wisconsin River and brought his family there on weekends from Madison. They set about fixing up the "shack" and restoring the land from past abuses and the ravages of the 1930s drought. Leopold was a forester, conservationist, writer, and keen observer of the natural world. He wrote, Game Management, the first textbook in the new field of wildlife management. A year after his untimely death in 1948 while fighting a wild fire on his neighbor's land, his book A Sand County Almanac was published. Leopold wrote profoundly about the relationship of people to the land and the importance of a land ethic.

The Aldo Leopold Foundation carries on Leopold's legacy, furthering his ideas of a conservation ethic, land health, and managing lands holistically. The Leopold Center includes "the shack" and trails as well as an education center. It is a rustic, low-key site with many trails and opportunities for personal observation and reflection, just as Leopold would have done seventy years ago.

The entrance to the Leopold Center, educational building and headquarters
My parents enjoy the trails at the Leopold Center
that wander through prairie and oak savanna
The prairie along the path to the Leopold Shack;
native prairie wildflowers in photo: spiderwort (purple),
white false indigo, and butterfly weed (orange)
The Leopold Shack
One of the trails from the shack leads down to the wide and beautiful Wisconsin River
After our morning visit to the Leopold Center we drove in search of a picnic area, in particular a place near Baraboo called Man Mound County Park. The last time that I took a long road trip with my parents was in 1984 and on that trip and every one before that stretching back to my toddler days, we always stopped for picnic lunches. So, I packed a table cloth for this trip, anticipating these lovely midday lunches. We searched to no avail for Man Mound, but found a wide shady spot in the road not far from the Leopold Center and enjoyed a picnic lunch.

From there, it was a short drive west to the International Crane Foundation on Shady Lane in Baraboo. This facility, tucked into rolling prairie and woodland, is dedicated to the conservation of all 15 crane species in the world. The ICF is a leader in the captive rearing of the endangered whopping crane, one of two native species found in the United States, and the most endangered crane in the world. Thanks to the work of this group, the species is expanding and a wild pair is now nesting in Wisconsin.
A visit to this site is a must. It is the only place in the world where you can see all 15 crane species and wow are they beautiful. We walked the paved pathway past outdoor exhibits of African cranes, around the "Johnson Pod" that houses another half dozen pairs of crane species, and the whopping crane exhibit that includes an active nesting pair that you can watch up close.
The Spirit of Africa exhibit is home to four species of cranes. Their outdoor pens are a mix of wetlands and grasslands -- the natural habitat of cranes. Here are the four species of African cranes.

The Grey Crowned Crane
The Black Crowned Crane
The Wattled Crane
The Blue Crane; the pair stands in front of a huge, gorgeous mural
The Sandhill Crane, the other crane native to the United States
A collection of cranes left to right: Siberian, Sarus, Black-necked
One of my favorite was the White-Naped Crane, native to the far east. 
Such a lovely feather coloring on the neck
The Whooping Crane exhibit, where a captive pair attends to a nest.
While we were there the male was incubating the eggs, 
while the female was off fishing and preening.
By the 1940s the whooping crane population was down to just 15 birds and today there are nearly 600 birds thanks to the conservation efforts of the International Crane Foundation and its partners. 
There are two distinct migratory breeding populations of whooping cranes. One group nests in northwestern Canada and migrates to the coast of Texas. The other population nests in central Wisconsin and flies to the southeastern U.S. for the winter. These birds had to be taught initially to migrate by following an ultralight powered by a human dressed in a crane costume. The young birds assumed they were following their parent. Once on their wintering grounds they were then able to find their own way north in the spring. A small, non-migratory population was also established in central Florida and coastal Louisiana. 

The cranes species of the world number only 15. All are graceful, beautiful birds in need of our stewardship and care across the five continents on which they breed and migrate. The International Crane Foundation continues to lead the effort. 

On the drive back to the hotel we made one last attempt to find Man Mound County Park. Our perseverance paid off and we found this tiny pocket park, the site of an effigy mound in the shape of a huge man. It is thought to represent a powerful Indian spirit, perhaps dating back 900 years ago.


  1. Isn't Wisconsin beautiful Ellen? I have relatives near the Illinois border and always enjoy visiting. One of our favorite spots is Horicon Marsh. But we've always wondered about the Crane Foundation. Now I think we might have to try a bit harder to visit. I'd sure like the opportunity to sketch some of the cranes.

    As both I and Jerene grew up in Illinois it will be interesting to read what you have so say about your time there.

  2. Hi Ken,

    Oh my, you would love the Crane Foundation facility. We spent only a few hours there but you should reserve a full day. The cranes are so beautiful and graceful. The ICF is doing great work. The Leopold Center is worth a visit and apparently the Ringling Bros Circus World Museum is a highlight, although we missed that. The Village Cafe restaurant in downtown Baraboo is nice. I would avoid The Clarion Hotel.