Madison, Wisconsin

Kim Straka loves promoting Madison, Wisconsin — why else would she be scurrying around
this fair city where she’s climbing stairs, marching up hills to the Capitol building and
answering tons of questions when she’s nearing the 270th day of her pregnancy? But Janie
and I suspect Kim is here because she wants to be — and that has to explain why Kim now
seems to be enjoying her involvement with a contingency of cantankerous, outdoor travel
writers from all over America. But effective communication is just one of her positive
qualities — another is that Kim is clairvoyant, for she responds to our thoughts as though
spoken aloud, saying that it’s good to stay active, and that she’s proud of her town. “Down
along State Street,” says Kim, “just below the Capitol building, we have businesses
supporting a mix of law firms and aging hippies, and they all get along. Then we have the
greater Madison area — and that recalls our exciting outdoor heritage, for folks like
you.” Straka continues, asking if we knew that Madison is one of the nation’s most
pollution-free centers? To which we shake our heads. “Well did you know,” she laughs, “that
Madison has more bikes than cars?” No, I had to admit, I didn’t. And then, because she
can’t contain her enthusiasm, she adds, “My PR person bikes to work every day, and that’s
about a 10-mile trip … each way. If you’re an active person, you want to be in Madison.”
Because we travel about four months each year and are avid RVers, we arrived not by plane,
but towing our travel trailer, to attend the annual convention of the Outdoor Writer’s
Association of America. And we were glad we did, for the city provides campgrounds not only
for those who want to focus on city life, but for those who want to focus on the outdoors.
More significantly, it enabled us to move about, to remain free and mobile and to better
see for ourselves whether Madison can live up to the pre-conference hype. Come on now; a
city of 250,000 that provides an “outdoor Mecca?” For starters, let’s be totally honest. If
we were simply passing through in rush-hour traffic, Highway 90 would be just another route
around another city, and we’d probably put our tow vehicle on autopilot and breeze on
through. But once you’ve reached a campground, things begin to happen. Look around a bit,
study some local maps, and then you’ll see that despite its urban setting, Madison is
surrounded by lakes. And some of these lakes contain a variety of fish species including
musky, northern pike, walleye, largemouth- and smallmouth-bass, pan fish and sturgeon.
Madison, in fact, was built on the isthmus between two of these lakes, Lake Mendota and
Lake Monona. If you’re a cyclist, you’re way ahead of the game. From Lake Farm Park
Campground (and it was typical of others in the area), trails can take you more than 100
miles into rural settings, where corn grows tall, and where mothers and fathers tow
children in carriages rigged behind their bikes. Never have we seen so many cyclists. From
our campground, trails take you between the isthmus and on an easy 7-mile trip through
farmlands, along an old railroad track, under bridges, along lakes and, finally, to the
Capitol. How do I know? Because each day after attending various seminars, I rode a new
trail. One night in town, I saw some Madisonians riding old red bikes, and recalled Kim
saying that the town had placed bikes around town and that anyone can use them — for free.
“Latch onto one and ride it” she said. “Then leave it at your final destination for the
next person without a bike.” Of course, cycling is just one activity, and Madisonians are
proud of the people and organizations that give their town such a fine reputation. Two of
these must certainly include the International Crane Foundation Center and the Aldo Leopold
Center, both on the suggested itinerary of must-see places for us travel writers wanting to
know more about our outdoor heritage. Leopold came to Madison in 1924 after rising in the
newly established U.S. Forest Service to the post of Supervisor for the Carson National
Forest in New Mexico. In Madison, he continued his investigations into ecology and the
philosophy of conservation — and that is where he built the “shack” from which he wrote
his famous Sand County Almanac. The shack still exists, and is a testimony to the virtues
of a simple life and all that can be accomplished in a modest dwelling. Drawing on his
observations from the farm, he wrote that if a man chops wood, he is “twice warmed.” He
wrote about “Goose Music,” describing with simplicity and clarity just how bereft our world
would be without the call of wild geese. Sadly, on April 21, 1948 — just one week after
receiving word that his manuscript would be published — Leopold suffered a heart attack
and died. But his legacy lives on, for his book is still on the stands. With more than 2
million copies sold, it is one of the most respected books about our American outdoor
heritage. Not far away, in Baraboo, is yet another major center that represents the outdoor
world, the International Crane Foundation Center. We visited the crane center after the
conclusion of our conference. Departing from our trailer early one morning, we met PR
Director Ann Burke, who quickly pointed out that the center is the only place you can see
all 15 different species of cranes found throughout the world. Here, you’ll see Asian
cranes, Russian cranes and African cranes, such as the Black-Crowned Crane. You’ll
recognize this crane by the pompadour that graces the crest of its head. On the day of our
visit, it was also the noisiest of the cranes, chortling to all who passed its pen. North
America’s two cranes were also represented, and the compound housed the Sandhill Crane and
the endangered Whooping Crane. Because of the precarious status in North America of the
Whooping Crane, the Foundation is currently helping to reestablish it to areas in which it
once existed. The techniques are novel and are part of the tour, and to better help us
understand crane biology, Ann had Janie shroud herself in sheets designed to make her look
like a whooper. “Now you’re an adult crane,” said Ms. Burke. “And I bet you could fool one
of our young impressionable chicks. You’ve got to be the first thing it sees or hears, and
then you’ve got to make it believe you are its parent. “It’s called ‘imprinting,’ and the
impression stays with the chick throughout its life, and is one it will always respond to.
That’s what we did in 2001. Whoopers raised here actually did follow an ultra-light plane
all the way to Florida. It was featured on news stations throughout the country. Now,
whoopers are breeding and raising chicks all on their own…” Though we outdoor writers
selected Madison because of its outdoor legacy and attractions — to include not only
biking and hiking — we also selected it for its fishing. And, now, here’s where it helps
to be affiliated with a news organization. Because all OWAA members have the power of the
pen, for several days we fishermen and fisherwomen were all treated like royalty, and when
offered an opportunity to try out the walleye fishing, we couldn’t resist. But I must admit
I didn’t catch a darn thing. Others did, but my ego was reinflated when John told me that
for walleyes, this was the worst possible time. “Another day or two and I doubt anyone will
catch anything.” So once again, we joined Kim. In a mind-over-matter approach, she was
still trying to combat Mother Nature — trying to retain the athletic prowess she’d enjoyed
in college as a volleyball player — and she was doing so in part by extolling Madison from
the perspective of an athlete. “Did you know that Madison hosts an annual Iron Man
competition, which starts on Monona Terrace?” Once again, I didn’t. With a triumphant note
of awe she said competitors here swim about 2.4 miles in Lake Monona, exit the lake and
then run upstairs, where they grab their bikes. Then, they ride 100 miles throughout the
county hills. “It all ends,” she said “with an 18-mile run — all of which they must
complete in 17 hours.” Then with raised eyebrows, she added, “Many complete it in 8-9
hours.” Meanwhile, we were on a marathon of our own. We drove past beautiful buildings
designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. We walked part of the isthmus between the lakes Mendota and
Monona and then went over to Lake Winona, where we watched mallards. Then we climbed the
stairs to what must be one of the most beautiful Capitol buildings in North America.
Finally, we walked down State Street to a small cafe, where we watched people of all ages
riding bikes in a town where cyclists are respected and given the right-of-way. “The
downtown is getting back to the Mom-and-Pop type of storefronts,” said Kim. “Guess it’s
just like anyplace else. Some things go and some things come, but here in Madison, things
just seem to be getting better and better…” And then, because she seems unable to contain
herself, she adds two more of her patented did-you-knows. “Did you know that Madison had
the nation’s first recycling program, and that a major cycling magazine just named us the
number one mid-size town for bicycling?” “No, no I didn’t.” “Well, come back; your
education is not complete. You’ve got tons more to learn about Madison, Wisconsin.” Greater
Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau, (800) 373-6376, www.visitmadison.com

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