Snowshoeing in Donald Park, Dane County, Wisconsin

I have a friend that I hike with. We pick a different county or state park to visit each time we get together and spend two or three hours exploring the trails. In the warmer months, we take our trekking poles and explore the different trails. In the cold snowy months, we do our hiking on snowshoes and cut the brush, sometimes we even use the trails!

Yesterday was pretty warm—in the 30s F. We knew it was going to warm into a January thaw in the next 48 hours, so we took advantage of the last bit of warm weather with a little sun and decent snow to visit Donald Park.

We parked in the small public fishing grounds lot and slipped into our snowshoes. Then we skirted the creek and crossed it at a shallow, snow covered spot and followed the rock formations around into a wide prairie area bordered by rolling, forest-covered hills. We could hear the call of a Great Horned owl way back on the ridge where the park borders private land. It was unusual to hear one in the afternoon. They are big owls with big voices, and you could hear this one echoing through the entire valley.
Our goal was a special “boiling” spring on the opposite end of the 600+ acre park. The trails were well used this year because the park is gradually becoming more well-known. We saw tracks of skis, snowshoes, walkers, and dogs, as well as the footprints of mice and rabbits and hawk and owl pellets of fur and bones.

We walked on a trail bordering the trout stream that runs through one quadrant of the park. The active corps of volunteers has been working for years clearing brush along it, and now we could see it clearly as we walked: the small river of open water rushing on one side of us and the rising upland of restored oak savannah above us.

Finally, we entered the woods again. Still with the trout stream on our left, we passed the now-shrouded and snow drifted excavation of an early settler’s cabin. The park is made up of donated farm land, so there are a number of cabin foundations in it. (This site has been under excavation for several seasons and continues to be a golden opportunity for any volunteer wanting to participate in a dig.) The trail we were traveling had once been a stage coach road that literally passed at the doorstep of this cabin.

The final trail to the springs snaked through the woods and on, but we stopped at the small observation deck overlooking the springs and climbed up to get a better view of the open pool of water below. It is not a hot spring. It gets its name because of the way the spring water rises from the floor of the pool, bubbling up and disturbing the surface in perfect rings like boiling water in a shallow pan.

There is something mesmerizing about liquid water after every bit of outdoor moisture has been frozen solid for a couple of months. I can stand and watch that bubbling water (it seems like) forever. I can understand why this was considered a sacred place by the tribes that moved through this area in earlier times. The water is so clear that you can see the sand “smoking” as the fresh water pushes up through it. The 10-inch fish swimming around in it and the logs and branches on the bottom look close enough to touch, but I know the water is at least 3 or 4 feet deep. You can even see the springs rising in the river channel where the pool and stream meet. The water stays open here most of the winter, so I’m looking forward to hiking back in later in the month to share a few liquid moments with my family. Begonia

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