Wednesday, August 21, 2013

See pre-pioneer prairie on NW Wisc. trail

Erickson Flowage off of Abel Road, near the Abel Prairie Trail
Day hikers can discover what northwest Wisconsin’s grasslands looked like in pre-pioneer days with a walk along the Abel Prairie Trail in Crex Meadows Wildlife Area.

The easy half-mile (1 mile round trip) out-and-back trail follows the western and southern shores of Zulliger Flowage as skirting a restored prairie area.

To reach the trail, from Grantsburg, take the road north at the Hwys. 70. 87 and 48 intersection. Watch for and follow the yellow goose painted on the roadway, which winds you through town until reaching the intersection of County Roads D and F. Remain on County Road F, then turn right/east onto Abel Road. Park in the lot just north of the Abel Road intersection with Phantom Lake Road. The trailhead is off of Abel Road just southeast of the Abel/Phantom Lake roads intersection.

The prairie area looks much like it did in the 1800s before pioneers settled the region. Grass and wildflowers cover it, making excellent habitats for prairie grouse and water fowl.

Such an ecosystem, however, requires wildfires to maintain its cycles. When pioneers set up farms in the area, they put out the wildfires, opening the way for jack pines and oaks to dominate. Their cover prevented many of the prairie plants from being able to grow.

To restore the original prairie west and south of the trail, Crex Meadows used control fires to kill trees and brush then replanted grasses and flowers that once lived here when it was a prairie. The openness ensured prairie plants received full sunlight, allowing them to flourish.

About 3500 acres – or half of Crex Meadows’ restored prairie – is now burned annually. The burnings typically occur in spring but may occur during any other seasons as needed.

The area west and south of the Abel Prairie Trail for several decades was a farm field until the late 1980s when it was planted with prairie flora.

Signs of the prairie burns can be found along the trail. Watch for burned twigs on the trail and fire scars on logs and trees you pass.

Read more about day hiking Crex Meadows in my Hittin’ the Trail: Day Hiking Crex Meadows Wildlife Area guidebook.