Spring in western Wisconsin
Near Menomonie, a log house is headquarters for hiking, mushroom-hunting and bicycling.
© Beth Gauper
The Log House in the Forest is surrounded by forest, farm fields and the Eau Galle River.
Every year, the wily morel eludes me.
Living in the city doesn’t help. So one May, I rented a house on 160 acres in western Wisconsin and brought four pairs of eyes to help me look.
We’d just arrived at the Log House in the Forest near Spring Valley and were sitting on the patio when a man emerged from the forest and presented us with two fat morels. It was owner Tom Genz, so we quizzed him on technique.
“I kind of scour as I go along,’’ he said. “I learned to differ between a pine cone and a morel after a while.’’
His wife, Judy, dropping by with crackers and cheese, saw his offering.
“Did you bring those to tease them?’’ she asked.
As we walked down a ravine toward the Eau Galle River, I told my friends how to pick out the coveted mushrooms from their camouflage of dead leaves.
“So it’s like the Boundary Waters, where you can spot the portages from a little difference in the trees when you get a feel for it?’’ Becky asked.
Right – but getting a feel for it is the catch. We spotted lots of look-alike pine cones, and striped caterpillars, and a trillium so big it looked like a hibiscus, but no morels. Then we came to a little river with pocked limestone walls – the Eau Galle, named for its bed of pebbles, or galets in French.
It was lovely and secluded corner of the world, wrapped in foliage as bright green as Easter-basket grass. Pretty soon, we gave up on morels and started enjoying other finds – clumps of wild geranium, Jack in the pulpit, a glimpse of iridescent blue bird.
The next day, we were bathed in warm sun as we walked beside a corn field, listening to woodpeckers knock and songbirds twitter. Shelly found a shed antler on a bed of pine needles. On a wooded hillside, we spotted the yellow fronds of bellwort and the magenta bloom of wild ginger.
Back at the house, which the Genzes rented out when they built another house up the drive, we read the guest book. One guest wrote that the Mall of America was only an hour away, which made Melissa laugh.
“Why would you go there when you could be here?’’ she asked.
© Beth Gauper
In Menomonie, the Mabel Tainter is one of the most ornate theaters in the region.
We did go to Menomonie, half an hour to the east on country roads. In the 1880s, Menomonie was the company town of the
world's largest lumber operation, Knapp Stout & Co.
Today, it's best known for what lumber fortunes endowed: The University of Wisconsin-Stout and the 1890 Mabel Tainter theater, an imposing pile of sandstone blocks with a golden interior fit for a Moorish princess
We browsed through a fine-arts show in the Tainter, then went into the nearby shops. It was Mother’s Day weekend, so Legacy Chocolates was giving away free sundaes made with Potion No. 9, the Elixir for Chocolate Lovers. Glasse cases were full of dainty truffles — Bordeaux, raspberry, hazelnut, pistachio, limoncello, tiramisu, pomegranate.
“It’s too many choices,’’ wailed Shelly, who nonetheless bought a box for her mother.
At Carpe Diem, we found cunning floral purses with lucite handles, $17, and decoupaged glass-block lamps, $25. “Prices are really good in here,’’ said Ellen, a discerning shopper.
At Moonlight Over Menomin, we found all kinds of girly gifts, plus plates of pink-frosted sugar cookies and bottles of water for customers. Of course, we indulged.
“Now we have to go biking,’’ Ellen said.
The Red Cedar State Trail, one of Wisconsin’s loveliest bicycle trails, winds 14½ miles south along the Red Cedar
River, once used to float giant rafts of lumber to the Chippewa River.
We bought trail passes and pedaled leisurely to Downsville, where we shopped at Dunn County Pottery, bought bread at the Creamery bakery and made reservations at the restaurant for its famed Sunday brunch.
Back at the Log House, we built a fire and laid out a spread of wine, olives, bread and 8-year-old Cheddar from nearby Cady Cheese. The house was built in 1976-77 with white cedar logs from Michigan, Colorado mossback stone from Wyoming and butternut from the property.
“It has a good feel,’’ Ellen said. “It’s timeless. You can’t tell when it was built, which is good, because the ’70s was a bad decade for design.’’
In the guest book, we read entries from a Chicago family with triplets, a family in St. Louis who started coming after a
hurricane hit their intended Florida destination and a family in Iowa who treats the house as its summer cottage, coming for
two weeks every year.
© Beth Gauper
The Eau Galle River is down the hill from the Log House.
It’s often used by groups of girlfriends — for scrapbooking, Scrabble tournaments and yoga workshops; we may have been the first who came for the morels.
"Some come just to visit; they barely get out of their pajamas,'' says Judy Genz.
The house and its 160 acres are a paradise for children, or anyone who loves the outdoors. We took a last hike through the woods, half-heartedly looking for morels, then drove over to the Creamery in Downsville.
On its patio, birds were singing and the first perennials were blooming. And with our pecan pancakes and egg strata, we
received a big pile of morels, sautéed with ramps and served on honey-brioche toast. Biting into them was like tasting
essence of spring.
So we didn't score them ourselves. We were just happy to get a consolation prize — and there's always next year.
Trip Tips: Spring in Menomonie
Getting there: Menomonie is an hour east of the Twin Cities, just south of I-94.
Accommodations: Two nights at Genz Log House in the Forest near Spring Valley, half an hour west of Menomonie, cost $460 for two, and additional nights are $175.
The rate for each additional person is $12 per night. It sleeps up to 10 and has a fully equipped kitchen, 2½ baths and three bedrooms, one with two twins and one with a king, sofa, deck and fireplace. There's a swing and fire pit outside. 715-772-4460.
For more about houses and cottages, see Renting a vacation house.
Dining: In downtown Menomonie, Zanzibar is across from the Mabel Tainter, 715-231-9269. It's closed Sundays.
Acoustic Cafe, at the corner of Main and Broadway, is a good place to get a sandwich or to have a cappuccino in front of a wood-burning fire. 715-235-1115.
The Menomonie Market food co-op has tasty sandwiches.
In Downsville, the New Creamery Restaurant closed in October
Red Cedar State Trail: The crushed-limestone trail runs 14½ miles south of Menomonie to the Dunnville Wildlife Area. There, it connects to the Chippewa River State Trail, which runs 6½ miles southwest to Durand and 23½ miles northeast to Eau Claire.Red Cedar State Trail.
© Beth Gauper
The Red Cedar State Trail follows the Red Cedar River between Menomonie and the Chippewa River.
To get to the Menomonie trailhead, drive through downtown on Wisconsin 25 and, on the south edge of downtown, turn west on 29. The trail starts in Riverside Park, on the west side of the river. On June 6, National Trails Day, trail fees are waived.
For more, see Red Cedar ride 'n' glide.
Bicycling: On Main Street downtown, Bad Cat Bicycles rents bicycles and organizes rides and tours. 715-231-2453. In Downsville, the New Creamery rents bicycles.
Nightlife: Check the ornate Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater, built in 1890 by Andrew Tainter, one of the founders of the Knapp, Stout Co., in memory of his daughter, who died at 19 of a burst appendix. It's open daily for self-guided tours, $1. For tickets, call 715-235-0001, Ext. 100.
Historical sites: The Russell J. Rassbach Heritage Museum in Wakanda Park tells the town's
story. It's open Wednesday-Sunday; admission is $5, $3 for youths 13-18. 715-232-8685.
Information: Menomonie tourism, 800-283-1862.Last updated on November 29, 2010
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