By Sue Leamy-Kies
PLATTEVILLE—A few months ago, while completing my daily constitutional on the David Canny Rountree Branch Trail, I heard splashing. It is normal to hear dogs taking a plunge or kids tossing stones here in warmer weather, but this was December. I peered over the side of the South Chestnut Street Bridge to investigate. There, directly below me, two river otters frolicked in a game of tag, or some such play in which river otters engage, taking advantage of the balmy 45-degrees and sunshine.
Each section of this winding trail along the southern edge of Platteville offers its own highlights on any given day in any given season. And, considering the abundant flora, fauna and fun, you just never know what you’re going to experience.
Katie’s Garden, located on the grounds of the Platteville Regional Chamber and Travel Wisconsin Welcome Center, is a three-season congregation of flowers. In spring, crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths, daisies, lilies, irises and flowering crabapples disperse their colors and scents, and in summer the palette expands to annuals such as zinnias, marigolds, petunias, alyssum, nasturtiums and impatiens. Wisteria vines, roses, mums and asters hit their stride in late summer into early fall, followed by the foliage from the sumacs and maples. A crew of volunteer master gardeners sculpt the beds, pairing colors and textures adding new species every year in honor of the garden’s namesake Katie Vaassen, a dedicated worker at the Chamber until her untimely passing.
Skeletons and witches line the path for the annual 5K/10K Monster Dash in October, and in December Santa pays a visit amid the fantastical holiday display of lights and decorations. In pleasant weather, a gazebo, picnic tables and benches at Katie’s Garden allow a place to relax, have a snack or lunch, and take in the bird songs and sound of water tumbling over the stones. Both children and adults enjoy checking out the magical fairy garden and the Little Free Library, as well as Katie’s Kindness Canal, an array of painted rocks where visitors can leave their own inspirational artwork. Kids can also examine plant roots through a windowpane to observe what happens underground after seeds sprout and shoot up toward the light, and the “Five Senses Garden” encourages touching, smelling, seeing, tasting and listening to some specially grown vegetative species.
If you are hungry and neglected to pack a lunch, no problem. Pizzeria Uno (after 4 p.m.), Fiesta Cancun, Country Kitchen and Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, Culver’s and Dunkin’ Donuts border this quarter-mile section of the trail, and other accommodating Platteville eateries and grocery stores are a short walk or drive away.
I sometimes ride my bicycle along the 3-mile paved and lighted path, stretching from the South Chestnut Street Bridge to the gazebo behind Walmart where a wooden bridge links it to Mound View State Trail, a scenic route to the town of Belmont 7 miles away. These treks allow me to observe the fun ways others use the amenities along the trail. Last summer, two young women reclined on inflatable rafts in the stream, dangling feet in the current, donning sunglasses and reading books. Another day, a dad supervised a group of youngsters and joined them by cooling off in a waist-deep swimming hole. Dog walkers, joggers, baby stroller pushers and meanderers all take advantage of the great outdoors on the trail without having to worry about cars.
Along the trail on the west side of Mineral Street, Nutrition World’s Outdoor Fitness Center provides stations for strength-training opportunities, and adjacent to this the Platteville City Dog Park gives our four-legged partners a place to exercise and socialize, too. Once a railroad bed, the tree-lined straight stretch from Mineral Street to the gazebo behind Walmart borders pastures where horses or cows graze and corn and other crops thrive in the rich, loamy soil along the stream. As on the rest of the trail, benches are available and spaced accordingly for rest stops or peaceful meditation.
Look skyward, and you may spot a hawk or eagle soaring or sitting in a tree on the lookout for their dinner of small prey, like the bunnies and squirrels you will see scampering across the path for cover. On one of my rides, a doe emerged from the brush and ran alongside my bike for a few strides before deciding to return from whence she came. Though I’m a fair-weather cycler, some use the trail in all seasons, even winter. Those hardy riders with the wide, studded-tire bikes bundle up and traverse the snowy terrain, as do snowshoers and cross-country skiers, all seeking fresh air and exercise on the trail.
As a gardener and trail maintenance volunteer, I make it a point to notice the progress of the Prairie Dropseed grasses heading out at the fish garden among the sculpted trout, the colors emerging in the butterfly garden and other plants in bloom, like coneflowers, perennial sunflowers, Queen Anne’s Lace, chicory and Brown-Eyed Susans. Last summer I conversed with a couple from Iowa who were admiring the creativity of the fish garden. They said this was their first visit to the trail, but they would definitely be coming back: “It is so well kept—and so beautiful. You are lucky to have this right in your backyard,” the woman said.
Overseen by the Platteville Community Arboretum Board, crews of volunteers and financial donors work cooperatively to improve and groom the trail. Informational kiosks aid in making the trail experience helpful and educational for everyone. Here you can pick up a handy trail map or learn about the history of the trail and the area, such as the tornado that devastated trees and vegetation in 2014, as well as the mining history of the area, the railroads, the Platteville Brewery and the Mill Pond. Bike racks combine utility and artful ingenuity along the way, and two new organic art pieces bring cultural interest to the trail: “Funnel Vision” and “CRISPR,“ designed and created by commissioned Lancaster-area artist Bill Mitchell, are now installed, and two more are in the making.
The Rountree Branch Trail connects with a more rustic path heading west along the stream at the South Chestnut Street Bridge onto the UW-Platteville grounds below Pioneer Stadium. Mostly unpaved, this route follows the Rountree Branch stream across Southwest Road to a lovely meadow loop amid prairie grasses where woodchucks and foxes sometimes reveal themselves. It was here that I crossed paths with a mountain lion a few years ago on a morning bike ride. After brief eye contact, he took off up the hill and into the brush. Local wildlife experts said he was just passing through, and after a few weeks in the area he left for greener meadows.
No matter the season, Rountree Branch is the artery of the trail, circulating along the trail in this rich pocket of the Driftless Region of Wisconsin. Unless engorged as the result of a downpour or hefty spring snowmelt, the stream’s current flows slowly but steadily from east to west, but, in places, sections of shallow whitewater form and foam. Compared to the powerful Big Thompson in Colorado or the speeding Blackfoot in Montana, Rountree Branch is but a mere trickle. However, at times the rushing sound of water over rocks moves me to stop and listen.
Recently, while experiencing one of these moments, I was reminded of the quote by Norman Maclean in his novel “A River Runs Through It,” also a popular movie narrated and directed by Robert Redford in 1992: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs,” i.e., our loved ones who have passed.
Whether seeking a space for contemplation, exercise, observation, socialization or some other outdoor escape, the David Canny Rountree Branch Trail is an open door to nature and all it has to offer. Come explore. Come see what you can find. No matter the season, it is ready and waiting to feed your mind, body and soul.
Sue Leamy-Kies is a Platteville Community Arboretum volunteer committee member and trail maintenance worker. For more information about the PCA including volunteer opportunities, see www.plattevillearboretum.org.