Weaving a geologic history of Wisconsin’s most dramatic places
BY MIKE IVEY
Talk about a labor of love.
Madison-based science writer and former DNR journalist Scott Spoolman spent the past three years visiting 28 of Wisconsin most scenic areas for his new book “Wisconsin State Parks: Extraordinary Stories of Geology and Natural History.”
The idea was to highlight the different parks, forests and natural areas that showcase many of the state’s incredible natural features. Spoolman’s own color photographs add a nice touch.
But the 250-page book from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press isn’t a tour of all the state parks as much as a geology lesson disguised as a guidebook. Instead of writing about each State Park, Spoolman decided to focus on places that feature a unique piece of natural history.
“I tried to spin it as a narrative and not get too bogged down in the science,” says Spoolman, who worked as a freelance writer and editor for a variety of outlets and coauthored several editions of a series of environmental science textbooks.
Spoolman does ask readers to wade through the first chapter, which gives a concise history of Wisconsin’s geologic past. He recounts how volcanoes poured layers of lava rock over a vast area in the northwest, glacial masses that flattened and molded the landscape of northern and eastern Wisconsin and mountain ranges that rose up and eroded away over hundreds of millions of years.
But patience pays off in a better understanding of why the Driftless area west of Madison looks like does and how ancient seas carved out the bluffs in glacial Lake Wisconsin.
For example, the aptly named “Balanced Rock” perched on a quartzite cliff in Devil’s Lake State Park wasn’t moved there by some huckster to create a tourist attraction.
Rather, it likely broke off and fell into place during the periods of freeze and thaw cycle of the last glacial advance in Wisconsin 15,000 years ago.
Spoolman made at least two trips to each of the 28 sites and estimates spending at least 150 days in the field.
“It’s hard to call it work; I was living the dream,” says Spoolman, 63, who grew up near Hayward and credits his parents for introducing him to the wilds of Wisconsin via blueberry picking.
The stories Spoolman tells connect geologic processes to the current landscape, as well as to the evolution of flora and fauna and development of human settlement and activities, for a deeper understanding of the state’s natural history. The book also includes a selection of detailed trail guides for each park, that hikers can take along to view the evidence of Wisconsin’s geologic history for themselves.
Spoolman contends he doesn’t have one favorite state park but finds something of wonder in all of those he features in his book.
“Asking me to pick one is like asking a parent to pick their favorite child,” he says. “I love them all.”
Editor’s notes: Mike Ivey is a freelance writer based in Madison. He also owns a home in Ironwood, Michigan, where the snows off Lake Superior help feed his Nordic habit.