STANLEY — The mowed path led through a small meadow, with goldenrods and the usual late summer flowers blooming, then into the woods where it became a narrow, slightly hilly earthen path.
Piles of small rocks — cairns — marked the route, although they really weren’t needed. The earthen path was distinct. We were walking along a ridge, and the sides became steeper as we proceeded toward Otter Lake.
Should you accidently tumble on the route, particularly if you fell on the north side, you would continue rolling downhill for 60 or 70 feet, although your descent might be interrupted by a collision with a pine tree or two.
The preserve was dedicated on Saturday, Aug. 25, the new 13.2-acre Otter Lake Esker Preserve, 14187 360th St. in the Chippewa County town of Colburn. About 50 or 60 people, including hikers of all ages, turned out to hike the trail and attend a brief dedication ceremony.
The trail we followed led along the top of the esker, a winding ridge of gravel deposited by a river that flowed under the Wisconsin glacier, some 15,000 or 20,000 years ago.
The gravel in eskers is prized for construction and is easy to excavate, which explains why good examples of eskers are scarce today, said Tony Schuster, who serves on boards for both the local chapter of the Ice Age Trail Alliance and the Chippewa County Land Conservancy.
The esker trail ends with an overlook of Otter Lake.
The esker actually continues along and through the lake, and islands in Otter Lake are actually high points in the esker, explained Richard Smith, who is active in the Ice Age Trail Alliance and the conservancy.
Otter Lake, a popular fishing lake, lies within an eight-mile-long tunnel channel formed by the river flowing under the glacier. The Mondeaux Flowage in Taylor County and Straight Lake in Polk County are also examples of lakes that today are found in parts of tunnel channels, Smith said.
The Otter Lake Esker Preserve property was owned by Dan and Laura Kruth of Minnesota. Half the cost of the land — $75,000 — came from the state’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund.
Another major funding source was Chippewa County’s Stewardship program, which contributed $50,000, while the remainder came from sources coordinated by the Ice Age Trail Alliance, most notably $22,000 from the David Underwood Memorial, Smith said.
The Kruth family wanted to see the land preserved, Smith said. “They thought it was too special of a place to lose.”
The Chippewa County Land Conservancy, whose members mostly live in the county, is in a better position to look after the preserve than the Ice Age Trail Alliance, which is based in Cross Plains, he said.
The trail segment may at some future date be connected to the Ice Age Trail, but for now no completed sections of the trail are close by, he said.
While one fork in the trail led to the overlook of Otter Lake, the other path led to a grassy opening where a cabin once stood. A small path led down to the lake. The path will eventually have a sign that can be seen from the lake, so that people can visit by boat, said Alison Sazama, president of the land conservancy.
Some members of the Chippewa County Land Conservancy acknowledge that the property’s name may lead people to think they are a county agency, but they are a private entity, Sazama explained .
The Chippewa County part of the name refers to the area where the group is trying to preserve land, she said.
The group’s stated mission is “to protect and preserve natural and scenic Chippewa County lands.” Its vision statement also includes such goals as protecting biodiversity, retaining green space as growth continues to occur, preserving scenic beauty and maintaining quality of life via a connection with nature.
The organization has about 50 members and not a lot of resources. Despite that, its members have have done some good things in the 18 years they have been active, she said.
Those efforts have included such actions as having six conservation easements, six properties the group owns and one property — Kemper Woods — group members transferred to Chippewa County.
Altogether the organization has protected 1,383 acres, according to its website.
Dan Masterpole, director of the Chippewa County Department of Land Conservation and Forest Management, said the county can’t afford to purchase and maintain those types of properties on its own, given current funding resources.
Instead, he said, county officials rely on volunteer groups like the Ice Age Trail Alliance and the Chippewa County Land Conservancy.
Knight is a former Leader-Telegram reporter who lives in rural Eau Claire.