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Region's natural treasures are a draw — even during pandemic

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

That old saw normally fits well with my glass-half-full approach to life, but it seemed to have met its match with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic this spring.

This global crisis, with potentially deadly stakes, isn’t like dealing with a couple of sour lemons. It seems more akin to navigating a seemingly impenetrable citrus jungle.

But after initially hunkering down at home and, like many folks, trying to pass the time mostly with game nights, streamed “Tiger King” episodes and video calls, my family eventually sought refuge outside.

That began with daily walks — complete with the new-age dance move in which my wife, son, daughter and I swing wide off the sidewalk to give at least 6 feet of clearance to any other passersby — around the neighborhood. You have to walk before you run, right?

After canceling a trip to South Carolina and putting other vacation dreams on indefinite hold, we set our sights closer to home. Like many other area residents, we decided it was time to explore our own backyard — outdoor destinations within about an hour’s drive of our Eau Claire home — more thoroughly than ever before.

The exercise gave us a new appreciation for the Chippewa Valley while at the same time making it more tolerable to ride out the pandemic.

Over the last four months, the Lindquists have discovered hidden beaches we never knew existed, biked and walked new stretches of the region’s scenic trails, floated down the Chippewa River on tubes and soaked up spectacular views — all while being careful to follow social distancing guidelines and without boarding an airplane or staying overnight.

Outdoor fun

The forays into nature started slowly, with our first hikes around Beaver Creek Reserve and Lowes Creek County Park while snow was still on the ground and ice crystals still glistened on top of the namesake streams. In a more urban outing, we walked on the River Prairie trail along the Eau Claire River to the Lake Altoona dam — something I’d never seen in nearly a lifetime as a Chippewa Valley resident.

A Mother’s Day trip to Big Falls County Park, which I frequented as a college student but have visited only rarely in the many years since, served as a dazzling reminder of the natural beauty right in our neck of the woods. Watching and listening to the rushing water crashing over rocks in the expansive falls was enough to make observers forget about the world’s troubles — at least for a while.

While we weren’t alone in enjoying this not-so-secret gem, it was easy to maintain plenty of space between us and the other nature lovers soaking up the scene. On the way back to the car, we followed an unmarked path along the Eau Claire River and were delighted to discover that it led us to a huge sandy beach we didn’t know existed, although the May river temperature was far too cold for us to test the water.

A more ambitious adventure involved visiting another local attraction that we’d heard about but never seen in person: Devil’s Punchbowl Nature Preserve just outside of Menomonie in Dunn County. After relying on GPS to find it, we explored the site from the top of the waterfall to where the cascade sprinkled into a pool at least two dozen feet below.

As long as we were in the area, we took the opportunity to hike along a stretch of the nearby Red Cedar State Trail as it hugged the riverbank.

We stumbled upon another hidden beach while pedaling over a lengthy Chippewa River bridge near the intersection of the Red Cedar and Chippewa River state trails in Dunn County. While the massive sand bar in the Dunnville Bottoms area was a new discovery for us, it apparently was well known by locals, as several families splashed in the water and frolicked on the beach.

During a particularly hot stretch in early July, the four of us cooled off by taking the plunge into the water we’d been enjoying from afar. Yes, even the elder Lindquists joined the tubing revolution that has captivated the Chippewa Valley in the past decade, floating from downtown Chippewa Falls to Loopy’s Grill & Saloon. The two-hour trip was delightfully relaxing and made me wonder why tubing the Chippewa River wasn’t a thing when I grew up.

Natural treasures

Perhaps our biggest getaway came earlier this month when we escaped to a nearby scenic stretch of the Mississippi River valley.

During our day trip, my wife and I dunked our feet in the river at a beach in Alma, enjoyed a picnic lunch on the breakwater in Pepin and even squeezed in a decadent slice of pie from Stockholm Pie & General Store and a glass of wine on the outdoor patios at two wineries, always being careful to don our masks and maintain social distancing anytime we momentarily stepped inside.

But the highlights, once again, came in the great outdoors.

In Alma, we found that a short walk from the parking lot at Buena Vista Park led to an overlook offering breathtaking vistas up and down the mighty Mississippi. Buena Vista, which means good view in Spanish, more than lived up to its name.

We ended the day by going for a hike at Maiden Rock Bluff State Natural Area, where we trod on an unmaintained, unmarked trail through a meadow with tens of thousands of wildflowers. Ultimately, we arrived, literally, at the the edge of a cliff with yet another spectacular view of the river valley below and eagles soaring effortlessly in the bluff-top air currents barely over our heads.

Another jaunt that offered commanding river views included a bike ride around the new St. Croix River Crossing Loop Trail that connects Wisconsin and Minnesota. The 4.7-mile trail crosses both the historic lift bridge in downtown Stillwater, Minnesota, and the recently completed St. Croix Crossing bridge, complete with a separate pedestrian and bicycle walkway that soars 150 feet above the St. Croix River.

Adventures that also yielded impressive views right in Eau Claire included a sunset pedal across the 900-foot-long High Bridge over the Chippewa River and an evening jaunt to Mount Simon Park, where we climbed to the so-called “Top of the World” — the peak of the park’s tallest rock formation — and hiked along a trail hugging the southern shore of Dells Pond.

Other closer-to-home but still treasured outings involved taking my son trout fishing for the first time on Duncan Creek in Chippewa County, hiking in a remote area of Irvine Park in Chippewa Falls, picnicking for my birthday at Braun’s Bay in Carson Park, kayaking and boating around Lake Wissota and going on multiple bike rides through Putnam Park State Natural Area in Eau Claire and along the Chippewa River State Trail.

Many of the adventures included sightings of white-tailed deer, ospreys and majestic bald eagles. All of them called our attention to the Chippewa Valley’s natural beauty.

It’s all around us, and it shouldn’t take a pandemic to remind us not to take it for granted.

Federal agents use tear gas to clear rowdy Portland protest

PORTLAND, Ore. — Thousands of protesters gathered outside the federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon, into the early hours Saturday, shooting fireworks at the building as plumes of tear gas dispensed by U.S. agents, lingered above.

The demonstration went until federal agents entered the crowd around 2:30 a.m. and marched in a line down the street, clearing remaining protesters with tear gas at close range. They also extinguished a large fire in the street outside the courthouse.

Portland has been roiled by nightly protests for two months following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. President Donald Trump said he sent federal agents to Oregon’s largest city to halt the unrest but state and local officials say they are making the situation worse.

The clashes in Portland have further inflamed the nation’s political tensions and triggered a crisis over the limits of federal power as Trump moves to send U.S. officers to other Democratic-led cities he says are violent.

Late Friday a federal judge denied a request by Oregon’s attorney general to restrict the actions of federal police.

The Federal Protective Service had declared the gathering in Portland that began Friday evening as “an unlawful assembly” and said that officers had been injured.

As the crowd dispersed, someone was found stabbed nearby, Portland police said. The person was taken to a hospital and a suspect was taken into custody.

By 3 a.m., most demonstrators had left, with only some small groups roaming the streets.

Earlier Friday night, the protest had drawn various organized groups, including Healthcare Workers Protest, Teachers against Tyrants, Lawyers for Black Lives and the “Wall of Moms.” As the crowd grew — authorities estimate there were 3,000 present at the peak of the protest — people were heard chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “Feds go home” to the sound of drums.

Later, protesters vigorously shook the fence surrounding the courthouse, shot fireworks towards the building and threw glass bottles. Many times these actions were met by federal agents using tear gas and flash bangs.

The flow of tear gas caused protesters to disperse at times, as others remained toward the front of the courthouse with leaf blowers directing the gas back to the courthouse. Federal agents had leaf blowers of their own to counteract.

Daniel Pereyo was one protester who was tear-gassed.

Pereyo said he had been at the nearby park watching drummers and fireworks being shot, when his face and eyes began to burn.

“It’s extremely painful,” he said. “It’s not the worst pain ever, but it is discomforting and it’s distracting.”

As the clouds of gas floated down the street, protesters would swiftly regroup and return to chant and shake the fence that separates the people on the street from federal agents and the courthouse.

It was unclear whether anyone was arrested during the protest. The federal agents have arrested dozens during nightly demonstrations against racial injustice that often turn violent.

The state attorney general sued, saying some people had been whisked off the streets in unmarked vehicles. U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman ruled Friday the state lacked standing to sue on behalf of protesters because the lawsuit was a “highly unusual one with a particular set of rules.”

Oregon was seeking a restraining order on behalf of its residents not for injuries that had already happened but to prevent injuries by federal officers in the future. That combination makes the standard for granting such a motion very narrow, and the state did not prove it had standing in the case, Mosman wrote.

Legal experts who reviewed the case before the decision warned that the judge could reject it on those grounds. A lawsuit from a person accusing federal agents of violating their rights to free speech or against unconstitutional search and seizure would have a much higher chance of success, Michael Dorf, a constitutional law professor at Cornell University, said ahead of the ruling.

“The federal government acted in violation of those individuals’ rights and probably acted in violation of the Constitution in the sense of exercising powers that are reserved to the states, but just because the federal government acts in ways that overstep its authority doesn’t mean the state has an injury,” he said.

The lawsuit from Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum accused federal agents of arresting protesters without probable cause and using excessive force. She sought a temporary restraining order to “immediately stop federal authorities from unlawfully detaining Oregonians.”

David Morrell, an attorney for the U.S. government, called the motion “extraordinary” and told the judge in a hearing this week that it was based solely on “a few threadbare declarations” from witnesses and a Twitter video. Morrell called the protests “dangerous and volatile.”

Rosenblum said the ramifications of the ruling were “extremely troubling.”

“Individuals mistreated by these federal agents can sue for damages, but they can’t get a judge to restrain this unlawful conduct more generally,” Rosenblum said in a statement.

Homeland Security acting Secretary Chad Wolf denied that federal agents were inflaming the situation in Portland and said Wheeler legitimized criminality by joining demonstrators, whom Trump has called “anarchists and agitators.”

Wolf said Tuesday that at least 43 people have been arrested on federal charges at that point. Charges included assaulting federal officers, arson and damaging federal property, U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams said. All the defendants are local and were released after making a court appearance.

Fight for police-free schools has been years in the making

PHOENIX — The group of protesters started out small, just a handful of students who told officials at school board meetings why they wanted police out of Madison, Wisconsin, schools.

Over four years, their numbers grew but not their results. So they took to yelling from the audience and making emotional pleas about how police make students, especially those of color, feel unsafe.

But officers remained at four high schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District until George Floyd’s death by Minneapolis police ushered in a national reckoning over police brutality and racial injustice.

That’s when the school board president, who had long resisted removing police, had a change of heart. Madison quickly joined cities like Minneapolis, Phoenix, Denver and Portland, Oregon, in abandoning partnerships with police on campuses.

The move may seem sudden, but it follows years of well-organized, student-driven action. Only now, more grown-ups are listening.

Police officers assigned to schools wear a uniform, carry guns and get specialized training. Critics say having armed police on campus often results in Black students being disproportionately arrested and punished, leading to what they call the schools-to-prison pipeline.

Supporters say police make schools safer and that having someone trained to deal with young people is more effective than having random officers respond to large fights and other problems.

At the Madison school board protests, “we would basically go up there, be nice and when you would look up, when you were talking, they would be looking down at their phone or their computer. So that made us even more frustrated,” said Shyra Adams, 20, who graduated from high school in 2017 and is now a youth justice coordinator with Freedom Inc., the group behind the protests.

Adams says opponents called her and others thugs or angry protesters — “anything but youths.”

She attended nearly every monthly meeting since 2016, sharing how she was injured when two school resource officers broke up a fight between her and a boy she said was bullying her friend. Adams said the officers twisted her arm. They let the boy, who was white, go to class, and he got two days of suspension, while she got five.

“I knew there’s absolutely no way I can build a relationship with somebody like that,” Adams said of the officers.

The movement to pull police from campuses has been decades in the making but grew substantially with student activism in the last four years, said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project National Office, a nonprofit focusing on civil rights and justice.

“We were noticing that when you have police in schools, you have a culture clash. And that culture clash is that their job is to protect people but also they enforce the criminal code, and they were enforcing criminal code on regular teen behavior,” Dianis said of the early beginnings of the movement.

Recent national data on arrests at schools is hard to come by, but studies from a few years ago show that Black students are disproportionately punished both in schools and by law enforcement.

During the 2015-2016 school year, Black students accounted for 15% of total enrollment but 31% of students referred to law enforcement or arrested, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection put out by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Students of color are also more likely to be enrolled in a school with an officer. While 42% of U.S. high schools in the 2013-2014 school year had officers, 51% of high schools with large Black and Latino populations had them.

Students have spent the last several years targeting that disparity.

Michelle Ruiz, 21, protested at her Phoenix high school district as a senior, driven by concerns that officers on campus can result in students without legal status ending up in immigration custody. She struggled academically and questioned why there were so few resources but enough money for cops.

With support from immigrant rights group Puente, Ruiz began speaking out at school board meetings in 2017 with a handful of other students. Their numbers grew to 15 or 20 within a few months.

President Donald Trump’s election “brought a big momentum,” Ruiz said. But it took three years for the superintendent to announce the Phoenix Union High School District wouldn’t renew its $1.2 million contract with police.

“I feel, as a student who has been advocating this for a long time, happy, and it brings me hope that the district’s willing to change,” Ruiz said of the July 7 decision.

Activists in Madison also are celebrating a change of heart. The June 29 vote to eliminate police from high schools was introduced by school board President Gloria Reyes, a former police officer who had long resisted calls to abandon the contract.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Reyes said she understood institutional racism in police departments but believes it also exists in school administrations and that getting rid of police on campuses altogether isn’t an all-in-one solution.

After Floyd’s death, students protested outside Reyes’ home, and once the teachers union spoke out, she felt it was time for change.

“I had to step out of my own personal and professional beliefs around the issue and just reflect on the many voices and reflect on George Floyd and what was happening,” Reyes said. “And ultimately, I had to do what I felt in my heart was the right thing to do.”

The school board established a committee to create a new school safety plan. Reyes still worries about what will happen when a big fight breaks out and police who don’t know the students and lack special training show up.

That’s a major concern for Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

Canady says school resource officers are carefully selected and trained to work with teenagers. They’re usually veteran officers who have volunteered with young people, such as coaching sports or leading church youth groups.

“We train our people to be really thoughtful about arrests, and we want to do everything to avoid an arrest,” Canady said.

His organization trained 10,000 school resource officers last year, which he estimates is roughly half those in the country. They usually get about 40 hours of training before they’re assigned to a school and have ongoing instruction, Canady said.

For Adams, the youth organizer in Madison, the fight isn’t over. She says she’s working to ensure that students and parents have more say in decision-making and that the district creates a transformative justice program that keeps kids out of jail.

“Folks just think that after we got cops out of schools that’s it, and it’s that simple. It’s not,” Adams said.