In Wisconsin, the term “summit” needs to be qualified somewhat. One usually infers “mountain” when hearing the word “summit”, but the lack of said mountains in Wisconsin has never deterred Midwesterners from using such lofty geographical nomenclature. For example, I skied at Whitecap Mountain, Porcupine Mountain and Blackjack Mountain (where the runs dropped 465’ quad burning feet from a lung busting elevation of 850’ above sea level). I can’t blame someone who lives in an area like I did where the highest point may have been a pile of coal near the river from trying to improve the image of their landscape by being overzealous in word choice, but it should be noted that Wisconsin contains some interesting topography within its borders. For a young boy growing up in the flat lands of northeastern Wisconsin, the Baraboo Hills in central Wisconsin were one of the more unique areas to explore. Within this rolling landscape lays Devil’s Lake State Park, a unique combination of water, rock and land that I visited this summer for the first time in nearly 20 years. While most lakes in America’s Dairyland are surrounded by fields and farms, Devil’s Lake is surrounded on 3 sides by forested and rocky moraines, giving it an atmosphere similar to a glacial basin high in the mountains. Curious to see the lake once more and hopefully taste a little of the awe I experienced as a kid, I went there with my father and Mulva to climb the talus of the moraines.
The park contains many trails for day and even overnight hiking, but given the extreme heat radiating around Wisconsin this July, I chose an extremely short hike to a Wisconsin version of “balanced rock” high up on the east moraine. From the park entrance at the south end of the lake it was a short walk to the trailhead which lay in a thicket of deciduous trees just past a Native American burial mound.
The trail to Balanced Rock is short, less than a mile, but steep. Chunks of talus along the slope have been arranged to make a stairway leading towards the bluffs at the top of the moraine. Even in the extreme heat we encountered lots of people on the trail, and unfortunately lots of litter, a negative aspect of such attainable summits. The climb doesn’t require much skill, however I found the rock to be surprisingly slick, probably smoothed over from years of traffic, and I took care to have a sure footing as I climbed.
Accidents and even fatalities do happen on these trails from people misjudging or underestimating the risk. While it doesn’t have the same stupidity rate as Mt. Olympus here in the Wasatch, there bluffs and steep incline do pose a risk. Additionally, the big fields of talus are a pretty appealing jungle gym for many kids where even if you are able to keep from turning an ankle, there is the chance of encountering a rattlesnake.
Most balanced rocks I’ve been to stand out stoically in a harsh desert landscape where years of gentle erosion have slowly carved the bottom out from beneath a rock to create a spectacle of balance and gravity defying architecture. That is not Devil’s Lake Balanced Rock. We very nearly walked right past the unassuming triangular rock. Still, what it lacked in size was made up for with serenity and a reminder of how spontaneous nature can be.
Perched 30 yards or so from the trail was a blocky and chiseled stone balanced on its point near the edge of a bluff and neatly framed by the trees in just such a way that you could make out sky, hill and lake all behind it. Rather than the result of gradual erosion, this rock seemed like the product of glacial chaos dispersing blocks all over the hill side like a kid emptying out his toy box and by chance one of the blocks fell into just the right place amongst the rest of brothers to stand erect and defiant.
My initial reaction paled to the sensation of seeing Delicate Arch or the Hat Shop in Utah’s red rock desert, but as I’ve illustrated earlier in this blog, expectations need to be tempered in a landscape like the Midwest. Further up trail is the quite impressive Devil’s Doorway formation, but considering the heat, I was happy none of us had passed out and figured it was best to end the hike up here. Besides, in a state full of great beer I was about to improve the situation immensely by cracking a homeland summitBrew.
Wisconsin’s rich brewing history made for a fitting start to my life. Major national breweries like Miller, Blatz, Schlits, Pabst and Old Style all had their start in Wisconsin. These days however, with the exception of Miller, those breweries are more a piece of nostalgia than a legitimate part of American brewing excellence. And as much as MGD and High Life played an important role in my early drinking life, after its merger with Coors, Miller Brewing is less a part of Wisconsin brewing excellence and more a part of brewing partisanship, dividing beer drinkers from beer lovers. Every time I go back to Wisco, it seems like there is another micro-brew brand in the grocery store cooler calling out my name. In my 2011 visit when I flew into Madison, I passed a sign outside a small commercial building in the light industrial area around the airport that said “Ale Asylum”. While I didn’t get the chance to sample their beers then, I made sure to seek them out on this trip. As we made a grocery store stop on our way out of Madison, I grabbed a 6 pack of a wickedly illustrated beer of theirs called Bedlam, a Trappist IPA. This intrigued me immensely and after drinking a few that week, I knew it had to be my choice for summitBrew in Devil’s Lake.
Ale Asylum’s Bedlam may be one of the most unique beers I’ve ever tasted. The use of trappist style yeast really changes the character of this beer. Like a Tootsie Pop, the Belgian style beer holds a fruity hop center without the hop bitterness. “Citrus” is not adequate enough to describe this beer; pineapple, grapefruit and mango are just a few of the flavors I tasted while drinking this “experiment” that has turned into Ale Asylums most popular seasonal beers. Bedlam is a powerful beer at 7.5% which balances the attributes of two distinct styles of beer without their overbearing attitudes. In addition to Bedlam’s lack of hoppy bitterness, there was also a lack of a biscuit-y or yeasty taste that dominates many Belgian ales, instead it has almost a sweetbread or cookie like finish. I ended up drinking this beer all week in Wisconsin and loved its easy drinkability at such a high strength. Ale Asylum is currently putting the finishing touches on their new, larger facility that dwarfs the small unit they were renting in a light industrial office complex a few miles away. It’s likely a sign that the young brewery that was just founded in 2006 is doing quite well. Their beers are obviously not available in this neck of the woods, but if you’re ever in Madison or Milwaukee, I think they’re well worth seeking out. At the least, check out their website, or more specifically their description page of Bedlam, it’s one of the more image-rich beer descriptions I’ve ever read.