Content created in partnership with Milwaukee County Parks Wehr Nature Center.
Living in Wisconsin, we have three choices when winter arrives: we can flee, we can hibernate or we can get outside and embrace the season.
There’s no better place to do the latter than at Milwaukee County Parks' Wehr Nature Center, 9701 W. College Ave., which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
The center, located on a large swath of Whitnall Park in Franklin, is open seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. and admission is free (a $5 parking fee helps keep the center running).
Inside, Wehr has a shop run by – and helping to fund – the Friends of Wehr Nature Center; a warming fireplace; natural exhibits; a working beehive; a fish tank; some wildlife like turtles and snakes; event spaces; restrooms; snowshoes for rent and most important of all ... knowledgeable people.
“I would say that most visitors are outside,” says Director Carly Hintz. “A lot of people don't even know to set foot inside the center. The biggest thing we have to offer is our staff, who are so knowledgeable on all things nature and accessibility and everything else.
“But there are these other amenities too, that you or someone you know could benefit from, so we want people to know about them, too.”
Outside, Wehr has more than five miles of trails on 220 acres of land, including woodlands, oak savannah, wetlands and prairies, that you can explore on family friendly walks and hikes that range from easy to moderate to more challenging.
There are also natural gardens planted with flora from prairie, woodlands and other habitats, as well as a viewing deck that overlooks Mallard Lake, an observation blind for viewing wildlife and a play area for kids with a mud table and a log cabin playhouse.
A mile-long section of boardwalk along the lake – which may be extended in the future – enhances accessibility at the center.
“We don’t want there to be any barriers to experiencing nature,” says Naturalist Emily Brown. “We want to make Wehr very accessible. A family should never have to make that decision of whether or not they bring mom or dad or grandma or grandpa along.”
To that end, Wehr has added a number of free services to boost accessibility.
The Ability Corner is one of them. Here there are canes; wheelchairs; lightweight, portable chairs called seat canes; rollerator walkers; devices to aid in seeing and hearing wildlife; walkers; and sensory bags.
All are free to use.
Wehr also has Milwaukee County’s only All-Terrain Chair, which is a heavy-duty mobility device that can handle pretty much anything a nature trail can dish up.
The chair is also available free of charge at Wehr thanks to a collaboration with Access Ability Wisconsin, which has nearly two dozen such chairs at sites around the state.
According to Hintz the chair was used nearly 50 times in its first year at Wehr, which is still working to get the word out about its availability.
The chair can be rented for multiple days at a time and if a user has access to a trailer, it can also be used off-site. There is also a controller that can be attached if a user is unable to operate the chair themselves.
“It's a really cool addition to our accessibility effort,” says Brown. “It's been a lot of fun. It is a great conversation starter. Everybody knows someone with a disability, and the cool thing about this is that you don't need to have any sort of disability on paper. If you just have trouble with walking or stamina, or whatever, you can use the chair.
“We've had a variety of people use it. People with spinal cord injuries, people with broken legs – more of a temporary thing – and then other people that have lifelong issues with mobility.”
The chair has brought some people back to Wehr after decades away, says Brown.
“It's a really good storyteller in itself,” she says. “You'll hear all sorts of things from people, whether it's, ‘oh, we used to come here all the time and we haven't been back in so long’ or ‘this is the first time we've gone on the trails in 30 years’ or whatever. It's allowing one of the family members to participate where they usually have to be left at home.
“This is something that really helps with that. And while it's a little intimidating at first for some, once people get in it and see how simple it operates, it really works well. It's very sturdy, and when you're driving it around, you feel like you have control of it, which is so important.”
Inside and out, Wehr also hosts great events all year long, and winter is definitely no exception.
Some upcoming seasonal events include a chili cook-off (Feb. 3); Wehr Birders (Feb. 4, but held year-round); Little Wonders storytime for 2-year-olds (Feb. 5); a Flow Yoga session (Feb. 10); Maple Tapping for Families and Maple Tapping Workshops (both held on Feb. 18 and 24); and a Guided Forest Bathing Walk (Feb. 25).
Other winter events include Owl Prowls and winter tracking classes for adults, to name a few.
You can find information on all Wehr events at friendsofwehr.org/events.
You also have one last chance to take part in Brews and (Snow) Shoes – a three-session series that kicked off in late January – on Friday, Feb. 2.
For $15 per person ($13 for Milwaukee County residents; $10 for Friends of Wehr members), you can sample homebrews made by Milwaukee Beer Barons and then lace up your boots or snowshoes (which you can rent on-site, or bring your own) for an hour-long hike through the nature center.
Then, come back and warm yourself by the fireplace with more beer, cider and mead samples.
I was fortunate to get a spot at the second event this year and the beer was good, the fire warm, but the real highlight was exploring the trails with Naturalist Howard Aprill, who has been at Wehr for decades and really knows his stuff.
While the snow wasn’t the right consistency for snowshoeing – still, one intrepid hiker did don the pair he made as a kid with his grandmother – Aprill talked about migrating birds, had us spotting turkeys perched in trees above us, attempted to get a screech owl to return a call, explained a rare Wisconsin oak savanna, and introduced us to a soaring and gnarly pre-settlement era oak tree.
“With the bitter cold the first week, we didn’t stop on the trail as much,” Hintz explained as we walked on a relatively warm winter night, “but this week has been totally different, with more stops, more discussion. It’s great how each event has its own vibe.
“It's nice, it's social, it's low pressure, you don't have to know anything about nature, you don't have to be experienced in snowshoeing. It's just fun. It's a different social thing to do with people instead of just going to the bar or going out to eat or whatever.
“Even all the first timers that were here last week, they were super psyched and they were just saying, ‘I never knew this was here,’ which is what you'll hear a lot around here. That's our greatest strength and weakness at the same time: being this gem of the Milwaukee County Parks, but yet being unknown to so many people.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.