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Spring can sneak up on you in any of number of ways: Fierce winds suddenly soften to docile breezes, green becomes a scent as well as a color, the sky itself takes flight on the wings of birds bound for their summer homes. And if the rain cooperates, the ground may assume an aspect more liquid than solid.
Muck and mud aside, here's a short itinerary for a northwestern Wisconsin excursion to reacquaint you with the pleasures of the season. Two feet and a set of wheels (either two or four) are all you'll need to embark.
Point your compass to Balsam Lake, smack dab in the center of Polk County. If rain rules the day, duck into the Polk County Museum for an hour or two to see exhibits on Native American culture and logging. The museum opens on Memorial Day; call (715) 485-9269.
Head north through Luck (you'll never know when you'll need it) and then on to Grantsburg and the 30,000-acre Crex Meadows Wildlife Area. More than 240 species of native and migrating birds check in at this vast prairie and marshland. It's a good place to see sandhill cranes performing their annual rites of spring. (715) 463-2896.
Work your way northeast to Webster, where you can step (or cycle) smartly on the Gandy Dancer Trail. Built on an abandoned railbed, the trail runs for 100 miles between St. Croix Falls and Superior; some sections even creep into Minnesota territory. (715) 483-1410 or 1-800-222-7655.
Continuing in an easterly direction, you'll find long, lanky Trego Lake, formed by the Namekagon River, which has long been a favorite for canoeing, kayaking and tubing.
The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway Namekagon Visitor Center in Trego opens on Memorial Day and features exhibits on the river's wildlife and history. (715) 635-8346.
All aboard for Spooner, your next stop. View railroad artifacts and a model railroad in action at the Railroad Memories Museum located in the former Chicago & NorthWestern Railway Depot. It opens on Memorial Day; (715) 635-2752 or (715) 635-3325. The Spooner Fish Hatchery – the largest musky-rearing facility in the world – also raises walleye and northern pike. The hatchery is open weekdays year-round, but there will be plenty of activity in early May, when hatching begins. (715) 635-4147. In nearby Sarona, you'll find the 339-acre Hunt Hill Audubon Sancutary. Hike the nature trails winding through forests and bogs, or launch a canoe on one of the sanctuary's quiet glacial lakes. Hiking trails open year-round, programs run May 1 – October: (715) 635-6543.
Further south, in Barronett, you can round out your springtime excursion with a visit to Helstern's Custom Carving and Signs. Skilled woodcarvers chisel prancing ponies, pouncing tigers and other life-size carousel critters using techniques developed a century ago. (The company also restores wooden rocking horses, should your own trusty steed be in need of repair.) Open weekdays, (715) 822-4189. Helstern's Wood Carving