As the crow flies, Wildcat Falls near Watersmeet and the Upper Wisconsin River Legacy Forest near Land O’Lakes are only 15 miles apart, on opposite sides of the Michigan-Wisconsin border.
But in some ways, these protected places couldn’t be more different.
From one, water flows north to Lake Superior. From the other, it flows south, eventually to the Gulf of Mexico.
Huge old-growth trees dominate the area near Wildcat Falls, while a young forest supporting threatened species is common near the Upper Wisconsin River.
But they do have one thing in common.
The same man, Joe Hovel, made sure they were protected.
As he nears it, walking through the woods, the sound of Wildcat Falls appears to Hovel long before its sight.
He’s walked through these woods countless times, so finding the falls is no longer a surprise. Even so, it’s no less sweet, he says, paraphrasing a friend’s description.
“Wildcat Falls is a place where one can find spiritual harmony through deep discernment,” says Hovel.
The 25-foot waterfall cascades over several levels.
The rare old-growth forest that surrounds it features hemlock, white pine, and cedar.
Exposed rock faces jump off the landscape nearby.
“The property itself is an ecological marvel,” Hovel says. “It isn’t just the vernal pools, it isn’t just the rock outcrops, it isn’t just the waterfall, it isn’t just the old growth, it’s the fact you’ve got all of these things together. You can go for a hike that’s less than a mile and you can see all of this stuff.”
That excitement led Hovel, in his capacity with the non-profit organizations Partners in Forestry and Northwood Alliance, push to protect Wildcat Falls and keep it open to the public.
He spent the better part of a decade fighting and negotiating with the Ottawa National Forest and private landowners to make it happen.
But now, success has finally arrived, and the land will be preserved as a community forest.
“What’s ten years in the life of an old-growth hemlock or those rock outcrops?” Hovel says of the work his group put in. “What the hell is ten years?”
Scott and Howe Creek is the water source for Wildcat Falls.
“This water will meander, and it’s going to east for awhile, but eventually, its main path is going north,” Hovel says.
After joining bigger streams and rivers, it eventually empties into Lake Superior.
Leaving Wildcat Falls, Hovel and his wife Mary have another stop to make.
It’s a short drive away, just across the state line in Land O’Lakes.
Here are the earliest stages of the Wisconsin River, a comparative trickle to its downstream might.
“This river is just at its beginnings,” Hovel says. “My goodness, by the time it gets even to Rhinelander, it’s a pretty big river.”
This spot is relatively close to Wildcat Falls, but the water flows in a completely different direction, winding through Wisconsin before joining the Mississippi on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.
When Hovel had a chance to protect the forestland surrounding this piece of the waterway, there was no way he could pass it up.
“My first thought was, who would not want to protect our state’s namesake river near its headwaters?” he says.
Completed in 2015, the Upper Wisconsin River Legacy Forest is an agreement between private landowners and the Wisconsin DNR, protecting a tract of more than 1,000 acres.
The agreement was largely facilitated by Hovel’s group. It was largely done to protect habitat for what Hovel calls “a special little critter,” the spruce grouse.
Spruce grouse are listed as a threatened species by the Wisconsin DNR, which says the species is at risk of disappearing from the state due to climate change.
“Spruce grouse aren’t found in very many places in Wisconsin. It’s only the very northern fringe [of the state]. I don’t know of an area in Wisconsin that has any better spruce grouse habitat than here,” Hovel says.
The species needs the habitat this legacy forest offers: black spruce swamps next to young, recently cut forests of jack pine and similar trees.
That makes the landscape here look totally different from the towering old-growth forest at Wildcat Falls.
But besides Hovel’s own involvement, these two divergent properties have something else in common.
They’re both open to the public, both standing as testaments to conservation of important places into the future.
“The public doesn’t come north to see stumps and blacktop,” Hovel says. “They come here to see water and trees.”