On the hunt for wild water with its most colorful local advocate
Kyle Krueger is standing in weeds, unwilling to take a few steps forward and trespass on a neatly mowed lawn bordering a state preservation area a few miles southwest of Plymouth. He’s looking at a PVC pipe some 30 yards away that extends horizontally from a loose tumble of rocks, not far from a small pavilion and the property owner’s home. Shooting from the pipe is stingingly cold, clear spring water at the end of a centuries-long underground journey through cracks in the limestone, shale and sandstone bedrock. “It’ll knock your bottle out of the way,” he says of the spring’s water pressure.
Krueger, who turned 30 in June, drinks much the same icy water in this part of Sheboygan County as the trout that are found in its spring-fed streams and lakes. Fresh spring water is just about all he drinks, and to him, fresh means bottled directly (using glass bottles of various sizes) from places where water bubbles up from the ground or shoots out of carefully installed pipes channeling the same flow. He works at Springdale Farm, an organic community-supported agriculture farm midway between Plymouth and the northern Kettle Moraine State Forest, and he spends many summer nights on the farm camping in a tent.
He knows the surrounding water geography and the property owners well enough to know who owns what and what their stance is on interlopers. The owners of the house with the jetlike spring used to be permissive, but the current residents aren’t.
Krueger certainly doesn’t look like the Culligan Man. On this day, he’s wearing brown corduroy pants rolled up to his calves above brown leather boots, and a cardigan sweater embroidered with colorful flowers and plants. Tattoos of flowers, burning candles, twinkling stars and a bald eagle cover his arms, legs and part of his neck, which has a skull and spider web in dark ink. In selfies, some of which he posts to Instagram, he’s sometimes nude (even occasionally in winter), covered in mud or otherwise communing with nature. When he walks through a forest or field, he moves quickly, like a child set loose, pointing and teaching and joking as he goes.
However Puck-like he may be, he turns away from the cut grass, stepping back onto the preservation area on the way to another spring. He plucks six little purple flowers from the ground and pops them into his mouth. “Violets are up!” he says. This is another of Krueger’s passions: foraging for plants and turning them into small bits to eat or tinctures to drink. Further along the trail, he points out a tiny plant, a few weedy brown buds. “Horsetail,” he says. “I like to make a tooth powder out of it.” Such powder is used as an alternative dentifrice, with the purported benefit of strengthening one’s teeth. Krueger makes this and other natural remedies under his Heart of the Creek label, mostly, these days, to give away. He says he’s driven less by money than by a desire to help people.
He keeps a room in a rooming house in Sheboygan Falls, but he hasn’t amassed many possessions aside from a book collection that resides at his parents’ home. In addition to the work at the farm, he has a part-time job at a warehouse distributing toilet seats, where he works as a clerk and also plays the role of prankster. And just about every day, he collects his drinking water from springs.
Pulled by gravity, surface water can take decades to sink the hundreds or even thousands of feet down to the underlying aquifer – a layer of stone or sand saturated with water. And it can take hundreds of years more for that water to rise again as cold springs, squeezed to the surface by pressure. The water bubbling up near Plymouth is “pre-industrial,” Krueger says. “There are no drugs or chemicals.”
Krueger found his circuit of favorite springs by talking to “elders” and exploring on his own, waiting to hear the sound of water. “You really have to listen for it,” he says. Still exploring the state land, he follows a trail to an outcropping of trees, a short hill and the same burbling of water on the move. He jumps down the incline, passing a narrow section of the flow where the small green leaves of young watercress are floating. They’re edible, Krueger explains, but first need to be washed because of possible contamination with parasitic liver flukes. A quarter mile from the road, at this part of the sprawling springs, which bubble up all over the land, there’s not enough flow for him to fill up a bottle, but there might be later in the summer as the grass grows up around the source and clears it of dead plants. He’s going to come back.
The next spring is on private land and tucked away, and Krueger can use it only because he talked to the landowner, who lives in a house set back from the road, hidden by trees. Closer to the road is a large shed connected to a pair of dry concrete channels that run beside the driveway. The building’s interior is sodden and dark and dominated by a great blue water tub filled with about a dozen live trout, a miniature fish farm fed by the spring. There’s a trail of paver stones for walking, and the air smells fresh and lively, not like an aquarium. There are a couple of pipes releasing water, and Krueger fills a jar at one of them and screws it tight, like moonshine.
This water tastes remarkably full yet clear, with the slight tang of minerals. Krueger says all the local spots taste about the same, suggesting the springs rise from the same network of aquifers, or at least the same geology. The area is well-known for its numerous and interconnected springs, a water-bottler’s dream. One such operation, Hayden Water Co. near Plymouth, bottles local artesian well water and delivers it throughout the state.
All waters, except for distilled water, contain unique palates of minerals, gases and acidity. Good spring water picks up its roundness of flavor and feeling on its subterranean journey. Municipal water, by comparison, tastes narrower, the product of a far faster and more controlled manmade process, as it is. Krueger says he once toured a local wastewater treatment plant, and, “I almost threw up” at the thought of pushing sewage through micron filters, treating it with ammonia and chlorine, and sending the resulting water back out through rusty pipes. He walked through the place looking ashen.
Yes, You Can Go Spring Hunting
Foraging wild water is exciting. We get it. Clambering into the woods to collect, for free, wonderfully fresh-tasting water is lots of fun and good exercise. But it’s not 100 percent safe. Spring water can become contaminated with bacteria or chemicals as it approaches the surface, or even with toxic minerals such as fluoride in the depths of the earth. Screening springs exhaustively is expensive, so the best shortcut is to stick to well-trafficked, well-known springs.
WHAT TO BRING
Spring water purists use only glass containers and natural cork. As a lighter, cheaper option, BPA-free plastic jugs are considered safe.
WHEN TO GO
Lines can form at popular springs during peak times. If you need to fill multiple, large containers, going at an off time can be less disruptive.
HOW TO STORE THE WATER
Use a refrigerator or other cool, dark place. With enough time and warmth, algae could begin to grow in the bottle.
Where to go
The best online resource for spring locations is findaspring.com.
Hygeia Spring, Big Bend
If clean, fresh taste is what you’re after, and you don’t mind driving, and possibly waiting in line, the Hygeia Spring is a classic. Set on a small piece of land in the village of Big Bend, Hygeia flows out of an iron pipe onto a little platform of gravel. Use of the spring dates to at least 1893, when locals pumped the water and sold it at the World’s Fair in Chicago for a penny a glass. The spring has a long track record of safety.
Parry Spring, Dousman
Another good-tasting spring, this one fills up an old barrel before spilling out onto the ground. Parry Spring is even more off the beaten path than Hygeia but stays busy nonetheless. It’s another spring with infrequent testing but a long record of use.
Pryor Avenue Iron Well, Milwaukee
While not technically a spring, the Pryor Avenue Iron Well, located in Bay View, is about the closest you’ll find in Milwaukee. Under a contract with the state, the Ozaukee County Health Department periodically tests the well, which is owned by the city of Milwaukee. The water, which pours endlessly out of two spigots, smells like iron, and some people promote it as a mineral supplement.
As a trend, wild water harvesting began gathering steam about five years ago, but the roots of the practice extend back generations. Krueger’s great uncle had been a longtime water collector, and Krueger tried it only at his grandmother’s suggestion. Krueger grew up in Plymouth and had little interest in the outdoors until, as a young man, he moved to California to live close to a redwood forest. It was a dramatic introduction to nature. “I had mostly done a lot of acid in the woods,” he says, and when he came back to Wisconsin, he was more or less adrift.
He credits the study of plants and natural medicine with giving him a course in life. Although he works at a farm and lives off its potatoes and bacon, his first allegiance is to the weeds. While touring the springs, he has in his car a fragrant bundle of Japanese knotweed, an invasive species he says can help treat tick bites. “It looks like asparagus but tastes like rhubarb,” he says. Spending so much time outside in Wisconsin, he picks up quite a few ticks and keeps a kit of clay and natural tinctures to treat the bites. For Springdale potlucks, he makes his own recipe of milkweed seed pods and cream cheese rolled in bacon.
A couple miles from the last spring, Krueger finds a pair of PVC pipes that protrude from a hillside and pour into a metal drain pipe that runs under the road, feeding a pond on the other side. The scene looks more like a ditch than a wellspring of health. “People say it looks like runoff,” says Krueger, who pulls off his boots and heads down into the ditch. “I’m going to take them off so I can go in and not be a wuss,” he says. The water shocks him. “Oh!” he says, dancing around in the ankle-deep water. “That’s cold!” It’s so for all of the area’s spring water, no matter the season, and it often keeps running during winter by virtue of its own subterranean pressure. Sometimes, after 90-degree days at Springdale, he comes to a frigid wild stream to bathe, but today he fills a small jar from the pipe and climbs out.
The last stop of the day is the most significant to him, a spring inside the Nichols Creek State Wildlife Area, a good walk from the nearest parking. Leaving his shoes off, he pads through about a hundred yards of grassy field before the trail narrows and swings between vines, bushes and fallen-over thatch. The path almost disappears as it winds closer to a hillside covered in cedar trees and their smell. Krueger stops. “This was where I was four years ago,” he says, when he first noticed the trickling of water in the area and discovered the spring. Under the trees, he discovered an area dug out of the ground and reinforced by rocks and channeled through a pipe, with the cedar branches reaching down and a majestic, old growth forest spread out ahead. This practically became a religious space for him.
He regularly returned to it to look after it and arrange the rocks, and one day he noticed that someone else had been doing the same thing. He thought, “Maybe human beings aren’t so rotten.”
People of all ages collect wild spring water for many different reasons. Some, like Krueger, are primarily interested in a more natural source than city water and believe they’ve found a perfect, free, always-on spigot for filling five-gallon glass “carboys” to carry home. The number of these people has swelled in recent years, with some of the truest believers ascribing esoteric properties to the water – that it has a special energy from the ground or is especially nourishing.
Many old-timers in Wisconsin and around the country believe nothing of the sort and collect the fresh-tasting water as part of a family tradition or because they enjoy it. In some cases, younger members have taken up the jug and post information on spots to sites such as findaspring.com.
While Krueger’s views on the natural world are expansive, he doesn’t preach much in the way of a water religion. He does have a few things to say about microbes and sometimes stops himself mid-conversation, while explaining the deep intelligence of microbes, how they adapt themselves, and how they span the earth and atmosphere. “People will think I’m crazy,” he says. He does explain that he sees nature as more than just “tooth and claw” – that it’s more balanced than that, more intelligent.
Some proponents of wild water go further, championing it as something between organic water and magic elixir. Among the most famous is writer and health guru David Wolfe, who gives amped-up presentations around the world arguing that fresh spring water is the only type of water people should be drinking. He believes that water has an energy not covered by the laws of physics, and that’s what causes it to defeat gravity and rise from the ground. Where the water flows, and how it does so, gives it “knowledge” that can be warped by city infrastructure, he told an audience in Bali. “The disturbed minds of stray pipes and right angles and 90-degree turns,” he says. “That can’t be good for water, ever. Water never moves in a 90-degree turn.” The result of good “knowledge” is that the water is healthier and more nourishing to the body, so one actually has to drink less.
With a recent surge in people drinking purely natural water, Bob McCauley, a naturopathic doctor and businessman in Lansing, Michigan, has emerged as one of the sharpest critics of going out in nature and filling up a bottle to drink. He’s not without bias – his father was a well-known water treatment expert, and he’s sold both bottled water and water filters through his company, the Watershed Wellness Center. He says people like Krueger are still at risk from surface contamination, no matter the depth or age of the source at hand. “I wouldn’t call it really, really safe to drink,” he says. It could be fouled by bacteria such as listeria and giardia. “I wouldn’t drink it.”
Many wild water fans, including Krueger, test their springs for “total dissolved solids,” which can be done using an inexpensive gun. Used as a measure for water safety, the number indicates, broadly, the amount of stuff floating around in water, but there are no hard and fast rules as to what ceiling is acceptable. McCauley says TDS primarily shows the overall mineral content of water and so isn’t that useful as a safety gauge. Unfortunately, a full-spectrum test for all contaminants, such as lead, radon, strontium and pesticides – of the sort a water bottling company might order – can cost a few thousand dollars. The cheaper options are very limited in scope and cover just a few hazards, such as lead and fluoride. Krueger says he’s never heard of someone in his area getting sick from local spring water.
Turning 30 often prompts people to re-evaluate and change the course of their lives, but Krueger’s not even considering moving out of the rooming house into something like a one-bedroom apartment. His ideal life involves a combination of farmland and farm cats. “I like women and music and wildlife,” he says.
Springdale supplies produce to about 600 families, and the cooler is filled with potatoes and greens. “The food here is amazing,” he says, but as with drinking water, his predilections are uniquely his own. “My favorites are the weeds.”