I had the fortune of spending the past few days all around the Horicon Marsh, a vast wetland in southeastern Wisconsin. Right now they are just beginning their summer and it’s an ongoing jubilee of outdoor joys after a frozen, frigid winter. I like the Horicon Marsh for three reasons.
1. I’m a birder, and this 32,000 acre wetland boasts 300 species of birds. Joining this muskrat (a “muskie”) and Canada Geese pictured here are raptors, cranes, owls, songbirds, waterfowl, reptiles and other mammals. Every May they have a bird festival hosting hundreds of birders for the spring migration of numerous species.
2. I like this marsh for its history. There were mistakes made along the way, but the land and its people have co-evolved to create this successful ecosystem. You can walk along the paths as terns silently fly overhead and red-winged blackbirds deliver their melodic liquid burbling, hidden rails squawk in the cattails while chiggers quietly munch on your ankles.
The area is the result of glacial formation during the last Ice Age many, many years ago. There were nomadic hunters, prehistoric Indian cultures, then Native American tribes, then white settlers. Closer to our time, in the mid-1800s a dam was built, flooding the marsh, creating a large man-made lake. A few decades later, controversy ensued and the dam was destroyed. When the dam was torn down the marsh habitat was restored, with that came an influx of ducks and geese.
So the ducks and geese began congregating again in the Horicon Marsh, much to the delight of the local residents. It was the late 1800s and early 1900s and the wildlife had returned to what was feared to be destined as a wasteland. The wildlife came back and began once again to multiply, the people were elated. What happened next? Hunting was unregulated and hunters wiped out all the ducks and geese!
Back to a wasteland. Around 1910 they dredged the marsh since there was no life left, prepared it for agriculture. But farming failed. Next the land turned into peat moss and it caught fire and burned and burned until there was nothing left again. Another period of being a wasteland, until 1921 when conservationists pushed through some laws and regulations.
Today it is the opposite of a wasteland; it is a wetland managed both as a national refuge and a state refuge. The largest cattail marsh in the United States, it is home to abundant wildlife and appreciative humans. There are duck hunters here, and much of the marsh is funded by them, but there is also regulation and conservation. Hunters, wildlife conservationists, Packer fans and dairy farmers…we all learned how to get along together. This marsh turned into a success story.
3. I like the Horicon Marsh because I was born here. I have memories of my father and his kin and friends hunting ducks, duck for dinner, decoys in the garage. The summers were thick with mosquitoes and one of our childhood thrills was running after the “spray trucks” that blew giant plumes of insecticide in our faces. (imagine!) There was an annual festival every summer called “Marsh Days.” The parade had dozens and dozens of contingents, many of the floats decorated with cattails and duck decoys. We always knew that summer was coming to an end when the honking chorus of geese began, the sky was filled with v-shaped lines of geese beginning their migration.
Marsh habitat all over this country has declined, but I have witnessed the Horicon Marsh as a thriving place of wonderment for a half century. It’s not to say there aren’t current problems, because with more people come more problems; but this marsh, this beautiful brackish expanse of water and weeds, is not going away.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander