When we moved to the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area, the Wisconsin DNR had just purchased an old farmstead on County Road D. Their plan was to knock down the worn out buildings and restore the tall grass prairie, but they agreed to keep some of the amenities and let us camp there temporarily.
One of the many artesian wells in the area happened to be at the end of the long driveway so water was free. The electrical service was still intact so we took over the payments and installed some 50 amp breakers for our RVs. They had not yet demolished the concrete silo but readily agreed to leave it standing when we asked if we could use it to elevate our receiving antenna for our live camera. Pushing over a fifty foot tall cement silo is daunting and I think they were happy for the postponement.
County Rd. D must have been an old homesteader’s trail that zig-zagged from farm to farm. Eventually, it was widened to accommodate wagons and then cars. It is now paved but it still meanders in unexplained curves and bends across open and flat terrain.
The family that owned this property still lives in the area. In fact, they rent a few of the surrounding fields from the DNR and plant crops every year. Periodically, one or the other drops in to say hi and share local background. We know the history of record floods and late snow storms and where to find morels in the spring. Alvin, one of the family patriarchs passed away last winter and we are sorry for their loss.
We start our early mornings just around sunrise by pulling on chest waders and we generally don’t take them off until it is time for dinner. Jeff Fox has been studying Sandhill productivity for many years and coached us through what type to get. His experience helped because the waders he suggested are surprisingly comfortable. Over the waders we wear nylon pants to save them from thorn perforations and then we pull on marsh boots for better footing. It’s easy to tell we are working near a large wetland complex in central Wisconsin. We can walk into Walmart in full waders and wet to the waist and no one blinks an eye. At home we would be ushered to the plumbing department under the assumption that our basement was flooded.
Our Amazon Wish List generated a lot of interest and we are forever grateful to all our supporters who purchased everything we need. We have new backpacks filled with all the essentials like eyelash glue, beard trimmers and little spray bottles of alcohol. The glue is gentle and non-toxic for attaching a transmitter to the down feathers on the back of the chicks. The beard trimmers are used if we ever need to take it off. If a chick gets too hot while we are holding them, isopropyl alcohol sprayed on its legs will help with cooling. Other pack items are Ziploc bags for collecting samples, a collapsible net in case the chick is just too fast and bug spray for the annoying type, plus bug jackets for when they get more serious.
It has been amazing to watch the marsh come alive. Our first trips into the wetland were aided by a layer of ice under the cattails. Insulated by the dried reeds from the seventy degree temperatures, that hard layer made walking possible where later travel would be a tiresome struggle. Even now after the ice is gone, we can navigate more easily than later in the summer.
In this photo you can see the hummocks of grass just starting to sprout. Over the years they have formed a root ball that will support your weight if you place your foot just right. The water between each plant is a foot and a half deep, plus another foot or more of mud before you hit something you could approximate as solid. We use ski poles for balance as we jump from one hummock to the next in a bizarre game of hop-scotch played with waders – and consequences. Later in the season when all those grasses get tall enough, their tops will overlap until they form a closed, waist-high landscape. The game will become more entertaining when you can’t see your feet.
That inaccessibility is ideal for nesting birds. In fact, being too low to drain and too hard to reach is likely why some wetlands have remained relatively untouched.
Each day that we wander through the marsh brings an incremental change. We started when it was patched with snow and we watched as the shoots of grass slowly turned green and little marsh flowers began to bloom to the chorus of frogs and the singing of birds.
The bobolinks have arrived and are so raucous, it’s hard to hear the faint beep of our transmitters. Heather says it reminds her of jazz – no words and no rhythm. Just a collection of random sounds played at high volume. I think she likes bobolinks – but jazz – not so much.
Moving through the marsh in isolation from almost everything human is an incredible experience. We are accustomed to flying over it but there is much more to see at ground level and a slower pace. One major factor that adds to the inaccessibility of the marsh has not yet emerged and we are very grateful.
Despite the warm temperatures we have had for the last three weeks, the mosquitoes still haven’t hatched. There is plenty of water for breeding and I suspect it’s going to be a horrible year. Or maybe the last snow and hard freeze killed off their eggs. Somehow, I don’t think we will be that lucky.