After years hearing about this preserve and how incredible it is, I finally paid a visit in July. First I spent time in the kayak on Phantom Lake.
Phantom lake looks much bigger on a map than it is in reality. Well, let me rephrase. A lot of the lake is shallow and so full of plants that it’s impossible to paddle. I found a lot of open water at one end (luckily where the good put in was located) and explored the edges and the plants at my luxurious leisure.
My boat was too unsteady to get any good shots of my occasional companions – black terns. There were probably a few hundred nesting all around the lake and when I got too close to their nesting sites they would mob me. I felt like one of the many raptors you see with songbirds dogging it until it leaves their territory. It was kind of funny in a way and I should have filmed it, but I spaced. Grrr.
Anyway, white and yellow water lilies weren’t the only things blooming, the water shield (Brasenia schreberi) was everywhere, too.
I saw and heard a couple of loons as well, but didn’t get near them. So elusive. One minute they’re obvious and the next they’re gone. They kept calling though and that’s a shivery wonder for the ears. Eventually I left the water to explore on land. The horse and deer flies were merciless so I didn’t wander on foot much, but drove leisurely and stopped whenever the beauty of my surroundings drew me out of the safety of the car.
The shot above is a view into Phantom Lake. As you can see the vegetation is very thick…there’s just that thin band of open water at the far edge of the horizon on the left.
The next shot is a flowage nearby and there were several signs telling visitors that if the water is low or non-existent that it is part of how they manage the preserve. Periodic drying of wetlands is natural and plants and animals have evolved with this condition and so it’s part of the life cycle of many aquatic flora and fauna.
Alas, once again, this isn’t a pristine wilderness. It is a recreated one and heavily managed as a result. While I appreciate the effort and applaud it, I’m saddened it has to be. Here’s the backstory – when European settlers came and wiped out the Fox, Dakota, and Chippewa people who used this land for periodic hunting, eventually they drained the land for farming. As sometimes happens it didn’t work out well, but the change in the habitat resulted in something the white man could exploit – marsh hay, which was harvested instead. They kept trying, but the land isn’t suitable for European farming methods or crops.
The Crex Carpet Company bought the area in 1912 to use marsh grass, Carex stricta, in their products. The invention of linoleum and what has been described as ‘great ecological changes in the marsh (read ‘they wiped out their own cash crop’) forced them into bankruptcy in the early 1930s. Dopes tried farming again and it still didn’t work (soil still sandy, guys!). Gee. Slowly humans lost their grip on the land and natural processes began to take over.
But the damage was done and the delicate balance of the marsh was destroyed. Trees took over and filled in vast areas of land that were no longer controlled by fire. Luckily the wounded wilderness had a friend – H. Riegal (I couldn’t find his first name anywhere). Riegal was a local who had hunted and fished in this former beauty and thought that it could be restored and the wildlife return. After what probably amounted to a lot of begging, the state of Wisconsin bought 12,000 acres (they’d never get back the taxes owed anyway) in 1945 and Crex Meadows Wildlife Area was born.
Since most of the water had been forcibly drained off and the resulting contours of the land severely changed, hydrology was the first order of business. In 1950 government funding started the enormous dike system that sill exists at CMWA today. There are 18 miles of the things and they have created over 4,000 acres of open water and a further 4,000 of marsh. They are managed with a series of pumping stations to maintain appropriate water levels all through the preserve.
With careful study, management and dedication habitat has been restored to hundreds of species of plants including Carex stricta (a kind of sedge) and Calamagrostis canadensis (a bluejoint grass) whose territory was being taken over by trees. With the increased water flowage we now have cattails, burreed, pickerel weed (purple!), pondweeds, bulrush, bladderwort, water lily, and arrowheads (white).
Animals, insects and birds soon followed, but some had to be formally reintroduced. Gadwells and prairie chickens were released here. Canada geese were initially penned and had their wings clipped to keep them around. Nowadays we don’t have to do that, but thanks to programs like the one at CMWA, they nest freely. More wetland loving creatures came including blue-winged teals and other birds like the black terns I mentioned. Also sandhill cranes, muskrat, mink and beaver. Platforms were raised for bald eagles and osprey and both continue to raise their families in Crex Meadows. Of course with birds like those you have to have fish and populations including bullheads, sticklebacks and minnows are managed and cared for as well.
Many other native populations have made the area home as well (even maybe a wolf pack). It’s amazing what happens when people cooperate with nature instead of fighting it. Yes, we have to live and make our way in the world, but does it have to be at such odds with everything else? I think a little restraint on our part would make our continued longevity more assured.
Today the preserve has a little over 30,000 acres under protection including an area of very rare pine barrens also called brush prairie or jack pine-scrub oak savanna. These precious acres are home to badgers and coyotes (who eat the pocket gophers) and are filled with the song of meadowlarks. Of course red-tailed and rough-legged hawks cruise the updrafts and kestrels dart out of the skies in search of prey. The scrub oak, aspen and jack pines support deer, squirrels, snowshoe hares, bobcats, bears, woodpeckers, owls and a zillion songbirds.
Speaking of zillions. It seemed like there were that many butterflies and bees, too. An amazing profusion of color and busy activity.
Phew! That was my first and hopefully not last visit to Crex Meadows. It’s truly a Wisconsin gem and one that deserves its reputation. It will reward any time spent.