Not long after moving here, I became aware of the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin. In addition to funding the preservation and management of critical environmental areas of the state, they also have a program of Field Trips that get us out into these amazing places. Many are co-sponsored and led by experts specific to where you are going and what you’ll be seeing. Every year I await my catalog and spend time marveling over the breadth of nature we have in Wisconsin. Oh and circling all the ones I want do do!
Unfortunately the early outings were cancelled due to the COVID-19 epidemic and I thought the whole year would be on the scrap heap, but not so. After a survey about our likelihood to attend these trips went out to members, a modified listing for the remaining year was compiled and I chose my two (the limit and only one kayaking trip per person as well). Alas, one was later cancelled (it was the DNR’s decision, darn them), but one went forward. A 16-mile paddle on the White River as it bends its way through the Bibon Swamp.
You know how I love a good swamp.
I chose this one because I love kayaking and I’d never be able to do it alone. 16 miles! Not many people would want to try because of the distance and that it’s a haul just to get up there, although of everyone on the trip, I think I had one of the shorter commutes back home. A few folks lived very close, but many came from the Madison, Milwaukee and Green Bay areas.
I thought it rhymed with bison, but it has a short I (bib-on) and that was just the first of many things I’d learn about this wetland and wetlands in general. In the shot above you can see our tour leader, Tracy, pointing out something interesting on the shoreline. And he should know – he’s the director of Wisconsin Wetlands Association and has spent decades educating and restoring wetlands around the country.
With him is Jim, a veteran canoer – from the Arctic to Argentina, he’s paddled it all! His home has been near this amazing preserve since the 1970s and he generously donated his time to take a bunch of newcomers through his surrogate backyard. He talked about how much it has changed in his lifetime of observation and appreciation. Mostly the changes are for the better, but there are still challenges with invasive plants and deer over-population. Their numbers mean regeneration of key species like white cedar are slow or non-existent. I think I remember him saying that there used to lots of elm in parts of the swamp, too. Almost all dead due to Dutch elm disease.
Before we got started, Tracy and Jim talked about the importance of this huge upland swamp (it’s over 10,000 acres). Basically it’s a giant sponge that helps mitigate flooding of the Bad River and its tributaries like the White River. In the early 1900s it was proposed that the swamp be drained for more farmland, but the Stock Market crash and resulting Depression scrapped the plans. Good thing, too. Jim showed some harrowing video on his phone of the White River hydro electric dam nearly being destroyed by recent flooding. You could practically see the dam vibrating and I wouldn’t have stood so close for anything. Without the swamp it’s probable that the dam would have been overwhelmed decades ago – or not possible to build at all.
That’s one of the ways wetlands restoration groups sell their projects – by the prospect of reducing public spending on road repair made necessary by flooding and erosion. Luckily this and a better understanding of the other benefits wetlands provide, mean more are being restored. Tracy calls it righting the hydrology. Most of the time, he says, if you get that right, many other things fall into line. Even invasive species can be overcome by natives if the water goes back to the way it was when the natives evolved. The invasives can’t cope and eventually the original ecology can be returned.
If you look at the Bibon Swamp on Google earth you’ll see very few human incursions – not many roads or other signs of our presence. While Tracy hesitates to call the area ‘pristine’ he does call it high quality and it’s mostly due to the fact that we can’t get to it easily. He noticed that there were a lot more ‘weeds’ near the one place you can get a canoe into the water on this stretch of river, and that’s a direct result of people tramping in seeds, shoots and soil; on boats as well as on shoes.
But we are limited in our access, which is disappointing that I can’t see more of it and wonderful that it isn’t ruined. It means it’s perfect habitat for plants and animals that thrive in a coniferous swamp. White cedars loom nearby and support understory plants like twinflower, bunchberry, various orchids and small bishop’s cap (an ethereal wildflower).
In other parts of the swamp, black ash supports different plants including speckled alder, nettles and poison ivy and, more pleasantly, sensitive fern. In the boggy areas, tamarack pine and black spruce abound and the usual bog-loving plants are present – leatherleaf, bog laurel, false Solomon’s seal and three-seeded sedge.
Although we were too chatty to see and appreciate them, many birds love the Bibon swamp. Warblers species, wrens, flycatchers, catbirds, American woodcocks and even the black-billed cuckoo call it home. Raptors like the great gray owl and the osprey also do well here. Even the wood turtle has been found here which is great since they’re numbers are very low in Wisconsin. While having lunch I saw the biggest northern leopard frog I’ve ever seen – 4 inches!
And as you can see – it’s pretty amazing. Because the river meanders so much the current is quite languid, but since there had been so much rain, the level was high. This made it easy for us to get out and have lunch on the bank. Not the only time we’d be leaving our boats. Everyone was respectful of distance, but we still did a lot of chatting and socializing while we paddled. One of the participants had a lot of botany knowledge and so the educating wasn’t just confined to what Jim or Tracy talked about.
It’s a good thing our group had a bit of cooperation and teamwork already going in order to get cars and people to both the launch and the take out sites. Soon we’d have other things to face. Like those giant trees down there.
I didn’t know it when I took that shot, but that would be one barrier we couldn’t get around on the water. We’d done very well so far – no obstacles too big and everyone managed what trees were in the flow just fine. But these were too big and too low to get under for all but the smallest and bendiest of us.
That didn’t include me. With some help from Jim, I got my kayak hauled up onto the muddy bank and through the tangle of bushes to a place where we could all continue down stream. The mosquitoes ate us alive!! We were so close, just a few minutes, from the take out spot, too. But it made for an adventure.
Tracy and Jim have plans to safely remove that last big barrier so that future trips won’t have the problem we had. Overall it was a great day on the water – 6 hours! – and I’d be tempted to do it again, but with so many other trips that I want to do, it might be a while.