A Marsh Adventure
We had to walk through a soybean field to get to the marsh. Larry had a walking stick with him, made from fiberglass probably or something similar, he used it to tap on the ice to make sure it was solid. We stepped on to the ice, walking this area is only possible in winter so it is like magic, mystical. To get on to the ice, we walked through bulrushes and cattails. Trees lined the edge. At first the water was wide. There were many tracks on the ice, deer, coyote, raccoon, otter and mink. Towards the start of our trek, we saw mainly deer tracks. The dog, Jake, came with us; he would wander out of sight following his nose. We paused many times for Larry to call him back to us.
Larry was talking about the way the land should look. At one point, he asked, “Am I boring you?”
I reassured him that he wasn’t, “I am fascinated. It is more of a problem to try to absorb it all and remember it.”
He told me, “Don’t challenge yourself that way, you’ll absorb it over time, you need to allow time to absorb it all.”
We went around a bend. Larry showed me several openings in the ice, maintained by otters. I found it incredibly fascinating. I didn’t even realize there were otters in this area. And I didn’t even think about what otters do in the winter time. Actually, I really didn’t know much about otters. Other than they live in water, love to play and I guessed right that they are in the weasel family (I confirmed this by asking Larry, then I asked if they had a scent gland too, which they do.)
Most of the trees that were around us were box elder, willow, and dogwood. We went through some thick spots, pushing through and ducking under and around willows and dogwood. Some branches tried to steal my hat. It was fun. We came on to a more open spot; Larry said a lot of this was affected by beaver activity. Beavers harvested some of the trees and directed the course of the water. Earlier we went through trees with really bright green lichen on it. I asked Larry “Is this lichen unique to this area?”
He sighed thoughtfully and slowly replied, “I don’t know, talking about lichen is getting way beyond my area of expertise.” We both found them interesting though.
I asked Larry, “Are the mounds of vegetation muskrat lodges?”
He confirmed, “Yes.” Larry seemed quite taken with muskrat.
We saw many more otter holes, and at one there were coyote tracks around it; Larry said, “A coyote was sniffing around the hole.”
One place there seemed to be a highway of tracks, there had been heavy traffic through here. I like the tracks; they tell a story and connect us to the animals that made them. I find them both fascinating and interesting. I had never seen otter tracks before so I found them the most intriguing. There were even tracks from the otters sliding on the snow, it was pretty easy to imagine them playing. It was so awesome to see otter tracks, a whole new experience. We also saw a set of mouse tracks.
There were patches of bulrushes scattered throughout, in fact they seemed to be the most dominate vegetation. Being a tactile person, I touched them as I walked by, gliding my hand along the flat smooth stem, there was a ridge on the bottom.
I can’t remember most the names, but all the vegetation we walked by, I asked Larry what it was and if it was native. There was a stand of black locust trees which were not native. There were a few muskrat huts scattered throughout the bulrushes. We stopped and looked about the landscape, bulrushes and a few trees here and there, Larry said, “I think it had been like this before it was plowed.” Beauty and peacefulness prevailed here, the whole picture. The only sound came from a train whistle across the river in Wisconsin. I believe we were walking north and northwest. We came across an awesome dead tree, large, roots had been a home; otter hole nearby. The tree was absolutely beautiful.
There was a patch of ash trees. With sadness in his voice, Larry said, “Who knows what will happen to them with the emerald ash borer.”
We came across an otter hole that was really fresh, a fresh kill lay next to it, leopard frog. We saw blood near several of the holes. (Larry said “we’re hot on the otter’s tail.”) We talked about what voracious hunters otters are, eating crayfish, minnows, and frogs. I never realized they were hunters. I soaked up the knowledge Larry was imparting to me. At one point we observed large mink tracks, again so incredible.
I asked, “Would a coyote eat an otter?”
Larry said, “They would have to be really hungry to mess with an otter. If otters were a hundred pounds, I wouldn’t be walking on the marsh.”
We passed by some swamp milkweed. Larry grabbed a handful of the seeds as he walked past, letting them slip through his fingers. The seeds drifted on the breeze, the cotton like fibers whisking them about, to gently settle like a parachute. There was a patch of cattails among the bulrushes.
I asked Larry, “Are any of the cattails native?”
He replied, “There are two native species.”
Otter tracks seemed to take up a lot of our time. Curious, I asked Larry, “How do otters make holes in the ice?”
He replied, “They use their teeth and claws.” We could see ice chunks scattered around the hole from the effort.
We headed east after awhile. We came across a wide swath of water, there was wild rice growing here. Larry said, “I haven’t seen so much rice here before. Suddenly it started growing here. The seed was probably here already”. He just doesn’t know why it started growing so well.
I asked, “Is it desirable here?”
He said, “Yes,” and showed me where muskrats had been grazing on it.
There had been, either a year or two ago, lots of muskrat houses, seventy five, I think, but now there is hardly any. Larry isn’t quite sure why, but thinks the otters may be involved. We walked near several houses, Larry pointed out where otters dug into the lodge to eat the muskrats, every lodge we came to had a hole. We walked further on.
As we came upon a beaver lodge, Larry said, “We have to be careful, the ice isn’t as thick.”
It really didn’t look like much, other than its size, nearly twice as big as a muskrat lodge. Honestly it just looked like a brush pile. Sticks and twigs of various sizes, held together by mud. Fresh mud indicated it was active. There were branches nearby, food for the beaver. It was incredibly exhilarating to be so close to a beaver home, the beaver itself not far from where I was standing. I stood there marveling at this well engineered pile of sticks, just in awe of the incredible creature that built it.
Although we stopped and marveled over lodges, tracks, snags, and the landscape as a whole, we didn’t linger in any one spot, again we kept walking. We followed along what Larry called, “a beaver channel,” cattails were so tall they were higher than us, the affect was amazing, walking through a sea of cattails. The cotton holding the seeds loosened as we walked through, drifting onto our coats and snow pants. At the beaver lodge we started to loop south back toward the truck, we had done enough ambling for one morning.