Horicon Marsh, carved by glaciers, exciting to visit

Horicon Marsh is located about 16 miles southwest of Fond du Lac. A flooded marsh is low lying land easily flooded, and a place that remains waterlogged at all times. About two thirds of the marsh is a National Wildlife Refuge, and the other one-third a State Wildlife Area. It is one of the largest intact freshwater wetlands in the US. I am not normally a prone to visit environmental wonders, but I confess this "exploration" was fun and even exciting. For me the visit turned out to be an adventure.

September 13, 2018

Horicon Marsh is located in southeast Wisconsin about 16 miles southwest of Fond du Lac. It has been formally recognized as a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention of the United Nations. It is one of the largest intact freshwater wetlands in the US.

A marsh is low lying land easily flooded, a place that remains waterlogged at all times. The northern two thirds of the marsh, about 22,000 acres, is a National Wildlife Refuge managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The southern one-third, about 11,000 acres, is a State Wildlife Area managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The DNR describes the Horicon Marsh:

"Horicon Marsh is a shallow, peat-filled lake bed scoured out of limestone by the Green Bay lobe of the massive Wisconsin glacier. The glacier entered this area about 70,000 years ago and receded about 12,000 years ago. The same layer of rock that forms the gentle hills to the east of the marsh extends 500 miles to the east and is the same rock layer over which the Niagara River plunges at Niagara Falls. This Niagara Escarpment bordering the marsh, commonly referred to as 'The Ledge' extends for 230 miles in the state of Wisconsin alone. The marsh itself is approximately 14 miles long and ranges from 3-5 miles in width … (It) is a critical rest stop for thousands of migrating ducks and Canada geese … (It is also a) critical habitat for over 300 species of birds as well as muskrats, red foxes, turtles, frogs, bats, dragonflies, fish and much more."

I did a story on the
Ledge County Park in northern Dodge County, just a few miles east off the southeast end of Horicon Marsh.

This Green Bay Lobe of the Wisconsin Glacier was powerful. DNR has said:

"The Green Bay lobe encroached upon eastern Wisconsin where it carved out Green Bay. As it moved inland, it etched out the Lake Winnebago Basin and to the south, the Horicon Marsh and Rock River Basin. It reached as far south as the Madison area before it began to retreat due to warming global climates."

Wikipedia has said:

"During the glacier's retreat, a moraine was created, forming a natural dam holding back the waters from the melting glacier and forming Glacial Lake Horicon. The Rock River slowly eroded the moraine, and the lake drained. As the levels of silt, clay and peat accumulated in the former lake's basin, the Horicon Marsh was formed. Occasionally there have even been crop circles that appeared unexpectedly in several areas."

It should be noted that for a while the area was considered useless. Don't tell that to all the wildlife that lives there!

This is a Google Map presentation that very roughly depicts the Horicon Marsh and its near area. The Marsh is much more complicated than this but this is good for general reference purposes, to get your bearings.

When speaking of the marsh and the surrounding region, one is exposed to "drumlins." They are "a series of elongated hills." Drumlins also appear within the marsh in the form of islands. This photo is not from the marshIt nicely depicts a drumlin. To the left is the blunt end, to the right is the tapered end. Imagine the direction of the ice flow to be from left to right.

"Dodge County and surrounding areas have the highest concentration of drumlin in the world" according to DNR.

A moraine is the material left behind by a moving glacier. Scientists have categorized the various types of moraines as shown on this graphic.

I wish I had an aerial view of the Horicon Marsh. If I did, you would note the marsh hosts a great deal of water, some of which is visible. I used this Mapquest satellite view of the Marsh and tried to enhance it so you could see the bodies of water.

One important set of inflows of water is the Rock River and its three branches: East, West and South. I want top show these to you. The Rock River, a tributary of the Mississippi, is a very important source of water for the marsh.

I cannot show you the river's branches on one map, so I'll try it with two.

This is a map showing the northern two-thirds of the marsh, the National Wildlife Refuge area. The black arrow at the top points to the southern branch of the Rock River, while the next black arrow points to the West Branch. I am sure there is a good reason for naming the South Branch, which is up in the north, but I did not look into it.

This map is of the southern one-third of the marsh, the State Wildlife Area. The black arrow points to the end of the Eastern Branch of the Rock River.

This map also highlights an issue you might run into looking at various maps. Note the blue arrow points to what is said to be the Rock River. If you looked around you would see several maps that call almost all the visible water in the marsh the Rock River. Figuring out how the various elements of the Rock River were named would be fun to research, but not here.

Steven Verburg presents a wonderful Horicon March visitor map. You can get a full page copy on-line or from the FWS people at the marsh. I understand this is very hard to read, if it can be read at all in this presentation. So I am going to use sections of this map to show you where I was when I took various photos.

One can take hiking trails and canoe rides through part of the marsh. If done, you can get some great photography for sure. I chose to take my tour by car. I have a zoom lens, but not telescopic, so we'll just have to make do with the imagery I took.

I entered the marsh area from Mayville. I took CH Y north to Kekoskee. I then took a left on CH TW to Dike Rd., which is marked by the red arrow. I took a right on Dike Rd. which then heads west. The dotted line shows the boundary between the National Wildlife Refuge on the north and the State Wildlife Area on the south. This section is largely of the state area.

The blue arrow points to the East Branch of the Rock River, and the green arrow points to the Rock River. Here is another example of how map markings can drive you crazy. Note here that the Rock River is shown to be on the eastern side of the Marsh, yet I told you earlier the river flowed through the marsh. I'll just set all that aside. My purpose with these maps is to help you get your bearings. I'll get to the black arrow and Clark's Ditch in a moment.

This is a view of the East Branch taken from Dike Rd. as it crosses it.

I took this photo of the Marsh from the end of Dike Road, marked by the red arrow on the above map. When I visited, Dike Road dead ended at the boundary between the state area of the Marsh. I have seen maps that show the road continuing across the Marsh but on the day I visited I could not drive beyond the marker.

I have read where people were able to go beyond.
One visitor described Dike Rd:

"Cars can drive the gravel road for seemingly ever, spotting herons, ducks, and dozens of other critters along the way. This is where my family would often 'go for a drive.' This is where my father would let me and my younger brothers sit on his lap and take the wheel. This is where the Marsh is at its most generous, its most abundant, its most wild."

I suspect that in April it may have been too wet for cars, but okay for hikers and bicycles, which would explain why I had to stop.

Unfortunately I could not continue on Dike Rd. So it looks like I missed a lot.

All that aside, there is a large body of water shown in the center. Note the straight-line water flow connecting to it. That is a man-made ditch. A ditch was dug to facilitate water flow out from the marsh. I believe it is called Clark's Ditch.

The Clark Ditch is marked by the black arrow. It flows to the west and meets the Main Ditch, which flows north to south roughly through the center of the Marsh.

I believe this one was named after Satterlee Clark who wrote
History of Dodge County Wisconsin 1880. He traveled by boat and portage from Lake Winnebago to the upper Rock River, and laid over at its southern mouth off Horicon Marsh in September 1830. He was a great student of the Winnebago Indians.

An aside about ditches

There are multiple ditches in the Marsh. I should talk about them briefly. FWS has posted a paper, "American Settlement, Exploitation, and Conservation: What was Horicon Marsh like in the 1830s?" According to this paper, there are "17 lateral ditches … dug 30 feet wide and about four feet deep either at one mile intervals or wherever landowners requested to intercept stress flowing into the marsh from their uplands. Many of the laterals were named after those landowners."

I originally thought the ditches were dug for environmental reasons. Not so.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the idea of ditching was focused on land reclamation, investment and development. The ditches did impact the economy, but not as hoped. The ditches destroyed "some original marsh vegetation, ignited weeds and increased weeds, and increased the risk and danger of fire." The main ditch, which runs north-south, increased the speed of flow and took down the water table by one foot.

The Izaak Walton League said, "That huge ditch became a vampire stream, which bled white the famous Horicon Marsh." The Rock River was "shred to ribbons. The marsh changed from green to brown. People could not run boats, the mud was too soft and deep, and duck hunting suffered greatly.duck hunting suffered. In short, the paper says "the marshland became a wasteland."

In 1923, restoring the wetlands became a top priority. I commend this paper to you for the details.

Let's return to my car tour.

This time I take you to see what a marsh looks like, flooded as always, but with quite a bit of vegetation showing. FWS says:

"(There are) dense stands of cattail, bulrushes, burreed, sedges and smartweeds – all great food for ducks, and other migrating birds!"

I ran across a DNR study, "
Control and management of cattails in southeastern Wisconsin wetlands," which includes Horicon. Control and management? I wondered why. The study said there was a "cattail invasion" at Horicon. What?

"Extensive dense cattail stands generally restrict wildlife use and species diversity. (However) they furnish excellent nest cover for a large variety of birds when properly interspersed with open water. The value of cattails to muskrats as food and nest building material is well known and of great importance."

They also serve as protective cover for deer and provide deer with green shoots used as food. They are important to pheasants as well, especially in winter. calls for "water manipulation" to manage cattails. "The ultimate goal (is to provide) food and cover conditions for optimum production of marsh wildlife." I commend the study to you.

I am embarrassed to say I did not know what a cattail was. I did a bit of research, then searched my photos for cattail.

This is what they look like in the summer.

My visit was during a Wisconsin April, where winter is just concluding. During the winter the Cattails die off, but beneath the surface their roots are alive, in a dormant state. Nonetheless, after learning a bit more about cattails, I found a fairly good image in my bundle that shows them in Horicon, dead but there.

I zoomed in to get a better look.

That ends my effort to pretend I am a botanist! Time to move on.

As I wandered around Rockvale and Dike Roads I frankly was surprised to see farm lands and homes. I was surprised because I thought these farms were in the Marsh. That was incorrect. Once I finally looked at the map closely, I saw Rockvale Rd. was outside the Marsh boundary, just barely on the east side. The section of Dike Rd. on which I drove was also outside the Marsh.

This farm scene was on the corner of Rockvale and Dike Roads. I was quite taken with this scene, as the buildings were pretty old and had taken a beating from the environment. There are other homes nearby. But I recall standing there on a gloomy day, staring at the worn buildings, and I felt I was alone, almost in another world. I stared at it for quite a while, then hopped back into my car and re-entered "the Marsh world."

With that, my next stop took me into a fun place. After seeing that farm, I backtracked on Dike Rd. and was able to hook a right shortly thereafter on a continuation of Dike Rd. I then turned right to head north on Steer Rd.

A little more than halfway up Sterr Rd. I came across this great discovery. I think I hollered "Jackpot" in my car. There were tire tracks through the field that looked like they would take me very close to the marsh. Sterr Rd. is inside the eastern portion of the National Wildlife Refuge. I decided to take my car and follow those tire tracks, as though I were about to uncover a great mystery.

I reached as far as this track went. That is Townline Ditch in the lower right hand quadrant of the photo, feeding into the main body of water. Once again, this ditch is draining water from the Marsh.

This is a case where the photo does not do justice to the experience. There is no replacement for being there, standing there, and simply looking out. One author says it well:

"Simply feel. It's easy to make up for lost time when all time stands still."

Oh yes, I had to back out. It turned out this was not an easy thing to do. Lots of mud, only front wheel drive, so it was a bit of a fight to back out. I did not dare try to turn around, fearing the whole car would sink!

I continued on Steer Rd. to CH Z, hung a left, and another left on Lehner Rd. to its dead end.

From this spot I got a great shot of Lehner's Ditch. The Lehner farm once was at the end of Lehner's Rd.

Now comes more fun, without having to fight a mud ditch! I returned to CH Z, headed north, and then took a left to the west on Ledge Rd.

Much to my delight Ledge Rd. goes alongside Strook's Ditch. In 1910 William Strook bought some land on the south side of Ledge Rd, and sold it in 1925. Strook operated the well-known Horicon Shooting Club. In any event, this was a great chance to get right next to the Marsh.

I traveled along Ledge Rd. staring at the ditch. Here I found a few ducks.

I think the one with some white is a male Northern Shovele, but am not 100 percent sure. I am not a botanist, and I am not an ornithologist. Sad but true.

The ditch is widest as it joins the Main ditch and then a large "lake." There are a couple big birds close to the vegetation. Let's zoom.

The two big guys were ducks who had just landed. I saw them land and was too slow to photo them on final approach.

Now they just hang, looking cool!

I turned around and headed back to CH Z. I saw this big fella perched on the dead cattail — I am amazed that "straw" can hold him!

Once again I returned to CH Z and headed north. Somehow I missed Marsh Rd.-Point Rd. to the left, heading west. The map shows Marsh Rd. going across the Marsh, though it was April in Wisconsin and it might have been closed at some point. Any way, if you go out there, keep your eyes open for it. It should offer a great ride. I regret missing the turn.

I was now on Hwy 49 West and arrived at a large body of water. I saw many cars parked along the roadway. So I stopped, got out, walked across the highway, and could see why so many were there. The pelicans were putting on a show.

I tried to follow a couple around and get them up in the air. My shots are not worth showing. Argh! I must get that telescopic lens.

One more stop, for me a pleasant surprise and a nice way to end the day.

There is a boardwalk in that area highlighted by the red arrow. It is about 2.5 miles round-trip. It is wheelchair accessible. Note that it turns to the left in the upper left quadrant of the photo.

It was a gloomy, chilly day in Wisconsin's April, but there were about 20 people out there. Several had first class telescopic lenses and binoculars. I bumped into one couple who spotted a bird they thought was confined to Texas. They were quite excited to see it in Wisconsin..

Here you can see how the boardwalk is heading to the left and then back to the right to its end. I was quite impressed with the workmanship and the boardwalk's way of putting people in the middle of the marsh.

And there she is on all her splendor! Horicon Marsh.

My visit far exceeded my expectations. I must return.