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We retained Volkert to talk about Horicon’s twisted history and lead North East Wisconsin Paddlers’ first public paddle of the 2017 schedule on May 6. The trip drew 67 paddlers, many on their first NEWP paddle.
Volkert told of a visitor to the marsh who remarked on how wonderful it was that we – the royal WE – had preserved all of this wonderful wetland. That’s when Volkert recited the list of attempts by WE to make the marsh knuckle under.
Known now for its Canada goose population, Horicon of the early 1800s was prime duck territory. The first assault on the marsh was hunting clubs with shotguns of such a low gauge that a single shot could bring down as many as 50 birds. Understand, this was after centuries of Native American habitation.
WE built a dam in 1846 to power a sawmill. That created Lake Horicon. A court battle did in that plan, as the people who flooded the land faced a court order to pay the people who owned the land for their losses or put a hole in the dam. As sure as if it were hit by a 6-gauge shotgun, the dam went down.
If WE can’t flood it, let’s drain it.
The next idea – 1910 -- was to farm Horicon, growing root vegetables in the deep peat soil. A couple of wet growing seasons doomed the greening of Horicon. Drawing down the water exposed the peat dried it out and made it susceptible to fire. One burned for three years.
So it wasn’t so much that we preserved Horicon but that Horicon refused to be tamed. That’s when the state decided in 1927 to make it a natural area. Funding ran short, so they turned to the federal government. Fourteen years later, the feds agreed to acquire twice as much more to the north, but decided to hold onto control.
The marsh also refuses to be navigated.
Water flowing in from the Rock River – and there’s plenty of it this year – can change the path of the channels in the marsh. That even fooled the master. At one point, the first became last as we hit a dead-end bay and had to turn around. Our seven-mile paddle turned into more like eight. Volkert knows enough detail about the marsh, its history and everything about its bird life to fill.
He was the lead paddler, so only a small part of the group was able to paddle next to him and benefit from his expertise. When I made my way from mid-pack up to within shouting range, I asked him if he’d seen any interesting birds. I was feeling good about already having counted a kingfisher, turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk, a great blue heron rookery and a variety of songbirds.
“I’ve identified 40 birds,” Volkert said, deflating my bird bubble. He has the unfair advantage of knowing most of the marsh’s birds by their song. Identifying by ear without sight is legal in birding circles.
At the pre-launch gathering, we challenged our paddlers to keep Volkert talking for the whole trip. “That’s never been a problem,” he joked. Or at least I thought he was joking.
He is capable of delivering flat-toned recitation about birds, where they migrate, when they return, how they nest and their population prospects for the future and fill eight miles easy. His command of dates, names and details is impressive.
It was totally enjoyable to be part of a blink in time at the marsh. That’s one bit of history likely to repeat itself.
UP NEXT: The Three Good Dams Paddle will travel the upper Fox River from the Princeton Dam to the White River Dam, none miles, on Saturday, May 20, and continue on Sunday, May 21, 10.5 miles to the Berlin Dam. Camping is available at Mecan River Outfitters.