Gone Fishin’

July 21, 2009

Work before play was the ethic of the Victorian era, but not everyone subscribed.

A Wisconsin Central Railroad train at the depot in Colby, Wisconsin. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

A Wisconsin Central Railroad train at the depot in Colby, Wisconsin. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Take the fellow known to Ashland County historians only as  “Mr. Merrill of Prairie du Chien.” A few months after the first cars of the Wisconsin Central Railroad reached the Lake Superior shore in spring 1877,  he traveled halfway across the state to board  the train running north from Marshfield to Ashland.  At a spot in the forest yet to be disturbed by logger’s axe or farmer’s plow, but where the locomotive was obliged to stop, Merrill hopped off the train and headed down the trail running due west.

Leaves were already turning in the softening September light. Canoe birch to bright yellow, soft maple in the lowlands to scarlet, hard maple on the uplands to burnished gold. White pine needles stayed green but added a wintry caul of dusky blue.

After a trek of about five miles, Merrill reached his destination, Butternut Lake. One thousand acres of gravel bars and rice beds, rocky dropoffs and reedy shallows, all overlain with a flawless mirror of clear water capturing images of the sky.

He set to his task, but not to work. He laid no traps to extract beaver pelts,  chipped no rocks in search of copper or iron ore, appraised no trees for their content of lumber in board feet,  stretched no chains to mark forties for farms or town lots for sale, scooped up no soil to assess its capability for corn.

He went fishing. In waters yet to be sullied by logging slash or camp debris, or marred by farm runoff, wetland drainage or village trash.  All that and more would come to Butternut and thousands of other virgin lakes in the north, but not in 1877.

Only Merrill of Prairie du Chein, who did very well with his hook and line. The Ashland Press reported that he caught “eighty pounds of musky.”  He probably hooked as much or more of walleye, pike or perch, but even in 1877, the tiger fish of the north was the catch most coveted.  He lugged his haul out to the railroad, packed them in a barrel full of ice and shipped them home to Prairie du Chien where they enlivened the catfish-rich dinner tables of his family and friends.

“Time is the pool I go fishing in,” wrote another lake lover thirty years prior to Merrill’s expedition to Butternut Lake.  For Henry David Thoreau, how we use our time on this earth was the elemental question.

In September 1877, Merrill of Prairie du Chien fished in the pristine pool of Butternut Lake. His choice was well-timed. 1878 would have been too late.

 issued by the Land Department of the Wisconsin Central Railroad in order to promote the sale of railroad-owned land in northern Wisconsin.

An advertisement issued by the Wisconsin Central Railroad promoting the sale of railroad-owned land in northern Wisconsin. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society.

–Michael Goc


On Birds and Bards: Central Wisconsin’s Prairie Chicken Festival

April 17, 2009
A territorial encounter between male Greater Prairie Chickens.  Photo: Len Backus.

A territorial encounter between male Greater Prairie Chickens. Photo: Len Backus.

Birding enthusiasts who hoped to take part in Greater Prairie Chicken watching at the Central Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival can sleep in this weekend: all four viewing venues are filled to capacity.

Don’t be discouraged, though, because there are many ways to participate in this annual celebration of the state’s grassland habitats. Each of seven locations will host its own variety of activities that incorporate art, science and literature, including a day-long “non-urban” literary festival featuring Wisconsin bards and book authors.

The festival began at dawn this morning (April 17) with the first Prairie Chicken viewing experience. Those lucky enough to have made a reservation to the Buena Vista Wildlife Area event–the early birds, you might say–saw male Prairie Chickens vying for female attention. Part of this annual mating ritual includes an activity called “booming:” the male inflates the orange-colored air sac on his neck, emitting a sound that can be heard as far as a mile away. Additional tours of the Prairie Chickens booming grounds are scheduled for Paul J. Olson Wildlife Area in Rudolph and Mead Wildlife Area in Milladore–but again, they’re booked solid.

Everyone can still attend the Wisconsin Center for the Book‘s Literary Bash taking place tomorrow (Saturday, April 18) at Grant Elementary School in Wisconsin Rapids. Featured speakers include the Cooperative Children’s Book Center‘s Megan Schliesman, who will recommend nature books for youth; travel writer Mary Bergin; Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Glen Moberg; and others.

Booming Bob greets a 2008 festival goer. Photo: Jodi Hermson.

There’s lots for kids to do, too: arts and crafts activities, maple syrup tasting, bird-banding demonstrations and guest appearances by festival mascot “Booming Bob.” At the Literary Bash, poster contest winners from Grant Elementary’s “Celebrating Grasslands” competition will be honored, as will the youth winners of the Letters about Literature competition, a state and national student writing contest coordinated by Wisconsin author Tom Montag.

And this evening, Rapids Mall hosts a Nature Art Crawl where festival goers can purchase the works of central Wisconsin artists and learn from area conservation organizations. In addition, enjoy a screening of the film “Northern Harrier” by Wild Journey Films and the performance “Red Land” by Academie de la Dance.

In its fourth year, the festival has rapidly gained in popularity, even as Greater Prairie Chicken numbers in Wisconsin have declined. Last year’s estimate put the population at 1,000 in Wisconsin, down from 55,000 in 1955. One of the main goals of the annual festival is to support the efforts of landowners who wish to preserve the habitats of the Greater Prairie Chicken and other wildlife. Festival activities will include information on land management practices and programs that can assist them in their efforts.

Soon after the dust settles on the booming grounds this year, planners will begin preparing for the 2010 event. So if you want an up close look (and listen) at the Prairie Chicken in Wisconsin, remember to plan early for next year’s fest. Meanwhile, here’s a YouTube video from the Missouri Department of Conservation to show you what you can expect to see.

–Tammy Kempfert


Always Bring Binoculars

March 11, 2009

Getting caught without binoculars is, to a birder, a “cardinal sin.” That’s according to Andy Paulios, a DNR bird conservationist recently featured on Wisconsin Public Television’s On the Trail: An In Wisconsin Special. While Paulios may not have intended the pun, he is serious about protecting bird habitats in Wisconsin–both on public and private lands.

In Wisconsin producer Jo Garrett followed Paulios to Cook Arboretum for a segment of the program, which airs on WPT Thursday, March 12, 7:00 p.m. Carrying binoculars might be a nature lover’s version of the Scout motto, “Be prepared,” but experienced birders come to rely on their ears at least as much as their eyes, Paulios says. An acadian flycatcher, for example, will trill “peet-zaah!” and an Eastern towhee will loudly chirp “drink-your-TEEEA!” (Surely, though, the Wisconsin translation of towhee-speak must be “cheddar CHEEESE!”)

Cook Arboretum near Janesville is a stopping point on the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail that links the best places for observing birds and other wildlife around the state. In Wisconsin viewers can follow the trail with Garrett to see and hear great blue herons, saw whet owls, sandhill cranes and other birds that make their home here–and just this once, no binoculars necessary. It’s well worth a watch, especially for those who crave the birdsong of spring after a long Wisconsin winter. (The entire special is streamed online as well.)

As for the trail, it reaches every area of Wisconsin by highway. Maps and guides are available through the Department of Natural Resources.