A day trip to Horicon Marsh

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-aLKxKKTOwc.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert Hedeen’, ‘The Great Egret is a regular visitor to Horicon Marsh.’);

Anyone looking for a delightful day trip should consider making the approximately 100-mile trek north to visit the world-famous Horicon Marsh, near the Wisconsin town of Horicon. This ecological gem is the largest cattail marsh in the world and has been referred to as “The Everglades” of the North.

The marsh is a 32,000-acre, shallow, 14-mile long, peat-filled lake bed that the massive Wisconsin glacier gouged out of the limestone bedrock some 70,000 years ago. This was the ice age in our geological history that ended when the climate underwent a dramatic increase in temperature, and the glacier retreated north about 12,000 years ago.

The northern 21,000 acres of the marsh make up the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge and is under the supervision of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The southern 11,000 acres are controlled by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as The Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area. Cooperation between state and federal authorities is excellent as they manage the entire marsh as one wetland ecosystem.

Perhaps the Marsh is best known to individuals in other parts of the country as a stopover for thousands of geese as they migrate each year from Hudson Bay to southern Illinois and farther south as part of the Mississippi Valley population of Canada geese.

I was first made aware of the importance of Horicon Marsh many years ago when I bought a Mercury outboard motor from a dealer on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Mercury outboards were made in Fond du Lac, Wis. at that time, which is not far from the marsh. If you made a substantial purchase, the company gave you a beautiful print of geese resting and feeding in the marsh. I framed the print and still have it somewhere in my basement.

But geese are just part of the story of the wildlife that utilizes Horicon Marsh. About 223 different species of birds have been spotted there along with white-tailed deer, fox, muskrats, mink, and several species of snakes, snapping turtles and many other animals. Of particular interest to me was the large population of redhead ducks. Thousands of redheads use the marsh each year, and it is said to be the largest nesting population of these ducks east of the Mississippi River. Redheads are few and far between in the Chesapeake Bay area and have been protected from hunters for years.

In addition to the waterfowl you will encounter on your visit to Horicon, you may see shorebirds, marsh birds, terns, raptors, and many species of songbirds. Outstanding species include the white pelican, sandhill crane, wild turkey, northern harriers, and yellow-headed blackbirds. The marsh is also home to the largest nesting rookery of the great blue heron in Wisconsin.

For hundreds of years, Horicon Marsh (horicon means pure water) provided food and other necessities for Native Americans inhabiting the area. When white settlers came into the area, they quickly changed the ecosystem from a marsh into the largest artificial lake in the world at that time. A dam was constructed on the Rock River in 1846, and the settlers used the lake to float logs, move farm products, and to provide power for a saw mill and a grist mill. The dam was removed in 1869, and the lake reverted back to its natural marsh status. For years, the marsh was subjected to unregulated market hunting of waterfowl and other species. For a time during that period in the late 19th century, there was an attempt to destroy the marsh and convert it to farmland. This plan failed as the soil was too peaty and wet for anything of value as a crop to grow there.

Conservation groups, especially the Izaak Walton League, fought short-sighted, greedy developers for years. They won the battle when President Franklin Roosevelt, on July 16, 1941, signed the bill that established the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge for the protection and conservation of migratory birds.

To get to Horicon Marsh from the Rockford area, take I-90 to Janesville. From Janesville, use route 26 for a scenic drive through the bucolic countryside to route 33 on the outskirts of Horicon. Follow signs to the Wisconsin DNR Service Center, where a map of the marsh showing the areas of interest that can be visited will be provided by a helpful staff.

The trip to Horicon Marsh is an adventure you will not soon forget.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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