It’s steep, I think, as I scan a faint overgrown path that leads straight up the bluff. “We’re going to go up that?” I hear another say in apparent disbelief. Single file, 10 of us embark on a struggle against gravity as we slip, slide, grab and lunge our way up the wooded slope. I choose my steps and hand holds carefully, avoiding the poison ivy while observing the plant life. The area is rich in native species such as pointed-leaved tick trefoil, Culver’s root, woodland sunflower and common mountain mint. One by one, we all make it to a large opening, revealing what we’ve come to see. Beautiful, I think.
Towering above us is a bluff prairie dotted with chunks of dolomite limestone with the distant bluff’s apex, seeming only an arm reach away from the heavens, crowned with a large sandstone rock outcropping. From our feet, all the way up to where land meets sky, is remnant or virgin prairie sod. Uncommon plant species are everywhere: hoary puccoon, wood betony, small skullcap, dwarf blazing star, western sunflower, silky aster, prairie dropseed, porcupine grass and many others. This is very old prairie sod. Clonal species, such as heath aster and prairie coreopsis, are visible only as individual plants rather than clonal groupings. Clearly a climax plant community, I conclude, representing thousands of years of plant species interacting with each other.
We are visiting Rush Creek State Natural Area, on a guided trip with Jim Rogala of The Prairie Enthusiasts (TPE), a grassroots conservation organization committed to restoring and preserving remnant prairies. Jim, TPE board member representing this region, explains that Rush Creek is owned and managed by the WI DNR. At just under 3,000 acres, Rush Creek’s outstanding feature is a two-mile long series of dry bluff prairies overlooking the Mississippi River. While nearly all of Wisconsin’s prairies have been lost to agriculture and other development, Jim says, Rush Creek’s steepness, dry southwest exposure and DNR management activities such as prescribed fire, are largely responsible for its preservation. According to the WI DNR, Rush Creek’s series of bluff prairies are part of the most extensive dry prairie remnants remaining in Wisconsin.
Jim leads us up the bluff, pointing out plant species, geological features and pausing often to allow us to catch our breath and balance. I see signs of the DNR’s management activities scattered about, including brush cutting and invasive species control. The DNR’s State Natural Areas crew, Jim explains, consist of only a few people, and they are responsible for all the State Natural Areas in the region. They conduct the prescribe burns, control woody brush invasions, and manage invasive species. With limited resources, they try to maintain the highest quality areas and typically can’t expand into other areas.
We skirt around the base of the rock outcropping and start the ascent to the top of the bluff. “The bluff top is just ahead,” I hear someone say. Another says, “It’s likely just an illusion, with the real summit a long ways off.” Finally, I step up to the top of the bluff and turn to look out over the mighty Mississippi River. We must be 400 feet above the river. All of us are quiet now, absorbed in the vista before us.
The river is mostly green, algae from nutrient runoff, I decide. With the exception of several open bluffs in the State Natural Area, all the other bluffs in view along the Mississippi are fully wooded. I had come to see Rush Creek because it’s one of the largest dry prairie remnants remaining, but until now, I didn’t fully grasp just how small it is.
My mind slips back in time, imagining the view from this spot 200 years ago. The bluffs are mostly open, covered in dry prairies as far as one can see. Trees are restricted to deep ravines and other areas where fire can’t reach. The lifeblood Mississippi River is still mighty, teeming with life, unbroken by locks and dams.
We say our goodbyes to the rest of the group, and before heading off to Lansing, Iowa for the evening, we explore another bluff prairie. A secluded trail leads us through an old-growth open woodland with towering red and white oak, basswood, black walnut, hickory and aspen trees. American spikenard, woodland thistle, wood nettle, sweet Joe-pye weed, bottlebrush grass and purple hyssop flourish under the open canopy of the large trees. Eastern towhees serenade us as we quietly explore the last leg of our natural journey.
“Excuse me.” We turn around and face an elderly man. “I saw you two at the rental house (bed & breakfast) and thought I should say hello and see if you have questions.” My wife Debra and I are at Lansing’s Museum of River History, checking out vintage fish market receipts listing fish species by weight and dollar value. They’re fascinating - “buffalo (largest sucker species) 85 lbs,” “mudcat (flathead catfish) 76 lbs,” “carp 22 lbs,” and so forth.
We talk about the fishing industry, and he demonstrates his firsthand experience with various fish traps and recalls the boats his father made out of redwood. “Just down the road at another museum,” he says, “they have one of the original boats my dad made.” We talk about trapping, and he recalls the long days on the river running traps, and shows us his hand scar caused by a mishap with a 330 Conibear trap (used for beaver).
Our lively conversation pauses, and I can feel its energy draining away. “The fishing heyday’s over,” he says. “There’s no more rats (muskrats). The habitat’s all gone.” He looks away, and his thoughts go elsewhere. I can guess where he’s gone, as hours earlier I was there myself, grieving the loss of the prairie. He’s back in his youth, standing on a gravel Mississippi river bottom, pulling in seines overflowing with fish. Or maybe he’s scattering diving ducks with his skiff on a brisk November dawn, en route to check his trap line. We give him time, and his eyes return to mine. “I caught an 18 inch blue (catfish) the other day,” he says, “and the hackleback’s (shovelnose sturgeon) coming back you know.”
I do know, I think. Like me, he has to believe there’s a chance for some of it to return again. A belief that it’s not always the fatal outcome where we use it all up and then move on to the next. A hope we can work together to help heal what we’ve wounded.
To learn to both give to, and take from, our natural world.