Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Don Macaulay, paddling the river. © Thomas L. Eddy

For the author’s long–time friend, Don Macaulay, paddling the river provided pleasant lollygagging among overgrown and disheveled banks, occasionally interrupted by snags and deadfalls.
© Thomas L. Eddy

February 2014

A streambank clock

The Mecan meanders through time and terrain.

Story and photos by Thomas L. Eddy


Mecan. The name may be a derivation of “mikana,” an Ojibwe word that means “trail.” One of the earliest sources to identify the “river trail” and bearing the name “Makun Creek” is from an 1851 survey plat prepared by the U.S. General Land Survey Office. Two years later, the Wisconsin gazetteer referred to it as “Mechan River.” Exactly how long a name similar to “Mecan” was used before the original survey plat isn’t known, but evidently it predates it.


“A river, almost by definition, is a body of moving water large enough to occupy one’s mind.”
Lyall Watson,
“The Water Planet” (1988)

Roughly 25 miles in length as the crow flies and with over 70 miles of shoreline, the river headwaters begin at Mecan Springs in southwest Waushara County. Winding its way southeast across Wisconsin’s Central Plain, the Mecan spills into northeast Marquette County, where it temporarily pools as marshland behind the Germania dam. From there, the waters tumble over the spillway, flowing several more miles before discharging into the Fox River just inside Green Lake County.

The Mecan’s upper reaches are trout heaven where the brushy shorebanks constrict a stony streambed that crawls with corpulent mayfly and caddis fly larvae, hellgrammites and other coldwater delicacies. A few miles downstream the current slows, the rocky bottom is retired with sand and silt, and the pools become deeper. All told, the river’s watershed encompasses about 190 square miles of wetlands, oak savanna and forests that occupy the extinct lakebed of Glacial Lake Oshkosh.

Natural reproduction by brown trout, a European introduction, makes for a Class II coldwater fishery. Above the dam in late May or early June, when the mayflies hatch, trout fishermen school to the Mecan and its tributaries, the Chaffee and Wedde, much like the browns they covet and pursue. If a fishery’s health is a measure of stream quality, then the Mecan is hale and hearty.

Further evidence of the river’s exceptional water quality was revealed in 1999 when the Perrier Group of America (PGA) drilled test wells near Mecan Springs. Ardent public protests compelled the PGA to retreat from the headwaters.

About a quarter mile downstream from the Germania dam floats a stretch of pioneer history in the old millrace that furnished hydropower for the Germania gristmill. The canal was excavated in 1867, the same year the Germania Dam Company constructed the original dam. Collectively, the hundreds of acres of impounded water were referred to as “Germania Lake.” Sometime later the mill burned down and in 1902 the dam was removed. As a result, instead of harnessing waterpower, local farmers harvested the wild meadow hay that established itself on the old lakebed. Some of the wild hay was shipped to Oshkosh where the grass and sedge were woven into grass twine and grass rugs.

In hindsight to some, removing the original dam was a mistake — the demand for wild meadow hay diminished, coinciding with the Oshkosh Grass Rug Company closure in 1935. By the 1940s local hunting clubs and conservation organizations, such as the Izaak Walton League of America, urged the Wisconsin Conservation Department to establish a new dam at Germania to manage waterfowl production and enhance the Mecan fishery. The present–day dam at Germania was completed in 1959, and what had been named Germania Lake in the 19th century is now the Germania Marsh State Wildlife Area.

The short section of river that is part of the original Germania millrace is inconspicuous to most Mecan travelers, but to the local economy that was driven by this stretch of the river four generations ago, and to the people it sustained, it is a noteworthy footnote in the river’s meandering past.

Meanders

“Any river is really the summation of the whole valley. To think of it as nothing but water is to ignore the greater part.”
Hal Borland,
“This Hill, This Valley” (1957)

The Mecan is classified as a “meander,” perhaps the most common river type studied. Meanders typically loop gradually and circuitously downward across a relatively flat valley floor. The term “meander” originates from the Maiandros, a winding river that is now part of present–day Turkey. From the Maiandros the ancient Greeks derived their word for winding course: meander.

The Mecan flowed for the first time near the close of the Pleistocene epoch, about 12,000 years ago, when mammoths, mastodons and other Ice Age megafauna teetered on extinction. Over several millennia the centrifugal force of water pressed the river into curves, slicing away the bank and leaving a more sinuous path in its wake. Churning eddies beneath the cut banks quietly agitate the deep languid pools, belying the calm of the river.

Amid every bend is a “reach” where the current descends to the opposite bank. At this crossing, the river widens, the flow diminishes and sediments that had been locked in a riverbank upstream are freed and deposited on the opposite “point” downstream.

Gradual erosion and deposition of the banks occur in a ripple–like manner and the looping contours become more exaggerated over time. Interactions between the grade of the valley floor, water volume, flow rate and sediment load directly influence the spacing, dimensions and contours between loops. At length, the rhythm of the Mecan translates into varied shorelands, abundant wildlife and anticipation for what lies beyond the next bend.

If the landscape surrounding a meander refers to its origin, then perhaps floodplain is misapplied. “Meanderplain” is more accurate, for although silt spreads over the valley floor during flooding, the plain is mostly transformed by the incremental migration of the meander back and forth across the valley. In this manner the banks of the meander are like a clock, a streambank clock marking time and events unique to each flowage.

As the river ages, it eventually flows a more direct route. Outer banks separating two contiguous loops are washed away forming a new channel or “cutoff” that divides the upstream bend from the meander. The resultant dead–end loop may survive as an arc–shaped channel or basin called an “oxbow.” The ecology of these former meander loops is wholly unlike what they had been when furnished with steady, flowing water. What had been a deep bend in the river, complete with the flushing action of moving water, is transformed into a fecund backwater, clogged with silts, black muck and life.

Backwaters

“The perch swallows the grub–worm, the pickerel swallows the perch, and the fisherman swallows the pickerel; and so all the chinks in the scale of being are filled.”
Henry David Thoreau,
“Walden,” The Pond in Winter (1854)

At a sparsely timbered oxbow, knots of toads and armies of peepers and treefrogs line up along the shore. Males call to gravid mates, their croaks and trills issuing a sense of urgency and timeliness. Water seeps through the oxbow sluggishly such that amphibian eggs are gently aerated, not swept away downstream. Tadpoles that hatch from the eggs graze on algae, but predators will consume the bulk of this rich and concentrated source of pollywog protein, and larger predators will in turn eat them.

Sunlight dapples the surface of the oxbow pool, illuminating a muted sheen of yellow–green pollen dispensed from willow catkins. Stagnant and rank, the water hosts a microcosm teeming with salient mats of floating duckweed and filamentous algae, immeasurable aggregates of microscopic plankton, and lily pad islands whose gelatinous undersides are floating hatcheries for a myriad of invertebrates.

In this backwater every nook and cranny is occupied by hunger. Later in the year the oxbow pool may dry into a mud flat, choked green with spike–rush, cut grass and annual weeds.

And the willow pollen? It eventually settles into the mire and decomposes, but some lies preserved in state along with other windborne pollen. The grains are deposited and embedded in layers of silt, and like pages of an almanac, they record facts of species and seasons, and in the end, a history of regional climate and vegetation. As for now, the fresh–cut trails by dabbling ducks or a solitary muskrat are all that disturb what is an otherwise continuous pollen film.

Distinctions

Above the waterline, trunks are clad with basking turtles. © Thomas L. Eddy
Above the waterline, trunks are clad with basking turtles.
© Thomas L. Eddy

“There is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
Kenneth Grahame,
Rat, from “The Wind in the Willows,” Chapter 1 (1908)

Paddling the river provides pleasant lollygagging. A canoe brushes past overgrown and disheveled banks, occasionally interrupted by snags and deadfalls. Partially submerged timbers function like wing dams, channeling the flow and providing structure for fish and bottom dwellers.

Above the waterline, trunks are clad with basking turtles and brown water snakes that drape motionless across blanched limbs. Tufts of epiphytic vegetation sprout from the detritus that is trapped in gnarly cracks and crevices.

The streambank is adorned with lusty songbirds, clusters of violets, fern fiddleheads and verdant patches of moss. An arching palisade of raspberry briar serves sentry to what lies just beyond the bank: a log–drumming grouse in a neighboring tamarack swamp, the incessant call of a catbird in an alder thicket, and close to the stream, the rusted shell of an old automobile. A dairy cow bellows from a nearby farm. Thoughts turn to the hippo.

Among all the rivers in North America, the Mecan may hold an unparalleled distinction — an African hippopotamus was shot and killed above Germania Marsh in early May 1994. Incongruous as it seems, following its escape from a rural wild game farm, a young hippo on the lam took to the river and, much to the owner’s chagrin, was dispatched when attempts at live trapping failed.

Separated from home by an ocean and a game farm, the “river horse” was on the opposite end of the exotic species invasion spectrum, its lifeblood washed far downstream past wetlands choked with purple loosestrife and woodlands congested with European and glossy buckthorn.

A modern footbridge spans the Mecan where river travelers can disembark, build a fire and prepare lunch. Just downstream from here the vestiges of another millrace are apparent — a clogged channel and small concrete impoundment are largely concealed by reed canary grass and stinging nettle. The 10–foot wide race was hand–dug in the 1850s and drained into the Fox River on the west edge of Princeton.

By 1857 a sufficient volume of water flowed through the canal to power a three–story gristmill capable of processing 50 barrels of flour per day. In 1898 the canal, which had been widened and deepened by steam shovel, supplied hydroelectric power for Princeton’s sole street lamp, a two–carbon arc light.

By the turn of the century the fate of the Princeton millrace reflected the demand for electricity, and in 1902 a light plant was franchised by a village board ordinance. The city acquired the light plant, lines, poles and other rights for $12,094.07 in 1905. A larger hydroelectric plant was constructed in 1919 and operated until 1938 when the Wisconsin Power and Light Company (WPL) purchased the millrace and plant. Finally, in 1960 WPL was authorized to abandon the millstream. The canal was filled in and the sum of the Mecan’s waters once again emptied into the Fox River about three miles southwest of Princeton.

Steady and true

“I recommend to you to take care of the minutes; for hours will take care of themselves.”
Lord Chesterfield,
in a letter to his son, Nov. 6, 1747

Weathered and worn smooth like a trusted timepiece, the streambank clock is wound up with gravity, then winds down, coursing pendulum–like across the meanderplain. The streambank’s crumbly edges, like swirling flotsam, drift past bygone oxbows and millraces. Rank vegetation cascades the brim, effusing from the riparian verge for a season, a decade, perhaps a century or more, but eventually it reaches the destination by way of the river trail.

Snags and deadfalls syncopate the calm stretches of flowage — their interwoven snarls of exposed rootlets pose as roiling eddies. On sandbars and sodden mudflats, where shorebirds probe for sustenance, spike–rush colonies appear as concentric ripples on a still pool. And the ubiquitous reed canary grass is a deluge, banks overflowing with undulating stems and leaves.

Further along where the bank disappears, the undertow is a gouge — a gaping labyrinth of blackened space once occupied by living soil, roots and fungi. The streambank’s earthen aperture is like a pendulum door, slightly ajar, revealing the springs and sprockets that underlie the clock — this streambank clock whose gear mechanism is silent and damp, its time–keeping qualities steady and true.

Immediately offshore and propped upon the water’s skin, punctuated zigzags by flotillas of whirligig beetles and companies of water striders are the ticks and tocks of streambank time. The hands of the clock, an imperceptible movement driven by ebb and flow, are old sandbars disassembled grain–by–grain, while downstream new ones are deposited.

When twilight comes, time on the Mecan stands still, like tranquil pools gathered beneath the cut bank. Minutes are measured by leaf blade and birdsong. Seasons are gauged by high water and fresh cutoffs. Though the years blaze the river trail and pilot its travelers downstream, the meandering streambank, not the waters journeyed upon, is how I mind the time.

Thomas Eddy writes from Green Lake. This story is dedicated to Don. W. Macaulay (1954–2010).