Craig and Nichol Swenson share their waterfowl collection at the Flyways Waterfowl Museum.
It's the most (water) fowl of museums.
Story and photos by Nolan Pickar
There's a new attraction greeting visitors to Devil's Lake State Park and the Baraboo area. Located just outside the north shore entrance to the park is the Flyways Waterfowl Museum, an educational facility for all ages.
The building had long been associated first with an indoor gun range and later with a SCUBA diving business. But in 2012, Nichol and Craig Swenson discovered the vacant building and thought it would be a perfect place to start their dream museum. The museum opened last year.
A family effort
Nichol grew up on a barrier island in New Jersey. That location and the fact that she lived through hurricanes generated her early interest in soil conservation. Nichol went on to study at Rutgers University where she graduated with a bachelor's degree in soil and crop science. She later came to the University of Wisconsin8211;Madison and earned her master's degree in land resources from the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies.
She went to work for the Department of Natural Resources in 1985 and worked there until 1998 when she left for a 108211;year stint in the private sector. Later, she returned to the department working an additional three years out of the Poynette office before retiring at the end of 2013 to devote more time to the museum.
Nichol's husband Craig grew up in McFarland where he hunted, trapped and fished with his family. As a child, one of Craig's greatest memories was when he and his family fished the lakes just south of Madison. Craig later became more interested in hunting, especially waterfowling. He was an electrician in Madison for 35 years before recently retiring.
Over the years, the couple acquired an impressive collection of waterfowl pieces and decided to give back to the state of Wisconsin by displaying their items and educating others about migratory waterfowl, their ecosystems and the management practices and conservation efforts that affect them. A museum seemed to be the best way to do that.
"Once we realized we had many of the components for the museum," Nichol says, "I thought about it and eventually everything came together."
Throughout his many years of hunting, Craig had acquired over 60 taxidermy waterfowl pieces, all of which were made into beautiful displays by his friend Kenny White of Montello. The Swensons contend that the quality of White's work matches or exceeds those that you'd see in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
Nichol applied her education to write all of the content for the displays.
Craig's brother Rick also contributed to the mix by providing a large collection of antique and contemporary decoys and waterfowl calls stemming from the early 1900s to the present. The family also has a large collection of duck stamp art from various states, Canada and Mexico, and a variety of waterfowl art pieces.
The Swensons say their goal is to introduce visitors not only to the variety of North American waterfowl, but to explain the importance of the sportsman's role in habitat protection and restoration.
The museum is intended for everyone whether your interest is in hunting or you simply love the outdoors. Nichol notes that there is an intrinsic and critical relationship between wetland health and waterfowl populations. She says many visitors are not aware of how wetlands are protected by the Pittman8211;Robertson Act and the Duck Stamp Act and what wonderful opportunities they ensure.
"Most people do not understand how those acts fund the protection of our waterfowl and national wildlife refuges," Nichol says.
By touring the museum, she hopes people will become more aware of efforts in wetland conservation and how these efforts are funded.
What you'll find here
Along with the waterfowl mounts, calls and decoys, there are many other educational activities offered at the museum. There is a touchscreen TV where visitors can peruse pictures of every North American duck, goose or swan, read a brief description of the bird and listen to its call.
In the Duck Blind Theater visitors are invited to sit in a duck blind, just like the ones hunters use to camouflage themselves, and experience the sights and sounds of being in a marsh.
In another area, visitors can test their shooting skills in the indoor virtual arcade. Pick up a replica Remington Model 870 128211;gauge shotgun and choose from three video games: Mallard Mania, Marksmanship Training and Speed Trap Shooting.
One of the most interesting artifacts at Flyways is a goldeneye duck that Craig shot in 2012. He bagged this rare goldeneye in the bay of Green Bay and recalls that when he retrieved the duck, he found that it had been banded, but that he could not read the numbers because the steel was too worn. He eventually had the numbers raised so that they could be sent to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to acquire information about the bird, and discovered that it was the oldest banded goldeneye to ever be recovered.
The duck had been banded in 1992 at an age when it was still unable to fly in Beltrami County, Minn. That made the duck 20 years old. Craig takes great pride in the bird and created a small display of its own, just for the once in a lifetime harvest. Visitors to the museum can see the goldeneye along with the band and USGS certification.
The Swensons plan to continue to add exhibits to the museum. Craig is currently designing an exhibit dedicated to sea birds. The couple also intends to do exhibits on sportsmen and their dogs and hunting for sustainability. There is also classroom space available on the second floor, where the couple is hoping to provide space for hunter safety classes and classes that teach hunters how to hunt for migratory birds, including choosing shot size, choke and how to shoot a bird on the fly with minimal wounding loss.
With over 100 species of wild waterfowl in the world, and as many as 43 species that can be seen in North America, there is plenty to cover in this space. The museum has taken flight. Craig and Nichol hope the visitors will flock to it.
Nolan Pickar is a communications specialist in the DNR Office of Communications. He recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Platteville.