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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

October 1999

© Thomas L. Eddy
Namesake of the new trail.

© Thomas L. Eddy

On the Trail of Snake Creek

A school assignment spawned a community project and a beautiful natural attraction.

Thomas L. Eddy

Nestled along the base of a craggy ridge in east central Wisconsin lies Snake Creek Corridor, a scenic stream valley where you might glimpse a frolicking river otter, a low-soaring northern harrier, or hear the resonant clamor of sandhill cranes in the fog-shrouded distance. It's the kind of spiritual place where a person feels part of the chorus amid spring peepers and wood frogs.

The small oblong valley in central Green Lake County is near the town of Princeton. Throughout the corridor, expansive lowlands on the extinct lakebed of Glacial Lake Oshkosh create a pastoral landscape woven by meadows, marshes and tamarack swamps. The area is home to a variety of native plant and animal populations, notably wetlands species, some of which are state threatened and endangered.

Snake Creek, the spring-fed stream that names the corridor, originates from the lower slope of a rocky escarpment that's timbered with scattered oak woodlands and red cedar glades. The threadlike meander winds northeasterly for about four miles through a mosaic of shrub-fringed marshes, sedge meadows, tamarack swamps, low prairies, and fens before it becomes a tributary of the Puchyan River, draining into the Fox River and eventually into Lake Michigan at Green Bay.

Back in 1978, my biology students were studying the vascular plants in the corridor as part of a Student Teacher Integrated Research program. After two years we had collected more than 1,400 specimens that we later identified as 501 different species – a little more than half the total number of plant species known in the county. Our study provided the driving force to interest communities in establishing a nature trail through the valley. Of course, good timing, a little luck and generous benefactors didn't hurt.

Extensive wetlands had kept the Snake Creek area largely undeveloped. A railroad grade to usher in rail service had been built through here in 1871 and was discontinued in 1979 when the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad Company sold the ties and tracks for salvage, and offered the abandoned right-of-way to adjacent landowners and other prospective buyers.

The offer came at the same time we were starting to sense the corridor's natural diversity and appreciate that the site would make a great place to promote wetlands education. I worked with the Green Lake Area Chapter of the lzaak Walton League of America (lWLA or "Ikes") to acquire a segment of the abandoned railroad grade and develop it into the Snake Creek Wetlands Trail (SCWT). In 1980, the Ikes bought 1.75 miles of abandoned railroad between Green Lake and Princeton with matching funds from the late Clarence F. Busse, a teacher and amateur naturalist. The 66-foot-wide corridor and adjoining ¾-mile segment owned by Badger Mining Corporation formed a 14 ¼-acre parcel.

The community pitched-in to transform the railbed to a trail. Student and adult volunteers contributed time, talents, and labor.

Building the trail was a community effort.

© Thomas L. Eddy
Building the trail was a community effort. © Thomas L. Eddy

They graded the trail to better drain water; built and installed a trailhead welcome sign; constructed and placed birdhouses; researched, crafted and erected interpretive exhibits along the trail; and assembled an observatory platform near the edge of a tamarack swamp. Their volunteer efforts garnered the Wisconsin Earth Guard Award from the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education in 1984.

In 1987 to further preserve wetlands, the Green Lake Area Ikes bought 8.4 grassy acres of calcareous fen contiguous to the wetlands trail. They used grant money from the IWLA National Endowment Fund and a donation from Jean (Redmond) Jahnke in memory of her late husband, Don. Though small in area, the fen contains a rare mix of wetland plants and animals. The holdings further increased in 1990 when the local Ikes commemorated the 20th anniversary of Earth Day by buying an additional 10.5 acres of sedge meadows and fens bordering the property. These private donations by local businesses, industry, civic organizations and individuals pieced together a whole wetland complex.

As the Snake Creek project grew, the Green Lake Ikes and their partners realized they needed a strategy to protect, manage and maintain the wetlands they had acquired. Using the original plant inventory prepared by Green Lake students, the Ikes convinced the Department of Natural Resources to do its own field surveys. These verified that the property contained rare plants and warranted special protection. In 1994 nearly 20 acres of calcareous fen, wet prairie, and southern sedge meadow was deeded to the Department of Natural Resources. The Natural Resources Board accepted the land gift and the small, but distinctive, land parcel was dedicated as the Snake Creek Wetlands State Natural Area, assuring its preservation into perpetuity.

In 1997 the Green Lake Ikes and the Badger Mining Corporation of Berlin, Wisconsin, collaborated to lengthen the wetlands trail by approximately one-mile in two segments. Signs along the St. Marie segment underscore the role of industry in monitoring and maintaining groundwater quality, while the Swamp Road segment emphasizes natural history and discusses how people and wildlife benefit from wetlands protection.

Green Lake students kept adding fine touches that spruced up the trail for visitors. In March 1997 they received a grant from the Natural Resources Foundation, Inc. to construct an information kiosk at the trailhead.

Preparing the trailbed.

© Thomas L. Eddy
Preparing the trailbed. © Thomas L. Eddy

To celebrate both Earth Day and Wetlands Week in 1998, the Green Lake School District, students and Badger Mining employees took a few mental health days, rolled up their sleeves, dug postholes, installed new gates and built new trail exhibits. Nesting boxes for bats were designed, built and installed as part of two students' Eagle Scout projects. Another group of students enrolled in a technology production class placed benches made from old pier timbers along the wetland trail. Yet another group of students created an illustrated trail guide of common wetland plants. The sustained stewardship for the trail gives volunteers a sense of achievement and ownership for the trail.

In winter the developed part of the Snake Creek hiking trail becomes part of a snowmobile route. In November 1998 a local snowmobile club was awarded a state grant to purchase lumber and shore up three railroad trestles along the trail. Now these bridges are sturdy, planked structures with handrails that are enjoyed by the summertime walkers as much as by the winter trail riders.

What will we take on in the future? One challenge is eradicating two non-native shrubs that are invading the property. European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and glossy buckthorn (R.firangula) have colonized the margins of the trail. Songbirds consume the fruits, digest the fleshy pulp, and then defecate the resistant seeds, readily dispersing the woody shrubs considerable distances with frightening ease. Fortunately, buckthorn appears to be confined to the trail edges and thus far has not taken hold in surrounding wetlands. Small controlled burns may be needed to maintain some sections of Snake Creek Trail. Most of the plant communities at Snake Creek are fire-dependent and burning will suppress woody plants to keep such open habitats as marsh, sedge meadow, fen, and low prairie.

The renovated Snake Creek Wetland Trail adds to the outstanding tourist attractions and fine resorts in the Green Lake area. It will continue to provide out-of-town guests and local residents, a high-quality natural experience while also providing a home for wildlife, a buffer to lessen floods and a filter to maintain good water quality. Of equal importance, the trail is peaceful and appealing, rekindling human spirits and inspiring an emotional regard for land. Whether you come here to listen to the love songs of spring peepers and western chorus frogs some spring evening or cross-country ski past a slumbering tamarack swamp in the dead of winter, we hope you find some inner peace on the trail of Snake Creek.

Thomas L. Eddy teaches for the Green Lake School District and at Marian College in Fond du Lac. He is a past recipient of the National Association of Biology Teachers' Outstanding Biology Teacher Award and a Kohl Teaching Fellowship Award. He is currently inventorying vascular plants at Mitchell Glen in Green Lake County.