Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Horicon Area Wildlife Supervisor Bret Owsley tests an interactive display. © Robert Manwell

Horicon Area Wildlife Supervisor Bret Owsley tests an interactive display.
© Robert Manwell

June 2015

Wisconsin Traveler

From ice to water: The living history of Horicon Marsh

Story by Meredith Penthorn and Bret Owsley, photos by Robert Manwell

History lies buried beneath layers of vegetation and peat under the calm waters of Horicon Marsh.

As summer takes the stage, visitors flock to the marsh for the birding, canoeing, photography and hiking. This summer, guests also will have a unique opportunity to travel through time as they explore exciting new features on display at the Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center in Horicon.

Long before Horicon Marsh achieved international status as an important bird and wildlife area and a destination for outdoor recreation, glaciers carved a basin where a wetland would one day form. Today, guests of Horicon Marsh's Explorium can get a glimpse of life at Horicon Marsh thousands of years before European settlement and witness how the current wetland came to be. The ancient Clovis point arrowhead, perhaps the oldest type of human artifact found in the area, keeps visitors company throughout the journey as they view, listen to, touch and even smell exhibits that document the changes to the marsh over time.

Horicon Marsh's story is much more complex than people might initially think. While the Department of Natural Resources currently manages it for wildlife and recreation, there are periods in the marsh's history when it could barely be considered a wetland at all. At one point, observing the diversity of plant life growing in the marsh, people even tried to convert it to cropland. The department hopes that the new hands–on exhibits will bring the marsh and its history alive for visitors before they hit the trails.

Videos and interactive displays greet guests at every turn, encouraging audiences of any age to learn more about Horicon Marsh history and ecology. A wooly mammoth replica that children are free to touch and climb represents wildlife that roamed the land during the ice age and also served as an important food source for early Native Americans.

Relics from the age of European settlement as well as modern hunting and trapping equipment illustrate the marsh's popularity as a waterfowl hunting site. Games encourage visitors to learn about wildlife identification. Viewers can gain a thrilling perspective on the management and conservation activities occurring on the marsh before heading out to enjoy it for themselves.

These exhibits are just a taste of the many educational themes the new Explorium will feature.

The full range of new exhibits will be unveiled at the grand opening on Aug. 22. But in the meantime, there are plenty of events and outdoor activities to experience at Horicon.


Community residents and tourists alike can enjoy the beauty of summer on the marsh. Warm temperatures are ideal for exploring the boardwalks and trails or canoeing or kayaking through the cattails. While some migratory bird species have already passed through on their way to more arctic climes, birders and photographers can still spot elusive warblers, raptors and abundant waterfowl.

A birding event or a guided hike with a Horicon Marsh naturalist might be the perfect route for finding rare birds such as the state endangered black tern. After a long hike on the trails, visitors can relax or enjoy lunch amid the native wildflowers, songbirds and insects surrounding the Visitor Center's picnic area.

While Horicon Marsh is certainly attractive in the summer (and the sunset views from the observation areas are stunning), the marsh reflects the full spectrum of seasonal beauty and the accompanying range of outdoor activities. Better yet, with the premier of the new exhibits, a sampling of each season's offerings will be encapsulated year-round for guests to experience.


As summer transitions into autumn, migratory birds return in droves on their way to warmer locales, autumn flowers bloom and the fall colors provide a spectacular setting for a hike. Spectators may observe huge flocks of Canada geese flying south for the winter, then head indoors to read more about this species' conservation success story.

Hunters can experience the traditions of hunting white–tailed deer, ducks and geese, much like Native Americans and early American settlers did in generations past. Youth can prepare for the waterfowl and deer hunting seasons through DNR's Learn to Hunt events and wildlife identification courses.

Hunting has played an important role in shaping the history of the marsh and restoring it for the benefit of the public. Hunting continues to serve as a management tool for marsh wildlife populations.


Even when winter arrives, blanketing the marsh in snow and ice, wildlife enthusiasts may see resident songbirds such as cardinals and woodpeckers, larger animals like turkey and deer, and on occasion, snowy owls visiting from their tundra habitat. Given enough snow, hardy guests can bundle up and ski or snowshoe across the trails. The candlelight snowshoe and hike event, which occurs on a midwinter evening and includes wildlife–related activities and warm snacks, draws more than 1,000 participants annually and is especially popular among families. And, while the marsh remains frozen, visitors will still be able to treat themselves to an adventure on open water without even stepping outside the Explorium.


Spring on the marsh is high season for bird activity. Avid birders and photographers embrace the arrival of migratory songbirds, waders and waterfowl in full (and often colorful) breeding plumage. Since birding is such an integral part of Horicon Marsh's heritage, it is no surprise that visitors can explore the bird community in further detail throughout the Visitor Center's displays. Spring also provides bird enthusiasts everywhere a window into the lives of great blue herons through a live–streaming nest cam, available through the DNR website. The celebration of birds culminates in the Horicon Marsh Bird Festival, held annually in May. This 4–day event includes bird banding, hikes, tours and more.

Visitor Center

The Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor Center also offers educational programs year–round.

Students can check out a backpack containing tools to observe nature up close, or join their class for some hands–on wildlife education. Guests can also take in a family–friendly movie on the big screen in the newly renovated auditorium during a bi–weekly movie night, or learn more about marsh habitat and wildlife during "Stories at the Marsh." These events are open to the public and free of charge, so community residents and families traveling through the Horicon area are welcome to stop by.

A calendar of events is available on the Friends of Horicon Marsh website at horiconmarsh.org.

Older youth and adults can hone their outdoor skills through Learn to Hunt or Learn to Trap workshops. They can participate in a guided hike or attend an informational talk. The numerous ongoing management projects, rare and endangered species conservation efforts and educational programs also provide area residents many opportunities to volunteer.

Horicon Marsh is more than just a tourist destination; it's part of the community. With the new exhibits, continued educational efforts and the diverse recreational activities available, the marsh offers something for everyone. And by getting involved at Horicon Marsh and inviting others to experience it, each visitor is making a valuable contribution toward conservation of this important area for current and future generations.

Horicon Marsh has changed over the years, and served multiple purposes for nature and humanity. Today, it represents a chronicle of environmental change and a triumph of conservation. As one of Wisconsin's natural wonders, the possibilities for exploration, discovery and inspiration at the marsh are countless, so when you're in the mood for an outdoor adventure, make sure to mark Horicon Marsh on your map.

Meredith Penthorn is a communications specialist for DNR's Big Game Management Program.

Bret Owsley is the Horicon area wildlife supervisor.