The Summer Water Trail

Sandbars along the Wyalusing State Park canoe trail slowly appear from the depths in Mid-July. (Sections 2 and 3 of the map on the left. See this photo album for maps.) In July, one doesn't necessarily float the entire canoe trail at Wyalusing State Park located in Bagley, Wisconsin.

Shoving the blade of the paddle into the sandy bottom, then pushing the canoe along, might dislodge the canoe from the grips of the sandbar. Most of the time, however, one must get out and pull or push the canoe along parts of the trail. Luckily, the sand bar is, as its name implies, sandy! This is the canoe trail after all! And, one usually hikes on a trail.

Low water levels expose many secrets of life along the backwaters. Fresh water mussels lie along the muddy shores. During the night, raccoons dig into the muddy shore, searching for a tasty snack. Finding one, they open the yummy morsels, wash the sand away, and consume the insides leaving only the shells. In the morning, the empty shells are strewn along the muddy shores.

Wading into the Mississippi River backwater of the Woodyard slough, during a hot summer day, may be a pleasurable experience....for some. On the other hand, this canoer keeps thinking of the water snake which appeared a few feet away. Oh, and where do snapping turtles go when they disappear under water?

After a short tug off the first sandbar, keeping a lookout for water snakes and snapping turtles, one jumps back into the canoe. Imagination can play tricks on the unwary canoer. Playing hop-scotch with a canoe occurs at least two or three more times. Each time, a little of the sand bottom makes its way into the canoe.

The trip meanders around the bend passing exposed beaver house entrances along the banks, now visible because of low water levels.

Another sandbar! More pushing and pulling, watching for snakes, turtles and now, beaver! Are beaver really nocturnal?

The canoe needs to be pulled through a few more shallow areas. Great Blue Herons fly from their fishing activities as the canoe is loosened from the sand bar. The familiar Great Blue Heron is the largest heron in North America. It is a large bird, with a slate-gray body, chestnut and black accents, and very long legs and neck. In flight, it looks enormous, with a six-foot wingspan. Adults sport a shaggy ruff at the base of their necks. A black eyebrow extends back to black plumes emerging from the head. Juveniles have a dark crown with no plumes or ruff, and a mottled neck. In flight, a Great Blue Heron typically holds its head in toward its body with its neck bent.

When foraging, they stand silently along the banks, waiting for prey to come by, which they then strike with their bills. They will also stalk prey slowly and deliberately. Although they hunt predominantly by day, the Great Blue Heron may also be active at night. They are solitary or small-group foragers. They nest in colonies. Males typically choose shoreline areas for foraging, and females and juveniles forage in more upland areas.

Once passed the sandbar area, the canoe skims along. Fortunately, the area of sandbars is found in the northern part of the canoe trail.

When the water levels are low, it is easy to identify wapotato. Wapato (Sagittaria latifolia) is also known as arrowhead, arrowleaf, duck potato, and Indian potato. Wapato loves shallow ponds, swamps, slow moving streams, and the margins of quiet lakes. It requires a rich muck that is submerged in water for most or all of the year. In good conditions, wapato can grow in huge abundance. During pioneer times, Indian women collected wapato in shallow water from a canoe, or waded into ponds or marshes in the late summer and loosened the roots with their toes.The roots would rise to the top of the water where they were gathered and tossed into floating baskets. Today, the tubers are harvested with a hoe, pitchfork, or rake. Tubers are baked in fire embers, boiled, or roasted in the ashes. Tubers are skinned and eaten whole or mashed.

Looking closely, you will see a few of the Wapoto stalks eaten away by muskrat. The chewed off tops are carried into the water, to find a place on the muskrat 'table' of goodies.

Just before we enter the Mississippi River, whirligig beetles zip around in curious circular patterns. Whirligig beetles are found in the calm backwaters of the slough. They congregate in large numbers and scurry about the water surface in a random pattern. When handled, these beetles give off an apple-like odor. Whirligig beetles are unique in that their compound eyes are divided, giving them a four-eyed appearance. This eye division allows them to see above and below the water surface at the same time. A whirligig beetle swims in small circles. This motion gives them their name because they seem to whirl on the water’s surface. This whirling behavior confuses its predators.

The beetle swims with half its body out of the water and half its body under the water. Their
short, paddle-like back legs are used for swimming. Their long, slender front legs are used for grasping and gathering prey. Adult whirligig beetles are carnivores as well as scavengers. They prey on other aquatic insects and dead or dying insects that fall into the water. Adult Whirligig beetles have well-developed wings. This means they can fly from one pond to another if a water source dries up.

Female whirligig beetles lay their eggs in masses on underwater plants. The eggs hatch into larvae in about two weeks’ time. Whirligig beetle larvae are aquatic and carnivorous.

Adult Bald Eagles along with their brown, mottled, fledglings are perched in trees, A few Bald Eagles may also be seen flying along the backwater, looking for a fish dinner. The upper Mississippi River is home to one of the most magnificent birds in the world, the great bald eagle. Bald eagles are very plentiful along the shores of the upper Mississippi and continue to thrive in regions of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. The only 2 states that contain more bald eagles are Alaska and Florida. These magnificent creatures can be viewed year-round in the area as they continue to nest more rapidly. The upper Mississippi River valley also contains many other endangered, rare and threatened types of wildlife along its beautiful shores.

Once in the Mississippi River, the trip resumes in a more leisurely paddle. Weekends brings more pleasure boat traffic along the main channel. This, in turn may produce wakes which have to be negotiated carefully in a canoe. A passing towboat usually creates less of a wake than the smaller boats.

The Towboat Day Marker appears along the East shore, signaling a left turn in about three tenths of a mile. Safe navigation channels on the Mississippi River are marked by floating buoys or permanent day marks. When traveling upstream, green can buoys or day marks will mark the left side of the channel. Red nun buoys or daymarks will be on the right. Day marks may be lighted and are usually signed with the river mile at that location.

Rounding the bend, we are eager to reach the boat landing. Pleasure boats and fishing boats use this part of the backwater to reach the main channel. Most will slow to no wake speeds. Some will not. Be prepared to make evasive maneuvers. Finally, we return to the boat landing. Want to go again?

Special Note:
Northern Water Snakes are common along the Mississippi River and its backwaters (and throughout the state near water ways). Unfortunately, they are often believed to be venomous Water Moccasins and dangerous. Stories by misinformed individuals who swear that they were aggressively chased by a water moccasin while swimming "up north" during a vacation. Nothing could be further from the truth for Water Snakes are non-venomous and completely harmless. Yet, this mistaken identity can result in many water snakes being wrongfully killed by swimmers, boaters and fisherman. Furthermore, they are killed by fisherman who believe that they reduce game-fish populations (which is not true). In fact, it has been suggested that Water Snakes may be beneficial to fish populations by consuming the sick, dying, or deformed individuals.

These can be aggressive snakes if cornered, and will not hesitate to bite when threatened. However, if left alone, they pose no threat to humans whatsoever. Furthermore, they will readily dump their cloacal fluid (or defecate) on the person who has captured them. This is incredibly unpleasant. Very few snakes in Wisconsin have a more offensive smelling "musk" than the northern water snake.

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