The first observation platform is a short walk from the parking lot. The trail head is marked by a large black rock that looks so out of place it must have been deposited in this spot by some prankster. It is late February on a freakishly warm 50 degree day, and the land is the color of toast. Tall grasses still topped with seed heads rustle in the wind as I walk. I see deer tracks, and human. There is a little mud here — later it will be so deep and so thick that it will catch my boot and pull it off as I walk. The observation platform I am walking to looks east over oak savanna until the view is cut by distant trees. It is ten in the morning, and the sun sits low behind cloud cover, positioned over my right shoulder. There is maybe twenty feet of boardwalk leading to the platform, and it is metal. I don’t know when this was put in. I spent a lot of time in the Cherokee Marsh Preserve as a child, and all the boardwalks were, well, boards. Wooden. They certainly made noise, but they didn’t clang as you walk. A couple Redwing Blackbirds keep me in their sights. They can’t be nesting this early; maybe they’re just bored.
Up the platform (still wood, thank goodness) and I hear the staccato trumpet of Sandhill Cranes in the distance. I love these cranes. I love their trilling call, I love the splash of red on their heads, I love the way they move like deer through the tall grass. They are grey, and hard to see in the distance, visible only when they’re on the move. They are loud, though. One dead ahead is calling and calling. I wonder if I had startled him, and then I realize that he’s not calling at me, he’s calling to the six cranes coming in for a landing: “Come home, come home!” He’s obviously the boss of this operation. As they get closer to the prairie they call in return: “Coming, coming!” Seven more appear as I watch, each answering his throaty call with their own higher-pitched. The marsh itself is north of where I’m standing, on the other side of a hill, and a few take off in that direction. As I watch them leave I lose track of the boss, climb down the platform, and aim myself north towards the hill. As I walk I hear him, as loud as if he were next to me, and I turn my head to catch him again. Many of his flock have flown on, but he’s still calling to them so they don’t get too far away.
The trail begins to climb and the mud seems to be turning into clay. This is fine to walk on, and I can keep my head up and look around me. In the summer this prairie would be lousy with songbirds, but in February it’s very still. I very much appreciate the stand of
burning bush (I actually don’t know what this plant is — maybe some kind of dogwood? It has red bark and it found in both the prairie and the woodland parts of the preserve -edit) in the distance visually breaking up all this tan grass — the only plant that shows off year round.
The trail curves to the east and then switches back to the west and I’m climbing in earnest now. I have to watch my feet, first because of a persistent patch of ice, then because the melting snow has generated deep, squelchy mud. I am terribly out of shape and have no ability to pace myself, so I’m breathing hard by the time I get to the top. My heart is pounding, and I pause to let it calm. I can now see across the prairie and past the stand of trees at its edge. Beyond is the small local airport, and I can make out the radar towers. It’s suddenly not so easy to pretend I’m in the wilderness. Once I can take quiet breaths out of my nose again, I begin to head down. The mud is dangerously thick here, so I have to keep my head down almost the entire time to avoid losing a boot. I see more deer tracks. Raccoons with their clever fingers have been through since the snow melted. I also see the paw print of some kind of canine, but I don’t know how to tell the difference between a coyote and a similarly sized dog. Dogs aren’t allowed in this part of the preserve, but that doesn’t stop folks from bringing them. There are long tracks cutting through the mud, but I can’t tell what made them — sled? ski? By now I’m breaking the rules and walking next to the trail through oak leaf litter. The smart animals must have been doing this too, because all I see now are other people’s boot prints.
At the bottom of the hill is the marsh. There used to be a boardwalk that ran the length of the marsh, out into the water. Whether for safety, or upkeep costs, or wildlife protection, or some combination of those, the boardwalk is gone. There are now only a few docks and other platforms that look out over the marsh, accessible by a forest trail. One of these allows me to get fairly close to the noisiest, bossiest flock of Canada Geese I have ever seen. I startle a pair of Mallard Ducks as I get close, and I see other ducks hurrying through the air, but they mostly seem to be steering clear of the geese. The Sandhill Cranes are audible on the dry land north of the marsh, also getting far away from the geese — and who can blame them? The geese are completely nonplussed by my presence. A few display their wingspan at me, sending the message not to do anything foolish like venture onto the thin ice they’re congregating on. I guess some hungry coyote might be brave enough, but there’s running water in the middle of the marsh, and running water below the dock, so he probably wouldn’t get very far.
I head towards the bench at the end of the dock. Nearby, in the reeds, something is startled, scurries, and splashes away. I think I spy beaver dams throughout the marsh, and I wonder if I’ll get lucky and spot a beaver so close. I spend a long time trying to see something moving nearby, but it’s too clever and too brown and blends into the dormant cattails. I watch the geese until the sun goes back behind clouds, and I need to get moving to warm up.
In all I spend a little over an hour in the preserve. I am concerned to see the cranes, geese, and ducks flocking so early. Or did they never fly south? Everything changes, especially the land. Humans are foolish to think that we’re the only creatures capable of altering our paths.
From the City of Madison site: “Strategically located at the head of Madison’s lakes, Cherokee Marsh acts as a living sponge. It filters upland runoff, using excess fertilizer to grow marsh plants, and slowly releasing cleaner water to the lakes below. Cherokee Marsh is the largest wetlands in Dane County. It is used by thousands of students each year for environmental education. “