GRANTSBURG — Most people have that special place where they like to go to escape for a while. It is the place where you can reload, charge your batteries and just disappear for a few hours. For me that spot is often the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area near Grantsburg, a sprawling wetland prairie habitat filled with waterfowl, wildlife and quiet.
Well, quiet unless you consider the honking of geese, quacking of ducks, throaty calls of sandhill cranes, thumping of dancing sharptail grouse, yips of coyotes, drumming of ruffed grouse, music of various songbirds … but those are all sounds that soothe the soul.
Thousands of Canada geese, sandhill cranes, ducks, coots and herons can be seen during the spring and fall bird migrations. Summer brings wonders as well, especially if you begin during the pre-dawn hours when the morning is just beginning to awaken.
I have found that Crex Meadows is a year-round natural wonder. Fall at Crex can be an almost magical time as the crisp air is alive with the sounds of geese and sandhills. Their calls dance across the water and the prairie, disappearing into the multi-colored trees surrounding the sanctuary.
During spring and into early summer visitors can get glimpses of eagles and ospreys on their nests. Young swans bob up and down on the waters, and tiny balls of yellow fluff follow their Canada goose parents single file. Within a very short time, they transform into gangly, grey “teenagers,” still following mom and dad.
On a recent trip I was lucky enough to round a corner slowly and come across a plump beaver hauling freshly cut branches to his lodge. When he dipped under the water I got closer and spent the next hour or so watching him bob up and down, patching this and that spot with mud. Finally, when he realized I was there, he slapped the water with his tail and disappeared — it was a great morning.
Visitors could possibly stumble across a whitetail doe and her spotted fawn, a red fox in the prairie grass, or a red-tailed hawk perched on a tree limb scanning the ground for an unlucky mouse. One can also see pheasants or turkeys, or maybe observe the dances of sharptail grouse in the spring months. In watching the sharptails, it occurred to me that their movements were very much like some Native American dances. Perhaps the Ojibwe and Sioux also watched from a distance and copied their steps.
This time of year the prairie blooms, creating seas of color as the different species come into their own throughout the summer. As the wind blows one can smell the water that is all around.
Visitors can start at the wildlife education building and visitors center. The center contains a sales area, information center, library, auditorium, exhibits and classrooms.
Hunters and trappers can also enjoy parts of Crex. With the exception of the 2,400-acre refuge, Crex is open to hunting and offers good opportunities for deer, black bears, waterfowl and small game. Trappers have a good chance at success.
Those visiting Crex can canoe or kayak, enjoy biking, hiking, horse riding and even camping in parts of the wildlife area that are clearly marked.
From tax delinquent lands, drained sedge marshes and overgrown brush prairie, the area was years ago transformed into a productive wetland, prairie and forest complex that today provides habitat for many of Wisconsin’s bird and wildlife species.
Crex Meadows is part of the Northwestern Wisconsin Pine Barrens, and it encompasses approximately 30,000 acres, with 2,400 acres set aside as a wildlife refuge. Over the past half century the wildlife sanctuary has become one of the most heavily visited wildlife areas in the Midwest, with an estimated 100,000 visitors each year. Yet I have never, in all the time I have spent there, felt crowded. Most times I have never even encountered another human.
In distant times, there was a Crex, big meadows formed in the remains of Glacial Lake Grantsburg. A lobe of the last glacial advance blocked the St. Croix River, forming the lake. When the ice dam melted, a series of shallow lakes remained, eventually forming the marshes that exist today.
The first white settler, Canute Anderson, arrived at Crex in 1852. Fox, Lakota and Chippewa Indians had long used Crex, hunting geese, ducks and cranes there in the nesting areas. Even shaggy buffalo historically roamed the area.
The area produced many wild fruits, including blueberries. In 1896 a record 4,277 crates of blueberries were shipped from Grantsburg.
White settlement brought changes to the Crex area as large-scale commercial drainage of the marsh began in 1890. The entire ecological pattern of the area was upset as the marsh went from being a productive wet prairie to a dry sedge prairie. Prairie chickens thrived, but nesting ducks and geese declined.
The area was purchased in 1912 by the Crex Carpet Company, an eastern corporation engaged in the manufacture of grass rugs. The harvested prairie grass was manufactured into carpets and other grass products in St. Paul. In 1914 it went out of business.
Cranberrys were tried, but failed. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, drought, more drainage, and agriculture further harmed the area, as did numerous wildfires which damaged peat deposits.
By 1940 two-thirds of the Crex land was tax delinquent. The land was taken over by the state Conservation Department for a game refuge. Dikes were built to form lakes, and wildlife began to once again become abundant. In 1946 the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area was established, and under Norman Stone’s direction the area thrived and became the popular, successful wildlife area it is today. Following a long career as a game warden, Stone became the first Crex manager in 1947, establishing water control dikes and began controlled burning to improve the wildlife habitat. His first project was Phantom Flowage, and today it is the heart of Crex.
An avid hunter and fisherman, Stone loved hunting sharptail grouse, ruffed grouse and ducks. Stone retired in 1975 and passed away in 1988.
In 1984, the Friends of Crex, Inc., was established as a support group for the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area. Today, the group is actively involved in providing financial and volunteer support.
Over many years, camera by my side, I have trekked to Crex in spring, summer, and — my favorite — fall. Before that, I would ride there with my father as a child. I have visited perhaps 50 times and never felt disappointed as I left. One beautiful morning I arrived right at sunrise. The sky was clear and blue, the autumn colors jumping off the trees — within about 15 minutes the sky clouded over and rain began to pour down. The wind howled, and it violently stormed for the rest of the day. Still, it was worth it! It was Crex as I had never seen it before.
Crex is a place where nature is at home and we are just passing through. At one turn you may come across a badger busily digging a den. At the next, a heavy-antlered whitetail buck clears the road in a single leap. Off to the west a pair of comical otters dive and play in a channel. Overhead, hundreds of geese fly, some setting down in a pond next to a pair of white tundra swans. Nearby, a bittern extends his neck upward and sways, trying to blend in with the tall golden grass. Red-winged blackbirds perch atop wind-blown cattails, and a tiny 13-lined ground squirrel nibbles on a seed. Everywhere, overhead and on the ground, sandhill cranes can be seen and heard, looking almost prehistoric as they fly.
That is a good morning, and normally, I have found, it is all over by around 7:30 a.m. Once the sun rises high some of the magic wears off. Time to head into Grantsburg for a hot cup of coffee and maybe some bacon and eggs. But I will return another morning, camera in hand. That is the lure of Crex Meadows.
Thornley is sports editor of the Spooner Advocate.