(Photo by Jerome McAllister.)
The Friends of the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area held their annual open house June 9, 2018, a little earlier than in past years. We gathered as always at the cabin on Gomulak Fire Lane, but this year we had the benefit of the just-completed picnic shelter to ward off the few sprinkles of rain.
Gary Dunsmoor kicked the day off by leading a nature walk about a mile north of the cabin, a good primer for what June is like on the barrens. Recently burned areas were lush green and the blueberry crop looked like it had good potential for picking time in a month; the pink prairie phlox was flowering pink and the yellow hoary pucoon were in full bloom. We could readily see the difference between the pointy leaves of the northern pin, or Hills, oaks and the rounded leaves of the burr oaks. Nancy Christel and Gary battled over whether the pale yellow flowers along the fire breaks were wood betony or lousewort before somebody Google it and determined they were the same thing.
An upland sandpiper took flight near us, and tree swallows, bluebirds and kingbirds were plentiful. We looked for but didn’t find wolf tracks.
Back at the cabin, Friends president Mark Nupen explained to newcomers the history of the volunteer group and its purpose.
Jeff Kitelinger displayed soil samples he dug that morning. It’s sand left by glaciers all the way down on the barrens, down to 100 feet or more. You could readily see the bleached horizon formed an inch or two below the surface in the samples not from the barrens, evidence of the organic material on top that led to acidic leaching of the soil below. No such horizon existed in the all-sand samples from the barrens.
Joan Jacobowski of the National Park Service talked about the water life she had pulled from the St. Croix River nearby that morning – caddis flies, damselfly and dragonfly nymphs, baby water striders, tiny crayfish and more.
Over lunch — Vern Drake oversaw burgers, brats and trimmings — Brian Finstad provided some of the barrens’ history. Although the region is known for the St. Croix water way and the portage that took Indians and fur traders from Lake Superior to the Mississippi River system, Brian maintained the importance of overland routes in all the times when water travel wasn’t practical. Brian, who has spent years studying the history of the area, showed the old Indian footpaths that became overland routes for European settlers and ultimately stage coaches running between St. Croix Falls and Bayfield. They took the high, open sandy route through the Northwest Sands.
Another theme Brian touched on was the notion of failure of settlers on the barrens in the wake of the area’s long use by Dakota and then Ojibway. The impulse is to think of the short-lived effort at farming for just a decade or two and to consider it a failure. Brian, a multi-generation native of the area, noted that many families remained and persevered, even if farming wasn’t successful.
Nancy Christel, the DNR wildlife biologist responsible for the wildlife area, said the sharp-tailed grouse population is down a little from past years. In addition, the barrens are increasingly important as other populations elsewhere in Wisconsin decline. But the sharp-tailed grouse on the Namekagon Barrens still are genetically varied, so attention remains focused on providing “stepping stones” of managed land between the four or five state- and federally protected areas between Grantsburg and Bayfield. In the final analysis, that’s the way to encourage healthy, mixed populations of grouse, she said.
We wrapped up the picnic with drawings for a raffle and door prizes, helping the Friends raise $175 for barrens conservation. The top prize in the raffle was a Ruth King art print of sharp-tailed grouse dancing on a Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area dancing ground. It went to Ken JuVette. Other prizes were a beautiful framed photo on metal of sandhill cranes and an original sharp-tailed grouse painting by Jim Springett. Thanks to Susan Armstrong and Larry Leef, Jim Springett and Gary Dunsmoor for donating the raffle art.
A dozen door prizes including a Bluebird house, Robin/Phoebe nest platform, NWF fleece throws and plants from the Wood River Nursery were handed out to more lucky drawing winners.