Saturday, November 24, 2012

Finally a new post.

I've been writing for the Oshkosh Scene newspaper most of this year, my work blog, and I'm back in school, so I haven't been posting here much, but I'll start posting my Scene articles now.  The Oshkosh Scene can be found around Oshkosh for free most places, and it also available in a few newspaper machines. Here is my unedited article for November Issue.  The article was originally written for the Winnebago Water Level Fluctuation Group.

Generations of the Winnebago System

When the first pioneers settled around the Winnebago Pool Lakes in the middle of the nineteenth century, many made a living off the land and water.  Man and nature worked together, and also against one another.  The Fox River was “tamed” by dams, the prairie sod broken, but nature too had her floods and droughts to remind us who really is in charge.  In and around the Winnebago Pool Lakes much of the environment was degraded.  This environmental degradation changed the way people interacted with the land and water.   To understand how let’s follow a fictitious family through history. 

In 1841 a Norwegian man named Theodore Olson and his young wife Anna are settling on the north shore of Lake Poygan.  They have hastily erected a mud and stick house to keep the coming winter storms out.  In just two years time their first home will become the chicken coop, but for now it makes Theodore beam with pride, almost as much as the moose antlers above the door.  That big deer, the last one in the county, will feed this family through the winter. 

Theodore has chosen the perfect spot for his farm.  There is plenty of high ground to raise cattle and grow vegetables, corn, wheat and potatoes, but his land includes an insurance policy.  By the lake grow the grass-like sedge meadows that are flooded in the spring and dry out in the summer.  Every year he’ll be able to cut marsh hay, and when the periodic droughts come, those meadows will make good pasture and keep the cows healthy and producing milk through the worst drought.  But this year, his first, is blessed with normal rainfal and he walks through the meadow to see the lake.  When he arrives he can hear the rhythmic clicking of sticks and the dancing of wild rice grains on the bottom of a birch bark canoe.  The Menominee are harvesting the grain on the north side of the lake today.  They know it would be fruitless to work the south side where 150,000 passenger pigeons darkened the horizon three days before.  For Theodore it seems that God has sent a gift:  meat runs wild on the land, fills the skies and the waters around his farm.    

That begins to change for the young family in the early 1850s when dams in Neenah and Menasha raise the water and consume some of his sedge meadow insurance policy.  The biggest blow to Theodore comes in 1863 when his oldest son, Lester marries a German girl and according to his father “turns Indian,” abandons the farm and settles on Lake Winneconne. Lester catches fish in the spring and summer which he sells in Oshkosh, in fall he sets he guides duck hunters from Milwaukee and Chicago.  In the winter Lester traps plentiful muskrat and mink and once in a while the rapidly dwindling beaver and otter. 

Lester’s brother Miles took over the farm on Lake Poygan, which is still thriving in 1880, but in 1881 a spring thaw down the Wolf River and unusually heavy rainfall in summer combine for flood of near biblical proportions that won’t end until winter.  One summer morning, after a terrible storm, Miles goes for a morning walk and is horrified to see his meadow out in the lake drifting helplessly to Lake Winnebago.  His insurance policy is gone. 

Lester has only daughters that will defiantly follow in their father’s marsh rat footsteps.  One of his girls, Martha, marries Carl, a foreman of the Paine Lumber Company in Oshkosh.  Carl watches the rafts of pine logs coming down the Wolf River start a new life as clapboards, lath, doors, widow sashes, and matchsticks.  When the Northern Forests become empty and the river of logs turns into a trickle and then runs dry, Carl retires.  In his retirement he turns sportsman.  He fishes in summer for still plentiful northern pike at the edge of bulrushes on Lake Butte des Morts.  In fall he push-poles a wooden skiff through the wild rice while his son Albert sits at the ready for any ducks they may flush.  There are still many ducks, but Carl explains they are not what they used to be.  He blames the market hunters and out-of-town hunters.  He is partially right about the market hunters, but each year there is less of this rice, marsh and prairie where they breed, winter, and stop over during migration.   

In 1910 Albert helps his great uncle Miles load a few of his prized possessions onto a train bound for Milwaukee.   It is the last year of a three-year drought.  His land did not produce enough forage for his cows or grain for the mill, and the farm went bust.  His insurance policy against drought had floated away and disintegrated in Lake Winnebago in 1881 and so ended 69 years of his family farming the north shore of Lake Poygan, and 1,500 years of the Olson farming tradition.   

In 1937 the last modifications to raise the waters of the Winnebago Pool were made.  The managers of the dams got better and better at taming the waters of the lakes.  Theodore Olson’s line still looks to the water, Albert’s son Jeff cuts through Lake Winnebago in his Chris-Craft.  Even on the big lake there are still more than a few beds of bulrush to steer clear of, but each year the bulrushes and the submerged plants are few and fewer.  Without them, blue gills, northern pike and the ducks rapidly declined in number.  Those plants held the sediment in place, and dampened wave action, and their decline ushered in an era of brown water.  The coming generations continue to use the lake for fishing and hunting, but with less success. 

In 2012, fighting the wind and three foot waves of Lake Poygan, Justin, the eighth generation after Theodore on the lakes, motors with 150 horses in his deep v fishing boat smashing big brown waves is drenched in spray.  He glides over the same spot that Theodore pastured cows, Albert hunted ducks among the wild rice, his father fished for pike.  There is no sedge meadow, no wild rice or even bulrushes, and none of these are even visible on the horizon.  No ducks bob up and down in these waves, no pike wait in ambush among the bulrush, and certainly no cows graze.  He has the memory of his father’s story of pike, and a vague recollection of the legend of tens of thousands of ducks.  Sadly, the rest of the family’s past connections to land and water, and even the location of the original farm he now passes, have been lost in the oral memory of generations.  His two little girls huddled under a poncho will not know of the loss of what was.  In the safety of Boom Bay they pass the few sad remaining wild rice plants; their names and the name of every other plant that supported a people, an economy and their own blood line are collectively called “weeds”.  To the next generation, these girls will give the gift of memory of chasing walleye, and a few good fish fries.  Where will they tell this story of walleye?  Will it be a story told as they fish for bullheads and carp in black water?  A different story can be written, where there are walleyes, but also monster pike, thousands of ducks, and clear water. A new chapter in the family’s oral history will be told while watching bluegills larger than man’s hand violently make a bobber disappear from view, causing her four year-old daughter to grin ear to ear, and the stories of no ducks and brown water will pass into legend.  

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