Wading Through the Wetlands
Small Adventures at the Falls of the Ohio
By Larry Moore, KET Education Consultant
The water was warm, shallow, and muddy. Every so often a large fish, probably a carp or freshwater drum, would roll away from the bank almost directly under my feet. I was being careful to keep both cameras dry and using a walking stick to feel ahead of me for potholes and deep areas before stepping into them and possibly going up to my neck in the murky water. I was wading through a section of the wetlands known as the marsh and cottonwood areas, trying to capture some still pictures to use on KET's Website for the Electronic Field Trip to the Falls of the Ohio. I was really hoping to get photos of wildlife such as night herons, blue herons, great egrets, or perhaps even an osprey.
I was also looking for some evidence of the beavers that inhabited the area. There was little chance of actually spotting a beaver since they are nocturnal, moving about mainly at night, but it might be possible to find beaver sign such as cut saplings, or even a beaver lodge or hutch. A great egret and several blue herons took flight near where I was wading, but I wasn't close enough or quick enough to get a good shot of any of them.
I was still enjoying my explorations however. Flowers such as Joe Pye weed, cardinal flower, wild potato vine, arrowhead, and milkweed were all in bloom. The beautiful but invasive purple loosestrife was also in abundance. This plant is an exotic species which hurts the wetland environment by taking the place of native plants, but I had to admit its flowers were gorgeous and the butterflies seemed to like it. The butterflies were certainly in abundance too, flitting from flower to flower and lighting in the branches of the willows lining the banks.
I reached an area where mud and potholes made walking treacherous. I was concentrating so hard on what was under my feet that I almost missed the hornet's nest in the small bush only about four feet in front of me! I carefully backed away to a safe distance and took a couple of pictures while thanking my lucky stars that I had looked up and seen the papery nest, instead of walking into a swarm of angry, stinging insects!
Eventually I climbed the sandy bank into the cottonwoods to try and find one of the pond areas where there might be some beaver sign. While crossing the beach area, I noticed a small depression dug in the sand with little bits of what looked like thin dry white leather lying about. On closer inspection I noticed that the pieces of "leather" were actually the remains of turtle eggshells. An animal, probably a raccoon, had evidently decided to make himself a turtle omelet and had dug up the buried eggs.
I continued on into the grove of cottonwoods. The going quickly got rough with large piles of driftwood and thickets of willow, vines, and brambles barring the way. I came to a small clearing and almost stumbled over the skeleton of an animal that appeared to have been about as big as a medium-sized dog. The skeleton had no skull but the remains of a broad flat tail were a sure indication that I had indeed found a beaver, although not in the condition expected.
Leaving the skeleton undisturbed, I continued trying to make a path through the undergrowth. The brush was so thick, I finally gave up trying to find a way through it and returned to the waterway between the dam and the cottonwoods where I had originally been wading. Although I was trying to wade quietly, my splashing disturbed several mallard ducks and they took flight. Their silhouettes were beautiful against the pale morning sky.
As I started working my way back out of the wetlands, I reached an area of fairly clear water where the bottom could be seen and every once in a while, flashes of mother-of-pearl from broken pieces of clam and mussel shells. I also noticed fish bones and several dime-sized white round objects on the bottom. I picked up one of these objects and realized that it was what my father would have called a "lucky bone." He called them lucky bones because they have an L shaped marking on them which people used to say stood for good luck. Back then farmers and fishermen would carry one of these bones in their pockets the same way someone else might carry a rabbit's foot or four leaf clover. These "lucky bones" are actually inner ear bones from the skulls of fish known as drum or white perch.
Splashing along toward the fossil beds where most visitors to the Falls spend their time, I was struck by how alone I had felt back in this wild area, even though it was isolated by only a strip of willows and cottonwoods from what you might call civilization. I hadn't seen a single person back in the wetlands and if it hadn't been for the presence of the dam looming over to one side, I could almost believe I was walking in wilderness unchanged from the time when John James Audubon, the famous wildlife artist, also tried (with more success, I must add) to capture images of the birds and other wildlife that inhabited the area.
Although I walked back towards the park interpretive center with little more than wet sand-filled boots and a few shots of wildflowers, I realized I was bringing away something else from the wetlands at the Falls. It was a new appreciation of how important this environment was to the many animals that live there and an idea of what it might have felt like to explore this area hundreds of years ago, before the dams, railroad bridges, and other examples of human encroachment existed.
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