Saturday, April 6, 2013

Wisconsin Point - The Most Magical Place in the Cheesehead State

There are some places on the planet that are so special that they will never leave your mind.  For me, Doi Chaing Doh Thailand comes to mind immediately as does Ourzazate, Morocco. Closer to home are places like Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in Alaska and Cave Creek Canyon in southeast Arizona's Chiricahua Mountains or the indescribable Platte River in central Nebraska.  However for me no place is more magical than Wisconsin Point, an area known geologically as a baymouth bar just outside of Superior in Wisconsin's Douglas County.

My first time at "the Point" was during a wildly drunken smelt fishing trip there in high school.  Given the general nature of smelt fishing I guess its repetative to say "wildly drunken" and "smelt fishing" in the same sentence.  The two are one.  I went there with Steve Benavides and some other buddies and we consumed large quantities of beer and caught large numbers of smelt and then drove back to Rice Lake arriving in one piece early the next morning.  Two years later I traveled back to the Point with Lee Anderson and a couple of high school friends on another smelt fishing excursion. This time while in Lake Superior dragging a net to catch fish a large wave rolled over me, completely submerging me and filling my chest waders with frigid April water.  A large campfire helped remove some of the twinge of the cold but not much.
Recent satellite image of Wisconsin Point.  The dark brown water is Allouez Bay. Follow the Point to its end and you are at the ship entrance to Superior Harbor. The state to Wisconsin's west that begins with the letter M is on the other side of the entrance.

There were intermittent trips to the Point in subsequnt years but none are more memorable than May 22, 1975 when my then-wife and I traveled to the Point to watch spring migration. The morning dawned chilly and the sky was filled with fog. Everywhere you looked there was fog.  Migrating birds were not able to move in the fog and when we arrived on the Point we found songbirds everywhere. Every bush and every tree limb seemed to be overloaded with song birds.  Some, like a male Chestnut-sided Warbler, were so tame that they jumped on my arm and hopped around looking for insects.  As the fog slowly lifted we moved from the trees out to the beach and found it littered with migrating shorebirds that, likewaise, could not migrate in the heavy fog.  Eventually by early afternoon when the fog had completely lifted we looked out on Lake Superior and found it crawling with migrating ducks and cormorants and loons.  In seven hours that morning on the Point Ruth and I observed 135 species of birds. Every species of warbler, vireo and flycatcher that nests in northern Wisconsin or migrates through it was there as were all of the thrushes.   On the beach we found every species of shorebird that occurs regularly in Wisconsin as well as 12 species of duck, and both regulalry-occurring loons.  The Wisconsin state bird list at the time was about 400 species. Fully 34 percent of all the bird species ever recorded in the state - one third of the state list total - was found that morning on a stretch of land no more than 100 yards wide and 5 mile long that juts into Lake Superior.  We returned to Superior and the Point a month later and while driving by the dry-docks in Superior we saw a ship named the Edmund Fitzgerald.  History tells us that just a few months later the Fitz went down in a tremendous November gale on Lake Superior. She had sailed past the tip of Wisconsin Point on her way to sea after repairs.

I remember Harry Reasoner giving this news report on the evening news like it was yesterday.  The song is one of the most eerily poignant songs I've ever heard.  I met Gordon Lightfoot once and he told me this was the most difficult, heart-wrenching song he ever attempted.

When Daryl Tessen did his first revision of the Wisconsin bird finding guide titled "Wisconsin's Favorite Bird Haunts" I had the privilege of writing the chapter on Wisconsin Point.  I also wrote about a nearby overlook that Ruth and I had discovered that we called "Gull Bluff" because of the huge concentrations of gulls that are observable from that overlook.

My first job with the US Fish and Wildlfie Service was as an ascertainment biologist in the Regional Office in Minneapolis.  There we worked on a program called "Unique Wildlife Ecosystems" that involved identifying unique non-waterfowl habitats that were to be considered for inclusion in the National Wildlife Refuge system.  We nominated four areas in Wisconsin and now 36 years later all four have been protected in one form or another.  Those areas included what is now the Fox River Sandhill Crane Marsh National Wildlfie Refuge in southern Wisconsin, the Mink River marshes in Door County, the area now known as the Kinnickinnic River State Park west of River Falls (where I just happened to have gone to both undergraduate and graduate school), and the incomparable Wisconsin Point.  The Point is protected and managed by either Douglas County or the city of Superior (or both?) and will hopefully never be defiled by condominium developments like so many other areas along beautiful stretches of water.  The Point will still be there long after I am gone and that is how it should be.

My friend-since-grade school Pam Huseth and I recently had a discussion about Wisconsin Point and she sent me an article she had that tells some of the history and more recent controversies about this magical place.  I have reprinted that story below, probably in violation of some copyright laws but what the hell.  This is another avenue for informing people about the Point.  I hope you enjoy learning about this very special place.

Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America

May 17, 2003 - Issue 87

Wisconsin Point War Nears End

by By Harry R. Zander of the Journal Staff - From The Milwaukee Journal - December 14, 1924

credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

Battle of Three Generations for the Last of the Chippewa Domains Picturesque
Superior - The most desolate and at the same time the most expensive unimproved land in Wisconsin lies here, off the Superior Harbor, a throwback to the primitive days of the United States' conquest of the Indian lands, a bone of contention over which nearly $1,000,000 has been spent already, the center piece of an industrial project involving the future expenditure of between $15,000,000 and $20,000,000.
Two generations have been born, loved, fought, reared families and completed the human span in death since the conflict over Wisconsin Point had its inception. A third generation is springing up, grounded as firmly in the principles of aboriginal ownership of the Point as were those old Chippewas under Chief Osagie, who opposed the dickerings with the white man back in 1841.
There remains only four of the descendants of old Chief Osagie and his counselors who have been adamant against the blandishments and lures of the white invasion. Yet this quartet of swarthy half-breeds, turning up their noses at the loosened purse strings of America's wealthiest corporation, sneering at the oily tongued promises of lives of ease and wealth, ignoring the crushing advance of modern industry upon the wilderness, which has been their fathers' and their fathers' father' as far back as human memory goes, wage with the white men's own weapons their battle for their heritage.

Tribes Defy Steel Company
This heritage, as the average man would view it, is not much. It is 300 acres of desolation over which the snow-laden winds swirl from the long reaches of Lake Superior and the northland. A few jack pines dot its expanse. Wild grasses, brush and sand dunes cover it. It looks like a land that God forgot. Yet in the eerie winds that thresh the cones from the jack pines and whistle through the stubbles growth the red me of the white age hear the voices of a long line of ancestors about the council fires of the happy hunting grounds protesting against the passing of the last of the Chippewa domains. Legends of great warriors and tales of mighty huntsmen ride every breeze that caresses the peninsula and in every gale that lashes the point the red children of a great Indian nation see the wrath of the mighty Chippewas aroused.
It is a wasteland, indeed, yet the unsentimental winds which drive the great $2,000,000,000 United States Steel Corporation, America's biggest combine, envision upon these desolate shores and wretched acres enormous docks to handle its iron and steel shipments.
For more than a third of a century now sentiment prevailed over business and the untutored savages' offspring have withstood the encroachment of the corporation. Recent developments, however seem to indicate that the conflict is almost at an end.

Negotiations Started in 1840
The history of Wisconsin Point, as it touches the subject of this review, dates back to 1840 when the white fathers of the government began to deal with the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa Indians, through Chief Osagie for possession of the land. In 1842 the overtures of the whites were successful and a treaty was drawn up whereby the federal government obtained the 300-acre peninsula with the understanding that the Indians might continue to live there until ordered off by the President of the United States, after which homes would be provided on the Fond du Lac reservation in Minnesota.
Instead of settling all differences over the land, however, the treaty merely marked the beginning of a prolonged era of litigation, armed warfare and general trouble. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on the land to make it ready for the big industrial project, working staring and in some case approaching completion in lulls of the conflict during which the Indians' claims were believed to have been finally settled.
Five years after the treaty with Chief Osagie was signed, sealed and delivered, Frank Lemieux or La Swiss as he was sometimes called came down from Madeline Island and married a daughter of Chief Osagie taking up his residence on the point and gradually assuming leadership of the Chippewas. Lemieux was a half Indian and half French, having migrated from the La Pointe settlement on Madeline Island to marry Osagie's daughter.

White Settler Enters Claim
Seven years later, in 1853, during the period of when land speculation was at its height in the Northwest Territory, Joseph A. Bullen, a white man, cast appraising eyes upon the point. In February 1854, he made proof of his pre-emption entry, paid the required amount of cash and got a receiver's receipt for the land. A month later however, in March of the same year, the president ordered the land reserved for military purposes and in the following May the land department issued an order suspending the entry of Bullen. In 1855 the land was released from military reservation and the entry rights of Bullen were recognized by the government.
Subsequently Bullen sold the Point to the Agate Land Company, a subsidiary of the United Steel Corporation. But Frank Lemieux and Chief Osage's daughter did not relish the idea of heir domain being converted into a forest of machinery and devices, which they did not understand. The others of the already dwindling Fond du Lac Band supported them in their protest.
Years dragged by in weary succession with frequent attempts by Lemieux to contest the Bullen entry and to obtain from the government the title to the land, which he represented was his as Chief Osage's son-in-law. In 1891, however, the patent was finally issued to Bullen on his entry in 1854. Lemieux appealed from this action to the Secretary of the Interior, but the decision was affirmed by Hoke Smith, the Secretary at that time, and Bullen was once more confirmed in his possession.
Defend Land With Guns
Bitter fights ensued, the Indians holding possession of the land at the points of rifles for a considerable period. Quiet and order were restored again and diplomats attempted to pacify the Indians with settlements. Eventually the land was platted on one portion of the point and streets for a town laid out, a city park, called Independence Square, being included in the platting, so arranged to include Lemieux's home, presumable to prevent molesting him.
The old warrior was getting on in years; however, and in 1902 he died, leaving a tangled web of legal red tape to be unraveled by his widow and five children. The widow survived him by only five years, when she too passed away, leaving the children and their descendants to carry on the battle.
Several of the heirs of Lemieux moved to the City of Superior so that their children might have access to the schools but they always maintained some member of the family on Wisconsin Point to protect their title to the land through uninterrupted possession.
The year after the death of Lemieux's widow the steel company's officials and the officials of the interested subsidiaries believed their title clear and all difficulties cleared away. The erection of a connecting rail line from the Minnesota Steel Co.'s plant west of the St. Louis River in Minnesota was constructed, skirting the city of Superior, and the erection of the long bridge from the mainland across a wide marshy stretch to the point was completed. The opportunity to build the largest ore loading docks on any of the Great Lakes appeared to be at hand at last.

Another Settlement Made
But the troubles were not yet over. Certain of the old Indians, spurring on the Lemieux descendants, laid fresh claim to the land, disregarding the Treaty of 1842 and pointing to their uninterrupted habitation of the land since the days when white men were not known here.
The land company, having already spent $300,000 for its title and fully as much more on improvements, demurred and the course was taken to court. After hanging fire for years a financial settlement was made with all the descendants of the original settlers except three children and a grandson of Lemieux, the latter's son Frank Jr., having died leaving a son, Phillip.  A daughter of the original Lemieux, Mrs. Mary La Vierge making a settlement over the land concerned. The three other children contesting the case were Peter and John Lemieux and Mrs. Martineau.
Including in the settlement the steel concern made with the Indians was an agreement that the land company would remove the Indian dead from a cemetery, which stood in the way of its proposed docks, to the Nemadji River Cemetery in Superior's East End. This was done in 1918 and further plans for improvements started by the Steel Corporation's subsidiary.
For of the Lemieux descendants namely the two sons, Peter and John, the daughter, Maggie Martineau, and the nephew, Phillip Lemieux, however, still claim title to the land and in 1920 the brought suit against the Agate Land Company.
Family Retains Square.
Following a lengthy hearing Judge W. R. Foley on October 28, 1924, rendered a decision stating that the Agate Land Company had clear title to the land with the exception of the streets, belonging to the City of Superior, and the small strip in Independence Square, which Frank Lemieux and his descendants actually had occupied since 1846. That bit of land, no more than 150 by 80 feet, was awarded the Lemieux heirs.
Now, attorneys handling the case believe that after the struggle of half a century, the Lemieux descendants will come to an agreement with the steel concern whereby the final bit of Indians land will pass into the hands of the white men, making possible the completion of their plans for extensive improvements.
There still is a possibility however, that the Indians will refuse to accept the decision of Judge Foley and will appeal the case to a higher court. In that event, the battle of he ages will be renewed once more while the steel company's bridge and the network of its proposed docks rot away.

Indians of Wisconsin Point are still carrying their fight to preserve the last of the sacred lands, against America's wealthiest corporation. Pictured above is a group of a group of the descendants of Chief Osagie and Frank Lemieux in the act of removing the bodies of their ancestors from an Indian cemetery to the main land.

Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Searching for April Migrants

Golden-winged Warbler

Each spring for as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the dynamics and the mystery of spring migration among birds.  It probably began with my maternal grandfather who actually took the time to teach me a little bit of what he knew about nature.  He and I would go out for walks when I was 5 or 6 years old and we would traipse through the woods at the southern end of his farm  There he would point out the spring flowers that he knew, and where to find mushrooms, and show me how to recognize a Woodchuck foot print and about the birds that showed up abundantly in his trees.  Like it was yesterday I still remember the first Rose-breasted Grosbeak I ever saw and my grandfather showed it to me in those woods.

With the passage of time and the acquisition of knowledge I began to develop an even stronger interest in migrating birds.  In graduate school I applied for and received a Federal bird banding permit that allowed me to capture birds to place numbered aluminum bands on their legs.
Bird Bands

I had a study area near Mikana Wisconsin where I banded birds over four years in the mid-1970s.  There I chose a recently clear-cut forest with its rapidly re-growing quaking aspen trees and set up 15 mist nets on weekends to capture and band birds.  I still remember capturing a male Baltimore Oriole on May 15, 1975 in that clear cut forest.  I placed a numbered band on its leg, recorded other information about it, and tossed the bird back into the wild.  Given the abysmal return and recovery rates on banded songbirds I assumed that I would never see the bird again. However on May 16, 1976 and again on May 15, 1977, I captured the same Baltimore Oriole in the same net and on essentially the same day of the month.  Range maps for Baltimore Oriole show that they spend the winter south into South America and nest in summer well north into Canada. Where had the bird been before I captured it each year? Had it been dining in a palm tree near Cartagena, Colombia a week earlier?  Was it headed to central Ontario to build its nest?  These were questions I could never answer but they served to intensify my interest in birds and in bird migration.

The peak of spring songbird migration in my natal Wisconsin is from about May 1 through May 25.  The further south you travel the earlier the migration timing.  For instance when I lived in Virginia I could count on the most migrating warblers being around during April 15 through May 5.  Even further south, here on the west coast of Florida, migration never really seems to end, but the peak of spring migration for most songbirds is from the last week of March through about April 20. In other words, right now is the peak of the movement from tropical wintering habitats north to temperate and even boreal nesting areas.

Being a native of northern Wisconsin who grew up in the great north woods of that state, I'm well aware of what wilderness is like.  And having lived six years in Jamestown, North Dakota and another six years in Grand Island, Nebraska, I'm well aware of what "wide-open spaces" are like.  Living in the overly-developed west coast of Florida there is hardly anything remaining that resembles the north woods, and the only wide spaces are the areas from the north end of a mall parking lot to the south end.  Still despite this astonishingly human-dominated landscape there are small patches of habitat that allow me to think (very briefly) that I'm in the wilderness of northern Sawyer County Wisconsin.  That is if I can block out the sound of nearby Interstate 75, and I dont look at the massive 345 kilovolt powerline crossings and the din of honking cars on University Parkway dont distract me and the sight and sound of Delta Airlines 757 aircraft on final approach to the Sarasota airport dont interrupt me.

One little patch of habitat that some how miraculously has not been developed into endless condos lies just to the east of my home.  There among the sounds of civilization is a small area of artificial wetland and scrubby upland trees and the occasional Carolina pine tree and some willows at the wetland's edge.  Its far from wilderness but its just a few minutes walk from my house and by spending a couple of hours there each morning I can not only feel like I'm still a biologist but at this time of year I can also witness spring migration of birds.

A patch of relative normalcy in an overly developed landscape.  My "route" follows the jagged edge of the artificial wetland in the middle of the satellite image.  That wide road to the east (right) is Interstate 75 and University Parkway makes up the southernmost edge of the image

This morning dawned foggy with a very low cloud ceiling.   These conditions at this time of year are excellent for finding migrant songbirds and sometimes getting incredible views.  I remember well the morning of May 22, 1976.  My former wife and I were at Wisconsin Point, a patch of ground that geologically is known as a "baymouth bar" in Lake Superior, at Superior Wisconsin.  When we arrived at sunrise a pea-soup like fog had enveloped everything and it trapped migrant birds.  They were everywhere that morning; some like a Chestnut-sided Warbler we found hopped onto my arm and stood there looking at me as I looked at it.  Ruth and I spent 7 hours on the Point that morning and early afternoon and by the time we left we had recorded an astonishing 135 species of birds!  Included among them was every species of Warbler and every Flycatcher that nests or migrates through northern Wisconsin.  All this on a spit of land 5 miles long and no more than 100 yards wide.  Everything had been grounded by the fog and we were in birder heaven.

This morning's fog

A patch of subtropical hardwood forest in the fog

My luck this morning was nowhere near as good as what Ruth and I experienced that long ago morning in the fog but still it was obvious that spring migration is well underway.  My first indication was a Golden-winged Warbler, only the seventh one I've ever seen in Florida.  It was first heard singing and then eventually found hopping around in the trees as it foraged.  This bird nests at the edge of old fields and in early successional stage forests.  Both are rapidly disappearing from the landscape as more and more humans fill less and less space. In 1977 I banded eleven Golden-winged Warblers in my banding study area near Mikana Wisconsin.  That was the largest number of Golden-winged Warbler anyone banded anywhere in North America that year.  

Searching further a Worm-eating Warbler popped into view and off in the distance I heard a male Black-throated Blue Warbler, probably freshly arrived from the mountains of Jamaica, singing from the edge of the woods.  A male Northern Parula was busy doing its upward buzzy trill as a male Common Yellowthroat sang its distinctive "witchity-witchity-witchity" song from the willows at the edge of the wetland.  Palm Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers winter abundantly in this part of Florida and I was surprised to still find a couple of them sprinkled in with other birds freshly arrived from the tropics.  

Another star of the spring migration scene was Wood Thrush.  This bird with its fantasticly melodious voice is rapidly disappearing from the landscape as more and more people build more and more houses in fewer and fewer small patches of forest that remain in the eastern United States.  Seeing it freshly arrived, probably from Costa Rica, was another bit of evidence that spring migration is kicking into high gear.

I found 57 species of birds during my 2 1/2 hour walk through 2 1/2 miles of habitat.  Well 57 species of birds and one 8-foot alligator who decided that the dike surrounding the wetland was where he wanted to chill out in the fog and there was no way I was going to convince him to move.  He sat still and I sat still and eventually he moved. I didn't until he did!

Many of the 57 species this morning were resident birds like Sandhill Crane and Snowy Egret and Anhinga however 16 species were most definitely migrants and 10 of those were warblers.  Numbers of species and numbers of individuals will probably grow each day for the next 10 days or so. I will know that spring migration is winding down when species like Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Canada Warblers arrive. Until then however I'll be out on my 2 1/2 mile route each morning, binoculars in hand, looking for migrant birds just like I have done for 55 years since my grandfather first showed me that long ago Rose-breasted Grosbeak in his forest.