Puckaway comes from a Native American term apuckawa orpuckawa meaning wild rice field, according to origin of place names on the Wisconsin Historic Society website. An 1824 letter in the Wisconsin Historical Library spells the name Apapuois. The letter was written by JQ Porlier, a fur trader. Mecan (the Town you are in now) may be derived from an Ojibwa word for trail, mikana, as reported in The Romance of Wisconsin Place Names.
You will see both Puckaway and Apuckawa used today.
Apuckawa, also called Puckaway Lake, is a widening of the Fox River made even wider by a dam located at Princeton. The dam was built in 1897 by the Army Corps of Engineers as part of the Fox River improvement efforts to allow steam boat and barge traffic to navigate the river from Green Bay to Portage. Such efforts which included extensive dredging and straightening of the Fox, began soon after Wisconsin became a state in 1848. In 1673 when explorers Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet paddled up the Fox from Green Bay, they noted, “It is easy to lose one’s way, especially as the river is so full of wild rice.” After steam boats and barges began to carry goods on the river, boats that travelled through here, going both up and down the Fox, would have passed by John Muir’s Fountain Lake home if they were going to or coming from Portage. Today the lake is 5,433 acres.
Indians inhabited the lands around the widening of the Fox for thousands of years. The area was rich with resources, and large villages existed at different points around the lake including just west of this park and boat landing. As you view the wide lake, think about how this area was inhabited for thousands of years by Paleo-Indian, Archaic, Woodland, and Oneota people and then by Ho Chunk and probably other Native Americans. The Apuckawa wetland area was always a thriving place with plentiful food sources like wild rice and water fowl, turtles, and small mammals. The evidence of inhabitants as far back as 8,000 years has been found throughout the area. Their spear points and pottery sherds as well as camp sites and villages leave a record of their being here long before European settlers.
Apuckawa has long been a hunting, fishing and gathering haven for Indians as well as settlers and even today's visitors. Above, a sturgeon caught on the lake about 1908. After European settlers came, Lake Apuckawa (Puckaway) drew market hunters by the hundreds who shipped thousands of waterfowl to Milwaukee, Chicago, and out east. Sporting clubs grew up on the lake including Ne-Pee-Nauk, an 18 room club house built in 1882 by 15 wealthy men from Chicago. The club still operates with different owners. The old log books show that in 1883 an average of 56 ducks per day were shot by members and other fowl included snipe, rail, yellow legs, and prairie chickens, now all gone from the area, the Fox River and Apuckawa still thrives with birds including the endangered Black and Forster’s Terns. The rich lake and river ecosystem supports many plants and animals. The American Lotus used to grow thick along its waters.
If you are visiting in season, watch the purple martins which nest each year in the house that was installed and is monitored by the Muirland Bird Club. As you leave the boat landing area, turn around and find the trail head for the Apuckawa Nature Trail. This short, but pretty trail offers a variety of plant communities as described in the accompanying brochure.
There are at least two places on the John Muir Nature and History Route that you can see Purple Martin Houses installed by the Muirland Bird Club. One is here on the shores of the lake by the boat landing. The photo shows Montello 4th graders listening to ornithologist Daryl Christensen talk about the special birds. You can see one Martin about to enter the house. The students are using their John Muir Saunter Sticks that they made in the Howard and Betty Love Marquette County program.
If it wasn't for Daryl Christensen, there would be none of the lovely Forster's Terns in Marquette County. Read the story of this man and the bird he saved here below.
It’s not a remarkable bird. In as much as birds fascinate us and we marvel at their ability to travel thousands of miles in migration, the Forster’s Tern with its reclusive nesting in tall water vegetation and its rather nondescript markings and colors doesn’t make it high on the list of birds we gleefully watch to return in spring.
It’s not a remarkable bird, much like the Passenger Pigeon was not a remarkable bird. No bright plumage, no sweet song, no odes written to its flight between the trees. But, just like the Passenger Pigeon, flocks of which once blackened the skies over Marquette County when the first settlers arrived and which is now extinct, the unremarkable Forster’s Tern’s decline in numbers over the years does not bode well for this graceful water bird except that this unremarkable bird has a remarkable hero who has at least stopped the decline in Marquette County and has, single-handedly here, given the Forster’s Tern a place to come home to each spring.
At first glance you might think that Daryl Christensen is not a remarkable man. Quiet, unassuming, he pursues his passions without self-made fanfare. Spend a little time with him and you’d learn that his professional walleye circuit nick name is the “jig meister,” and for good reason. You’d also learn he’s an accomplished speaker, writer, and author in addition to his success as a professional walleye fisherman. His noteworthiness includes his vast knowledge and devotion to birds, especially the Forster’s Tern, making him remarkable indeed.
For 36 years, Christensen has hauled wooden nesting platforms out into Lake Puckaway and secured them in order for this endangered bird to have a place to lay its eggs. For 36 summers he’s watched the nests, counted the eggs, and then the young, and for 36 autumns, he’s hauled the nesting platforms out of the lake to storage until next year. If it wasn’t for Christensen and one other volunteer who does the same on Lake Butte Des Morts, in all likelihood the Forster’s Tern would not be returning to Wisconsin at all.
The Forster’s Tern was put on the endangered species list in Wisconsin in 1979. They were extremely rare at that time and are still listed as “uncommon” today. That was the impetus for this nature lover to take action and he decided he would do something to help this bird.
“Since the state had no funding for their recovery at that time, I decided to help out with the DNR's approval,” said Christensen. “They provide the nesting platforms and I put them out, monitor them and pick them up after the nesting season. I guess you might say that it is my small way of giving something back to the outdoors that I have loved my whole life. Also, I think it is a very cool thing to have an endangered species living and nesting in the Marquette and Green Lake county area and I want to make sure that I can do everything I can to make sure they will for generations to come.”
Named for the Scottish naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster who traveled around the world with Captain Cooke in 1772, the Forster’s Tern is about 14 inches long with a black cap, long, forked tail, orange bill and feet, and gray and white plumage. It can be distinguished from the Common Tern by the white tips on its wings and brighter orange color of its beak. The graceful water bird winters in Central California to Virginia and south to Mexico, Guatemala, and South America with a small number found in the Bahamas. It summers along the West Coast up into Canada, in some coastal regions along the middle Eastern Coast, and, because of the work of Christensen, it also can be found in Marquette and Green Lake Counties in Wisconsin.
Its habitat is marsh and shallow water and it requires tall water plants like cat tails, wild rice and, in Lake Puckaway, phragmite or “river cane” beds.
This habitat is the reason the bird has dwindled in numbers. Encroachments by humans, draining wetlands, building around lakes, and chemical contamination have greatly affected where the bird can nest and how successful it can be in raising young. In addition, the varying water levels in flowages like the Lake Puckaway area can create conditions where nesting is impossible or where nests or young are lost before fledging.
“High water and waves will wash eggs off of these floating mats. On the other hand, drought conditions will allow predators such as mink and raccoons to decimate the nesting colony,” explained Christensen. “Other predators such as great-horned owls will kill the adults and ruddy turnstones will eat the eggs.”
Flooding can wipe out scores of nests on Lake Puckaway, said Christensen. Hundreds of American White Pelican and Great Egret nests can be lost as well.
The tern feeds on small fish and insects, smartly nabbing fish from the water while on the wing and taking insects in the air. It also sometimes shallow dives for fish. On Puckaway, said Christensen, they feed on minnows and lake shiners and need at least a foot of water clarity to be able to find their prey.
The extinction of plant and animal species is accelerating. While species which couldn’t adapt have disappeared naturally over millennia, the present numbers of species that are disappearing is unnatural and fueled by human behavior. How could the loss of an unremarkable bird like the Forster’s Tern make a difference?
“Birds like the Forster’s Tern are a great ‘canary-in-a-cage’ warning sign if things are going wrong in the environment,” Christensen said. “Everything is connected and the disappearance of an animal can predict environmental concerns.”
The loss of a species does not happen in isolation. Loss of habitat like wetlands that causes the loss of species like the Forster’s Tern takes on a larger importance when that loss has other effects like that of the major flooding that has been seen in recent years, much of which has been attributed to loss of wetlands that allow swollen waters to absorb back into the earth instead of rushing into streets and neighborhoods.
Financially, over 2.6 million people in the US find their employment through fishing, hunting and wildlife watching recreational activities. These activities generate 108 billion dollars in revenues. The Forster’s Tern is the tip of the ice berg in loss of wilderness, wild areas, and habitat for a host of animals and plants.
Besides being important for the economy, there are moral and ethical questions that arise when humans disregard the land and the existence of fellow earth dwellers as well as disregard future generations and what kind of earth will be here for them. Harvard Professor Edward O. Wilson says that the loss of animal and plant species will be what our descendents are “least likely to forgive us.”
Wisconsin’s famed naturalist Aldo Leopold said,” Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left”
When talking about the Forster’s Tern in this interview he said, “We’re all a part of this eco system. Remove a piece of it and you can live, but what will the quality of your life be?”
The professional fisherman more than does his part in retaining the quality of life in Marquette County by working hard to help the Forster’s Tern return each year and raise young. It involves hauling up to 50 wooden platforms out onto Lake Puckaway and securing them in the proper weed beds. The Wisconsin DNR provides the platforms and in years past has worked with high schools in making them. Early years of experience in the program perfected the design of the nesting rig. For instance, a lip on the platform was added to give a sheltered area to newborn chicks where they can hide from predators.
Christensen keeps close watch on the terns and the Lake Puckaway Protection and Rehabilitation District has been active in tern nesting preservation as well. In spring he waits for high water to recede so that the vegetation will be of adequate height to hide the nests and so that they can be secured properly. He sometimes finds that the terns have already found acceptable locations and already built nests, so he provides a smaller number of platforms. If floods come and all the nests are lost, including even some platforms, since Forster’s Terns can produce a second hatch, Christensen may take out another round of platforms to give them another chance to nest.
Success rate in past years has varied with 0 successful hatches to up to 100 baby birds fledging the nest. They lay 3 to 5 eggs which hatch in about 25 days. Some years ago a tornado wiped out the entire colony, but barring those natural disasters, the birds find the platforms perfect for their nesting and have become so used to using them that they often begin to circle Christensen’s boat when he pulls into the boat landing on Puckaway. The birds can live to be 20 years old and many have been using the platforms for years. Without this platform program, the Forster’s Tern would no doubt have disappeared from Wisconsin waters the way it has in Illinois where they are trying to re-establish some birds. Christensen received the prestigious Bronze Passenger Pigeon Award from the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology in 2002 for his work with Forster’s Terns on Lake Puckaway in Marquette County.
The well-known chimpanzee wildlife researcher Jane Goodall said, “We have a chance to use our lives to make the world a better place.”
A better place is a place with an unremarkable gray bird that swoops over the water, its long tail trailing behind, scooping a silver minnow and carrying it to young safe on a nest in the reeds in Lake Puckaway. The lake would be a little lonelier, the sky a little more empty without this unremarkable bird whose presence we can embrace because of a remarkable man who uses his life to make our world a better place.
In the photo below, Montello’s Daryl Christensen shows how the platforms are filled with hay for returning endangered Forster’s Terns.
The book shown above tells the legacy and history of hunting and fishing in Marquette County. It is available at the Marquette County Historical Society in Westfield, the Montello Historic Preservation Society in Montello, and also in Montello at the Marquette County Tribune office, B&B Candy Store and Reader's Realm Bookstore. All sales to support the Marquette County Historical Society.