Friday, December 21, 2012

Making Waves

Frosty sunshine peeked through the trees as more than a dozen adults pulled on their muck boots and backpacks. Crunching through dry and frozen plants down a slope into a bog, some ventured close to the edge of the floating mat surrounding the small pool of open water. Like monkeys jumping on a bed, they bounced up and down. Their exuberant energy transferred through the floating mat and made waves in the pool.


Full of smiles, questions, and hot coffee, this group of Master Naturalist students was thrilled to be on their first field trip. The group has been meeting one evening a week for several weeks, learning about Wisconsin geology, ecology, plants, animals, and much more. Each evening, an expert in the topic gives a lecture and takes questions. Then the organizers facilitate additional educational activities. This series of classes is one of two pilot courses for the brand-new Wisconsin Master Naturalist Program.


Students will end up with a Master Naturalist certification, similar to the Master Gardener program. Then they are required to pass on their knowledge by volunteering with parks, schools, non-profits, and other nature-oriented organizations.


In the opening lecture, Northland College Professor Tom Fitz gave an overview of Wisconsin geology. To set the stage for future lectures on ecology and plants, he presented the idea that the natural communities we see today are a result of three things: 1) geologic history, 2) current climate, and 3) recent disturbance.


Our bog exploration provided a great example of this theory. The slope we walked down into the bog was a jumble of sand, pebbles, and cobbles. This mess of sediment was deposited by the melting glacier more than 10,000 years ago. All that “stuff” was suspended in the ice. Some of it melted straight to the ground as “till,” and some of it was carried a little ways by streams of meltwater.


Where the bog is now, a chunk of ice was buried by the sand and gravel. When the ice melted, it left a depression with no inlet or outlet, called a “glacial kettle.” That’s the geologic history.


Our current temperate climate provides ample rainfall to fill the basin, and warm summers for plants to grow. For 10,000 years, plants have been growing inward from the edge of the basin. Delicate, drooping, grass-like plants begin the process. Woody leatherleaf shrubs anchor into the soil created by the grass, and reach out farther over the water. Sphagnum moss uses leatherleaf as scaffolding, with both plants engaged in a race toward the sun. As plants hanging over the water get heavier and sink, new plants grow on top of them, and reach ever-farther out into the pool.


The mat of dead and living vegetation extends all the way to the bottom of the basin throughout most of the bog. Only around the edge of the pool can you find a floating lattice of leatherleaf and sphagnum – floating, but able to support several bouncing adults!


Recent disturbance also makes its mark on the bog, where orange arrows indicate a snowmobile trail. The trail is visible even without snow, highlighted by lower topography, firmer ground, and a grassier selection of plants.


Thousands of people drive by this little bog on County Highway M east of Cable every year. Some may not notice it at all. Some may admire its beauty when the tamaracks turn gold, or when frost glistens on the plants at sunrise. After this field trip, one group of people -- with mud on their boots and a Master Naturalist certificate on their wall -- will see over 10,000 years of geologic history, current climate, and recent disturbance at work. They will surely make waves in their communities!


This Master Naturalist pilot course is being presented through a partnership between UW-Extension, Northland College, and the Cable Natural History Museum. Once the curriculum is finalized, we hope to hold more courses here in northwest Wisconsin. Contact Emily Stone ( for more information!


For over 44 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. The new exhibit, STAR POWER: Energy from the Sun, opened in May 2012 and will remain open until April, 2013.



Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,


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