Here eight swallows harried me, one squawking as it swept past my left ear. Here my son and I stepped into a tick nest. Here a toad squatted in the path, not even moving when I bent low over its lamb-chop-sized body. After a decade of walking on this trail, there’s a story every ten feet.
This protected wetlands is a quick five mile drive from my house. I park at the start of the car tour route and walk in between a field that alternates corn and soybeans and a meadow that eases down to a pothole. All spring pelicans turn this pothole white. The gravel road turns sharply along another field, turns again and then lopes downhill past a larger pothole where Canada geese build their nest mounds and hundreds of ducks raise their young. It was here, just before the road descended, that I scared a deer who had to run between the outermost row of corn held in by a fence until it was able to leap over the fence, stop in the road to study me, her ears sharp and stiff, and then bound down through big blue stem and gramma toward the tall reeds that skirt the water.
When the road levels out I cross a stream connecting the big ducky pond to yet another pothole. Here for the first time, this year, I watched two muskrats, and then a few weeks later, three. And here a red-winged blackbird landed on a cattail, shaking down a meteor shower of bright pollen. By mid-summer the stream is neon green with duckweed. The potholes never dry out—they’re deep enough to hold water year-round.
Before the plow, the tile, the ditch and road, an average of 72 pothole wetlands per square mile made this region a paradise for ducks and other waterfowl. Now only about ten percent of the wetlands remain, and only one percent of native prairie. Their story goes back ten thousand years; my one-thousandth of that story is paltry, but I keep going back for more.