Natural Connections: River Of Life

Yellow iris has a long history in this country, but can also be invasive and alter wetland habitats.

Natural Connections: River Of Life

With a quick push from shore, my old green canoe caught the current and we swept downstream on the Namekagon River. The recent rains have filled the river with more water than I’ve seen in a couple of summers, and warm days have filled the river with life.

Within minutes of launching, we surprised a doe and fawn who were feeding on a sandbar. Aquatic vegetation often contains more sodium and iron than plants in the forest. Plus, mosquitoes don’t seem to be as plentiful in the sunny river corridor as under the shady trees. I was much happier to see the deer here than jumping across the road! We cheered the little fawn on as the pair bounded across a riffle and disappeared into the brush.

Steering quickly as the river became braided into several channels, we snaked between islands of vegetation and alders reaching in from the shore. The river didn’t used to be quite so narrow here. These alders haven’t sprung back since the late winter storm a few years ago that turned many trees into archways instead of columns.

When the river widened again, bright yellow caught our eye among the emergent vegetation. Yellow iris were in full bloom! I love their sunny color, but these iris are considered invasive. They can exclude native plants, while providing few resources to our native insects and wildlife. Their dense mats of rhizomes can even trap soil and raise the land level! Plus, all parts of the plants are toxic to animals.

Yellow iris are native to Europe, where they seem to help reduce harmful bacteria and heavy metals in contaminated water. It was even observed by scientists that yellow iris were "one of the few plants flourishing after a nuclear holocaust.”

The flowers have powerful symbolism, too. They are thought to be the basis for the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of the French monarchy. The Boy Scouts of America adopted the three-petaled shape because of its similarity to the north point of a compass, and to represent the three aspects of the Scout Promise: duty to God, responsibility for self, and service to others. It’s not hard to imagine why people introduced this elegant flower into landscaping on this continent as early as the 1700s.

Just a few more bends down the river, and it was purple that caught our eye. This was the blue flag iris, which is native to the Eastern U.S. and Canada. While this iris is also toxic, and can form dense clumps, their long history in the local ecosystem means that they have relationships with plants and animals that provide habitat value and reduce their ability to take over.

The wide, stiff, leaves of the iris blended with the wide, stiff leaves of giant bur-reed nearby. Bur-reeds are some of my favorite aquatic plants because of their quirky flowers. The round, pom-pom like blossoms turn into spikey, mace-like balls of seeds once pollinated by the wind. Those seeds are food for ducks. In contrast to the two species of iris, this one species of Sparganium is native to both Europe and North America! I wonder if the ducks are responsible for spreading the seeds so widely?

I’d been admiring all these flowers from afar, until a patch of sparkles poked through the current. With some quick maneuvering, the canoe was soon pointed upstream near the water crowfoot flowers with the stern resting on a hummock of grass. This gave me a chance to fully admire the tiny white-petaled flowers, each with a sunny yellow cluster of pollen-filled stamens. Their leaves – submerged in the river and forming a thick mound – were finely divided and branched. I submerged my camera to capture their underwater beauty.

I couldn’t help but be distracted by all of the damselflies fluttering above the crowfoot and in the alders along the bank. Ebony jewelwings have to be some of the prettiest insects on the planet with their iridescent blue-green bodies and elegant black wings. They flit out from a twig to catch tiny gnats, and then rest demurely with their wings upright and closed. While perched, they sometimes open and close their wings quickly as a notice to other damselflies –whether competition or love interest – that they are present.

Green frogs sang us downstream, with their single, banjo-like “plunk” calls. A few mink frogs added their voices, too, like the knocking together of two marbles. Painted turtles slipped off their sunning logs as we glided past. The skew of a startled green heron alerted us to their presence, and we looked up in time to watch them land in a tree with their bright orange legs. With our eyes in the air, we spotted an osprey disappearing around the river bend. Then a fish jumped right out of the water, and we knew what the osprey had been searching for.

I’m not sure that we’d been searching for anything in particular when we decided to paddle on the Namekagon, but what we found was a river, that, in the words of Mary Oliver, is “touching every life it meets.”

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is open with our brand-new exhibit: “Anaamaagon: Under the Snow.” Our Summer Calendar of Events is open for registration! Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.

Last Update: Jul 05, 2024 4:56 am CDT

Posted In


Share This Article