Wild animals, fish and winged creatures create learning experiences
By Lily Kongslien
Special to the Star Journal
Many kinds of birds and winged creatures could be observed as rural kids of yesteryear wandered the woods and fished the streams. We learned early the different types of fish available to eager young adventurers on a warm summer day. The rock bass and crappies could be found among submerged stumps, while the bass were in deeper waters and would readily gobble at the small frogs we used as bait. Angleworms and night crawlers were carefully placed on the fish hooks in an attempt to catch perch and other small pan fish. We were also able to get many large suckers or red-horse by dragging our baited hooks on the river bottom. These scavengers were used for food for our foxes during the summer months, since their diet was to contain fish to enhance the silver in their fur and make the pelts more valuable.
We did use a casting rod and caught musky, pike and pickerel were caught and used for an excellent fish meal for the family. There were a lot of clams and crayfish along the shore of the river; years ago there were clammers fishing the river for clams to use the shells for buttons, but this industry was not as great in the ‘30s as years before.
I recall in pre-war years after the construction of Rainbow Dam in the Lake Tomahawk area considerably north of where we lived, the Wisconsin River became very shallow which made fishing an impossibility. At that time you could almost walk across the river bed, and much debris and old logs from lumbering days were exposed, causing fishing to be almost non-existent. Normally, in the swamps and sloughs, there were many kinds of frogs to offer their evening serenade, and they became bait for our fishing trips.
In the air there was always much activity. The barn swallows had their nests by the barn and occasionally an old owl would claim a corner of the hay loft. In the slough were many cranes, blue herons, coots, mallards and a big long-legged bird my father called a shytepoke. I cannot find any information on this bird; apparently it is not the right name, but there was a great population of them in the sloughs and backwaters. Life in the sky was in abundance with many hawks, crows and ravens, plus of course, the robins, chickadees, blue jays and the precious little hummingbirds that loved my mother’s sweet William bed of colorful blossoms. Birdhouses were plentiful, built by my brother and my father. A large martin house provided many happy hours of entertainment as these birds flitted in and out of their own little apartments within the large structure.
I loved the yellow and black goldfinches and had my favorite among those that frequented our yard, but our cat saw this particular one as a good meal and jumped on it. I was able to retrieve it, but not before it had died. My father, who did taxidermy work, said he would mount it for me, and for years I had it in my room. Somehow, now, the thought of this does not seem too thrilling to me, but when I was a young, naïve child that seemed appropriate! And speaking of flying creatures, we had bats in our attic and at night they would swoop down around the house and yard and I was very frightened as I believed the old wives’ tale that they would get tangled in my hair. My father closed up the holes in the attic and then we were rid of the bats and I was glad.
Much was learned about the wild animals first-hand in our everyday lives. Beavers were numerous and many dams had been constructed by these builders, flooding their desired area and in turn making a likely habitat for muskrats to build their houses and live in their little colonies. I can remember in the evening when we’d hear a loud splash down river and my father would explain that the beavers were busy cutting down trees for their newest dam construction job. There was a lot of trapping back then, and my father trapped beaver and muskrats for their furs. Also, mink and weasels were sought for their furs. Rabbits were snared mainly for foot. How vividly I remember one time I was told to “walk” the trap line. All went well until I came to a trap where the animal was not yet dead, and I panicked and went screaming and crying all the way home and then begged someone to come with me and take care of the situation. Chipmunks, gophers and moles were more my kind of animals and I loved to watch the squirrels. It was amazing how they prepared for the long winter months.
Snakes, definitely not one of my favorites, were in abundance on the farm, and very beneficial to the farmer I was told. There was an abundance of grass snakes as well as the striped garter snakes. Once in a while we would spot a large pine snake – they grew to a great size and were somewhat poisonous. While swimming in the river, there was a possibility of an encounter with a water moccasin, and they were poisonous! I never even waded in the river as I was afraid of the strong and fierce current.
The most talked-about and dreaded animal in the forest was the wolf. Of course, the story of Little Red Riding Hood didn’t help quell this fear. In the night we could hear the wolves howling back in the woods; however, they never came near our home, not even out of curiosity about the foxes. We knew that there were wolves nearby, but they never bothered us and were never seen in the daytime. I never saw a bear up close, just from a distance while berry picking. Porcupines were a familiar sight as they often perched upon the trunk or branch of a large tree. We stayed far away from them as another old wives’ tale warned us that they would throw their quills quite a distance as a means of protection. There were several times when our family dog got too inquisitive and ended up with a face full of quills. He would yowl until they were removed and then probably do the same thing again. Groundhogs burrowed into the fields and ventured up to check for enemies and then, if all was clear, they would go on a hunting trip for food.
It can clearly be said that nature was our first encyclopedia as far as facts and understanding of the creatures that we were fortunate to have around us daily. A healthy respect for life and the creatures in it was a result of keeping our eyes and ears open around us and listening to nature as it unfolded before us.