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Whatever happened to the actual backwaters?

The water was drained, but I don't believe that all was lost.

Around 80 of the 35,000 sandhill cranes stopping over in what used to be part of the Grand Kankakee Marsh coming in for a landing in November, 2020.

We saw them flying in groups, first, mistaking them for geese. I didn’t realize I’d have to look twice – had I been mistaking the sandhill cranes for geese all of these years I had lived in Indiana? But as I did a double-take I realized there was no mistaking these huge birds for geese. Their long necks, and long legs, their pointed wings – even their silhouette was striking.

My husband and children and I were driving south on highway 421 in November, 2020, on our way to see what we could of the sandhill crane migration. As the dusk approached, the flying groups increased. We were still in our car, and we were seeing V’s of dozens, then hundreds, of sandhill cranes, heading toward their evening roosting site. My heart starting thumping out of my chest. The urgency of their flight was softened by a grace of their gliding. I suddenly knew I was witnessing something big.

We drove past corn fields with thousands of cranes standing around, then flapping their wings at each other and hopping around in funny dance moves. They were “talking” all the time. From the time we got within 10 miles of the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, it was not a quiet afternoon.

Turn up your sound to hear my kids asking questions about what we're looking at. According to the staff at Jasper-Pulaski, there were around 35,000 cranes arriving in the evenings around this date (November 27, 2020).

The cranes are the most famous and most visible of the migratory birds to this swampy area of the Midwest. I can tell that it’s swampy because the farm fields stand in their checkerboard between deep ditches like the kind you would see in a banana plantation along the coast of tropical Costa Rica. South Dakota has no ditches like this by our fields.

Diane Wilson describes a landscape that is familiar to me as a South Dakota kid, though one state to the east. In her essay in Emergence Magazine, entitled “Making Relatives,” Wilson tells us about the land in east-central Minnesota, formed by glaciers and since drained for agriculture. The marshy land she lives on sounds a lot like the land in northeastern South Dakota, where my paternal grandparents and my father grew up. The rolling hills are called kettle-moraine topography, with glacial (kettle) lakes in such abundance that there is a town called Lake City right in the middle of them.

Our family's farm was right on the edge of those moraine hills. I remember my grandfather often telling of how, when checking on the cows in the pasture behind the house, he would look west over the flat farmland that stretched out below him and feel like he was at the top of the world.

In her essay, Wilson grapples with the present-day reality, understanding that the land she is living on has been intervened upon by white settlers for the purpose of agriculture that will bring profit to its “owners.” She feels anger, and deeper down, grief, about how this came to be. But as a Lakota grandmother she also believes that everything is her relative, and so she struggles to see the invasive species in her backyard as important living beings. She writes:

Before settlers arrived, vast maple and oak forests grew along the river, while tamarack swamps formed in depressions left by ancient glaciers. A bit farther south, glaciers formed shallow lakes where wild rice grew in such abundance that the lakes were said to resemble a green meadow. The rice fed thousands of wild ducks and geese as they migrated through the area. For Native people, this land provided a seasonal grocery store. In turn, they helped maintain the balance between species, between relatives, by using only what was needed and intervening with great care.

Today, little remains of the original native plants and animals who once flourished here. The wild rice beds disappeared around 1900, when their waters were muddied by farm field erosion and chemical runoff. Ducks and geese became less abundant as the wild rice diminished, deer were hunted intensely, and surrounding oak forests were consumed by a nearby charcoal factory. Much of the remaining vegetation was cleared for cropland, and drainage ditches were constructed through the marshes.”

But South Dakota isn’t characterized by excess water, as is Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes. While my father grew up in an area with towns such as Lake City, most farmland in South Dakota is surrounded by grassy margins. Not so in Northwest Indiana, where I live now, where the fields are often held in by deep ditches, interspersed with drainage canals that look like small rivers, uniform and straight. The fields in this area are the current location of the former Grand Kankakee Marsh, a place once thought by Teddy Roosevelt to be as majestic as Yellowstone.

I’m curious about the drainage projects that drained both Wilson’s ancestral land, which is related to my own, and this place where I now live.

Originally about 80% of the length of the Kankakee flowed through an immense wetland known as the Grand Kankakee Marsh. It was the lowest and wettest part of a vast flat plain made up of a thick layer of sand laid down by glaciers some 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. It was about 100 miles in length, averaged about 8 miles in width, and was 3 to 4 feet deep about 8 months a year. The size of the marsh is constantly debated; however, the area most of the public would identify as “wet land” was probably near 500,000 acres. Include different types of habitat that support wetland plants and it may have been twice that size.”

There was a film made about this area called Everglades of the North.

From left to right: A map of the Grand Kankakee Marsh before it was drained, starting in the 1850s. The Kankakee River today, found in the middle of a checkerboard of farm fields, with the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area highlighted. A close-up of the straightened Kankakee River, stubbornly meandering outside of its man-made channel.

Dustin Brewer writes in Earth Island Journal:

“Bison wandered, greater prairie chicken displayed, waterfowl abounded, large predators roamed, and Native peoples lived off the land. The diversity of habitats and wildlife were similar to today’s Serengeti plains in Africa.

Soon after the Civil War ended, a 50-plus year ditching effort cut 250 meandering river miles down to 90 straightened miles, while nearly draining the entire marsh. Habitat disappeared. Today, only five percent of the former Grand Kankakee Marsh exists as wetland, tiny islands in a sea of corn and soybean fields.”

Knowing this is a bit overwhelming: to think that I live a few miles from a place that used to be comparable to Yellowstone, or to the Everglades, or to the Serengeti, but that humans drained it to create the landscape we see around us today... I can’t quite wrap my head around it. Sometimes I wonder, as I drive past flooded fields and overflowing ponds around here, if climate change is planning on giving the Kankakee River back its marsh.

In this Google Maps image you can see the channeled Kankakee River (in the center), with what seems to be a floodplain surrounding it. Wet depressions dot the landscape.

Scientists estimate that with the draining of the marsh, at least 1/5 of the migratory bird population of North America died out. But they’re not all gone. There are still relatives here, as Diane Wilson and her Lakota family might say. And we can still pay them a visit.

This week I will be making my pilgrimage down to the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area to observe tens of thousands of sandhill cranes that still stopover in some remaining wetlands. I will listen to their calls, watch them wing in as majestic V’s, and delight as they dance with each other upon arrival. And I will keep learning about the Grand Kankakee Marsh and the land and creatures all around me.


Thank you for reading the New Backwater blog! I hope that you find ideas and perspectives here for making connections between the US and Latin America, for finding balance by leveraging tools of the past with lessons of the present, and for achieving transformation to make the world a better place. I'm trying to work on these things every day, and I'm grateful you're sharing that journey with me.

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