The Search for Phragmites

It was a chilly, overcast Monday morning.  I put on multiple layers of clothing, including three pairs of socks, as I prepared for my Odyssey in search of Phragmites.  Unlike the Greek hero Odysseus, my journey in search of Phragmites would not take ten years to complete.  In just a few hours, I was able to find Phragmites and help minimize its spread through the wetlands.  So who, or what, is Phragmites?  I can tell you that it is not a Greek goddess or mythical god.  Phragmites is a perennial wetland grass that can grow up to fifteen feet in height.  It is a non-native, invasive reed that is threatening the ecological health of wetlands and the coastline of the Great Lakes.  Dense patches of Phragmites degrade wetlands and by crowding out plants and animals that are native to the region.  This invasive reed is taking over the wetlands of Eagle Marsh, a 700 acre plus wetland located on the southwest side of Fort Wayne.  I volunteered to spend some time at Eagle Marsh with Little River Wetland Project to help eradicate the problem.

Little River Wetland Project is a non-profit land trust with a mission to restore and preserve the wetlands of the Little River.  25,000 acres of land, once known as the Great Marsh, are maintained by the project.  This Great Marsh once was a thriving wetland with abundant wildlife.  Today, much of the wildlife that inhabited these wetlands is now threatened and endangered.  The restoration and preservation of the wetlands will help these species survive. The wetlands also help to control flooding while offering a picturesque, peaceful place for a recreational hike.  LRWP has completed the initial restoration in three preserves, including Eagle Marsh.  Native plants are growing and the wildlife is returning.  In order to keep this preservation moving forward, the problems that Phragmites presents are a concern.  That is where my volunteer experience comes into play.

I arrived at Eagle Marsh unsure of what my role as volunteer would entail.  I knew that we would be going into wetlands in search of Phragmites, but I could not have imagined the experience that I was about to have.  I met with Don, a biologist and Indiana Naturalist, and we headed into the Marsh.  We hiked awhile until we found our first patch of Phragmites.  Our job was to use a pair of cutters to cut to seed heads off of the stems.  This will help keep the Phragmites from spreading as seeds fall to the ground.  After cutting off the seed heads, we placed them into a garbage bag.  A very simple process.  We worked our way from patch to patch, removing the heads one at a time.  We walked through snow and across the iced wetlands.  Due to the unseasonably warm winter some areas of the marsh were not frozen.  That made things difficult.  We had been working for about 30 minutes when my feet submerged into the cold water for the first time.  As I mentioned, I was wearing three pairs of socks under my boots.  Unfortunately, my boots were not rubber, water-resistant boots.  Water instantly filled my shoes and soaked my socks.  We continued on looking for our enemy Phragmites.  I continued to take on water in my boots.  After about two hours of working in the marsh, I started to lose all feeling in my feet.  The simple task of wiggling my toes became a chore. This became a concern so we decided to call it a day.

My experience at Eagle Marsh was one that I will never forget.  It was a real learning experience for me as this was my first time volunteering and working with this type of organization.  Don was a pleasure to work with.  His knowledge and expertise helped me understand why the wetlands are so important and how my volunteering affects the habitat.  I learned about the different species of plants and animals that call Eagle Marsh home and that most are endangered.  This experience gave me the opportunity to witness the beauty of the wetlands.  I took the opportunity to take in the scenery and enjoy the peaceful sounds of the area.  Even with an interstate on one side and hotels and businesses close by, I felt like I was in the wilderness with only Don and my thoughts.  Little River Wetlands Project is passionate about its mission to preserve the Great Marsh.  They are committed to teaching others, including students, about the importance of the wetlands and the benefits it provides. Lastly, I learned how important the right type of footwear is while working in the wetlands.  Cold, wet feet can dominate one’s mind if allowed.  After completing the experience and removing my boots, I discovered that all of my toes were black and swollen.  After a few days, the discoloration subsided and everything was back to normal.  All of my piggies survived.

I am grateful that I had the opportunity to serve with this great organization.  I encourage anyone who lives in the Fort Wayne area to visit Eagle Marsh and enjoy the hiking trails.  You will enjoy the sanctuary that is Eagle Marsh.  The wildlife is present in the wetlands.  On your visit you may just see a bald eagle overhead or in a nearby tree, numerous frogs jumping around as you walk, or one of many other types of birds that inhabit the land.  After my experience, I know that I want to go back and volunteer again.  Next time, it will be spring or summer.  Submerging my feet in the water at that time would be much more refreshing.  Visit www.lrwp.org to learn more about the preservation projects and how you can help.

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