Some of the lesser known of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources properties are the Wetland Conversation areas. They are scattered across the state with most, as can be expected, in the northern one third of Indiana where most of our Hoosier wetlands are located.
These sites are open for hunting, fishing and nature study. They also have a variety of non-game wildlife in addition to the game species that are hunted. Several also feature rare plants that thrive in a wet habitat.
Over the years I have visited a number of these areas and have found them of great interest and filled with nature’s wonders.
Marsh Lake Wetland Conservation Area in Steuben County, which is located in extreme northeastern Indiana, is a classic example of these areas. Marsh Lake extends over 800 acres and is one of the larger conservation areas.
A 103-acre segment of Marsh Lake has been dedicated as a State Nature Preserve. This preserve helps protect some of the uncommon plants that can be found in the wetlands surrounding Marsh Lake, the centerpiece of the area.
Among the features of the preserve are a large cattail marsh, sedge marsh and calcareous fen, shrub swamp, and a boreal or northern forest. The latter has many tamarack and yellow birch trees which are listed as relict in Indiana. Other northern species growing among the tamarack and yellow birch are starflower, dwarf birch and Canada mayflower.
While most of Marsh Lake Area is wet, along the southern and eastern portion of the site are uplands where different plant species can be found.
Feather Valley Road runs along the southern segment of the conservation area while the now controversial Indiana Toll Road forms the eastern boundary of the area. The east road runs across the eastern segment and allows access to a large section of the site.
I have been to Marsh Lake several times, but one trip will always be a vivid memory of what can happen on a trip into Hoosierland’s wild places. My family was camping at nearby Pokagon State Park so a short trip to Marsh Lake seemed a great idea. We first visited the lake, which is surrounded by vast wetlands, and enjoyed the wildlife that abounds in this habitat.
Next we drove along Feather Valley Road to the east road where we stopped near a large shade tree where my family could stay while I ventured down into the wetlands to see what I could find.
I knew the lovely lady slipper orchid grew in the area and I wanted to get some pictures of it in bloom. Putting on a pair of old boots I had brought from home I ventured down the small hill while my family waited and into the marsh.
I also was aware that massasauga rattlesnakes had been reported from this area, but as this snake is uncommon I had little thought of ever seeing one.
As soon as I ventured into the water I realized these old rubber boots had holes in them. Wet fee, however, is a small price to pay for seeing orchids in bloom. Indeed the lovely lady slippers were in bloom and there were several of them in all their glory.
I was soon engrossed in taking pictures and gave little thought to poisonous snakes. Suddenly all this changed when I heard the buzzing rattle of a massasauga. Now this is a small rattlesnake, only a yard or so in length, but its bite can make you sick.
Discretion now overcame valor and I moved away from the sound of the snake. Then over to my right I heard another massasauga, then another to my left. I suddenly realized I must be in a rare colony of these snakes.
Knowing I had holes in my boots, I lost all interest in the orchids and beat a hasty retreat out of the wetland. Reaching dry ground I breathed a sigh of relief, took a step and stepped right on a massasagua. It struck and I jumped to my right, he struck again and I hopped to the life. The snake was mad because I had stepped on it. Two more jumps and I was away from the snake, safe but shaken.
So on the banks of Marsh Lake in northern Indiana I had created a new dance, the “rattlesnake hop.”