A Guide to the Sights and Sounds of the Marsh Trail in Midsummer
Welcome to Fox Island Marsh Trail. This trail is about two miles long and begins in front of the Observation Building. You should allow about two hours to walk the trail in order to see, hear, and smell the woods, the dune, and the marsh. This brochure describes the sights and sound of the trail in midsummer. For more wildflower information, the Fox Island brochure, “Spring Wildflower Guide,” is available in the Nature Center. If you are hiking at Fox Island between mid-May and mid-October, wear insect repellent . Please remember that the Fox Island Nature Preserve is a special place where the only human influence is the presence of the trail. Please leave all plants undisturbed so that other hikers may enjoy them for years to come.
As you begin your hike, try to “tune in” to what may be happening around you. Relax! Try to use all of your senses. From the Observation Building, go along the mail trail toward Post A. Just before Post A, to the right of the trail is a giant black oak tree about 200 years old. This tree has a lightning scar down its trunk and many dead branches. It was here when Fox Island was a farm. The farmer and his plow horses were probably grateful for the shade from this colossal tree. Before many more years, this black oak will die and woodpeckers will make holes in its branches. See if you can find any acorns under the tree. Many of the nearby trees are probably this black oak’s offspring. At Post A, turn left.
Post A to Post P
This trail passes Fox Island’s famous “Smiling Tree,” favorite of the many school children who visit here. This tree was deformed by being used as a fence post when it was a sapling and Fox Island was a farm. Can you find the “Smiling Tree” to the right of the trail? Hint: It is a sassafras tree. Note the plants of the forest floor: five-leaved ivy ( Virginia creeper ), ferns , mayapple , wild geranium , and tree seedlings.
On the left of the trail, note the fallen logs. The logs are being broken down into humus by fungi and bacteria. Some of this humus is to the point where moss and even grass can grow on to. See if you can find the striped, fan-shaped fungus called, ” turkey-tail .”
At this point, on the right, look for a groundhog burrow with two “doors.” Birds heard in this area in summer include wood thrush , crow , wood peewee , yellow-throated vireo (its call sounds like “V-8”), and the white-breasted nuthatch . You may see the nuthatch walking headfirst down the tree trunks looking for tasty insects. At Post P, turn left. Keep going past Post Q to Post R.
Now we see that the trail becomes grassy. More sunlight gets through, encouraging different plants to grow. Before Fox Island became a protected nature preserve, motorcycles drove along this trail. Now nature is healing the scars. Wild strawberries grow here along with blackberry bushes , black-eyed Susan , yarrow , Queen Anne’s lace , and sumac . Many aspen trees are here, the first trees to colonize the field. Look for their pale, gray branches. As the years go by, oaks and hickories will sprout in the shade of the aspens and become the predominant growth.
Look for deer tracks in the sand. If you are lucky, you might find the conical “traps” in the sand of a fierce insect called the ant lion . The ant lion hides at the bottom of the trap, waiting for an ant to fall down into the pitfall. At Post R, turn to the right, down the hill.
Post R to Post U: The Frog Pond
The Frog Pond is a favorite destination of school groups. The pond is man-made and is home to bullfrogs , dragonflies , and that “masked bandit” the yellow-throat . Listen for this bird’s call of “witchety-witchety.” At Post U, turn right.
Post U to Post V
You are crossing another old field “in succession.” This means that the field is changing into a woods” weeds give way to shrubs, then to sun-loving trees, and then to shade-tolerant trees. The early successional plants seen now are goldenrod , sumac , and the mint called bergamot (lavender flowers and fragrant leaves.) The bergamot is used to flavor Earl Gray Tea. Birds of the old field are goldfinches and the rufous-sided towhee . Listen for the towhee saying, “Drink-your-tea.”
Another aspen grove is your entrance back into the woods. Notice the black, mucky soil, rich in organic matter. Look for lush stands of the plant jewelweed (also called touch-me-not for their explosive seed pods) and for the tall bellflower with purple flowers along a tall stalk. The trail becomes narrow here. Birds of this area might include a scolding house wren and a white-eyed vireo , whose call has been described as, “Hic! Serve another one, quick!” At Post V, go left.
At the Marsh
Climb up on the observation tower and look around at the marsh. This is a seasonal wetland: in dry summers it dries up, but in spring water may stand two or three feet deep. Cattails grow here, and the tall sedges , whose stems are triangular in cross section. Duckweed , smallest of the flowering plants, floats on the surface of the water, looking a little like green algae. In the winter, they sink to the bottom; thus they migrate up and down with the seasons.
Listen for the banjo-string call of the green frog and “jug-o-rum” of the bullfrog . You may hear the “meow” of a gray catbird , or in late summer the raucous undulating trill of the cicada . If you clap your hands, and are very lucky, the elusive sora rail , a bird which skulks among the cattails, may respond with its whinnying call.
Even a wetland as small as the Fox Island Marsh is important as a breeding ground for creatures great and small. School groups like to put scoops of pond muck into white enamel pans, where little swimming creatures can be seen more easily. Water boatmen , caddis-fly larvae in stick houses, tiny crustaceans , and fierce dragonfly nymphs are commonly found. They thrive in the rich stew of decaying plants and smaller organisms.
Mallard ducks and Canada geese nest here. You can see why wetlands are called “wonders worth saving.”
While sitting on the marsh platform, imagine that it is 10,000 years ago. The ice age is coming to an end. How good the warm sunshine feels at last! To the east, past the railroad, you can “see” the wall of dirty ice glistening in the sun. It was once a mile think, but now it is melting fast. Instead of the railroad embankment, you see a rushing torrent of icy water washing sand and gravel out from under the melting ice.
As you look over toward I-69, imagine the water rushing to join the Wabash, and on to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. You might even see a mastodon grazing at the water’s edge.
Now imagine that it is 1790 and you are a French trapper. You have paddled your canoe from Lake Erie, up the Maumee and St. Mary’s rivers. You have 8 miles to carry your canoe and packs to the Little River before you can proceed down the Wabash. You can even go all the way to New Orleans! You notice that the Little River has a very wide valley, much wider than the river itself. That is because when the weight of the ice was removed from the glacial sluiceway, the ground rose enough that the water east of the portage could flow the opposite direction (east), leaving most of the valley dry. You are keeping a sharp eye out for the Miami Indians who control the portage. Luckily you have made friends with their chief and are bringing gifts for him and his family.
Now jump forward in time into the present. Most of the glacial sluiceway has been drained for farmland, and what is left of the Little River is the deep ditch south of Yohne Road (the road that runs along the south edge of the park.) From your perch on the observation tower you can see the traffic on Highway I-69 and hear the jet planes from Fort Wayne International Airport. You can see the lights of the GTE building and you know that houses and shopping centers are being built closer and closer to the marsh. Fox Island has become an “island” in a “sea” of man-made objects. What will it be like 200 years from now? Leaving the marsh, go left at Post V.
Post V to Post W
You will pass many tall pokeweeds with their thick, red-violet stems. Their black berries are poisonous to humans. Also common here is wingstem , a tall plant with yellow flowers that looks like little dust-mops. It gets its name from the ridges of leafy tissue that grow along its stem which botanists call “wings.”
A short boardwalk at this point helps you keep your feet dry. After the boardwalk, the trail makes a sharp bend. Here is a 5-trunked black cherry tree ; its bark looks like burnt potato chips. Notice the poison ivy vine growing on this tree; you can recognize it by its fuzzy-looking roots that cling to the tree and its three leaflets. Poison ivy berries, found in white clusters in late fall, are important food for over-wintering birds but the plant when touched by humans can produce extreme allergic reactions.
Some words of caution: “Leaflets three, let it be. Berries white, never bite.”
Across the trail on a small tree is a 5-leaved ivy vine, the Virginia creeper . In the fall it has dark blue berries. You can compare these vines with nearby wild grape vines which have shredded-looking bark.
Watch the soil change under your feet. Can you find the very beginning of the sand dune?
Post W to Post X
This area is interesting for plant succession. When Fox Island was first a park, primitive reindeer moss grew here. Now the area with its newer tree growth is too shady for reindeer moss to grow. But look closely and you can easily find another primitive plant, the scouring rush or horsetail . It is jointed like bamboo and breaks easily at the joints. Pioneers used crushed horsetails to scour pots. Feel the ridges with your fingernail. They feel almost like a nail file.
A sassafras grove is in this area. Look for the tree’s mitten-shaped leaves. You can find right- and left-handed mittens, and also double-thumbed mittens, or leaves with no thumbs at all, all on the same tree! If you crush a sassafras leaf, it smells like Fruit Loops! Pioneers used the bark from sassafras roots to make tea which tastes a little like root beer.
On the left as you walk is a man-made hollow; there are several of these in the park once used as tank traps for National Guard “war games” in the 1950’s. At Post X, go straight.
The Upper Dune Trail
Look down on the woods from the top of the 40-foot dune. Here is the best spring wildflower display at Fox Island. On both sides of the trail is a large pawpaw patch. Pawpaws, or “Indiana bananas.” ripen in October. Lucky you if you can find one. They are greenish-yellow, have several flat brown seeds, and taste like over-ripe bananas. Just why the pawpaw patch is here is a mystery. Usually they grow in rich bottom lands, not on top of a sand dune. But the Fox Island pawpaw patch is thriving. The pawpaw tree belongs to a tropical family. It is the only member of the family to live this far north. If you crush the leaf of a pawpaw tree, it smells like green peppers.
At post C, turn right, go down the steps and follow the trail back to the Observation Building. We hope that you will come again soon.
This Trail Booklet was conceived and written by Cynthia Powers, Fox Island Alliance Volunteer and Trailguide. All illustrations except the cover were sketched by Sue Foreman, Alliance Volunteer. Cover sketch is by Irene Sexias.
Editor: Marj Gates, Fox Island Alliance Volunteer. Alliance Publication #10, April 1991
The Fox Island Alliance published this March Trail Guide to commemorate Earth Day 1991.
The Fox Island Alliance is a volunteer organization established to:
- Help maintain the natural features of the Fox Island Nature Preserve.
- Raise funds to facilitate its development as a nature preserve.
- Promote the use of the park as a nature education center.
- Create and staff educational programs.
Membership in the Alliance is open to all interested persons. Ask at the Nature Center for additional information.