Indian Creek Woods and Indian Creek: Rebounding with Life in Fox Point
6:47 pm | Topics: Places
By Christel Maass
Indian Creek Woods in Fox Point, at 2.8 acres, is a small Village-owned natural area, one that’s revitalizing. Its paths invite you in for a stroll if you’re in the neighborhood, and benches welcome you to stay for a while, slow down, listen and look, bathe in nature. “Look at me now, watch me mature—once more,” you might hear the woods whisper, for they, and the creek flowing on its north side, have undergone much change since Native Americans walked this land, and again in recent decades.
Truth be told, Indian Creek Woods and Indian Creek are visible from my home office window as I write. When I moved here, the wooded parcel was bursting with invasive buckthorn and garlic mustard, and the stream flowed past mowed parkway along a concrete-lined channel so unattractive it was referred to as a “drainage ditch.” Today the woods and the waterway are full of life once again.
The wooded property rejuvenated in the mid-2000s when volunteers organized to remove invasives. The Indian Creek Woods Stewardship Group continues to work with the Village to maintain the parcel, now largely free of invasives. The Fox Point Garden Club donated wildflowers for the ground layer, including delightful Virginia bluebells, wild ginger, bloodroot, mayapples, and ferns; and the Fox Point Foundation funded native trees and shrubs for the understory, including a variety of viburnums and dogwoods, black chokeberry, and elderberry.
Just as the woods began to thrive again, the emerald ash borer arrived. Since about eighty percent of the forest canopy consisted of ash trees, the property changed drastically in early 2019 when the ash were removed. In the fall of that year, volunteers and Village staff planted a large number and variety of native trees, including quaking aspen, beech, yellow birch, several species of life-sustaining oaks, speckled alder, and hackberry, which gets my vote for the tree with the loveliest bark. After only a few years, the acreage is regenerating into a healthy, diverse woodland.
Several paths lead through the woods. An upland trail traverses through more mature hardwoods, largely oaks, maples, basswood, and a few elms, interplanted with younger specimens. Here spring ephemerals, like trout lilies, bloom in abundance.
A shorter lowland path passes adjacent to a wetter area where newly planted tamaracks hold out soft-needled branches, encouraging you to touch them.
In spring, a few marsh marigolds spread their sunshine from behind shrubbery. Throughout the woods, understory shrubs dazzle passersby—winged or on foot—with spring blossoms, followed by berries and brilliant fall foliage. In winter when this realm looks barren, during the coldest, darkest nights of the year, owls call to one another in the treetops. And after a snowfall, the laughter of children resounds from a small sledding hill at the edge of the woods.
Indian Creek Woods overlooks Indian Creek and a meadow-filled stormwater basin, which today also brim with life and color. The stream, often little more than a trickle, rises in springtime or after heavy rains. Its waters flow westward under Port Washington Road, eventually joining the southbound Milwaukee River through downtown Milwaukee, taking the long way to empty into Lake Michigan.
A former creek-side resident indicated a Native American mound was once located on the south bank, approximately where the trees are in the foreground (below). The Wisconsin Historical Society’s Historic Preservation Office confirmed the existence of a mound in this area, thanks to the foresight of another resident who, in 1954, reported the site before it was destroyed.
In the mid-2000s the concrete channel was removed to slow the creek’s flow, improve water quality, and provide habitat, bringing back wetland that had been lost. Margins of a more natural channel were planted with native plants. Today tall golden cup plants bloom alongside sneezeweed, goldenrods, coneflowers and bubble-gum-scented flowers (thanks to a young girl for pointing that out); swamp milkweed spreads its pink; Joe-Pye weed waves purple in the wind along with ironweed, vervain, and wild bergamot, while softer-hued obedient plant blooms at their feet; and boneset and mountain mint add touches of white. The colorful variety of insects that visit the flowers truly are a feast for the eyes.
Indeed, wildlife has returned. Migrating birds and ducks, including blue-winged teals stop over; sandhill cranes visit; and great blue herons diligently hunt amid the reeds, finding amphibians that have grown in number. Loud-spoken red-winged blackbirds are one of the first returnees to the waterway’s environs in the spring, while quieter bluebirds are seen spending the winter around its margins. Mallards raise their young here, where one can watch a family grow—or shrink in number if they’ve been preyed upon. Killdeer are at home along the adjacent grassy strip of parkway, announcing themselves with their high-pitched calls as they run between the creek and the road.
Muskrats have moved in; after a rain event this past summer I had the pleasure of observing two muskrats swimming back and forth, carrying their kits from one side of the creek to the other, chirping as they went about their parental task. Coyotes, deer, and raccoons pass through here—yet, few wildlife sightings may ever compare to the salmon. Around the neighborhood, locals still talk about the salmon that made it up the stream to spawn after heavy rains and high water in October 2019.
A footbridge crosses the watercourse north of the woods, linking Indian Creek Parkway to a parking lot and playground at the end of Spooner Road. Here, when the timing is right, you can stand, immersed, when thousands of mosquito-eating dragonflies, zig, zag, and glitter in the sunlight, or watch goldfinches feast on cup plants at eye level. In the sky above, red-tail hawks often soar in circles, piercing the air with a call I will never tire of hearing.
If you’re in the area, stop on by for a stroll through Indian Creek Woods and along Indian Creek, feast your eyes on the colors, textures, and take the time to discover who’s out and about. As for the salmon, they were huge!
Christel Maass wrote this story and took these images for her capstone project towards becoming a Master Naturalist.