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Indian Creek Woods

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.

Signage, here on the western edge abutting Mohawk Road, welcomes visitors to the Indian Creek Woods.
Signage, here on the western edge abutting Mohawk Road, welcomes visitors to the Indian Creek Woods.

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.

A retaining wall keeps the lower woods, where a walnut stands tall, from eroding into the creek.

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.

Droplets on the colorful foliage and berries of a gray dogwood after a rain.  Bright green leaves of a buckthorn (in the lower right of the photo), sure to be eradicated during a future weed out, lurk underneath.
Droplets on the colorful foliage and berries of a gray dogwood after a rain. Bright green leaves of a buckthorn (in the lower right of the photo), sure to be eradicated during a future weed out, lurk underneath.

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.

When one slows down to look about, beautiful details abound, like this turkey tail mushroom on a stump, one of many left remaining in Indian Creek Woods after the ash trees were removed.
When one slows down to look about, beautiful details abound, like this turkey tail mushroom on a stump, one of many left remaining in Indian Creek Woods after the ash trees were removed.

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. 

Colors are turning under the oak canopy as the upper trail invites one in.
Colors are turning under the oak canopy as the upper trail invites one in.
Think Robert Frost.  The trail diverges in the upper woods, yet reconnects, allowing wanderers to saunter back to travel both.
Think Robert Frost. The trail diverges in the upper woods, then reconnects, allowing wanderers to saunter back to travel both.

A shorter lowland path passes adjacent to a wetter area where newly planted tamaracks hold out soft-needled branches, encouraging you to touch them. 

The lower path edges a wet part of the woods where young tamaracks now grow, and meets a meadow that serves as a stormwater basin.
The lower path edges a wet part of the woods where young tamaracks now grow, and meets a meadow that serves as a stormwater basin.

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.

A fruiting crabapple stands on the woodland border.
A fruiting crabapple stands on the woodland border.
Woolly aphids cluster together on this speckled alder, a host tree for this insect.
Woolly aphids cluster together on this speckled alder, a host tree for this insect.

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.

Native plants lace the stream bed of Indian Creek with color in this evening view toward Indian Creek Woods.
Native plants lace the stream bed of Indian Creek with color in this evening view toward Indian Creek Woods.

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.

An eastward view of Indian Creek after a morning rain.
An eastward view of Indian Creek after a morning rain.

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.

Some more unusual flowers, like this sweet coneflower (Rudbeckia subtomentosa 'Henry Eilers'), wait to be discovered at the edge of the wet meadow.
Some unusual flowers, like this sweet coneflower (Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Henry Eilers’), wait to be discovered at the edge of the wet meadow.
Ironweed provides an irresistible source of nectar for monarchs and other butterflies.
Ironweed provides an irresistible source of nectar for monarchs and other butterflies.

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. 

Evening light glows across the wet meadow toward a footbridge and Indian Creek Park.
Evening light glows across the wet meadow toward a footbridge and Indian Creek Park.

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. 

The footbridge, here over a swollen creek after a morning of rain, leads to Indian Creek Park.
The footbridge, here over a swollen creek after a morning of rain, leads to Indian Creek Park.

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. 

Cup plants, which hold water in their leaves that attracts birds and insects, peek out at those passing on the footbridge.
Cup plants, which hold water in their leaves that attracts birds and insects, peek out at those passing on the footbridge.

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.