Maquoketa: Reaching Deep into the Niagara
By Martha Bergland
With photography by the author (MB), Michael Sattell (MS) and Eddee Daniel (ED)
The ground underfoot was rocky, rooty, flaring with trout lilies, and dangerous with grykes and clints.
It was early spring. We were on the Niagara Escarpment above the Horicon Basin. Jim Uhrinak, of Milwaukee Audubon Society, was speaking to a dozen of us about what we stood between, among, on top of—about what this place means. I leaned on a narrow black maple tree. This one held. A few minutes earlier, another one had not and I toppled slowly, embarrassed, unhurt.
As we stood on the escarpment edge facing west, we looked down on the Horicon Marsh, the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the country, this great flyway and habitat of ducks, geese and cranes on the Rock River. From up here, at midday, the river and marsh a mile away were quiet. Just below us, a field glowed with winter wheat, sheltered from the west wind by a remnant of oak savanna not yet in leaf. A few miles away, the other side of the basin was a blue line of low hills. Running through it all, the shine of the waters of the marsh and the river.
Behind us and to the east were the black maple woods we had walked through. Straight dark trunks not larger than human limbs, some, though, as thick as our torsos, only a few much larger. Black maple sap, we learn, is sweeter than sugar maple sap. Walking through the woods on thin soil on flat ground was easy walking—the shallow-rooted maples having shaded out undergrowth except for the speckled carpet of trout lilies.
To our east, the gentle, greening landscapes of eastern Wisconsin roll on for thirty miles. Once this was eastern forest to the Lake Michigan coast, a mosaic of wetlands, patterned prairies, lake effect coastal forest, including American beech at the western edge of its continental range.
Most of us in the group knew some basic language to understand the lands to our east and west, but under our feet on the escarpment itself, there were new and delicious words: gryke and clint.
A gryke, Jim tells us, is a fissure, a vertical crack slowly spreading, funneling water to the depths. Grykes divide an exposed surface into sections or clints. Grykes are results of agonizingly slow stress fractures that rend the rock on vertical cleavage planes. We stood on clints, trying not to fall into grykes.
I thought of Increase Lapham, a boy in 1820s Ohio, and his obsession with greywacke, how if you followed the greywacke you would know something. Lapham was a man to whom a new word was an expression of new or more accurate knowledge; he did not fall for greywacke, as I would have, because of its sound.
Jim suggests we sit as he begins to talk about the escarpment as habitat. Rearranging fallen branches and a few rocks, we sit on the chilly ground out of the wind among bright green sedges and moss.
Below the dolomite we sit on, he says, is a layer of impermeable shale where the water perches, making shale greasy, causing the bottom of these great stone blocks to slowly slide across the shale, the cracks proceeding east as the blocks slide ever so slowly west. Water perches on and greases the impermeable shale, Jim says, the Maquoketa shale, after it trickles through cracks in the Niagara dolomite.
Grykes and clints. Perches and greases. And Maquoketa shale.
What? someone asks. What was that word?
Maquoketa, says Jim.
“Say it again, Jim,” I say, my request intimate, my interest prurient.
Someone laughs. Jim says it again. Maquoketa. But with a look that has in it faint embarrassment, warning, and the request to not change the subject, please. Jim is my guide and he is also my new husband.
Those of us near the edge of a gryke lean over and look down as Jim tells us about the life there. We can see for ourselves the leafless vines that climb up and out, the clumps of fern growing in and glowing in the dim light on the damp wall. We can’t see the bottom or we can’t see through the narrow dark at the bottom.
How deep are these grykes, someone asks. It varies, Jim says, but here they are about twelve feet deep.
He tells us that this part of the escarpment supports seven species of bat. That down there at the bottom of these grykes ice lingers long after winter, creating streams of cool air for northern relic gardens of ferns, mosses, and glacial relic snails. Imagine, he says, the thermal contrast between these cold depths and the sun-drenched western exposures of these blocks. Think of all the animals that must come to this dreamland in the migration corridor—butterflies, hummingbirds, hopping songbirds, and raptors. Skunks and cats and snakes. A fisher, he says, might linger here for years hunting happily, satisfying all his fisher longings.
We are quiet for a time. We hear Canada geese down on the marsh, the dinosaur bleat of sandhill cranes.
Let’s go look at it from below, Jim says. And he gets up, giving his hand to those of us who are not kids anymore or not used to sitting on rocky cold ground, which is most of us.
There is no path. To climb down the rocks is not possible. Our slow way around and down is strewn with dead limbs and trees. But after a time we stand at the base of the exposed escarpment wall, and now we are looking up.
In front of the wall of great limestone blocks we are dwarfed, momentarily stunned. Blocks big as buildings. Like the walls of Machu Pichu built by the unskilled, someone says, standing back, mouth open. Between the blocks are openings. Narrow and wide. Passages or portals into this ancient, moss-covered, foreign city.
We walk from opening to opening. Inside this one a toppled inner wall. In here, picked out by light, an old tree grows. On the walls of each stone hallway slipped-block shelves hold gardens of oxalis and fern. On every rock face—mosses and lichens, spider webs and veils of vines. Inside a well-lit inner room a pagoda dogwood like a young girl. At the back of one hallway in the stone a dark rectangle for all the world like a darkened window. As in a dooryard, trillium and Jack-in-the-pulpitbloom in front of this one. A friend in blue steps behind a web of vines, behind her an inviting bright corridor.
We drop geology. We act like children. We are miniature beings in giant doorways. We run from room to room, claiming them. This one’s mine! No, no, this one!
Jim watches us quietly, lets the kids play. He is not living out some childhood fantasy, picking out a hideout. Hands in his pockets, he peers into the narrow grykes, looking for evidence of fisher, skunk, snake, or bat.
After a time, Jim says, Come on, there’s more to see.
We move south along the rock face. Underfoot, the ground is soft and wet. Seeps shine and darken the walls. At their base wet spots: water perched on Maquoketa shale.
Exclamations of delight from the ones ahead who’ve rounded a bend and disappeared. We hear water.
Soon we are clumped together in front of a pool. Water is everywhere. Sheeting the rock face, dripping, gurgling. Clear, fresh, moving water. An abundance of water.
This is because of the Maquoketa shale, Jim says. Remember, water percolating through the dolomite hits the shale and runs off. There are many places like this, a spring line along the escarpment above the marsh. Imagine what this water, these places meant to the early people who lived here.
He turned us around, faced us west and down toward the marsh. You are not the first people to experience this, he said. Remember what’s just below us. And he pointed down past the field toward the woods. Past the woods, he said, remember, between here and the marsh is Kolterman, the Indian mounds of Kolterman.
We had seen them from the road we came in on, the greening, well-tended mounds, some shaped like animals. The mounds had seemed to me mute, hard to understand, but I recognized dimly that they meant something important, both a long time ago and now.
What do they mean, someone asked. Jim didn’t answer right away.
Then he said, All of these experiences you’ve had today lived in the minds of the people who were at Kolterman. Kolterman would not be the same place without this. And he pointed back to the water and the escarpment and the trees above. We are not sure who they were or when they were here. But we know because of what they made down there—and he pointed again to the unseen mounds—that this is a place they understood and valued in ways that we are only just beginning to understand.
We were quiet after that. We wander off singly and in pairs. I headed back to the doorway in the escarpment where the Jack-in-the-pulpit and trillium welcome the traveler. I didn’t go in.
Over the centuries other silent people have stood at this doorway in the stone, people for whom one day even the best of words are not enough.
Martha Bergland is the author of The Birdman of Koshkonong: The Life of Naturalist Thure Kumlien, 2021. Michael Sattell is on the board of Milwaukee Audubon Society. Eddee Daniel is a board member of Preserve Our Parks and the curator of The Natural Realm. The featured photo at the top of a gryke is by Eddee Daniel.