Wetlands are magical places where water and land embrace.
The resonant trills of red-winged blackbirds, glistening wings of darting dragonflies and
musky perfume rising from the black satin underfoot provide a feast for the senses.
Wetlands are a cradle of life. They are safe spawning
grounds for fish, whose tiny eggs cling to an underwater forest of aquatic plants in warm,
shallow pools. Waterfowl and their broods nestle in the tall grasses, reeds, sedges and
cattails, and feast on the insects that thrive here. Beaver and muskrat raise their kits
in snug lodges and dens carved in the muddy shoreline. Frogs perform their joyful chorus
and leave behind millions of bubbly clusters of eggs. Other animals come to visit and
enjoy a cool sip of water or perhaps a meal.
Like the Great Lakes, many of Ohios wetlands were
originally sculpted by the mighty hand of mile-thick glacial ice that crept across much of
the state during the most recent Ice Age, 12,000 years ago. As the glacier slowly
retreated northward to present-day Canada, boulders drug by the ice carved deep holes,
debris left in mounds blocked drainage outlets, and the crushing weight of the ice itself
created a landscape filled with watery potholes and channels. Over time, sediments
accumulated in rich, mucky beds, and plants and animals populated these areas, creating
complex wetland communities.
Today, the coastal wetlands of Lake Erie are some of the
states most expansive wetlands. Coastal marshes at Maumee Bay and East Harbor state
parks are visited by more than 300 species of songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl each
year. Nearly half of the species documented are known to breed in the marshes and 120
species are considered year-round residents.
Other types of wetlands in Ohio are more isolated than the
coastal marshes and add diversity to surrounding upland habitats. Tinkers Creek
State Park and the adjacent state nature preserve in Portage County provide fine examples
of marsh wetlands and swamp forest. These wetland types fill in the margins of a
collection of small kettle lakes created by the retreating glacier. The swamp features
large pin oaks and swamp white oaks. It borders more open marsh areas with standing water
skirted by cattails, willows and buttonbush. Beaver are highly active in this area, and
the marshes support a heron rookery. The combination of marsh and swamp provides
exceptional diversity of animal species including mink, weasels and foxes; wood ducks and
warblers; salamanders, water snakes and snapping turtles.
Bog and fen wetlands are living souvenirs of earths
most recent Ice Age. Some of the cold-climate Canadian plant species living on the fringes
of the retreating glacier were able to survive the general warming trend under special
environmental conditions in some areas. Portions of glacial kettle lakes at what is now
Portage Lakes State Park in Summit County have aged into acidic bog wetlands harboring an
assortment of Canadian plants. A bed of spongy sphagnum moss holds the chill and moisture
of the ancient lake and releases acid into the water as it grows. The sphagnum moss bed
supports stands of acid-tolerant tamarack, alder and swamp birch trees, as well as
cranberry and gooseberry. Buck Creek State Park lies in the heart of bog and fen territory
in west central Ohio. Throughout this region, spring water held in sand and gravel
deposits atop ancient river beds wells up to the surface. In the Buck Creek area, the high
limestone content of the gravel deposits results in alkaline conditions, forming fen
wetlands which support unique plants that tolerate a high pH. Surprisingly, several
species of prairie plants, which are adapted for life in harsh and dry conditions, also
thrive in fen wetlands.
Buckeye Lake State Park in central Ohio surrounds what is
thought to be the worlds only floating bog island. Cranberry Bog, a state nature
preserve, is a 50-acre mat of sphagnum moss floating on the surface of Buckeye Lake.
Extensive bog and swamp wetlands filled the valley that is now Buckeye Lake until the
valley was dammed in 1830 to create a feeder reservoir for the Ohio and Erie Canal. As the
boggy valley flooded, a large chunk of the valley floor broke free and rose to the
surface. Most of the bog island is a mossy meadow supporting populations of large
cranberry, orchids and the insect-eating pitcher plant and round-leaved sundew. Shrubs and
small trees circle the edges of the island, protecting it from further erosion by the
lake. Each June, a public open house is held at Cranberry Bog, featuring boat trips to the
island and a guided hike on its boardwalk trail.
What was once Ohios greatest wetland is mostly a
memory today. As the last glacier retreated, all of northwest Ohio was covered by lake
waters. The shoreline of this vast lake shrank over time to the size of present-day Lake
Erie, and left behind the Great Black Swamp, an enormous wetland which blanketed ten Ohio
counties from the Sandusky River to the Indiana border. Tree seeds from forests to the
south germinated in the rich, wet muck and grew to towering heights. In some parts of the
swamp, ridges of sand from ancient beaches covered the clay of the former lake bottom,
providing higher and drier places. Elk, black bear, mountain lion and even timber wolves
roamed this untamed wilderness.
Native Americans developed trails along the sand ridges to
travel across the vast swamp, and several Ottawa Indian villages occupied drier areas
along the Maumee River. Eager to encourage further settlement, the federal government
built a road through the swamp in 1827 to allow travel by wagon into northern Indiana and
points west. The road was so muddy and travel so slow that many wagons could manage only
one mile a day, and often had to be pulled from mud holes by teams of oxen. Early
entrepreneurs seized the opportunity to make a living from the swamp, and in a short time,
35 inns were built along a 34-mile stretch of what is now State Route 20. Despite
outbreaks of malaria and other hardships, persistent settlers drained the land through the
1800s and succeeded in pulling the plug on the swamp, felling the trees and exposing the
rich soil for farming.
The deep and productive organic soils of northwest Ohio
today are a legacy of the ancient lake muck and sticky mud that tormented pioneer farmers.
An important but less obvious legacy of the wetlands created by the ancient great lakes is
the natural filtering system they provide to keep the modern lakes clean. The wetland
soils function like a sponge, holding water in place while the roots of wetland plants
trap pollutants. Ohios remaining wetlands also help reduce the dangers of flooding
by retaining excessive rain and snowmelt in their absorbent soils. By the same process,
wetlands help keep groundwater supplies clean and plentiful by providing temporary storage
and filtering the surface water as it slowly percolates into porous rock, sand and gravel
Goll Woods State Nature Preserve, a 320-acre patch of
old-growth forest in Fulton County, is most of what remains of the ancient Great Black
Swamp. Visitors to Mary Jane Thurston, Independence Dam, Harrison Lake or Van Buren state
parks in northwest Ohio can only imagine the ominous Great Black Swamp of frontier Ohio
that was tamed by pioneer axes and ditches to create Ohios most productive