Green Guide

Spicer Lake tales reveal nature preserve's wet history

Posted September 17

— "You're the lightest, you go first," the two parks administrators told naturalist Tom Blodgett as they hiked over the ice-covered waters at Spicer Lake Nature Preserve.

It was below freezing. Scientists and St. Joseph County Parks staff were still studying the newly acquired park, with rare species of life and a "kettle hole lake" that was gouged out more than 10,000 years ago by retreating glaciers. On this winter day in the early 1980s, they were looking for the spots where water made its gentle flow in and out of the wetlands.

About the time they did, Blodgett plunged in up to his chest. Luckily, his foot landed on an underwater branch. He'd run cross-country in high school, but he recalls about his dash to his truck, "I could have been a sprinter."

In the 50-year history of the St. Joseph County Parks, which it celebrates this year, Spicer Lake stands out as the one park — mostly a swamp — that lured people for its curiosities.

For one, it treats visitors with the area's earliest fall foliage. Trees and shrubs tend to turn color earliest when they're around water. Here, it tends to begin in mid-September, and there were just a few flecks of color Friday. When the rest of Michiana hits peak colors in October, Spicer Lake is wiped out.

Blodgett, who was hired in 1979 as the parks' first full-time naturalist, always prepped school groups on what to expect before he'd take them plunging into the soupy waters for his "Swamp Stomps."

They'd wade up to their chests so they could feel and even smell the ecology, including the methane gases that rise from decomposition. Under Blodgett's orders, they'd bring a change of clothes and, after the hike, discard their stinky duds.

Some kids never listen. In one class, two girls showed up in brand new patent leather boots that came up to their mid calves. When water reached their ankles, he recalls, the girls "freaked out" — then, when it was up to their knees, they "really freaked out."

But after the group got to feel the water-bed bounce of a floating mat of vegetation, and after a boy plunged in over his head, the two girls were caked in mud — and laughing.

Blodgett had also warned them about poison ivy. Yet, in that same group, a poor boy mistook poison ivy as a good alternative to toilet paper. Result: Two weeks in the hospital.

On another Swamp Stomp, a kid pointed out a rock that moved. But it wasn't a rock. Blodgett reached down and pulled out a snapping turtle — known for ferociously biting to defend itself — that was 12 inches across.

"Every one of these things is a teachable moment," says Blodgett, who went on to direct the parks' naturalists, then move to Jackson, Mich., in 1996 to head a nature center and later retire as a science teacher.

Preserved

Tom Stankus and Vic Riemenschneider were shopping for a new nature sanctuary for the local Audubon Society when Stankus noticed an ad in the paper for an abandoned house and barn on a mostly wet property.

They got excited, even after their visit. Planks led the way over the spongy earth to the lake for fishing. But the owner had to keep the lake stocked because, Riemenschneider recalls, oxygen levels in the lake would dip so low in the winter that many fish couldn't survive — especially when ice and snow were thick enough to block out sunlight and keep algae from generating spare amounts of oxygen. Only the small mudminnow, which dines on mosquito larvae, sustained itself naturally, says Riemenschneider, who was working as a biology professor at Indiana University South Bend.

Around its two lakes, including Lancaster Lake, it was literally a floating forest, an example of how a lake eventually fills in with organic matter. It nurtured such a highly rated mix of native, rare and threatened species that Indiana ecologist Alton A. Lindsey featured it in his late-1960s book "Natural Areas of Indiana and their Preservation."

But, for Audubon's South Bend-Elkhart chapter, the site wouldn't do. It was too wet, leaving little room for the sort of hiking that its members would want. So, they decided to stick with its current sanctuary at Mishawaka's southeastern end.

Instead, Stankus and Riemenschneider worked with county parks board President Robert Fischgrund to turn Spicer Lake into a nature preserve and eventually a county park. The Nature Conservancy provided money to buy the initial 40 acres. But, as it typically did, the charity asked that the money be reimbursed so that it could create other preserves in the same way. Local Audubon members raised about half of the nearly $25,000 that was needed. Riemenschneider's wife, Marge, recalls how almost all donations, coming from members and school kids, were small, adding, "We were lucky if we got donations of $100."

Vic Riemenschneider walked to several ends of the Spicer Lake site to catalog its species, including a plant known as wild raisin that was common in Michigan but endangered here.

He cranked out a report that helped the county to gain a grant for the other half of the money. The species list also enabled Spicer Lake to gain status in 1978 as one of Indiana's "state designated nature preserves." Within the St. Joseph County Parks, the same designation has also gone to its site at Chamberlain Lake and a parcel within Bendix Woods County Park.

After the park opened in 1979, Riemenschneider would take his IU South Bend students for a weekly ecology lab on Lancaster Lake. They'd load a park canoe with equipment and roll it on a wheeled cart to the lake so that they could study its oxygen levels. Now retired, he recalls how one student did a research paper studying the effects of farm runoff, finding that the wetland managed to filter nitrates and phosphates and remain clean.

Floating walk

Roger Grove slipped a 10-foot pole all the way through the soupy soil without resistance. A parks maintenance guy, he had to construct a boardwalk out to Spicer Lake. Posts would never work. How could he make it float?

The solution came from a book Grove read about covered bridges. He realized he could take the treated lumber and build trusses that spread out the weight, with the wooden deck on top of that.

Grove worked most of a summer on the boardwalk with a handful of helpers from a job skills program. One of the workers "screamed his head off" when a blue racer, a nonvenomous snake, wrapped around the man's leg.

"He finally kicked it off," Grove says.

Later, an extension of the boardwalk would be built in the same way, connecting to the nature center. The boardwalk's decking continues to be replaced in spots, but the original structure still floats today.

Grove worked for the county parks for 18 years, then went on to work at other area parks and retired. He now does part-time duty in New Carlisle town parks.

Changes

The park has grown to 320 acres, embracing old-growth fields and woodlands where spring wildflowers flourish. The nature center opened in 1991. The park's swamp water is higher now, thanks partly to a beaver dam. More trees have died in the swamp, some from high water. Ash trees have turned into skeletons around Spicer Lake because of the emerald ash borer. But the lower vegetation has filled in more.

Stankus and his wife, who've since died, gave money to build an observation deck that looks out over a buttonbush marsh. The Pfeil Pfamily Trail leads there, a crushed limestone surface that Dick and Donna Pfeil paid for, somewhat accessible and inspired by Dick's daughter, Mary, now 59, who has cerebral palsy.

Troy Skaggs grew up on a property that borders the park, where his dad still lives. Whenever he's been in town, he's always come to Spicer Lake for runs and hikes — always charmed by it. He's looked around Terre Haute, Ind., where he moved in July, for something similar, but he says, "Nothing comes close."

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Source: South Bend Tribune, http://bit.ly/2cpX9eh

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