Pensaukee: Voice of a Landscape

An excerpt

Introduction: The Land Before Humans

Water. We humans, along with all other living creatures on earth, have thirsted for it since the beginning of time. They say life emerged from water, water is where life began. Water also destroys; floods, monsoons, even tornadoes are caused by factors related to water. Water gets polluted by acts of man and nature and becomes undrinkable. Nothing can live long without water.

Pensaukee: Voice of a Landscape is a study of the human relationship to water, to land, to trees, and to natural disaster. This study of people inhabiting the landscape will demonstrate how we, the human society, have adjusted our needs around water, and increased our footprints. This area, along the Pensaukee River leading to a bay on a lake of the Great Lakes, was pegged to one day be a great city. Its ups and downs are measured in the stars.

In January 2006, the Arndt Pensaukee Sawmill was added to the State’s Register of Historic Places as an archaeology site, and that March to the National Register. The Arndt Sawmill Discovery Team worked for four years providing details that demonstrated its validity for this status. This is a pretty amazing story, because the location of Arndt’s sawmill disappeared until we were able to uncover it again; the historic references we used had all mis-located it in one way or another. Even those who referenced the documented lease for this site tended to ignore what was in front of their faces.

In 1822, John Penn Arndt moved from New York, where he’d moved after business failures in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to Fort Michilimackinac, Michigan, to get involved in the fur trade. Arndt was a mature businessman of 44 when he moved to Green Bay and decided to build boats to get into the lead shipping business. 

Arndt was old school. He came from back East where there were still a number of citizens who recognized the symbol of America as an Indian woman, before the image of Columbia and Manifest Destiny took over by 1815. In 1810 the American symbol was still an Indian princess, painted with such icons as the Washington bust, an American flag and her foot planted squarely on King George III’s crown. The Indians of the western lands had become a symbol of favorites during the Revolutionary War as a way of identifying with people other than the Brits in the land chosen as their new home. But by 1815, the War of 1812 began the turn away from all tribes, seeing them as simply in the way.  

Arndt believed that working with them was better than against.

In Pensaukee’s Beginning

The land was not barren when the first humans arrived. Let’s go back further, to our current Ice Age, which began about 2.4 million years ago and isn’t over yet. Patterns of alternating cool summers and warm winters continue, and perhaps always will. This would make the Ice Age a permanent feature of our planet, and certainly of the location of this particular plot of land in northeastern Wisconsin, which had been directly in the path of the last glaciers. The Pleistocene Epoch, or what we call the “ice age,” covered the warmer path of the Tertiary Epoch, which was considerably warmer. That previous period began 65 million years ago, and was replaced as the earth’s climate cooled, by massive movements of northern ice.

Today they call the return of the Tertiary Epoch “global warming.” I prefer to think of it as “global instability.” The cycles repeat themselves and warming causes more natural disasters, with or without the presence of humans. But who’s to say that the impact of humans with their cars and industry won’t worsen everything to an irreversible degree? Should we wait until it’s too late, if it isn’t already? How many future diseases, along with that recent COVID-19 and its mutations, might wait in store for us because of havoc being wrecked on the icy poles and the warming oceans?

Wisconsin is enclosed on three sides by water; the Mississippi River on the west, Lake Superior on the north, and the bay of Lake Michigan on the east. Pensaukee sits on the bay with a river running through it.  

Wisconsin is divided into two climatic zones, conifer/hardwood zone of the north and the mixed prairie/deciduous woodlands of the south, what’s called a ‘tension zone,’ which is where the two climates overlap. Pensaukee could be considered unique in containing features of both zones. Here great farming combined with majestic northern pine trees. Here, those great pines had to be removed so that farming could be increased. Wind and rain and sun — these are things we cannot control and depend on for our lives. These three things, plus land and trees and bodies of water, had a major impact on Pensaukee’s history.

Signs of glacial movement can still be found; boulders in fields or woods, polished rock surfaces and striated bedrock. Pensaukee’s land contains only a few features, such as flattened land, strewn boulders and its climate, which, as we will see, started out very cold with only the pine trees and, as it began to warm, other plants moved in. At one time southern Wisconsin was too cold for growing corn, and northern Wisconsin too cold to maintain a deer population. The Pensaukee area and places north now have an active deer hunting season.

Imagine what it’s like if you yourself were the land, to lay under a sheet of ice for tens of thousands of years, the ice scraping back and forth over your skin, digging up all the blemishes of rock beneath the surface, pushing this debris ever southward, giving you a flatter, cleaner, softer appearance in some places and leaving behind a boulder-strewn landscape of sandy ridges and exposed bedrock in others. As the ices melted in the inter-glacial, water in torrents formed great lakes, huge river channels and vast out-wash plains of sand and gravel all over the deep holes left behind. Different kinds of hills formed, what they call drumlins, moraines and kames, and the valleys and deep kettles, as the ice moderates wherever it flows and moves. Most boulders you’ll see yet today were pushed out of farm fields. On occasion, in the woods in the northern half of Wisconsin, you’ll see an occasional boulder that’s been sitting out of place for 10,000 years. 

The glaciers dug out the Great Lakes; the melting filled them and the other 7,000 lakes in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is bordered by Lake Superior, very cold and very deep, and Lake Michigan, running down the east side and more likely to be affected by low and high rainfall. Lake Michigan plays a bigger role in our story here because Pensaukee’s river mouth opens into the bay “finger” portion of this lake, once known as part of the Fox River and now simply called the bay of Green Bay.

One way of studying glacial vs. Inter-glacial periods is studying the weather patterns. For instance, the 20th century has been the warmest since 1400 CE, when there was a little Ice Age. A recent search on the hottest years on record show the top ten are all in 2009 through 2016. Previous to that 1998 was the hottest since records began over 120 years ago. Yes, we could simply be in an inter-glacial period and these rises of temperatures are normal. This may be true to a degree or two, but certainly air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions increase the changes and alter patterns, in a way never seen before.

Pensaukee has no natural lead or copper, but raw copper, called float copper, was also deposited there by the glacier’s gracious generosity. Limestone is the prevalent layer of rock under the soil surface in Pensaukee, and elsewhere in Wisconsin. Limestone proves that all this land was once water because it is formed from the chemical precipitation of minerals in water and the accumulation of shells. However, because granite is the dominant material in Oconto County the limestone here is more of the dolomite variety. They call the bedrock geology of Pensaukee the “Platteville-Galena,” which is dolomite with some limestone. 

One particular limestone ledge that formed in Pensaukee, along the river about a mile inland, became a focusing feature of the town that led to its development. Nature works in mysterious ways. Humans have learned both to put her resources to good use and to duck in her fury. You’ll see ample examples of both as we hear these voices in a landscape.

Sedimentary rock, such as dolomite/limestone, or granite, is quite ugly, grayish and used most often as gravel for driveways and roads. But when you examine this rock closely, you’ll see how pockets of air can form inside them and geodes develop. Even the dullest rock can be beautiful on the inside.

The bay of Green Bay, on which Pensaukee sits, was not always a bay. Once it was a lush valley through which a river ran to the lake — so technically the bay is part of the Fox River, which extends out of the bay in the Green Bay area, a north-ward, not south-ward, flowing river; another glacial effect. High and low water levels are gradual, and we were still on a downward slide in the natural scheme of things in 2000. In these Aught (‘00) decades it appears the water is rising critically high again without returning to its normal low. James Pogue noted on a visit to Kenosha in 2018 that water levels were at a record high and expected to keep rising; we see more flooding on a regular basis. I witnessed that as well in a 2019 trip to Door County, where the Whitefish Dunes shoreline was gone, and you couldn’t see the rocky ledge that we used to walk on; it was all underwater.

For this reason, we’ll likely see more flooding on a regular basis as the ocean keeps warming and the ice caps keep melting.

Fish distribution in the Great Lakes is related to those in the Mississippi basin; the fish in these northern waters moved south with the movement of the ice sheet, and returned north as the cold waters retreated. Migration is a coping and survival strategy in fish and people in pre-European times. Variety of fish included perch, sturgeon, whitefish and trout in the pre-European years. Sturgeon, smelt and salmon, all fished in this area, are anadromous fish, fish that migrate from where they are born out to the oceans and then return to their place of birth to spawn and die. 

The spruce forest was gradually replaced by the more fire-adapted species such as the Eastern white pine as the ice age receded and fires swept through the land, fire set by lightning and later deliberately by humans. Forests were conifers, mixed hardwoods, birch, basswood, oak, cedar and hickory, a temperate mixed forest with both soft and hard woods. Originally forests covered 85% of Wisconsin. By 1965 this coverage was at 43%. White pine had been the most sought and most widely utilized of all the various forest growths of the northeast, along with white oak. Both grew well in Pensaukee. Pine, however does not hold up well, being soft wood, to the tough waters of the Great Lakes and was used more for the layers that are protected from the water and for the tall masts. The tough wagons that carried pioneers westward also could not be made of pine, but with those two exceptions, pine was used for everything. White Oak is the other timber found in this area that was used in ship building. Oak is hardy and resistant to fire. 

White pines could dominate a forest, such as shown in the photo below.

From cover of The North Woods Journal of Charles C. Hamilton: an Englishman in Wisconsin’s Lumber Camps, 1892-1893, edited by Mary Hamilton Burns.  These are not Pensaukee trees but indicative of how big they would’ve been as well.

Trees in Pensaukee could and did get this big. When they grow in a stand, they all compete for the sunlight, shooting up straight and tall without branches. White pine can live to 600 years or more, and trees never stop growing, until they die—or are struck by lightning once too often. White pine forests arrived in the eastern colonies about 12,000 years ago, preferring soils created by the sheets of ice; young soils of clay, sand, gravel and boulders. White pine will also grow on better soils if it can find the room amidst the hardwoods. Red Pine or Norway is found on the sandy pinery areas. Jack pine was not considered valuable to the Europeans; Indians called it lodge pine. Red pine was neglected until 1870. White pine was found often in relatively small stands throughout the forests, as Norway pine tended to dominate poorer soils and drier areas than the white pine.

If we didn’t have a photo such as that one, we might think that talk of giant trees by early Europeans was just a myth. But as author Ben Logan pointed out, the creation of Paul Bunyan in the Midwest shows us that confronting the great vast north woods took men who needed gigantic stamina where “forest… seemed to stretch away forever, the giant trees, the audacious men… where mere mortals must have felt impossibly tiny…” 

Wildlife included deer, beaver, mink, muskrat, skunk, opossum, pheasant, grouse, squirrel, fox, raccoon (by the millions!), and turkeys. Bear and wolf were once plentiful, and the deer moved in late, as the deciduous trees began to take root in the warmer soil, their northern migration considered synergistic, although not completely, because they can live without each other. Before Europeans demanded furs, the beaver population in North America was as high as ten million. Pensaukee was a thriving ecosystem. 

Of course any landscape with swamp also boasts a wonderful insect population, critical to the life of everything else on the planet. The Indians called the entire area between the Mississippi and Lake Superior “Moschettoe country,” according to Jonathan Carver. Pensaukee’s bugs were and continued to be a vital part of nature’s cycle. 

Welcome to Pensaukee, a town much like any small town in the U.S., with history that was more important than anyone realized.







Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: