John Davis of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources was in the midst of helping Fort Wayne’s Little River Wetlands Project dedicate Eagle Marsh’s new trail and other improvements Saturday when one of the marsh’s namesakes made a cameo appearance in the sky behind him.
"That’s an eagle, a bald eagle," an excited Betsy Yankowiak, director of preserves and programs, told the 80 or so people who’d gathered for the occasion as the quintessential American bird of prey flew lazily back and forth in the distance.
"As if on cue," Davis said.
More than a decade ago, when the marsh was still a wet cornfield, having bald eagles as residents was just a hope, Yankowiak said. Now, they’re just part of the changes celebrated Saturday at the more than 700-acre wetlands preserve in southwest Allen County.
A couple snips of a ceremonial ribbon marked the marsh’s opening of the Continental Divide Trail – a 3.1-mile trail loop mostly on top of a 10-foot-high, 80-foot-wide berm that has the mission of physically separating the Mississippi River basin from the Great Lakes River basin.
Built at a cost of $3.5 million, the berm, begun in 2014, is a collaborative project among federal, state and local environmental officials, nonprofit organizations and individuals. Its purpose is to keep Asian carp from decimating Great Lakes fisheries after the invasive non-native fish were found just 17 or so miles away in the Wabash River.
Fears were that if the ravenous carp got to the marsh, the flooding of a tiny strip of land could get the fish from Graham-McCulloch Ditch into Junk Ditch and on to the St. Marys and Maumee rivers, which lead to Lake Erie. So the berm was put in place.
But beyond being a barrier, the berm is also a spot where hikers can now experience standing with one foot in each basin, as a sign now tells them. The berm also provides new vantage points for seeing wildlife from a perch above, while still in the marsh, Yankowiak said.
The berm, which slightly altered the actual location of the continental divide, skims the shorelines of three created ponds where soil was taken to construct the barrier, she added during a hike along the trail after the dedication ceremonies.
"It’s a very different kind of experience," Yankowiak said.
During the hike, pond visitors included a great blue heron, a kingfisher, ducks and several flocks of migrating songbirds. A profusion of trailside black-eyed Susans, primroses, asters and Queen Anne’s lace provided a colorful backdrop to just-turning leaves on nearby trees.
Part of the preserve’s prairie restoration project had to be disturbed to create the barrier, Yankowiak said, but no soil was brought in. Trucks and other equipment were cleaned before entering the site to limit the spread of non-native plant species. she said.
Besides the trail itself, a sign marking the preserve was unveiled, a new parking lot dedicated and trails closed during construction were reopened. Amy Silva, executive director, also noted the receipt of an additional 38 acres, bringing the marsh’s total to 754 acres.