Tiffany Wildlife Area at the heart of the Lower Chippewa River Basin is a natural wonderland where sloughs and old river meanders create a soggy maze of ephemeral ponds and wetlands along the river.  From soaring riverside bluffs where eagles nest to swampy deeps that harbor night herons, bitterns and egrets, this area provides a wealth of habitats, that change character with every few-foot variation of elevation.

90 minutes north of LaCrosse, it is part of the Audubon Great River Birding Trail because it attracts nearly every species of bird found in Wisconsin.

A mere 3 miles wide and 14 miles long, this dense mix of woods, swamp, sloughs, winding water and flood plain flat land has been called The Everglades of the Midwest.  You won’t site any gators in there but you might see deer, turkey, the endangered  Massasauga Rattlesnake, the threatened Blanding’s Turtle , the Bald Eagle, a gray wolf, beaver, otter, muskrat, coyote or black bear.

Last Saturday, Wisconsin Wetlands Association arranged for 75 people to travel by antique open-air train eight miles along the river and deep into the Tiffany Wildlife Area’s environmental treasure trove.  I signed up months ago and  have been literally counting the days for this trip.

It was a bumpy and breezy ride on  wooden plank seats of the no-frill cars built to haul rail road repair crews to their work sites.  The little engine, powered by a Ford Pinto motor, chugged along at a peaceful pace on the way out, but  at the end of the day we  came hurtling back at a hang-on-tight 20 miles an hour.

Even on a cool day like Saturday, the mosquitoes reached plague proportions at long stops.  (One of the train people said they were worse the week before.) But it was worth every bump and every bite to move through the 19,000-acre wetland preserve along the mighty Chippewa.

The Chippewa falls 1,300 feet along its course  to the Mississippi, which makes it something of a greased skid for water.  The hard-charging river moves about a third more cubic feet of water per second than the Wisconsin River, and it moves it faster.  For much of its length, the Chippewa is a wild river with 5-6 times more eagles than people living along its shores.  (Canoeists and kayakers take note.)

  • Backpacker Magazine calls the Tiffany Wildlife Area “one of the Badger State’s best-kept secrets.
  • Tiffany is now the largest remaining intact flood-plain forest in the Midwest.
  • Nature Conservancy has named it one of the top water basins to protect in the U.S.
  • Wisconsin Wetlands Association lists it as one of 100 Wetland Gems in the state.

Essentially, Tiffany Wildlife Area serves as a sponge that soaks up much of the Chippewa’s water, filtering the river and keeping some of the nutrient overload out of the Mississippi.

The Wisconsin DNR has owned this soggy, bottom land since 1946.  H.O. Tiffany logged it between 1920 and 1940.  Several families tried to farm its fertile but easily-flooded flat places till the mid 1930s.  They would set their milk cans by the track, and the train would pick them up and deliver them to a dairy down the line.  Then the new lock and dam system on the Mississippi made the land too wet for “productive use.

Since then, the DNR has been struggling to manage the many valuable ecosystems that have regenerated here.  Its flood-plain prairies and savannas are rare because most flat  land in the state is being farmed.  It also protects one of the largest, bottom land, closed  canopy forest preserves left, which is an important habitat for many birds.

According to Brent Weaver,  DNR forester, a master plan is now in place to try to preserve the many soggy habitats that sit side by side.  The Lower Chippewa River Basin Conservation Fund accepts donations to maintain this plan.

Tiffany is a special site with special rules.  Motor vehicles are not allowed, and regular trails are not maintained.  That means one of the best ways to see it is catching a ride on one of the frequent train trips scheduled by various environmental groups each summer.  (check the list.) The train enthusiasts and naturalists have evolved a truly symbiotic relationship at Tiffany.

The track was laid in 1882 and hauled freight till 1982.  Originally the cars were loaded with timber because the vast log rafts floated down the rivers couldn’t keep up with how fast forests were being felled.

The line closed down after one too many derailments, and nature moved back in with the kind of enthusiasm that rich, bottom land inspires in the plant kingdom.

Then, in 1995, several former railroaders and rail fans got permission to  reopen 8 miles of track.  It was a Herculean task to clear the railway, where some pretty good-sized trees and every other type of opportunistic vegetation had taken serious root.

But they did it.  This is taking the concept of RE-USE to a very high level.  I am grateful to the Chippewa Valley Motor Car Association and its 23 families in the club who keep this bit of rail road history alive and a offer a wild ride for those of us unable to paddle or wade into this wonderful, rich bottom land.

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