One night each year, candles light the way into one of the biggest freshwater cattail marshes in the country.

By Melanie Radzicki McManus
October 20, 2020
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Credit: Anne Champeau

The soft glow of 500 twinkling luminarias beckons my husband and me into the southern tip of Horicon Marsh. Our boots crunch along the snowpack; clouds of steam puff from our mouths. It’s 10 degrees on this January evening and feels even colder with the wind chill. Yet 1,500 intrepid souls have bravely ventured out to explore a legendary southern Wisconsin wetland via candlelight.

Many more visitors than that flock to Horicon Marsh every spring and fall to spy some of the 250,000 birds who use it as a pit stop in their annual migration. But no one is birding tonight. Instead, our mission is to experience a tiny patch of the 33,000-acre marsh on a cold winter’s eve. Protected by both state and federal agencies, Horicon serves as a critical habitat for more than 300 species of birds, plus muskrats, red foxes, frogs, turtles and more. Since 2010, the nonprofit Friends of Horicon Marsh and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources have hosted this January hike. (Due to the coronavirus, plans are still unsettled for the 2021 event.)

We turn onto a boardwalk leading to Indermuehle Island, one of many small islands dotting the marsh. Although it’s difficult to see much in the inky night, the earthy scents of the island’s small forest permeate the frigid air. Around a bend, two members of the Horicon Marsh Bird Club talk about the different owl species found in the marsh: great horned, screech, barred and (occasionally) snowy. Recordings of the birds’ trills, whinnies, whoops and hoots drift mournfully into the still night.

Our frozen digits prod us toward the education and visitors center, where red-orange sparks shoot skyward from a trio of crackling bonfires. Cradling cups of cocoa, we wedge ourselves into the crowd. A few hikers have wrapped themselves in thick blankets, a packing tip I enviously file for next year. Inside, we enjoy a short flick about the marsh’s history. Some families try their hand at identifying marsh mammals through their pelts, or string Cheerios on pipe cleaners to make bird feeders.

On the school bus shuttle back to the town of Horicon, I think about the candles flickering against the grasses, and the animals hidden in the black beyond their glow, asleep or prowling. My husband and I start talking about a snowshoe excursion—for if the marsh can captivate on a dark winter’s night, imagine its glory in the sunshine.