BRISTOL — When Dennis McGraw saw the photos, he was alarmed.

The pictures showed felled trees, cleared foliage, a crude road and a destroyed sign. That sign, at one time, marked the area as the Jean McGraw Memorial Nature Preserve.

This didn’t look like the nature preserve dedicated in memory of Dennis’ mother. He worried that the area — which was supposed to be kept natural and wild — was being clear-cut and bulldozed.

But as it turns out, the area wasn’t be cleared; it was being improved. And after learning the whole story, Dennis’ alarm turned to happiness.

“I think it’s fabulous,” he said. “I’m very happy it’s being beautified.”

The area, located just east of I-94 and south of Highway C, features a little-known pocket of wooded wetlands. There’s a half-mile trail and access to a branch of the Des Plaines River.

Since late December, Uline work crews have been busy cutting away brush and dead trees in the preserve, grooming a new path lined neatly with woodchips and encircling the western third of the 14.4-acre Spitzer property owned by Seno Kenosha/Racine Land Trust.

A large, new green sign stands at the entrance shaded by trees quietly announcing the preserve’s presence. It has replaced the old sign that had been damaged over the years.

The property was purchased from the Spitzer Family in 2007 by the land trust through a combination of private donations, the Wisconsin Knowles Nelson Stewardship funds and the North American Wetland Conservation Act.

It was dedicated and named after McGraw, who served three terms in succession on the land trust board from 1996 to 2005, the year she died at age 90.

The nature preserve contains one of the last native wetlands in southeastern Wisconsin on the Wisconsin side of the Des Plaines River, a prime impetus for the restoration effort.

“This is why we own these properties because they are wetlands ... and it’s part of our mission to protect wetlands,” said Ron Rasmussen president of Seno K/RLT Conservancy.

Recently, the Uline company offered the conservancy its assistance to help bring back the nature preserve as a “welcoming place for the community,” he said.

A better place

On Tuesday, Rasmussen showed off the work that has been done over the last six months.

Off the path in the preserve is a natural area just steps from the river to launch canoes or kayaks. While most of the felled trees now have been cleared, large pieces of their trunks remain for animals to hide or to leave fungi and mosses to devour and thrive on.

“They removed a few more fallen trees than we wanted them to. It’s a wildlife thing. Fallen trees are wildlife habitat ... but it does look awfully nice, very tranquil,” Rasmussen said.

As he walked deeper into the woods filled with native oaks and wild cherries, the highway sounds gradually faded and the buzz changed to mosquitoes, chirping birds and the occasional rustling of woodland creatures.

There were plans for a pedestrian boardwalk through the wetlands on the west end of the property. However, because the area regularly floods in the spring, the proposed wooden structure would pose safety concerns, Rasmussen said. Currently, there is nowhere to launch a vessel north of the Illinois border on the Des Plaines in Wisconsin.

“Although I am disappointed to not be able to provide safe pedestrian access to this beautiful flood plain area of the property, I do hope the work we have completed will draw more people in to enjoy this great nature preserve,” Uline company President Liz Uihlein said in a letter to Rasmussen.

Rasmussen said the conservancy, however, has taken groups of canoers and classes to the launch site, which is still muddy from the recent rains.

“It’s really quite fun and actually you can go under the bridge (going northeast) and get to the other property across the road,” he said pointing in the direction of the 12.5 acre Coker Barnes preserve. The conservancy also owns about 28 acres in Pleasant Prairie that was donated by the village, for a total of nearly 55 acres.

On Tuesday, Aaron Cox and his sister Lauren Cox, Pleasant Prairie residents, brought their kayaks to the river using the new trail.

“I used to come here to go squirrel hunting,” he said.

“And then they made it a park,” said Lauren.

The two were breaking in new kayaks. Aaron said they’ve kayaked around Lake Andrea but wanted a little more of an adventure.

“We thought this would be more fun,” she said, as she swatted away mosquitoes.

“Paddle hard. They won’t catch ya,” Rasmussen called out the kayakers.

Beautification appreciated

In the meantime, Dennis McGraw said he was more than happy to know that the preserve memorialized for his mother is receiving a facelift. His concerns were allayed.

“My mother was an avid canoer and we’d always go away on canoe trips while I was in high school,” said Dennis, who lives in Hawaii.

For more information about the McGraw nature preserve or the land trust go to https://senokrlt.org/land-preservation/land-we-own/.

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