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Mississippi River refuge near Onalaska marks 100-year history this weekend



Reporters from around the region take a boat trip on the Mississippi River on June 18, 2024 (PHOTO: Brad Williams)

An area nature refuge is getting ready to celebrate its 100th anniversary with a public event near Onalaska this weekend.

The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge was founded in 1924, to protect the river habitat. There will be an open house from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the visitor center (map), along with activities at the Fred Funk boat landing (map). It will feature barge tours, as well as nature and history exhibits.

“It’s pretty neat to see all these people out fishing today, and really enjoying it,” Hallie Schulz, the refuge visitor services manager, said. “I always like to say that this is your national wildlife refuge, this is your public land, so come out and enjoy it.”

Hundreds of eagle nests, like this one seen on June 18, 2024, can be found in the Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish Refuge (PHOTO: Brad Williams).

Schulz and other staffers at the refuge led area reporters on a boat tour in the Lake Onalaska area Tuesday, to promote the centennial events.

In 1923, outdoorsman Will Dilg learned of plans to drain some of the river backwaters for land use, possibly for farming. He headed an effort to create a federal refuge. Congress passed a refuge act on June 7, 1924, largely due to Dilg’s activism.

Schulz said Lake Onalaska is a very popular eating and nesting area for eagles, pelicans and other birds.

“The refuge is like their restaurant,” she said. “It’s really a special place.”

The refuge is 261 miles long, from Wabasha, Minn., south to Rock Island, Ill.

Fritz Funk pilots a boat with touring media members on the Mississippi River on June 18, 2024 (PHOTO: Brad Williams).

Tour guides said that at one point in the 1970s, before the use of DDT was discontinued, just one eagles nest could be found in the refuge area. Now, they count over 300 eagle nests there.

The boat tour was launched from the Fred Funk landing near Onalaska, which honors a local conservationist. Funk’s son Fritz Funk piloted the boat for the special trip.

“Dad was involved in a lot of conservation advocacy issues on the river,” Fritz Funk said. “He didn’t actually like the attention, didn’t really want something named after him, but after he passed away, people came up with the idea, and then the family thought, you know, boat landing? He’d be okay with that.”

Travelers on a boat trip along the Mississippi River got a close look at vegetation on the water on June 18, 2024 (PHOTO: Brad Williams)

A native of Prairie du Chien, Brad graduated from UW - La Crosse and has worked in radio news for more than 30 years, mostly in the La Crosse area. He regularly covers local courts and city and county government. Brad produces the features "Yesterday in La Crosse" and "What's Buried on Brad's Desk." He also writes the website "Triviazoids," which finds odd connections between events that happen on a certain date, and he writes and performs with the local comedy group Heart of La Crosse. Brad been featured on several national TV programs because of his memory skills.

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