In Ojibwe legend, there was a time when water covered all. Unhappy with the Anishinabe people, Kitchi-Manitou, the Great Mystery, flooded the earth. The only survivors in a world without land were those animals who could swim or fly — and one man, Nanaboozhoo, who clung for life to a floating log.
One by one, different animals dove beneath the waves, swimming down in search of whatever earth could be found and brought back to the world. One by one, the loon, the grebe, the mink and others came back to the surface empty handed.
And then a small, humble volunteer. A chubby rodent no more than two feet long swam forward, its tail hairless and almost scaly, its back feet webbed, its fur slick and reddish brown.
Wa-zhushk — or, in English, the muskrat — dove down and disappeared for a long, long time. When it finally reappeared, it had drowned from its long swim, but in its tiny paw was a small clump of earth that would bring land back to the world.
Today, almost any walk around Madison’s lakeshores yields a muskrat sighting — and questioning passersby asking what, exactly, is cutting a lazy path through the shallows and munching on the lilies.
The confusion isn’t unwarranted: muskrats aren’t the only semi-aquatic mammal in the Madison area. They are accompanied by — and often confused for — mink, river otter and beaver, all of which the little volunteers outnumber in the area.
However, in 2019, the Dane County Board voted unanimously to rename a bay of Lake Monona to Wicawak (we-chow-ek), the Ho-Chunk word for muskrat.
In their abundance, muskrats were an important source of food and furs for the Ho-Chunk people in the Yahara basin. Still today, they are “furbearers” — an unscientific term referring to animals often hunted for their pelts. “Muskrat pie,” a staple in the diet of Wisconsin’s early European pioneers, would have been served at Wisconsin’s first Thanksgiving celebrations.
Muskrats themselves are vegetarian, and will eat almost any plant matter they can get their paws on within their ecosystem. In the Yahara lake system, those options include 24 aquatic plant species, such as cattails, lotus and pondweed. In turn, they fall prey to raccoons, foxes, birds of prey and even large fish.
Muskrats spend most of their time in water, and thus are specially adapted to swimming with webbed hind paws and a tail that acts as a rudder. Though they generally swim on the surface, they are able to stay underwater for up to 17 minutes at a time.
When the cold weather sets in and the lakes freeze over, muskrats navigate the lakes by swimming beneath the ice, bouncing from haven to haven among small dens dug into riverbeds and lakeshores, as well as the “huts” they build from brush and grass in the autumn to provide shelter through the winter.
Breeding season begins in March for the muskrats, and they are, as the University of Kentucky’s Forestry Department writes, “prolific breeders,” birthing up to three litters every year with four to eight pups per litter.
As this year’s little ones crop up, the best spots around campus to catch a glimpse of these critters are the shores of Lake Mendota, along Lakeshore Path or near James Madison Park.