An Icy Walk on McCarthy Lake (Part I)

February 1, 2017

This morning’s visit to the Weaver Dunes was to accomplish two things, walk with Larry on McCarthy and talk with Thelma.  I arrived at Larry’s shortly before 8:00 am. We were on the road heading to McCarthy sometime between 8:15 – and 8:20 am. While we sat at Larry’s kitchen table, he asked, “So do you remember your assignment from last time? Where would you like to go?”

“I was thinking about going up McCarthy.”

“Ok, my only trepidation about that is that there are a lot of spots with open water going up by Schmoker’s. I was checking it out the other day. And with the fresh snow those spots may be hard to see. Would you be ok with going further up on McCarthy?”

“Yeah, I’m ok with that.”

So we drove along highway 84, past the bridge, the Nature Conservancy office, along the rolling prairie. We pulled off the highway onto dirt, rather a sand road, covered in snow, by the McCarthy Lake sign. The sand dunes rose high on our left, to the south, and sloped down on our right. We drove past the pond on our right, the north side, and then a smaller one, that can barely be seen from the driveway, on our left. Snow covered prairie on both sides. On the north side, as we near the parking area is a plot of mixed corn, sunflowers, and sorghum. Larry parked the truck in the parking area. We brought Hank with us again.

The prairie dunes rolled into wooded area, then the elevation drops several feet into the flood plain, and continues to drop gradually until the old Zumbro channel. Down into the wooded area we walked, with Larry leading the way and Hank wandering around on his own mission. We walked through deep snow, prairie plants brushing against us and stepped down on to a small creek. Trees grew on both sides, to the right, the left, and ahead of us. The trees didn’t begin to close in around us until we were across the creek and several feet on the other side. (We had explored this area a couple years ago.) We followed a game trail, through the trees, pushing past branches and ducking under others, it was covered with deer tracks. Moments later, we were through the band of trees and walking through and over clumps of river bulrush and stepping down on to the old Zumbro River channel, between twice and three times as wide as the creek. The channel was dusted with less than half an inch of fresh snow over night. Larry looked down at the snow, “Raccoon tracks.” I came up alongside him to check out the tracks. The elegant heart shaped deer tracks had also caught my notice and had my admiration. They were alongside one another –had the deer past along then the raccoon or was it the other way around? Did they pass by within minutes of each other, hours or is it possible they were almost walking side by side? And how long had they passed through before we did?

Walking a little further, Larry said, “The raccoon walked one way and then back again.” The tracks seemed to lead to a small opening in the ice. Larry circled around it, examining it closely. “Hmm, there seems to be no sign of otters.”

We continued onward, Larry poking the ice with his walking stick as we went along, making sure the ice was safe to walk on. As always, I trailed behind him taking in the beauty of the trees, the surrounding wetland and the channel itself. There were many side channels on the east side, winding through the trees. The marsh, a little higher in elevation in some places spread out north and west. When we’d stepped on to the channel, we noted the cold. I told Larry the temperature was supposed to drop throughout the day. (Yesterday it had almost reached forty degrees, and when we left the truck on our walk it was twenty one degrees.)  Larry pointed out some deer across the rushes, disappearing into a clump of trees on the west side. Hank was going to chase them but returned quickly when Larry scolded him. The trees on the east side were closer and denser; on the west side there were small clumps here and there mostly in the distance, the trees along the channel were individuals.

The channel curved westward sharply, here, in the bend was a clump of trees on the northwest side, a small creek slithering between them, flowing in to the bigger channel. There was very little ice on this tiny side channel, it was mostly open water. Following some tracks, Larry walked up it a few feet, walking on clumps of vegetation. I followed him a little ways. Hank came wandering in too, making his own trail, splashing in the water. Larry was looking at more raccoon tracks. We walked back to the bigger channel, following our footsteps.

Larry pointed out a coil of wire in the tree, almost completely concealed by vegetation, “They came through and rolled up all the wire when they bought it. This all used to be grazed.” Tromping through the wetland, sinking in muck up to one’s waist in pursuit of wayward cows doesn’t sound like a fun chore.

The channel curved southward, now the west side was even more open than before and the woods on the east began to drop back as the channel continued to meander further out into the wetlands, curving south then west, then south, then west, and then back south, slithering through the marsh like a snake. More out in the open, we were hit hard by the fierce wind, growing colder with each passing step. I tried tucking my chin in to my jacket, but it wasn’t comfortable. I tugged my hat further down on my ears, as the wind passed right through it as if I wasn’t even wearing it. My nose began to drip nonstop and my eyes watered. When we had started out, I thought maybe I had worn too many layers, but was glad I had, it now seemed I wasn’t wearing enough despite my insulated boots and overalls, and a long sleeve shirt and sweeter under a winter coat. My cheeks and nose were probably quite rosy. Larry was also very cold; he kept mentioning how cold it was. Of course, twenty degrees would have felt quite lovely without the wind and if it hadn’t been nearly forty degrees the day before. (I wouldn’t mind if every day of winter was twenty degrees, it’s really an ideal winter temperatures.) It is probably a good thing that we weren’t aware of the wind chill temperature. The clouds blocking the sun didn’t help the matter.

We walked past a tree perched on the water’s edge. The trunk at water level had been gnawed on by a beaver, perhaps fairly recently. I pointed it cut to Larry, “Look, a beaver was chewing on that tree.”

“Yeah, there are only big trees left.” I paused and bent down to take a closer look at it before continuing onward. Another bigger tree stood on the very edge of the channel bank. We paused under that tree too and looked up into its branches. “Another month and those [buds] will be popping.” They looked like tiny little black cap berries, amazing to think that new leaves will be issuing forth from them soon. There were a number of fallen trees in the woods on the east side, left, bank. At least a couple of them had been felled by beavers some time ago. Why hadn’t they hauled off those trees and use them in construction? Why did they fell some trees and then not use them? Larry explained that some of the side channels were beaver channels. The beaver changed the landscape of the McCarthy wetlands area. He said, “There aren’t many trees left in here. Not much left for the beavers. Trees died from the changing of the river’s course. And beavers took others.” With there being less trees and mainly just big ones left, and beavers having to go further for them, will the beavers temporarily move out of the area? Will trees come back?

Following along the serpentine channel, we came upon another area with thin ice and open water. Larry tapped the ice with his stick to find safe footing around the spot, and at the same time studying it closely. He was surprised that there was no sign of otter activity around it. The lack of otter signs was disappointing; I hope there is still a sizeable population of them here. We didn’t linger but kept going.

The marsh spread out wide before us, to the west and south it went on for acres. Other than a random tree here and there, the trees on the west side were now far off in the distance. A sea of tangled rushes and cattails stretched out from the channel, engulfing it. A muskrat lodge, a dome shaped mound rose above the vegetation in the distance on my right.

Another tree gnawed by beavers stood on the channel edge on my left, to the east, a few more passes with the teeth would have felled the tree. It seemed to be balanced on top of the stump, I half expect it to teeter and fall. Nearby that tree were three other stumps, smaller in size where the beaver had finished the job and carried off the trees. The woods on the east side were becoming more distant.

Just a little further down the channel, off to the side a little was a beaver lodge, modest in size, only a few feet tall but sprawling several feet – a pile of logs in a conical shape. It didn’t look like anyone was currently living in it but who knows. I stopped to admire it and had to walk quickly to catch up to Larry.

Though the landscape seemed to be unvaried there was much to look at and take in; several times I paused to look about, all around me. While looking back to the northwest, a burst of sunlight broke through the clouds and illuminated the trees and rushes near them while the rest of the marsh was still darkened by clouds, it was a stunning sight. Turning back, I spotted another muskrat lodge sticking up above the river bulrushes. Was there a family of muskrats inside?

Larry explained the water system and flow and said, “This spring when the water is high we should canoe this whole thing so you can see how it all fits together.”

“I’m up for that, sounds fun!”

We found coyote tracks in the fresh dusting of snow. Were they looking for water or hunting muskrats? Tracks in the snow makes hiking in the winter interesting, you can see who else traveled this way recently and speculate on when they passed through and what they were doing. Tracks tell the story of the creatures that live here, stories that take time and appreciation to read.


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