Shared Explorations (Part I)

April 23, 2017

I took Jesse to the Kellogg – Weaver Dunes today. Our first destination was the Town and Country Café in Kellogg. I wanted to eat there with Jesse because the café is an important part of Thelma’s history and the history of the sand prairie. It’s a place where locals like to gather and socialize. So I thought it important that I eat there to experience the café. We were going to walk about the prairie a bit before we went to eat, however, we got a late start so by the time we reached Highway 61 and turned on to 84 it was nearly noon and the café closed at 1:00 pm, so we decided it best to go to eat first. As we drove along 84, I explained things to Jesse. I told him to watch the water for birds. I showed him where people lived, whom I’ve spoken to about their lives on the prairie and shared some of that history with him. As we the curves in the road, I pointed out the channelization of the Zumbro River, talking about the negative effects of channeling the river. Jesse was amazed by how much water was in the fields near the channel – in some places there were pools of standing water. (Just before the road turned, the fields were dry enough a guy was planting corn.) Jesse was amazed by this. I told him they should undo the channelization and let the river flow here where it desires to – the water remembers its old course so water still runs there.  The area should be a wetland instead of farmland.

We arrived at the café in Kellogg, hungry, ready to eat. We sat down and looked over the menu. After we ordered our lunch, we looked at the history hanging on the wall, quite fascinated by it. We enjoyed our lunch and a slice of pie and were quite stuffed. We were ready to go spend time on the prairie.

As we drove by a section of prairie, I explained to Jesse that during the summer, this area would be torn up and a bunch of sand would be dumped there, filling in and building it up. It will be a huge mess – Larry isn’t too happy with the way they are going to go about it. The restored prairie across the road looks really great; it looks the way the Nature Conservancy would like to see it. Also, it was a lot of work gathering the seed to plant the area. Larry preferred they’d dump the sand in a more localized area within the prairie and do it without tearing everything up first. I turned the jeep on to the West Newton road. The prairie was on our left. A couple of poultry barns sat by the intersection to our right, then a field/yard like area with a no trespassing sign and a line of trees. A little ways down the road, a gravel driveway to our left met the road, went parallel to it for a few yards then curved off northward to a nice paved parking area and public water access – this is West Newton Landing. They’ll close it this summer to pile the sand on the prairie. I turned the jeep onto the gravel driveway. I parked a little further away from the water access spot, in an area that wasn’t paved but graveled. The day was quite warm, almost eighty degrees and sunny so it was no surprise that there were many vehicles with boat trailers behind them, nearly filling up the parking area. We walked down the incredibly steep hill to the boat landing. There were three docks and one was under water and parts of the other two were as well. The water level was quite high. We walked on some large rocks along the water’s edge, on the left side of the furthest north dock. I pointed out an eagle flying far above the channel to Jesse. We sat down on the stones for a few minutes, watching boats come in and out. I had mixed feelings about the boats and their occupants. It was great to see so many people out enjoying the beautiful day – but was it anything more than an opportunity to get the boat out? Did they marvel in the budding tree leaves? Did their hearts soar with the bald eagles? Did they even notice the beauty and a world coming alive after the cold winter? Were they wonderstruck by it all, by the complexity of this ecosystem and all the many things that keep it in balance? Or was it all about the boat ride? And while boating is fun, I’ve enjoyed many boat rides, what harm and disturbance is it bringing to this place? Sometimes I find these divided feelings quite frustrating. – If only I could be all for motorized boats (they have some good qualities and uses) or totally against them (no way should they be used for recreation, only commercial fishing and scientific research). But I think a more realistic and holistic view is to be right in the middle. As a naturalist/ environmentalist/ nature lover, I find a canoe far superior to motorized boats – it causes far less disturbance and allows for more connection with the environment. Jesse and I moved carefully off the rocks and on to the dock for a better view down the West Newton Chute, a narrow side channel of the Mississippi River. My camera strap hung around my neck, but even so, I cradled my camera in both hands. The dock rocked gently back and forth in the water, which was rather soothing until Jesse started rocking the dock a bit more aggressively than the water, just to mess with me. Of course, he received some light scolding by me – I was trying to take some photos which was difficult with the extra movement of the dock. Straight out ahead of us to the northeast, is the main, navigable channel of the Mississippi. Not very far to the north of us, but blocked by a forested strip of land, the Zumbro dumps into the Mississippi. These two rivers played an important role in the shaping of the Kellogg – Weaver Dunes. To the left of the dock we sat on, is a small channel – perhaps it is part of the Zumbro or a separate stream running into the Mississippi (it isn’t marked, not even shown actually on Google maps. – Perhaps Larry would know.) Trees covered both sides of the channel, leaning out over it, creating a tunnel. The buds on the trees were just starting to open up – dots of color in the gray branches. I pointed out another bald eagle to Jesse. He said, “It’s probably the same one.” I hoped it was another one. There were several platforms, wood attached to floating barrels, bobbing on the water of the small side channel. Each had some kind of structure on top, probably a bench of some sort. There was also a shed like structure on floats (barrels) bobbing in the water. Jesse called it a redneck house boat, however, it wasn’t a house boat or even intended to be one. It had no floor. Only a few feet under the walls were on the floats made from barrels attached to wood. But it was certainly a shed built with wood and covered in tin. The walls were gray and the roof top used to be gray but was now covered in rust. There was a doorway at one end, no door but there was a piece of wood nailed across the top half. We were puzzled by what this structure’s function was. It turned in the water, clockwise. At first the open end was facing us, but within five minutes it turned such that its long side faced us and we could no longer see inside of it. Across the channel, directly ahead of us was an island completely covered with trees. A little ways down the channel from us, to our right, a small channel split the island, only a small chunk lay to the left of the small channel. The bank on either side was carpeted in bright green. All of this we observed in only a few minutes. The gentle rock of the dock was relaxing – I could have laid down there and spent the rest of the afternoon in that spot. I carefully bent down toward the water and dipped my fingers in, curious about the temperature of the water. Somewhat surprisingly, it didn’t feel ice cold, it was more of a refreshing cold – though it probably would have felt much colder if I had jumped in. It was probably warm enough though to have dipped my feet in, which was tempting to do given how warm the day was getting. We sat there on the dock, soaking up the sun for about fifteen minutes more before we decided we should keep moving. It was Jesse who asked if we should head out again, to see the ruins.

So we left the dock, climbed up the incredibly steep hill, got back in the jeep, took West Newton road back to Highway 84, and headed south along 84. Before taking Jesse to see the ruins, I pulled on to the sand driveway by the McCarthy Lake sign, bumping along it to the parking area. We didn’t take the time to stop the vehicle though; I just wanted to show Jesse what was back there. Jesse asked, “Could you walk down there?” He was referring to the woods on the edge of the little dirt parking area.

“Yeah, but it would be wet. There’s a small creek and then further into the trees a channel of water. Larry and I walked in there this winter.”


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