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Canoeing Through A Lotus Meadow (Part I)

July 29, 2017

Over two months had gone by since Larry and I had a chance to go canoeing – June is always so incredibly busy for both of us. So when a beautiful day with both of us free came around, we seized the opportunity. It was late afternoon, not quite 5:00 pm. Larry decided we’d canoe the Weaver Bottoms this time around. We put the canoe in, from the Weaver Landing, just before 5:00 pm. The sky was blue, dotted with white fluffy clouds.

If you haven’t figured this out yet, I have a love affair with water, lakes, rivers and streams in particular. So at the end of May, when Jesse and I were helping Larry build a fence, Larry asked me what I wanted to do this summer. I replied, “I want to go canoeing and swimming. I got a brand new swim suit two years ago and still haven’t worn it. We haven’t gone swimming for at least two years, maybe three. So I want to make sure I go swimming this year.” Now, I’ve never had swimming lessons, all just self taught. I’m slow but I absolutely love swimming. People have jokingly checked me for gills. Larry had asked how my summer was going – I told him it’s been so busy and I haven’t gone swimming yet. So when we made plans to go out in the canoe, I asked him if I should wear my swimsuit. He said sure – we’ll get you in the water, give you a chance to swim.

I was elated to be heading out in the canoe once more. The day wasn’t so hot that sitting in the sun was extremely uncomfortable but it was still warm – in fact it was the perfect temperature, with only the slightest breeze. The water near the boat landing was thick with vegetation on all sides, brilliantly green; cattails, rushes, sedges, sagittaria and yellow lotus. It feels magical floating through these aquatic plants. Larry guided us along the boat path going through the lush, aquatic meadow. There weren’t many lotus plants and only a few in bloom. The color and smooth texture of the lotus blossom brought to mind a bridal dress. We were canoeing in roughly the same place and general direction we had last July. The plants above the surface began to thin dramatically while I think those beneath the water had thickened; mostly a tangled morass of coonstail, barring any glimpse of the watery world beneath them. A little further on, the canoe slid through a field of water lily pads. The pads were storybook; I almost expected to see a frog sitting on one, pleading with me to take it in and feed it and offer a warm bed to it. No frogs in sight, even though there are leopard frogs living in the Weaver Bottoms. Frogs are awesome, so I would have loved to see even one. In a moment, we were out of the lilies.

We came upon the vast yellow lotus meadow. Although this was my second time seeing it, I still marveled at its breadth and beauty. Just breathtaking. I was expecting it to be fragrant too but I was disappointed. It wasn’t as strong smelling as I hoped – but that may have been due to my slightly stuffy sinuses. The white  blossoms with a dash of gold dazzled in the afternoon sun, almost sparkling at a distance. Some of the large leaves floated on top of the water, others stood above the water by several inches. Plants grew so thickly only patches of water could be seen between the pads. As we glided along, Larry asked, “Is there a better way to spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon?”

“I don’t think so. This is so relaxing.” Other than napping, which I usually fail miserably at, I’m not sure there is a better way to relax after a stressful morning of working at a Farmers Market. Indeed, it was relaxing – out here on the water my soul could find rest.

The lotus forest began to peter out with individuals growing increasingly further away from each other. The stunningly blue sky with its fluffy clouds reflected off the more open areas of the water, giving it the appearance of being blue as well. Larry had ever so gently turned the canoe southward, taking us south and east. We didn’t chatter on but when we talked it was about the Bottoms and my book, about his family and my friends and family, and photography. We went through another lotus patch. This one didn’t grow so densely and had far less blossoms. Some of the leaves were beginning to curl and senesce. Then we were out in open water again – floating on the reflected sky.

We’d come rather close to a tree covered bluff that stuck out into the water to the south. Some houses sat among the trees at the base of the bluff, Highway 61 probably threads near them and the railroad too. Then a floodplain forest and a marsh filled with aquatic plants. I was too far away to see if there was an actual strip of sand or just sand suspended in the water. A lot of bleached snags stuck up like old bones. I could just make out seven Canada geese; there could have been more that I couldn’t see. Larry had pointed it out, explaining that all that slit and sediment is being discharged by the Whitewater River as it flows into the Weaver Bottoms. Scary how much sediment is carried by a relatively small river, although the Whitewater does flow quite quickly, though nowhere near the swift speed of the Zumbro. I’ve never been this far out and south on the Weaver Bottoms, and therefore have never seen where the Whitewater pours into it, I was enraptured by it.

Canoeing into the Fog (Part II)

Larry noticed another bird singing that interested him. “There’s a yellow headed black bird. Do you see it?” He steered the canoe closer to the sedges, trying to get close enough for me to photograph the bird. “They sound like an old pump handle that needs lubricating, creaky.” He then imitated the singing bird. I have never seen a yellow headed black bird before so it was fun to make a new acquaintance. He clung to the long stem of a sedge plant, hoping to a different stem when we got too close.

The fog over Goose Lake was the thickest yet. We came to the end of the channel and could see nothing – it was just gray nothingness. It felt like the edge of the world. I felt like I was Lucy on the Dawn Treader, voyaging to the world’s end with Caspian. Visibility in the direction of Goose Lake couldn’t have been more than five feet. Larry didn’t venture out into Goose Lake but rather turned the canoe to our left and guided it along the edge of the lake staying close to the vegetation. We continued along the sedges – the fog was quite as thick here as it was further out on the open water. The sedges were beautiful; I admired them as we past. Our route took us very close to a clump of sedges with shorter stalks and the stalks had little green balls on them. Stretched between the leaves/ blades of the sedges was a wisp of spider’s web. A red-wing black bird was perched on a mass of dead vegetation; puffed up to make himself look bigger, red spots appeared large, and he sang, trying to attract a mate. We headed toward the tree filled bank. The fog wasn’t nearly as dense along the bank. Leaves on the trees were so thick, you couldn’t see through the trees. Larry turned the canoe to our left heading into the slough between Schmoker’s channel and the “main” land. He pushed the canoe into the slough a little ways, but then paused.

“I was hoping there was more water in here. I’m not sure we want to chance it; don’t want to get too far up and run out of water. We’ve done that before.”

“Yeah, best not do that again.” Larry stood up in the canoe for a better look. “There’s just not enough water.” Larry turned the canoe around heading back toward the channel and up it. We glided through a yellow lily patch. I saw a kingbird perched on a tree no bigger than a stick. I could see a water mark on a tree trunk, easily six inches higher than the current water level. It still looked wet though, suggesting the water level had just gone down recently. Another tree next to it had been girdled all around it, above the water level by a beaver. We crossed over the beaver dam again. I noticed a small clump of trees had beaver marks too, some of them their tops missing entirely. We paused by the side channel to admire a sedge plant. I wondered what they were; Larry isn’t confident in identifying sedges. I admired flowering dogwood currently in bloom.

We continued up the foggy channel, observing the silver maple trees along the way, one had fallen into the channel but was still alive. We passed the larger beaver lodge that was partially concealed by young silver maples. We were drawing near to the bridge, though with the fog we couldn’t see it yet. We’d come to the small duck hunting cabins on the east bank. Larry stopped the canoe so I could take a picture of them. He thought they were cute and looked cool in the fog. We continued onward, past the willow leaning over the water, nearing the end of our canoe outing. The canoe slid under the bridge. Our canoeing for the day was done. Once we had the canoe loaded and were back in the truck, Larry said, “It’s only 7:45, I like canoeing this early.” Before turning on to the road, he asked, “Do you have time to go check out Halfmoon Landing?”

“Sure, I have time.”

We saw two cranes on the state land across from Schmoker’s as we drove along. We also observed many rabbits along the roadside, both along 84 and the West Newton road. We wound around on the West Newton road, passing the row of cabins/houses, prairie and then through the trees, down a slight hill. Before we’d come to the creek that usually runs under the road, Larry slowed the truck considerably because the road ahead was covered in several inches of water. He drove onward, into the water. This was a whole new experience for me and therefore a bit exciting. The water rolled away from the truck in waves. Where the stream normally ran under the road, the water was rushing over the road, its ferociousness creating foam. The stream was spilling over its banks filling the forest with water.

Larry said, “The water was much higher. Last night, I saw a beaver lining up willow branches along the side of the road, taking advantage of the high water.” I leaned out of the window taking pictures of the flood waters. I could see lines on the trees where the water had been, again at least six inches above current water level. It was incredible seeing the flood. The road must have been a little higher just before the driveway into Halfmoon Landing, there was a spot that wasn’t covered in water. Larry pulled into Halfmoon Landing, dropping me off to take pictures while he continued to the parking lot. I was thankful to be wearing boots when I stepped into the water. He came back to pick me up a few moments later. As we drove back up the road, Larry pointed out the willow branches on the side of the road. He paused so I could take a look at them. It was amazing how the beaver had lined them up in a row, laying them straight. I wish I had been there to see the beaver collecting the branches. With that we headed for home.

Canoeing into the Fog (Part I)

May 25, 2017

Despite the patchy fog this morning, Larry and I decided to take the canoe out, thinking the fog should burn off quickly in the morning sunshine. It seemed to be our only chance to get out around rain and wind – we’d had seven inches of rain in one day a week or so ago, plus a few other days with rain. The temperature was forty three degrees when we set out. I wanted to get an early start so we put in at McCarthy at 6:20 am. When we were driving to the canoe landing, just before the bridge, we saw two pairs of Canada geese with goslings. Larry said, “They [goose families] like to hangout in mobs, it offers better protection.” The geese waddled off the road all too quickly. (It would have been fun to photograph them before they disappeared.) We saw two other pairs of geese with goslings on McCarthy.

The plants covering the landing were wet with dew. Tree swallows were busy under the bridge, flying out over the water and back again. Of course they weren’t going silently about their business, but were all chattering away. It’s amazing how much greener everything got in only twenty days. Trees had put on all their green summer finery. The new growth of cattails, sedges and rushes had totally overcome last year’s detritus. Although everything was green, there were several shades of green giving some variety. The fog was not very thick, allowing for good visibility, from the landing, I could see trees far beyond the island, further up McCarthy than we’ve ever canoed. The yellow water lilies were beginning to blossom. The water level was quite high thanks to all the rain we’ve had – much higher than last time. The wild plants had grown considerably, but they were still young and not yet sticking up above the water surface. Larry kept saying, “Turtle,” every time he spotted one. I saw a few, just noses above the water that quickly disappeared as we neared. Sometimes I actually saw the entire turtle swimming under the water. The painted turtles were mating like crazy.

We didn’t go very far up McCarthy but turned aside to the small pond-like alcove (where we saw the beaver last year). Larry did all the paddling. The canoe sliced through frothy green algae that coated the water’s surface. He wanted to check out the pond area. He glided the canoe through the water to the far end of the pond and then looped back. Red -wing black birds perched on cattail stalks singing cheerfully, trying to attract mates. We left the pond alcove and headed back toward the bridge. Under the bridge, Larry paused the canoe so we could watch the tree swallows fly out of their nests – first a tiny yellow beak would peek out, then a white and gray flash as they came streaming out and darting away as fast as they could. I was in awe that two birds could fit in each of those tiny nests. We only lingered a moment before Larry glided the canoe forward again, down Schmoker’s channel. A thin mist lingered just above the water surface. The beauty of the channel was refreshing, relaxing, and a healing balm to the soul. The channel was deceptively deep with excellent water clarity. The channel curved ever so slightly to the left, east, and then widened considerably. I only noticed one very large scent mound where there had been several two months ago – the others were probably still there, just obscured by the lush vegetation. The mist hovering just above the water seemed to give way here. With the absence of the mist the water mirrored the trees – such spectacular beauty. This was more uplifting than church. Yellow water lilies dotted the water in this part of the channel. They were not beautiful in the traditional sense, yet still lovely.

We came to the snag which had been drilled by pileated woodpeckers. The channel took a sharp turn to the left. A few lovely snags that lay partly in the water caught my eye. Suddenly it was quite foggy; we had canoed into a cloud. Some dead, branchless trees stood like pillars, although not quite so straight. Each clump of these dead trees had at least one live tree, decked out in deliciously green leaves. I was elated to see the plants in and along the edge of the channel coming back to life, covering the area in green. We passed along colonies of cattails. The fog thickened as we headed down stream; I almost couldn’t recognize familiar landmarks until we were passing them by. We passed the island where the channel seems to split in two to go around. The fog grew so thick that nothing could be seen beyond a picket fence of trees in the channel. My head began to hurt from my eyes straining to see the landscape through the dense fog.

The channel seemed quieter, more subdued, cut off from the outside world. The fog completely isolated us, putting up a sound barrier between us, the channel, and everything beyond the channel. It was so peaceful, and therefore refreshing, despite our low visibility. A wall of trees on our left separated our channel from another section of water, which is more filled with vegetation. We passed a patch of tall sedges and a beaver lodge. The fog was a bit disorienting – still hard to tell exactly where we were. The beaver lodge must have been built recently because I haven’t seen a lodge there before. It’s a modest sized lodge. Shortly after passing the lodge, we came upon the beaver dam. If you didn’t know it was there you’d probably not have noticed it – with the fog and the high water, I barely noticed the dam. Larry said, “The water’s running so high it’s spilling over the beaver dam.” Larry was able to paddle the canoe right over the top of the dam. The only sound besides Hank’s whining was that of various birds. As we neared the end of the channel, Larry said, “There’s a yellow throated marsh wren. Do you hear it? It sounds like an old treadle sewing machine.” After he imitated the sound the wren was making I could distinguish it from the other bird song.

“Yes, I hear it.” We were unable to see the singer. We drew near to the big willow tree growing near the end of the channel.

Birds, Turtles and Canoeing

May 5, 2017

Finally, a beautiful morning without fog and both Larry and I were available for a canoe outing. Beginning of April would have been a better time to go canoeing to see all the migrating waterfowl, however, between the weather and busy schedules, Larry and I didn’t get out in April. There are still things to see in May. It was about 6:40 am when we pulled into the area by the bridge, the canoe landing; we decided to go up McCarthy from there.

We stepped out of the truck quietly, not yet letting Hank out or unloading the canoe. Swimming in the water only a little ways out was a beaver. Only its dark brown head stuck up above the water. Each time I see a beaver I count it as a precious gift. At first it was facing our direction – big nose, half way under the water; rounded bear-like ears just above the water; small, gentle eyes – aside from it being wet, it looked like something you could cuddle, like a teddy bear. It turned, giving us a side view. From the side it looked plainly like a beaver, with the better view, its head clearly looked like a rodent head rather than a bear – more elongated instead of round. I could see part of its back but the rest of it was just below the water surface. The water whorled around its body, clearly indicating where its body and tail were. It turned back toward us again, and then it noticed us. It didn’t consider us too much of a threat, so it didn’t slap the water with its tail but it quickly slipped under the water and didn’t resurface any where we could hear or see it. Once it disappeared, Larry let Hank out of the truck and we proceeded to unload the canoe.

The beauty of the lake was awe-inspiring. The sky was perfectly reflected in the water giving the water a deep, dark blue color at a glance. Trees were also beautifully mirrored in the water. As always, the relaxing power of being out on the water in the canoe could be immediately felt in the release of tension from my body.

“Can you get a picture of the young wild rice plants?” asked Larry. I did my best but I really need a CPL filter to sharpen the image. Larry was a little surprised how much the young plants had grown already. The vegetation along the edges of the water was greening up quickly. Trees were not yet completely decked out in summer leaves; the leaves were still small and developing. New cattails provided a dazzling green to the area. The lake channel was open water, the wild rice had not grown tall and thick enough yet to fill it in leaving just a small passage through it, as it would be later in the season.  Larry glided the canoe up the “main” channel with ease. Geese bobbing on the water far to the left began honking, making all sorts of ruckus as we drew closer. I admired their graceful bodies as we passed. Some people think they’re irritating, I find them majestic. There was a pair of Canada geese and further away from them was a lone goose. The sun illuminated the large birds beautifully – still the golden hour. The bulrushes were growing thick and green too. Many trees on the bluffs still had to leaf out so the bluffs weren’t very colorful yet. We continued gliding gently up the channel. Across a strip of rushes, we spotted another pair of Canada geese; they were nesting on an old muskrat house. They talked amongst themselves but weren’t too bothered by us. High up in a tree ahead of us, on the right, perched an immature eagle. Its feathers gave it a mangy, scruffy look; its white feathers only just starting to come in. At first, I thought the pair of geese weren’t disturbed but then they took off northwestward when we drew a little closer. Once they flew off my attention returned to the young eagle. But it too thought we were getting too close. With a magnificent display of strength and agility it took to the air as well. Even in its scruffy juvenile stage it’s an incredible bird. It didn’t go too far away, it perched once again in the trees up ahead where the tree covered land juts into the water a little bit. Again, I was just amazed by the grand size of the marsh. I marveled in the loveliness of the trees springing to life, the new baby leaves shimmering brilliantly in the morning sun. Larry pointed out turtles here and there, hovering near the surface – I spotted a few turtle noses before they disappeared. We’d passed the islands and come into the big open area where the yellow water lilies, years past, have grown abundantly. The lilies were growing well too, but so far only a few leaves stuck up above the water. With the vegetation not so thick, the canoe sliced through the water with ease. I spotted another Canada goose standing on a muskrat lodge behind a wall of rushes and cattails.

As we went along through the lily patch, I looked down into the water. “A fish! I saw a fish! A big one!” I was just so thrilled to have actually seen a fish.

Larry identified the fish, “Northern pike”.

We neared the trees in which an eagle sat; I think it was a different eagle because it had a white head. As always, I delighted in the snags sticking out of the water. We saw a few muskrat houses but not as many as Larry would hope to see. The bluff closer to us was greener than I first thought. Across the marsh a little ways, I spied another bald eagle perched in a tree. Larry took us beyond the lily patch a ways before turning the canoe around to start making our way back.

Back in the lily patch, “Is that two turtles ahead to your left?” asked Larry. I scanned the water ahead, not seeing anything that could be a turtle or two. But then I saw it, with further guidance from Larry. They looked like a rock or stump at first.

“Yes, there are two turtles together, mating. Big turtles!”

“Blanding’s turtles,” Larry responded. He eased the canoe up alongside them. Unlike the other turtles we’d seen, these didn’t immediately disappear under the water as we neared. Larry put his paddle down and reached his hand into the water to grab the turtles.

“Sorry guys for interrupting you.” Larry apologized to the turtles as he pulled them out of the water and apart, holding one in each hand. I turned around to take a look at the turtles. He held them so they were facing me but angled their bodies downward encouraging them to stick their heads out. Their tell-tale yellow necks were clearly visible. Hank looked at them eagerly, hoping they were something for him. Larry scrutinized their shells. (Larry is a scientist, former employee of the DNR and knows how to properly handle turtles; please, do not pick turtles up or separate mating pairs. He only disturbed them to further teach me about the turtles to aid in my ability to write about them.)

“This one’s been marked. I think its Pappas.” He held it up, shell facing me. “Can you get a picture of the mark?”

“I think so.” I turned my camera and zoomed in on the shell.

“I need to tell him we saw it.” (This was another reason he disturbed the turtles – Pappas has been studying the turtles in this area.)After I took a few photos, Larry gently released the turtles into the water. Hank was disappointed they weren’t for him.

We continued across the lily patch but not heading the way we came. Instead we headed for the other channel on the other side of the cattails and rushes. Larry spotted a lone swan over there that piqued his interest. He eased the canoe closer and closer, pushing through the vegetation, seeing how close we could get to the swan before it had enough. “He’s getting a little agitated, “remarked Larry, continuing to move closer. “I’m going to get close enough to get him to fly so you can get a photo of him taking off.” He moved the canoe closer yet; I had my camera at the ready. The heavenly bird turned around, with wings flapping, running on the water, splashing, it glided into the air – gracefully transitioning from walking on water to gliding in the air. I took three photos of the process but unfortunately they’re all a bit out of focus. The white feathers of a swan are dazzling – like they’re glowing. Its head was stained orange red from pulling up vegetation from under the water. The swan was gone, but I think he landed again not too far up the lake. (Again, our intrusion was minimal; we didn’t completely chase the bird away and it was for educating purposes. Larry and I are very careful to not disturb the animals too much that they’re completely disrupted. We both have the utmost respect and love for these creatures.) A pair of eagles sat side by side in a tree some distance away from us.

Soon my attention was pulled to the vegetation under the water, curled water lily leaves, long stalks shooting up from them with a ball at the top that in a week or two would open into yellow blossoms. The shapes and patterns of the various plants form a wonderful mosaic beneath the water surface. Larry continued to glide the canoe along not having to paddle too much. Trees grew on narrow islands on either side of us. Larry said, “More of them have senesced. [Due to stress].” A little kingbird perched on a branch of one of the trees that may not be alive. It flitted away as we got close. We came to the spot where we’ve seen a muskrat a few times, we didn’t see any this time. I was a bit disappointed. The channel bent sharply to the left. We rounded the bend. The bridge was ahead of us. I’m always sad to return to the bridge. However, instead of landing right away, Larry carefully steered the canoe under the bridge. We didn’t go down Schmoker’s though. He turned the canoe around before we got to the willow leaning over the channel. We completed our canoe outing in an hour. I was thankful for the chance to get out in the canoe again but sad to leave the water.

Shared Explorations (Part IV)

We stood up and walked back to the steps going up to the door and walked up them. I wanted to open the door to look in, but Jesse was a little hesitant to open it. There was an odd shaped hole in the door just below and several inches over from where a door handle should have been. The door was just simply boards nailed together, which was probably what intrigued me. Jesse cautiously pushed it open. There was a doorway leading into another room. We couldn’t see into the other room very well but by what we could see it was also littered with debris and trash, at least two pop bottles. The outside door opened on to what could have been a porch – its construction seemed more simplistic than the other room. Another wooden door stood open at the opposite end; most likely it led into the rest of the house that is now almost completely collapsed. We walked back down the steps and back around the north side, taking note of the red brick chimney on the outside of the north wall. The chimney looked to be in fairly good condition yet. The roof on this section was different, it was covered in tin. The rest of the house’s roof had wooden shingles. We continued walking, past the north side to the west side which was different from the porch like section. This had the white siding like the east end. Only a small part of the west wall was still standing, the inner wall dividing the sections of the house was exposed. It had been two storied but it was hard to make anything out about the lay out from the pile of rubble. Boards lay in rows on the ground beside the frame of the house – either the roof beams or the framing for the wall. A tree grew quite close to the remaining wall on the west side. Fallen branches lay strewn on some of the rubble. Jesse and I walked cautiously around the boards lying on the ground, walking along the west side. Jesse wondered about the age of the trees growing so close to the house, doubting they had grown there before the house was abandoned.

We were enthralled by a large patch of ferns, southwest of the house. Their light green color, gave the patch a fairy like feel. Jesse loves ferns so he also paused to marvel at them when I paused to try to capture their loveliness with my camera. I love their fiddle head tips that were still unfurling. We stepped daintily through the ferns, still watching our steps. We had moved several feet away from the wall of the house, partly for safety reasons and partly to revel in the ferns. We’d come to the southwest corner. The stone or brick foundation beneath the wall was crumbling. How long could the south wall keep from collapsing? A red brick chimney stood in the middle of the south wall too.

Jesse commented, “This house has lots of chimneys.”

Some plants along the south side drew our attention away from the house momentarily, wide, green blades, like grass but much bigger – tiger lilies perhaps? We also found bone lying on the leaf litter; a deer leg – the entire thing, shoulder, upper leg and lower leg. We stepped over fallen branches and through brambles getting several yards away from the house, allowing us a better view of the whole south side. The southwest section stood out further from the southeast section. A doorway stood near the east section, in the corner of the west section. I’m not sure why, perhaps it was the sunlight, but the view from the south it looked a little less sad than the east side. We spent twice as long looking at the house than we did the barn – perhaps because we were going all the way around it and having to peek in without stepping inside.

We were done exploring all we had come to explore for the day. So we headed back along the grass driveway. We could see Goose Lake off to the east beyond a line of trees. The tall mullein plants, here and there on the prairie, fascinated us. As we walked past some trees by the barn, we found a deer leg, some of the fur still on, in a tree, a little higher than my head. It bothered Jesse; he wondered how a deer leg would end up in the tree – thinking maybe an eagle did it. It was a longer walk back to the jeep since the house is quite a distance from the barn. Before we got into the jeep, we each plucked a couple of ticks off our clothing – we both find ticks to be nasty; I can handle insects and spiders but I really do not like ticks. Jesse found two more ticks crawling on his pant legs as we drove back to Highway 84 and turned south, he threw them out the window. The thing about finding ticks on yourself is than you become paranoid that there are more and sometimes there are. On 84, we pulled into the graveled parking space of the canoe landing by the bridge. “I always like to stop at the bridge each time I come and take a picture,” I explained to Jesse.

“Ok, I’m going to wait here.”

The water was high by the looks and very open, the plants along the edge and growing in the water were only just beginning to grow and green up. I was back in the jeep in a few moments after walking on the rocks under the bridge to have a look down Schmoker’s channel. Then we continued on our way, along 84, north on 62 very briefly to 14.

We stopped in at Larry’s to visit with him a little bit. He offered us water, which was quite refreshing after our exploration. Since it was such a nice day we sat outside. We told Larry where all we’d gone and explored that afternoon. We talked about the box car, curious about how it got there. Larry said, “Wayne Hammer would know.” We also told him about the vulture flying out of the abandoned house. He explained that vultures like to nest in old, abandoned houses. Jesse and I also told him about the deer leg in the tree. He said an eagle wouldn’t have put it there. After chatting awhile about other things, Jesse said it was time to go. Once back at Jesse’s house, we both changed our clothes and checked ourselves for more ticks. I combed through my hair. Jesse had found five or six on him. I found one crawling on the floor when I changed clothes; I flushed it. I think there had been three on me. Thankfully neither of us had any attached.  We did not need that sort of souvenir from our explorations.

Shared Exploration (Part III)

“Next, I’ll show you the old box car. It’s over this way.” I explained. We walked westward.

We paused to admire a large, lone oak tree standing a little distance away from the barn. It was a grand tree, branches reaching for the sky. The green grass was fairly lush on this side of the barn though still patchy in some spots, yet long for April. We looked at the wooden roof peak as we passed, I had mistaken it as part of the barn when I was here with Larry but asked Jesse, “Do you think that was part of the barn?”

“No, it was from an entirely different building.” Maybe it had been a chicken coop. Every farm use to have chickens. Further along, we passed an old wooden fence post standing in the ground, most of its top weathered and rotted away. The box car is visible from a ways off. While I paused to take some photos of various things that caught my attention, Jesse continued on toward the box car, taking the lead. A quick pace allowed me to catch up to him before he reached the box car. After observing the outside structure of it intently, he agreed that it had to be a box car. I encouraged him to look inside, on the walls, pointing out the names of grains on the walls at differing heights – I think he found it intriguing as I did. He explained that oats are much lighter than rye which is why the mark for oats is near the top and rye is closer to the bottom.

“I wonder how it ended up here.” Jesse said. How it came to be here and what it was used for once it got here was also on my mind. It sat a ways away from the other buildings, all of which were in various states of ruin. The box car was in fact the most pristine of all the human structures on this farmstead.

Again, we were on the move in only a few minutes, continuing our exploration. We headed back eastward but not toward the barn, rather toward the dilapidated house. Larry and I hadn’t checked out the house either, so I was eager to do that with Jesse too.

As we approached the house, I realized it was in much worse shape than I had thought. One section of it had fallen down completely. The roof over that section had probably caved in first bringing the two walls with it. Thin but tall trees grew all around the house. If you cored the oldest, biggest tree, you’d probably come close to how long ago the house has been abandoned. We came upon it from what was most likely the back side of it. We weaved around the trees, walking along the north side of it, but several yards away. Jesse walked ahead of me. We approached it with caution, our steps unhurried, perhaps with a dash of fear from our imaginations working over time.

Jesse asked, “What if there’s a body in there?” perhaps pretending to be more fearful than he was to give me a hard time. Though if his fear was real, I wouldn’t have judged him – after all discovering a body would be quite alarming and I certainly would be scared.

However, I very much doubted there was a body inside unless it was an animal, “Why would there be a body in there? I doubt there is.” I responded.

Part of the northeast side of the house didn’t match the rest of the house in looks, most likely an addition to the original house. It had red wooden siding, two windows and a chimney. (Or perhaps this was the original part of the house and the other part was an addition.) Though decaying it wasn’t yet falling down and wasn’t in terribly bad shape yet. As we drew nearer to the house, Jesse ahead of me, a vulture flew out startling us both but more so Jesse because he had been looking that direction and actually saw the bird better than I did. I saw it more out of the corner of my eye and hadn’t actually seen where the bird had come from.

“Was that a vulture? Was it in the house?” I asked.

“Yes, it was in the house. Why was it in the house? I’m scared, Babe,” he joked. Why was it in the house? It’s really big to be in the house.”

“I don’t know. I didn’t know vultures went in to old, abandoned houses.”

He was a little less eager and far more hesitant to look into the house now. I wasn’t slowed down in my resolve to look inside the house – I admit I did have a tinge of fear, though I knew there was probably nothing.

The rest of the house was white, or rather had been white before the paint faded and wore off to gray. We had rounded the northeast corner of the decaying house. I had to pause in writing before I described the east side of the house because I was about to describe it in a way that would have given the impression that it was scary and haunted, which isn’t true. I want to be careful not to describe it in such a way; it would be unfair to the memory of the house. The only thing scary was the vulture, which was more startling than scary, and our own imaginings. It looked sad and dejected, like a puppy having been beaten and locked away in a pound, no longer wanted. Cinderella after her stepsisters tore her dress in pieces, sitting in the dirt, shoulders stooped and bare, pieces of her dress hanging at unnatural angles, tear stained and dirt smeared face, totally defeated yet not quite ready to give in completely. The windows were glass-less, the glass long ago shattered with no memory of it remaining, the wooden frames stood empty, gaping wounds. It looked like there had been a third window but for whatever reason was covered up with wood, like a hastily bandaged wound. Pieces of the siding had fallen off in a few places, leaving black scars. The door was wood too, not like a regular house door but rather like an old barn door. The cement stoop in front of the door was cracked in several places and starting to crumble. The steps going up to it were in similar condition.  Red brick chimney stuck up above the roof near the east peak. There was a cellar under this part of the house. The doors over the steps leading down into the cellar from the outside were missing, long since broken off. We walked toward the cellar to check that out first. That’s where the vulture had been.

At some point I had pushed up my sleeves again because the walking made me hot. As we walked toward the cellar entrance a beetle landed on my arm. Rather than freaking out or being bothered by it, I was fascinated and asked Jesse to take a picture of it, carefully handing him my camera. We’d both seen this species of beetle before but neither of us knew what it was. Jesse thought maybe it was a lightning bug. (It’s been awhile since my intro to entomology class and the beetle order, Coleoptera is huge and without a better (closer up) photo or studying the specimen closely, I can’t identify it to family. However, looking through my beetle field guide, it could be in the narrow-waisted bark beetle family (Salpingidae) of the genus python, soldier beetle family (Cantharidae) of the genus cantharis or podabrus, blister beetle family (Meloidae) a nuttail blister beetle, or the lightning bug family (Lampyridae). That’s a lot of possibilities, I know, but considering the sheer number of beetle families, narrowing it down to four families is pretty good. Though I could be totally wrong, it could be another family entirely. But it has the body shape similar to the ones I listed.) The beetle had a black body with some orange /yellow on its neck. Jesse was only able to take a couple of photos before it flew away.

A vole scampered out from the cellar steps as we approached, immediately disappearing in the plants creeping in on the house. Before crouching down to take a look into the cellar, I walked a few steps beyond it to take a peek around the southeast corner. Again, the siding didn’t match the rest of the house but was red like the north side. There was a double window, also without its glass covering. It looked like there had been more to the house here, or at very least a porch. – there was a wide overhang of roof (perhaps five or six feet) that now hung down, falling off slowly, just bare boards, no shingles left. There was an open doorway next to the window, mostly blocked from my view by the falling down roof. A pile of thin, rotting boards lay scattered about on the ground, along with sheets of plastic, the kind to hold in insulation. There also appeared to be remnants of cement covered in leaves and tufts of green, colonizing plants.

I moved back by the cellar entrance close to Jesse. Looking up at the upstairs window, all I could see was the chimney which appeared to stand quite close to the window. There were six panes on the top half of the window, it may have been a twelve paned window. We crouched down together to look down in the cellar; we didn’t go in, the degree of decay rendered the structure unsafe. I did creep down one of the steps though to get a better look. It was very dark inside. The whole floor, of what we could see, was completely covered in junk. We were both a bit surprised there was so much stuff down there.  An old wooden and canvas chair that folds up, a broken basket, a wooden window frame, a vehicle tire, a plastic plant pot, landscaping bricks, pieces of wood, rusty metal pieces, rusty metal pipes, a fuel barrel or heater/boiler of some sort, white foam chunks. No bodies though.

Shared Exploration (Part II)

I turned the jeep around and headed back up the sand lane to 84 and continued south, then turned left on to Pritchard’s road. I told Jesse as we drove that the prairie on our right was restored prairie – predominately little bluestem. But where we were going wasn’t restored but just taken out of production, retired from farming and left to do its own thing. I accidentally drove past the grass driveway to the ruins. I forgot exactly where it was until I was already past it. So I continued on to Goose Landing, the parking spot being a better place to turn around than the road. Jesse was surprised it was completely empty. I was too given how full West Newton was and how busy it had been in the winter.

I remarked, “It was really busy for ice fishing.” And added, “This was dredged last summer.”

Again, I didn’t stop driving but turned the jeep around and pulled back on to the road, driving back the way we’d come. Passing some houses, mostly on our right, a few were in the woods on our left. We went around a bend and the left side opened up to flat prairie, the right side opened up into rolling prairie. Then there was a big cluster of red pine trees. Just a little beyond the red pines was the grassy driveway I was looking for. I pulled into the driveway a little ways so the jeep was off the road. We stepped out of the jeep to walk the rest of the way. The little lane was quite narrow; it was only wide enough for one vehicle. This land is now owned by the Nature Conservancy. A sign stands guard saying motorized vehicles are prohibited.

We walked near the pines. There were a few other, small trees along the outside. Although we admired the red pines we talked about the importance of preserving the prairie – a special ecosystem. We hadn’t walked very far before we spotted an animal skull and vertebrae resting on leaves under the branches of a small tree; a couple of leaves lay across it here and there. Of course, we had to get a closer look at it which meant crouching under the branches, snapping some and crunching on leaves. Neither one of us were sure what it was, both lacking in the knowledge of how to identify animals by their skeleton or skull – something I should probably learn. However, we guessed it was most likely a deer. We only lingered a moment before we untangled ourselves from the branches and returned to the grassy lane. The grass driveway wasn’t lush but patchy green with new blades of grass poking up through the brown dead grass. We continued our walk, passing the hill on our right that Larry and I had rested upon to get out of the wind back in March. On our left, the trees gave way to the prairie. Jesse admired the amber grass, “What is it?” he asked.

“Little bluestem,” I replied, “It’s an awesome looking plant.” We continued walking. I was getting hot and a little sweaty from the walk but didn’t want to take off my long sleeve shirt because it was tick season.

Jesse mock whined, “How far is it? Will we be there soon? We’ve been walking for awhile.”

“I guess it is further in than I thought but I think we’re almost there.” We kept walking. I pushed my sleeves up but then remembering the threat of ticks pulled them back down again a moment later.

Noticing a sparrow on the branch of a small oak tree, Jesse asked, “Do sparrows sing?”

“Yes, they sing. There are song sparrows too.” (There were birds singing but I couldn’t identify them.) White flowers growing mostly in the middle of the driveway caught my attention. They grew on a long whitish, green stem. Alternating green leaves which were oblong. The flowers grew in a cluster on the top of the stem. We didn’t know the name of the flowers. (I looked them up later and I’m pretty sure they’re hoary alyssum, which is a non native, a European import and grows in disturbed sites.) We admired a few large oak trees. Once we rounded the trees, there was the stone wall of the old barn, still some yards away. I was really eager to show Jesse the remains of the stone barn and the other buildings. The grass around the barn was quite tall already, so we paused to tuck our pant legs into our socks hoping to deter ticks – it looked silly but we didn’t care.

When Larry and I explored the former farmstead in March we didn’t get up close to the remains of the barn though I had desired to, I had wanted to walk in it, touch the stones – just feel it. Now with Jesse I had the opportunity to do so, he also wanted to get up close to the crumbling stone walls. Jesse and I both have explorer spirits in us, minus the desire to claim, conquer, and exploit what we discover, but the desire to explore, to experience and learn and, at least for me, to step outside myself and connect with the timeless wonder of nature and experience the divine. We approached it from the northeast corner. The two stone side walls were mostly intact as was the north end which looked to have a large doorway. I peered into a hole in the wall which at one point held a window – I was trying to imagine what I’d see peeking into the window when the barn was new or at the very least still whole and in use. Jesse moved on ahead of me along the east side wall. I placed my hand on the stone in the window space – it was cool to the touch. Following Jesse to the southeast corner, we paused to check out the silo, just a ring and a hole. Brambles grew in the silo pit. Someone mistook the pit for a trash bin, we saw several broken old toys down in there, mostly from the mid – 1980s to mid – 1990s. A standard brown rubber bear, sitting up with a red bow painted on – it seemed like every household with kids in the 80s and 90s had one of these, both of our families did. Another very standard toy of that time, a small, hard plastic airplane. It’s wheels were made out of a different grade of plastic – my brothers had a few of these. I can only remember green and blue ones but I’m sure they came in more colors. There were a few other things as well. The bear was still in good condition. Jesse asked, “Do you want to take it home?” mostly joking. I often have nieces and nephews at my house.

After considering it for a moment, I replied, “No, I won’t take it home.” I had been standing on the edge of the ring, looking down into the hole. Jesse asked what the brambles were called – I told him I wasn’t sure what species it was but I took a picture of it so I could have it identified by someone who knows plants. He moved on first, walking along the south end of the barn, examining what was left of the south wall. I also left the silo ring; however, I went at a slower pace, pausing first to take in the end of the east wall. I contemplated and was delighted by the varying textures and colors of the stones in the structure. Some kind of cement like mortar held the stones in place. A wooden beam stuck out the end a couple feet above ground level which filled me with curiosity as to its role in forming the structure. Jesse stood several feet away from me, lost in his own thoughts, wonderings, and examining the remains of the barn. I loved the earth tones of the wall, it was like looking at a cutaway of the side of a bluff with different layers and colors, with only the beam to give away the fact it wasn’t a bluff face I was looking at. The entire south wall lay on the ground, a pile of rocks with grass and brambles starting to grow on it, with a nice cover of leaves here and there. On top of the pile of stones was a piece of an old wooden beam. I joined Jesse where he stood. We both speculated the purpose of the wooden beam at the end of each wall. Jesse thought perhaps it was to attach a wooden wall on the south end to the stone walls except that there was the remains of another stone wall lying on the ground. Perhaps to attach a wooden door to the structure? The stone walls weren’t very tall, maybe eight – nine feet. There probably had been a loft with wooden floor and walls for holding hay. What was left of the roof was leaning on the outside of the west wall, wood decaying. The interior walls seemed to have been covered in some sort of plaster, which had sloughed off in some places. We stood looking into what remained of the barn. Several young maples trees of various size and age were growing there. The floor was covered in grass that was becoming lush in the mid spring warm up. A few brambles grew near the south end. A tree grew very close to the doorway on the north end. A few different pieces of metal, sheets and pipes, rusted with time lay strewn here and there.

Imagining the barn in its former glory, I remarked, “This would have been the main barn used for housing animals. They probably milked cows in here.” I pictured piles of hay, cows tied up on one side, horses in stalls on the other. Dimly lit, dark; not bright like it was today. The air would be filled with the sweet smell of hay, musty smell of straw, rich smell of manure, mingled with the stale breath of animals. Spider webs would dangle from the nooks and crannies of the ceiling, glittering like precious stones in shafts of sunlight filtering through the dim and dusty windows. That same sunlight would illuminate the dust particles floating through the air. Cows would munch contentedly on hay and grain, and then chew their cud. A cat or two would patrol the place keeping the rodent population to a minimum, and perhaps be rewarded with a little fresh milk when milking time rolled around, early in the morning and late afternoon.

Jesse added, “Yeah, there’s a faint indent where a gutter could have been.” Once he pointed it out, I saw it too. I wondered about the history of the farm – who were the people who lived here? How had they seen the land? How had they experienced this place? There were still some wooden frames in the windows, but if there ever had been glass in them, it was long gone. I walked into the barn, not quite down the whole length of it but nearly; I wanted to feel it, to experience it, to try to get a glimpse of the life it had had – to be transported back in time. My imagination and experiences of other barns would have to suffice. Jesse remained at the south end while I was exploring the interior. All these thoughts and musings, and exploration through time took less than ten minutes though it had felt longer. I rejoined Jesse at the southern end, we then moved on from the barn to explore more of the abandoned farmstead.

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.”

Canoeing in the Fog

March 28, 2017

The fog was quite thick, but despite the foggy morning and the temperature around twenty eight degrees, Larry and I decided we’d take the canoe out. We thought the fog would burn off quickly since the sun was shining brightly but it didn’t burn off until 10:30 am or so. We put the canoe in on McCarthy just off the bridge around 8:00 am. We brought Hank with us. Larry paddled the canoe up McCarthy following our route from last fall. Ducks flew away as we drew near; Larry identified mallards, buffleheads, ring necks, northern shovelers and teal. Canada geese squawked noisily when we drew close to them. The fog was so thick we had very little visibility; we couldn’t see anything beyond the trees lining the water on either side. The trees themselves were nothing more than just faint pencil drawings. Though too foggy to take pictures of the birds (the camera wasn’t focusing) it was quite lovely and mystical. The fog isolated us from everything else, compounding the feeling of serenity canoeing brings. I enjoyed our solitude. The fog seemed to enhance the bird calls; since we couldn’t see them very well, my hearing stepped up a notch – maybe the fog was trapping in the sound. Larry spotted a kingfisher; I didn’t see it but only heard it. The beauty of the water and the trees in the fog was breathtaking, but my head and eyes began to hurt from the strain of trying to see through the fog.

As we drew closer to the trees they came more into focus. The still nude trees were reflected in the water, their reflections clearer than they. We passed the first island of trees. On our right was a tree gnawed on by a beaver. The rushes and cattails were golden, no fresh green plants. We glided along it; it was like a dream. We glided past the last island; I looked for muskrats as we passed. There were pairs of squawking Canada geese that I could just make out. As we neared they began squawking noisily, making quite the fuss. They didn’t fly away immediately but when they finally did Larry said, “Yes, go away. Good riddance.”

I saw a muskrat house tucked behind vegetation. Hopefully it was occupied by a rat. The water lily plants were just beginning to grow – bright green nubs sticking out of the mud at the bottom, the leaves starting to unfurl. Larry was a little surprised they were popping up already. Larry steered the canoe to a patch of vegetation near the northeast bank that stuck out into the water, where my foot went through the ice this past winter. He pushed the canoe into the vegetation, going over a log. He was looking for a particular muskrat lodge. At first he couldn’t see it; I looked around also, trying to find it. But then Larry spotted it and steered the canoe toward it. We got a little hung up so I had to help steer the canoe and pull it forward. When we were close enough to the lodge, Larry asked me to step out of the canoe and stand on a clump of vegetation. I hesitantly stood up and stepped out on the clump. It shifted a little under my feet; I think perhaps there was a log under it. It was kind of unnerving and yet amazing to be standing on a log and plants in the water. Once I was out of the canoe, Larry pushed it up along the lodge so he could pull out two stakes, each holding a trap. Larry and I were both glad they were empty. Larry was very upset, the trapper was relentless – a long string of swear words were uttered by Larry. He placed the traps into a bucket he had brought along for that purpose and placed it back in the canoe. Then he wiped off the stakes and laid them in the bottom of the canoe. The clump seemed to be moving even more under my feet, I was eager to return to the canoe though I enjoyed the experience. Larry stepped back in to the bow and walked back to his spot in the stern, then he backed up the canoe, pausing for me to step in the bow. I sat down and Larry continued backing up the canoe until we were out of the vegetation. We continued onward into the fog, going further up McCarthy. Logs and stumps stuck up out of the water. We could see the faint outlines of six geese near the vegetation on our left. They began squawking and carrying on but they didn’t fly away. I could hear the haunting call of a sandhill crane somewhere on the marsh. I admired the large stumps as we went past them – what grand trees must have stood upon them! Other than right by the bridge the water was extremely shallow, barely deep enough for the canoe. So we didn’t go much further before Larry said, “Bethany, we’re going to run out of water.” Shorty after he said those words, Larry turned the canoe around. I was sad to be turning around so quickly.

The sun was shining through the fog, well not exactly shining through – it appeared through the fog as a pale, yellow orb. It was not burning the fog very quickly. I was becoming quite cold but I was still enjoying the outing.

We didn’t return the same way, we took the other channel; it was deeper. The trees on our right seemed to rise out of nothing, the edge of the world – everything beyond shrouded in gray. I reveled in the beauty of the pencil drawn trees and their images mirrored in the channel. We seemed to be canoeing into nothingness as well – like we were sailing on the Dawn Treader, nearing the world’s edge. The pale yellow orb was also reflected in the water.

As the channel curved about, Larry said, “There’s either a beaver or muskrat swimming by the trees ahead of us. It looks like a muskrat.” It took a few moments for me to figure out where the muskrat was but once I spotted it I watched it until the small animal disappeared into the vegetation on our right. Since it was still foggy I didn’t bother to try photographing it but enjoyed watching it swim. We drew near to the bridge, I was quite chilled, my feet were just about numb, but I was not ready to be done. So I was very happy when Larry continued to paddle the canoe under the bridge.

The base of a tree on our right had been stripped of bark, grooved with teeth marks. We had entered beaver territory. There were so many beaver scent mounds! I admired the way a tree hung out over the water and the loveliness of its reflection. Last year the scent mounds were mostly near the bridge and there weren’t quite nearly as many. But as we continued down Schmoker’s they seemed to line the channel on either side. There were so many mounds one could almost imagine you could smell the castor as we passed, and perhaps we could. Larry joked, “This is a mound building tribe of beavers!” Indeed! Many trees had been chewed on by beavers. I was delighted to see the beaver signs and by the thought that one could be nearby.  As we passed the lodge, I hoped we’d see one but they didn’t make an appearance. I admired the trees along the bank to our left as we went down the channel. The fog was still thick – making it hard to pick out all the landmarks.

Soon we were near the first beaver dam. It was in need of some repair. A tree stood to the right side of the channel a few feet down from the dam. A top most branch leaned out over the water. Sitting on the branch, I could just make out the outline of a bald eagle; another faded pencil drawing. I watched it for a few moments as we drew near, a bit surprised the majestic bid didn’t fly away at our approach.

We’d come to the side channel Larry and I used last May to get out on Goose Lake. A bigger log lay across the opening this time. Suddenly I saw a mink swim across the mouth of the side channel my heart leapt at the sight of the small predator. I pointed it out to Larry.

“Yeah, I see it. A mink.” I was lost in watching it swim, such grace. I enjoyed seeing the mink. I kept my eyes on it until it disappeared into some vegetation only a moment later. Larry stopped paddling so we could linger there. He said, “It might come out again.” But after waiting quietly for a few minutes, it didn’t reappear. Larry skillfully turned the canoe around bumping into a submerged log. I was disappointed to be heading back already despite being chilled.

The fog didn’t seem to be quite as thick but there was still very little visibility – the world around us was still very much shrouded in gray. As we passed by the big beaver lodge, I again studied it carefully just in case a beaver was sitting there. Were the beavers hanging out in there? A whole family even? Even the nearby trees appeared hazy and faded in the fog. A state game refuge sign was in the middle of the channel, mostly submerged in the water. The bridge drew near, there appeared to be nothing beyond the bridge – it was completely gray. We went under the bridge and landed the canoe. Although I had been a bit disappointed the fog didn’t burn off while we were canoeing, it gave a new perspective to the marsh and channel – I experienced it in a new way; and of course it was very beautiful and had a mystical feel. Though nothing was green yet, spring had arrived to the marsh, the birds I could hear but couldn’t see sang of spring. The whole thing was quite enchanting.

As we left the marsh and prairie behind us, Larry and I both were looking forward to another outing.

Up and Down Sand Dunes

March 22, 2017

Larry and I were itching to go canoeing, there had been several good days for it but we weren’t able to get together on those days. This morning was cutting it close on temperature; it was around twenty eight degrees. Larry said, “It’s a little too cold for canoeing this morning; there’ll be some ice.” So instead of going canoeing we headed down Highway 84, turning off for West Newton. Just before West Newton, Larry pulled off on to the side of the road.

We stepped out of the truck; Larry came around to my side of the truck to let Hank out. We walked down into the ditch, ducked under the low branches of trees and stepped out on to the rolling prairie. Last time we walked a fairly flat section of the sand prairie; today we traversed the sand dunes, some as tall as thirty feet, though one seemed taller than that. We passed some gopher mounds, decent piles of sand resting on top of the grass. As always, Hank ran ahead and went this way and that way, exploring at top speed. The prairie grasses here didn’t seem quite as thick though the little bluestem was about knee height. (It never ceases to amaze me how vast the prairie is – is it really so big or does it only feel that way because it’s empty, there’s no buildings, very few trees, nothing to break up the horizon?)

It started out as gentle inclines but the further we walked the larger the dunes became. There was a wall of trees to the left and right of us and behind us but it was completely open ahead of us. Ahead, far off in the distance were bluffs, hemming in the prairie. We veered to our left. It didn’t take long before I was winded and breathing heavily – I guess I need to walk more, especially uphill. Up and down and back up we went, again and again. There were a few trees here and there dotting the prairie, tiny oak, cedars and pine trees. Many of the little pine trees had been cut down, lying in little piles here and there. Larry explained they were being cut to keep the trees from taking over.

We approached the pine and cedar wall on our left. Hank sniffed around at the bases of a few of the trees. At the tree line, Larry turned right, walking along the tree line. I followed behind, even fell behind a ways every now and then. We continued climbing up and down the dunes. It seemed like we’d been walking a long time. At the top of a dune, I had paused to take in the landscape, turning every direction. The prairie stretched far into the south and west. Turning east, the line of trees we’d ducked through to get to the prairie seemed a long way off. Far in the distance to the northeast, I could see the smoke stacks of the Alma power plant. I also took in the texture of the dunes, the depressions, pockets between each rising dune. As we stood there on top of a dune, looking east, Larry explained how the encroaching trees made things difficult for nesting turtles by creating a barrier that’s hard to penetrate and the trees provide a place for predators to sit and wait. We only paused for a moment before we continued walking. Larry turned to the right, leading us north, along the top of a dune. We passed along a small tree broken off, bark rubbed away. Larry made a comment about a buck really going at it, rubbing it with its head. I continued to marvel at the roll of the dunes and in the largeness of the prairie as we walked along. It had a way of making me feel quite small, and very much out of shape as I breathlessly and wearily trailed behind Larry, traversing only a small fraction of it. – Up, up the side of the dune, almost stumbling and crawling my way up, then down the other side, still stumbling but at a faster pace. Some of the dunes seemed much taller than their alleged thirty feet height. If the walk was any effort for Larry, it didn’t show. Hank seemed incapable of weariness as he bounded up and down the dunes at a sprint, always running; looking for sticks, hoping Larry will throw one for him.

We came to a much bigger depression between dunes, more like a valley than a pocket. It was filled with short little sumac, growing in a thick patch, grazed heavily by the deer. There were a few short, rounded cedar trees along the edges of the sumac and a few milk weed plants. We passed through the sumac and climbed up the next dune – again stopping for just a moment to admire the view. The rolling dunes ahead seemed to match the shape of the distant bluffs, only much smaller in scale. The sight was incredibly beautiful. We followed along the ridge to an active sand dune (We’d turned to our left again, heading westward), the soft sand was mostly exposed, very little vegetation grew on it, clumps of grass here and there. It was like a sand dune on a beach, reminding me of a scene from Anne of Green Gables when she’s walking along the shore. I had the urge to lie down on the sand, to feel it, let it run through my fingers. The grain was quite fine, making me think it is a soft sand rather than a course sand. Larry talked about the active sand dunes before we moved on. He also said, indicating a little further west, “This is a good spot to see pasque flowers in bloom.” I have yet to see a pasque flower but I hoped I’d see one in the coming weeks.

We walked down the dune, going westward, and then back up another. We paused for a moment on top of the dune, once again taking in the landscape, turning to look in every direction. There were a few cedar trees here and there. One stood on my right, as I faced west, a little down the slope from where I stood. On the other side, to the north of the cedar was the biggest dune we’d come to yet. Larry continued on ahead of me up the large dune, I turned to follow. He was already close to the top of the dune when I started hiking up it; he looked so tiny, dwarfed by the dune. It was the steepest climb yet, it felt like I could barely breathe by the time I reached the top – I’m so out of shape! But the view from on top of the dune was even more stunning, with the higher elevation. The prairie felt much bigger; I felt so small. How much larger would it feel if it was treeless like Larry would prefer it to be? That would have been a lot of hollows to search for lost cattle. How had the first settlers felt when they arrived here? To the west, I could just make out the road, a little sliver cutting through the prairie.

I looked at our shadows, ours and the dune’s, in the hollow – we looked so tiny compared to it all. There was a cluster of oak trees on the eastern slope of the dune. Larry led us downward through the trees. (We heard two flocks of swans flying overhead, heard them before we saw them.) Larry thought he heard a meadow lark. We were now heading eastward, making our way back to the truck. I paused to look at a skull, probably of a deer, lying in the grass. We passed a cedar tree, walked by a large patch of fox tail grass.

Just before the wall of trees we paused by the gopher mounds. Larry said something about how I could see how important they were to a place like this. Then we ducked under the branches, climbed up the ditch, and crawled back into the truck. I was a little surprised we’d only been walking for forty five minutes. We continued down the road to Halfmoon Landing. I tried sneaking through the trees there to look at the ducks but despite my best efforts I still made too much noise and scared them away. They were mostly mallards, but there was a ring necked duck across the water and further up the other direction a few wood ducks with the mallards. I returned to Larry, who stayed by the truck and then we left the sand prairie.