December 1, 2017
The morning was a little colder than we had anticipated the other day when we made our plans to get the canoe out this morning. However, it was forecasted to be a nice day. I was excited we were going to canoe on December first. I can’t remember what the temperature was when we set out but I think it was twenty eight degrees with the promise it would warm to almost forty degrees today. I waited until I arrived at Larry’s to add my layers. As I pulled my coveralls on, Larry laughingly asked, “Will you be able to move?”
“Yeah, I can still move but it will take more effort.” We headed out. Larry drove slowly along Highway 84, observing the marsh areas and the rolling prairie. I took in the landscape as we drove to Halfmoon Landing. Larry backed the truck up close to the narrow foot path leading to the water. I helped him unload the canoe and then patiently waited while he moved the truck. Hank explored with his nose to the ground traveling at a fast pace, zigzagging here and there. We carried the canoe to the water and set it in. A thin layer of ice topped the water.
“I thought this would be more open,” commented Larry. “We’ll just have to push through.”
I didn’t mind the ice at all. I found it thrilling that we’d be canoeing through ice; a whole new experience for me. I was excited for the adventure. I stepped into the canoe first. Then Hank leaped in, rocking it in the process. Last, Larry stepped in. He didn’t even bother handing me the other paddle. Expertly he pushed the canoe forward. A loud screeching noise echoed around the channel as the canoe collided with the ice and then pressed into it, not quite as cringingly as nails on a chalkboard but close to that pitch. The ice cracked with a loud but dull sound. With that kind of noise I’m not sure we had any hope of seeing an aquatic mammal. The ice broke into rectangular tile pieces. Sitting in the bow, I could feel the canoe breaking the ice. I don’t know which adjective to use to describe the way I felt – thrilled, elated, child-like glee. There’s just something about taking a canoe through ice that makes it adventurous and therefore awe-inspiring. Of course there is an element of danger in taking a canoe through ice – but not here, today. This ice was thin, broke easily and the current was slow – and Larry knew what he was doing. There was no danger for us.
Being December, the landscape was subdued; various shades of gray and brown, with a brush of white from the morning frost and a bit of blue sky reflecting in the water, but not brilliant blue because of mostly cloudy skies. The ice gave way to open water near the large beaver lodge situated on a side channel flowing to the Mississippi River. Now that we were in open, ice free water the canoe glided easily and quietly along. On the edges of the open channel reflections of trees were broken by spider web cracks in the ice. There was some gold left in the long grasses on the bank. The now naked trees, the fading grass, and lack of bird song lent to the appearance of barrenness. And yet there was beauty in the starkness. The dusting of frost highlighted the beauty. I said a silent hello to the willow tree that touches my heart like a dear friend. It glowed in the little bit of sunshine glimmering through the clouds. The snags mostly immersed in the water were another source of beauty and delight. I took in the many beaver scent mounds on the opposite bank, I could see at least ten. Seeing all those scent mounds thrilled me for it indicated the presence of resident beavers. Perhaps if I sat long enough under the willow I would see one of these industrious locals. Four gulls flew overhead, high up in the sky. We passed near the tree with the eagle’s nest as we went around the bend.
The even larger beaver lodge loomed up ahead of us. Oak trees on the hill beyond, still held on to their russet leaves. In this part of the channel there wasn’t any ice on the water at all. The beauty of Halfmoon, the seclusion, and floating on the water was so relaxing and refreshing. I cherished this outing, knowing that it would be a few months before we’d take the canoe out again. I took in the loveliness of the snags in the water, each having a different character, though their branches all seemed to remind me of bones. Three branches on one snag were thin and curved just a little, reaching upwards like the bones of fingers, from a hand reaching out of the water perhaps trying to grasp something, anything on the shore. Another was a fallen antler. The golden cattails curving at the top, tipped with dark brown, in thickets, added contrast and texture to the painting, touched with frost – yes, there’s beauty here.
We drew nearer and nearer to the grand beaver lodge. I scanned it as we approached, as silently as a canoe can, searching ever hopeful for a sight of a beaver. But alas, there wasn’t an animal to be seen on or near the lodge. I marveled at the size of the wood cache, which was the best way to tell this lodge is occupied. Larry was also awed by the size of the wood cache.
“That’s a big wood cache,” I marveled.
“Yeah. I’ve never seen one so big. Makes you wonder if the beaver know something about the severity of the coming winter that we don’t,” replied Larry. (Note: as it turned out the winter of 2017 – 2018 was especially long.)
We could clearly see fresh cuts on the ends of the branches in the pile. The cache extended into the channel many yards, almost blocking it. It looked almost like a dam but it wasn’t tightly woven together and packed with mud. It was quite impressive. Larry steered the canoe around the end of it. Just beyond the cache, Larry said, “Kingfisher over there on the right.” It only took me a moment to spot the bird perched atop a snag in the water. White breast toward us, cape tied across his neck, blue grey head turned away. A kingfisher is not a large bird by any means but nor is it small; bigger than a pigeon but smaller than a duck. I watched the kingfisher as we drew closer and closer until suddenly it decided we had come too close, and with great speed it took off, disappearing.
Halfmoon Lake is an odd shape with turns and many outlets; it’s hard to keep track of when we turned. Looking at a map doesn’t help because the map doesn’t show all of the wet areas. We went around the point with the willow, turning right, then the channel curved ever so slightly that when we came upon the beaver lodge we had turned to the left, but with the shape of the channel it was as if we hadn’t turned at all. I could see the top of the stranded boat ahead and a little to the left. We passed a canoe trail sign.
October 11, 2017
With the passing of about two and a half months, Larry and I decided it was time to get out in the canoe together. We had every intention to canoe in August and September but those two months expired quickly and without us paying much attention; being farmers/gardeners with time sensitive tasks, time has a way of slipping by without our noticing until it’s already past. So with very little wind and a break in the rain we headed out this morning. We pulled off Highway 84, alongside the bridge to explore our usual spot of McCarthy and Schmoker’s. The sky was heavily overcast and there was a bit of a chill in the air. I didn’t actually look at the temperature but it probably was around 40 degrees. Before we left Larry’s he said it wasn’t too cold, I mentioned I thought about wearing my insulated boots but he said I wouldn’t need them, I should be just fine. However, it didn’t take very long before I was quite cold, my nose became runny and I wore gloves even while taking photos. As usual we took Hank, the black lab, with us. It was around 8:00 am when we put in. Usually Larry gives me a paddle in case we’d both need to paddle but this time he didn’t. Larry guided the canoe around, back under the bridge we went, heading up McCarthy. While we were still in the truck, Larry said the Mississippi was full enough again it is backing up, raising the water level after last week’s rain. He also told me he went wild ricing on McCarthy with a buddy just for fun – it was a lot of work but they harvested a lot.
There’s a lot of wild rice growing in McCarthy Lake now. It amazes me how filled in it gets. What was open water all the way out to the island in May is now mostly wild rice. There’s only a small pool of open water near the bridge. Larry had to steer the canoe in a very small channel of water that wound through the wild rice. A lot of the rice had fallen down, lying prostrate. There was no green left in the plants – all completely golden brown. Thoughts were far from me, my brain seemed to be temporarily disconnected – I was in full relaxation mood. For the most part we went along in silence. We were somewhat following the route we took in May – but had no choice in where to go because we had to go where the water was. I absentmindedly held wild rice plants away from my face as we slid past them, trying to keep from being slapped in the face. One of the trees on the island was robed in yellow orange leaves. It seemed so still, quiet, I thought.
“It’s quiet, peaceful.”
“No birds. There aren’t any ducks,” he explained. It hadn’t even sunk in that we hadn’t seen or disturbed any ducks so far in until Larry pointed out their absence. Of course, the silence was from the lack of birds. Larry said there haven’t been very many ducks in here this fall. There should have been lots migrating through.
“Why aren’t there ducks?” I asked. He didn’t know the reason. Now that I realized they weren’t here, I felt their absence and was saddened by it. Larry continued to paddle the canoe through the tangle of wild rice plants. Finally, we came to more open water where we came upon the huge lily patch. The lily leaves were now shriveled and beginning to decay. We spotted Canada geese but that was it. We hardly even saw any red wing black birds; I maybe saw one or two.
Larry took the canoe to the far side of the lily patch. He paused, thinking about whether or not we should try to go further – the vegetation was extremely thick ahead. He stood up to get a better view – looking for water. He decided there wasn’t enough water to try to keep going forward. (We’d said at the beginning we’d only go as far up as we could, not wanting to get stuck.) So Larry sat back down and turned the canoe around, a somewhat clumsy action with just one person paddling. We went back across the lily patch but rather going back down the channel we came up on, Larry steered the canoe southwestward to the other channel which took us on the other side of the island. This channel was quite narrow too, also filled in with rice. I could glimpse the top of the bridge in the distance. Some trees were completely naked. One had a few red orange leaves left. There were a few green cattails left. The channel widened a little bit, in most places it was wider than the other channel. We went around the bend and continued under the bridge. Schmoker’s also had a different shape to it than this spring but was less filled in than McCarthy. The trees on either side were stunning in their autumn dress. A few had yellow leaves which contrasted attractively from the dark bark of the trees. We passed the willow tree and went down the channel until it began to turn left. Then Larry turned for me to photograph the duck hunter cabins on the east bank because he liked the look of them reflecting in the water. I was sad that the canoe outing was at an end, I would have liked to keep going down Schmoker’s channel. I hoped we’d get out yet again this autumn.
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.
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.
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.)
“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.
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.
“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.
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.