Tag Archive | Explore Minnesota

Spring on the Prairie

May 4, 2018 

We turned off of Highway 84 on to a very small, minimum maintenance road, actually to say ‘road’ paints the wrong picture, it’s nothing more than a bumpy driveway, and even ‘driveway’ seems a generous description, barely big enough for Larry’s truck. A farm was on our left. The little road went into a grove of trees, privately owned land on either side. The road plunged down a sketchy slope – I’m not sure a vehicle without four wheel drive could have made it. The lane was a tight squeeze. We continued to jostle along the road, over small branches and down and up out of ruts. The lane was sand, not gravel or black top or even dirt, sand. Not far after the plunge, the landscape opened up on the right. Prairie, gently rolling, dotted with trees. Trees flanked our left, most were quite scraggly looking. The truck climbed up a gentle slope. The trees on our left gave way. A parking area was designated by green, mowed grass and a couple of wooden fences. A windmill loomed on our left. Larry parked the truck.  

The windmill stood as a sentry over the prairie, standing watch over the past and the present. The presence of the windmill made me thoughtful. This had been a farmstead, the Lamey family homestead. I chatted with Gene a couple of times but regret I hadn’t started the conversations years before, perhaps I would have a clearer picture of his family’s history here. No time to linger and ponder though, I had to keep up with Larry; we had another mission for today’s walk. 

Larry and I decided to walk on the prairie this morning instead of canoeing because I wanted, needed, to see the spring flowers, particularly pasque flowers while they’re in bloom. I keep missing the passing of seasons of the prairie – especially the various wildflowers in bloom. And right now, the pasque flowers were blooming.  

We began our walk at 7:15 am. It had rained the previous evening, and the prairie was still wet. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. A train whistled in the distance. Birds twittered around us. The prairie grass rustled against our feet. Larry talked about the prairie as we walked. We found our first flower blooming. “Prairie buttercup,” Larry identified the plant. It has a long, round, stocky, green stem, long narrow leaves,and small yellow petals. The center of the petals was green. Each plant had a few stems with several blossoms. Water droplets clung to the plants and the blades of grass, adding beauty to each plant. The prairie buttercup plants grew in clusters together. I paused to photograph them. Larry continued to walk. Bird song filled the air, excited over the arrival of spring. I only took a couple of photos before ambling on. I had to walk fast to catch up with Larry. We paused to look at a sedge plant – its flower petals long. We continued walking and found another patch of buttercups peeking through the tangle of matted grass. Again, I paused to take a couple of photos. I found a violet plant not yet in bloom. We continued onward, each step a noisy ruckus in the dried, dead grass of last year.  

Larry spotted the first pasque flower and drew my attention to it.  

“They look like fairies!” They’re the perfect first flower to bloom in spring – ethereal and ephemeral. Their satin petals seemed almost to glow. They reminded me of jellyfish. Pasque flowers are otherworldly. I circled around the first patch of blooms. I was elated – I had wanted to see these for many years but kept missing them. Now, here they were before me; lovely and elegant. The photos I’d seen hadn’t prepared me for the experience of seeing them.  

“Beat up by the rain. Pretty though. They do have a lot of blossoms this year. Many times they don’t,” remarked Larry. He added, “Must have been a good growing year last year for them.” Birds twittered around us.  

“Yeah.” I took several photos. “I think they’re extra pretty because they seem random and are in a cluster. They’re not sprinkled everywhere.” 

“I know it. I know it. Makes them more precious.” 

“Yeah.” Like the buttercups, they peeked up through the grass.  

“Good seeing them,” added Larry.  

I enjoyed being serenaded by birds as we chatted and while we walked. We’d pause for a couple of minutes taking in the first cluster of pasque flowers. Larry turned away first and I followed after him. Hank, the black lab, wasn’t as interested in the flowers. – We hadn’t walked very far before we stopped at the next flowering plant. “Looks like some kind of cinquefoil,” observed Larry. The blossoms weren’t yet blooming but they seemed on the verge of doing so. We continued walking for another minute. “More pasque flowers.” I bent down to take a couple of photos.  

Larry pointed out another plant, “Rose hyssop.” We’d halted our walking. Larry spoke again, “Got old dug ways in here, you know, what we walked in on. And a road through here. Find an old photograph and look for the road.”  

“OK.” As Larry spoke, sandhill cranes were calling. A group of cedars dotted the little bit of prairie in front of us; about ten trees. The little bluestem was golden, patches of green carpet between each individual clump.  

“Meadowlark,” observed Larry. Robins, redwing black birds, chickadees, and song sparrows also filled the morning with song. We continued walking, the grass rustled and crinkled against our feet. Birds sang continuously, merry it was finally spring. Again we paused, this time admiring some sedge plants. “I find these sedges as cute as can be,” remarked Larry. The beads of water droplets, still clinging to the grass was beautiful. 

“Aleesha says sedges are hard to identify.”  

“They are difficult but…” Larry trailed off.  

“Another good photograph, that little white flower.” A Lyre-leaved rock cress.  

Meanwhile, Hank was trotting about, too quickly to enjoy flowers, instead searching for sticks. “Leave it to Hank to find a stick,” I laughed. We’d barely continued our walk before we again paused, just long enough to photograph another cluster of buttercups. Hank whimpered, wanting to play instead of just walk. Onward we went.  

“That’s a lot of pasque flowers,” observed Larry.  

“Oh wow!” It was a jackpot. Their white, silvery satin blossoms dotted a slope, among clumps of bluestem. We halted so I could photograph them. So beautiful. I knelt down for a better perspective. The leaves, stems, and even petals were covered in fine, white hairs like hoar frost. A blaze of yellow stamens stood in the middle of the petals. Water droplets clung to them, beads on a wedding gown. I walked around them, knelt down, took a photo, and stood, walked around again looking at them from different and better angles. A train whistle sounded in the distance. Birds sang. Hank whimpered and whined, not at all interested in flowers but wanting a stick thrown for him. Larry finally caved and threw a stick, “Go get it Hank! Get it!” He took off. I laughed at his energy and eagerness. A patch of sumac grew on a slope, miniature trees, arms reaching up, waiting to be clothed. Our fifteen minutes of walking took us up and down grassy sand dunes. We’d paused on top of a tall dune looking down into a valley. The little bluestem on the opposite dune were golden tongues of flame licking at the slope. Gopher mounds dotted the opposite incline, like a bumpy skin rash. “You can see the importance in the different aspect up here. Shadow. Captures a little bit more snow. Shaded, you know. By the time the sun gets up here. Creates a little microclimate.”  

“Yeah.” 

“I wonder how the woody stuff gets in. Aspen drifts from the bluffs and along the river. You get plum, the stone, you know, travels pretty good. Kind of the first ones here. Then you get these oaks. How do they keep going? Oak wilt on some of them. There’s a meadowlark.” It was the golden hour of morning, the whole slope glowed gold in the morning sun. We continued walking. I marveled at the power of the sun to turn everything it touched, at 7:30 am in May, to gold. I listened to the joyful birds – grateful spring was at last here. Down one dune, up another, it was tricky walking in the sandy soil. I heard a sandhill crane in the distance.  

“Did I tell you I picked up a dead snake off the road?” 

“No.” 

“Had a pit tag. Called Anne to bring up the database – she kept it – one she’d followed for a couple of years.” 

“Ah, like a friend.” 

“It’s hard when it’s one that had been pit tagged.” 

“Mmmhmm.” 

We paused our walking. “Oh, that’s pretty!” A buttercup plant, blossoms open, was bathed in golden sunlight. There was a cluster of the plants.  

“With the sun on it.” 

“Sun and water droplets.”  

“Yeah.”  

We continued walking. Birds sang all around us. “Oh, look there’s a pasque flower.” 

“Ah, little pasque flower, look at you there. Free you from that grass.” Larry spoke tenderly and affectionately as if he was talking to an animal or a child. Once the flower was freed we continued walking, until we paused at another pasque flower, perfectly washed in sunshine. There were several clusters of them, all perfectly steeped in flaxen sunshine. I walked around them to capture the best angle of light. Walked a few steps to photograph another, knelt down, took a photo, stood up, walked a few more steps to a different plant, knelt down, took a photo, stood up, repeat. I repeated the process several times, with an intermission of standing to capture several clusters together. Each plant was awe-inspiring and all the more so in the honey light. A few buttercup plants grew near the pasque flowers. It was like finding fairy rings sprinkled among amber little bluestem. only they didn’t form rings. The birds sang on. I had to walk to be on the right side of them so I wasn’t casting a shadow on them. Somewhere in the distance swans warmed up their trumpets, a great wild sound; though their call sounded more wooden than brass. We continued on our way. “There’s something. A little violet.” 

Larry came over, “Let me see.” He squatted down, “Sure doesn’t look like a bird’s foot. Huh.” Perhaps it was a prairie violet instead. “Look at these mounded, velvety moss.” 

“Moss is cool looking.” I knelt down to get a closer look at the moss and photograph it, and then I stood taking in the rolling prairie. We continued our stroll. A post from surveys stuck in the ground, interrupting the flowing prairie. I paused again at a patch of violets, either bird’s foot or prairie. The blossoms were a pale purple. Larry didn’t stop, and after taking a few photos, I walked fast to catch up with him. He paused at a short tree. I came up beside him. “Little tree. It was nibbled on by the deer and it’s a poor place for it to grow.” Its leaves were just starting to burst out of their buds. A cedar tree grew underneath it. Again sandhill cranes called in the distance. Song birds continued to chirp and twitter. “Good choice to come out here this morning,” remarked Larry. We continued onward.  

“Whoa, that looks cool!” Fungus, moss, or lichen organism, I’m not sure which. I paused to photograph it. Across the way was a wall of trees encroaching on the prairie. We heard another train. Larry played with Hank. I was enjoying the bird song and the opportunity to walk on the prairie. Hank searched for a stick. A couple minutes later, “Here’s some British soldiers,” I said.  

“You think they are British soldiers?” 

“I think so.” 

“They look like it, but it doesn’t seem like the right place for them.”  

I saw a mint plant. There was a patch of open sand. We’d continued walking after taking a close look at the British soldiers. Lyre-leaved rock cress caught my eye along with several buttercup plants. I paused to photograph them, and then followed after Larry.  

 “This afternoon would be a good snake day,” observed Larry. 

  “Oh yeah.” I wished I could stay or return in the afternoon in hopes of seeing a snake. We walked up and down and back up dunes. Climbing uphill can be challenging enough, but it was quite difficult and tiring to walk up sand dunes, the sand isn’t stable; our feet slipped and slid as we climbed. Standing on top of a dune, we paused to look out over the sand prairie. It never ceases to amaze me how vast the prairie is, and yet it is only a small fraction of what it used to be. Larry was also enjoying the bird song, “Quite the repertoire.” We continued walking. Larry reached down and picked some leaves and put them under his nose to smell them, and then he put them under my nose.  

“It smells almost like a mint crossed with lavender,” I noted. 

“Smells more minty.” 

“Mmm, yup.” While Larry smelled the mint, I was studying a couple other plants. A sedge plant looked like a shooting star. Pussy toes, white fungus-like plants, almost looked like something from under the sea. “More pasque flowers,” I reveled in their beauty. We strolled onward.  A couple of minutes later, “This is bluestem, right?” I asked.  

“Yep.”  

This area of prairie was a patchwork of grass, moss and wildflowers – awe-inspiring. We continued walking. “Imagine trying to find cows out here with all the dips,” I said, thinking about the challenge.  

Larry held a plant up to my eye, “Here’s an eyelash for you.” 

I laughed softly then asked, “What is that?”  

“Grama grass. Eyelash. Do you want to take a picture?”  

“Mmhmm.” I took a photo of it and we continued to walk. Birds sang. We paused again.  

“This is mountain mint. I think. Well it might be dotted mint.”  

“Mmm, smells good.” 

“Dotted mint.” We resumed walking. We didn’t get very far before halting again so Larry could talk about the prairie. “See, most of this good prairie is, you know, clumpy. Primarily little bluestem. Some big grass, either Indian grass or big bluestem. But mostly the small stuff. There’s some beech grass along the top up there that are bit taller. But most of it is short. If you look at a lot of restoration stuff, there’s a lot of big stuff in there…when we harvest, get a lot of big grass or the spores are there and we restore it.”  

We continued walking, rustling grass. “Pasque flowers. Good bloom.” 

“Yeah.” I paused to photograph interesting dried plants.  

A little further ahead, Larry halted. “Something went on here. Got washed rock, small rock, and sorted. And a big rock too. So what do you think?” 

“I don’t know. Something happened.” I squatted down to photograph it and walked around them. “The big stones almost look like they’re in a circle. And those little rocks come out to here a little bit.” 

“Here’s a…,” began Larry  

“…piece of wood,” we both said simultaneously.  

“Huh,” said Larry. 

“Doesn’t look like the kind of rock…” 

“They’re hauled in from somewhere,” puzzled Larry. 

“Yeah, but they don’t quite look like building rock.” 

“No. But something happened, something went on here.” We walked around the area, taking it in, puzzling over it. “Go back in the photographs and try to find this spot and keep going back to find a structure or a road, the history.” 

“Yeah.” I thought it sounded like a lot of work to try to find photos and then that location – seemed impossible – and I didn’t even know where the spot is.  

“This would have been a nice spot!” 

“Yeah.” We began walking again. I listened to birds singing as we walked, took in the vastness of the prairie. It began to cloud up, but light fluffy clouds. We walked through a sea of little bluestem, past occasional mullein plants. We’d come upon a wooded area, pushed through low hanging branches, scratching at our coats, ducking to avoid being clothes lined or hit in the head. I felt thankful to be wearing a coat.  A pesky bird seemed to be yelling at us.  

Halted among the trees, “This is what happens, starts getting woody. Doesn’t burn well. …Pines. Took out the last of the pines. There’s these little oaks. We burn them. Can’t kill them…I should really come in here, cut ’em, treat the stumps,” explained Larry.  

The bird continued to squawk. We went onward, ducking under branches, pushing others aside, trying to squeeze through. And the bird squawked on. I was growing weary from the vigorous walk but enjoyed  it. We paused again.  

“Now we cross that line, more degraded part of the restoration. It’s getting sorted out…” We continued walking, falling into silence other than our feet rustling the grass. The birds kept up the conversation. Only a minute passed before I found another object of interest and paused.  

“Oh.” I squatted down to take a better look at a turkey egg. Bigger than a chicken egg, white with brown specks. A part was missing, a doorway for the poult, baby turkey to climb out of. An ant crawled on it, near the gaping hole. A tiny slug investigated it, moving in slow motion, well actually perhaps not even moving. It lay on top of an assortment of oak leaves. Green grass grew up through the leaves and dead grass. I wondered about the turkey family. Where was it? Was there just the one egg that hatched? Is the young turkey still alive? We continued walking, up another incline, and down. Up again, down again. The dunes in this area weren’t quite as dramatic, the upward climb not quite as much of a challenge. Sometimes the grass sounded deafening beneath our feet and against our clothing. We were approaching the windmill again, though it was still several yards away. We paused one more time.  

“Cool season grasses. Lot of quack grass.” Walked a few more steps, stopped. “I speculate this area had livestock and this was wintering or feeding area. Nutrients are higher which makes prairie restoration tougher.” This area was certainly less appealing. We continued walking, up the small slope to the windmill and truck, sad our morning adventure was nearly over. We hadn’t made a circle but a loop of some sort.  

Larry unlocked the truck doors. I opened up the passenger side to put away my camera. He pointed to the mailbox. “Probably a registry. You can sign it, say you were here. Pasqueflowers in bloom.” 

“OK.” I went and signed the registry, dated it, recorded some of what we heard and saw, the beauty of the day. I got into the truck, Larry and Hank were already in and waiting. We bounced along, back down the narrow, sandy lane to the highway. Before we were ready to leave the prairie, Larry took us down Pritchard’s road and pulled into the landing, then turned the truck around after a glimpse of Goose Lake.  

Back by the bridge, Larry stopped the truck. A couple of guys had a motorboat out on McCarthy Lake and were fishing. Larry was pissed and threw out a string of profanity to describe the guys.  

“Are they allowed to be in there?” I asked.  

“No, they’re not supposed to be out there.” Motorboats are quite disruptive to the delicate ecosystem of the marsh. And I’m not sure there is a large enough fish population for fishing to occur without being detrimental. But at least if you’re going to fish out there, take a canoe. The trees on the marsh were still naked. And the aquatic vegetation hadn’t yet taken off in growth. Spring was certainly late this year.  

Larry and I left the prairie. As always, I was sad to leave, never quite ready to go. Who knows how long it’d be before the next time I could escape the farm and visit again. There’s never enough time to do all the exploring I want to. 

Spring Awakening (Part IV)

We were really close to the road now; this was new territory for me. Birds continued to twitter. Red-winged blackbirds kept singing their conk-la-ree song.

“Looks like a beaver’s damming the culvert.”

“Yep, the beaver has decided it doesn’t like that water going through here.”

I laughed a little at that, beavers are so determined. A moment later, “Looks like a scent mound.” A pile of dirt mingled with dead rushes, a mini mountain. It looked fresh. It was exciting to see several signs of beavers.

“Mmhmm,” responded Larry.

I loved the trees in this area; they had so much character, beings standing in the marsh. Beings of untold wisdom. I wanted to reach out and touch them, perhaps they would impart some of that wisdom and tell me the story of the marsh; perhaps they could recall the history better than any person.

We went around a bend, turning right. There was green! A couple of cattails had begun to grow. A train rumbled by, taking a few minutes to pass. Somehow the train was less disruptive than the airplane. It didn’t mask the bird sounds – twittering of sparrows, red-winged blackbirds’ conk-la-ree, squawking of geese. We were quite close to the train track now, well, we were still many yards away, but close. We could see the train passing by. Larry turned the canoe again, a slight bend to the right, and we were facing north. Vegetation crept into the water. Another big area of open water was ahead of us. I spotted a duck; I was unable to identify it for I only saw its back and at a distance – black down its back, up its neck and head, and brown sides. It flew away at our approach.

“This is interesting; the water is coming real fast up from the river and flowing back in here.”

“Oh!” I took in the trickling water, enjoying the sound. It was curious watching it essentially flow backwards. “Yeah, that is pretty cool.” I heard a duck quack. We stopped at what looked to be and probably was a beaver dam – sticks, rushes, piles of mud. It certainly seemed placed there to regulate the water flow. However, it wasn’t working properly with the water level so high since it was flowing backwards, upstream. I wished we’d had time to pull the canoe over the dam and continue following the meandering channel upwards. I yearned to keep going. But alas, there just wasn’t enough time to. Larry turned the canoe around, retracing our path. Though we were backtracking there was still plenty of things to observe, it provided a different perspective and I noticed things I didn’t while coming from the other direction.

“There’s another scent mound.” This one was a bit larger and further away. “Beavers are busy in here.”

“Mmhmm,” agreed Larry.

The lone goose continued to squawk. Where was it? And what was bothering it? Red-winged blackbird called out again, hoping for a female to notice. Another bird twittered. The naked trees provided an unobstructed view of the road. A couple of trees had buds beginning to open. Their lovely forms were reflected in the water. Another airplane flew over. We went along slight bends and curves in the water. Vegetation encroached on both sides of the channel. Hank whimpered. Dogs barked in the distance. Snag branches stuck up out of the water in some places. The canoe bumped up against some snags and plants, emanating a scratching sound. A noisy goose flew over head. Red-winged black birds continued to call. Relaxing and refreshing; my spirit soared.

“There’s another painted turtle,” I pointed out. We began to hear the purring of the leopard frogs again. I continued to marvel at their song. The barking dogs grew increasingly louder.

“Little too breezy!” stated Larry.

“Yeah.” The sun was warm but the air cool with the breeze. Hank groaned. I laughed at the strange sounds he was making.

“Sit. Sit down. Sit,” Larry gently but firmly commanded Hank. I was enjoying the rock of the canoe and let the sound of leopard frogs wash over me – trying to ignore the barking dogs, taking the opportunity the lull in conversation provided to lose myself in the song of the leopard frogs, that incredible gravelly purr. The bridge came into view – signaling that our time on the water would all too soon draw to an end. Another lone goose flew overhead squawking. A train whistle blew. Hank continued to whine and whimper but at least the dogs had ceased barking. “Conk-la-ree,” another red-winged blackbird called.

“Another painted turtle,” pointed out Larry.

“Where? Oh, I see it.” The turtle had crawled out on to a snag; lying in the water. Like all the other turtles it quickly slipped back into the murky depths. The bridge continued to loom closer. Birds twittered and chirped. There was another lull in the conversation for a minute or two – listening, just listening.

“There’s a big bass right there.”

“Really?”

“Do you see it?”

“No.” A little sad I was unable to see it. I heard the train whistle again, further in the distance this time. I saw another duck, perhaps a lesser scaup – it had a black head, gray back and beak. I didn’t really get a good look at it. However, it didn’t look like the ones I’m comfortable identifying. I’m not sure Larry saw it. The barking of the neighbor’s dogs resumed. Hank whined. A mourning dove cooed. A car drove by on the road. We were now fast approaching the bridge. I observed another small flash of green – a couple more cattails beginning to grow. We were in the shadow of the bridge. Larry pushed the bow of the canoe as close to the bank, at the landing, as possible so I could step out. I had already put my camera away, slung the bag over my shoulder, grabbed my water bottle and stepped out. I pulled the bow up on to the bank.

Larry said, “OK, that’s good.” I quit pulling. He walked to the front of the canoe and jumped out. Hank jumped into the water for a quick dip then ran up the bank and shook off, flinging water everywhere. Larry and I lifted the canoe, carried it to the truck and loaded it. Larry said, “Next time we should go out in the evening.”

 

Spring Awakening (Part III)

Larry expertly maneuvered the canoe around the swaths of vegetation. The deep, gravelly purr continued. There again was a lull in the conversation, both of us content to listen to the marsh, so alive with spring activity – purring leopard frogs, a red-winged blackbird; a group of swans sounding like trumpet players rehearsing somewhere out of sight. And again the drone of another airplane interrupts, which I tried very hard not to pay attention to, trying to focus on the marsh. Hank whimpered and whined. But still the frogs kept going. Some individuals’ noise sounded more like contented grunts, less like purring. Others sounded almost like animated movie frogs ‘croaking’, although more like ‘creaking’ than ‘croaking’ – like the sound of trees creaking in the wind. Each singer a male eager to mate; in the height of breeding season, males will attempt amplexus with other males or anything else floating nearby including aluminum cans. The droning airplane continued on and Hank whined, but even so I reveled in the incredible choir of the frogs; the purring was so prevalent I could feel it, not just hear it, as if it was a part of my being. I enjoyed the feeling, oneness with the amphibian singers.

We had been heading west, across a wide stretch of water until we hit a wall of vegetation, a low lying wall, but not penetrable by canoe. Larry smoothly turned the canoe south, the wall on our right.

“That a muskrat, you suppose?” There was movement in the rushes.

“You see something moving around in there?”

“Uhhuh.” Hank whined again. Water gurgled as the paddle sliced through it.

“We haven’t seen any Blanding’s!” Larry remarked disappointed.

“Nope.”

“We should be seeing them,” he lamented. Larry had begun turning the canoe westward again, around a bend, taking us into another channel, narrower than the last.

“Are there map turtles?”

“Ah, there probably wouldn’t be any maps in here. They’re out on the Miss.”

“OK. That’s what I thought.”

“It’d be rare.”

I heard the wild piping of sandhill cranes but couldn’t see any.

“There’s a painted turtle. Ooo, nice sized one too.”

Hank whimpered again.

“I think there’s a turtle right there. Maybe. Or it could just be a clump of dirt. Right by those…hmm, hard to see…yep, definitely a turtle! Hmm, that one might have been a Blanding’s, maybe.” I could only make out the very top, rounded part of the turtle’s shell among the rushes, not enough to identify it.

“Might have been a Blanding’s?”

“Might have been. It looked bigger than a painted…” gesturing with my hands, “it was about this big.”

“Big dome?”

“Could be, I think it had a dome. It seemed too big for a painted turtle. And it definitely had a smooth shell.” After a moment of quiet, “Oh, there are some turtles!” Pause. “Those are painted turtles.” Geese honked, flying overhead. “One of my nieces, when she was about three – we’d found a painted turtle wandering on the farm and told her it was a painted turtle – she asked who painted it?” We both laughed.

“Sit, Hank. Hank, sit. Sit. Sit, Hank. Good boy,” Larry instructed the dog.

An airplane flew over again. A red-winged blackbird sang. Suddenly, I wasn’t hearing leopard frogs as we went further along the channel. “Conk-la-ree,” another redwing blackbird or perhaps the same one called out. A kingbird chattered. Again the redwing blackbird called. Hank groaned or sighed or maybe it was a “hmph”. The airplane faded. Water bumped against the side of the canoe, a relaxing sound. The landscape was so dreary – cattails dried and brown, the grass and rushes a faded gold, trees bare skeletons. I saw a blackbird perched in the upper branches of a small tree; the red on his wing the only bright color around.

Larry turned the canoe right, into a tiny opening in the tangled cattails, barely wider than the canoe. “A bufflehead ahead of you,” he pointed out.

“Where? Oh, now I see it.” A black duck with a couple patches of white swam in a ‘pond’ area, walled off by vegetation. “Conk-la-ree,” rang out the red-winged blackbird. The vegetation against the canoe made a horrible screeching noise as we went through the small waterway. There was another bufflehead, close by to the first; a pair. I hadn’t seen the male right away. He had more white; a side profile looked like a black streak running from his face, down his throat, neck to along his back. Side and belly white and a large patch on the back of his head. They swam around each other, unconcerned by our presence. I was surprised our noisy entrance into the pond area didn’t raise more alarm with them. I heard a lone goose squawking somewhere off in the distance, out of sight, its squawking continued nonstop for a couple of minutes. A beautiful female gadwall floated on the water, across the pond, near the far side, corner. She was a lovely gray. A chorus of leopard frogs performed in the pond area; once again their purring could be felt within me not just a sound in my ears. I relished the reverberations throughout my body, in the deepest part of my being. A red-winged blackbird wanted to be heard too. As we drifted on the water enjoying the sights and sounds – a landscape waiting to green, ducks swimming, frogs purring, goose squawking, red-winged blackbirds singing – Larry got Hank to re-situate, “Hank, come here. Sit. Sit. Stay. Good boy.” An airplane again intruded upon the sound track of the marsh, droning on for a few minutes. Trees lined the other side of the pond area. Cattails and rushes a tangled mass at the trees’ feet, separating them and the water. I spotted two sandhill cranes flying to the west of us. Though it was just a glimpse, I was excited to see them. I took one more look at the gadwall, wishing she was closer for me to observe better. I suppose Larry didn’t want to get too close to the ducks, this way we wouldn’t disturb them. The water licked against the canoe. Amid all the other sounds I heard the twittering of song birds, most likely chipping sparrows. Larry dipped his paddle back into the water, effortlessly turning us around. Hank whimpered, a long drawn out whimper. The canoe scraped against the vegetation once again, although this time it didn’t create the horrible high pitched screeching, just a lower -pitch scrape. We were through the narrow waterway, back on the ‘channel’. The sound of leopard frogs disappeared entirely back in the channel. Red-winged blackbirds’ song continued, as did the twittering.

Ahead a painted turtle perched on a small part of a snag protruding out of the water. One back leg stretched out behind. Neck stretched out and up, face to the sky, enjoying the warmth of the sun, conducting a prayer of thanks for the sun. As we drew near, the shy turtle slipped back into the water. The airplane finally receded. Now we were quite close to Highway 84, so it was replaced by a car driving by, momentarily drowning out the vocal birds but mercifully was gone quickly.

“Aww, there’s a little paint. Cute.” It slid into the water and vanished. I observed a chopped down tree, the lumberjack a beaver. The severed part came to an end, like the tip of a crayon. A fence post stood next to it. Another tree had a bald spot, it grew horizontally along or in the water, it may actually have been dead. The rounded bald spot, exposed bone, was a knob.

“Ring- necks to your right.” Larry pointed out. I had been so captured by the landscape around us, we’d entered into a more wooded area, that I almost didn’t see the birds right in front of us.

“Right? Oh yeah!” A male and female were enjoying a morning swim. She was nearly a solid color and appeared smaller. He led the way, head held high, proud. His head, neck, breast and back black; side gray, belly white. Despite their names, I couldn’t make out the ring around their necks. (There had been a few bends in the channel to get to this point.) He had a white crescent on his face, just ahead of his mostly black beak with a spot of white towards the tip. They were lovely. Looking further ahead, I saw two more; another male for sure but the other one could have been either. (Looking at the photos later, I wonder if that other one was a ring-necked duck, its markings almost look more like a teal.) At first they swam away, almost leisurely, until we drew too close, then they ran on the water, webbed feet sent up sprays of water, and they lifted off, flying out of sight. I only had a minute to observe them and photograph them.

Spring Awakening (Part II)

My attention was momentarily pulled away, “Oh, there’s two turtles.” The water slapped gently against the canoe. Oddly, I no longer heard the purr of leopard frogs while we explored this side pond. Hank, of course, was whimpering, desperately wanting to leap in the water. I returned my attention to the egret, which flew again, this time resting at the other corner of the north end. Larry pointed out another turtle.

“I just saw a turtle sticking its nose up above the water. There’s one over there and one over here.” I laughed, delighted with so many turtles. “And there’s another one.”

The canoe rubbed against a log, squeaking. Dogs barked, another interruption to the tranquility of the marsh. My attention shifted back to the lingering egret. (We’d only been on the water for not quite ten minutes.) Finally, the egret lost patience with us and flew away. I watched it go. Eyes still skyward, I saw two other large birds.

“What are those two big birds up there flying around?”

“Pelicans!” responded Larry.

“Ok, I thought they were pelicans or swans.”

Larry then told me of a large flock of pelicans he saw the previous day. He had turned the canoe around and we were heading back to the pond entrance. Taking the canoe back through the entrance created a loud noise as the rushes and snags scratched against the side of the canoe.

“Oh wow! I don’t know why but I just like pelicans. They’re just so cool looking!” The sound of barking dogs diminished a little while we went through the rushes but resumed as soon as we were on the other side. The sound of leopard frogs recommenced and I tried to block out the barking dogs and enjoy the calling frogs instead.

“It sounds like they’re purring,” I remarked. “Aah, snapper!” I exclaimed, almost shouting with excitement, as I spotted a large turtle in the water below.

“Snapper?” asked Larry, his interest piqued.

“Yeah!”

“Big one?”

“Yeah!”

Larry pulled the canoe forward and then halted so he was in line with the turtle. He put down the paddle (or maybe he used it to lift the turtle up) and leaned over the side of the canoe reaching into the water. With a bit of effort, struggling and grunting, he lifted the turtle up out of the water.

“Oh, wow!” My voice dripped with awe as I admired the beast Larry had pulled up.

Hank was also interested in the turtle, hoping it was something for him. “Hank, no. No, Hank.” Larry admonished the dog. Larry held the big turtle over the canoe, holding it in front of him, with his arms outstretched.

“Oh, wow!” I exclaimed again, seeing just how big the turtle really was. Although snapping turtles can get bigger, this one was about the size of Larry’s torso. He held the fearsome Chelydra facing outward, hands on either side of it, avoiding the mouth and large claws. Its mouth was gaping wide, almost like a smile except that it wasn’t at all happy about being hauled out of the water. Front legs hung down, webbed toes spread. The back legs up, possibly trying to kick Larry, looked like a jumper’s legs splayed out while in mid air. Tail was curled, almost pointing to its plastron, underside, which Larry had also turned toward me so that it was on display. Its skin, which appeared quite thick, was covered in tubercles, bumps. On its front legs the tubercles were bigger and in rows. This was an intimidating looking creature, a force to be reckoned with.

“Definitely looks like a dinosaur!”

“Want to go back, buddy?” Larry asked the turtle.

“He stinks.” The smell comes from living on the bottom, covered in mud and decaying vegetation.

“Did you get a good picture of him?” Larry asked. He gently placed the turtle back into the water.

“I think so. I took a couple so…” I trailed off not needing to finish, going back to photographing. There were trees on our right and small ones, probably alders ahead of us. Larry picked the paddle back up, and we continued our little voyage. The purring of the leopard frogs was all-encompassing; it reverberated in my chest, a thrilling experience. A red-winged blackbird called out, “conk-la-ree”. A kingbird chittered somewhere close by; its song was made up of high, sputtering notes, followed by a buzzy-zeer, recurring numerous times.

“A picture of him [the snapping turtle] on the bottom would have been neat,” remarked Larry.

“Yeah. I would have had to been right over the top of it.”

“Could you have gotten a good picture?”

“Mmm, I don’t know. It would have been kind of fuzzy [from the water]…” I gazed into the water below me, “There are lots of minnows.”

“Minnows?”

“Yeah.”The breeze seemed to have picked up, or maybe I just noticed it now that we were out in the open again. The bridge was on our left, a ways away; we were parallel to it. “Something just went into the water over there.”

“What took off, a turtle?” asked Larry.

“I don’t know.” I was watching a pair of blue wing teals swimming in the water ahead of us. I enjoyed watching them, but was surprised they weren’t flying away yet with our fast approach.

“Hmm, they’re not too concerned with us.” I was able to get a nice shot of them. “There we go,” the pair of ducks finally flew away. A blackbird called, he sat in the branches of a tree, which was just budding – the perfect picture of spring.

“Up the hill, past there, the pasque flowers are in bloom on the prairie.”

“Nice!”

“I should take you on the prairie.”

“Ok, yeah. I have not seen those yet. I keep missing them.”

“The wind is picking up!” remarked Larry.

“Yeah.” Another redwing blackbird called out. There was a lull in the conversation. I tuned into the sounds around me, the ever present murmur of frogs, redwing blackbirds; the relaxing sound of moving water, the canoe slicing through it, the wind manipulating it.

“Goose nesting platform,” Larry pointed out.

“Oh, ok.”

“It was probably never used by a goose. It was probably used by a muskrat to build a house. And then the goose came and nested on top of the muskrat house. So I guess it worked indirectly.”

“Yeah,” I chuckled.

(McCarthy Lake is not a lake but a marsh, the Zumbro River used to run through it; there are large swaths of thick aquatic plants and trees throughout the ‘lake’, in the middle, on the edges, randomly spaced, that are like islands. Then there are a couple of ‘channels’ that meander about, sometimes narrow, sometimes wide. In the spring there are far more wide, open areas of water that become filled in with aquatic plants, including wild rice, as the season progresses. The boundaries of the channels are ambiguous.)

To be continued…

Snowshoeing After A Blizzard of a Lifetime (Part II)

(Note: Read https://bethanybenike.com/2019/03/14/a-blizzard-of-a-lifetime-part-i/ before reading this blog, they go together.) 

March 1, 2018

I was a bit lazy on Tuesday and Wednesday too, back at home I certainly could have snowshoed. However, it wasn’t until yesterday morning, Thursday that I finally went out to snowshoe. I’m glad I did! The snow was perfect! I went out again in the evening. This morning too. This time with my camera. Might as well enjoy the snow while it is here.

I stepped down off the wooden deck, stooped over to strap my feet into the snowshoes, pulled on my mittens and grabbed the poles. I was off. Across the driveway, up a steep and tall snow pile – glad of the aid the poles lent. How exciting, standing on top of the perhaps eight foot snow bank! I felt like I was on top of the world, queen of the hill – with a new perspective, providing an elevation in mood as well. Now, how do I get down and on to the other side? I looked for a less steep way down the backside of the snow bank. Ah, there, a little further to my right. A rapid decent down the snow pile, nearly a tumble but for the poles giving me balance. Despite the snowshoes, I sank in a bit. Another step though and I was walking on top of the snow. Along the path through the trees, I trotted. My pace was faster than it had been a week ago, hardly sinking in at all. Around last year’s pig fence. Around the west end of the greenhouses. Past the big garden, hard to tell where the edge of it was. I had prayed for snow, so I thanked God for his abundance as I trekked along the field. I marveled at the frost brushed plants that still stood above the snow, particularly the milkweed pods. I was amazed and delighted to be walking on top of the snow, only just sinking in – last week I was sinking down nearly a foot in some places and perhaps deeper in others. Snowshoeing is so refreshing and energizing. I was feeling better already; my spirits beginning to lift. The morning trek was a balm to my weary soul.

There’s so much to enjoy on a trek across the snow – tracks from critters, the curve of the sculptured snow drifts, the sparkle. At the first set of tracks, I dropped my poles and sank to one knee, took the lens cap off and switched on my camera. Getting it to focus on snow is tricky. The sun was behind some clouds so it wasn’t the best photo. These tracks were tiny, created by a small rodent – mouse or vole. Standing back up, a pole in each hand, I continued onward. Only a few paces away, I dramatically dropped back down on the snow, this time to photograph coyote tracks. It was a treat yesterday to see all the coyote tracks; my reasoning for taking my camera out with me this morning. A few feet further on and another set of small rodent tracks caught my attention, a bit different than the first set.  I prayed the cloud would move so I’d have better light for photography.

I’d been heading south. Coming upon the property line, I turned east, still keeping up a quick pace. There were several coyote tracks back here too, but I didn’t pause for them, hoping for better light. The property line in some places is just a row of vegetation, in others remnants of a fence can barely be seen above the snow, and then a few small trees, sparkling with their frost jewelry. Many yards eastward, I came to our woods, the property line turned south again, for a ways before turning east again, wrapping around the woods – I thought about meandering in them but didn’t want to take the time today. I continued onward, the woods on my right, a fence in much need of repair along its edge. Another turn, this time to the left, taking me in a northern direction, woods and fence still on my right.

Northward bound, the sun finally broke through the clouds, just in time for me to photograph coyote tracks crossing my tracks from yesterday. The coyote tracks were encouraging; I was glad to see them – these predators are much needed. The frost coating the trees glimmered and twinkled in the sunlight; it was rather quite dazzling. Nature was showing off her beauty, flaunting it. It was easy to be besotted with her. Yesterday’s trail led me up a slight incline and then another turn east. More coyote tracks. Splendid! I stepped over the nearly buried fence, leaving the cultivated part of our farm for the wild part. I paused to stand in awe of the snow on the slope of the big hill I stood upon. Myriads of tracks filled the slope. I felt like I stood on a mini glacier. Here, I indulged my love for photography and nature, trying to capture the stunning drifts and the colossal amount of snow. Such beauty. Snow adorns the winter landscape, creating loveliness from dreariness. I turned and went back up the slope; I’d only gone down a few feet, stepped back over the fence wire and continued onward. Soon I had to turn again to my left, heading north yet again. I admired the trees and the tracks in the snow, and the sparkle. I noticed a coyote scent post, comically right next to the top of a rusted fence post – this made me smile.

Around another bend, a right turn, and back to heading east. So many rabbit tracks among the trees in this spot. A few feet further along and there were more coyote tracks; but no sign of them catching the rabbits. Again the fence line turned. I stepped gingerly over the fence in front of me. The tracks and drift the center of my attention. Along the edge of the drift, on the hill slope, the tracks seemed to have packed down a spot in the snow. Onward, the drift plunged over the side of the hill, a glacier engulfing the sumac forest. I plunged down the steep, firm drift, stepping over sumac reaching above the snow as if they desired to be rescued. A few twigs snapped off. The tracks were so interesting. Wait those tracks, further down the slope, weren’t coyote or rabbit tracks but bird tracks. Too small to be turkey, I postulated they were pheasant tracks. I turned to follow them up the slope on my right, with my eyes. Wow! There were wing prints in the snow, a bird snow angel. I dropped my poles and lunged up the slope clumsily to get a closer look. Incredible! I walked back to the poles, picked them up and continued down the slope a few steps more, then turned to my right, west, around some larger, less buried sumac. I paused to enjoy the birds. Chickadees and sparrows fluttered about, happily singing as if spring is around the corner. Somewhere a cardinal whistled. A woodpecker tapped a tree. It was a lovely morning.

I turned right once more, toward the daunting slope; I had to go back up to the top of the hill. (I was nowhere near the bottom, still above the middle.) But there was adventure and excitement in the prospect, the mini glacier was more vertical than horizontal. The teeth on the bottom of the snowshoe proved their worth as they bit into the side of the gigantic drift, giving me much needed traction. Indeed I felt like I was traversing a glacier, scaling a wall of snow. I stepped over the fence, climbed just a little further and then I was back at the top. I wasn’t quite ready to turn around just yet so I walked along the fence line north for several more yards. My legs were beginning to ache. I was hot and sweaty. Time to turn around. I zigzagged back the way I came, following in my tracks. Not lingering to take photos, I kept up a pretty good pace, although a few times I slowed as the ache and exhaustion of my legs continued to mount. My physical energy had sapped away by drudging across so much snow, almost a two mile trek by the time I returned to the house. My mental energy, however, had been boosted.

I’m content. The snow can be done falling now until December. But it is snowing as I write this, and it is so beautiful, so peaceful, and so quiet.

‘If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.’ – Vincent Van Gogh

A Blizzard of a Lifetime (Part I)

March 1, 2019

Funny how inspiration comes in unexpected places. For instance, this morning it came on my tea bag string. – ‘If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.’ – Vincent Van Gogh. Yes indeed. With the aftermath of the blizzard on Sunday, I was quite bothered by everyone complaining about it on social media and wishing for ridiculously warm temperatures, eighty degrees! (Eighty degrees in Minnesota is almost always miserable; it comes with humidity levels at least that high more often than not, and lots and lots of biting insects from which even harmful bug sprays only give marginal relief. Wish instead for sixty degrees, that’s a far more comfortable temperature.) I was on the fence about writing a blog about the blizzard and this winter, but seeing this quote while sipping my morning tea and then enjoying an hour of snowshoeing in the best snow I’ve had the pleasure of snow shoeing in, I was encouraged to write. Yes, we’ve had a lot of snow in the month of February, record breaking amounts. And yes, the huge amount of snow as caused inconveniences; dangerous commutes, roofs collapsing, school cancelations, and the tiresome work of moving such a large volume of snow, etc. (People who’ve lost their barns to the snow do have a right to complain and wish for spring; in 2010 our steer shed roof collapsed, thankfully not killing any of the animals, and it is definitely a hardship.) People gripe and whine, on and on and on. People complain that spring won’t come until July – complaining about the snow and cold temperatures as if it is the end of April instead of just February. Snow in February is a good thing! It could have spread its self out a bit though, a little more snow in December and January would have been great.

 I understand the spring fever itch, especially now that it is March; I understand the desire for warmth, sunshine and green grass underfoot – it will come, it always does – and the feeling of being tired of winter, it will come to an end, don’t you worry. However, wishing and complaining won’t melt the snow, won’t make you feel better. Instead, go out and enjoy the snow! After being gypped on snow the last several years, weathermen promising that this will be the winter of a lot of snow and then it didn’t happen, I was really longing for a lot of snow. I prayed for snow, even while it was still summer, I prayed we’d finally get a really snowy winter. In January, it seemed we’d yet again have a meager snowfall winter. I wanted to snowshoe. And winter should be snowy. The plants and animals native to Minnesota need snowy winters. Farmers need snowy winters; winter kill of hay is a big problem in winters without much snow. Snow is a good thing. Several times this winter, I watched with sadness as all our snow disappeared by melting or sublimation. December and January had been disappointing; we’d get a decent amount of snow and then a few days later it would melt or we’d barely get a dusting.

Then February rolled in. Oh, what delight! Snow storms every week, make that at least two snow storms every week. Several of the storms dropped eight to twelve inches of snow each. Saturday night, Sunday morning was such a storm – twelve inches over the course of twelve hours, falling at various rates throughout that time. The snow had begun falling before we finished milking; Jesse and I walked to the house with snow falling gently around us. Excitement and anticipation filled the air; this would be quite the storm! Wind came up sometime in the night. Looking out the windows Sunday morning it appeared we were completely snowed in. Not only did we receive another foot of snow but the high gusts of wind throughout the night had been busy sculpting the new and old snow creating tremendous drifts. Stepping outside was a bit of a shock, a blast of cold air hitting my sleepy face. I hadn’t realized the temperature was going to drop so much, the wind assisted in the chill. I navigated through the snow drifts, trying to go around the deepest spots to avoid it spilling into my boots – milking with wet socks would be very unpleasant. Stepping into the barn was a welcome respite from the wind. Settling into the rhythm and warmth of milking cows, being in the barn with the blizzard howling outside was comforting, it just felt right. Jesse, his mom and I gathered at the door on the south side of the barn, to marvel at the storm still intensifying. The cold was enough to knock the wind right out of you. But the lack of visibility, the height of the drifts and the rage of the wind was a sight to behold, something to stand in awe of. The wind continued to blow all day, such power and rage.  We watched trees sway and bend in the huge gusts, some of which were fifty miles per hour – incredible. I was awed by nature’s raw power – the madness of such strong winds. There was beauty in it and wonder. (‘If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.’) Adventure and excitement.  The raw power and fury of nature. And the power to shut down a chunk of the state, which lent to the adventure and excitement. Monday it was all over, except that traveling was just about impossible and not advised, and in fact was restricted. It was a hundred year storm; we’ll probably not see another storm of its magnitude in our lifetime. (Not the amount of snow, but the power of the blizzard afterward.) Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my snowshoes with me to Jesse’s.

A Symphony of Birds (Part III)

“Stand up and step out of the canoe. Have a look around,” instructed Larry. With a little bit of hesitancy, and with care, I stood up and stepped out of the canoe. And I’m sure glad I did! The sight that was blocked by the plants while I was sitting, was wondrous to behold. Across the morass of tangled aquatic vegetation sat twenty or so swans. It was hard to count them given the distance and the way they were grouped, for there were some behind others and it was a little hard to tell where one bird began and another one ended. Viewing swans is magical. They are too graceful, elegant, and white to truly be a part of this world, something out of a fairy tale. I wish we could have gotten much closer, but at least at this distance they were totally unaware of us. Some rested with their heads folded and tucked back on to their bodies. Others sat with their heads held high on long slender necks. One preened its chest feathers; another head in the water. Two were standing; one’s wings were at the ready, the other had its chest puffed out, wings flapping. The swans weren’t alone. A large number of ducks were also enjoying the water in that area – so many!   I was wonderstruck, although many, many years ago there were far greater numbers of waterfowl stopping in here on their way further north. It was different at this distance to identify the ducks but I thought a fair amount of them were mallards and ring necked ducks; at least those were the ones I was able to distinguish. Even Larry was impressed and awestruck by the number of birds. He exclaimed many times, “god, there are a lot of birds!” Throughout the ten minutes or less that we sat there, he exclaimed many times, each time his voice was filled with awe. A great many ducks were in the air, not because of us; we were too far away to be a disturbance. Larry soon observed the reason. “There’s an eagle swooping down on the ducks. Do you see the eagle?” It took me a few minutes to spot the eagle among the myriads of ducks flying.

Of course the sound of the swans and ducks intensified as we’d turned into the side channel and stood up. Earlier, I described the sound as a symphony. However, the musicians weren’t performing before an audience; they were warming up their instruments, each making a beautiful sound but not yet getting the right notes and not in harmony with the other musicians. The swans were on horns and trumpets, the force behind the orchestra. The ducks were on strings and woods. Sandhill cranes joined in occasionally on woods too. It was a privilege to have back stage admittance – just so long as we didn’t cause too many interruptions. The acoustics were fantastic. I could have stood there a lot longer than seven minutes – close my eyes and let the music carry me, lift me up until I too was flying. “Wow,” I breathed a quiet reflection on the scene before me. Larry was ready to be on the move again. I wish I was a composer to write down the movement I heard to play for other people who can’t hear it firsthand for themselves.

We sat back in the canoe. With some help from me, Larry got the canoe turned around and out of the narrow waterway, back onto the main channel. It was time to take the canoe back up the way we’d come. Back through the beaver dam we went, putting another pair of mallards in the sky. Going up stream meant Larry had to do a little more paddling but the current wasn’t strong enough to make it a struggle for him. His easy paddle strokes kept propelling us smoothly along. If he’d asked me, I would have been more than happy to help paddle but he wasn’t in need of my help and wanted me to be ready with my camera.

An oak tree on the bank, now on our right, still had its russet leaves that hadn’t dropped last autumn. There were a couple of other oak trees still clothed in last year’s leaves, but all other trees stood nude. Some maples had buds beginning to open, getting ready for a warm day to spring them into action. The swans were spectacular to be hold and listen to but since we were so far away from them, hooded mergansers became more of the highlight of the outing. A pair was swimming nearby and weren’t immediately startled by us lingering long enough for me to have a good look at them and take a reasonably good photo of them though not very close up. They’re so awesome looking, a bit goofy too. Despite her coloration being less vibrant, the female was perhaps more cool looking than the male; her “hood” was funkier – in fact her muted colors made it all the more so. They only tolerated one photo before they had enough. Water sprayed behind them as they ran and took flight. Another bird I hadn’t seen joined them in the air.

Scent mounds of considerable size captured my attention next. These mounds were definitely maintained. Large piles of black dirt along the banks and piled on dead, matted vegetation. The scent comes from castor oil secreted by the beaver. It’s a message to beavers that aren’t a part of the family to get lost, this territory is occupied. Like all other signs of beavers, I find them quite captivating. A fallen tree trunk snapped a feet from the base. Although there were evident teeth marks from beavers, I’m not actually sure it was felled by a beaver – there were no normal, conical teeth marks around where it broke. Another dead tree, still standing, was drilled four times by a pileated woodpecker. The four, nearly perfect oval holes were in a neat line like buttons on a snowman. This tree was another landmark on the way. We’d followed the curving channel almost back to where we started. Duck cabins on the bank to our right, ahead. The bridge had come in view; I’m always sad to see it come back into view. A large morass of rushes was between us and the bridge. Another bend in the channel to the left; we were drawing nearer. Past the yellow wildlife sign almost covered in water. We put the leaning willow, yet another landmark, behind us. The bridge drew closer and closer. Before going under it, Larry joked about a woodpecker drilled tree being a condominium.  Larry steered the canoe between the pilings, moments later we were on the other side next to the landing.

Just as we pulled out from under the bridge, I spotted a brilliant patch of white up ahead on the left. I studied it intently before I figured out what it was, “There’s an egret over there! At least I think it’s an egret!”

Larry had yet to see it and was doubtful, “An egret? It can’t be an egret. It’s too early for egrets.”

“It sure looks like an egret.”

Curious, Larry turned the canoe toward the dazzling white object. He eased it along slowly, trying to go unnoticed as long as possible.

“There are two of them!” I announced. The way they were standing the first one hid the second. Then the other moved a little bit, the bodies creating a white heart. So many ducks took to the sky clamoring as they flew. Larry continued to glide the canoe forward, pausing at times.

“They are egrets!” Larry was astounded.

I noticed a pair of hooded mergansers off to our right not yet concerned by our presence. But it was another bird that totally stole the show. A male merganser was flying straight toward us, so bizarre – all other birds were flying away from us but not this one. I quickly photographed his approach. White breast and belly glowing, coming directly toward me. We were stupefied. He plopped down on the water merely a few yards away from me, creating waves.

Incredible!

Wondrous!

Awe-inspiring!

Far from ordinary!

I was able to take one perfect photograph and two slightly blurry ones before he’d realized what he’d done. He retreated hastily with quite the spray of water.

Amazing!

Unimaginable!

The best photo of the day. It had to have been a gift from God for me.

After the merganser took his leave our attention returned to the egrets. How their feathers glowed in the otherwise drab marsh. Larry pushed closer to them. They became nervous and effortlessly took flight. Larry pursued them, disturbing a pair of Canada geese, who grumbled loudly. The egrets landed not too far up the marsh from where they had been. Larry didn’t get as close to them this time.

“This weekend, they’re going to be regretting returning so soon,” remarked Larry. Colder weather and snow was in the forecast. With that we returned to the landing. Loaded the canoe and headed out.

Along the curving road, part of the marsh in view on the right, “I think I saw a northern shoveler.”

“I don’t think it was. It’s too early for them,” replied Larry. (Later, he told me he saw some a couple days later so I was probably right.)

A Symphony of Birds (Part II)

After the next bend it wasn’t the waterfowl but a hawk that caught my interest. A large bird perched on a branch reaching out over and far above the water. Head turned to the side, keeping a watchful eye out. I couldn’t see its back, it stood facing me. It looked like the feathers of its wings were brown. The bird’s breast feathers were white, speckled with red brown, hooked beak, the beak of a raptor. It appeared to have a white streak above its eye. Toes gripping the branch were in shadow. With the sun behind it, the bird was backlit and hard to get a good look at, even harder to take a good photograph. (Looking at the photo later, Mom thought it could have been a Cooper’s hawk or sharp shinned hawk.) Unfortunately, Larry didn’t have time to get a good look at it to identify the raptor before it flew away.

Larry kept moving us forward, no halts but going at a slow easy pace. We came upon the beaver lodge built on the bank, on the right. To the untrained eye it would just look like a pile of long, narrow branches not a home. I don’t know if the beavers were currently living in this lodge but given the number of scent mounds on either side of the channel from just past the bridge and beyond this lodge, it is quite likely they are living in this one. I longed to see a beaver; I hoped that one would happen to be out on business and I would notice it. No such luck today; if there was a beaver outside of the lodge it was blending into the golden vegetation extremely well. Beyond the lodge was a narrow strip of lingering snow. Between us and the snow swam a pair of ring necks, alone, enjoying each other’s company and a patch of water to themselves – the channel, marshes and lakes in this area of the Weaver Dunes and Bottoms can get crowded. This pair of ducks seemed less concerned with our presence and didn’t immediately fly away. Despite their name, the ring around the neck is barely visible. To me, the most striking feature of this duck, which allows for identification, is the white vertical mark in front of its light gray sides – that is of the male. I have an easier time identifying the males than females and usually have a better time picking out their individual features. The back, tail, breast and head of the male are black which makes its light colored side so striking. The crown of the ring necked duck comes to a point but sometimes that is hard to determine too. The sun was so bright and low that other than she appeared light brown, I couldn’t distinguish any of the female’s features.

We passed a tree felled by a beaver and not yet hauled away. I think it has been there awhile, at least I think it is the same fallen tree I see every time we canoe down this channel. Why haven’t the beavers used it yet? What’s the purpose in dropping a tree if they aren’t going to use it right away? It was a good sized tree – it would be quite the project for a beaver to move. The channel curved abruptly flowing in a more easterly direction. The water in this spot disperses over a larger area, widening the channel. Snags and communities of rushes and cattails divide up the water, which is walled in by trees. Again we encountered more than a dozen ducks; with a flourish and fussing they took to the air before I could take a decent photograph. Larry advised, as he has many times, that I should set up a blind and get in position before dawn to be able to get great waterfowl photographs – perhaps a spring soon I’ll be able to do just that.

 Larry kept the canoe gliding smoothly down the channel. There was a continuous flush of birds taking flight, startled by our presence; each flock a different size. Even when there wasn’t much to see, there was plenty to hear: the whirr of wings and complaints to the intrusion were fairly constant and even when these fell silent the medley of bird calls unaware or undisturbed by our presence continued. The distant wild call of the sandhills; one grew loud as a crane flew past and far above us, perhaps completely unaware of us. The trumpeting of the swans continued to grow louder. I marveled in the bird symphony – it was awe-inspiring, soul lifting and soothing! When my eyes weren’t busy trying to catch retreating ducks, they feasted on the still dormant trees towering far above us, soon they’d be sporting beautiful green summer wear. Several trees had tipped over, roots on full display – seemed like more than last year. An island of trees and rushes divides the channel, this is a landmark for me, and once we reach this point I know how far we have come. It always seems to be a brief pausing point for Larry to make a decision, though I’m not sure if that is true. Judging the depth and amount of uncluttered water, the number of half submerged snags, Larry steers the canoe to the left and around the island, on our right. Before skirting the island we startled another pair of mallards, each flying in opposite directions. Far ahead of us dozens of birds were flying but I’m not so sure it was because of us; I think we were too far away for us to be cause for alarm to those birds. We weren’t quite clear of the island when a number of mallards were disturbed by us and took flight. Aside from startling the birds, it was great to have front row tickets to the symphony – although perhaps symphony is a bit tame for the drama before us.

Suddenly the wall of trees becomes more like a fence, allowing for more of a view. The bluff cradling the Weaver Bottoms on the southwest came into sight. Fluffy clouds hung low to the horizon, none yet striving to block out the sun. Just a little further along and the tree numbers dwindled considerably with only a few individuals on our right. We had also finally come to the first beaver dam along the channel. Someone had damaged this one a couple years ago and the beavers had yet to repair it; perhaps they won’t since they built another one further down. There was plenty of space for Larry to guide the canoe through the gap. The trees on our left were still dense and far away, though the channel, where the current flowed and the area navigable by boat/canoe wasn’t particularly wide the water spread out here too, the bank of solid land had far retreated to our left. The water was mostly filled in with rushes, sedges, and cattails – however there was no walking over there. I’m not sure how much solid ground there is on our right the whole way down, probably enough for a tree to grow but not enough to walk on. We neared the spot on our right where a narrow channel diverts away to Goose Lake to the southwest. Larry turned the canoe into the narrow channel. Unfortunately, to get through we’d have to step out of the canoe and stand on mounds of vegetation and pull the canoe along. Although we’ve done it before and I was eager to do it this time, Larry decided we wouldn’t continue through. Here, Larry ceased paddling and paused giving us time to just soak it in (he seems to do this in every outing). The swans had become so much louder. On a pile of matted vegetation and mud was a bunch of feathers, someone had enjoyed a meal here. The aquatic plants around us were very tall.

“What are these tall plants?” I asked, desiring to know all I could about this place.

“Phragmites.”

“Is it desirable?”

“There’s some non-native species that have hybridized with native ones.”

“What are some of these other plants?”

“River bulrush, with a triangular stem system. And possibly bluejoint.” I reached out and touched the aquatic plants, getting a feel for them.

A Symphony of Birds (Part I)

March 29, 2018

The winter passed away without me taking a walk on the sand dunes or on the frozen marsh. So Larry and I decided it was about time to go exploring again. It was just warm enough that we could canoe!

As we approached the bridge, Larry commented on the number of birds on McCarthy, lamenting, “There’s a lot of birds we’ll put in the air.” Larry had originally planned to go up McCarthy but decided we’d go down Schmoker’s channel instead. I think there were a couple of reasons Larry decided not to go up McCarthy; first it was filled with birds and he was loathe to put them in the air, second because McCarthy is more open and the breeze would have caught the canoe too much. There may have also been a concern with ice on McCarthy since at 28 degrees Fahrenheit the morning was a few degrees colder that what we had been expecting. We put the canoe in around 7:50 am.

The marsh was filled with the melody of migrating waterfowl, a dissonant symphony of many different songs. I was thrilled to just be a part of the phenomenon of the stopover of the migrating birds. It seems there is always something new for me each time Larry and I venture out. We have ventured out many times while the migrating waterfowl are stopping over, resting in the area before moving on; so I’ve heard the sound before but this time the melody of the migrating birds was my focus, held my attention and awe. The water was dirty from the ducks – I loved the smell.

The first birds to engage my attention was a pair of Canada geese swimming elegantly in the water on the left. We were just close enough to them to make them aware of our presence, making them edgy, watchful and vocal but not enough to frighten them away. Another pair was far less visible and almost unnoticed on a mound of vegetation and snags. They were both sitting. Could they be nesting already? Canada geese are some of the loudest birds I have encountered in the marshes. Sandhill cranes may rival them in loudness and yet seem not as noisy.

We were perhaps starting out a little too early, although it was the golden hour, everything bathed in the morning sun and beautiful but to photograph anything in the southeast the sun was perhaps too low yet – my photos were almost all washed out. Photography wasn’t the best anyway with the birds startling and taking to the air as we drew near.

Larry expertly and effortlessly guided the canoe down the tree lined channel. I tried to take it all in but there was so much to process. Sandhill cranes spoke somewhere off in the distance, out of sight, not nonstop like some of the other birds but frequent. Mallards quacked as they flew away. Honking and squawking of Canada geese was frequent. Larry identified pintails, ring necks, hooded mergansers, black ducks, and wood ducks – he’s skilled, able to distinguish between each bird’s song or call from the medley and able to tell each species apart as it flew off. He was also quick enough to have a glimpse of them before they took to flight. I struggled to keep up with it all, not seeing some birds until they were already flying and vanishing beyond view before I could really have a look at them. I heard the different bird calls, but my brain wasn’t able to isolate each one and pin it to species – I still have a long way to go learning bird calls and being able to distinguish between calls in a medley. And I may be even further away from being able to identify a bird in flight. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed the dozens of birds in each bend of the channel. There were always a couple of birds lingering on the water after the others took flight, waiting a little longer before deciding they should fly. From far off, I could hear the swans trumpeting, so very faint at first but louder the further we went. Birds weren’t the only subject to engage my eyes – the landscape around us caught my attention too. None of the trees on either side of us had really started to wake up from winter yet – only a few even had buds beginning to open. Another attention grabber was the size and number of beaver scent mounds. Since learning about beavers marking their territory with scent mounds and learning what they look like, I am eager and quick to spot them. Seeing so many large fresh scent mounds intrigued me. Alert, I scanned the water’s edge for any beaver that might happen to be out. We followed the bends and curves of the channel, to the great waterfowl medley. Larry had to do very little steering, none of the fallen and partially submerged snags lay in our course. The elegance and form of the snags never cease to dazzle and interest me.

We came upon another group of ducks, a dozen or so mallards. Green heads of the males glowing iridescent in the morning sun, emerald dots bobbing on the water. Males and females mixed, enjoying a morning swim until we drew too near and startled them. They protested the interruption as they flew. Again, not all the birds took flight at once. It’s a shame that even in the quiet, slow canoe we were putting birds in flight. We were sad that our presence disturbed them and yet at the same time it is in their interest to not be indifferent to people. I enjoy the bend and curve of the channel; at each new bend I wondered what I’ll see this time.

Canoeing in December (Part II)

Larry didn’t keep going down the channel like we did last year but turned right; about the same spot we had seen the mink swimming last year. A forest stood ahead across the water. I spotted an eagle’s nest in one of the trees. Larry steered the canoe slightly to our left, not turning but going at an angle instead of a straight line. We were headed for the tree studded hill. The hill had a red orange carpet. Far off to the left, a muskrat lodge was covered thickly with frost. This area of water was much wider, more like a lake and less of a channel. It was bound by a thin layer of ice. Larry pushed the canoe into the ice. It cracked with a loud noise as we pushed through, not a shatter like glass, no, this was more of a thud, a deeper, lower noise but loud – a low roll of thunder. There was a lot more ice to push through this time. The volume of the sound of the breaking ice was incredible. Any animals nearby were warned of our presence and certainly hid long before we would have been able to see them. Another few strokes and we were back in open water; still heading toward the hill.

Larry said, “Bunch of gizzard shads.”

I peered into the water but I was unable to see a single one of those small fishes. How could Larry see them?

Instead of turning right and following the small stream along the hill, further back, upstream, like we did last year, Larry turned the canoe left following the ridge and water down the channel. The stranded boat was ahead of us again. This time I could see a little more of it over the tall vegetation. I reveled in the beauty of the bare trees reflecting in the water as we continued on. The ice was to the left of us now but Larry skirted around it. On the bank ahead of us was an open spot of mud, from that distance I couldn’t tell if it was a beaver mound or a beaver slide or just a bare spot on the bank. Larry turned the canoe to the left again; we were back in the channel with the beaver lodge. Further along the bank, on our right, I observed a beaver slid. Far to the left, I could see the eagle’s nest. It was fun to see the back side of the sign marking the canoe trail and having a different look on the snag in the water near it. The beaver lodge and its large cache came into view. We had made a complete circle or rather more like a “D”. My eyes were briefly drawn to the perfect reflection of the cloudy sky and trees mirrored by the water. Again, with the hope of seeing a beaver, I studied the lodge as we drew nearer to it. And once again I marveled at the size of the cache as Larry guided the canoe around it.

We drew near to the willow tree and the tree with the eagle’s nest again. Larry commented, “There are a lot of gulls.”

“Where’d they come from?”

“Probably Lake Pepin. Attracted by the gizzard shads.”

Before we came to the willow tree or the eagle’s nest tree, Larry turned the canoe into a very narrow side channel, opposite from the willow. I was a little surprised, for the channel was just barely wider than the width of the canoe. Then again, it’s Larry, so not too surprising really. I marveled at the tiny spikes of hoar frost coating the frozen mud and grasses along the channel. There was some ice on the channel but it broke up easily and made far less noise. As Larry eased the canoe into the narrow channel, we heard a plop in the water ahead of us; an animal had dived into the water at our approach. “Most likely a muskrat,” Larry explained.

We were unable to go far into the small channel; it divided into two directions, too small of a space to turn the canoe one way or another. The channel was hardly longer than the length of the canoe. Resigning to not being able to go further Larry instructed, “Grab a hold of the left bank and step out.” It was a little hard to do all bundled up, but I managed to clumsily step out of the canoe. Larry told Hank he could get out, and then Larry stepped out and secured the canoe.

We walked along the even smaller channel on the left, heading southeast ward. Rushes, sedges, and grasses rustled as we waded through them. Soon we were among the trees. After a few paces, Larry would stop, bend over, brush away leaves, looking intently at I’m not sure what, I didn’t ask but he repeated it over and over again the entire time we were walking. I probably should have asked. I think he was looking for saplings. Other then curiously watching Larry, I took in the trees. A beautiful oak. One, perhaps a river birch, two trunks, one on the ground, carpeted heavily with moss. The other still attached to their base by threads, a few feet of it suspended in the air, the remainder of it resting on the ground. I turned around to look back the way we’d come, we were many yards south of the tree cradling the eagle’s nest. I find it a little comical that there is a bend in the tree trunk creating the illusion that the tree is straining to hold the large nest, bending with its weight. I turned back around and continued walking. Another dead tree caught my attention. This tree was split at the base; trunks spread out, like a creeping vine. A few trees had been gnawed on by a beaver, one appeared quite fresh, the other may have been years old. We looped about, making almost a circle. We came to a pool, channel of water; it was murky in color. Hank came up alongside me, down to the water’s edge. He drank heartily, thirsty from his running about. Larry said, “Apparently he’s not choosy about what he drinks.” We had walked along this spot last December. A few moments later we headed back toward the canoe. Back in the canoe, Larry backed us up and we continued on our way. Past the willow and the eagle nest tree, around the bend, past the little beaver lodge, soon we were back at the canoe landing.