Wilderness words

Minnesota Naturalist magazine cover
Minnesota Naturalist

Today was the third anniversary of my career as a “professional water-worshiper.” It has been at turns exhausting and exhilarating. I am often struck by simply how much I have done and experienced in these 36 months.

Luckily, my job often involves writing. I sometimes say it is the only thing I’m any good at it, and I enjoy it like really nothing else. I inherited the affliction from my Dad; a bequest that’s value is yet to be determined.

In my latest exercise of the craft, I co-authored a commentary published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press today. My partner was Kevin Proescholdt, a long-time wilderness advocate and a respected writer in his own right. We wrote about the prospect of new sulfide mine proposals, which would seek copper and nickel in the Arrowhead region:

For several years, companies proposing new mines in Minnesota have pledged to comply with our state’s environmental laws. But today they are seeking to roll back and weaken environmental protections with the help of a willing Legislature. All that talk about “doing it right” and “playing by the rules” seems to have been just that: talk.

Read the whole piece »

I believe my organization carries on some of the work of Sigurd Olson, the writer whose books about the canoe country and his passionate advocacy are largely responsible for its protected status today. My three years of work and minor written output deserve no comparison, though I take solace knowing that he was 50 before publishing his first book.

Most folks would probably associate Sig with his prose, which sang the song of “The Singing Wilderness” (the title of his first book). He had adventures all over the Boundary Waters and wild Canadian rivers, and he wrote about his trips and the profound impact wilderness could have on the human soul.

Not many people probably would associate him with the conservation issue that I wrote about above and which consumes much of my life. But, the other day I dug up a magazine from 1974 called “Minnesota Naturalist,” a special issue which was all about the issue of proposed copper-nickel mining in northeastern Minnesota.

Sigurd Olson wrote a short introduction to the magazine. He was 75-years-old, and his words don’t quite hit the high notes of his prime, but it is unmistakably Sig. This is some of what he says:

Today this land is faced with a new threat that could destroy swiftly and forever the very qualities that engender love and dedication in those who have known it. Short term mining developments within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area or close enough to affect it adversely must be weighed now against its value as wilderness.

This is an ethical and humanitarian problem rather than one of economics and industrial development. Let us therefore plan wisely to preserve this wilderness treasure of the North … America cannot afford to lose another priceless heritage.

Read the whole introduction (PDF) »

Click the magazine cover above to see a full-size version. The whole magazine featured color photographs by Les Blacklock, and the cover is Kodachrome goodness.


“The Firegrate Review”

The Firegrate ReviewMy latest project is a new chapbook published through the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness called “The Firegrate Review.” It’s a collection of 20 essays, stories and poems by 19 different authors who generously contributed their work.

All of the pieces are focused on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I feel they really reflect the broad spectrum of experiences of canoe country, in all times of day and seasons of the year. There is the wind and rain and bugs, daybreaks and sunsets, family and friends and solo adventure, and wildlife and silence and solitude.

I wrote a brief introduction for the publication:

My wife Katie and I took a five-day canoe trip in the Boundary Waters this September. A remote lake called to us. On the maps it looked like a place where a person could find some real solitude.

We rode a tailwind the first day, then paddled and portaged several miles the next day, arriving at the dead-end lake we had in mind. There was only one way in—a winding stream with questionable water levels and a beaver dam to cross, a portage in rough shape—and we found little evidence that the lake had seen many people this summer. The campsite we stayed at was full of firewood.

The silence roared that night. We felt minuscule in the dark land. It was 10 miles to the nearest road. There was nothing to do but speak in whispers and stoke the fire high. Continue reading…

More info

Buy it


Bridging the past to the future

Map of new Brown's Creek Trail acquisitionWith the announcement that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has finally acquired the old Minnesota Zephyr railway line near Stillwater, the popular Gateway State Trail will finally connect to downtown Stillwater. And not only will it be connected, but I would wager that the six new miles of trail will be some of the finest biking and walking in the state.

I’ve been fortunate to walk along those railroad tracks many times. When I was a kid, we’d ride our bikes a mile out Highway 5 to the bridge over Brown’s Creek and then scramble down to the creek and watch trout swim while we played on the limestone rocks along the water. Later, the tracks were a place to wander during high school afternoons. I camped on a friend’s property along the creek often during high school, and still remember quietly walking along the tracks with a few others at dawn, balancing on the rails while the world grew gray in the early part of a summer day.

I digress. It’s a beautiful little canyon, is all I’m trying to say. The ride into Stillwater should be a wonderful, easy gentle downhill, because it slowly but steadily descends toward the St. Croix River from the uplands west of town. I can imagine hardly moving the pedals for much of those six miles.

This wise use of taxpayer money could only be improved one way: by the state somehow including preservation of the old Stone Bridge in their trail plans. The bridge, built in the 1860s as part of the Point Douglas-Superior Military Road and used by Minnesota troops heading off to the Civil War, is just steps away from the rail line the DNR acquired, and would be located about halfway down the new stretch of trail.

The Old Stone Bridge over Brown's Creek near Stillwater, Minnesota

As the oldest standing bridge in Minnesota, the structure is a part of our state’s history. My elementary school was even named after it. It’s privately owned and in need of both serious restoration and maintenance efforts, and broader accessibility to the public. It deserves to be cared for by all of us, and it would be a perfect wayside stop along the new Brown’s Creek Trail. I can already see the bench (maybe even a picnic table!) and the historical marker. While the slight downhill heading into Stillwater will be nice, riders heading the other way would surely love to stop here for a water break, both to drink some and maybe wade in the creek.

The bridge is in need of repair from years of decay, neglect, and vandalism. In 2008, Stillwater Township provided $5,000 to help with restoration efforts, according to a St. Paul Pioneer Press article:

Township residents at their annual meeting Tuesday voted unanimously to contribute $5,000 to preserve the Old Stone Bridge. The limestone bridge dates back to either 1852 or 1863.

“We really, really feel proud of (the bridge),” town supervisor Linda Countryman said. “Citizens are very proud that it is in the township, and it was a very positive meeting as a result.”

The bridge’s owner, Barb Medinger, said last week that the limestone structure is crumbling and in desperate need of repair.

Trees are growing out of both ends of the bridge, and part of it has been washed away by Brown’s Creek trout stream below. Kids shooting off M-80s damaged it last Fourth of July, she said.

“It’s eroding, and vandals have been compromising it by pulling out the stones,” she said.

The new bike trail is going to be terrific. Now I just hope some folks at the Minnesota or Washington County Historical Societies, the DNR, or another entity, particularly one with access to funds from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, figures out a way to preserve the bridge ($54.5 million of the tax money in FY 2011 is dedicated for arts, arts education, and arts access, and to preserve Minnesota’s history and cultural heritage). It might not have to be through outright state ownership, but something must be possible.

I visit the bridge at least a few times a year. It’s a peaceful place, with the clear water of Brown’s Creek pooling up before rushing through the cataract of the bridge and then down the shady canyon toward the river. Dogs love to splash in that pool. The bridge feels like a gift from the past, a modern American ruin. It ought to be saved before it’s just a pile of limestone rapidly washing away in the waters of the creek.

Old Stone Bridge, photo circa 1940, Minnesota Historical Society
Photo circa 1940, Minnesota Historical Society

A celebration of stewardship

The view from the bow

St. Croix River Awareness Week is almost here! As I first posted about in April, the St. Croix River Association and its partners are organizing a week of events to enjoy and help protect the river. They’ve recently announced the schedule, which I’ve included below. The week will feature clean-up canoe trips, family-friendly seminars, film showings, and lots more.

I’ve included R.S.V.P. links for Facebook for some of the events. These are not official registration pages, but are an easy way to share with  your friends that you’re planning on attending one of the events. You can see the full list of events on Facebook here.


It’s also worth noting that several communities along the river have officially proclaimed the week St. Croix River Awareness and Clean-Up Week. Kudos to St. Croix County, WI, Marine-on-St.-Croix and Afton, MN, and Hudson and St. Croix Falls, WI.

In that vein, I too have unanimously passed my own resolution. As editor and administrator of the 14,000+ fan St. Croix River Facebook page, and editor of this website, with full jurisdiction over both virtual properties, I hereby proclaim July 17-25, St. Croix River Awareness and Cleanup Week (PDF proclamation) and encourage everyone to celebrate and to engage in voluntary clean-up of river bank litter.

Personally, I hope to be able to get out for one of the clean-up canoe trips this weekend. But I may be too busy putting the finishing touches on my own project for the river: a new community journalism and advocacy website focused right on the St. Croix River watershed… Stay tuned!

Events Schedule

case study conservation

River stewardship and online cartography

Kinnickinnic River Land Trust logoNext Saturday, the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust will organize crews of volunteers to fan out along the river’s 22 miles and pick up trash as part of an annual event. It’s a good spring cleaning for the premiere trout stream in the St. Croix River watershed.

I just completed an update of their interactive map, to help with the effort. A couple years ago, I created a Google Map displaying all the public access points to the river. At the time, I mostly located those maps by cross-referencing an old PDF map with satellite imagery. But, since I created it, some of the points have been found to be inaccurate, and there have even been a few new ones created along the river, with new DNR parking lots for anglers (or trash picker-uppers).

Additionally, in order to best organize the effort, the Land Trust staff split the river into seven sections, with 3-5 access points per stretch, and they wanted to have the map easily reflect those sections. So, I got to work.

This time around, Land Trust Conservation Programs Manager Eric Forward sent me a document with precise GPS coordinates for all the access points, as well as names for each, and notes for some. I used Google’s Spreadsheet Mapper tool for the initial input. I thought it was going to help me to get to final product, but either what I wanted to do isn’t possible in the tool, or I wimped out before I figured it out.

After entering all the points and their names into the Google Docs spreadsheet, I viewed the dynamic Google Map created with the data. At this point, all was fine and dandy. In the left-hand “table of contents,” the access points were handily organized by folders matching the seven river sections. Updating data would be as simple as updating the spreadsheet.

But… it wasn’t perfect:

  1. All the access points had identical markers, rather than separate colors/numbers for the different river sections.
  2. The content that was displayed when you clicked on a marker was a mess, with multi-column layouts that I didn’t need. I needed the name and number of the access point and a little room for description; the Land Trust’s logo and a link to its website would also be nice.
  3. The Spreadsheet Mapper tool provides six templates and–this is where it might be possible but I didn’t figure it out–I couldn’t edit the templates to get the layout I needed or the place marker unique for each section. I also had seven sections of river and couldn’t create one more to accommodate all seven sections.
  4. It seemed difficult to divorce the map from the spreadsheet back-end, so simply modifying the map right in Google Maps was problematic.

So, under a bit of a time crunch, I decided to get a little more manual. I exported the map as a KML file, and then opened it up in Google Earth, where I could pretty much edit to my heart’s delight. Then I created seven unique numbered markers, pretty simple black circles with unique fill colors, and I assigned each of these markers to a section of river. Lastly, and this was perhaps the most tedious, I created a basic HTML template and customized it for each of the 27 access points to include the necessary information.

When it was all done, I re-uploaded it to Google Maps for easy online viewing by Land Trust staff and volunteers. And here is the finished product:
View Kinnickinnic River access points in a larger map

Click here if you can’t see the map.