The land of pines and mines

WaterI spent Thursday and Friday last week playing tour guide for a reporter in the woods of northern Minnesota. The trip was personally rewarding because in seeking to provide a good story for the reporter, I experienced one myself.

My journey north on Thursday took me to Two Harbors and then straight north to visit a man who has read everything Thoreau ever wrote and owns a canoe Garrison Keillor once paddled. Friday afternoon was foggy as I drove home via a circuitous route on lonely National Forest roads. I went 20 miles at a time or more without seeing another vehicle.

There was pretty scenery, but there was also interesting scenes. I documented the trip with some photos in the slideshow below.


Strib blog: Eagle eye

This is the latest post on my Star Tribune blog. Enjoy!

Eagle chick in a nest on the Mississippi RiverA bald eagle chick was briefly kidnapped from a nest on the Mississippi River recently.

A group of folks from the Great River Road Visitor & Learning Center (better known as Freedom Park) in Prescott, the Misssissippi National River and Recreation Area, and the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway are thinking about putting a webcam on an eagle nest at the confluence of the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers, and went to take a close-up look at the nest and its occupant one day last month.

Professional tree-climber Jim Spickler evaluated the nest for a potential camera but also brought the 10 lb., seven-week chick down to the ground for a visit with a researcher, who took blood samples and banded it before returning the eaglet to the nest.

Climber Jim Spickler ascends to the eagle nest
Climber Jim Spickler ascends to the eagle nest

Spickler, who travels all over the globe climbing our planet’s tallest trees and who has helped install several such eagle cameras, rated the Prescott nest as at least a nine out of 10. It’s solidly built, within sight (and transmission range) of Freedom Park, and there are good branches to mount a camera on where there won’t be a risk of the lens being covered in, well, eagle excrement.

Like the very popular camera in Decorah, Iowa this spring, the Prescott camera would let anyone on the Internet watch life in the nest next spring, 24 hours a day. In the video below, Spickler first evaluates potential camera locations, but it’s the the close-up footage of the eaglet at the end that is both fascinating and endearing.

Route, of the National Park Service, has been conducting research into contaminants in our environment, and using blood samples from young eagles on the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers and the Apostles Islands to measure levels of chemicals.

Eagle populations have recovered to the point the birds were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007. What almost wiped them out once is still a problem, though: the birds accumulate pollutants because of their diet and the fact that they are at the top of their food chain, which makes them excellent indicators of pollution levels.

If the webcam project goes forward, information about Route’s research will also be available on the website. That seems like an excellent way to mix entertainment and education, and it might inspire viewers to do more to protect eagles, and ourselves.

Taking measurements
Taking measurements

The nest camera idea came up about two-and-a-half months ago and is far from a sure thing. Many details still need to be worked out, including permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and funding. Bird expert Jim Fitzpatrick, who runs Carpenter Nature Center just upriver on the St. Croix, another project partner, is working on that process.

Watching the video and viewing the photos, I wondered how the chick and its parents responded to the intrusion and abduction. In an e-mail, Jim Shiely of Friends of Freedom Park told me, “When the eaglet was being captured in the nest the eagles flew overhead. You can hear them on the video. They did not and do not attack climbers except in rare cases.”

Eaglet on a nest near Prescott, WI on the Mississippi River

Thanks to Jim Shiely (disclosure: my wife’s uncle) for sending the photos and video and providing a lot of information. Photos and video by Jim Spickler, Margaret Smith, and Roger Santelman.


A significant span

This is the second post for my new blog. All historical photos are from the Minnesota Historical Society’s John Runk collection, used with permission.

The High Bridge under construction in 1911
The bridge was built simultaneously from each end, and had to line up in the middle. 1911.

On June 1, 1911, construction was completed on a half-mile long, 185-foot tall railroad bridge near Stillwater. Two days later, the first train crossed the bridge. About four still do so every day.

A small group of people visited the bridge on the Minnesota side Wednesday evening, its 100th birthday. The gravel pull-off on the road where the trail leads down to the river was otherwise empty; no other well-wishers had come. But the bridge sees plenty of revelers — mostly 80 or more years younger than itself — on a regular basis. They make circles of rocks in the woods and light fires inside them, then they drink beer and leave the cans as offerings to the bridge or the river or their own self-centered youth.

The place was quiet Wednesday evening, but perhaps the bridge didn’t want a party.

Soo Line (Arcola) High Bridge on the St. Croix River under construction in 1910
Looking from the Wisconsin side, 1910.

The walk down the bluffs to the foot of the bridge follows an old road that was once a driveway for some cabins, which the bridge has outlived. Stretches of concrete and asphalt reveal its history, but today it is just a scenic trail through thick green woods.

Wayside rests include a stand of cedars overlooking a deep ravine with a spring-feed creek at its bottom; a massive white pine, which probably has the bridge beat for years; and a short set of stairs from the road to the site of a former cabin, where a small ring of rocks encircles charred logs.

Walking to the Soo Line High Bridge near the St. Croix River

When the trail reaches the bottom of the bluff, it crosses the spring-fed creek on a little wooden footbridge, which was askew when we walked across it, tilted at a precarious angle toward the water. That bridge was probably only 10 years old.

The St. Croix River was still up high — the normal pebble and gravel beach underneath the bridge was submerged. A muddy flat spot on the banks featured a circle of rocks with the remnants of a fire inside. And there it was.

The Soo Line High Bridge over the St. Croix River
June 1, 2011

The High Bridge was designed by C.A.P. Turner, six years after he designed Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge and 15 years before designing the Mendota Bridge over the Minnesota River. It rises out of the wooded islands of the river as if to inspire the trees.

The bridge was there during both World Wars, during the Depression, during Prohibition. Many generations of teenagers have come here to drink beer and make fires, to see the broad valley painted in moonlight, and to look down on eagles soaring over the river.

Soo Line (Arcola) High Bridge, November 2007
November 2007

The most authoritative page on the Web about the bridge is probably John Weeks’ site. Weeks has documented in photos, history, and statistics all of the bridges on the St. Croix, as well as on several other major rivers, including the Mississippi. He is fond of the High Bridge:

“The Arcola High Bridge was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1977. Experts have called this bridge the most spectacular multi-span steel arch bridge in the world. Others compare the magnificent steel work to that of Eiffel’s creations in France.”

Wednesday night, nobody sang “Happy Birthday.” Everyone pulled out cameras or phones with cameras and snapped photos exactly like the ones we have all taken there before, the bridge identical to itself all these years. The only changes are the color of the trees, the clouds in the sky.

The Arcola High Bridge in autumn
Looking from the Wisconsin side, October 2006. Photo by Jim Brekke, used with permission.

The walk back up to the car was a good reminder of our own years — or at least our years of sedentary living. One’s legs burn climbing those 200 feet back to the top of the bluffs. You try to conceal how hard you are breathing.

Later, over Burgermeisters, French Fries, and 12 oz. mugs of cold, light beer at Meister’s on the South Hill, a disagreement erupted about whether a new restaurant in town was going for a “Colonial” or “Revolutionary” America feel. The two holding conflicting opinions were once students of Advanced Placement U.S. History at Stillwater High. Their teacher, my mother, would have been very proud.

The High Bridge shortly after it was built in 1911.


All quiet in Afton

All quiet in Afton.Katie, Lola and I spent yesterday afternoon and the night at her parents’ house in rural Afton. They were out-of-town and we felt like some time in “the country.” It was a quiet retreat with books and movies and food. Snow fell for much of the day but as evening came the skies cleared, an almost summery meteorological moment.

Around dusk, I took Lola for a stroll down the driveway and a short ways up the road. It was still and cold and silent, everything muffled by the couple of inches of fresh snow. The road was even covered, with a discernible number of tire tracks on it.

The St. Croix valley
my home all these years
all these seasons

On my way out of Afton this morning, I took a wandering route and drove slowly along lightly-trafficked roads. I stopped my car on the side of the road at the intersection of Valley Creek Road and Stagecoach Trail and walked around the corner to the little bridge over the creek.

Valley CreekIt’s the tendency of trout anglers to look over bridge railings into cold, clear streams. Valley Creek is known for its trout but none were visible from the bridge. The stream is pretty shallow and sandy in that stretch and in winter, the fish would probably be hunkered down in deep pools.

spring-fed creek
between snow-covered banks
seen from a bridge
where I look out and listen
to the song of running water

Historical Note:

Valley Creek’s original name was actually “Bolles Creek.” The website of the Belwin Conservancy–a 1,300-acre nature preserve near where I was standing–says the name goes back to the first of many commercial flour mills in Minnesota, located just downstream from the bridge:

Lemuel Bolles, 1845
Lemuel Bolles, 1845 (Minnesota Historical Society)

It was here in about 1845 that Lemule Bolles constructed the first commercial flour mill in Minnesota. The Bolles Mill was constructed of timber collected from the shore of the St. Croix River and hauled to a site on Valley Creek just downstream of the Belwin Conservancy’s preserve. The mill had a ninefoot water wheel powered from a millrace – parts of which still exist today. The mill could produce about 50 barrels of flour in a day.

The creek was at the time called ‘Bolles Creek’ and not long after Lemule constructed his mill, his uncle Erastus Bolles built a blacksmith shop nearby. The small settlement that developed nearby was in turn known as Valley Creek.

Speaking of geographical naming, my research this evening turned up the name of Afton itself. The Washington County Historical Society says Afton’s name is believed to have been inspired by a poem:

According to many historical accounts, Mrs. C. S. Getchel gave Afton its name. The landscape reminded her of Robert Burns’ poem, “Afton Water,” with its “neighboring hills, and the winding rills.”

Here’s how the poem starts:

Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise;
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

Read the rest »



Yearning for what is yet to come

When I turned 30-years-old last May, I took the day off work and went for a long hike with my dog at Wild River State Park. It was quiet in the park that day, the trees starting to get green and only the two of us on the trail to breathe it all in.

Having recently gone morel hunting for the first time, my eyes were often glued to the forest floor, looking for mushrooms. I didn’t find any. But I did see all the delicate early-spring flowers; they seemed to be the first natural color I’d seen in months and months.

I was just flipping through photos and experienced an almost unbearable sensation in these cold, snowy, gray winter days. It’s overwhelming to feel the longing of life in the landscape, still a good two months off, but also the joy of that annual deep breath the forest takes as the sun comes back to us. I thought I would share the pain and the ecstasy with you, readers.

Click the images below to see larger versions. Click the larger image to see a very large version that might make an appropriate computer desktop this time of year.

Any help identifying the flowers would be much appreciated.