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 blustery beginning

Corey Mohan sets off for Lake Superior
Corey Mohan sets off for Lake Superior

The temperature was 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Wind was gusting out of the northwest at 15 mph. The current in the still-flooded Minnesota River was clipping along at 31,700 cubic feet/second (some 20 miles upstream at the nearest gauge). With these unchangeable natural conditions, Corey Mohan set off this morning on a canoe trip from St. Paul to Madeline Island on Lake Superior.

As a crowd of 30-40 wind-whipped well-wishers clutched Bloody Marys and Mimosas, Corey thanked his supporters and his wife, and read a bit of poetry:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.

– T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages

Seeing them off

Corey, and his wife Lois, who will join him for this first day, left from Sibley House, a Minnesota Historical Society site where previous explorers of the upper St. Croix — Schoolcraft, Nicollet and others — also departed in centuries past. His Mad River Canoe had been dubbed the “Elizabeth Pelagie,” in recognition of a Wahpeton Dakota woman who was given Pike Island, an important Indian site across the river, by an 1821 treaty.

Corey and Lois would only be on the Minnesota River for a few hundred yards before it joined the Mississippi. If all goes well today, they should get to at least Grey Cloud Island, but with the current and the tailwind, I’d be surprised if they don’t make the St. Croix, some 17 miles downriver. Corey hopes to make it the some 300 miles to Madeline Island by about May 31.

Route map:

In an e-mail, Corey told me:

I’ve been thinking about this particular route for 5 years and then some. The idea came from James Taylor Dunn’s, The St. Croix – Midwest Border River. Early chapters on Native Americans and early Euro-exploration caught my attention and inspired some “what ifs”. In partcular, Schoolcraft, Nicollet Carver among others made the same or close to the same route and I enjoyed Dunn’s re-telling of their story… At the end of Dunn’s book, he writes about his trip down the the river from Upper St. Croix Lake to Taylor’s Falls. I wondered about how much may have changed – or not – from the 1960s to the present. Also, my first canoe trip on a Minnesota river was on a stretch of St. Croix in or near Wild River State Park or St. Croix State Park. I had just moved up here from Illinois, 1982, can’t recall exactly where we were but it was July, buggy and and lovely.

Cory’s Mad River canoe, with a Cooke Custom Sewing spray skirt:

Corey's Mad River canoe with Cooke Custom Sewing spray skirt

Off they go:

I hope to have more about Corey’s trip as he blogs from the river and as I share some more from an e-mail interview I recently conducted with him.


“modes both subtle and strangulated”

Low - C'monThe guitarist Nels Cline — of Wilco and other bands — is a guest on two tracks on the new record from Duluth band Low, “C’mon.” A reporter from Uncut, a U.K.-based music magazine, contacted Cline in the course of doing a profile about Low, and got such a verbose response that the reporter posted the whole thing on the magazine’s website.

As a piece of music criticism, the essay almost stands on its own, though at times it gets a little rambling and “purple.” But it shows Cline has been a longtime fan of Low, and confirms that the best musicians love listening to music as much as they love making it:

Since my becoming aware of Low, I have watched as Alan has started other projects, both of which seemed to address a burning need to “rock out”, to make a racket, be immersed in a mushroom cloud of rhythm and guitar, to really cut loose. I actually have sat in briefly with both The Black-Eyed Snakes and with The Retribution Gospel Choir and witnessed/felt the music, watched Alan go for it, heard his beautiful guitar sound in modes both subtle and strangulated. With records like “The Great Destroyer”, Low had surges of volume on brilliant songs like “Pissing” and “When I Go Deaf”.

I’m glad he mentioned “When I Go Deaf” (off the 2005 album “The Great Destroyer”). There are many great Low songs, but I just listened to this one again two days ago and it got me. Here’s video of Low playing the song just a few days ago at a gig in New Orleans:

I remember first reading about the song in a review of the album “The Great Destroyer” in the now-defunct Rake Magazine six years ago, and the interpretation of the lyrics has stuck with me: “‘When I Go Deaf’ … speaks frankly about a time when it will be OK not to write or sing songs, when an artist’s obligation to create has died or been beaten away,” Chris Godsey wrote.

The lyrics demand Alan Sparhawk’s voice, but they stand on their own:

When I go deaf / I won’t even mind / Yeah, I’ll be all right / I’ll be just fine. / I’ll stay out all night / Looking at the sky / I’ll still have my sight / Yeah, I’ll still have my eyes. / And we will make love / We won’t have to fight / We won’t have to speak / And we won’t have to lie. / And I’ll stop writing songs / Stop scratching out lines / I won’t have to fake / And it won’t have to rhyme.

The new Low album comes out April 12. The band released a “trailer” for the album, primarily featuring footage of them screwing around during recording at Sacred Heart Music Center in Duluth. It is yet strangely endearing and captures the Low spirit:

You can pre-order “C’mon” now (I recommend vinyl) and stream the whole thing while you wait for delivery. I did that a while ago and have listened to it several times; it really does occupy a good place in their oeuvre, somehow managing to be both new and fresh and modern, and a return to their roots. As Nels Cline wrote: “Classic Low, yet new/expanded Low. Growth!”

Low will bring “C’mon” to First Avenue’s Mainroom on April 16.


First trip on the ice

We just took a little sojourn out onto Lake Phalen with Lola. It was bright and sunny but only a couple degrees above zero — and temperatures are supposed to keep falling pretty drastically. Surprisingly, there wasn’t anybody out fishing.

Here’s a little video I shot with my brand new fancy phone of Lola running around out there:

She loves the ice, though right now there is only an inch of snow over slick ice and she was having trouble running at top speed without her back legs going out from under her.


Virtual Birkie

Scott Brown, a skier and cyclist from Minneapolis, shot this first-person point-of-view video last January on the Birkebeiner cross-county ski trail in northern Wisconsin.

Brown was participating in the annual “Birkie Tour,” a casual event held a month before the big race, which is the largest ski marathon in North America. He called it one of his “five best skis ever” on the Birkie trail. I’ve never skied it but the views of the trail through deep woods with big, long hills has me dreaming. The area was the scene of my one and only mountain bike race, when I did the 16-mile race as part of the famous Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival as a teenager.

This year, the Birkie Tour will be held January 22 and the race is on February 26. More information is available on the American Birkebeiner website.

An interesting footnote is another recent video, this one from the “Climate Wisconsin” project, which has produced several videos describing how climate change is affecting traditional Wisconsin activities, from trout fishing to farming to forestry. And the Birkie:

Since the first race in 1973, the Birkie has been shortened six times and cancelled once due to weather related conditions; with four of these adaptations and one cancellation happening since 1990. The weather plays a major role in determining the success of the event…

…for Ashland, WI, northeast of Hayward, researchers projected a decrease in the probability of frozen precipitation (e.g. snow, sleet), especially early and late in the winter. Since Ashland is slightly buffered from climate change by Lake Superior we can expect an even greater reduction in the probability of frozen precipitation for the Hayward area, which is further inland. Furthermore, a group of researchers from the Universities of Wisconsin and Iowa project that by the mid 21st century there will be a 25 to 40 cm reduction in snowfall and a 5 to 20 cm reduction in mean snow depth (on March 15th) for Sawyer County.