St Croix River Road Ramblings

Welcome to River Road Ramblings.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Sixth grader, Dennis stood behind the curtain and sang “I’m Overall Jim” as I, a first grader, lip synched it, in response to fellow first grader Susan’s refrain “I’m Sunbonnet Sue.” Susan and I represented the first graders at the Wolf Creek School fall program. Susan (her real name) was sitting in a rocking chair wearing a long calico dress and a sunbonnet. I was sitting next to her in a matching rocker, wearing a straw hat, striped Lee Overalls. Our piece was a duet about being farm kids.
I was too timid to use my outside voice inside in front of a hundred parents. Dennis was recruited to actually sing my part, hidden behind the makeshift sheet curtains pinned to a wire at the front of the planks on short sawhorses, our stage.
Dennis was 12 years old and a sixth grader. He liked to sing and could carry a tune well. His voice was changing, but he could still sing high like a first grader. I got to know Dennis a little that fall as we practiced the song together.
He was slim, light complected with light brown hair. He was quiet, an average student, always polite and smiling. He and his clothes were clean, but patched. He liked the outdoor games, especially softball. He had a very old glove, but could catch any fly or grounder that came to him. He seemed like the rest of the farm kids, but with a serious side.
Dennis lived a mile from school. His mother and father were divorced. She lived in Denver and he stayed with his dad, a drunk. They lived in a decrepit old two story house, weathered dark gray with no signs of paint, a few upstairs windows boarded up, and junk filled yard that a few wandering goats trimmed.
His Dad did odd jobs when he needed money for beer. Dennis was left pretty much to raise himself after his mother got a divorce and took his younger sister to live in Denver with her. Dennis worked for his farm neighbors to earn money for his own needs starting that year; his school clothes and a bicycle were his first purchases. His neighbors to the north, Mac and Nancy, raised string beans for Stokeleys. Dennis could earn a dollar for a long day, crawling up and down the rows picking beans into a mesh sack. Nancy insisted he join them for meals. They kept his money for him, carefully keeping a ledger of his account. If he needed groceries or other items, Mac let him ride along in the old Model A truck when he took the string beans to Milltown. Dennis and Mac had worked this out to keep his dad from beating him to get his money for beer.
His neighbor across the road, Old Man Wicklund, raised 20 acres of watermelons on the sandy River Road land. Dennis earned a little money hoeing melons and in the fall, helping him load the trailer with melons to take to town. He got all the melons he wanted for free. Many fall days he would bring a melon to school, overfilling the basket. He left it sit in a spring emptying into Wolf Creek near the school house, and would bring it out at noon for the teacher and kids to share with him for lunch.
Dennis bought most of the groceries for him and his dad and did what cooking and cleaning was done at the home. Dennis pumped the water, heated it on the stove and washed up every morning. He always came to school clean and with clean clothes that he patched himself.
The summer Dennis finished 7th grade, he got a job with board from a farmer nearby. He earned more money and took a 20 year old car as part of his payment. When school started he proudly drove his nicely polished old car to school. He kept working for the farmer during the winter. Everyone in the neighborhood knew he was too young to drive and that he hadn’t licensed the car, but as the constable told my dad, “He has it hard enough with out us piling on.”
When spring came, he passed his eighth grade exam and graduated with his class. At the last day of school picnic he told us “My Dad say’s I am 14 and on my own from now on. I got decent tires, two good spares, and all my stuff loaded in my car and a little money I saved. I am driving from here to Denver to see how Mom and Sis are doing. If they will have me, I will stay and get a job and try to go to high school there.”
He brought out a well folded US highway map and showed us his route. As the picnic wound down, he went around to his neighbors and his school chums and said his thank you’s and good byes. We gathered round as he got into his car, lightly loaded with all his worldly possessions. He started it up, waved a last time and disappeared forever from our lives, south down the Old River Road. We watched until the faint trail of blue smoke disappeared. We hoped he was heading into a better place.
(True story written for Wisconsin North West Regional Writers topic "Behind the Curtain")

Ice Cream

Ice Cream in the Winter
(a story written to win a blue ribbon at the Polk Co Fair Yarns competition)
“You girls start milking if I am not back by six” Dad called to us as he and Mom left in the sleigh pulled by Fashion. Grandma had fallen and needed help from Mom. Dad was taking her the 20-mile trip. We didn’t have a car in those days, and the roads wouldn’t have been passable for one anyway.
Sis was 8 and I was 10. We knew how to milk cows. It had been a sad year with Billy, born in winter, getting sick in spring, and lingering into the late summer before the funeral in September. Dad took losing his first and only son hard. He rarely smiled anymore. Mom tried hard to be cheerful, but she often cried when she thought no one was around.
It was dark by five. “Lets get started milking. We can get done in case Dad is late,” I told Sis. We lit the lantern and took the milk pails to the barn. Sis started with Bess, an easy milker and I took Flo, a hard milker, but our best cow of the six. The small log barn was comfortable, filled with the smells of freshly pitched silage, hay and manure—all fragrant to farm kids.
“My hands hurt,” whined Sis.
“If you stick it out, we will make ice cream when we are done,” I replied. “We can mix canned strawberries in it.”
“Won’t Dad be mad if we use up the cream?” asked Sis.
“I won’t tell if you don’t.”
Soon the milking was done. I skimmed a quart of cream from the top of the morning milk can.
“How do we make ice cream?” asked Sis.
“Mom beats some eggs, cream and sugar in a bowl and then puts it in the ice cream freezer to get cold,” I replied pretending to know more than I did.
Four eggs, a quart of cream and a cup of sugar later, tasting it as we added the ingredients, with Sis cranking the egg beater, we were satisfied with the mixture. We put it in a deep coffee can.
I set it in a pail of broken icicles and snow mixed with salt—just like when we borrowed Neighbor Johnson’s ice cream maker. We took turns cranking the beater. Sure enough it thickened up. We stirred in a pint of canned strawberries without the juice and had just dished out two big dishes when Dad came in.
“The cows are all done,” said Sis worriedly. Looking around sternly, then breaking into a smile, Dad said “Is there some left for me?”
Two week later Mom came home. She was back to her old cheerful self again after her time away. “You don’t look skinny and wasted away without me,” she kidded us, “How did you get along?”
“It was hard, but we managed ,” said Dad smiling hugely as he gathered all of us into a big hug We never told Mom that for fourteen nights in a row we ate freshly made strawberry ice cream.
(It won a blue. I read the stories submitted at the fair for the last few years and decided a mixture of nostalgia, pathos and humor were needed in a simple story-- or else something to do with a wounded veteran!)

A Rustic Lake Cottage

It is Saturday morning at 7:00 and I have finished breakfast and am sitting on the porch overlooking Orr Lake to the west, at our rustic cabin. The lake is 100 yards away and the only activity is our solitary loon calling across the lake. The loon is here for his third year. This is the first time he has a wife and child with him. Our swans have been gone for the same three years—the mother having choked on a dare devil. The rich green of the alders, trees and grass contrast with the rippled silver-blue water and puffy clouded sky.
Each morning a bald eagle flies in and sits at the top of a huge old oak on the knoll between us and the lake, above the spring. Eventually he swoops off and picks up a fish and leaves. I haven’t figured out where the nest is—somewhere in the thousands of acres of woods to the west I assume. Our beaver and otters from the last few years appear to have been trapped out over winter. When you live on a lake, the enjoyment of having a beaver family and an otter family as your neighbors turns you against trapping.
Our lake view is disappearing as trees have taken over the old open cow pasture. For 25 years, when we worked in Rochester, we let the cabin rest, only stopping for brief weekend and vacation visits. Without cattle, the woods try to swallow up the cabin. My favorite tree is a huge maple, well over a hundred years, that has slowly been shedding a large branch or two each year as pileated woodpecker carves ever increasing holes seeking the tasty carpenter ants living in the decaying heartwood. One third of the crown came down in a storm a couple years ago, and the rest of the top, although lush and green again this year, looks like a puff of wind might bring it down. It is our air conditioning tree—shading the cabin from the southwest sun with its branches gently brushing the porch. The trees are close enough so that the squirrels use the cabin roof to rumble their way from tree to tree traversing the whole 40 acres and beyond.
The other trees, mostly elms, have grown up in the years since the cabin was built. One of the biggest, probably 20 years old, is dying this year, the leaves having come out and now have yellowed and shriveled as Dutch Elm disease kills it, already a foot in diameter at the base and in the prime of adolescence. Next year it will be a morel hunting spot and the year after, dry standing firewood, ready for a batch of maple syrup and to keep the cabin warm. The disease will spread to the rest of them in this dozen who sprang up after the cows were gone. In a couple years the grove will be gone.
A spreading century white oak provides a perch for the bald eagle who visits us each morning, sitting in the top for an hour or more before swooping to the lake and carrying off a fish. White oak acorns are food for the deer, turkeys and squirrels. They seem to have heavy acorn loads only every few years, a strategy to keep squirrel populations down and leave a few left over acorns for seed.
Margo, Dad and I built the cabin 33 summers ago when I was still a teacher with summers off to help on the farm. We moved into a bare spot amongst the huge maples high above and back from the lake. We built back from the lake to try not disturb the otherwise uninhabited lakeshore. We sit on the last hillside before the Sterling Sand Barrens that extend 10 miles west of us to the St. Croix River. One time this was the shore of Glacial Lake Lind, a huge lake that encompassed the area north of Wolf Creek in the St. Croix River Valley, according to a book published by Doug Johnson ten years ago, then a U of Wisconsin geologist. We built as cheaply as we could. My teaching salary was $10,000 then, and Margo wasn’t working that year being pregnant with Scott. We cut jackpines, poples and basswood logs, took them to the 100 year old sawmill that Byron and Dad had setup a years earlier, sawing boards and 2x4s. We put Penta treated foundation posts in the ground on a steep slope and built a 16x24 floor on them. We added 8 foot walls and above that created an upstairs by framing two 11 foot rafters joined at the top by a 3 foot wide flat roof top—sort of a modified A-frame on the top of the first floor to give us an upstairs loft area. We used real rough sawn boards instead of plywood for the roof, floors and walls—just like the houses in the old days. Our costs were mostly the nails and the roll roofing (replaced now by shingles).
We had no electricity and no tools of our own. We bought a new handsaw, square and a hammer for me and one for Margo and 50 pounds of assorted nails. We had never done any carpenter work before. We proceeded with advice from Dad and with much creativity and trial and error! This was in the days when Sterling was still free from building permits, zoning and the rules that make creative building impossible anymore. A pitcher pump on a point driven into the spring near the lake furnished water.
Having no money for windows and doors, we went to an auction and bought a bunch of old church windows –the framed glass panels for a dollar each and at an old school auction bought a big old half-glass school room door. We got a few more windows here and there, all just pieces making our own jackpine frames.
We put Aunt Glady’s old wood cookstove in the kitchen and a used barrel stove on the other end for heat. We never kept anything in the cabin worth stealing and credit the absence of break-ins to the gate at the road and the total lack of anything that would bring more than $5.00 at a garage sale. In the summer we cooked with Coleman stove. The few weekends we stayed in winter were comfortable with the two wood stoves heating the uninsulated building, too hot in the sleeping loft and too cold on main floor.
We built an outhouse from rough jackpine boards and lumber, sided, like the cabin, with rough sawn ¾ inch boards. For a feel of luxury, we insulated it and paneled the inside and added an old stained glass and a figured glass window from the auction. The cows soon poked the stain glass window apart with their nosy curiosity and appreciation for fine old artisanship—so we put a plastic fake replacement in. Making a double walled and insulated outhouse was really not a good idea out in the middle of the woods. Squirrels and mice soon chewed their way between the walls.
After a few summers, we paid $1000 to get the electricity brought in ¼ of a mile. We drove a point in the spring and got an old pump from Margo’s parents cabin at Weyerhauser. Our hot water was heated by the sun with black hoses spread out on the on the west hillside connected to a black painted tank salvaged from a water heater to make a solar water heater. By late afternoon we had plenty of hot water to take a bath in the big old clawfoot tub on the porch—overlooking the whole lake yet mostly invisible to the occasional fisherman. We did put up a curtain when we noticed that every Saturday evening at five when Margo took her bubble bath there seemed to be several boats finding the fishing good right off of our dock.
In the spring of 1980, after a tough year of teaching at Amery HS, we moved to Rochester where I was hired as a computer scientist for Mayo Clinic. We were now three hours away from the cabin with no more summers off.
We didn’t use the cabin much after that except on some weekends in the summer and a week of vacation each year and some spring maple syrup making. The cows still grazed up to it and kept the rest of the 40 acres looking like a park (with a few cow pies for contrast). Dad and Mom were cutting back on the farming and number of cows and suggested Margo and I buy on a land contract to supplement their retirement income. They got rid of their cattle in the big cow buyout that came along about 20 years ago and the 40 hasn’t been pastured since.
Retiring two years ago we decided to stay at the cabin for the nice part of the year. To me that is March to December! Long ago I had started a porch to the north, but never really gotten it finished. I had intended to glass it in with recycled patio doors as the walls, and make it weather tight enough to use as a summer bedroom rather than the loft above. I still haven’t done it, but have been thinking much more seriously about getting started on it any day now.


It was the first day of class. She gracefully walked into the room and found a seat near the front. She had golden brown hair, large brown eyes complementing her flawless tanned skin—a natural beauty without makeup. She wore a knee length dress that showed her slim athletic figure. Her name was Susan, I soon found out.
By the end of the week, I finagled an assignment to work with her on a project that put us together for many hours over the next few weeks. Susan was bright, open, and laughed easily. As we worked, we compared our backgrounds. My happy childhood on the farm with her broken home, passed from parent to parent and grandparents finally landing with a strict, cold maiden aunt.
She did well in class. I often ate lunch with her we were soon great friends. She asked, “Do you like me?” “You are my best friend” I replied, and later decided that for the first time, I was in love. I liked being with her more than anyone else.
The last day of school she brought a picnic basket with lunch for both of us. We shared a sandwich, chips and drank from the same thermos of milk. She brought out a single chocolate cupcake with white frosting decorated with the outline of a heart. Taking turns with the same fork, we slowly ate it, enjoying the thick sweet frosting.
“Thank you Susan, it was wonderful!” I told her as we cleaned up and prepared to return to class.
Susan turned to me, “I won’t be back. My Mom wants me to join her in Denver, and I have to go right now. Thank you for making this year my first happy one” She put her arms around me and kissed me on the lips. I stood dumbstruck as she smiled and said “I love you Russell. Please remember me. I have to leave right now.” She walked away and got into a waiting car that sped off before I could react.
I never saw her again. I never have forgotten her. However life goes on, and next year I met Richynne, a slim, dark, beautiful girl. We were best friends all that year of my second grade in school and Susan and first grade were just fond memories.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Falling Leaves

Falling Leaves
It's been a quiet week on Orr Lake. Two heavy frosts killed the
rest of the garden and chased the lady bugs from the bean field into
the cabin. They keep us company during the fall and on our weekend
visits during the winter—coming alive each time we start the wood
stove and warm up the cabin. They thaw out, crawl around wondering if
it is spring and time to dehibernate.

Margo and Mom sold a lot of pumpkins, squash and apples on the
River Road Ramble, more than double the previous year. The Ramble
and Autumn Fest in St Croix Falls made a fun Saturday. Eureka had a
great turnout at the old town hall, with lots of old tractors, cars,
pictures and artifacts. The new town garage was a popular stop with
all the details of building the new building laid out. Wolf Creek
had a choice of lunch at the bar with 1890s costumed waitresses or a
home made lunch by the Ladies Aide at the church, both welcoming
sinners to the fold.

We had fifty people stop by the Cushing Museum and visit. Lily
Larson's old scrapbooks borrowed for the summer from Lavern and Doris
Jean were a hit. We even sold a Cushing History book or two. You can
buy them to send as Christmas presents at the Cushing Bank, At-las
Antiques and the Luck Museum or order them from SELHS, Box 731
Cushing, WI $15 plus $2.50 postage. We only have one more payment to
make to the Leader for the printing costs! All money goes to the
Sterling Eureka and Laketown Historical Society.

We have two freshly resurfaced roads! Hwy 87 from Bass Lake to
Grantsburg and Hwy N from Cushing to Luck. I think they put down 3 or
4 layers of blacktop after having ground up the old surface to recycle
it. The roads were re-done in about a month and never really stopped
drivers from using them. A piece of Hwy 35 in the Luck area is being
resurfaced now too. The smooth roads tell us our tires need
balancing, maybe the wheel bearings are a little noisy and the
suspension is wearing out. Rough roads hide that. Brother Everett
says to turn up the radio and the problems will all disappear. He went
for his leukemia treatment followup test last week after a year of
treatments and is clear of any cancer! He has to continue tests
quarterly to see if it comes back. The Doctor says you can knock it
down, but not get rid of it.

Margo's mom, Myrtle is being kicked out of the private Alzheimer's
home near her home in West Bend, WI., after a year. Myrtle walks
around most of the day, up and down the halls, looking for open doors
so she can leave and "go home", where home is the place she lived as a
little girl. She needs constant watching, something her family could
not do at home and this home couldn't support. After a long search, a
new place, a nursing home, much farther away, has been located. The
move comes this week. As the family has agonized over the loss of a
wife and mother and lately over the move, Myrtle is unaware of family
and surroundings. Myrtle has moments of joy and pleasure with Margo
(whom she accepts as a sister) when they go for a drive, watch the
birds, have an ice cream etc. They are immediately erased from her
memory. Nevertheless, Margo is satisfied that they help both of them
get through the loss. Modern medicine has managed to keep people
physically alive and healthy so that they can die in even more painful

We were to the funeral of Linda Harris, our old friend from Wolf
Creek School, last week. Linda was only 60 when she died from bone
cancer. The Harris family was one of the pioneer families in West
Sterling, and continued to live there when most of their neighbors
left. Linda was buried in a beautiful homemade pine box, befitting
the pines along Evergreen Avenue where the Harris family once owned
the west end. The large funeral procession left the old Wolf Creek
school building, now the Methodist Church, following a tall wood
wagon pulled by two black horses. We all walked to the cemetery
following a musician playing guitar and singing the old church songs
of loss and hope. Linda was buried in the cemetery where her
ancestors rest. Fifty years earlier on the same autumn Friday, Linda
and I would have been at our desks in the same Wolf Creek School; she
a lovely young girl, her life ahead of her, probably dreaming of what
it would be. Rural schools with kids from a half-dozen families made
those school chums seem like part of our own family; they are hard to
lose. Linda had chosen not to carry the fight with cancer through all
of its phases, saying she was ready to go to heaven.

My favorite reading in the newspapers are the opinions. They come
as editorials, in some columns and in the letters to the editor. I
like it when someone clearly and briefly gives their opinion. I like
ones that make me think about something in a new way or teach me
something. Some writers always do this and some never do.
Last week in Gary King's editorial page he included one of those
emails that gets forwarded around the world and is supposed to make
you think. I started to read it and immediately got bothered with the
math. It does some estimations of populations and then says "divide
200 million adults (in the U.S) into $85 billion (support for AIG, a
big bankrupt insurance company being bailed out) equals $425,000"
indicating that each of us would pay or could receive that much if it
were distributed. The math as calculated by this old math teacher is
$85,000,000,000 divided by 200,000,000 which by my calculations is
$425 (cancel out eight zero's from each and you have $850/2) The
whole premise is totally off, and thus the whole email bogus. I can
guess the author used a normal calculator rather than a politician's
calculator--normal ones can't handle such big numbers. Of course,
with last week's newer government bailout which with the pork included
could reach $850,000,000,000 we get up to $4250 per person for that
deal. I take my debts seriously. To pay Margo's and my share of the
latest bailout, $8500, I plan to write a two checks; one directly to
one of those poor bankrupt Lehman Bros. and the other to a lobbyist to
pass along to a politician for saving me from something or other.

Margo is going back to work to help us pay the $100,000 of our
share of the national debt of 10 trillion dollars. ($10 trillion / 200
million adults x2). In the last eight years we have seen $4 trillion
added to our national debt. Margo and I would be on the hook for
$40,000 for the two of us. I think that includes $10,000 to invade
Iraq, $10,000 so the rich could get a tax cut, and some miscellaneous
items like bridges in Alaska, non-negotiable prices Medicare pays for
drugs and tax breaks for oil companies.

We are enjoying the political season, especially the TV
advertisements. It is particularly interesting in our neck of the
woods where we only get MN stations but live in WI. We are pretty
much up on Coleman and Franken, but in the dark as to if anyone is
running in WI. With our new HDTV converter, we tune to a different
channel, adjust the rabbit ears, and then watch the picture come in
and out like a bad dvd. It seems if a butterfly flaps his wings
outside, it interrupts the signal. Oh well, now instead of getting a
small number of somewhat snowy channels all of the time, we get a
large number of mostly unwatchable channels all of the time. Margo
better get that new roof antenna up before the snow flies more than in
the TV.

I had three of my computers quit on me in the last month. Two
were old ones, living on borrowed time. The other was my nice two
year old laptop. It suddenly started using only ½ of the screen. I
tore it apart thinking that the cable between the screen and computer
had worn in the hinge area. I managed to get it apart and together
again, but had no luck in getting it to broaden its view. If this
column seems only half thought out, you can blame it on my computer.

It is pretty tricky to write a column seeing only half of what you are
writing! (From my weekly column in the Inter-County Leader Frederic WI).

Cutting Firewood

Cutting Firewood
Every fall when the weather cools down we cut firewood. The cabin has a wood heating stove and a wood cookstove as its only heat. It takes many cords of wood to keep it heated. We have to cut wood for the spring maple syrup cooking too. We have many woodlots on the farm with pines and oaks to maples and basswood. Each tree has its own characteristics as firewood that we have learned from history and experience.
Some years we saw lumber at our old sawmill so have slabs for kindling. We save most of them for the maple syrup cooker firebox where the eight-foot pine slabs are great for keeping the sap boiling. Since we haven't cut our wood in advance this year so it will have had time to dry, we have to find some dead wood that will be useable yet this fall. Many elms died in the last few years in the woods, especially along the old fencelines. While picking morels around them this spring I have marked in my mind where some tall branchy ones stand with the bark fallen off, a sign they are dry enough to burn immediately. God looks after those of us too improvident to cut our wood in advance by sending Dutch Elm disease, and windstorms.
The elms are small enough so I don't have to try to split them. American elm is almost unsplittable by hand. The elm trees range from 10-25 years old and the biggest are already 12 inches in diameter with wide growth rings. One has a base log that I save for the sawmill. Elms seed when they are still seedlings themselves and don't seem to be susceptible to Dutch Elm disease until their bark roughens after they are 10 years old or more. There seems to be no end of nearby elm seedlings. A few red elms, with their pretty dark wood, mix with the white American elms. It appears that although the huge spreading elm trees of our youth are gone, killed off twenty years ago with the first scourge of the disease, elms will be around forever in their smaller form. A very adaptable tree! I am the only one of my Dad and brothers who bought a German Stihl chainsaw. The rest chose Jonsereds, made in Sweden only 70 miles from where Great Grandpa Hanson lived. We each like our brand well enough so we wouldn't trade with each other.
I start the season with a chain sharpened professionally and file the rakers down a little to get a more aggressive cut. It cuts fast and straight. Later as I touch it up with the file, it gradually starts making the more artistic curving cuts that I am used to. I take the orange WD Allis to the woods with the trailer made from grandpa's old Widowmaker wheels. That was the nickname for a commercial brush cutter made with a large whirling large blade mounted parallel to the ground out in front of a motor on two wheels that had the habit of getting pinched while cutting trees and would whirl around and cut the operator's legs off. Grandpa decided he was already short enough and dismantled it with the motor going to Uncle Lloyd for a garden tractor, the blade to brother Byron for a painting and the axel widened for a boat trailer then a low sap and wood trailer. We carry the saw, gas oil mixture, bar oil, chainsaw wrench, axe, chain, maul and wedges with a jug of spring water.
The American elms are in a thicket of prickly ash that we cut out of the way first. The bright red berries have a sharp pleasant citrus smell that brings back memories of the more than 50 years I have been cutting wood. Dad took us four boys along to load the wood he cut into the trailer. Farmers had to do most of their woodcutting after the fall crops were harvested usually after deer hunting season and through the winter, before the deep snow. We tied our sleds or ski tow ropes to the back of the tractor and trailer and got a thrilling ride into woods. The elms are easy to cut; nice and dry. A few American elms are already rotten only 3 years dead in contrast to red elms still sound after being dead for 25 years. We always piled the brush to give as much pasture to the cows as possible. No cows run the pasture now, but I still pile it remembering Uncle Chan who told us kids "If you pile the brush in a tight big pile, then next year you will have rabbits hatch out of it". Uncle Chan was never married, so he might have been mixed up about how the rabbits got there, but even now, I find rabbits in my piles the next spring. I think the biologist call this process Harogenesis—sort of like spontaneous combustion. My brother always wears protective shoes, glasses and chaps, having had to do this while working for the DNR. He says that with chainsaws, safety is of primary importance. I tried these, but found that the steel toes dulled the chain and the chaps wad up in the saw and take a long time to pick out. I settle for an orange helmet to match my saw and leather gloves, some yellow sponge ear plugs and a big red faded handkerchief to wipe my brow.
When I was a kid and chainsaws were rare, expensive and heavy two man machines, most people cut their wood in pole length with a crosscut saw, trimmed them with an axe and then had the buzz saw crew come in and saw it into stovewood length. The huge whirling buzz saw blade was too dangerous to be close to until we were twelve years or older. We could help lift the poles, but Uncle Maurice would run the saw and make sure everyone kept all of their fingers. Grandpa or great Uncle George would "throw away." They reached for the blocks of wood that came off the saw and guided their fall, arms swinging them away from the blade. No walking and not too much lifting made it the job for an older man. We kids challenged each other to split the big blocks and spent hours throwing wood through the chute through the basement window and ranking it below and feeding the huge furnace there that provided our heat and hot water. If we were short on wood and the snow was deep, we might get a load of coal to mix with the wood. A load of maple yo-yo scrap from Luck was our kindling and the source of great fun as we rescued nearly perfect yo-yos to play with.
Grandpa had a steam buzz rig in 1900 when he was a young man. It took a lot of wood to keep the steam engine heated up, so when he bought the first gas engine in the area he quickly became the most popular buzz sawyer as he didn't burn a third of the wood he cut! He had the local hardware keep a barrel of gas for him as no one else used it. When he shut down his engine and refueled it, everyone went far away, worried about an explosion. Grandpa had tried filling it once while it was running and had gotten badly burned in an explosive fire. In the 1960s, Grandpa and Dad bought a Lombard gear drive chainsaw on halves. They found that with this one-man chainsaw they could cut the trees down and into stovewood lengths right in the woods and do it faster than cutting poles to buzz later. The era of buzz rigs and the crews of men going from house to house came to an end quickly.
Margo comes to the woods with me and helps to pickup the wood, load the trailer, haul and rank it in the woodpile. She looks at each stick of wood as money in the bank. At our Pine Island home we burn propane and keep the temperature down to save on fuel. At the cabin we let the stoves roar and often find ourselves with the windows open when it is 20 below outside! It doesn't get any more luxurious than that!
Twenty years ago, January 15, 1987, Uncle Maurice Hanson was out cutting wood in his back lot. It had been an abnormally warm January—highs in the 30s and 40s for the first two weeks, a nice break to do some mid-winter woodcutting. On the 15th it cooled down into the 20's with zero expected overnight. Uncle Maurice went out that day into the woods, but didn't come back in when he was expected. Myrtle found him lying on the ground as if he were sleeping. His 82 year old heart had given out while cutting wood. We woodcutters think this to be the perfect way to leave this world for the next.
I don't suppose we will get to cut wood in the next world. I imagine hell is administered by oil executives and heaven surely has the climate of Hawaii.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sand Carp

I grew up as a Jack Pine Savage in NW Polk County on the edge of the land they call the Sand Barrens. I never new much about the area until I met Doug Johnson, professor at the UW, digging in the clay bank along Trade River on Evergreen Av., 10 years ago. He told me this story: Some 10,000 to 50,000 years ago some glaciers melted and made a huge lake upriver from St. Croix Falls. Each year as the glacier melted, layer after layer of clay washed into the lake and settled to the bottom – to nearly 200 feet thick. Then as the melting slowed, only fine sand filtered in leaving another 20 feet of sand on the lake bottom. This lake, he called Glacial Lake Lindh—or just Lindh, drained when the water cut through the rocks at the Falls of St. Croix.

Professor Johnson said when the surface water drained; it left about 15 feet of water still in the lake bottom saturating the lower three-fourths of the 20 foot sand layer. The dry sand at the top started blowing and made big sand dunes—the big ridges through the Sterling Barrens. With time and lots of rain, the dunes stabilized when prairie grasses and plants moved in. Lightning fires kept the trees burned off. He told me that it is woods now only because there are people who put out the fires and plant trees (the County and the DNR mostly). He says the area is especially interesting to biologists because the underground lake is filled with both water and sand—attracting and evolving some mighty strange animals. Since then I have made a study of some of these unique species and will share a few with you in hopes you will help us preserve them in their special sand barrens lake habitat.

Lots of people drive along the River Road or Evergreen Avenue and the other old roads in the Barrens and see the rows of dirt mounds along the ditches and wonder what is making them. Well, very few people have seen the Sand Carp that is pretty common in Sand Lake Lindh. As the lake slowly dried up, pools of water were left with fish trapped in them—land locked from the St. Croix, but sitting on 15 feet of water soaked sand. Over a few thousand years some carp evolved to live in the sandy slurry of the old lake, eating roots instead of water plants, and creating water filled tunnels in the firmer areas. Their most unique difference is the blow hole (just like a whale) that they use to clear their sinuses of the sand that filters in. Each sneeze leaves a mound of dirt on the ground above. If you are driving along a barrens road, look for the series of 4 to 6 mounds in row, the sure sign of an active Sand Carp.

Sand Carp are tasty. Their fins make an especially delicate soup. You must be careful to take only those who have not been swimming amongst poison ivy roots or your stomach lining may break out with ivy blisters. We catch them by digging a sand pit—a 10 foot hole straight down in the sand near the mounds. The Sand Carp comes swimming and burrowing along in the wet sand and drowns when he fall into the water hole.

The Sand Beaver is a rarer find, but the careful nature watcher can see signs of their work. Like the Sand Carp, they too spend most of their lives below the surface living in the underground creeks, so abundant at the edges of Sand Lake Lindh. Some of these creeks burst forth as springs along Wolf Creek, Trade River and the St. Croix. The Sand Beaver are invaluable to keep the lake from drying out, as their underground dams block many of the outlet springs. You can see their activity when you see a cluster of dead trees. They cut the roots for their dams. They are a nuisance when they mistake your well for a dam leak and plug your well point (many local wells are only 10-20 feet deep taking advantage of the sand filtered lake water). Jack Pine Savages take a rifle shot down their well to scare away the beavers and to blow out the debris.

The Sand Tern is a unique member of the duck family that has adapted to the underground sand filled lake. It burrows deep into the sand hollowing out a small cavern that fills half full of water. There it builds a floating nest with cattail seedheads brought from a nearby swamp, and raises up to a dozen ternlets. The primary difference from the normal Tern and the Sand Tern is the presence of clawed webbed feet and a seining bill. The claws allow the birds to climb from the hole to the outside. The bill is similar to that of a baleen whale (although smaller) who gulps a huge mouthful of water and then spits it out through strainer teeth to keep the small fish, plankton and shrimp. The Sand Tern takes a mouthful of wet sand and then strains out the sand leaving the bugs, algae and krill.

A rare but increasing species is the Sand Alligator. Normally our area is too far north to allow alligators to survive through the winter. However, years of Twin Citians flushing baby alligators purchased on Florida vacations and becoming nasty pets, have let them travel down the Mississippi to Prescott and then up the St. Croix where they enter Sand Lake Lindh through springs and into the interconnected tunnels of the Sand Carp. They prey mostly on Sand Carp and are comfortable in the cold winters far below the frozen surface, hibernating in abandoned Sand Tern caverns (the web of nature is marvelous!). They can be seen sunning themselves along the horse camp on Trade River on a quiet summer afternoon.

Pocket gophers live in the upper dry layer of the lake and in the dunes. A 10 inch rain can raise the lake water table high enough to drown most of them. This had happened only once in the past 50 years, back in June of ’42 when it rained for 4 days straight. A few living at the top of a dune ridge escaped to repopulate the area as the water table gradually dropped. Their biggest predator is the badger from above, the gopher snake from within and the alligators from below.

The 2006 and 2007 dry years have lowered the lake level nearly 2 feet. As a preparation to future dry years predicted by global warming, a few of the Sand Carp are actively evolving their fins as rudimentary legs and taking short sunbathing trips to the surface. I have only seen them near the Sterling tower, where Fox Ridge rises 100 feet about Sand Lake Lindh’s water level.

The next time you travel through the Sterling Sand Barrens, bring a post hole digger, find a low spot between the dunes and dig a hole down to the lake. Spend a half day peering down this window into Sand Lake Lindh. If you don’t see at least one of the sandwater species I have talked about, I will be very disappointed.
Icy Memories

The ice cracked suddenly and gave way dropping me into the frigid water and into a struggle for my life. My heavy boots filled quickly pulling me down, and cold water penetrated my blue jeans and two layers of underwear. I went down so fast I didn’t even think of trying to swim. I thought—“stay straight and come up in the same place—don’t get caught under the ice.”

I had taken the snowmobile from our home farm to do chores as our second farm 2 miles away, taking the shorter woods route. It was 5 below zero and the roads had not been plowed since the overnight snow. I had checked, fed and watered the cattle and was on my way home. I was 15 years old. We had bought our first snowmobile a month earlier, a yellow and black 1968 Ski-doo .

The safety rules of snowmobiling included the primary one: don’t go exploring without a partner on another snowmobile. If you got stuck out in the woods, you might freeze before you could get back to civilization.

I followed the trail to the lake and there decided to take a detour across it, to drop in on Uncle Maurice. There was a well traveled trail across the lake. As I drove across, I saw the beaver house at the north end, and decided to explore it.

I knew the lake was full of springs and had a creek through it, so I left the snowmobile on the trail and walked towards the beaver house through thick fluffy snow. As I got within 20 feet of the shore, I fell through. I must have stepped onto an area above a spring where the ice was thin.

I sank fast—didn’t even think to try to swim, just went down. As my chest submerged, I came to a stop—my feet hitting a very soft and muck bottom. I had stopped with my head and shoulders out of water.

Immediately I tried to crawl on the ice—but couldn’t get a grip on anything and the ice broke as I tried to get up on it. I tried walking towards the shore, the muck gripping my boots, threatening to lock me in place. I managed to wallow forward, breaking the ice ahead of me going towards the beaver house—a large pile of sticks and mud a little ahead of me. As I got closer, my footing got better as I stepped onto the brush, sticks and small logs stored underwater for the beaver’s winter food. I managed to scramble up onto the beaver lodge that connected with the shore.

I ran along the frozen cattails on the shore and followed them around to the snowmobile trail and jogged out the snowmobile—my clothes stiffening with each step. I got it started it and drove home as fast as we could go. Ducking behind the windshield did little to warm me. My clothes were rigid and I was shivering uncontrollably as I reached home and rushed in. I stripped, changed clothes and warmed up by the stove. I threw my clothes in the washer and had them drying by the time Mom came back. “I slipped down in the manure in the barn and was a mess” I told her, not wanting her understand how dangerous snowmobiling could be and add to her worries with four active sons.

I told the Dad whole the story. He commented: “Some people have to learn by experience. “
Writing your memoirs lets you have the life you should have had.