St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas 2015 Winter Walk on the Farm

Christmas dawned gray and cloudy this year and even the full moon last night didn't match the description "the moon on the breast of the new fallen snow, gave a lustre of midday to objects below."   
 I took a walk to the pond, found it frozen over hard enough to walk around the shallow edges and so did, staying out of the deeper water as my old age has replaced adventure with caution.  
Some photos on Christmas morning 2015. 

The early morning gray skies are reflected in the photos.  The camera sees bright white and stops down to drabify things even more than my eye does.   The pond froze high with the many late fall rains, and so flooded out into the grass tussocks along the shore.
The path I kept open through the corn all summer is still used by a deer coming to and fro from woods to farm yard and corn field. Occasionally they dig out a little corn along the way.  

The ice looked thick enough so I stepped on to the edge and it held without rumbling, so I shuffled all the way round to see the pond from the inside out.  

The pond is dotted with clear spots.  Didn't have my ice chisel to see if they are thinner there.  I wonder what causes them.  

The ice had patterns in it many places around the east edge.  Maybe these are frozen reflections of clouds above
Shuffling along, sliding boots and never picking them up I old manned my way around the pond

Approaching muskrat house #1, I noticed fresh activity and a hole in the top.  My guess, the late rains raised the pond and flooded the home so Mr and Mrs Muskrat opened the top to get out.  Or it could be a predator.  Not having observed muskrat houses from close up, I need to learn a little more about them.  Dad, who spent winters in the 30s trapping along the St Croix could have told me all about them.  60 cents a pelt in the days when a 12 hour work day on the farm brought in $1.  

No one was home when I called, but I think the door needs to be closed or it will freeze the water in the basement.  Most of the muskrats around this pond were what Dad called "bank rats" digging tunnels underwater up into the banks so their entrance wouldn't freeze and their homes were safe under the frozen ground.  

Muskrat home #2 had a hole in it too, but no signs of traffic in and out.
Approaching the outlet of Dub Lake where it breaches the old beaver dam that likely raised the water a few more feet in some pre-settlement days before the farmers tried to drain everything for cow pasture and farmland.  When I was a kid, this was a swamp choked with cattails and the beaver dam breached.  It got some attention in 1970 to be dozed out and the breach somewhat plugged

An ash tree straddles the outlet with a few sand bags in front of it, the attempt by a local beaver to raise the pond last spring.  It did, but a few more are needed this spring.  I put them in after the spring thaw but early so any muskrats will have all summer to build houses at a higher level.  I don't want to flood them out in the fall.  This year the rains did that, and the stream runs healthily draining it, and likely to end up with the ice high above the water level by March. 

There is a lot of wear on the snow here by the opening -- but no tracks in the snow leading up to the opening.  So is it muskrats coming out, or maybe the otters stayed for the winter.  I couldn't see any tracks, just the area where the snow was packed down.  I suppose otters might nibble on muskrats too.  Next year the beavers should add a few more sand tubes. 

Heading back from the outlet north.  The peninsula to the right is where the inlet delta builds. 

The turtle raft gets a rest for the winter.  I saw only deer tracks around the pond, nothing else.  The snow is crunchy and probably too hard for smaller animals to leave tracks. 

I was struck by the patterns in the ice.  Wonder how this happens.  When we spent Christmas in the cabin at the lake while visitors "up north" on cold nights the lake ice cracked and boomed with sounds that have to be heard rather than described.  Almost like whales calling in the night.  

I took the same photos and enhanced the contrast to show more detail.  

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and Happy Holidays to all of you.  If you are interested in the daily update from the farm, you can check it out on facebook at

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Jennie Iverson Nelson Passed Away Dec 19th

Our neighbor and friend, Jennie Nelson, passed away December 19th.  She went to the hospital a few days earlier with pneumonia.  
The funeral is Monday December 28th, at the Wolf Creek Methodist church.  Visitation at 10am and the funeral at 11am with lunch afterward. 
Jennie would have turned 99 on December 31st.  She was a good friend, a neighbor and was exceptionally nice to us and our mother.  You can find more information at this link.  Her husband, Emil Nelson, grew up on the farm we live on, one of the John Nelson 21 children.  
Jennie's hands were always busy with crocheting, knitting or other crafts.  She loved to write poetry, enjoyed collecting her family history and local history and shared it with our local history society. 
  Our sympathy to the family. We will miss Jennie. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Taylors Falls Dam Workers

An early September posting on StCroix360 said

     "Xcel Energy will begin an eight-foot drawdown of the St. Croix Falls Flowage on the St. Croix River on Sept. 12. The drawdown is necessary to provide dry access for contractors who will be rehabilitating the Taylors Falls wall on the west side of the flowage.

The 880-foot-long concrete wall was built in 1906 and has deteriorated over the years. The project includes installing an impermeable membrane on the upstream face of the wall and constructing an earth embankment around the wall.

Work is expected to begin Sept. 18 and be completed by early November, depending on river flow and weather conditions. The flowage will be refilled as soon as the upgrades are complete and should be near full pool by Nov. 20."

Driving through St Croix Falls recently, I noticed that as of mid December, the water was still low and work was still underway.  Having an abnormal amount of curiosity, I tried a few vantage points to see if I could capture what was happening.  Some photos of the activity on Dec 18, 2015. 

First two maps from Google showing the retaining wall on the left, that appears to prevent the raised water from going down main street Taylors Falls, MN.  

As wayward youths, my friends and I went through fences and ignored signs to walk across the long wall with the St Croix on the upper side and a small slough on the lower side.  A broad, big wall that was not at all scary to walk on, although we did wonder if we fell off if we would be sucked into the massive turbines in the power house, that we had visited on school tours. 

From the MN overlook it appears the river had two channels, one to the left where the dam is and another to the right where the concrete wall stands.  

Truck after truck unloaded gravel along the river side of the wall.  A dozer and excavator leveled it.  Along the wall is a black membrane attached. 

On the lower side looking at the 109 year old wall.  It does look rugged and aged. 

Looking across from the St Croix Falls Overlook -- fogged up a little from the river and distance

The  gate to allow logs through 

The river was filled with ice floes, grinding audibly.  

Wild mountain ski area was filled with clouds from the snowmaking machines. 

Water rushed through the old Nevers Dam site, the ice showing the whirling eddies in front of the boat launch. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Dynamite on the Farm

        I lit the too short fuse on the stick of dynamite and jumped on the idling snowmobile.  Dad climbed on behind me and I gunned it hoping to be far away when the fertilizer-dynamite charge we had just set in the middle of the cattail swamp blasted it into a duck pond.  I swerved to miss a clump of cattails spilling us onto the ice and tipping the snowmobile over on its side, killing the engine with only seconds to go before the explosion. “Let’s get out of here!” exclaimed Dad.  I had never seen him so excited.

            Farmers used dynamite to break fields out of cutover land filled with stumps and rocks.  Stumps had to be pulled, grubbed or blown out of the ground and then burned. Dynamite was often the quickest way to break their tenacious hold to the ground. Farmers blasted drainage ditches, created waterholes, went fishing,  and cracked rocks with sticks of dynamite.
Does this need dynamite to open a pond?

            After World War I (1919) with a huge surplus of explosives left over, the government began promoting dynamite to clear stumps.  For a few dollars one could buy a case of dynamite with fuses and caps.  Dynamite was promoted as the easy way to clear your land for farming.

            Too many obituaries of the time read like this one “William ______, of Clark County, Wis., was instantly killed May 9th, 1912, while at work in a field dynamiting stumps. He had just placed a charge under a stump and it did not go off as soon as he expected it would, so he went back to the stump and on his arrival there the charge went off, blowing off his head. He leaves a wife and family.”  Others lost hands, arms and eyes.   The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture working with the University began safety training sessions for farmers.  

            Uncle Maurice was the dynamite expert in the Hanson family.  He did most of the stump blowing. Grandpa’s farm had over 100 acres of huge white pine stumps to clear when he bought it in 1905.   Maurice did the blasting while his brothers piled the stumps and roots to be burned.  He became very experienced and very careful!

             Dynamite came in half-pound sticks. They were a little larger than an ordinary candle and were wrapped in heavy yellow or red paraffined paper.  Dynamite required an explosion from a dynamite cap to set if off.  A length of fuse was inserted into the cap which resembled a large 22 shell and carefully crimped to hold it.  One end of the dynamite paper covering was opened to reveal the explosive material. It was a fine damp sawdust dough like material.  A wood dowel was used to poke a hole in the dynamite and the cap inserted and the paper folded back over the end to make what looked like a huge fire cracker.  Dynamite fuse burned at a constant rate of 40 seconds per foot. 

            Instructions for dynamiting stumps:  “Deep oblique holes are too be made with a round crowbar under the stump singled out for execution. This hole should be as nearly horizontal as possible and directly under the stump so that all the explosive force may be expended on the wood and not on the earth between the dynamite and the stump. The earth acts as a cushion and the natural tendency of dynamite to exert force downward is counteracted.”     
The pond we tried to make with dynamite that did not work later was dozed out and a beaver dam restored to make a nice pond.  

            The ponds in our cow pasture all dried up one year in the 1950s.  The west boundary of the pasture was Wolf Creek.  One hundred feet of  boggy shoreline prevented the cows from getting to the stream to drink.  Uncle Maurice said 100 sticks of ditching dynamite would blow a channel to the creek and create a waterhole at the hard bank. 

            Dad and we boys went to J. B. Hanson’s hardware at Siren to pick up 100 sticks of dynamite, a foot of fuse and a dynamite cap.  Dynamite was available to people who JB thought were responsible people over 21 years of age and had cash (dynamiters were not good credit risks).

            On a nice sunny day we boys with Dad, Maurice and Uncle Chan (who lacked excitement in his life) carried the dynamite back in the pasture.   Maurice planned to place the sticks 1 foot apart in a long row from creek to hard ground.  At that distance each stick would set off the next to make a single explosion and create the ditch.  He poked a fork handle down into the bog making 90 holes in a row putting a stick in each.  At the bank he made several more holes together to get a water hole.  He prepared one stick by inserting the cap, and a 40 second fuse (1 foot long).    

            We watched from a few 100 yards away up the hill to get a good view.  Maurice told us to keep our mouth open to equalize the pressure.  We boys opened them wide with visions of exploding heads.  He lit the fuse and ran to join us.  In 40 seconds there was a tremendous explosion with mud flying high in the air.  We went to the creek and sure enough, there was a nice 4 foot wide channel coming from the creek to an 8 foot wide water hole at the hard bank rapidly filling with water.  The cows had their waterhole for less than 100 dollars cost. 

             Since I had seen how dynamite was used by watching Uncle Maurice carefully, I assumed I too was qualified to use dynamite. They were just big fire crackers!  Some years later Everett and I wanted a water hole on our sand land.  I drove up to J. B. Hanson’s and being 21 by then, bought 25 sticks of dynamite, 2 feet of fuse and 6 caps.  I put about 15 sticks in a bundle in a hole 3 feet deep in the marshy bottom of extinct Sterling Creek, put a foot of fuse and cap and lit it and ran off.  The result was a nice little pond 15 feet in diameter and 2 feet deep.  Nothing to it at all for us expert blasters!    

            At this time the federal government was encouraging farmers to make wildlife ponds by blowing holes in cattail swamps to get standing water.  They used a stick of dynamite to set of nitrogen fertilizer specially treated with fuel oil, much cheaper than only using dynamite and much more of an explosion.   Having the dynamite already, I talked Dad into trying it on a cattail swamp. We waited until winter when we could walk out to the center.  We knocked a hole through ice and into the muck below.  We poured our specially prepared fertilizer down the hole and topped it off with a stick of dynamite, cap and fuse.

             We had only 6 inches (20 seconds) of fuse left so we had our escape planned by snowmobile to get far away quickly from this huge explosion. Nervously we sped off.  I  swerved around some cattails spilling us onto the snow.  We righted the Skidoo, jumped back on, got it started in one pull and were just clearing the swamp edge when we heard the roar. 

            It was a miserably small explosion and barely widened the hole we had made scattering the fertilizer rather than exploding it.  We hadn’t gotten the instructions right.    We had mixed feelings.  Dad was happy it didn’t go off with us still uncomfortably close.  I was disappointed it failed.  The only effect was really lush cattails next summer.

            Dynamite and fertilizer were used in 1970 by a radical to blow up a building on the Madison University campus protesting war research.  After that dynamite was limited to licensed blasters and so ended the explosive years for farmers.  Like my Uncle Chan, I too sometimes feel the need for excitement.  I miss the days when a trip to Siren and a few dollars bought the chance to improve Nature with a big bang!