St Croix River Road Ramblings

Welcome to River Road Ramblings.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Rambling the River Road as January Ends

Friday morning, got up early, pretty blah-ed with the winter, and headed to St Croix Falls before the rest of the family was out to do a little shopping and have my usual  senior coffee and two sausage burritos at McDonalds ($2.66).  It was a beautiful morning sunrise on the way and I found a window seat to enjoy it even in town.  

After getting a few groceries and a micro-SD chip for my camera, I dawdled my way up the St Croix River Road, doing my inspection of the finished Taylors Falls flood wall and noticing the water is back up again -- maybe not quite all the way, but after the 8 foot drop last fall, it appears to be closer to normal now.    Some photos along the way.  

Water rising along the dam area and retaining wall

The water is part way up the dam splash boards
At the Lion's Park north of St Croix Falls, the rising water seems to have come up along the river edges and although the center is still ice, both sides appear to be open or at least flooded

Up river along the River Road a sandbar shows the water has risen with ice floating up too. 

25 trumpeter swans at Spangler's landing with about 20 feet wide open water from the bank to the river.  It was open along the Wisconsin side most of the way to Nevers Dam, and appeared to be open on the MN edge too.  As I drove north, I could see the river here and there along the way and counted at least 50 trumpeters.  Since most of the way was behind trees, I will guess there were another 50 I didn't see.  They seemed to be enjoying themselves and still in family groups -- the parents and their gray offspring. 

According to internet sites, Trumpeter Swans prefer to stay in their nesting areas, migrating only as far away as open water and food are available.  We see them at Hudson, Stillwater, and around here where there is open water all winter.  

At Nevers, there is some open water, but when I stopped, no birds swimming.  The steep lower hill driveway was strewn with dead brush and twigs from someone getting stuck below and needing a little traction to get up.  I didn't try driving down with my 2-wheel drive car.  

The river looked higher up here--maybe back to normal again. 

     Watching the swans swimming along the river, honking to each other sort of cheered me up a little.  Nice to see some other animals sticking out the winter and looking like they were enjoying it.  

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

MAKING MAPLE SUGAR By Charles Duddley Warner

I THINK there is no part of farming which the boys enjoy more than the making of maple sugar. It is better than blackberrying, and nearly as good as fishing; and one reason why he likes this work is, that somebody else does the most of it. It is a sort of work in which he can appear to be very active, and yet not do much.

In my day, maple sugar making used to be something between picnicking and being shipwrecked on a fertile island, where one should save from the wreck tubs, and augers, and great kettles, and hen's eggs, and rye-and Indian bread, and begin at once to lead the sweetest life in the world. 

I am told that it is something different nowadays, and that there is now more desire to save the sap, and make good, pure sugar, and sell it for a large price, than there used to be; and that the whole fun and poetry of the business are pretty much gone.

I remember the New England boy (and I am very intimate with one) he used to be on the watch in the spring for the sap to come. Perhaps he knew it by a feeling of something starting in his own veins, — a sort of a spring stir in his legs and arms, which tempted him to stand on his head, or throw a handspring, if he could find a spot of ground from which the snow had melted.

Perhaps the boy has been out digging into the maple trees with his jackknife; at any rate, he comes into the house in a good state of excitement — as if he had heard a hen cackle in the barn — with, "Sap's runnin'!"

Then indeed the stir and excitement begin. The sap buckets, which have been stored in the garret over the woodhouse, are brought down and set out on the south side of the house, and scalded. The boy is everywhere present, superintending everything, asking questions, and filled with a desire to help on the excitement.

It is a great day when the sled is loaded with buckets, and the procession starts for the woods.  The sun shines almost unobstructedly into the forest, for there are only naked branches to bar it; the snow is beginning to sink down, leaving the young bushes spindling up everywhere; the snowbirds are twittering about, and the noise of shouting, and the blows of the ax, echo far and wide.

In the first place, the men go about and tap the trees, drive in the spouts, and put the buckets under. The boys watches all this with the greatest interest. He wishes that, sometimes, when a hole is bored in a tree, the sap would spout out in a stream, as it does when a cider barrel is tapped, but it never does: it only drops, sometimes almost in a stream, but, on the whole, slowly, and the boy learns that the sweet things of the world do not come otherwise than drop by drop.

Then the camp is to be cleared of snow. The shanty is re-covered with boughs. In front of it two enormous logs are rolled nearly together, and a fire is built between them. Upright posts with 90
crotches at the top are set, one at each end, and a long pole is laid on them; and on this are hung the great caldron kettles.

The huge hogsheads are turned right side up and cleaned out, to receive the sap that is gathered. And now if there is a good "sap run," the establishment is under full headway.

The great fire that is kindled in the sugar camp is not allowed to go out, night or day, so long as the sugar season lasts. Somebody is always cutting wood to feed it; somebody is busy most of the time gathering in the sap; somebody is required to fill the kettles and see that the sap does not boil over.

It is not the boy, however; he is too busy with things in general to be of any use in details. He has his own little sap-yoke and small pails, with which he gathers the sweet liquid. He has a little boiling place of his own, with small logs and a tiny kettle.

In the great kettles the boiling goes on slowly, and the liquid, as it thickens, is dipped from one to the other, until in the end kettle it is reduced to syrup, and is taken out to cool and settle, until enough is made to "sugar off." 

To "sugar off" is to boil the syrup till it is thick enough to  crystallize into sugar. This is the grand event, and is only done once in two or three days. But the boy's desire is to "sugar off" perpetually. He boils his syrup down as rapidly as possible; he is not particular about chips, scum, or ashes; he is apt to burn his sugar; but if he can get enough to make a little wax on the snow, or to scrape from the bottom of the kettle, with his wooden paddle, he is happy. A great deal is wasted on his hands and the outside of his
face and his clothes, but he does not care —he is not stingy.

To watch the operations of the big fire gives him constant pleasure. Sometimes he is left to watch the boiling kettles. He has a piece of pork tied on the end of a stick, which he dips into the boiling mass, when it threatens to go over.  

He is constantly tasting the sap to see if it is not almost syrup. He has a long round stick,  whittled smooth at the end, which he uses for this purpose, at the constant risk of burning his tongue.  The smoke blows in his face; he is grimy with ashes; he is altogether such a mass of dirt, stickiness, and sweetness that his own mother wouldn't know him. He likes, with the hired man, to boil eggs in the hot syrup; he likes to roast potatoes in the ashes; and he would live in the camp day and night if he were permitted.

Some of the hired men sleep in the shanty and keep the fire blazing all night. To sleep there with them, and awake in the night and hear the wind in the trees, and see the sparks fly up in the sky, is a perfect realization of all the adventures he has ever read. He tells the other boy, 91 afterward, that he heard something in the night that sounded very much like a bear. The hired man says that he was very much scared by the hooting of an owl.

The great occasions for the boy, though, are the times of the "sugaring off." Sometimes this used to be done in the evening and it was made the excuse for a frolic in the camp. The neighbors were invited, and sometimes even the pretty girls from the village, who filled all the woods with their sweet voices and merry laughter and little affectations of fright.

At these sugar parties, every one was expected to eat as much sugar as possible; and those who are practiced in it can eat a great deal. It is a peculiarity about eating warm maple sugar, that, though you eat so much of it one day as to be sick and loathe the thought of it, you will want it the next day more than ever.

At the "sugaring off" they used to pour the hot sugar upon the snow, where it congealed into a sort of wax, without crystallizing; which, I do suppose, is the most delicious substance that was
ever invented; but it takes a great while to eat it. If one should close his teeth firmly on a ball of it, he would be unable to open his mouth until it was dissolved. The sensation, while it is melting, is very pleasant, but one cannot talk.

The boy used to make a big lump of this sugar wax and give it to the dog, who seized it with great avidity and closed his jaws on it, as dogs will do on anything. It was funny, the next moment, to see the expression of surprise on the dog's face, when he found he could not open his jaws. He shook his head; he sat down in despair; he ran round in a circle; he dashed into the woods and back again. He did everything except climb a tree and howl. It would have been
such a relief to him if he could have howled, but that was the one thing he could not do.

Like this story?  Charles Dudley Warner was born in 1829 and wrote about "Being a Boy" in 1877 looking back to his own childhood.     Try the whole book for free  at
Been preparing for an all new old talk-- history of maple sugar/syrup making in North America. I have done this before, but this time decided to spend more time trying to understand the earliest methods and the evolution of the process to where we are today. 

Personally, we are sort of stuck in the 1940s method of syruping--buckets, flat pan, wood fire, and 1948 tractor to collect sap.  However, it is fun to look at the current high-tech methods too as well as to look at the earliest techniques. 

One of the questions that needs to be answered is what level of making maple sugar existed before the traders brought metal kettles to Native Americans that made boiling syrup easy as compared to the hot stones in a trough and the other limited quantity techniques. 

The question of Native Americans teaching the new European settlers how to do it is also uncertain.  Northern Europeans (Scandinavia, Scottish...) already tapped birch trees before they ever came to America, so undoubtedly the techniques they brought to America (metal tools, wooden buckets, metal kettles etc.) we already well known.  

Lots of information available, but not much from pre-1700s accounts.   One very early trader said an old Native American told him that they had been making sugar as long as his father remembered -- long before settlers came. 

A Canadian researcher stated that the quantity of sugar was very limited--mostly a drink, a cooking liquid and some sugar made.  Of course that is pure speculation with a little history included.  He also said that maple water was used for an eye wash in the smokey homes.  

If you want to hear what I have uncovered, the meeting is Thursday, Jan 28, 7 pm at the Luck Museum.  I look forward to the Maple season getting underway in a month or so--it says winter is gone.  Saturday, Jan 30 in Luck at the DBS hall, is another maple syrup program where beginners can learn how to start, and the rest of to see what is happening with each other's plans for this spring. 

An old Hanson photo from Selden Hanson's Dad of maple syruping in Maple Grove Township, Barron County, WI.  We think this is one of Grandpa Hanson's brothers on the right, but not sure which one. Maybe Lote or George. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

SELHS Chrstmas Party -- Jan 21

Sending out newsletters to the Sterling Eureka and Laketown Historical Society members for our 2015 Christmas Party.  It is January 21, noon potluck at the Wolf Creek Methodist Church.  

We have a party in January to break up the long winter.  This year we have a speaker, Larry Smetak who will answer the question "Who was Caleb Cushing?"    

The SELHS museum is located in up-town Cushing, WI (far NW part of the state), a town named after Caleb Cushing.  He was from the east and speculated in land in the 1860s.  Folks went from St Croix Falls up to stay at the crossroads to see the Cushing lands, and that evolved into going to Cushing and thus our town received its name.  Cushing was much more than a land speculator.  He was a military man, a politician, a lawyer, and business man too.  Dr. Smetak will tell us all about him. 

The January newsletter of SELHS is online and viewable at Jan 2016 SELHS Newsletter

We are in one of those cold spells that wanders below and above 0F and makes winter drag on if you don't like winter activities.  We are not too keen on them so are eager to move into spring. 

January 28th I give a slide show on the history of Maple Syruping at the Luck Museum, 7 pm.   We started a winter syruping seminar about 10 years ago, and do something each year to bring out the folks who are eager for mid March syrup season to begin.  

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Winter Bog Walk

Took an hour walk about the bog on the NE side of the lake yesterday.  Our neighbors and we own land that join at a tiny creek trickling through an extensive bog that probably is a mile from source to the lake.  Of the 40 acres of maple syruping woods along the lake, maybe 15 acres are lake shore, creek bog; inaccessible most of the year--too wet to walk through and I am to old to hop from tussock to tussock like my younger days of bog exploring. 

Scott and I took a tour to see what was there.  You can join us on the tour in photos. 
The bog begins on the right side of the photo with the tag alder brush and wraps around the east and north side of the lake and then extends to the NE a mile or more crossing Hwy 87

The beavers and the wet late fall raised the water level and more of the bog is iced over and easy to walk across.  There are springs here and there that makes it exciting as you have to be careful not to step through thin ice.

Beaver lodge up the creek.  Scott kayaked up this far last summer.  

Otter trail?  

Access for beavers, muskrats, otters and ??   A spring and activity keeps it open

I think we must have about 15 acres of this type of bog, although some of it is higher and has ash, tamarack and other trees in the mossy surface.

Tamarack trees

Tag alders and red twig dogwood

Center of photo is an open spring.  I couldn't walk closer as the ground is wet and a person sinks into the bog.  I didn't test how deeply I would sink, but probably only over my boots.

Tamarack cones

The warm weather fooled some pussy willows

It looks like an ash tree but what are the seeds?
Not ash seeds, so what kind of a tree is it?