St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Rambling Evergreen Avenue

Margo and I took the 99 Hyundai for a drive on the road that links Hwy 87 with the St Croix River, Evergreen Avenue.  Mom liked to drive out to her old home area in the Sterling Barrens, and pick a few wild flowers to remind her of her own childhood.  "From spring to fall, there is always something blooming," she liked to tell us.  To brighten up the old log house and make things cheerful, fresh flowers, free for the picking were just the right price during the depression of the 1930s that drove the family off of their farm to the barrens. 
West to East Evergreen Avenue runs about 10 miles.  Back when all of the roads were to be signed with labels, Sterling chose a numbering system.  However a few roads that wandered a bit from the straight and narrow got names.  Dad and the rest of the town board agreed this should be Evergreen because it ends at the old community of Evergreen to the west.  

We live on the eastern end of Evergreen, where the "good soil" is and farm crops thrive in spite of the rolling hills. Half a mile west is the big hill where the sand barrens begin along Wolf Creek and a whole different set of plants thrive -- the remnants of the old sand prairies and jackpine - oak savannahs. 

Here are the photos taken today, June 10, 2015 along Evergreen Av with a few thrown in with a tour north and east to make a loop out and back.  The trip was spiced up by me getting in and out to take photos and in the process transferring 3 ticks to Margo including one that bit in deeply.  The Hyundai transmission was acting up and so kept having to put it in low to get it to move, sort of exciting and worrying with the trip back on the sand dune roads and no cell phone reception on the barrens.  Margo gets worried about things like bad transmissions and empty gas tanks.  She worries me more than the car ;-)

The Cushing Rifle range uses the old cookhouse from the Nevers Dam logging headquarters.  I remember when they moved it up and bought 40 acres just west of the River Road.  On a calm Tuesday night, the sound of shotguns shooting clay pigeons carries to the farm almost 2 miles away 

Spiderwort, a lovely blue plant with a stem that is full of juice.  It has to be cut and put in water quickly to preserve its upright stature. 

Yellow hoary puccoons are all over, here with some spiderworts and sumach shrubs.  20 years after the road was widened, the sand is only gradually being covered by plants.

It is hard to show the extent of the flowers--sometimes they string along in groups for 1/2 a mile or more and rarely are there stretches with no wild flowers. 

Hairy vetch grows wild.  Farmers planted it in their sandy fields as a nitrogen producing legume that the cows liked and built up the soil.  It grows in many of the old fields naturally. 

MIles of wild phlox plants all along the way 

The oaks look dead, but they got hit by a late frost.  Some of the oaks cannot stand frost, and so the early leaves all die and a new set has to grow.  Some taller trees are leafed out above 20 feet and frozen below showing the layer of cold air below.  The lower altitude and quick loss of heat of the sand make the growing season in the sand barrens a month less than at the farm.  Floyd Harris, one of the settlers who lived out there all of his life said that over the 80 years he could remember frost happening in every single month of the summer

Many tiger swallowtail butterflies and a few monarchs fluttering around

Margo spotted this somewhat rare foxglove (digitalis) plant that is not only pretty, grows in blowsand, but is the source of the heart medicine too.  

Wild columbine is quite pretty.  We always sucked the little bulbs on the end for a taste of sweetness

Fred Parker hung himself at this location (Parker's hill).  The original part of the cabin was his home. He was found hanging in his barn (no longer here).  He was despondent over his inability to stay sober. Late 1930s. Mom and my grandparents knew him well and tried to help him quit drinking. Booze was available from the bootleggers who even though liquor was legal by the 30s, continued to make it so buyers could avoid the high taxes.  The prohibition probably created as many new alcoholics by the local production of liquor as it helped. 

Most of Sterling's roads are open to 4 wheelers this year.  Some can't resist going off road and running up and down the ditches even though the town tries to stop it as it messes up the road ditches.  Many horse riders use the barrens trails too, they mostly have off -road trails.

All along the sandy ditches, big mounds of sand are dug out by badgers trying to dig out pocket gopher tunnels.  They seem to be successful as they keep at it.  

Evergreen is paved all the way to the end -- just short of the St Croix River where a steep bank drops down to the water. In spring and fall folks take hikes and walk down, but June and July are so bug laden with mosquitoes, gnats, ticks, deer flies, horse flies etc, that most of the time it is better to avoid the woods. 

The Evergreen school has been purchased and refurbished.  Looks about the same as when Mom attended back in the 1930s.  There was a horse shed where Mom could park her horse for the day with hay to munch on. 

Orange hawkweed in the school yard --first of the orange flowers.   Next will be the butterfly weeds-- spectacular types of milkweeds. 

We turned north at the Evergreen School house.  On the west is one of the few remaining old fields out there.  It is slowly being colonized by the original prairie plants and jackpines and oaks.  Pioneers said it was mostly open prairie from fires when they first came in the 1850s.  Just drop your plow and break it--not trees to cut like out east on our farm.  The thin veneer of good topsoil on the sand was soon worn out from crops of wheat that at first were excellent and then dwindled.  The dry 1890s with bare ground and the sand began to blow and blew the settlers on east where better land was available.   A few came back during the depression when they lost their new farms.  

Probably 2/3 or more of the land is publicly owned -- County, State and even 4000 acres by the Town of Sterling.  With fire control and tree planting the prairie turned fields became forests and now are harvested in great amounts for oak firewood, aspen paper pulp and pine logs.  We see double trailer trucks hauling load after load from sunup to sundown all year long except for a brief spring period when road weight limits are imposed.  

Most of the sand barrens roads are just sand leveled openings on square miles (with various routes to avoid streams).  No gravel and difficult to drive on -- if you stop someplaces you sink into sand just like on the beach and need to jack up your car and put brush under the tires to get going.  So unless you have high clearance and 4-wheel drive it is safer to stay on the paved and graveled roads. 

We turned east to drive by the Sterling Fire tower (still used spring and fall dry seasons) that was my summer vacation home days 1970--45 years ago.  My summer job was to sit up there and look for the smoke of a forest fire.  On an exceptionally clear day I could see 25 miles, but my control area was bounded on the south by the town of Wolf Creek, north to Grantsburg, west to the River and east Hwy 87.  No fires the summer I was there -- so I must have done an excellent job 

A ladder 100 feet up the side on top of Fox Ridge, another 100 feet above the river -- a birds eye view of the countryside.

A great deal of logging going on.  Many oaks are dying from oak wilt and cut for firewood, some pulp for paper, some logs for lumber and I imagine other uses too. 

Low growing prairie roses are ubiquitous

Lupines thrive in the sand.  As legumes they take nitrogen from the air for their own use and build up the soil too.  They have a very deep taproot and so are almost impossible to move.  The seed pods spring open when dry flinging the seeds about.  

An odd sight for the sand barrens, a road puddle.  There are many swamps including the vast Maidment meadows north and east of the Sterling Tower that drain in Cowan and Cole (Cold) creek to join Trade River and then the St Croix.  Beavers made these huge ponds before trapping days and now often do again. 

Mom lived with her family on the barrens during the 1930s.  Dad spent a few winters trapping there in the later 30s.  Grandpa Carnes and two brothers homestead 160 acres each out there long ago and tried farming but moved on.  Great Uncle Clarence Carnes and his girls took over the Sunrise Ferry and ran that from about 1909(when Grandma and her brother Elza Carnes ran it) until it floated away in the early 40s and never ran again.  

So when I go out there, I still hear the stories from Mom, from Dad, from my grandparents and great grandparents and the several dozen of the family who tried living there but gave it up.  

  It is a large area and I don't know most of it. It probably is time to do one more search for the yet undiscovered John Maidment treasure within a mile of the Sterling Tower (mostly gold and jewels from his noble family in England...)   Or to see if there really is a car with two internal revenuer's buried pointed nose firs a mile from Evergreen....