01 September 2012

Dave's cabin

Summer, 2010 ~

It had been too long since my wife and I escaped the place we refer to as civilization. So when an old friend offered his Northwoods cabin to us for the Independence Day weekend, we gladly accepted. We have been acquainted with Dave since the mid-1980’s, when he and I worked together in broadcasting. He now lives in Texas, but keeps the cabin as a place to vacation, host family, and perhaps, eventually to be enjoyed in his retirement.

His dad, James, originally bought this old three-room shack, situated on the western side of upper Sibley Lake. Later, when it was time to bring the place into a more habitable state, Dave was invited to buy-in. Together, they added a living space and office, updated the kitchen, and turned the previous living area into another bedroom. The exterior of the cabin was finished with the natural look of cedar siding, so as to feel at home in the woods.

Standing in the center of the living area, it was not hard to envision the father and son working together on their project. Saving money. Planning the layout. Pitching-in on the jobs they could handle, and selecting the right craftsmen for jobs that required skills they, themselves, did not have. In picturing their work on the project, I did not see the muscles made sore by carrying lumber, nor the hammered knuckles or sliver-filled fingertips of the workmen. Only the vaulted pine ceiling, the sturdy deck overlooking the lake, and an eclectic variety of furniture, antiques and mementos gathered over the years. There is a pair of traditional snowshoes hanging on the lake-side wall, a pair of old wooden skis leaning in the corner, and a small pot-belly stove in the middle of the room. A sliding door faces both the lake and the sunrise; a combination that could only be made better by a very early morning and the aroma of fresh coffee.

Once upon a time—and I suppose this could be said of any place—the Brainerd Lakes area was considered “wilderness.” While still very nice, it has become a popular vacation destination, heavily populated by tourists and cabin owners in the summer, hunters in the fall, and snowmobile owners during winter. Most of the lake-side dwellings could hardly be called cabins; many of them are massive structures, featuring numerous out-buildings to hold a menagerie of toys: Speed boats and the various accessories they might tow, pontoons, jet-skis and the like. (A man paddling across the lake in a kayak or canoe does so at high risk. Not related to waves, wind, or skill level, but because of the heavy traffic of motorized watercraft.) Of course, to make room for these personal theme parks, many trees were cleared, much wildlife was displaced, and briar and brush have been replaced by the sod of finely manicured lawns. Rocks placed on the shore by glaciers have been moved to the front yard to serve as ornaments, and in their place, sand has been trucked-in to create the perfect beach.

Thousands of people have come to love their place at the lake; indeed, I only fear they might love it to death. In their quest to get "back to nature," they are instead beating nature back.

But I digress.

In contrast to all of this, there is Dave’s cabin. It sits at the end of a dirt driveway that you might not see from the road if you hadn't known what to look for. A tool shed in the yard holds most of the essential goods; a mower for the relatively small part of the lawn that is cut (most of the land is left to its natural devices), a snow thrower, various tools for cabin repair, a set of golf clubs and a few fishing rods.

From the back deck, the branches of birch and pine frame a breathtaking view of Sibley Lake. At this moment, there is no walkway down to the water; to reach the lake below, you must navigate through the thickets and down a very steep slope. Dave’s goal is to build a stairway down to the water, eventually, with a few landings where one might stop and enjoy the scenery. But he is compelled to leave the balance of the land as it is now, perfectly disorganized by nature. Near the base of the hill is a small storage shed that came with the property (it is showing its years), and a Grumman canoe that waits to serve Dave, his wife, and their visitors. Or, land-lovers can sit on the edge of the lake, listen for loons, and notice how much life there really is… swimming and blooming among the lily pads just off-shore.

Julie and I enjoyed the weekend a great deal, playing cards, chatting, making meals together. She did some reading. I did some writing.

It occurs to me that for some people, the lake is a place to enjoy all of the things that you have. For others, it is a great place to realize how little you need.

© 2010 Mike D. Anderson. All rights reserved.

04 August 2012

A tree without family

Late summer 2008 ~

I cannot know whether it was disease, insects, or the violence of the annual floods that drew the life out of the massive tree that was sitting on the west bank of the Red River. Perhaps it was simply age; it was a huge structure, after all.
Nor could I conclude whether the corpse was a sprawling American elm or a hardy red oak; I can usually call it from this distance, but the absence of leaves made identification difficult.

Oak, I think.

For one thing, oak is prone to a short, stubby trunk in this region... and wild, knarly branches. But there are other clues, too. Only oak could still appear so sturdy, even though its branches were so lifeless.
And only oak could still stand so strong, even while standing alone.

© 2010 Mike D. Anderson. All rights reserved.

08 July 2012

Staircase to the St. Croix

Autumn, 2010 ~
.Whimsy had carried us east of the river, where we stopped at Chateau St. Croix to discover and buy some wonderful wines. Not yet ready to go home, we continued north and found ourselves exploring a gravel road that shadows Fox Creek through the woods.

Usually not more than a bed of damp sand and rock, week-long rains had made the creek high and fast. It was as if the water was rushing down stone steps, eager to get to the bottom of the stairs where the St. Croix River was waiting.

.© 2010 Mike D. Anderson. All rights reserved.

02 June 2012

A limited time offer

Summer 2010 ~

There is a small body of water near our home in Saint Michael—Pelican Lake—which has, quite literally, been sentenced to death. You can read full details at CleanUpTheRiver.com or the website of the Minnesota DNR, but to make a long story short, Pelican is a lake that was both artificially and unintentionally created, and one that is scheduled to be purposefully drawn down and returned to its wetland status. It is not my intention to re-hash the “how and why” of the situation in this posting. Simply to reflect on the act of experiencing a wonderful lake… that is about to be essentially erased from the map.

There are at least two other “Pelican Lakes”—that I know of—in the state of Minnesota… one near Brainerd and another near Barnesville. But when a moniker was chosen for this young lake, the only obvious choice was to name it for the waterfowl that called it home. Because of the swampy shorelines, land-based predators were few. Because of the relatively warm, shallow waters, bluegills and other fish were plentiful and easy to catch… resulting in the perfect place for Pelicans to call home.

At this writing, vivid pictures from a recent kayak trip on the lake are fresh in my minds-eye. As my boat cut through the water, a muskrat swam alongside me, as if to be scurrying home for dinner in another lane on the freeway. I was able to glide quietly toward a pod of the fowl for which this lake is named… until at once, they took graceful flight, just a few feet from my position on the water.

As I paddled, I forced myself to reflect on the idea that I was seeing a place in a form that people who follow me might never see. As I mentioned before, this lake is scheduled to be drawn-down to little more than a slough. So, it was my chance to enjoy an environment that I knew would be erased within the next few years. When the lake is eventually drawn down, my kayak might be mired in mud or sitting on dry land... in the same place where it now moves fluidly through lily pads and cattails. The lake, as we know it now, will be gone. Relatively speaking, the end will come swiftly--within a two- or three-year period--which I think is a good thing. It will be a dramatic event for those of us who are familiar with this humble little lake; the change will be conspicuous.

Other lakes, rivers and streams all over the world are losing their lives, too, but not as the result of intention, so much as the consequence of over-development, under-management, and outright abuse and pollution. What makes their impairment less dramatic but more tragic is that it is happening so gradually as to not be obvious; even the people who are causing it are unaware that it is happening, because it is happening so slowly.

Kayaking over a lake that is about to vanish is a powerful experience, one that I will use to remind me that every place is, in a way, just that fragile. Absent due care, just as surely as if we drained or destroyed them on purpose… any lake, river, stream or ocean is at risk of a similar fate.

© 2010 Mike D. Anderson. All rights reserved.

06 May 2012

Shy child

Autumn, 2010 ~
.It was the first completely free weekend we had been granted in months, so my wife and I decided to explore the shorelines, hills and colors of the St. Croix valley. It was a meandering trip, with no particular destination in mind.

Bright sunlight—softened by high clouds—brought even more contrast to changing foliage; on a single tree, the eye could absorb vivid greens, shimmering golds, and spirited reds.
Even on a lone branch, emerald leaves hung beside those which had already burst into their biggest fall colors, both held in place by stems of crimson. It was if the forest was beginning to blush... like a shy child, nervous that people might be staring at her.

But then, they were.
.© 2010 Mike D. Anderson. All rights reserved.

01 April 2012

Lunch at Cattails

Late summer through early winter 2010 ~

His appetite was voracious… to the point that he was only slightly interested in my presence, throwing me a glance only every few moments, and then returning his focus to his lunch. I was sitting quite still , having positioned my canoe deep in the reeds and away from the breeze. For perhaps forty minutes or more, I was able to observe him munching at the cattails, as if this was his favorite dish at his favorite restaurant; he attacked the meal as if this cafe would soon be closing for the season.
And he wasn’t too far off.
The Monday of Labor Day weekend signals an end to summer for humans (at least those of us in the north). But animals are sensing the changing season, too, as the daytime sun heats less completely, and the night air becomes crisp. The lakes and rivers become cool, then chilly, then cold… as summer and fall make way for winter. Animals adopt a sense of urgency in eating their fill, or stowing away provisions, or both; winter arrives here long before scheduled on any calendar, and often overstays its welcome in the spring.
For muskrats, that often means building a house of cattails. The typical structure has a foundation of mud and roots, and walls of mud, stems and stalks from the cattails that surround them. Their house can grow as high as five feet and as wide as eight, even though the cavern inside is relatively small. The thick walls serve two purposes: They will stop the worst of winter winds, and as food supplies run low toward spring, the homeowner can begin eating his residence.

The past few years, I’ve had the chance to observe many animals quite closely, including a variety of muskrats. Technically, they are large rodents… a label more often used to describe disease-carrying critters like rats and mice. And certainly, muskrats can make a nuisance of themselves by dining on crops or drilling holes in ditches, levees or dams. But these amazing little mammals have the remarkable ability to make something from nothing… taking lands and waters that few others have use for, and seeing them as habitable environs and sustainable food sources.
I became concerned that one young muskrat living in a pond near our home might freeze to death over the winter, as he had done a poor job of cutting enough cattail to build a house with. But a little research taught me that these little critters will also burrow into the banks of a creek or pond and build their home underground. Often, these tunnels feature a single entryway above-ground and additional openings beneath the surface of the water… so as to have a means of escape if invaded, and to provide a safe, convenient route to food sources. The meager cattail clippings I saw were probably a feeding platform, as muskrats prefer to have a designated site for their dining room.
Some of these little fellows began to recognize my canoe by early fall, I think. I have visited often without bringing harm or being too intrusive... and on each of four visits, they allowed me to get a little closer. Some folks might assert that muskrats are not smart enough to have figured that all out. But I bet those folks have never built a house, single-handedly, that is strong enough to survive a bitter northern winter.
© 2010 Mike D. Anderson. All rights reserved.

11 March 2012

Cooling off in the Crow

Summer 2009 ~
Not long after putting-in on the Crow River, I allowed my kayak to get hung-up in the rocks of some shallow rapids. Usually, I would push my hands into the water, stiffen my arms, and lift my boat across the obstruction until finding myself in a floatable depth. But this day, I decided to sit there for a moment, lodged in the rocks, and soak-up my surroundings for a moment.

The observation time paid off: Within a few moments, I noticed a small doe, perhaps 150 to 200 yards downstream. It occurred to me that the breeze was coming from her direction, covering my scent… and the noise of the rapids was covering the sound I may have made paddling toward her. So, I dismantled my paddle and tucked it into the kayak… and then quietly loosened myself from the rapids. Then, I ducked low in the boat and floated my way toward the doe. I put one hand into the water to act as my rudder, and used my other hand to start shooting photos.

This quiet approach allowed me to get within about ten or twelve feet of the deer, close enough to note that she had been injured… probably by an automobile. I say that because I could make out the grill marks on her left rib cage, and she had similar injuries near her left eye, as well as cuts on both her front and hind legs. (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

Obviously, after the trauma she had already been through, the doe did not consider me to be much of threat. She continued to cool her wounds and drink her fill from the waters of the Crow, allowing me to shoot a number of photos. Eventually, she started toward shore—in no particular hurry—and wandered up the riverbank.

Early on, I realized what a unique wildlife encounter I had been granted. But as if to put an exclamation point on this once-in-a-lifetime photography experience, the doe turned around one more time before heading into the woods… and winked at me. The only thing more amazing is that my lens caught that final glance.

The next time I am delayed by some kind of inconvenience or obstruction, I must remember to stop for a moment, and look around. This could be nature's way of getting me to see something I otherwise may have missed.

[The lead photo in this story was selected as the winner in the wildlife category of the 2009 Crow River photography contest, sponsored by the Joint Powers board of the Crow River Organization of Water (C.R.O.W.). This story was originally posted in January 2010 at CleanUpTheRiver.com.]

© 2010 - 2011 Mike Anderson, St. Michael, MN. All rights reserved.

07 February 2012

Brilliant colors and hidden beauty

Late autumn, 2010 ~
It would be easy, at first glance, to consider the male mallard the more brilliant of the pair. After all, the color of his feathers range from light whites to deep charcoal, blended in gradient shades all over his body and wings... with a crown of hunter green.

For all of his grand colors, though, the mallard hen offers her own contrasting beauty. Her colors are more modest, perhaps, but they allow her to blend in, rather than stand out. For the sake of survival, perhaps that makes hers the more brilliant palette.

The photograph below was taken during hunting season. At first glance, you might see only one duck swimming on this overcast day. But a second look will reveal that there are actually a pair of ducks in the picture. (Click on the image below, and see the hen swimming just inches in front of the drake.) So... with hunters or predators lurking nearby, is it the drake or the hen which makes the more brilliant use of color?

© 2010 Mike D. Anderson. All rights reserved.

06 January 2012

Lift off


Summer, 2009 ~

They spook quite easily, so I was delighted to approach the Great Blue Heron without disturbing it. Paddle folded and my camera in hand, I drifted along the shore within just a few yards of the great fowl… until he moved toward lift-off.
It is amazing how such a tremendous bird can lift itself from the shore with only a single flap of his wings… and move several feet in a manner that seems effortless.

I leaned back in my kayak, smiling, and reflecting on the fascinating sight I had just enjoyed.

Just then, the Heron circled around to do the same, flying immediately overhead before disappearing over the trees.

© 2009 - 2011 Mike Anderson, St. Michael, MN. All rights reserved.

04 December 2011

Dancing in the sky

Late winter, 2011 ~

The overcast sky was seamless, leaving no specific point of entry for the sun. But at the same time, the cloud cover was light, like a veil. The snow white sky was a perfect match for the linen of fresh snow that had fallen the night before.

As if nature had painted this canvas to serve as a stage for their grand entrance, a pair of Trumpeter Swans broke over the horizon, toward the point where I sat on the river’s edge. They flew like well-choreographed dancers, so well synchronized that I if my imagination was at work.

As if to provide an encore, the duo made a wide circle over the treetops. From my vantage point, it looked as if they were flying arm-in-arm. I'm glad my camera lens saw it the same way, or surely no one would believe it.

© 2011 Mike Anderson, St. Michael, MN. All rights reserved.