Tamarac Trails and Tales

Oh, Tamarac. Have you ever failed me? Not even once that I can recall. Be it summer or fall, and now, early in spring, when so little was seasonally correct thanks to our long and lingering winter and shortened spring. Yet you once again shed away the intricacies of life from your tree-filled valleys and hills, those rocky, reed blessed shores surrounding your placid and picturesque lakes; those sneaky reflection pools hidden in little pockets that surprised us with those bright yellow marsh marigolds! 

What a beautiful surprise, as if you had decorated the dining room table with a bouquet of beauty. You also offered us colorful dainty forest flowers within the tree leaf duff, just below the warblers and fleeting colors of that chorus of birds. Then you added the suspense of swan domination intermingled with such grace and style. Then there was the photographic “poetry” in the greening of the forest as a new spring came to life around us. 

We drove the three hour trip after setting an alarm for 5 a.m., which was somewhat shocking in itself. My partner, Roberta, had intended to wake me a few days earlier for this trip I seemingly just had to make. On this more successful waking morning when the alarm went off we both jerked awake from our pillows with shock in instant consciousness as did poor Joe Pye. My ever hopeful hound didn’t quite know what to make of it, looking from the blaring old clock radio to us. Although it took a bit to gather ourselves, including making our tea and coffee, we were out and on the road in about 45 minutes. Through Graceville, Herman, Pelican Rapids and finally Detroit Lakes. As we turned onto U.S. 34 we were mere minutes from our goal: Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge.

On the edge of Tamarac we caught perhaps a fight over a pecking order on a small wetland.

We were blessed even before we reached Blackbird Trail, the gravel thoroughfare through this North Woods paradise. We began passing swans huddled in stalk fields a few miles before the park entrance that included several on a small wetland that were in some sort of ritual, one that included a bit of a dust up followed by ritualistic rising and lowering of their necks. We guess we had witnessed an establishment of a pecking order of young, unattached swans for there were a couple already on nests. Their mating rituals are seemingly quite different for that occurs in water, with a beautiful neck and head movements between the male and female, an almost ballet-like ceremony of artful lust.

Yellow Warblers were amazingly common, although we also caught Yellow Rumped and Chestnut sided in the Refuge.

What we witnessed was decidedly less serene and beautiful. Nonetheless, swans provide us with one of the beautiful successful rebound stories in nature. The numbers have increased significantly over the years, for when I was young they were extremely rare. I recall being on a trip to Christchurch, New Zealand, in the 1970s where I kayaked through more black swans than of all the native white swans I’d seen in my lifetime to that point. Now they’re fairly common, including some that nest in our nearby prairie wetlands. Swans are such a beautiful bird. So elegant and figurant, so graceful and poetic in form. I never tire of photographing them. 

Moments later we pulled into a broad turnoff to pick up some literature, we lingered at the overview to look at the lake below. Suddenly we caught a flash of yellow and we were suddenly immersed in one of those hide and seek games with Yellow Warblers. Fortunately we were high above the trees for a change, making the game even more fun. While I was working for warbler images, Roberta had spied a large wading like bird in the shallows below. I could see it briefly and captured a few images, although reviewing the images both on the camera and later on the computer, the identity remained mysterious.

A little “photographic poetry” helps the soul …

Tamarac has usually offered a beautiful bouquet of flowers. While we didn’t see the beautiful blue flag iris blooms that have enchanted me in the past we saw numerous bellwort, hepatica, violets and wood anemone. A few years ago that five mile stretch took nearly three hours as I was constantly in and out of the car with the camera, bending over and actually laying on my belly in seeking different angles. Now, just months shy of reaching the ripe age of 80, I am feeling somewhat limited in seeking those same and similar camera angles. And it seemed that just as I was about to push the shutter there would be a nearby flutter, and my eyes would roam from the flowering offering to the nearby brush or canopy. Such joy. Such beauty. 

Between the warblers and forest-friendly wildflowers, it would be awhile before we came upon one of those “little pockets” of marshy waters and the jewel-like marigolds. What a startling sight! On the ridgetops of ankle to knee deep drops, they beckoned like stars in the night. Our stop there lasted long enough that a park ranger drifted in, the only vehicle and human we had seen in the nearly two hours of traversing Tamarac. She was soon out of the pickup and bending over with Roberta as they chatted about the wild range of hepaticas. Meanwhile, I was shutter happy. The marigolds were like icing on a cake, to use a metaphor. 

As we gathered ourselves another sense was awakened. That of sound, and the sound was the rapid rat-a-tat-tat of drumming Ruffed Grouse. Interestingly, although we had been in and out of the car numerous times we hadn’t heard the drumming until then. And, from multiple directions. The ranger said grouse were common and acted a bit surprised that we hadn’t encountered on our drive. 

Shortly thereafter we reached the gravel portion of Hwy. 29, and decided we should head back for the second third of our journey, one that would include Maplewood State Park and the rookery in Fergus Falls. There was some wonder if the rest of our day-long adventure would measure up to Tamarac, and although the other places were interesting in their own rights, Tamarac was once again inspirational and beautiful. Once again this sanctuary of wildness, here since 1938, was a special delight. It has yet to let me down whether I’m looking for wildflowers, feathery inhabitants or photographic poetry.  

Bucket List Birds

As we gathered for the potluck offerings for the launch of the 45th Salt Lake Birding Weekend, an older woman sitting across the table spoke of her drive out from Minneapolis to our far “west coast” of Minnesota. “For years,” she said, looking across at her birding buddies, “I’ve always wanted to see my first White-faced Ibis. We drive out here and they’re everywhere. I’m guessing we’ve seen 30 or 40 of them already … just this afternoon.”

The interestingly and colorful Ibis arrived in the area a week or so before. Initially after moving here 11 years ago I mistook them for Curlews, which I’d seen in the deep south. That first spring I spotted one in a wetland a few miles from Listening Stones, and I would eventually identify them as the Ibis after seeing and photographing them en route to the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge between Sisseton and Houghton, SD. A grouping of about a dozen seemed to congregate in the same flooded farm field each spring. 

Thanks to Rhyan Schicker I was able to find and photograph my first American Avocet just east of Marietta on the “annual” Salt Lake Birders Weekend.

Then, a few weeks ago, a flock found a flooded piece of shallow flood water within the Ortonville golf course, a spot they would alternate after rapid escapes to a slip of shallow muddy water maybe a football field away. 

Obviously the Ibis were on the woman’s personal birding bucket list. That caused me to wonder about my own bucket list of birds. One I’ve chased with no luck for years, even though my writer friend, Tom Watson, has sent me notifications of his sightings between here and his hometown of Appleton numerous times, is the American Avocet. Unlike the Ibis, a wader with a down-turned bill, the Avocet has a beautiful orangish head boosting an slightly upturned bill. It’s just a beautiful species, and often a favorite of wood carvers who favor waders over duck decoys. 

Another on my short list is the Western Grebe, a long-necked beauty of a bird known for its courting “rushing” ceremony where twin birds skim across the water surface on their feet in perfect synchrony. Although videos have captured the rush so many times, it’s something I’ve dreamed of seeing and hopefully photographing sometime.

A closer view of one of my bucket list birds. We saw the other, the Western Grebe, although it was too distant and dove underwater before I could capture an image.

So there you have it. Two birds. My bucket list. Over the years there have been other birds of interest including some real surprises. Take the Puffin. I never expected to see one before I encountered several on the western seaside cliffs of Ireland years ago. I even asked a guide if it was indeed a Puffin for I expected a much larger bird, and they were much smaller in stature than a Crow … perhaps the size of a Brown Thrasher. 

Many such sightings are unexpected. Take the time when an old and now departed friend, Greg Gosar, then an organic farmer in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, asked if I’d like to see a large grouping of Sandhill Cranes that had landed in one of his wheat fields. We snuck up on them via a sandy, dry gulch before easing onto our bellies to crawl up the bank to see about a hundred Sandhills on a feeding frenzy. Although this was my first sighting of the birds that have captured my interest ever since, the highlight of the moment was actually seeing a single, tall and majestic Whooping Crane. Back then, in the late 1970s, Whoopers were nearly extinct with perhaps 60 total in the entire country. Greg was just as shocked and excited as I was. We talked about that moment for years afterwards, and always with awe.

For those who had never seen a White-faced Ibis, there were ample opportunities on the caravan.

Cedar Waxwings eventually came off the list while looking through a “boardroom” window on the second floor of Java River Coffee Shop in Montevideo. An Indigo Bunting appeared a few years ago at a friend’s bird feeder in a Driftless forest near Cannon Falls, and the striking Scarlet Tanager was spotted while canoeing with friends on the Concord River near the historic town a bit west of Boston. How appropriate this sighting so near the shadow of Thoreau, and for a member of a family of birds that seemingly completely miss our prairie biome! 

And, so on it goes. From the high mountains through my years in Colorado to living along the Mississippi Flyway to now having my home in the depths of the former Prairie Pothole region of SW Minnesota, where a chain of river lakes annually brings birds I had rarely seen before, and sometimes, like the Snow Geese migrations and the immense murmurations, are absolutely stunning. While I don’t maintain a physical checkoff list, mentally the list is alive and growing.

The “annual” Salt Lake Birding Weekend has been on my radar for years and is anchored around the small alkaline, 20-acre lake just a few miles southwest of Marietta. Although the Covid years interrupted the string of consecutive years of these birder caravans, this was labeled as the 45th year. Otherwise it would have been the 48th, and apparently there are only a few of the original organizers still alive. One was Fred Eckhardt, of nearby Boyd, MN, who now uses a cane, and has a vivid memory and legacy in this area of Minnesota. A birder, through and through.

A chance sighting of a short-eared owl captured interest, for most had migrated north.

My hope was of perhaps capturing my two bucket list birds. At the Madison potluck gathering the night before I had mentioned my quests to the Lac qui Parle County SWCD director, Rhyan Schicker, who said she had actually seen a few Avocets at a temporary flooded wetland just east of Marietta. I made note and drove down early before the 7 a.m. meeting at the Marietta Legion Hall to see if my quest had come true. And, it had! There, stalking through the shallow, muddy waters was this beauty of a bird. The striking orangish head, black and white striped body feathers, long spindly legs easing through the muck and with that characteristic upturned bill. I was so delighted, so much so I could have skipped the next several hours! I’m glad I didn’t.

After capturing several images I sped over to the Marietta Legion Hall just as the caravans were organized and leaving, and was able to join with a birder buddy and organizer, Jason Frank, who started his group’s trek along the western shore of Salt Lake. This is the only alkaline lake in Minnesota and was created by runoff from surrounding alkaline soils in this unique and solitary watershed. There are no outlets, and this a briny body of water annually attracts all sorts of birds, especially waders like the Avocets, who are not native to the area, and has become a birdwatching mecca. It’s said that brine shrimp in Salt Lake can reach a couple of inches in length!

Birder leader, Jason Frank, center, knew the area like the back of his hand, and was amazing in his quick and accurate identifications.

Jason grew up on his family’s prairie farm just a few miles southeast of Salt Lake where many acres of prairie grassland, in cooperation with nearby neighbors, are now in permanent easements of prairie grasses and undrained wetlands. It’s an excellent resource where you can almost visualize how this part of the prairie looked before Euro-American migration. Jason knows the surrounding area like the back of his hand, and we traversed the country roads going past dozens of huge wetlands and abandoned woodlots in search of birds. 

And at one large wetland of what appeared to be about the size of Salt Lake, surrounded by prairie grasses, Jason pointed across to the far side of the windblown waters to my second bucket list bird. Raising the camera with the 600 mm lens, I momentarily caught sight of a pair of Western Grebes just moments before they dove underwater. Although I searched the surface for several minutes I never saw them resurface. Those long white necks with the silhouetted black head and neck gave their identity away. It made for an incredibly successful and fun day!

One of the original organizers nearly 50 years ago was Fred Eckhardt, who once again made his presence.

Later that evening, at the Sons of Norway Lodge in nearby Madison, the birders gathered for a fried chicken dinner with fixing that concluded with Jason and fellow leader, Steve Weston, conducting the official tallies for the day. One by one, all the way through the two-pages of five column lists, they worked to check off the sighted birds from the capacity crowd of birders, including Eckhardt who occasionally murmured, “Really!” with the name of the bird.

One woman had not only kept a detailed list of every single species she’d seen, but also a count of how many. When tally was complete, the birders climbed into their cars to head to their respective motels stretching across the Minnesota River valley, realizing that 139 total bird species had been sighted. Perhaps an all-time record, according to Jason — a list that included the two I had most wanted to see!

Willie’s Inspirations Continue

An ambitious sausage making party down in Iowa made me think of my long ago friend, Willie Rosin. It seems he was intent on converting 100 pounds of ground pork into a variety of sausages. Willie is like that, sort of a back to an earlier era of mankind, taking on a back-to-the-basics approach to life. Old world is Willile’s world.

It’s odd that we became buddies. He’s a Lutheran minister and I’m, well, sort of a spiritual man, compelled to commune more with a seat in the woods than a church pew. Yet, we had a connection. Catfishing. When he was ministering to a couple of country churches down in Chippewa County where I was running a country weekly, we met in some fashion of which I can’t remember and learned we shared a passion for whiskered fish. So we started going to a stretch of the Minnesota River in his aluminum boat to angle for catfish, meaning there was indeed ample time to explore and share both spiritual and real life thoughts.

We even went ramp hunting one rainy morning somewhere along the Chippewa River. A member of the wild onion grouping of edible plants, ramps are rather delicious, so convincingly so that we carefully took a hand trowel to judiciously harvest a few whole plants that I would transfer here to my woodland close to a little pond we had devoted to hopefully slow the runoff through the woods. A couple of them “took” though not enough to eventually harvest.

My old friend, Willie Rosen, holds his daughter and a channel catfish!

Willie is married to Jennifer, an inspirational band teacher. When they lived downriver in Montevideo she was suddenly having students making trips to “state” and qualifying for the MSHSL orchestra. Then suddenly, out of nowhere it seemed he took a call to Northwest Iowa which brought an end of our fishing trips. Thankfully, though, not our friendship. Nearly overnight he busied himself in converting a large yard into one of his traditionally incredible bountiful gardens and plying local rivers and ponds for catfish and other Ichthyological wonders. Oh, and Willie has never shied from having his two daughters in the boat as soon as they could hold a pole, and come autumn, they would don orange hunting fashions and head to the hills in search of whitetail deer.

While Willie had them involved in his outdoor activities and venues, Jennifer firmly placed them onto chairs in the music room. You might say their girls, and now three adopted children, are well rounded and grounded. And, once again, children in Jennifer’s charge are qualifying for prestigious honors in the Iowa state musical classifications. Then Willie became one of those rare men who packs up and follows his wife’s career. Jennifer was hired as a band instructor in Muscatine, so they packed up the clan, the boats, the sausage stuffer, rods, guns, gardening gear and kids to move across state to the “east coast” of Iowa. To me, that makes Willie a bigger man than most.

Within weeks, it seemed, Willie had accepted a new call in town and the Rosins settled in rather nicely. The kids are growing in all manners and possibilities just like Willie’s gigantic and bountiful gardens, which he is already tending to. His recent Monday, though, was filled with all that pork and a handfuls of various spices as he set out to stuff casings with kielbasa, kielbasa with cheddar, classic fresh bratwurst, bulk hot Italian and a few hot Italian links, caseless breakfast links, summer sausage along with his first attempt at Nduja, a chili-based spicy, spreadable pork sausage from the region of Calabria in Southern Italy.

Willie’s sausages, except for the Nduja and summer sausage.

One of the main ingredients of Nduja is a Korean red chili powder, and for those who haven’t ventured into Korean cuisine, it is tongue-seething hot. My first college roommate was Korean, and he wouldn’t eat in the cafeteria with us. Rather, he’d cook on a hotplate in our room and the scents from his fare were tantalizing even on a full stomach. I asked to have a taste and at first he refused. “Sorry, Man,” he’d say. “What I cook will kill you.” After much pleading through the semester he finally spread a few bites of a Korean concoction on a paper plate and handed it over. One bite had my eyes watering and quickly kidnapped my ability to taste for about a week. I’m a bit more cultivated now, I suppose, for spiciness now dominates my cooking.

Says Willie of his Nduja, “These will be stuffed into 55mm Umai casings, fermented at room temp for 48 hours, then cold smoked for a total of 24 hours. Then into the fridge to dry a bit. Nduja is a very spicy, spreadable salami I just had to try.” 

Your’s truly working my 20 pounds of ground pork into Italian sausage.

To suggest that Willie Rosen is a “Renaissance man” is putting it mildly. Whether he plants his feet behind the pulpit or in front of a transom makes little difference for he is seemingly always seeking a means to mingle the joys of Mother Earth with heavenly mirth, and to spread all that joy with both his family and his parishioners just as he did so with me many years ago. I’d suggest we were an odd couple, yet I cherished the time back then and thoroughly miss it nowadays.

So on an afternoon after watching Kurt Arner attack the huge pile of storm damaged wood and my piddling around between new photography software and seeking a burning permit before the two of us ended up in court, I pulled one of Willie Rosen’s recipes from my printed pile of unorganized recipes. When I went for the burning permit to save Kurt’s and my collective souls, I picked up three healthy looking cucumbers and went to work slicing and combining a boil of sugar and vinegar along with a variety of spices for Willie’s Bread and Butter Pickles that are now curing in the refrigerator for a week. These are about the best pickles ever. As an old journalist I’m not sure there’s that heaven Willie preaches about, but if there is I’m sure his pickles are there for all those godly sandwiches.

Here’s his recipe:

3 cups of Vinegar

3 cups of sugar

1/4 cup of pickly salt

1 teaspoon of celery salt

1 teaspoon of turmeric

1 teaspoon of mustard seed

Slice and stuff the cucumbers and onions into quart jars while you bring the brine to a boil, then pour it over the cukes and onions. Refrigerate for a week. It makes two quarts or four pints.

My efforts with Willie’s Bread and Butter pickles fermenting in refrigerated jars.

Seems so simple, yet the taste is top shelf. And to top it off, we then tracked down 20 pounds of ground pork from Pastures A Plenty and proceeded to try our hand at making our very own hot Italian sausage. Although it was a challenge to mix the various spices with the ground meat, we taste tested two patties which passed the test! Only thing left is getting our own garden shaped up and to get in some catfishing along the Minnesota River.

Oh, and just for the record, here’s a complete update on the Rosin family from Willie: “I’m the pastor at Zion Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Muscatine and Jennifer is the band director at Susan Clark Junior High. Grace, our oldest, turns 20 in May and is completing her second year of college at University of Northern Iowa, early Childhood education with special needs endorsement. Isabelle, 18, graduates from Muscatine High School in May. She will attend Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University to pursue a dual degree in horn performance and music education. Lydia is in second grade and keeps us on her toes. Loves reading, writing letters and making crafts. Ezra is growing into his autistic and amazing self. Tons of personality and wit. Abner is a master of chaos who loves Hot Wheels, big trucks, playing in the dirt and all things hunting and fishing with dad.”

Life is good both here and there. Willie has his tongue sizzling Nduja and we have those pickles along with some hot Italian now in the freezer! 

Spiderweb Skies

Finally, after many long months of winter, we are welcoming spiderweb skies. Next to the Sandhill Crane migration in central Nebraska, finding the migrating Snow Geese heading into the prairie wetlands is most compelling. Thanks to the scattered and perhaps uncoordinated skeins of the Arctic-bound black wing-tipped white and blue geese, they seem to spread across the skies as elongated and exaggerated spiderwebs. What a lovely sight!  

Unlike the Sandhill Crane migrations that annually congregates in a 60 mile stretch of the Platte River, Snow Geese seem prone to finding secluded and thawed wetlands or sloughs … which in a few weeks will be long out of sight and gone thanks to underground tiling until they might be seen once again at the end of another winter … to catch a break near over-wintered stalk fields to feed up for their next jump up the globe. In early March of 2021 they chose the wetland just over the rise from my prairie where they stayed for nearly a week before moving on. They rarely seem to choose the same wetland year after year. 

On a recent early morning walk we encountered a huge flock just down the road from Listening Stones Farm scattered across a quarter section of my neighbor’s conservation-tilled grain field. As we walked down the road with leashed Joe Pye, they almost in unison, over perhaps a quarter mile of field, rose at once and took to the sky. Whites mixed in with what is termed their “blue” phase, circled the abandoned grove at the end of the road to fly off to the east. As we continued our walk another group on the far western edge of the field rose before making a slight circle before re-landing. About the same time about a mile to the east another large grouping of the geese appeared just above the distant treetops. Were those the ones we had scared? Who knows. The morning air was full of their unique sound giving us a sense of “surround sound.” One of those magic moments of nature.

One off my joys of spring is the spiderweb skies created by migrating Snow Geese.

Two days before, after talking with outdoor writer Tom Watson, he alerted us to large flock just outside of nearby Appleton. Grabbing the camera and lenses, we left for Appleton only to find a large flock just a few miles southeast of our farm. We never made it to Appleton. We considered ourselves fortunate for it’s the time of year where we often spend hours driving through the prairie watching the skies in search of the flocks. A day or two later we did so again with no success although we saw distant flocks flying or hovering over land in the huge loop we drove. We were very lucky to find the earlier flock just southeast of the farm? 

It is always more fun when they choose our local wetland, which is deep enough and still untiled so it has water standing in it year-round. On March 11, 2021, a large flock landed and adopted the wetland. That was a special event, and one I’ve hoped for each spring since — a hope that remains ever stronger as winter and snows continue deeper into the year.

I can’t seem to get enough of this mysterious beauty of spring.This was from a few days ago when the flocks seemed intent on heading toward the tundra.

When in Nebraska about a month ago there were reports circling around the birders of a huge Snow Geese flock centered on a lake outside of Alda, just north of Crane Trust headquarters. They were in the fields feeding when I ventured up. At the time large flocks were apparently in a standby mode as far south as northern Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska according to reports on internet birding sites. How did they know we were still snow and ice bound here in the Minnesota prairie? An entire month later than when that flock chose us in 2021? Such a mystery. Then this year, just as we began to thaw, our skies began to fill with those spiderweb-like skeins. Once again hopes rose that they would once again find our nearest wetland, and once again they passed us by.

On the year they chose our nearby wetland I was up long before dawn and was busy off and on throughout the day as the birds took off for distant fields, moving from day break to sunset. For most of a week the haphazard skeins rose, returned, and rose again throughout the waking hours when suddenly the silence turned heavy one midmorning and didn’t return. It was a photographic dream.

A flock in a field near us after a call from nature writer Tom Watson.

Those loose spiderweb skeins stretched across the prairie skies like they are right now on our early morning walks and as we scanned the skies near dusk this week. Some days in the past several of the skeins could be seen at once, stretching across the entire sky. They weren’t as dramatic this season. 

Yesterday morning as we neared the return to our driveway, skein after skein seemed to pass over high above us, stretching out in long lines as well as having that classic seemingly disorganization of dozens in various positions outside of, above or behind the main grouping. Unlike earlier in the week when such a skein would appear to be heading one direction until suddenly a group would veer off in a different direction, only to be followed by the rest of the flock. Not on this morning. Yesterday, though skein after skein seemed intent on heading northward perhaps drawn by an inner clock. “Tomorrow morning,” I suggested, “we’ll hear the heavy sound of silence.”

Exactly a month earlier, in 2021, a flock of Snow Geese chose a wetland just over the rise from our prairie to hole in for about a week. Such a joy, encouraging my leaving the windows open at night to hear their sound.

My guess is that their internal clock was suggesting that this spring has been rather shortened by a winter that wouldn’t end, and that it was time to get to their breeding and nesting areas in the tundra. Much like the message that seemed to have the birds “hole up” in the lower Midwest for weeks on end, we were experiencing yet another blizzard.

This has been a gracious week of extremely uncharacteristic warm weather, mostly in the 70s and 80s, and the large drift across our walkway and patio that was above our heads has melted to a little more than knee-height, all in a few days. We pulled out lawn chairs to take in the sun-drenched afternoons, and as we did we could hear and see the skeins overhead. In the grove various murmurations started by the migration of Redwing Blackbirds flitted about. Huge numbers of birds swung from the very tall cottonwoods on the northern edge of our woodland to the what we call our “south prairie.” They, like the Snow Geese, seemed to have moved along. Yesterday the Redwings were replaced by the larger Starlings, and their numbers made the Redwing murmurations seem small. All part of the skies of spring!

And off they go … until next spring!

And, yes, our walk this morning was deafly quiet. In the distance there were perhaps two smaller skeins of Snow Geese in the distant skies. Those lovely and mysteriously shaped spiderweb skies would be no more, at least until next spring. Much like the Sandhill Crane migrations, this is both a compelling and awesome adventure of spring … an avian welcoming for a new and warmer season.

Finding Magic in the Madness

What is it about the month of March, seemingly an annual body blow to the gut after a long snowy and windblown winter? And why does it have to continue into April? To borrow a term from the sports world, this is another form of  “March Madness.” We have rarely had a break between blizzards. Snow on top of snow with more snow on the way. Squirrels worked to destroy yet another bird feeder, and many migrations were still holed up south of us. Pasque flowers, one of our first spring wildflowers to appear, were still dormant beneath acres and inches of snow.

I was more than ready for a break from the madness by mid-March, so with my appropriately named Rogue packed with photography gear, it was off to the Platte River in the midst of Nebraska for the Sandhill Crane migration.

Once I crossed from South Dakota into Nebraska in midtown Yankton, my curiosity was focused on where and when would we run out of snow. It would be 60 miles due south at Norfolk, NE, meaning there was no white stuff hiding beneath bushes and prairie crevices. Reading my car thermometer caused me to lower the windows to feel the blessed beauty of fresh, warm air. The temperature continued to rise until rolling into Grand Island, my first night lodging, with an afternoon temperature of 70 degrees. My driver’s side window was open and a CD was playing some prairie soul by my buddy Charlie Roth. I was suddenly thinking I’d finally escaped from all of the madness when my cell phone suddenly erupted with a warning: A winter storm warning.

A foursome of Sandhill Cranes in a colorful Nebraska sunset.

Awaking to a drop of some 50 degrees overnight, a glance outside my motel window showed my windshield covered with a layer of sleet. Outside, a wind was blasting in from the northwest with flakes of both ice and snow. Fortunately the predicted snow didn’t last, and by the check-in time to Cheryl Opperman’s Sandhill Crane Photographic Workshop at Crane Trust, it had warmed to the mid-40s. Sun was peeking through a cloudy sky. We were just a few hours away from heading to the blinds on the bank of the Platte for a different kind of madness! 

If you’ve never experienced the crane migration, this is a healthy kind of madness. Opperman has worked with Crane Trust for several years in establishing a series of photography workshops, and apparently my invitation came thanks to a cancellation. My original intent was to secure a plywood blind where I had experienced my best crane photography to date. This is what led me to Opperman, an incredible freelance nature photographer from the Denver area. Besides the crane migration, she offers excursions to the Kansas prairie for Prairie Chickens as well as trips to Iceland, Africa and the Antarctic among others. (www.cherylopperman.com/) 

Estimates placed the number of cranes in the valley at the time close to a half million birds, so the skies were full of sound and fury.

Actually, the old blinds are no longer, for in her agreement with Crane Trust those were replaced by a couple of larger blinds surrounded by a hay-bale fortress to prevent the cranes from seeing humans despite our steely subterfuge of arriving an hour or so before their flights in from the fields in the afternoons, and we would traverse the grassy trail in total darkness when entering in the mornings, reversing those strategies on the way out. 

The workshop was a whole new world for me. I had nearly left my tripod at home, yet here I was among folks with lenses as long as my leg and tripods with strange heads. Once in the blind that first afternoon, Opperman helped set up my tripod properly for my 600 mm, and we then settled in to await the show. It wasn’t long before the familiar and heavenly sounds of the cranes began coursing in from overhead. At first they seemed headed for the shallow waters upriver. Meanwhile, I was in dire straits working my rather inflexible tripod, and finally in frustration pulled the camera to record the flyover with my smaller zoom. “Just do what you’d normally do,” she finally said. A certain comfort settled in, although one that would soon be challenged.

As interesting as the evening fly in is the departing of the river come morning, especially if eagles and other threats seem nearby.

After the shoot the following morning, Opperman challenged me to change. One, pre-set to auto focus. Two, change the head of the tripod to a devise called a gimbal. Three, use the fastest shutter mechanism you have (which sounded like an AK-whatever). And, four, before we return to the blinds, go outside and practice. Which in itself was a bit of a challenge for my practice was on a stagnant, browsing bison herd. This was when fellow work-shopper Tom Dietrich, of Laramie, WY, looked across the table and said, “This isn’t photojournalism. It’s a whole different discipline.” Opperman was pushing me completely out of my comfort zone. Putting this new “madness aside,” when we returned to the blinds for the night shoot I was adamant to do it her way.

The gimbal is an interesting and incredible tool. Complete maneuverability with the lens, and she had also given me hints on how to better track or pan with auto focus. No, this was not what I was used to, although it was fun and different. Unfortunately, thanks to this madness of March, for I must place blame somewhere, the cards containing my images from both the afternoon and morning shoots weren’t initially recognized by my reader. West Photo in Minneapolis came to the rescue, and when I finally saw the results of stepping out of my comfort I was rather pleased. 

A presistant eagle above the Platte early in the morning seemingly surrounded by flying cranes.

High among the reasons was that overnight the temperatures had dropped into the single digits, and one of my blind mates, Vicki Von Loh, informed us in a near whisper that the wind chill was a -7 degrees. I recalled photojournalist Dec Haun explaining why one of his prize winning images from the Detroit riots in 1967 was blurry. “I was shooting at 500th of a second but I was shaking at 1000th!” With northwesterly winds blowing straight into the blind my shiver was way more than my shutter speed, yet, about 95 percent of my images were free of shivering shake! Like Tom had said, “This isn’t photojournalism.” Ice plates were floating on the surface of the Platte, and by the time we headed to the vans for the last time, the river was basically a cocktail of hypothermia. 

Back home the madness of March had remained in full beast. More snow. More blizzards. Drifts had become long and picturesque dunes crossing our lawn from the woodland to the prairie. One that formed over our walkway was higher than we are tall, and would blow shut overnight. Every night! 

Cranes feeding in the nearby fields are always interesting and add to the experience and draw motorists who stop along the rural byways with camera and long lenses.

Yet, there were some beautiful moments within the madness. Besides chasing the cranes in Opperman’s workshop, there was my “artist’s opening” for my exhibit at the Kouba Gallery at the Isaac Walton League in Bloomington where many friends, old and new, ventured through the tail end of yet another blizzard to help celebrate. One was a former colleague at the Wisconsin State Journal where I spent a brief time working in 1967-8. 

Now, as we head into April the weather madness continues. That snow dune on the walkway had shrunk quite a bit until this latest blizzard, and with the drifting it was nearly as tall as before. The wind sounds like a freight train, and a trio of Juncos leaving tracks in the overnight snow on my deck convinced me to refill a feeder salvaged from the latest squirrel attack. As we headed to bed a look outside found a beautiful full moon peeking through the ice covered branches of the trees. So, yes, there is magic even in this most trying of times of a forever winter, yet as long as we can find magic and beauty we can see through the madness.

Threshold of a Spring Forthcoming

Initially my reasoning for applying for memberships to birding social media sites from Missouri and Iowa was to enjoy photographs birders presented, and in particularly for Missouri Birders. A few years ago we had just visited the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge in Northwest Missouri where we saw hundreds of thousands of Snow Geese, hundreds of swans and enough eagles to grab your attention. Compared to our home Big Stone NWR, or even the nearby Sand Lake NWR in South Dakota, there was no comparison in the number of birds to see in this slough-ish backwater of the Missouri River near Forest City.

Last spring I added the Iowa Birding, also found on the social media site. Now, though, those two sites are adding something I simply hadn’t anticipated … a threshold of a coming of Spring. This began about a month ago near the calendar page of February as we were buried deeply beneath another blizzard. Images coming from Loess Bluffs and other areas of the Show Me state were offering a semblance of hope as the Snow Geese were offering blizzards of promises that in time this long winter would become the tales of woe for years to come.

Now a month later, similar images are being posted in Iowa Birding. We’ll be next.

So, yes, they’re coming. Spring is on the way even as we face another dismal forecast of snow and wind! 

Sandhill Cranes descending on a central Nebraska plan.

In anticipation, a few weeks ago I was able to secure a three day special package with Crane Trust in central Nebraska to once again photograph the Sandhill Crane migration. I simply couldn’t wait to see bare ground. Moving waters. Birds in migration. We’ll be guided in a special grouping of photographers around the Platte both before dawn and after sunset in search of pleasing imagery. 

This will be my third Sandhill migration. The first was truly an out of mind experience when the birds by the thousands landed in the shallow waters less than half a football field away from our plywood box of a blind. It  hadn’t begun that way for it seemed the birds were intent to fly downriver for another mile or so. My companion cautioned patience, figuring there were many more birds to the east that would most likely glide from the heavens to land in front of us. She was right, and the music they sang through the night was straight out of a distant  geological past. I count that night as one of three other-worldly experiences of my lifetime … the jungle-like sounds at the Sabine NWR in western Louisiana and the waling grunts of walruses at “haul out” rookery in the sea north of  Juneau, Alaska. All sounds you can’t forget.

With any luck with weather and migratory patterns, I may return home a little over a week from now just in time to see the huge Snow Geese migration right here in the western Minnesota prairie. A couple of years ago thousands claimed a near week-long stop over in the wetland just over the rise from my Listening Stones prairie to offer all sorts of wonderful imagery. There were a couple of promising attractions offered the huge flock at the time; that the wetland was thawed and the corn stubble my neighboring farmer had left standing to offer a promise of food.

Getting up close and personal is among the joys of the Sandhill migration. Especially in their courting jestures.

If not here, though, other nearby areas offer promise. About an hour north is a Red River Valley flood control project called North Ottawa Impoundment in Grant County, a bit southwest of Fergus Falls, where the Snows  and other migrating birds seem to congregate every spring. A point for accuracy: I’ve actually never made it to the impoundment for the Snows because typically a massive flock will congregate closer to home. Someone described the ascent and/or descent of the huge flocks of Snows as a feeling of standing inside a snow globe, all with the cacophony of their special music. More trumpet like than of violins.

Back in February my nephew in NE Missouri posted photos of a huge flock in one of his harvested grain fields. A few years ago  he made prints of an early migration that hang in our family’s old farmhouse kitchen. I can only imagine how happy this would have made my mother, a lover of nature and wild things, and who is perhaps the one most responsible for my own appreciation of nature. 

A sunrise from my Listening Stones prairie of the Snow Geese in flight.

We’ve had a long, hard winter, and having the pheasants, deer and wild turkeys nearby in and near Big Stone Lake State Park have created a deep appreciation of their hardships and survival skills. One warm and sunny afternoon of late we drove up the hill from Bonanza onto the flat prairie to find a several deer lazing on a snowy meadow before we passed an enclave of wild turkeys meandering along, and just as we neared the state highway, a half dozen pheasants were hovering around a patch of grass in the roadway ditch. What a revered moment in the middle of February, a reprieve from a month of tremendous stress for all three species. And, it seemed as if on this one warm afternoon there was hardly a care in the world. Even our drive by barely caused a ripple of concern. It seemed for them, and for us, a prelude of seasonal change. It turned out to be little more than a cruel hint!

Now in the midst of March I can look back through my years of nature photography and find Wood Ducks scouting through the Listening Stones woodland in search of a nesting tree, and of seeing murmurations of Redwing Blackbirds causing red blurs on the wing. Thanks, though, to the birder sites in the states due south, there is ample evidence that Spring and the birds are on the way. The images of the Snows have mostly departed from the Missouri site and has moved north into Iowa. Hopefully in a few days or weeks the incredible bird photographer Wayne Perala, of Fergus Falls, and many others of us will be adding to the national birder’s collage of Snow Geese moments.

Ah, yes … taken in my backyard of the Snows flushing from the wetland.

As special as seeing the Sandhills in Nebraska, the inner umbrella sketchings of Snow Geese skeins will stretch across the heavens in all directions like a child’s drawing, and it all happens right here on our own backyard. All of it is wonderful, from the Nebraska Sandhills to the Snows and Redwings; all those species that simply drop in for a momentary stop at the feeder on their way through. Each, and all, are truly special and welcomed. 

As much as watching the sprouting of wildflowers in the Spring is thoroughly appreciated, migrating birds offer us both a special mystery and blessings with their arrivals. We’ll embrace them as much as hearing those first sounds of a trickling stream …  all sounds of life moving forward as our winter vanishes into a storied past. Joy rests on our threshold of a Spring forthcoming.

Hooking Arms With Gnomes

The “warnings” came early. Before 8 a.m., actually. All of which happened moments after a surprising visit in the grove while making my morning tea. A significant flash of red crossed the big plate glass window above the sink that caught my eye — my very first sighting of a Piliated Woodpecker here on my little prairie farm. Binoculars quickly substantiated the identity as the huge woodpecker bounced up first one tree trunk then another before skittering off into the deeper woods. It wouldn’t be my last “flash” of red before I returned to my bed!

How can a day begin even better? And, it would. With my tea steeped, it was off to the computer to read the online morning newspapers, which usually happens after a quick glance through my Facebook feeds. This is where I found my warning. It was in a personal message from my son, Aaron, living in Bergen, Norway, who had captured his very first images of the northern lights in his backyard, glistening high above in midst of city lights. 

This wasn’t all, for there were numerous postings of this incredible display from Scotland, Ireland and Norway as well as from friends in Ely and Nevis here in Minnesota. Now on heightened alert I quickly checked the NOAA Aurora Forecast site and watched as the circular donut of a forecast roamed over the northern hemisphere. As it came over Nova Scotia and eased over the Great Lakes region the greenish blob quickly went straight to red. Granted, we were early in the morning. Would we still have a chance sighting a dozen hours later?

My Labor Day image at the Marsh Lake Dam.

For me, this is almost as wonderful as awaiting Christmas as a child. Now in my seventh decade I still can’t use all my fingers to count the number of times I’ve seen the aurora borealis, let alone photographed them. Back in the 1940s, before our family moved up the road to what had been my grandparent’s house, there was such a display even as far south as Missouri that our mother woke us up so we could see the low lying magic in the sky. I couldn’t comprehend the specialness nor the rarity of the strange lights. That, though, took my first finger.

The next four “fingers” were not particularly spectacular, more of an undulating whiteness in the sky. And all here in the western Minnesota prairie. Two of those events were discovered when I ventured away from a group to find a tree to “relieve” myself. The first of those was well after midnight in Watson Lion’s Park on the banks of the Chippewa River when artist Franz Richter held campfire court with tales of Norwegian devilish trolls and gentle gnomes. That those lights, as unspectacular as they were that night, appeared in the midst of Richter’s tales was purely magical. And now my son, Aaron, who sat through the first of the tales back in the 1990s, lives now in Norway and photographed them makes the memory all the more special.

We now know the science behind the northern lights and have various ways of receiving accurate forecasts on our computers and cell phones, yet we can’t forsake the natural wonder shrouded in mysteries from the past; of how the auroras inspired myths, legends and folklore throughout the nations of the far north, from Norway to Sweden, from Finland to Iceland. They held special meanings to the marauding Vikings, too. In Norse mythology, we’re told the aurora borealis was believed to be Bifrost, the burning bridge connecting Åsgard (the realm of the gods) to Midgard (Earth). Popular myths and folklore also suggested that the lights were reflections of the bright shields of the mythical Valkyrie who would lead those who had fallen in battle to Valhalla.

A few nights ago on the wetland at the top of my prairie. After the “warning” from my son in Bergen, Norway.

Aurora borealis is actually derived from the Greek words with “aurora” meaning “sunrise” and “boreas” meaning “wind”. There must have been some incredibly strong solar activity for the ancient Greeks to have seen the lights because sightings so far south are almost unheard of. The Greeks held that Aurora was the sister of Helios and Seline, the sun and moon respectively, and that she raced across the early morning sky in her multi-colored chariot to alert her siblings to the dawning of a new day. The Romans also associated the northern lights with a new day believing them to be Aurora, the goddess of dawn. And so it goes.

Then came the night in the BWCA, where we had rented a cabin at Kawishiwi Lodge and Outfitters on the shoreline of Lake One after my late wife, Sharon’s, knee operation. One night after darkness had fully settled in, the two teenage boys who worked at the lodge came knocking to see if I would join them for some night walleye fishing. Sharon said, “Go on. I’ll be fine.”

Having placed me in the middle of the canoe, they paddled out of the frontal bay through the narrow passage into the main lake and anchored us between two islands facing north. Yes, they brought a cooler of beer, and we leisurely jigged over the gunwales killing time and stringing fish. Sometime after midnight, Michael said, “Guys! Look up!” The lights, again minus those waving curtains and towering flares, entertained us for quite some time. 

Now we’re up to three fingers. Another night happened on the banks of Mound Lake near Gray Eagle. Number four.

While I missed the height of the display, the streaking star made up for it.

Since moving to Listening Stones Farm I’ve added another four sightings. This doesn’t count the week I spent with a former exchange student in Tromso, considered one of the best place in Norway to see the lights, when for nearly a week we headed into the surrounding coal black countryside reading the skies. On the next to last night we caught about a 15 minute sighting through tiny holes in the clouds. That didn’t count. And, twice now I’ve been up on the Gunflint Trail for special Northern Lights adventures and have seen nothing but dense Tromso-like clouds.

There is a small network of folks around Minnesota who sound the alert on Facebook should there be a possibility. Unfortunately my house is too far below the northern horizon to see the lights, although at the wetland at the top of my prairie there is a decent view. Here the display whispers along the edge of the horizon, something those in the more northern exposures would surely sleep through. Perhaps a view the Greeks saw back in time.

One night after an alert we had an incredible display plainly visible to the naked eye dancing cross the horizon. Several images were recorded with glee only to find out moments later when downloading that I had cranked the aperture on the lens completely opposite of the infinity setting so all I had were colorful blurs. I immediately rushed back but the moment had passed. A neat streaking star helped alleviate my pain.

My best effort came last Labor Day after being told by outdoors writer, Tom Watson, that he often headed to the Twin Bridges on Lac qui Parle Lake southwest of Appleton to capture the lights. Which prompted me to check NOAA, and we had a possible event. There, though, the traffic caused too much light pollution so we took a minimum maintenance shortcut gravel to the Marsh Lake Dam where I finally had a decent image of the lights. Finally, and it was wonderful. A Christmas-like morning, in fact!

My colossal error with my lens on what could have been a beautiful image.

Oh, a note about the warning from a day or so ago? Both NOAA and AuroraAlert were showing red, so we headed to the wetland above the farm to check the skies, and made a few images before heading to a site I had scouted earlier for a possible image on a small hillside oak savanna about three miles away. Unfortunately the oaks were too distant for my lens and the image I visualized, and we were too far below the horizon.

I now have my eighth sighting over my seven decades despite an almost daily check on the two forecasts. I simply cannot escape this much stronger and more mystical draw than the science behind the lights. I surely hope I never lose my love of such mystical magic, of standing in the universal darkness along with the trolls while scanning the northern skies for dancing lights in the heavens above. How could one live without that?

For the Love of Rivers

William Kent Krueger has informed us of his new novel, “The River We Remember”. that will hit the shelves come September. Another of his non-Cork O’Connor books. For you see I have a thing about river books dating all the way back to growing up on a Missouri farm some 50 miles west of Mark Twain’s beloved Mississippi. Rivers are moving waters, and moving waters are the sources of dreams. 

I seemed to have grown up fascinated by watching the moving waters of what we called Billy Branch, an offshoot of the Salt River, of visualizing those waters eventually joining those from Montana in the Missouri River, then the Mississippi to eventually enter the Gulf of Mexico. Strong stuff for a kid growing up on a farm in the 1940s and 50s, time when imagination fueled the soul rather than cell phones and instant, worldwide visuals via Google and 24-hour network news.

Then there was my mother, Mary Laurele White, the first college educated woman of our family who called herself a “river rat” having grown up on the Chariton River about another 20 or so miles due west. When I was a boy, going to the Chariton to set banklines for overnight catfishing with my uncles was a thorough joy. Where she grew up, and where a cousin still lives, the nearby Chariton was “ditched” back when she was a child, straightened and deepened to help with flood control, for the river valley is flatter than our prairie here at Listening Stone Farm. It continues to flood, though, because the reshaping of the river only goes so far before it melds back into the old river channel complete with its more natural twists and turns. This causes a backup of the coursing waters which means, of course, the valley still floods. Deeply into the basement of the heirloom house.

Catfishermen on a bend of the Minnesota River as the sun sets. Another outing with friends Tom Cherveny and Tom Kallahar, long time paddling and fishing buddies.

Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer entered my youth early on, and those moving waters of the Mississippi became quite a haven for my childhood cloud gazing. “Life on the Mississippi” by Twain took me as step deeper in high school, and years later Norman Maclean continued the odyssey with “A River Runs Through It.” I still have a well worn early edition. And the books, of every genre just keep on coming. “Course,” a beautiful book of poetry by a dear friend, Athena Kildegaard, “marries” the grief she experienced with her mother’s death with her mother’s love of her home along the Minnesota River. 

From prose to poetry, fiction to non-fiction, from fly fishing to canoeing, my home library contains a fine mixture of river-based books. Per Petterson’s “I Curse the River of Time” takes me from Norway to Iowa’s author John Madson, whose “Up on the River”, is a long time favorite. Eric Sevareid’s “Canoeing with the Cree” is a few books away from Natalie Warren’s “Hudson Bay Bound”, the chronicling of her canoe trip with Ann Raiho as the first two women to do Sevareid’s “Cree” journey. Natalie’s book blends their paddling journey with the pratfalls and joys of friendship, and does so beautifully. 

A group of canoers on the Lac qui Parle.

Then there’s Thomas Water’s “Streams and Rivers of Minnesota” and Darby Nelson’s “For Love of a River … The Minnesota.” Both are nonfiction and beautifully written. The former a college course book, the later a remembrance. Darby came through doing research, and several of us Minnesota “River Rats” were called into Java River Coffee Shop in Montevideo by his co-author and friend, John Hickman. We were to share our love and joys of paddling Darby’s home river, a story that he begins around Franklin, downriver a couple of hours of drive time and chronicles his and his wife, Geri’s, paddling the length of the river.

Now in the “autumn” of my life, those moving waters of streams and rivers still put me in the same circle as Maclean in that I, too, am “haunted by waters.” A few years back I was fly fishing with two wonderful friends, Joe Jost and Jack Griffin, on Maclean’s Big Blackfoot in Montana. Driving the two-lane highways, in a valley surrounded by towering mountains, his writing came to “haunt” me. A couple of years later I found “Home Waters” written by Norman’s son, John N. Maclean, that brought more clarity of the Maclean family and their home river, places I could now visualize from our meandering about looking for fishing entry points. Both books made catching three trout on flies I had purchased in a fly shop in Orvanda, just a bit east of the Clearwater Junction, really special. 

The Chippewa River from the Lentz Landing Bridge.

Yet, being here in our own home waters is heavenly. Oddly enough, when we moved to the prairie back in 1992 we debated on whether to bring our canoe. Living outside of Hastings on the near banks of the Little Vermilion River, we launched our canoe almost weekly. Paddling didn’t look promising moving to our little town where Hawk Creek, right in our backyard, was designated as a “Federal Ditch” back in the late 1960s. This was a long shot from the wild rivers on the eastern side of the state, where I had canoed almost all the major tributaries of the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers. And we were buying a house on a federal ditch? 

Little did I know that we were moving into Darby Nelson’s home country, although it would be years later before I would meet him. Not long after moving to the prairie Patrick Moore encouraged me to join the CURE (Clean Up the River Environment) board which introduced us to the Minnesota River. For the first few years we would paddle from Skalbakken County Park down to Vicksburg County Park, through the Patterson Rapids and past Big Eddy to our pullout. It was a beautiful river, cut through miles of gneiss outcrops and timbered the entire route. It was nearly unbelievable. Since I’ve paddled the Minnesota from the Churchill Dam to the near border of Nelson’s old hometown of Franklin.

Fly fishers on Montana’s Big Blackfoot River, the home waters of the Maclean clan.

Then came the tributaries. Even Hawk Creek, which we found was almost continual white water from the US 212 Bridge to the confluence of the Minnesota. Once past the highway the little river was in basically enclosed within a timbered deciduous canyon, a stretch of wild water that thankfully survived efforts to dam it to create a lake. 

Lac qui Parle River came next with put in outside of Dawson. High walls of  prairie till caused a bit of neck bend with just enough small rapids to give a small thrill. This led us to the Chippewa, Pomme de Terre (Terror) and Yellow Medicine rivers, all different in both scenery and individual challenges. All with the coursing of moving waters. All rivers I remember. 

So thank you Twain, Madson, Sevareid, Maclean and the dozens of others, as well as my mother’s side of the family and eventually CURE and all the friends who shared those rivers with me. Rivers so full of stories and adventures, and more of each are added every year. In reality and from the writings of valued authors. Now we await Krueger’s next novel. I can hardly wait.

Our Weather ‘Up Top’

For awhile after the New Year I began to wonder about how to encourage my creative soul; if venturing out into the depths of a challenging winter would be worth my time. Typically I follow various seasons through the year, such as the beginning of the migrations to the pasque flowers popping up on a near barren hillside, of the easing into the delicate blossoming beauty within the woodlands … and so forth through the various wildflower appearances through to the vibrant colors of autumn. But winter? A winter like this one we’re experiencing?

Seasonal changes are among the joys of “flyover” living, and I’m usually seeing various seasons through to the end. Our winter, though, is beginning to test my resolve. This past week had us hovering around minus ten with intermittent staunch prairie winds that chilled to the bone. There seemed to be no end. Just walking from the house to the studio wrapped completely in sweaters and down outerwear was a continual test to that resolve. 

In case anyone should ask, I’m now officially tired of winter despite the knowledge that we’ve now moved into February and there is seemingly hope for more humane weather in the near future. We’re now about 40 degrees warmer today than we were at this time last week.

Wild turkeys few to safety on the edge of a frost covered ravine.

We’ve had a though winter. Those chilling days where we rarely were over zero, then about two weeks of hoarfrost, foggy snow after blowing snow, and eventually an uncharacteristic icy rain that turned all of that snow into crusted ice. The winds have taken us to an entirely different level. When we have “weather” a dear friend who lives along Big Stone Lake will often send a message: “How are things up on top?” She is about 11 miles due west of Listening Stones, and yes, her home and silver-smithing studio sits along the shores in a wooded hollow beside the big lake while “up top” we’re in the flattened prairie. Recently I received a lesson on the differences in our diverse ecosystems.

On that day of friendly conversation we were shrouded in a frozen dense fog here “up top,” which in these frigid temperatures means a hoarfrost, so my mind wandered to the Bonanza Education Center and its beautiful mix of an oak savanna and hillside prairie, all of which is located about a mile up that “coast” from her studio. My wandering imagination visualized the savanna deep in fog with tunnels of snow and icy frosted limbs and sticky branches of the majestic oaks being silhouetted against an endless and deep whiteness. As my car closed in on the edge of the prairie the denseness of fog began to dissipate. In another mile to the turnoff into Bonanza I was suddenly driving in clear blue skies. So yes, her “down below” is often much different than my “up top.”

For more than two weeks a hoarfrost seemed to cover every possible surface.

Before the hoarfrosts, blizzards fueled by staunch winds have reminded one of a freight train with blowing snow blanketing the ground. One of the blizzards was a three day affair with no interlude. White nothingness just past the mailbox at the end of the driveway. A deep drift was created across the edge of the woodland that blocked any possible traffic, a drift nearly five feet tall and about twice as wide. When the winds finally died down and the snow ceased, I tried to cross over the drift on foot to reach the mailbox and overturned garbage container. Those initial steps were across glazed, hardened snow and held my weight. Near the crest the snow gave way to drop me thigh deep into the powdery dune. By the time I had finally stomped and worked my way out I was famished.

After being bladed we had a day of possible “freedom” had there been a need to go somewhere, and sometimes just the going is therapeutic. Then the winds returned, and when they came they did so with a vengeance, hurling and tumbling snow crystals across the prairie; movement of snow like a desert sand. Over the years of living in the prairie I sensed there might be some natural art created by the wind, much like you would see along the sea coast or in an inland sandy dunescape. Yes! Dozens of interesting and beautiful snow waves awaited. Later hoarfrosts provided feelings of being surrounded by a whitewashed, frosty landscape. We were mired in a winter wonderland … if you cared to look. And, I did.

One of the images of the “dunes of winter … “

The other morning while laying under the deep comforting pile of blankets, I listened to the wind rumble outside with health advisories from Weather Bug concerning the ominous and intense and unbearable chill. At moments like these, among the possible positive vibes is knowing we’re protected, that we’re not homeless and trying to survive beneath a thin nylon wall of a camper’s tent in some wretched neighborhood. I can’t imagine how one would survive under such conditions and I’m forever grateful not to be in that situation. 

Then the aspects of art came to mind. Discovering beauty created by such horrid conditions filled the mind. Snow dunes and whispery formations, both of which can become even more pronounced and interesting when bathed by sunlight, and especially in the ambient light of a colorful sunrise or sunset. Hoarfrosts can coat everything in deep frosty ice crystals, and there were ample opportunities to capture many images here in the Listening Stones prairie and beyond. One of my favorite images from the hoarfrosts was of a flock of wild turkeys that flew off away from the roadside to safely land at the edge of a hazy, snowy savanna. 

Beyond the art some idle moments are spent at the computer dream-watching of trips to island beaches or another trip to central Nebraska in March to once again experience the sandhill crane migration. Will I find accommodations for an open blind to spend another night in what seems like a touch of prehistoric magical dawn along the Platte River; that drifting to sleep deep in a sleeping bag surrounded by the unique sounds from another age-old era? One must dream, for this is the other side of a deep winter when the conditions are such that you dream not so much of art as of escape. 

One of the rare occasions when we had a sunrise, this over the Listening Stones prairie.

In a few weeks the pitchers and catchers of the big league baseball teams will gather in Florida and Arizona, and the snowbirds will be abandoning their card games and margaritas to head back home with partial tans. They may wonder why some of us have stayed behind, thoughts we may suffer to find an appropriate response. Then, there’s this: come summer, when heat waves make us think of cooler times, I’ll search through the files of the snow dunes, the random icicles and come across the image of those turkeys seeking safety on a thoroughly frosty afternoon. I was there, here “up top,” and captured that image forevermore!

A Place of His Own

Penderyn, a fine Welch whiskey, awaited. Outside on a frosty afternoon a hint of wind ruffled the few blades of prairie grasses poking through the snow dunes. Painting the pane of plate-glass just below a beautiful, antique stained glass motif was the frozen wetland known here as Olson Lake. We were in the warmed environs of author Brent Olson’s new writer’s shack.

And warmed it was, though “glistening” might be a stretch. This small shack was hidden from the circular driveway and yard just a few meters up the rise, and will remain unsuspecting come the warming of summer thanks to a roof of prairie sod and grasses. The Penderyn, a gift from Mrs. Olson, was poured and congratulatory toasts were about to be served. Olson’s writer’s shack would soon be christened.

Dutifully impressed, as this will likely be the only writer’s shack in Big Stone County. For the brief time when we didn’t have chickens in the coop here at Listening Stones Farm, there were moments, and brief moments at that, when there was a consideration of transitioning my cool little red building into my writer’s shack. There on the edge of the woodland, and a short walk from the house and already wired for electricity, it was indeed inviting. 

A thorough cleaning would have been necessary from all angles and levels, from floor to ceiling and in every nook and cranny. Plus there were “minor” issues with vermin from all those years of feeding the hens, roosters and the one wood duck that somehow lost its identity and could never quite figure out how he alone could actually fly but not stab at the scatterings of food scraps as gleefully as his coopmates. Other than the vermin, there was also the challenge of internet access which conveniently graces my studio and house.

The beautiful antique stained glass window give Olson added cheer when he looks up from the marble slab to gaze at the wetland his family has saved through three generations.

Like I said, the thoughts came only in moments. Meaning, those were put aside nearly as quickly as they arose.

These zany memories came to mind this past summer when Olson (https://brentolson.substack.com/) walked me out to a flattened space in a dip along the shore of the wetland his immigrant great-grandfather (and ensuing generations, himself included) decided not to ditch and drain to add another several dozens of acres of corn. “This,” said Olson, “is where I will build it” of his writing shack. His very own space.

Not long after that initial conversation I came across a book by author Michael Pollan called “A Place of My Own,” a book detailing his efforts of building his writer’s shack on a piece of Connecticut hillside a short drive  from New York City. It’s a book an Amazon critic claimed “doesn’t overwhelm you exactly; it beats you down until you nearly give up.” Every angle, wall, window and desk seemed a particular puzzle. Placement was a major issue for Pollan and seemed to capture the first third of the book and involved a huge remnant glacial rock found on the property. Plus he had this desire to align views of the finished mini-castle from both his garden and the picture window of the nearby home just down the rise. 

No, the tree doesn’t extrude from the roof his writer’s shack, although come summer the roof will be of prairie sod and grasses.

Pollan worked with an architect and a neighboring handyman, who of course were at odds with one another, and he consulted research from many odd stalwarts including Frank Lloyd Wright and Michelangelo. Pollan, if you’ve read any of his works, is an excessive and exhaustive researcher, and it was nearly comical to see where he went with it for the construction of a shack about the size of Olson’s here on the Minnesota prairie.

Olson? He merely wished some privacy and a view of his valued wetland that once encouraged his dear wife, Robyn, to gift him with a sailboat to play with in his heritage prairie waters. This for a man who prided himself for all those many years of raising pigs and corn, a man who became immersed in local politics, boards and community affairs, and even ran the Inadvertent Cafe in his hometown of Clinton. That experience led him to pen a wonderful book of essays bearing the same title. Last summer, though, his little place of his own was rather deep in his mental planning stages. His didn’t consult with an architect and there was only one handyman, one Olson could see in his morning mirror. 

It did involve a Bobcat and a concrete mixer, among other assorted and necessary tools, along with some help from a nearby sawmill operator who seemed to operate on an unpredictable schedule. And a wide array of materials collected and stored over time. The ceiling joists, for example, were crafted at the sawmill from a batch of discarded power poles he’d rescued. His anchoring beautiful stone wall, built into the wall-like bank of the wetland, was constructed with huge glacial rocks Olson had saved from the foundation of the barn his great-grandfather had built back in the late 1800s. Centering the wall is the corner stone of that barn, proudly dated with by his great-grandfather’s chisel. His featured window facing the lake was captured from a house scheduled for demolition and was saved at the last minute by his brother-in-law. A slab of marble will serve as his writing desk.

Moments before the informal “christening” of his writer’s shack, Olson holds the thimble glasses and the Welch whiskey, Penderyn, as gifted by his wife, Robyn.

Olson would be the first to tell you that those ceiling joists and the final look hadn’t come by inspirations from Michelangelo. Nope, for his goal was simply to have the necessary strength to safely hold his roof covering of prairie sod. And the closest he came to Wright’s “Falling Waters” that seemed to capture Pollan’s interest is that adjacent picturesque wetland sometimes populated by Canada and Snow Geese and Blue Wing Teal along with a muskrat or two. 

Olson is almost there. His computer used to create his weekly published column, Independently Speaking, remains in the house for now as does an his easy chair. He’s a stovepipe connection away from the end, although he has installed floor heat in the slab that keeps his shack around 50 degrees. Fortunately he was close enough to being done to pull out some thimble glasses and that bottle of Penderyn. An informal prairie-like congratulatory toast was made, and in tune with his half-heritage of proud Norwegian stock, none of our glasses crashed against that incredible rock wall!