Forging Ahead

Joe Pye loves to run the paths through the prairie.

Joe Pye loves to run the paths through the prairie.

In an earlier writing I told of how on the eve of our first snow of the winter, Rebecca worked feverishly and successfully to remove the tillage attachment and to install the mower on her “new” garden tractor. As darkness approached, she headed into our eight-plus acres of prairie to mow a meandering path through the grasses and forbs. More than once since she has jokingly been accused of mowing the path in a state of inebriation.

What a beautiful path, though. It loops and connects, meanders and traverses, and even intersects with the farm site in a few strategic places.

That winding path has now become a focal point thanks to adopting our new mutt, Joe Pye. Twice each day since, we’ve taken Joe Pye and Vega, our resident “hound,” on exercise laps on Rebecca’s prairie loops. We have our “upper” prairie on the northern portion of the farm, which begins at the foot of the orchard and winds around above the grove; or the “lower” prairie, which is mostly below the farm yard and main garden. Naturally, she connected the loops between the upper and lower prairies.

Watching the swallows above the prairie was a treat all summer long.

Watching the swallows above the prairie was a treat all summer long.

The loop paths are giving us both a good excuse for exercise and fresh air, not to speak of giving the dogs a good airing out. It was on one of those walks that Rebecca asked, “How do you think our prairie will look next year?”

“I haven’t a clue,” I answered. My response came from experience and from a comment made by dear friend and prairie addict, Kylene Olson, executive director of the Chippewa River Watershed Project, and who is also a Master Naturalist and winner of CURE’s Riverkeeper Award. Years ago, during the first full bloom of my backyard prairie garden in Clara City, I invited Kylene over to help me identify a few plants and to give an overview of the effort. As we walked the perimeter of the prairie garden, she said, “You realize that no two years are ever alike. You have a lot of blues and purples now, but next year it might be dominated by yellows or with grasses. You never know from year to year.”

Enhanced by the early morning sun, the color of yellow dominated.

Enhanced by the early morning sun, the color of yellow dominated.

In the three years of the garden, she was right. No two years were ever alike. Since then I’ve noticed same is true of the various native prairie patches around the area. “Amy’s Prairie” near Montevideo was a collage of flower colors this past summer, while a year ago it was weak on cone flowers. Two years ago the Clinton Prairie was a carpet of Prairie Smoke late in the spring, while this past spring one had to search diligently to find a single cluster. The WMA located a mile and a half east of our farm had a great season for Big Bluestem in August, seemingly three times what was visible the summer before last.

It was on our first summer here that our prairie was planted. Most of what we saw through the first summer was a domination of pigweed and lamb’s quarter, certainly not desired species … yet they are the first transition species in an ecological plant succession. We were told by the SWCD and Pheasants Forever, who worked together on the planting, not to worry, that the prairie was coming along quite well despite the pigweed jungle. “No two years are alike,” said the SWCD man. There it was again.

More than once we spied deer in the prairie.

More than once we spied deer in the prairie.

This past summer, in our second year, the prairie was dominated by yellows and very few grasses. Every blooming flower, and there were seemingly millions, was a bright yellow. At first it was delightful since it wasn’t pigweed. By August the entire prairie was a carpet of yellow, one you couldn’t miss coming up over the hill at the end of the section. While I hesitate to suggest that we grew tired of yellow, we went on several high-stepping missions through the dense foliage, and prior to the cutting of the paths, in search of anything suggesting a different color. We did find a sprinkling of Purple Prairie Clover and a few Bee Balm plants. In fact, Rebecca believes we’ll have a healthy Bee Balm crop on the upper prairie next summer because when she went up there last fall to transplant some she started from seed, she suddenly spotted them everywhere!

That anticipation of change is one of the beauties of having a prairie. Another is seeing the prairie come to life. Many hours were spent watching the acrobatic flights of swallows over the prairie surface all summer capturing insects drawn to the plants. Come autumn, murmerations of starlings and various blackbirds came to feed among the seed heads of the coreopsis, prairie sunflowers and coneflowers. We have surprised deer, including the flushing of a fawn in early summer that bounded down into the lower prairie flashing its telltale white flag of distress. Butterflies made their appearances, too, and we were so thrilled with seeing monarchs that Rebecca made a concerted effort to spread more milkweed seeds into the grasses.

Side Oat Grama is emerging, and is seen here with a couple of Native Purple Clover.

Side Oat Grama is emerging, and is seen here with a couple of Native Purple Clover.

Nightly we hear coyotes, and although we suspect they’re somewhere in the prairie, we have not seen tracks even after a snow. Those nightly yips and howls take over the late afternoon “barks” of pheasants. Last winter we had a resident rooster who seemed to strut from the prairie into one of our lilac “islands” every late afternoon. On one of our recent walks with the dogs we saw pheasant tracks in the snow in the upper prairie. No birds, though. A day or two later we finally flushed a hen in the lower prairie. We were thrilled, and perhaps even a bit smug in our self-congratulations when considering all the barren crop fields that surround us.

One of the few Bee Balm in our prairie last summer.

One of the few Bee Balm in our prairie last summer.

Yet, it is through the adoption of Joe Pye and Rebecca’s loops that we are becoming ever more familiar and intimate with our home prairie. We had a beautiful summer, as noted, and seeing it twice every day this winter as we move from the Solstice toward the Equinox will no doubt provide various observations of change. We’ll see if those Prairie Smoke plantings were successful as we move into the next greening season, or if Bee Balm will actually “explode” on the upper prairie. Maybe all the sprinkling of seeds “caught” in our pant cuffs after we returned from other native prairies will take root, along with the milkweeds.

What will our prairie look like come summer? Who knows? Yet, that is the beauty of our home being surrounded by a patch of prairie, even if it is restored rather than native. I like this idea of “we’ll see.”

Of a Winter’s Solstice

What was a day-long “ugly” Winter Solstice, with a thick gray hugging our Minnesota prairie like a heavy quilt in a dark room that you can’t seem to kick off your feet, ended with bright blue and vivid lights of red. Of all my escapades over the years to capture an image on this the shortest day of the year, none have ended quite so colorfully.

Dawn foretold the color of the day; we had no sunrise. Before noon I took the dogs for a walk through our prairie and grove seeking inspiration. Yet, for most of the day I kept my eye on the windows, hoping for a glimmer to break through. Gray makes such a search, on a day when light is celebrated, rather gloomy. Since I pride myself on having a positive attitude, I wouldn’t allow the grayness to pull me down.

Last year on the Solstice, these gulls rose from the ice at the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.

Last year on the Solstice, these gulls rose from the ice at the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.

Late this afternoon, with the camera in tote, it was off to the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge with just a fringe of pinkish color along the horizon. Unfortunately, once again the gates to the Refuge were padlocked so the outcrops, possible deer sightings, and the acres of native prairie were off limits. Things were not looking good, not like the past several years when my search for a Winter Solstice picture has been rewarded. Few were as bountiful than last winter when I pulled up onto the dam that creates the Refuge on the Minnesota River. Just as I pulled up, a group of terns lifted from the ice. I quickly lifted the camera and was fortunate to capture a single image, and one of my favorite photographs of the year.

Over the years the Winter Solstice has yielded some fine images. Years ago I captured the lowering sun over my neighbor’s farm. Unlike my tern image, which was blessed with just enough sun to show the shadows on the ice, the farm image was decidedly “Solstice” with the height of the sun angled low over the southern prairie sky.

An iconic image of a Winter Solstice on the northern prairie.

An iconic image of a Winter Solstice on the northern prairie.

Another year, just before dawn, I was able to make an image of another neighbor’s sheep pen along the highway in a blessed blue hue as I was leaving for an out of town meeting.

Then there was the deadline picture on a very cold and sunny day, just minutes before I had to send files of the weekly up to the printer. Not only was there a huge hole available on the front page, but it was also the day of the Winter Solstice. In the southern sky were the rainbow colors of a sundog. As I hurried up the street, suddenly a group of pigeons exploded off the local elevator right into the hues. Up until the tern image, this was certainly my favorite Solstice image for many reasons, and the image played well for a tall, three column vertical on the front page. Welcome to the digital age!

Needed a Solstice picture for my country weekly, these pigeons flew from the local grain elevator into the arc of a sun dog.

Needed a Solstice picture for my country weekly, these pigeons flew from the local grain elevator into the arc of a sun dog.

Oh, there are so many times like these when I think of Jim Brandenburg, the Luverne/Ely photographer who went onto fame with the National Geographic Magazine, and who has published two beautiful books based on a personal challenge he offered himself to make one image a day for 90 straight says. Some of his images, which he dated along with the time, were made early in the morning, although enough were late enough in the day where you imagined he was getting a little antsy. While I rarely place that kind of pressure on myself, today I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have enough light, let alone an interesting light, to capture anything besides that grayish gloom. Remember, the Solstice is about light and promise, both of which were the basis of celebration of the Solstice for thousands of years.

With the refuge locked, I turned toward a wetland with jagged stumps jutting from the surface. Whenever I pass the wetland I slow and gaze at the possibilities. The wetland was just up the hill from the valley and offered a last chance considering the approaching dusk. Enough of a melt had occurred to give an interesting reflection of a brighter sky skimming across the surface of the ice. After parking the car, I walked down and worked on the composition on one of the more interesting stumps. Indeed, a sense of accomplishment settled in as I climbed back into the car to return home. At a nearby field approach I made a U-turn and started back down the highway when I noticed a more interesting angle and quickly pulled the car over to the shoulder, making sure I put on the hazard lights.

Dawn broke on a Winter Solstice on a neighbor's sheep pen.

Dawn broke on a Winter Solstice on a neighbor’s sheep pen.

A car passed on my side, and four sped past from the opposite direction as I aimed the lens at the ice and jutting stumps. It was then I noticed the bright blue and vivid red lights bouncing off the rear view mirror … that of a state trooper who had pulled up behind me. As he walked up I sat and wondered just what I might have done wrong, and joked as he came to the back of the driver’s side door. “Sir, I really wasn’t speeding!”

“Well just what are you doing?” he asked.

“Taking a Solstice picture of those stumps in the wetland across the road.”

He turned toward the slough and then looked back at me with a somewhat incredulous expression. “You’re doing what?”

Once again I explained.

“Well, you should probably park up the road and walk back here to take your pictures. It’s just not safe to be parking half off the road and on the fog strip,” he said, again looking across at the wetland. “Just be safe,” he said as he turned to leave.

“Happy Solstice!” I shouted.

Finally, just before dusk, a nice pinkish light broke over the prairie. My 2014 Winter Solstice image.

Finally, just before dusk, a nice pinkish light broke over the prairie. My 2014 Winter Solstice image.

He stopped, looking surprised at the salutation, perhaps his first and only such greeting of the day. “Yeah, well a Happy Solstice to you, too.”

I wonder if Brandenburg has a story like mine.

Canary of the Prairie


(Writer’s Note: Portions of this blog were based on media reports from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Marshall Independent and the New York Times.)

This past Saturday some 300 folks assembled in Marshall, MN, for the Pheasant Summit, where Minnesota’s DNR Commissioner suggested that the ring-necked pheasant is the “canary” of the prairie.  “[Pheasants] represents the health of the landscape,” he said.

Our very own "canary of the prairie" strutting across our prairie.

Our very own “canary of the prairie” strutting across our prairie.

Wise choice, since there is barely enough grasslands left to support the lives of original “canary of the prairie” — the prairie chicken. Translated, grasslands equate habitat, and habitat was the key buzzword for the day long conference.

While it is fine to point to the pheasant as a symbol, the overall situation may be more dire than a sportive and beautiful bird. Rest assured, there is a relation between pheasants and that beautiful black glacial till we call soil. Pheasants, black soil swirls in the snow banks, and corn and other crops planted right to the edges of drainage ditches, are all related, for that soil is a precious, if not appreciated, commodity that the lives of future generations will rely on for its food supply. Just as it was important that the pollinator crisis seemed to be the focus of the winter meetings a year ago, perhaps our vast blackened landscape will garner some attention this time around. If it takes bird hunters and their beloved pheasants to do so, then bully for them. Bully for all of us, and our children’s children, too.

A "rock jockey" digs out glacial rocks in a grassland that, if like adjacent fields, will be converted to row crops.

A “rock jockey” digs out glacial rocks in a grassland that, if like adjacent fields, will be converted to row crops.

Soil mixing with snow, know as “snirt,” should be as much of a “canary” to the hunters and farmers as is the decline of the pheasant. Consider the lack of buffer strips and other grassy habitat, for example. Grasses protect the soil, as does holding off tillage until the spring or the planting of cover crops. In our many trips through the “black desert” of the former prairie pothole biome this fall and winter, we’ve seen two (2) small fields planted to cover crops despite the number of meetings that addressed the issue last winter. Two.

Certainly there are strategies available for holding precious soils in place. The least expensive for farmers is to simply forgo fall tillage, since corn stalks are anchored in the soil. Stalks also capture moisture, and for pheasants there would be more protection and spilled grain on the surface to provide a food source to survive winters. However, until the innovators, followed by the early adopters, give this idea a shot, it’s a practice that will go nowhere. Other strategies might include fall planted cover crops and even the enforcement of buffer strip statutes. In other words, ground cover. Grasses. Strategies that will help preserve the soil and enhance life for pheasants, and people as well.

An example of "no buffer" farming.

An example of “no buffer” farming.

So, you may ask, how did it come to this? For the past 60-some years industralized farming practices have brought continued ditching and tiling, and an end to basic crop rotation practices, grass waterways and buffer strips. Of the 18 million acres of native prairie the Minnesota landscape once had, about one percent remains today, with habitat loss primarily attributed to farming and development. With last year’s $7 corn, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres in the state dwindled from 9 million to 3 million acres. In short, what took natural history 12,000 years to accomplish since the last glacier has basically been destroyed in less than 200 years by mankind.

That said, there appears to be neither much concern nor urgency from the agricultural community, including the major farm organizations, nor in legislative circles as it applies to overall soil conservation issues. This past election cycle saw the passage of a “right to farm” amendment to the Missouri statutes that basically erodes any oversight efforts by government and private citizens from industrialized CAFOs and crop farming, including the use and misuse of agricultural pesticides. Nor did concern reach the Halls of Congress with its recent passage of the emergency budget bill where pro-industrialized big-ag legislation was “hidden”-within which states that the government (meaning the EPA) cannot require farmers to report “greenhouse gas emissions from manure management systems.” Nor can it require ranchers to obtain greenhouse gas permits for “methane emissions” produced by bovine flatulence or belching. The Environmental Protection Agency says on its website that “globally, the agriculture sector is the primary source” of methane emissions.

According to the news report, the spending bill requires the EPA to withdraw a new rule defining how the Clean Water Act applies to certain agricultural conservation practices. It also prevents the Army Corps of Engineers from regulating farm ponds and irrigation ditches under the Clean Water Act. Said Rep Mike Simpson (R-ID), “This is a major victory for farmers and ranchers, who consistently tell many of us that they are concerned about the potential of the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers’ overreach into their operations.” While this involves CAFOs and the EPA, grassland proponents had best not relax their guard.

Crops planted right to the lips of drainage ditches are not legal and rarely enforced, prompting the Ag Commissioner to suggest repealing the law.

Crops planted right to the lips of drainage ditches are not legal and rarely enforced, prompting the Ag Commissioner to suggest repealing the law.

Which brings us back to the Pheasant Summit in Marshall this past weekend as a case-in-point, where state’s largest farming organization, the pro-ag Farm Bureau, came away from the conference reportedly pleased there was no “blame game” involved. That should not come as a surprise. According to news reports, Doug Busselman, director of public policy, serving as Minnesota Farm Bureau’s lobbyist, said, “Most of the discussion here has been about how much habitat has been lost as opposed to focusing on how much habitat we have and how we can make the most of what we’ve got. I think those are some of the concerns that we’ve come here with. I think we’d benefit by recognizing where good is happening and building on that versus always looking at things lost.”

Read between the lines — status quo seems to get the nod from the Farm Bureau.

Rather than grass waterways, tillage equipment is run through fields to enhance a quicker drainage. Too shallow to qualify as an "official" ditch, these ditches won't qualify for buffer regulations.

Rather than grass waterways, tillage equipment is run through fields to enhance a quicker drainage. Too shallow to qualify as an “official” ditch, these ditches won’t qualify for buffer regulations.

Said Doug Peterson, president of the rival Minnesota Farmers Union, “We’re the resource owners. It’s time to stop pointing fingers. If we agree we need a state initiative for habitat for pheasants, wildlife, birds, pollinators and clean water, then it’s time for a policy that allows farmers to be part of the solution.’’ But, he added, landowners can’t be expected to give up income to implement conservation.

Then there was this from Minnesota Ag Commissioner Dave Fredrickson, who suggested in an interview to the St. Paul Pioneer Press that enforcement of existing buffer strip regulations — which requires vegetative strips along drainage ditches, streams and rivers of between 17.5 ft. to 50 ft. — is nearly impossible, and if local government entities aren’t doing the enforcement then perhaps the regulations should be repealed … that it isn’t up to the state to step in with enforcement.

None of which seems very positive for that ring-necked canary of the prairie.

If one looks around the farmed prairie, seeing  "blow outs" are common and seem to grow proportionately larger each growing season.

If one looks around the farmed prairie, seeing “blow outs” are common and seem to grow proportionately larger each growing season.

Here is what one of the attendees, an unnamed public servant and hunter, said following the meeting: “I’m profoundly sad that our state and country can not rise above the greed and lies to fix this very dangerous situation. We are running out of time before we have an ecological and biological collapse. Agriculture has been the demise of other civilizations and it will be ours, too, if we don’t wise up. Uncontrolled drainage policies, irresponsible pesticide use, total reliance and over application of commercial fertilizer, are just a few of the obvious races to the bottom. What scares me most is the absolute total control the agricultural ‘Mafia’ has on nearly all our politicians and agencies. We are being warned of the pending collapse but we are way too greedy and stupid to heed the warning.”

Enforcing existing laws, including buffers, roadsides and easements, actually topped the list among attendees at the conference, followed by efforts to increase bonding funds for Wildlife Management Area acquisition and target funding to specific high-quality habitat area through state, local and federal cost-share programs. Fourth on the list was to increase state and local funding, followed by the creation of competitive compensations for long-term/perpetual conservation practices.

Roadside snirt has already been seen throughout the prairie this winter ... and it's still December.

Roadside snirt has already been seen throughout the prairie this winter … and it’s still December.

One would think, though, that dirt — that common denominator between feeding a “nation” or “world,” depending on who is providing the hyperbole for the “original conservationists” out on the land — would matter most to those who are invested in farming it. Those are the folks who are denuding the grassy protections and whose soils are filling the road ditches with “snirt.”

See? No blame, no gain, apparently. And, thanks to an ignorant public and nicely financed lobbiest-pushed legislation, no accountability.

Then, there is this, from David R. Montgomery’s “Dirt – The Eroision of Civilization” —  “The estimated rate of world soil erosion now exceeds new soil production by as much as 23 billion tons per year, an annual loss of not quite one percent of the world’s agricultural soil inventory. At this pace, the world would literally run out of topsoil in little more than a century. It’s like a bank account from which one spends and spends, but never deposits.”

Which brings us back to the pheasant … our canary in the mining of the land.

Oh, Christmas Tree!

I love a real Christmas tree. The fragrance, the prickly boughs, the bringing-it-in-the-door in a shower of needles and attempting to screw it into the tree stand so that it is at least passably straight. Adjusting so the inevitable patchy side faces the wall. Decorating it. And oh, the fragrance!

I love my husband, too, of course. And, my husband is allergic to real Christmas trees. That was one of those things revealed fairly early on in the relationship—a terrible secret to be unearthed and considered as a possible deal-breaker. I may never have a real Christmas tree again. OK, I can deal. We’re actually not big celebrators of Christmas anyhow. It’s more the solstice—the lighting up of the longest nights of the year and rejoicing that the wheel of the year is turning toward lengthening days (and gardening season) again.

I have very few allergies, and for that I’m extremely grateful. My mother suffers from a lot of them—most anything that has a strong/perfume-y fragrance, plus a number of other substances as well. I joke that I grew up in a scent-sory deprived household. I remember as young kids, out exploring the fields and wetlands in our little town (fields and wetlands that no longer exist, I’m sad to say), my brother and I were returning from an afternoon of catching frogs, jousting with milkweed stalks, eating wild berries, and assorted other free-range adventures, and we decided to bring back a big bouquet of flowers to make mom’s day.

After selecting the biggest, fluffiest heads of goldenrod and arranging them “attractively” into what was basically a big yellow club of allergens, we marched home thinking how pleased mom would be at her adorable (and muddy, and burdock-coated) offspring. What happened when we got home is not as clear in my mind as our glorious intentions, but I don’t think the bouquet ever made it in the door after mom spotted us coming down the road with our gift. Hey, at least it wasn’t a snake…nevermind—we don’t say that word in front of mom, either. 😉

A couple of participants in our Thanksgiving feast share an allergy to all members of the onion family. John’s sister is one of them, and it has been an interesting challenge to cook when she visits—being so used to starting every savory recipe with an onion, a couple cloves of garlic, and/or a whole leek. I like these kind of challenges, though, and it’s a much better option to eat in anyhow—can you imagine trying to go out to a restaurant with that kind of allergy? Every spice blend and condiment poses the threat of closing your throat and sending you to the hospital. You can ask for no onion or garlic, but you take your chances on the kitchen staff actually reading the labels for anything they’re not preparing from scratch (sadly, much of the menu in most places these days). Ann has also become quite creative at enhancing flavor in her own recipes, and her green chili-blue cornbread dressing is one of my favorite dishes alongside the turkey every year. I’ve decided to try my hand at making it for dinner tonight—but, yeah, I’ll probably put onion in mine.

Now that freezing temperatures have descended and the ground is covered with snow (though next week’s forecast looks potentially revealing), many allergy sufferers are breathing a sigh of relief—which is to say, they’re breathing normally. Aside from indoor issues like dust and pet dander, allergens are at a minimum. I am incredibly thankful that neither I nor John, nor any of our offspring are allergic to those, what with a laissez-faire approach to dusting, two cats, a dog, and tentative plans for a puppy.

The onset of winter means it’s coming up on the holidays, which means it’ll soon be time for the tree to go up. With John’s allergy, we’ve compromised with a fake tree—in fact, one of the most obviously fake trees money buy—the kind with pulsing, glowing, multi-colored fiber optic lights built right into the tips of the plastic branches. I think the thing might even spin or jiggle or do some crazy acrobatics. I’m sure it’s known by the State of California to cause cancer, blindness, and uncontrollable Barry Gibb impressions.

But it’s also a tree on which to hang the family ornaments, each with a story behind it. We can put presents underneath it for the cats to mangle, and it doesn’t require struggling with a separate string of lights, since they’re already built in. It also doesn’t make John sneeze, or give him headaches (except perhaps, if he were to stare too long at its pulsing colored needles).

On the front lawn, there’s a small spruce that I’ve strung with lights, and once I find a long enough extension cord, we’ll be able to enjoy its cheery twinkle from the warmth of the house, without fear of allergies or getting needles stuck in our socks. I could trim a few branches from the big spruces bordering the orchard and affix them to the deck railing as well. A wreath on an outside door would be safe.

With the question of holiday greenery settled, we can retire to the warmth of the house, lighting the pine-scented candles and relaxing in the glow of our artificial and allergy-free tree, addressing holiday cards and humming along to A Very Bee Gees Christmas.

Ole’s Canoe

Ever since those initial spindly cedar strips were glued and stapled to the form of my first canoe project in the 1980s, wooden canoes and kayaks have haunted me. Small wonder that a rugged and weathered craft, with cracks of time cutting through the shoulder of wood like a running river slices a native prairie, stopped me in my tracks. June Lynne, executive director of the Chippewa County Historical Society, smiled. “She’s a beauty, isn’t she?”

Indeed, and as my canoe building buddy, Norman Andresen, used to remind me, “Every canoe has a story.”

Resting atop a makeshift standard in the main office of the Historic Chippewa Village in Montevideo, the ancient dugout awaits a more glorious future. While the story of the fire-hollowed cottonwood trunk will never be known, June, bless her huge historic heart, obliged me with what is known. “For years this was sort of an inside joke here at the village,” she began, acknowledging that it has been in storage at the Village since 1985. A small plaque beside it had read: “This Canoe was Owned by Ole Torgerson. He Built It From A Cottonwood Tree.”

Over parts of three centuries, the unearthed dugout canoe will find its place in history.

Over parts of three centuries, the unearthed dugout canoe will find its place in history.

That led to many inside jokes centering around both the age and significance of the find. Now, however, the jokes and laughter have been silenced. This is what is known: Torgerson discovered the canoe either in or alongside the Chippewa River on his farm around 1867, which appears to be at or near the current location of the Easy Bean CSA Farm on Highway 40. He initially stored the dugout in a shed on the farm where it remained until 1878 when another rush of high water cut through the valley that spring to leave behind a new oxbow lake. Torgerson then moved the canoe to a new shed he built on his farm across the river, where it remained for four more decades after his death in 1918.

His nephew, Lyle Torgeson (the “r” was apparently dropped from the family name in subsequent years), found the old canoe at the abandoned farmstead of his uncle and moved it to a new shed on his farm where it remained for another 25 years. When Lyle died, the historical society purchased the canoe for a pittance at a farm auction. “We moved it here to this site and have had it in storage ever since,” said Lynne.

Speculation has it that Ole placed the "dowel" through the bow of the canoe.

Speculation has it that Ole placed the “dowel” through the bow of the canoe.

Not unlike Ole Torgerson, many “river rats” hit the gravel bars searching for rare items such as bison bones, Indian artifacts and perhaps even a dugout canoe — another was located a few miles away just below the Churchill Dam on the Minnesota River in 1982 — after high waters scourge the river bottom and gravel bars. And, as a paleontologist or an archaeologist will tell you, such artifacts date to this side of the last glaciation of Minnesota. “Of course, Minnesota had dinosaurs,” a University of Minnesota geologist told me years ago on a canoe trip. “Their bones, along with all evidence of the ancient seas, were all crushed to smitherines by the weight of the glaciers.” While 12,000 years may not mean much in geological time, it still allows for some interesting finds thanks to the help of raging flood waters along the original bed of first, the Glacial River Warren, and later, the Minnesota River.

So, was Ole a crafty fellow who hollowed out the huge cottonwood? This is where Maritime Heritage Minnesota came in with a Clean Water Legacy Grant to study seven of the eight dugouts found in the state. In 2013 a minuscule hole was drilled in the hull to extract a 100 mg sample that was then sent to Florida for a radiocarbon dating study. The results shocked Lynne and her board … and brought Ole’s old dugout out of permanent storage and into the main hall, for the study estimated the date of the ancient canoe being burnt and honed with stone tools into a river-worthy vessel between1436 and 1522.

“Ole didn’t do it,” she said.

Weathering cracks in the bow of the cottonwood dugout tell the tale of time.

Weathering cracks in the bow of the cottonwood dugout tell the tale of time.

While members of a primitive culture (officially called the Late Prehistoric Period) along what we know as the Chippewa River painstakingly hollowed out and carefully burnt the innards of a cottonwood tree trunk to craft the canoe, German emperor Sigismund was signing a peace pact with Hussieten, peasants were uprising in Transylvania and Albrecht II von Hapsburg became king of Bohemia.

All of which happened several generations before that second dugout canoe (two of the entire eight that have been unearthed in the state are both stored at Chippewa Village) was similarly built. It dated back to 1626-1679. That both were unearthed literally within miles and over a finger of a prairie ridge from one another is also interesting. Unfortunately the “newer” dugout wasn’t as well preserved having been pulled from the sands and water more than a century later than when Ole found his.

“Initially, we were concerned about how bringing it inside would damage the wood, even though it had been through all those freeze and thaw cycles over the years,” said Lynne. “We’ve been very careful.”

June Lynne holds a drawing of the mural regional artist Malena Handeen will paint as part of the dugout canoe display.

June Lynne holds a drawing of the mural regional artist Malena Handeen will paint as part of the dugout canoe display.

Soon, too, regional artist Malena Handeen, who with her husband, Mike Jacobs, owns the land close to where Ole Torgerson found the dugout, has created a riverine mural she has been commissioned to paint on a bare wall inside the Village office. Lynne said a permanent and more stately display stand will hold the dugout in front of Handeen’s mural. “It should look really nice, and we think it will also look authentic to the time,” Lynne said.

Regional artist, Malena Handeen, is to paint the mural depicting the probably riverine scene for the display.

Regional artist, Malena Handeen, is to paint the mural depicting the probably riverine scene for the display.

She then smiled. “You know, every one of these little county museums have something unique and special about them.” She looked at the ancient dugout Ole unearthed that somehow luckily survived not just being buried in the sands of time, but even perhaps a possible dozing and burning of an old farmstead to make way for modern farming. “Maybe this is ours.”