A Prairie Wonder

It could have been worse. For one, the afternoon had the look and feel of one of those stressfully hot and humid days that have become more common with climate change, and it felt as though this was in store as I mowed my lawn Saturday morning. 

On our trip that afternoon toward Canby for a promised prairie walk, sprinkles dotted Don Sherman’s windshield and we were without rain gear. While neither of us Minnesota Master Naturalists knew much about the trail at Stone Hill Regional Park nestled along winding Canby Creek, there might be a likelihood of a mosquito invasion if we were hiking through a shaded, woody area. Nope, mosquito masks weren’t packed either. We were to meander unprotected through whatever elements we might face.

Fortunately there were no mosquitoes. No rain. No heat and humidity. Just one of those fine July Minnesota summer afternoons for the dozen or so of us venturing on a saunter Canby area Master Naturalist Todd Mitchell organized and led along the winding Canby Creek, the feeder of the Del Clark Reservoir. He welcomed the help of another one of us Master Naturalists, Dave Craigmile, who lives in nearby Boyd. Cragmile is noted for his knowledge of the natural geological history of the area. None of us on the saunter suffered external stress and perhaps not even any internal stress since the trail was level and was cut through a dense, and mostly shaded riverine ecosystem.

Damselflies offered joy on the trail in Stone Hill Regional Park alongside Canby Creek.

It was a day of colorful milkweed and purplish-blue iron weed, both now in full bloom. It was a day of berries, including a somewhat hidden gooseberry plant found by Sherman and which promptly got the attention of Mitchell. Sherman is known in our Ortonville area for his gooseberry sorbet, and Mitchell laid claim to gooseberries being among his favorites. Various vines crawled up and left shoots dangling off into the prairie air. It was a day of blooming wild morninglory and purple prairie clover. Stalks of big bluestem were beginning to head out, and the sideoat grama appeared through the sedges and other grassy species, minature red seeds clinging a single side of the spindly stalks. Damselflies scurried about adding magical flight and sweet poses. Bees were about, too, buzzing in busyness. Above us dogwood blossoms laid contrast to native burr oaks that seemed to offer staunch guard to the small, meandering creek.

At a U-bend of the creek, Mitchell took a moment with a small etch board to describe the dynamics of the creation of an oxbow lake, and Craigmile told of how brown trout are released into the creek each spring, of how fishers and great blue herons competed for the salmonoid species that were initially brought into the country during European migration back in the late 1800s. That briefly caused me wonder of how they managed to keep these delicate fish alive on such a journey back in the days of ship, train and possibly even covered wagon travel. Or, for that matter, how they even survive in such a shallow prairie stream, for trout are inherently a cold water species. Perhaps the runoff from higher elevation of Buffalo Ridge and spring water is enough, although the warming climate is undoubtedly a concern. 

Craigmile spoke of ancient newspaper accounts of parties catching hundreds of trout back in earlier times. “That wouldn’t go over today,” he joked. Next to portions of the Redwood River, and specifically in nearby Camden State Park, this is about the extent of trout in SW Minnesota.

At upper left, Dave Craigmile, and below him, Todd Mitchell. Bottom right, Jody Olson. Two Master Naturalists, and Olson, a Master Gardener. She provided the greeting table complete with native prairie species from her garden

Before the saunter, though, the group was met at the trail head by Jody Olson, a Master Gardner longer than most of those on the tour had been alive, with a collected display of native prairie species she nurtured in her Canby garden. It was through Olson, actually, that Sherman learned about the trail hike. Olson was one of his “students” the previous weekend when he was in Canby for one of his paper making workshops. She’s perhaps the oldest person to ever take one of his workshops and is now in her ninth decade. 

Olson told him about the prairie park and its adjacent neighbor, Del Clark Reservoir, and invited him down for the hike. This combination of a “controlled” 30 ft. deep flood control reservoir, camper haven and playground along with this interesting nature trail were all created in the 1980s as part of an integrated and ambitious plan to  protect the nearby small town of Canby from floodwaters off the nearby Buffalo Ridge moraine. The reservoir is about four miles from the outskirts of the prairie town and offers a pristine and picturesque jewel to the prairie. It is also, as was alluded to numerous times, the only swimmable lake in Southwestern Minnesota due to the absence of runoff of agricultural chemicals. There is a reason why ­ —  all found upstream.

All along the trail various species of milkweed were in bloom.

Nearly 20 years in the making, these efforts began after a five inch rain once again caused immense flooding in the community in 1963. The town historically suffered major damage from flooding every five years or so as the overflowing waters of Canby Creek rushed across the prairie. Enough was just that: enough. Following that flood a local committee was formed to address the issue. In 1972 the project was turned over to the Lac qui Parle-Yellow Bank Watershed District, which worked jointly with farmers and landowners and the Yellow Medicine and Lac qui Parle soil and water conservation districts to create the installation of water control projects both above Canby and for miles upstream. 

When the ambitious Del Clark Lake project was completed in 1986 it received a “Seven Wonders of Engineering Award” from the Minnesota Society of Professional Engineers (MSPE). Perhaps an even greater wonder, though, was in convincing cooperating agencies, farmers and others in three Minnesota and three South Dakota counties to work in concert to create grassed waterways, grade stabilization structures, crop residue management, contour farming, strip-cropping, terraces, field windbreaks, and pastures in the upland watershed. Yes, a thorough water conservation concept was sold to those upstream of what is now the reservoir and town of Canby to provide clean, chemically free water to Canby Creek and eventually the reservoir. 

Toward the end of the saunter, a hole in the canopy gave us a glimpse of the natural stream bed of Canby Creek, complete with a small rapids. Yes, perhaps this does appear to be a trout stream.

Remaining in the “wake” of this marvelous group effort was this meandering creek, park and adjacent trail, where odd masks and humorous figurines can bring a smile. At one juncture, a Vietnam veteran named a portion of the trail as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. That peaceful jaunt crosses what is now a hay field and is a shortcut from the far end of the Canby Creek trail and is a far cry from the noted supply route where communist-led North Vietnam sent weapons, manpower, ammunition and other supplies to their supporters in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Mitchell said the veteran, Ron Fjerkenstad, manager of the park, named the trail as a respectful homage to his enemy.

Yet, this saunter along the meandering creek wasn’t about politics nor the huge earthen dam and the reservoir behind it. Both Mitchell and Craigmile offered a relaxed and educational saunter along a possibly unique prairie trail, one that seemed quite distant from the broad-sky views just a few miles distant. Toward the end of the jaunt a hole in this seemingly rare “prairie jungle” offered a glimpse of the natural stream bed of Canby Creek, complete with a small rapids, which brought the thought that, yes, this could make a home for a beautiful trout. Yes, even here in the heart of the prairie! It could be worse.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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