Paddle Forward returning to Minnesota River in 2015

Natalie Warren and Ann Raiho discovered the Minnesota River in 2011 when they became the first women to recreate the 2,000 mile trip to Hudson Bay made famous in "Canoeing with the Cree.''

Natalie Warren and Ann Raiho discovered the Minnesota River in 2011 when they became the first women to recreate the 2,000 mile trip to Hudson Bay made famous in “Canoeing with the Cree.”

SAINT PAUL – On expeditions to the farthest reaches of the earth, Ann Bancroft and Will Steger used the Internet to connect to students and allow them to witness and learn about all they discovered.

Another Minnesota explorer is doing the same, but introducing students to waters closer to home.  Natalie Warren wants young people to learn about the watersheds in which they live, and perk their interest to get out and discover them as well.

This year Warren and her staff with the Wild River Academy are returning to the Minnesota River for the annual “Paddle Forward” expedition. Warren and a team of six to eight paddlers will launch their canoes in Big Stone Lake in late August and make their way to the confluence with the Mississippi River by October 9.

In between, they will visit communities along the river, learn about the area’s history, and examine our interactions with the environment by visiting farms, industries and popular recreational destinations.  Each day’s adventure will be part of an on-line curriculum offering students a wide-range of lessons.

“We try to connect the dots,’’ said Warren of the lessons the annual “Paddle Forward’’ expeditions bring to students who join the adventure via the Internet. “Watersheds are so complex and it’s hard to understand when you’re not in them, to understand everything that impacts them.’’

A tipi at the Upper Sioux Agency State Park. The Paddle Forward crew will camp at this and other state parks along the river.

A tipi at the Upper Sioux Agency State Park. The Paddle Forward crew will camp at this and other state parks along the river.

Students at 65 schools participated in the Adventure Learning education model offered by the Wild River Academy’s first Paddle Forward Adventure, an epic run the length of the Mississippi River in 2013. Students at 45 schools in the Illinois River watershed followed and learned from the adventure on that state’s namesake river in 2014.

The return to the Minnesota River puts Warren on familiar waters indeed. Every summer, the Wild River Academy leads high school and college-age students on over-night trips along sections of the river.

And of course, Warren and friend and Ann Raiho made history in 2011 when they became the first women to replicate Eric Sevareid and Walter Port’s 2,000 mile paddle from Fort Snelling to Fort York on Hudson Bay, made famous in Sevareid’s account “Canoeing with the Cree.’’

The 2011 trip opened their eyes to the beauty of the Minnesota River Valley, and to the economic potential its recreational use offers communities along it, said Warren. She said students who have participated in Wild River Academy paddles on the river in the past two summers tell her that they thoroughly enjoyed the river and the challenge of their adventure.

Before the journey, many of those same students confess they knew very little about the river. Some have told her they grew up without even knowing how close it was to their homes.

Warren and Raiho got to know it very well: They paddled upstream against flood-level flows in 2011, managing 1.5 to sometimes 2 miles per hour in 2011.

The 2015 Paddle Forward crew will spend more time going downstream than Warren and Raiho took going upstream, but for good reason. The paddlers will be spending lots of time visiting all the sites along the way.

They are also hoping that residents along the river, elected officials and others will join them to paddle segments of the river.

Warren said they are currently in the process of lining up sites to visit, recruiting paddlers and working to get the word out about their trip to schools. Teachers can make the Paddle Forward trip a part of their curriculum by visiting their website and clicking on the tab for teachers.

She’s also hoping to hear from those along the route who may be interested in hosting the visitors for tours and provide places for them to pitch their tents. They are especially interested in sharing lessons about agriculture, industry, wildlife and recreational opportunities in the watershed.

Warren is also inviting everyone along the way to paddle along with the adventurers. For more information: http://paddle4ward.com/ or email paddle@wildriveracademy.com

 

The Paddle Forward crew pitched their tents under the stars during the Mississippi River adventure in 2013.

The Paddle Forward crew pitched their tents under the stars during the Mississippi River adventure in 2013.

 

Seeley on climate change: “It’s staring us right in the face”

 

The pace of climate change in Minnesota is greater than in some parts of the country. What it means for our lakes, prairie and northern forests are yet to be known.

The pace of climate change in Minnesota is greater than in some parts of the country. What it will mean for our lakes, prairie and northern forests is yet to be known, but today’s youth will likely know a different Minnesota.

WILLMAR — Climate change is not occurring all over the place at the same pace.

In Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, there’s not a lot going on and if anything, it might be slightly cooler, according to University of Minnesota Extension Climatologist Mark Seeley.

In Minnesota and the Great Lakes region, it’s a much different story.

In the last 10 years, Minnesota has broken 8,923 daily weather records. Southeast Minnesota saw three, 1,000-year flood events. In a five-month span in 2012, the St. Louis River at Duluth went from recording its highest flows ever to its very lowest.

Our minimum daily temperatures are rising.  We are seeing more extreme rain events, and an overall trend towards more precipitation. Our springs and autumns are trending warmer, but recent years show a mix of both cooler and warmer summers and winters.

All of which is to say: Climate change is happening. “It’s there in the data. It’s staring us right in the face,’’ said Seeley. He spoke Feb. 24 on the MinnWest Technology campus in Willmar during the annual meeting of the Hawk Creek Watershed Project.

We are still learning what it will mean for agriculture, our lakes, prairies and northern forests.

“You live in very challenging times. You are actually coping with a more variable climate than your predecessors did,’’ Seeley told his audience.

We've seen an increase in annual precipitation throughout the state. High water flows over Curtain Falls on the Minnesota-Canada border in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

We’ve seen an increase in annual precipitation throughout the state. High water flows over Curtain Falls on the Minnesota-Canada border in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

He warned his audience that it is the extreme that really affects us most of all. The extremes force us to alter our practices the most, he explained.

As we move into spring and the warmer months, consider this. Seeley said that recent research indicates that the atmospheric structural characteristics that are conducive to the formation of severe thunderstorms are increasing in our latitude.  We are approximating the same frequency for these conditions as Oklahoma and Kansas. “That’s a dangerous situation to be in,’’ he said.

Steve Molenaar captured this image of the tornado that struck Ivan and Della Underland's farm in July 2008.

Steve Molenaar captured this image of the tornado that struck Ivan and Della Underland’s farm in July 2008.

A passionate duck hunter voices concerns about possible early teal season

Roger Strand checks a wood duck nesting box on Stony Ridge farm in this file photo.

Roger Strand checks a wood duck nesting box on Stony Ridge farm in this file photo.

Minnesota is debating whether to follow the lead of neighboring states Wisconsin and

Iowa and offer an early teal duck hunting season.

The teal population is believed capable of supporting an increased harvest.  Supporters believe an early teal season is an opportunity to introduce more to waterfowl hunting and reverse the decline in the numbers of waterfowl hunters in the state.

One of this area’s most passionate waterfowl hunters is among those urging the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources not to establish an early teal season.

An early teal season might be popular, said Roger Strand of rural New London, but we risk harming our native duck populations by harvesting too many hens. A teal season in early to mid-September would occur when native hens and their broods would be harvested disproportionately in comparison to drakes. There are lots of banding studies that reveal that Minnesota hens and their broods are still around at the time, while the drakes are not as likely to be around, he explained.

Strand is a long-time member of the Wood Duck Society.  He recently stepped down after roughly 15 years as editor of its publication, the Wood Duck NewsGram.

He is especially concerned about the toll an early teal season might take on our native wood duck population.

He pointed out that Minnesota offered an early teal season in 1965.  The experience showed that most hunters had difficulty identifying ducks whizzing by in the low light conditions and with early season plumage. There were plenty of “mistake” ducks shot.

Rather than see hunters stomp mallards and wood ducks into the mud to avoid getting caught, neighboring states have allowed hunters to include one “mistake’’ duck in their daily bag during early teal seasons. Strand said the most likely candidate of all for a “mistake” duck is a native wood duck hen.

 

Minnesota has already liberalized its regular waterfowl regulations in recent years to allow a greater wood duck harvest. Last year’s bag limit allowed hunters to keep three wood duck hens, as compared to two mallard hens, he pointed out.

He believes we increased the wood duck limit without accurately knowing the wood duck population in the state. Wood ducks nest in tree cavities and are notoriously secretive; their populations are not as readily measured by the field surveys conducted to monitor mallard and other duck populations, he said.

The DNR has made a commitment to do more banding work to better know the state’s wood duck population, and that is commendable, said Strand. But we don’t have those results yet. By opening up more opportunities to harvest the birds – including as “mistake’’ birds – we could harm the population, he warns.

Blue-wing teal, mallard and Canada goose.

Mallard hen and drake and Canada goose.

Strand has been maintaining wood duck nesting boxes since he erected his first in 1956. He’s been documenting the individual birds and their nesting success for nearly as long at his Stony Ridge Farm near Sibley State Park. He knows that many of the hens return year after year to the same nesting boxes.

Our harvest should focus more on the drakes than the hens. We should protect our Minnesota breeding hens so they can continue to produce progeny, he argues.  “We’re talking about the same hen that produced 14 wood ducks this year. Why shoot her in the dark in an early opener?’’ he asked.

Strand is also member of the Concerned Duck Hunters, a group that has long advocated for a more conservative management of our waterfowl. Protecting our native nesting hens is critical to protecting our waterfowl populations.

Until recent years, Minnesota restricted the shooting hours on the opening of the regular waterfowl season. Hunters had to wait until 9 a.m. to shoot on the opening day, and could not shoot after 4 p.m. during the first two weeks of the season. The shooting hour restrictions were championed by Robert (Bob) Jessen all for one reason: To protect our native hens, said Strand.

We’ve done away with those protections, and have yet to do the banding work and science needed to really know its implications for our native wood ducks, said Strand. He and others believe the longer shooting hours during the start of the duck season mean we are harvesting a larger share of our native hens.  And now, we appear ready to risk harming our wood duck population further with an early teal season.

He hopes the Minnesota DNR continues to hold off on allowing an early teal season until we can learn more about our native nesting duck populations and more accurately determine what such a season might do to them.

“Why not error on the conservative side?’’ he asked.

Many worry that changes in regulations that have allowed longer shooting hours during the first two weeks of the season means we are harvesting more of our native hens.

Many worry that changes in regulations that have allowed longer shooting hours during the first two weeks of the season means we are harvesting more of our native hens.

No secrets on the ice: Fish house count tells where the fish are biting (and not)

 

An annul fish house survey conducted by the local DNR fisheries staff tracks where the fish are biting, and not.

There are no secrets on the ice, no matter how tight-lipped anglers try to be.

The location of their ice fishing houses always gives it away.

This year’s best fishing lakes as revealed by the annual mid-January fish house count conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries crew in Spicer are familiar waters. The most popular lakes in this area were Green Lake and Koronis.

Other popular ice fishing destinations include Diamond, Eagle, Elizabeth, Florida, Games, George, Big Kandi, Long Lake by Willmar and Long Lake by Hawick, Norway, and Rice.

The count also helps reveal which lakes saw improved fishing from previous years, and those which turned south. Foot Lake, Big Kandiyohi and Long Lake by Hawick saw the bigger increases from previous years. This year’s duds (based on declines from the previous year) included Lake Andrew, Calhoun, Camp, and Ringo.

Overall, the count showed that fish house numbers on area lakes were down from one year ago, but still comparable to the numbers counted in recent years.

Every year at the mid-point of January, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries staff in Spicer conducts a count of the fish houses on 44 water bodies in an area including all of Kandiyohi County, and parts of Swift, Stearns, Lyon, Meeker and Yellow Medicine counties. The annual count provides a snapshot of angling and spearing activity on the area’s lakes.

This year the crew counted a total of 1,138 houses, as compared to 1,361 houses last year, a decline by 19.5 percent.

The year-to-year totals can vary greatly depending on ice conditions.  Ice conditions this year during the count were good, with little to no snow cover and sufficient ice to support vehicle traffic and large houses.

The annual count does not tell it all, and there is no doubt.  The number of houses on area lakes changes week-to-week much more than ever before, according to Dave Coahran, fisheries supervisors in Spicer.

More anglers are using portable houses that they do not leave on the ice over-night.

And, many of the larger, manufactured houses favored by anglers now are much easier to move. Anglers may fish a weekend on one lake, drive home with the house and place it on a different lake a weekend or two later.

The fish house count began in 1978, and also records the number of individuals on the ice without houses.

Not only does the count give a fairly good idea of where the fish are biting each January, but the staff also visits with those fishing and spearing to see how things are going.

This year, the DNR is also conducting a creel survey on Green Lake to get a more detailed look at how game fish populations are doing there. Anecdotal information from anglers suggests this is a down year for fishing on the lake.

It was definitely an up year for Koronis.  Always a popular fishing destination, it saw a big jump from 126 houses in January, 2014 to 202 houses in January, 2015.

The houses numbers of Foot Lake rose from 30 in 2014 to 50 in 2015.

Green Lake proved again to be one of the most popular with 218 houses, as compared to 217 houses last year. Dark houses for spearing represented 14 percent of that total.

Rice Lake saw the biggest decline, with only 78 houses counted this year as compared to 217 last year.

Andrew saw a significant drop too, with only 27 houses counted this year as compared to 50 last year.

The annual count has been conducted since 1978. In the late 1970’s and 1980’s the counts were often in the 1,500 to 1,800 range. The counts declined as more anglers began using portable houses. Today’s lower numbers reflect that change. Creel surveys and other measures indicate that ice fishing activity and pressure on the fishery has not declined.

If resources allow it in the future, Coahran said he’d like to conduct the count on two separate days to measure fish house mobility.

Eye for the prairie: Photographer documents the remaining one percent

John White captured this image of deer on the prairie in Big Stone County.

There is nobody alive today who saw what the tall grass prairie of western Minnesota looked like before it was converted to the landscape we know today.

John White got enough of a glimpse to imagine what it was like, and that’s made all the difference.

There is not a day now that he doesn’t roam the landscape with his camera, capturing images of the remaining one percent of the prairie that remains. In part, he’s driven by the hope that his images will lead people to respect the prairie, but he can’t know that they will.

“You can’t worry about what other people think. You just have to kind of go and do what you’re inspired or driven to do,’’ said White, 71.

An airplane ride with Clara City pilot John Donner provided White with his moment of epiphany.

It was the spring of 1997, and White was the editor of the Clara City Herald. Donner took White up to look at the flooded landscape and know the risk it posed to the community on the banks of Hawk Creek.

From the airplane, White could see a landscape filled with thousands of wetlands, the prairie pothole region returned. “I was just stunned. I didn’t realize. I had no clue that there were all these wetlands that had been drained. I didn’t know that was part of it,’’ said White.

His glimpse of the missing landscape was the start of a journey. He started a prairie garden in his backyard.  He became a master naturalist, studying the prairie pothole eco-system in the University of Minnesota, Extension program.

But his passion to document what remained of the prairie didn’t really begin in earnest until just over a year ago with a move. He had lost his wife, Sharon to cancer, retired from a career in journalism, and remarried.

Fringed orchids

John and Rebecca White found the place of their dreams in Big Stone County.  They set about making a small farm place into their home, converting eight acres of tillable land to prairie with the help of the local Pheasants Forever chapter.

They live amidst wetlands and patches of the remaining, one percent of prairie to be found in western Minnesota.

Both are captivated by the quality of the light that plays on this open landscape. “It’s just amazing. It’s like a reverie every day,’’ said Rebecca White of what calls her husband to venture out with camera in hand.

“He evokes the beauty of this place we live in,’’ she said of his work. “It’s so underestimated by people who get their kicks by grand vistas of canyons,’’ she said.

Her husband’s talent is to “portray the subtle beauty of the prairie in a way this is really breathtaking and really rivals those kinds of grand vistas,’’ she said.

Kylene Olson of Watson, director of the Chippewa River Project and a friend of the Whites, has made the prairie her passion as well. She appreciates most the beauty of the many different flowering plants that thrive on it.

Her appreciation for White’s work began more than a year ago, when a photograph of a Pasque flower he posted online “just really caught me.’’ Now, she said, she is impressed by how his work has evolved. “Tremendous growth,’’ said Olson. “I can really see that.’’

White is aware of how his work has evolved too. He said his original work on the prairie focused most-often on the straightforward, “in your face’’ kind of stuff.

Today his works are much more impressionistic. He uses different focal lengths and selective focus to look through the prairie and reveal the depth of the prairie, and expose the beauty lying within it.

John White takes advantage of the light found at sunrise and sunset to highlight the texture of these prairie grasses.

He’s often out of the house at the first blush of sunrise to capture the unique color as day arrives. It’s all about using the natural light to enhance the beauty of the prairie.

His skills with a camera date back to 1967, when the Missouri native graduated with a major in photojournalism from the Missouri School of Journalism. He was a student of Clifton “Cliff” Edom, known as the father of photojournalism. Once a week, he and other students would place their works on a table in Edom’s home and ask visiting photojournalists, including famous photographers like Gordon Parks and Robert Capa, to offer their critiques.

From there it was off to a career that included photojournalism work at the Telegraph Herald in Dubuque, Iowa, and the Denver Post in Denver, Colorado. He did freelance work for national magazines and found his way to Minnesota when he took a position with Webb Publications in the Twin Cities. Later, he joined a friend who had started his own magazines.

His friend’s untimely death to cancer led White to a job in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but he returned to Minnesota for the opportunity edit a country weekly in Minnesota when offered the position with the Clara City Herald in 1992.

The journalist’s edge remains. Along with his photos revealing the beauty of the prairie, he has also been capturing what his wife Rebecca calls the “beautiful, but terrible in a gut wrenching way’’ images of the winter-time erosion of soil that we call snirt.

“Not only have we totally destroyed a whole biome, a whole eco system, but now that we’ve done it we’re letting it blow away,’’ said White. “And once it blows away, where we gonna go?’’ he asks.

His photographs are currently on display at the K.K. Berge building downtown Granite Falls through February 14. His images of the prairie and writings can also be enjoyed in the blog he co-authors with his wife, found at:  http://listeningstonesfarm.com/

He’s also hoping to follow the lead of the late Paul Gruchow, and author a book of essays on the prairie to be enhanced by his photographs.

 

John White