In the eye of the storm

Trees were uprooted and toppled alongside our tent, although we didn’t hear them fall in the roar of the 60- and 70-miles per hour winds.

No more philosophical musings about whether or not a tree has fallen in the woods if no one hears it.

Lots of trees fell, many with trunks more than two-feet in diameter, all about us as we found ourselves in the eye of the storm that raced through portions of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness sometime after 1 a.m. on July 22.

We never heard a single tree fall.

The roar of the 60- to 70-mile winds and the sound of our tent’s rain fly snapping like it was about to be shredded were all that we heard.

My wife Cindy, grandchildren Owen, 8, and Brynn, 13, and yours truly were enjoying our third night in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and feeling pretty darn good about things as we raced the mosquitoes into our tent as dusk arrived. We were camped on Lac La Croix, a large lake on the border between the U.S. and Canada. We had entered at the Moose River North entry point west of Ely on Saturday. We camped on Lake Agnes, made our way into Lac La Croix on Sunday, camping across from the pictographs on the lake’s eastern end. On Monday we made our way west through Fish Stake Narrows and paddled just north of Lady Boot Bay before landing on our campsite across from Pocket Creek, which we would follow the next day.

All of the larger trees at the campsite were uprooted. Our tent spot and canoe were one of the few spaces not covered by the downed trees.

We had caught fish in our corner of the lake, made a great meal of them, and enjoyed the cool water on a hot and humid day. We could see the storm clouds building, but I was feeling good about things. At the last minute I had chosen to pack a heavier, Eureka Timberline Outfitter tent instead of a lighter and cooler tent for the trip. I was thinking I had made the right decision in terms of being prepared for rough weather.

We had rented a four-person, We-no-nah canoe all of 23-feet long. Expecting a storm, we carried it up from our campsite’s landing to place it behind our tent.  I tipped it over our Duluth packs to keep them dry and lashed it to a tree.

The rumble of thunder and flash of lightning woke me up, and at fist all seemed well. The rain came hard and driven, but we remained dry.

It would not be for long. There’s no exaggerating the ferocity of the winds that raced out of Pocket Creek that was aimed at us like the barrel of a shotgun.  The roar of the wind matched that of a train. What worried me more was the snapping rain fly and the fear it would be torn to shreds. I believe it would have been too, except that suddenly the back (and downwind) end of the tent went down. The ‘A’ frame poles in the front bowed as I held them from inside, hoping to keep them from snapping.

We soaked up water inside and held tight. Owen was in the middle of the tent and only the bottom of his sleeping bag got wet. He woke up long enough to ask if he was in the lake. Told that he was not, he went back to sleep.

His sister had felt a tree branch brush her as the back of the tent went down.

When the winds finally slowed, I crawled out of the tent to see if I could put it all back up again.

I could not believe what my headlamp and the flashes of lightning revealed to me outside. Large trees were fallen all around us, uprooted.  It was the branches from one of the downed trees that had clipped our tent. Our canoe was lying sideways in the downed brush behind us, unharmed. I grabbed the saw and cut the limbs and righted our tent. All four tent poles were bowed, and a portion of one pole that kept the rain fly over the front had snapped.  The fabric had not been ripped.

The rain continued until 7:30 a.m., after which we could emerge from the tent and start anew. We made breakfast, packed up and made our way down the creek to our next destination. We managed to repair the tent and gusty winds and sunshine allowed us to dry our sleeping bags and tent by nightfall.

The following day, we met one of the U.S. Forest Service crews that had come to clean up in the wake of the storm. We learned from them how others had been injured at campsites located a few miles east and west of our location. The damage was not as widespread as the Boundary Waters Blowdown of July 4, 1999, but there were pockets within this storm’s path where bursts of wind had flattened trees with the same effect.

“Dang,’’ the ranger said when I pointed out where we had camped. She had been there, and could only express surprise we had paddled away unharmed.

If left us much to ponder.

Owen and Brynn hold a stringer of walleye and northern pike they caught.

Eyes in the sky over the western prairie

Four cows in this herd grazing the Chippewa Prairie are fitted with GPS equipped, satellite linked collars that record their movements.

Moose research in the northeast corner of Minnesota is providing an unexpected, and totally high tech boost to research on the Chippewa Prairie along Lac qui Parle Lake.

Four GPS-equipped and satellite-linked collars used to track moose calves are now helping researchers follow cattle.

The collars had been attached to moose calves shortly after their births in spring. The collars made it possible for researchers to quickly reach the calves when they died and determine the cause of mortality.

The role of the satellite-linked collars on the prairie is not quite so dramatic, but no less important. They make it possible to precisely monitor the movement of cattle as they graze a 2,000-acre prairie area.

Each spring, an area of this open prairie is deliberately burned.

Known as a patch-burn regimen, it mimics the natural prairie when bison and elk moved in after prairie fires to graze on the newly-emerged vegetation.

A cow outfitted with a collar.

The collars will help offer “answers to the questions,’’ said Joe Blastick, with The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy and DNR own the 2,000 acres of native prairie and former pasture, and are partners in this research.

Dave Trauba, manager of the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, had learned that the collars from the unfortunate moose calves were collected and held for use next year. He asked to borrow a few of the collars for the summer season.

Every hour, the collars send a signal to satellites giving the precise location of the animals. From the comfort of an office, Trauba and Blastick can click a mouse and see exactly where the cattle are grazing, as well as look at where they have been in any of the previous days.

Along with location, the collars also record when a cow has her head up or down, indicative of whether she is grazing or moving.

Joe Blastick with The Nature Conservancy (left) and Dave Trauba with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are among those monitoring how the prairie responds to the fire-grazing regimen.

This is the third year the patch-burn grazing research has been taking place on the prairie. In the past, Trauba and Blastick tried their best to keep track of the cattle’s grazing patterns, but could never spend all the time needed.

The collars will now provide researchers with comprehensive information on just how much time the cattle actually spend on the burn patch grazing. The information will help assure that the cattle are managed to best benefit the prairie.

The goal is to see that the natural disturbance provided by the cattle increases the diversity of native prairie plants, while also helping keep non-native plants in check. The grazing should also keep the flowers and grasses at a shorter height, which benefits grassland birds and other wildlife.

The anecdotal evidence to date is encouraging. “I just think the grazing-fire interaction begets diversity,’’ said Trauba as he pointed to the lush mix of forbs and grasses at the site.

The DNR-owned lands here are part of the wildlife management area and are open to hunting. The cattle will be removed in early September, before the start of the deer archery season.

Trauba, an avid hunter, knows that many hunters are watching the DNR’s use of grazing to manage grasslands with a cautious eye. The goal here is to make this a win-win situation.

The fire-grazing regimen should provide improved habitat for wildlife of all types, including pheasants and other game species. While the relatively small portion of this prairie that was burned last spring may have ankle-high grass, upland bird hunters will still find knee- and waist-high growth throughout the majority of the remainder of the area.  They should find plenty of birds to flush.

The portion of the prairie that was burned and now grazed by the cattle is thriving.



Happy campers at Sibley State Park as naturalist programs return

Samantha Schwartz uses a vacuum bug collector to catch a dragonfly while participating in a naturalist program at Sibley State Park on Thursday.

SIBLEY STATE PARK — Bennett Schwartz has not been invited to the Home Run Derby at Target Field, but at Sibley State Park he proved he could swing a butterfly net like a major league pro.

On Thursday he was snagging dragonflies zipping by like speed balls fired by Aroldis Chapman.

He was having a lot of fun, said his grandmother, Jonette Engan, She was more than happy to have escorted him to the park for a park naturalist program on dragonflies.

Engan said she was very happy to see the return of naturalist programs at the park.

The park has been without naturalist programs since Dick Clayton retired last December after 35 years with the park.

Melissa Rothwell took on the duties on July 3, and hasn’t missed a beat. “She hit the ground running,’’ said Jack Nelson, park manager.

It’s familiar ground to Rothwell, a Spicer native. She served as a seasonal naturalist with the park during the summers of 2010-12. She introduced the park’s popular archery program.


She holds a degree in natural resources management from the University of Minnesota, Crookston, She’s certified as an instructor for both archery and flatwater paddling.  Rothwell said she will be offering these and many other programs in the weeks ahead.

She is serving as a seasonal naturalist in a position funded through Legacy funds into late September. The seasonal position works well for her. Her husband is in the military.

A tight budget has forced state parks to leave some positions unfilled when vacancies occurred. The naturalist position at Sibley is among them. Last year’s harsh winter and the unexpected rise in the cost of propane for heating added to the financial challenges, noted Nelson.

Sibley State Park is one of the most popular state parks, ranked sixth overall in usage with more than 300,000 visitors in a year. It has also established a reputation for offering one of the best naturalist programs, and Nelson said that tradition will remain.

By weathering the financial challenges today, he is hopeful that the park will be in a better position to lobby to replace the permanent, naturalist position next spring.

Bennett Schwartz runs with his butterfly net to catch dragonflies while participating in a naturalist program at Sibley State Park on Thursday.

In the meantime, he’s hearing from campers and day visitors alike about how much they enjoy having naturalist programs back at the park.

Rothwell’s focus is on offering programs that combine education with hands on, outdoor activities. Programs are mainly offered Thursdays through Mondays. Upcoming programs are listed on the park’s website, in the West Central Tribune and neighboring newspapers, and on fliers in the park.


Life on the edge is very interesting, and beautiful


Martha Alsleben looks at a tiny, macro-invertebrate in the plastic bag held by Jake Titus as they attempt to identify it.

Life on the edge is very interesting, and beautiful.

We know it as Sibley State Park.

For 14 adults, it was their outdoor classroom for five days (June 23- 27) as they studied to become Master Naturalists in a unique program offered by the University of Minnesota Extension.

Since 2005, more than 1,600 volunteers have completed the 40-hour master naturalist program to learn about Minnesota’s outdoors.  Graduates join a cadre of citizens who volunteer a minimum of 40 hours every subsequent year to help on projects benefiting our natural resources.

This was the first time the class was hosted at Sibley State Park, but it would be hard to find a better location, according to its instructor and the director of the U of M Naturalist program, Amy Rager.

“This is where two biomes meet,’’ said Rager. “Because it’s an edge, it has a lot of diversity,” she said of the park.

The Master Naturalist programs are offered across the state and focus on the biome in the respective areas they are held. There are programs focused on the Prairie and Potholes; Northwoods and Great Lakes; and Big Woods, Big River biomes of the state.

Sibley State Park is located in that transition zone where the prairie and big woods meet. The park also protects oak savanna, a landscape that is becoming increasingly rare.

Students hiked the park’s trail to identify plants, animals and insects. They also dipped nets into the waters of Lake Andrew to capture and identify its macro-invertebrate life.

The 14 participants came from locations as diverse as Minneota, Fairfax and Minneapolis. They shared one thing in common. “These people are life-long learners. As adults they want to know things,’’ said Rager.

The combination of classroom and hands on, outdoor activities appeals to the adults who pursue the master naturalist designation.

Needless to say, they also share an appreciation for the outdoors.

Virginia Amundson and Mike Follett collect macro-invertebrates from Lake Andrew with other students in the Master Naturalist program held at Sibley State Park.

That appreciation is strong enough that easily one-half or more of the graduates of the program have continued to meet and exceed the 40-hours per year volunteer obligation, said Rager.

Having this volunteer corps of people who are willing and able to help out with natural resource issues is important, she noted. “They want to help. It think it is exciting. I feel like we’re actually going to make an impact on natural resources.’’

There was little question about the impact the program was having on its students: They were sloshing about the Lake Andrew shoreline with dip nets as enthusiastically as the young anglers tossing worms to fish from the lake’s fishing pier nearby.

“We never have to remind them to be focused,’’ said Rager, laughing, about the students. “We like have to cut them off because we need to go home at the end of the day.’’

Rager considers her job the best of all possible.

“I love seeing adults so excited about learning things. And they are interested in the same things I am interested in,’’ she said.

Instructor Amy Rager holds a tiny macro-invertebrate the students identified from the waters of Lake Andrew.

Remembering a loved one’s passion for the outdoors

Dan Zimmerman releases a mourning dove he had trapped and banded as part of his work at the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Area.

LAC QUI PARLE — A lot of hard-working people are responsible for making the  Lac qui Parle Wildlife Area western Minnesota’s premier destination for hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing and outdoor activities of all types.

The tragic loss of one man who embodied the passion for this special place recently spurred action to remember him and all of those who have worked so hard for the outdoors.

Family, friends and the former co-workers of Dan Zimmerman gathered at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource contact station at Lac qui Parle on May 31 to dedicate a stone monument remembering Zimmerman and all of those who have labored for what we enjoy here today.

“He didn’t have any quit in him,’’ said Kristi Doose, Granite Falls, of her late brother. The stone that is now the monument had been unearthed when she and her husband built their home in 1990, and set aside for a purpose she could not have foreseen.

The memorial is located outside the contact station at Lac qui Parle.

Her brother grew up “smack dab in the middle” as the only boy surrounded by seven sisters. His father, LeRoy, 91, and mother, Norma, 87, were among those who remembered his love for hunting, fishing and all things outdoors.

The family ran a bait shop along the Minnesota River in Granite Falls. “Zimmy,” as he was known, took to hunting and fishing with his dad from the start.

He earned a degree in forest ecology at Vermillion Community College, Ely, and studied taxidermy at a school in Wisconsin.

He worked for more than 35 years at the Lac qui Parle refuge. Like many who make the Department of Natural Resources their career, he began by taking a seasonal assignment at the refuge. In the off months, he helped trap and relocate wild turkeys, and played an important role in the re-establishment of the species in Minnesota.

In his memory, the Wild Turkey Federation and its local chapter donated over $5,000 to help improve turkey habitat in the Chippewa Prairie bottoms along Lac qui Parle Lake. The remote area was his favorite hunting spot, and the lake is where he spent his time when not hunting. Some of the big walleyes, crappies and northern pike he pulled from its waters- and used his taxidermy skills to preserve- will be soon on the walls of the Lac qui Parle contact station.

Zimmerman took his life at age 58 on Aug. 23, 2013.

No one had anticipated it.

“One of the most physically tough guys I’ve ever met, and mentally too,’’ said Dave Trauba, manager of the wildlife refuge and Zimmeran’s former boss.

He was apparently experiencing depression, and the wheels were turning to help him.

He died just a couple of days before his next appointment with a medical professional.

“He loved life, had tons of friends. It’s just a puzzle as how this could have spiraled so fast that we were unable to save him,’’ said his sister Linda Olson of Waconia.

Some wonder if there wasn’t an underlying physical issue, she said.

The experience has made Trauba painfully aware that depression is a disease that can afflict anyone, no matter how strong or good-spirited a person might be otherwise. “If it can happen to Dan, what about the rest of us?’’ he said.

The focus at the memorial ceremony was all about celebrating his many positive contributions, and having fun. His nephews and others competed at duck and goose calling, a reminder of his love for waterfowl hunting.

When Zimmy was 14- like the nephews he took hunting- he had been shot in the back of his left arm in a hunting accident. He nearly lost his arm, but not his determination. He went on to become a three-sport athlete in high school, and to his final days, was known as an expert archer and marksman.

He hunted moose and elk and thought nothing of taking extended backpack trips into the northern wilderness. Doose remembers her phone ringing one night. It was her brother calling. He told her he was surprised he had service where he was located, but had to let her listen to the howling wolves that were serenading him.

Next year the family plans to work with the DNR to help establish a butterfly garden and add plantings to benefit pollinators at the refuge. They want to continue doing what their loved one had made his legacy: Be good stewards of this wildlife area.

“We’re still feeling the void,’’ said Trauba of Zimmerman’s loss at the refuge.

Dan Zimmerman’s parents, LeRoy and Norma were among those who joined to remember all he had done.