Spring’s late start: Scramble for some, but well worth the wait no matter

Wood ducks are producing their first eggs in nesting boxes at the Stoney Ridge Farm near Sibley State Park.

It wasn’t until April 10 that the ice covering a small pond on the Stony Ridge farm finally receded enough to make possible an open patch of water.

And just like that, the first wood duck of the season arrived with a splash.

“It used to be October was my favorite month. Now it’s April,’’ said Dr. Roger Strand, a retired Willmar surgeon. He has been hosting and keeping watch over wood ducks since he erected his first nesting box on this property near Sibley State Park in 1956.

“Last year and this we’ve had to wait for April until the middle of the month, but it’s worth it when it’s here,’’ said Strand.

By April 14 the pond was wide open, and now, wood ducks and hooded mergansers are nesting and producing their first eggs.

Some years all the activity can get underway in late March.

This is second, consecutive late spring and it’s making for a compressed, spring season.

A snowstorm greeted turkey hunters on the opening day of the first season on April 16. Despite the weather, Lynn Koenen at DJ’s Sports in Montevideo knows of one young hunter who braved the conditions for hours but bagged a big tom for the effort.

It’s only gotten better since.  Corey Edman at Pete’s Surplus, New London, said that after a relatively slow start, turkey hunters are reporting lots of activity and showing up with harvested birds as a result.

There are plenty of other signs of spring: The Spicer-based fisheries crew with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources pulled nets from Ringo Lake earlier this week and found plenty of female walleyes ripe with eggs, according to Dave Coahran, fisheries supervisor.

Anglers are eager for shallow, back waters to warm so they can pursue crappies and sunfish.

It probably won’t be for a week or so before the ice is gone and they can set nets in the waters of Green and Koronis Lakes to collect spawn for the hatchery. Like last year, Coahran said it will be a scramble to collect what’s needed this year due to the late start.

This year’s goal is to collect more eggs than last year, but right now the odds aren’t great, he noted.

The fisheries crew hasn’t been able to get nets into all the waters they’d like to test for winter kill yet. They know there has been a fish kill on Lake Lillian and were hoping to get nets into the lake to determine its extent after this article was prepared on Wednesday.

The late spring also makes it challenging for crews conducting prescribed burns on prairies in the area.

Jeff Miller, with the Minnesota DNR wildlife office, Sibley State Park, said they were able to manage two sizeable burns- one near Pennock and another near Milan- before rains arrived this week.

Scott Glup, project leader with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Litchfield, said the spring’s late arrival has definitely put the crews behind schedule. In the best of years, they’re lucky to manage 3,500 acres, which is still short of the 5,000 to 7,000 acres they’d like to do. Reaching the 3,500 acre goal this year will be hard. They’ve only been able to manage three burns to date, and funding cuts have reduced the number of workers available.

“It’s moving slow,’’ said Glup.

There is a good side to slow, however. It’s when you’re hunkered in the spring woods in wait for a turkey.

Jeff Miller was able to get out Monday for the start of the second turkey season. He listened for over three hours without hearing so much as a gobble, but he enjoyed all the sounds of spring provided by migrating waterfowl overhead and the newly-arrived songbirds in the woods where he hid.

And then silently, a big tom emerged and now Miller too has reason to rank April as one of his favorite months and well worth the wait.

Hawk Creek is getting a whole new start

Minnesota Conservation Corps workers are clearing the tangle of trees that line the Hawk Creek channel downstream of Eagle Lake.

Hawk Creek is getting a whole new start on its 65-mile run from Eagle Lake to the Minnesota River.

Minnesota Conservation Corps workers have been at work on the headwaters channel as it leaves Eagle Lake. They’re removing the tangle of trees that line the channel below its outlet on Eagle Lake to where it runs under Minnesota Trunk Highway 23.

The channel between Eagle and Swan Lakes is obstructed by the limbs and roots of fallen trees, not to mention the grates of a no longer functional fish trap. The channel’s banks are heavily-shaded and muddy.  Erosion from the banks is contributing to the formation of a sediment delta where the channel reaches Swan Lake.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Hawk Creek Watershed Partnership are overseeing a project that will restore the portion of channel from the Eagle Lake outlet to the highway in the coming months, according to Ethan Jenzen, area hydrologist with the DNR in Spicer.

The 84-inch culvert will be removed.

Plans call for clearing the channel of the fallen limbs and obstructions, including the old fish trap. The channel banks will be seeded with native prairie flowers and grasses, and toe-wood sod mats will be installed on the most erosion-prone portions of the banks. The woody mats will create breaks in the stream current, offering habitat for fish while reducing the erosive force of the water rushing through a straightened channel. The mats too will be seeded to native vegetation.

The 84-inch culvert located about 450-feet downstream of the lake Eagle Lake outlet will be removed. It has funneled the waters of the roughly 32-feet wide channel into a jet-like stream that increases erosion.

A V-shaped line of rocks known as a cross vane structure will be added to the channel. The water will flow over this riffle, naturally creating fish habitat while reducing the erosive force of the dropping water.

If funds can be obtained, similar work could take place in coming years on the downstream reach of the channel from Highway 23 to Swan Lake.

LCCMR and Outdoor Heritage funds are helping make this year’s work possible, as well as the in-kind contributions from the DNR and Hawk Creek Watershed Project. Tara Latozke, a fisheries habitat specialist with the DNR in New Ulm, and formerly with the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District, played an important role in helping put the project together by working with the DNR and Hawk Creek Watershed staff in Spicer and Olivia.

More about the project can be found in this Saturday’s Outdoor section of the West Central Tribune.

Building two good reasons to look forward to next winter

Sue Vanderweyst laces together her own snowshoe.

WATSON — Naturalist programs at Minnesota state parks offer lots of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, with everything from archery classes and birding adventures to high tech stuff, like geo-caching and digital photography.

This class brought us back to the traditional skills developed by Minnesota’s Ojibwa people. For two days, Cara Jo Greger and a team of instructors helped us lace together our own Ojibwa-style snowshoes.

Our setting was the contact station at the Lac qui Parle State Park, where we overlooked the “lake that speaks.’’ Although the lake was still largely ice covered, there were patches of open water. Canada geese crowded what water could be found and even spilled over onto the ice, impatiently waiting for the chance to move on.

This was the seventh time that Greger and her husband Dan Angelo have taught this snowshoe lacing class together, and its fourth annual edition at the Lac qui Parle State Park. They usually host it during the last weekend in February, but circumstances this year made it necessary to hold it last weekend, just in time for our latest snowstorm.

Greger, who is the assistant manager at Big Stone Lake State Park, said she began offering the snowshoe class when she took a naturalist position with the state parks. She rightly guessed that it would be a popular class. She’s already got a sign-up list started for next year’s class.

She had an ulterior motive in offering the class as well.  She and her husband wanted to build snowshoes so that they and their children could hike the snow covered woods and prairie of the region. It’s proven to be a wonderful way to enjoy the winter, she said.  Hiking in snowshoes also offers healthy exercise at a time of year when we’re often far too sedentary.

We took bent frames of straight ash and interlaced nylon webbing that is many times stronger than the rawhide that was commonly used on this style of snowshoe.

Snowshoes make it possible for the wearer to float on the snow. The Ojibwa style features a front that turns upward like the bow of a canoe. Its elongated tail serves like a rudder, while the overall length and size of the shoe provides the buoyancy.

Even when using modern materials, the task of lacing can be difficult. There are specific knots and patterns to follow, and there is no tolerance for error. Place one strand over another when it should go under, and sooner or later you will find yourself unraveling back to your mistake. Fortunately for some of us, ever-patient instructors hovered over us and kept us on track.

We’re not yet ready to make tracks in the snow. Participants are on our own to apply a minimum of three or four coats of marine spar or polyurethane to our snowshoes to protect them for the long haul ahead. They will be ready when next winter’s snows arrive.

 

Let’s Go Fishing tells its story to state senate committee

Let’s Go Fishing is hoping state support will help it give back to more people.

 

What will a few dollars buy now days?

More than you might ever guess. For an investment estimated at just over a few dollars per person, the State of Minnesota has helped Let’s Go Fishing provide boating and fishing excursions for 108,581 people in the last 12 years. The majority of those people have been senior citizens, but youth and military veterans are also among those who have benefited.

“The smiles, the laughter, the joy that it gives individuals is incredible,’’ said Joe Holm of Willmar, Let’s Go Fishing CEO and President, while testifying on Wednesday at the state capitol.

State Senator Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, is chief author of a bill seeking $400,000 for Let’s Go Fishing. The Finance Committee in the Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Division in the Senate was receptive to it. It laid the bill over for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill.

Holm had lots of help in telling the Let’s Go Fishing story to the committee.

State Senator Karin Housley, R – St. Mary’s Point, told the committee that she doesn’t fish, but went on a pontoon excursion with seniors as a volunteer. She was so moved by how the experience benefited the seniors onboard that she’s become a member of the St. Croix Valley chapter, and a regular volunteer. “Hook, line and sinker, and I still don’t fish,’’ said Housley of her passion for the organization.

Let’s Go Fishing has made possible boating and fishing excursions for 108,581 people across the state in its first 12 seasons.

Let’s Go Fishing has received state funding in earlier years, but has not seen state support for the last three years. The state funding helped it expand to include the 30 chapters that are spread across the state today. Without state funding, the chapter has lacked the resources to grow. Last year it did not add any new chapters in the state, Holm told the committee.

The organization relies on funds raised by its member chapters to support its activities. Holm pointed out that it has purchased over $1.3 million worth of equipment at no cost to the state to make possible its mission.

It’s hard to overstate how valuable this organization is to all it serves. And, it’s not just those who have enjoyed the fishing and boating excursions. Its volunteers find the experience of giving back every bit as rewarding. Over 2,300 people have volunteered to help the organization, devoting an estimated 219,982 hours of time to date.

 

Site that inspired program to protect rock outcrops likely to be mined

A cactus in bloom last summer on a rock outcrop in the Minnesota River Valley.

No matter whether you travel the Minnesota River Valley by motor vehicle, foot, horse, bike or canoe, you will discover that some of the most stunning scenery is found in Renville and Redwood Counties. Rock outcrops give this area a unique, rugged characteristic that is frequently compared to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The rock outcrops are significant from a geologic standpoint. The glacial River Warren that carved the valley exposed what we now recognize as some of the oldest rock on earth.

The outcrops are also unique for the variety of rare plants that survive on the harsh environment they represent. Many of the plants such as prickly pear cactus are rare to find in Minnesota, but not so rare in North America as to be protected by federal law.

Some of the rock outcrops are found on lands designated as part of the wild and scenic corridor along the Minnesota River, and are protected from mining activities. Many of the rock outcrops are not located on the checkerboard of parcels designated for wild and scenic protection, and consequently can be mined.

A rock outcrop in the Gneiss SNA

No different than the hills of sand being leveled in western Wisconsin for the frac mining industry, the granite outcrops along the Minnesota River are being excavated. The hard, quality rock is desired for building roads, houses, schools and all manner of buildings.

Aware that we are losing these unique outcrops, a program was developed in 2007 to purchase permanent easements and protect some of them. In the years 2007, 2009 and 2010 state funds totaling $3,795,498 were obtained. They were used to obtain easements from willing landowners and now protect 1,521.2 acres of rock outcrops in parts of Renville, Redwood, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle and Yellow Medicine counties.

An application to fund the program in 2013 was not awarded, and so no new easements will be acquired this year.

The program’s goal was to do the right thing by landowners. It’s hard to ask a tax paying landowner to protect a rock outcrop for its beauty or recreational value when there’s an offer on the table by a company interested in mining the site.

A poignant reminder of the dilemma we face is the recent case in Renville County. The county planning commission has unanimously recommended that an interim use permit be granted to Duininck Inc., Prinsburg, for hard rock mining on a 39.5 acre site in sections 28 and 33 of Flora Township along Renville County Road 15.

The Flora Township site inspired the easement  program, and was the first proposed for it. Its owner declined and entered into a lease agreement with the local road construction firm.

If the recommended permit is approved by the board of commissioners, it would allow mining operations to continue at the site into 2034. There is rock enough for an estimated 50 years of mining, according to the permit application.

The excavated area will be restored as a wildlife area with grazing when mining operations end, according to the permit application.