Russ and I spent three full days in North Dakota over Memorial Day Weekend. I’d passed through the park on my way West several times in the past and decided it was worth more time. I’m so glad we did it. Even though not many touristy things were open yet, we kept busy exploring the natural wonders of the park and area surrounding the town of Medora.
For my next few posts, I’ll be sharing photo stories as inspiration strikes. This first is about “concretions.” These were a highlight of our visit to the North Unit of the park.
These cannonball-shaped formations are made of sand grains from an ancient river that were cemented together by minerals dissolved in groundwater. That’s the official word. Unofficially, I’d say they remind me of Godzilla eggs.
We expected only a few local poets would be interested. We thought they’d offer poems about the St. Louis River on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.
That was our mindset when the River Talk planning team at my workplace first developed the theme for the public poetry reading to be held in conjunction with the St. Louis River Summit as an evening program in March 2021. We were mistaken, but in the best possible way.
In reality, our call for river poems through the literary submission management platform Submittable garnered interest from 76 poets from across the U.S. and around the world. They submitted 148 poems for consideration.
“As it turns out, a lot of people like to write about rivers. That’s because they are really important in our communities and in our lives,” said Deanna Erickson, director of the National Lake Superior Estuarine Research Reserve, which co-sponsors the River Talk series with Wisconsin Sea Grant.
We quickly realized we were going to need more judges. In the end, we gathered six who represented a good cross-section of the audience we expected to attend the summit.
The judging was “blind,” which means the poets’ names were not associated with their poems. After two rounds, the judges narrowed the number of poems down to a dozen, with a few for backup in case any of the chosen poets could not be reached.
Although communication was sometimes a challenge, all 12 poets were enthusiastic about participating in the reading. They represented a wide diversity of ages and ethnicities.
The River Talk was a couple of weeks ago, but the warm fuzzy feelings it engendered remain with me. I could use many adjectives to describe it: powerful, beautiful, stark, raw, funny — but it’s really best if you listen to the poems and feel all the feels for yourselves. The reading drew 85 Zoomers, a record attendance.
The Lake Superior Reserve, our partner in the talks, recorded the reading and it’s available on their YouTube channel. Here’s a list of the poets (in the order they read) and the names of their poems:
Tyler Dettloff (Michigan) “My Stars” Heather Dobbins (Arkansas) “I Held us on for 36 Hours after the Levee Broke to hell” Ben Green (New Mexico) “Immersion: A Prayer of Intent” Lorraine Lamey (Michigan) “Catching Your Drift” Joan Macintosh (Newfoundland) “The Current Feels” Kate Meyer-Currey (England) “Timberscombe” Rebecca Nelson (California) “Of the St. Louis River” Stephanie Niu (New York) “To the Beaver’s Eyes” Diana Randolph (Wisconsin) “Knowing the Way” Ron Riekki (Florida) “It Took a Long Time to Discover” Derold Sligh (South Korea) “Rouge River” Lucy Tyrrell (Wisconsin) “Talking Water”
Ironically, the one poem specifically about the St. Louis River was written by someone who had never visited it. Rebecca Nelson said her poem, “Of the St. Louis River” was inspired by the spiritual experiences she’s had while watching water. She grew up in the Midwest and said she wrote the poem thinking of the rivers she knew from childhood. “I would love to visit sometime after the pandemic!” Nelson said.
Barb Huberty, St. Louis River Area of Concern coordinator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, offered this comment in the Zoom chat, “I never knew that poetry could unite people across the globe.”
Sharon Moen, Eat Wisconsin Fish outreach specialist for Wisconsin Sea Grant, offered, “Thank you to all the poets and organizers! I am inspired by the depth of your thoughts and stories.”
Remaining River Talks will be held on April 14 and May 12. For more information, visit the River Talks page: go.wisc.edu/4uz720.
If you didn’t get a chance to see my article in “Lake Superior Magazine” about the rare and endangered Ojibwe Horses, the same story has been reprinted in a different magazine: “Equine Monthly.” Click here to read it online.
If you’d like to hear the story behind my story, read my blog post here. These animals are so special. I felt privileged to be introduced to them.
This Wednesday at 7 p.m. Central, I’m co-hosting a Zoom event that will showcase a dozen poets from around the world and across the country reading their powerful, evocative and beautiful poems about rivers. The March 3, 2021 reading is an evening program of the annual St. Louis River Summit, which brings together hundreds of people who work on and care about the St. Louis River in Minnesota and Wisconsin. It’s also part of our monthly River Talk programs, which are free and public-friendly. Details are below. Come experience different perspectives on our waterways!
Tyler Dettloff (Michigan) “My Stars” Heather Dobbins (Arkansas) “I Held us on for 36 Hours after the Levee Broke to Hell” Ben Green (New Mexico) “Immersion: A Prayer of Intent” Lorraine Lamey (Michigan) “Catching Your Drift” Joan Macintosh (Newfoundland) “The Current Feels” Kate Meyer-Currey (England) “Timberscombe” Rebecca Nelson (California) “Of the St. Louis River” Stephanie Niu (New York) “To the Beaver’s Eyes” Diana Randolph (Wisconsin) “Knowing the Way” Ron Riekki (Florida) “It Took a Long Time to Discover” Derold Sligh (South Korea) “Rouge River” Lucy Tyrrell (Wisconsin) “Talking Water”
For the holidays, Russ and I decided to get away from it all – so much safer for us and for others, especially with this new variant of Covid-19 going around. Where better to avoid seeing anyone else than in a bog?
At our cabin in northern Minnesota, we walk regularly past a bog. It’s right next to a gravel road, enticing us with its remoteness and untrammeled nature. The plat book we consult signifies the bog is privately owned, however there’s no owner’s name listed, so we weren’t sure who to ask for permission for access. So, we just took a chance, donned our snowshoes, and trammeled it, just a little bit.
Although they look sterile, bogs are places of unparalleled abundance and life. The vast peatlands of northern Minnesota cover more than ten percent of the state. Unlike the clearing of the prairies and white pine forests, efforts to drain and develop the peatlands were mostly failures, although unnaturally straight ditches in some bogs testify to this toil.
The bottom of a peatland is a breathless place – cold, acidic, anaerobic – with no oxygen to decompose branches or the small, still faces of the weasels interred there. Sphagnum mosses wrap around the fur, wood, skin, casting their spell of chemical protection, preserving them whole. Growth is impossible, and Death cannot complete his spare work.
Minnesota’s peatlands formed over five thousand years ago when the climate cooled and rain increased. The state contains more peatlands than any other in the U.S., except its Alaskan stepsister. (A surprising number of Minnesotans spend time in Alaska and vice versa.) Although in the U.K. and northern Europe the smoky glow of peat still heats many houses, the trend never caught on in Minnesota.
In Europe, bogs are portals to distant worlds, wilder realms. Gods travel the bogs. In America, peatlands are just an inconvenience to be drained or avoided. Even the Ojibwe let them alone. Maybe that’s why birds love bogs, like the nearby Sax-Zim Bog. They are places where people are not. Owls can hunt voles, mice, and moles to peaceful content.
We saw many deer trails crossing the bog. Shrubby bushes of Labrador tea poked their tips through the covering of snow. We investigated an island of red pines at the bog’s edge – an upland out of sync with the rest. Climbing a short way, we came upon a human-made square wooden platform covered with a thin layer of snow. A cache of short, fire-ready sticks lay piled between two tree trunks nearby. It looked like a tent platform, ready for use.
We vowed to check the plat map to see how people could access this red pine “island” in summer. It was surrounded by the bog, but perhaps not too much bog for a person to cross when conditions are more liquid.
Back on the bog, we passed stunted black spruce trees and tamaracks, denuded of their needles by winter. A gentle snow began to fall, consecrating all with a layer of white.
All was silent. All was good.
We completed a circuit around the area, which was surprisingly much larger than we could see from the road. As we took off our snowshoes and walked back to our cabin, we were suffused with the peace of this wild place.
Imagine our distress when, a couple of weeks later, we walked past the bog again, only to see snowmobile tracks leading out onto it. The snowmobiles had run ragged circles around the part nearest to the road that was clear of trees. They churned up vegetation, spewing spatters of green “blood” across the snow.
It made me wonder what the snowmobilers were thinking of when they chose to motor around in the bog. They probably thought it looked like a fun place to tear around in – a wasteland, devoid of life, useless to humans. Why not have some fun in it?
Agh. It hurt my heart to see it. Thus, this blog post – letting people know that just because something looks useless to humans doesn’t mean it has no value. Bogs are home to countless creatures and many rare plants. Please, please don’t misuse them.
I awaken at 6 a.m., roll over and look at the lake outside the window. The water is smooth as a scrying mirror. The sun peeks over the spruces, encouraging a lake mist to form.
If I were more ambitious, I’d be out paddle boarding right now. Instead, I roll over and shut my eyes, lulled into a doze by the trills of hermit thrushes deep in the forest.
An hour later, I open my eyes to the same scene — the lake still calm, mist still rising.
Although in my book, 7 a.m. is still early to rise, I succumb to the siren call of my standup paddle board. It is early July and the temperature is already 70 degrees outside – one of those days that Minnesotans dream of during February. It would be criminal not to enjoy it.
Russ and the dog are still sleeping, so I quietly get out of bed and don my swimsuit. I tiptoe out into the dew-wet grass toward the boat house – feeling like a teenager headed for an illicit rendezvous. However, I am responsible enough to leave a note on the kitchen table: “Gone paddleboarding!”
Opening the boathouse door, I inhale. There’s nothing like that old boathouse smell – decades of damp, mixed with a little mustiness and a hint of worn wood.
I heft my board and paddle, carefully closing the door so I won’t wake those in the cabin. On my way to the dock, I pass a bunch of blueberry plants covered with small blue sapphires – berries ready for picking. I can’t be distracted, though. They’ll have to wait.
As I settle my board into the water, I giggle inwardly. Hardly typical behavior for someone nearing retirement age, but a quick glance at the lake has told me it will only be me and the loons out there this morning. Life cannot get much better.
I head out in a clockwise direction around the lake. This just seems natural. The night before, a small parade of pontoon boats were all going counterclockwise. We’re living in the northern hemisphere. The toilet water spins clockwise. I figure it’s better not to go against the spin.
My board skims the surface easily. In the clear water below, bluegills rush to hide in the reeds. Water plants stand still and straight as trees. As I paddle, the mist seems an elusive dream. I know I’m in it, but I can’t see it when I arrive. The mist is always just out of reach ahead, playing tricks with my senses.
All of the other cabins are silent, still shuttered for the night. I only see a couple of other ladies, each sitting on shore, enjoying their morning coffee. I wave and they wave back.
My morning idyll is shattered by a pain in the middle of my back, between my shoulder blades. A horse fly or deer fly has found me! As I struggle to paddle into position so that I can safely use my paddle to scratch it off my back, I marvel at how these flies know exactly where to bite where they can’t easily be swatted. It’s like all the babies attend Fly Biting School were the teachers point out the safest places on people and animals to chomp.
Board in position, I carefully balance while lifting my paddle to scratch my back. Success! I don’t fall off my board and the pain disappears, along with the fly. Although a nuisance, these flies need clean water to live. Their presence is an indicator of a healthy environment.
The rest of my paddle is uneventful, if you can call relishing every summer sight and sound uneventful. I arrive back at the dock feeling like I’ve paddled into deep summer.
I am so thankful to be able to enjoy this morning, especially since there are so many people gone from this Earth due to the coronavirus, who will never have the chance to experience such things again. It was worth getting out of bed early.
The Horton Covered Bridge over the Amnicon River lower falls in northern Wisconsin.
Lured by free entrance to Wisconsin State Parks during the pandemic and a sunny day, Russ, Buddy and I meandered down to Amnicon State Park to see the surging waters and feel the power of spring.
We weren’t the only ones. Many others had the same idea, and almost all of them brought their dogs, too! However, everyone was careful to keep the six-foot distance rule while hiking and enjoying the view.
The Amnicon River did not disappoint. Standing so close to such power is a reminder of forces we have no control over, and that nature does just fine without us.
Upper Falls, Amnicon River State Park.
The river is thirty miles long, flowing from headwaters somewhere near Amnicon Lake, through eight counties and into Lake Superior. Along its journey, the river’s elevation changes 640 feet, about a third of which happens in the park.
Huge ice chunks piled along shore of the Amnicon River. Each one is about half the size of a car.
The picturesque Horton Covered Bridge has graced many a calendar page and no doubt hosted many a wedding ceremony.
This green gem offers 4,400 acres of the best remaining example of a boreal forest in Wisconsin and it’s the third largest municipal forest in the country.
Although I’d driven through the forest several times, I’d never had time to actually walk out into it. So, I jumped at the opportunity for this outing, and invited Natalie, who is new to the area.
Coyote tracks on Kimball’s Bay.
We met in a parking lot for a motorized winter trail. With snowshoes and highwater boots on, we hiked with several other Friends members down the trail to a frozen bay, which Mike told us was Kimball’s Bay. All was quiet except for the crunching of snow under our boot. We found several old red pines on the shore that had fallen recently, their trunks snapped due to high water levels in the St. Louis River, which caused the shore to erode. The trees leaned and leaned until they could lean no further, and snapped from the extreme physical forces.
Along the way, Mike described the area’s history. Although the ends of many of the peninsulas that poke into the bay are developed with homes, the municipal forest is preserved from development. Anderson was active in efforts to protect the area. Only cross-county ski trails, hiking trails and a campsite point to human use of the forest.
Deer hide in snow.
We trekked across to the other shoreline, passing an ice angler and coyote tracks. Two deer bounded across the ice ahead of us. We clambered up and over another point onto Cedar Bay, which is a narrower inlet. A short walk led us to the dark shape of the slain deer in the snow.
Soon, it was time to return to our cars and the demands of urban life. Reluctantly, we headed back, savoring views of the slanting setting sun and a rising waxing moon.
The Friends of the Lake Superior Reserve hopes to organize more tours come spring. The group acts as ambassadors and supporters for the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve – the same folks in the building where our Sea Grant Lake Superior Field Office is located. They are a nonprofit group of volunteers who love the St. Louis River Estuary and work to highlight its importance to the community. They even help with the reserve’s science projects sometimes. Find out more about what they do here. If all this sounds interesting to you, consider joining their group. It might give you a whole new perspective.
Besides being a great guide, Anderson is an accomplished nature and event photographer. You can view some of his municipal forest and St. Louis River images here:
Russ and I visited a northern Minnesota lake last weekend. Spent part of an afternoon snowshoeing on a frozen lake. The morning’s hoarfrost floated down from the trees, looking like snow magically falling from a clear blue sky.