Sunday, June 22, 2014

June 22 in the History of North Dakota Moose

Alexander Henry was a Canadian fur trader who traipsed across the Upper Midwest, the Northern Great Plains and the Canadian Prairies in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  Luckily for those of us in the 21st century Henry was a serious diarist.  No matter where he traveled he kept detailed notes on where he was and what he saw.  Some of his observations are contained in a book about his travels that recounts his time near Pembina, North Dakota in 1803.

In his journals Henry described how the Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota appeared more than 200 years ago.  Henry told stories about fishermen capturing sturgeon in the Red River that weighed more than 100 pounds.  Fish that size were captured regularly and in large numbers.  He described the river at that time being “crystal clear” and its channel was more than one-quarter mile wide.  No sturgeon remain today in the Red River.  Its channel in many places is less than 100 feet wide, and given the amount of agricultural runoff in its watershed, few if any people are alive today who can remember when the last time was that the water was clear – crystal or otherwise. 

It was a spring morning in 1803 and Henry was camped along the east face of the Pembina Hills, an outlier of eastern deciduous forest that was completely surrounded by what Henry called “an endless sea of grass” (virgin native prairie).  Not long after sunrise that day Henry heard a rumbling sound to the south. Looking out from his campsite he saw the leading edge of a massive herd of American bison moving west toward the rich grasslands of North Dakota.  Henry mentioned the enormity of the herd and wondered how many animals were spread out before him.  He remained at his lookout throughout the morning and as he did the herd of bison continued their movement west.  By late afternoon, as the sun was beginning to set, the vast herd continued to pass and it was still doing so as darkness overtook the landscape.

There is no way to estimate how many bison passed by Henry that day.  Given the year of the observation and the location where the herd was seen, and the fact that the herd passed continuously for more than twelve hours, I imagine that Henry saw tens of thousands of bison and probably many more.  Uncountable examples exist in the scientific and popular literature describing the former abundance of American bison on the North American Great Plains. However those numbers are no more.  At one time shooters would line the edge of open doors on railroad cars and shoot all the bison they encountered along the railroad tracks and they did so just to kill them.  Other shooters decimated vast numbers of bison solely to cut out their tongues while still others shot bison for their hides leaving their carcasses to rot in the blistering prairie sun. 

In 1700 the continental population of American bison was estimated at between twenty five and thirty million individuals.  In 1889 there were 1,091 animals left.  Their demise, just like the destruction of vast flocks of passenger pigeons, is one of the most frustrating realities for a wildlife biologist to accept.  Reading the history of this demise it becomes readily apparent that much of it can be attributed to the United States government and their desire to “tame” the Native Americans who lived on the Great Plains.  An important part of the Native American diet was bison.  Therefore to rein in the Native Americans it was US government policy at the time to kill off as many bison as possible to hamstring the Native Americans and force them into hunger and also force them to abandon their ancestral lands.  It angers me to this day that I was robbed of the opportunity to witness what Alexander Henry saw that day near Pembina, North Dakota and what those who followed Henry saw on other parts of the prairies while my own government was trying to subdue the Native Americans who did nothing more wrong than breathe.  I am profoundly annoyed that people with no conservation ethic deprived me of ever being able to see what the shooters saw as they rode in train cars across the Nebraska prairie.  I will never see any of that in North America.

One hundred seventy eight years after Alexander Henry witnessed the spectacular movement of American bison from his perch on the edge of the Pembina Hills the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came up with a proposal to build a damn on the Pembina River that flows through the hills. The river originates in the Canadian province of Manitoba and flows southeast into the northernmost reaches of northeastern North Dakota.  Its course continues east until it joins the Red River of the North and there, ostensibly, it returns to Canada as part of the Red River.

The damn was billed as being essential for flood control and recreation – the two most overused phrases in the damn building history of the Corps.  Certainly the river flooded on occasion – that is what rivers do.  And certainly the river caused damage in its floodplain – that’s why wise people don’t build in flood plains.  However the Corps was undeterred by reason and fact.  The Pembina River still flowed freely and by god they were just the bunch of engineers to subdue it.

One of the aspects of recreation that the Corps failed to recognize was land based wildlife observation and hunting.  The forest of the Pembina Hills was an outlier of the eastern deciduous forest in Minnesota and Manitoba.  Breeding birds found in the Pembina Hills were unlike almost any other place in the prairie state of North Dakota.  Here we found nesting white-throated sparrows, Philadelphia vireo, American woodcock and other forest birds with an eastern affinity making the river and its valley a much sought out place for birdwatching.

The Corps also failed to factor in the value of the forest and the river for hunting and especially big game hunting.  At that time there was a sizeable population of moose in the forest and the North Dakota Fish and Game Department maintained a limited hunting season for those forest behemoths each fall.  The Corps in its infinite wisdom failed to take into account the uniqueness of a prairie state having a population of moose in its limited forests. All the Corps saw was a free-flowing river that should have a damn on it.  They sought out Congressional approval (always a snap to receive if it involves building something egregious) and planning began for the Pembina Damn.

The Ecological Services office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Bismarck, North Dakota was in desperate need of scientific data on the biological richness of the Pembina Hills.  The more irrefutable data they possessed the better chance they had to pound some sense and reason into the typically thick skulls of the Corps.  To that end the Bismarck office contracted with the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown to conduct an analysis of breeding bird populations in the Pembina Hills.  Once data collection was completed the data were to be analyzed and a paper summarizing the results was to be presented to the Bismarck office.

In 1981 I had the most-enviable position of being the nongame bird research biologist at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. It was a dream come true for a farm boy from the north woods of Wisconsin to work with world-renowned research biologists (and one world-renowned statistician) and because of my interests I was asked to conduct the research.  With me in the field that year was Jon Andrew, a recent graduate of the Master’s Degree program at Appalachian State University in western Maryland.  Jon and I traveled to the Pembina Hills in late May where we established many sampling plots on which we would later map out the locations of territories maintained by territorial male birds.  After sampling birds a minimum of 8 different times on each sample plot we would have enough information (according to the already published literature) to determine the boundaries of every territory on the plots and from that information calculate an estimated breeding bird population for the entire area to be inundated and destroyed by the proposed damn.

Because it was the summer solstice and the longest day of the year, on June 21, 1981, we conducted early evening censuses on each of the sample plots.  Our objective was to get a better handle on crepuscular singing birds like thrushes and woodcock.  We stayed late that evening, until well past 11:00 p.m. counting birds and then listening for owls before returning to the nearest town to crash for a few hours.

June 22, 1981 dawned clear and brisk along the Pembina River and Jon and I were out in the field by 5:00 a.m.   I dropped Jon off along the road near two sample plots that he was to census and I drove on to another site that I was to cover.

All the while we were conducting our research we saw abundant sign of moose in the forest.  Droppings were everywhere as were moose tracks in the moist soils.  Occasionally we found trees that had been trashed the fall before by male moose as they tried to scrape the velvet from their antlers.  However despite all the sign we had not seen a single moose.

On my sample plot that morning I remember finding least flycatchers and a singing male Philadelphia vireo and American redstarts were everywhere in the woods.  Near the center of the sample plot was a very large basswood tree that had died and fallen to the ground.  As I had done on all previous censuses I hopped up on the log and stood there for a couple of minutes listening and watching and recording what I saw.  That morning was just like all the other mornings I had been on this plot and like all the other mornings when I came onto the fallen basswood tree I jumped up on it at about the middle of its length and prepared to stand and listen. 

However on the morning of June 22, 1981, things were a little different on that sample plot because unknown to me at the time a young bull moose was sleeping right on the other side of the log.  The young male didn’t know I was there until I jumped up on the log.  I had no idea that the moose was there until the entire sky in front of me had turned a hairy brown color and the air suddenly smelled like moose droppings because less than 2 feet from me was the very recently startled awake moose!

Moose are very near sighted and have a well-developed sense of smell.  I’m not sure which of the senses kicked in for the moose in the nanosecond between when I made my appearance on the log and when I began screaming at the top of my lungs out of fear.  All I remember in the split second after startling the moose out of its slumber was me yelling and then hearing the thundering hooves of a moose as it ran toward the river while I ran as fast as I could up the hill away from the river.  It was the first, last, and only moose we ever observed in the Pembina Hills and if anyone needed proof that they were there we could now provide it.

Finishing our research a few weeks later we analyzed the data, wrote a paper for the Ecological Services office in Bismarck and then adapted it for publication as a scientific paper and then let the Bismarck office do its magic fighting the Corps. As luck would have it the biological uniqueness of the Pembina Hills was so overwhelmingly obvious that even the damn builders at the Corps of Engineers realized that it was not good policy to destroy such beauty and diversity with another in an endless string of useless damns.  About a year after we submitted our paper for publication the Corps of Engineers announced that they were abandoning their plans to damn the Pembina River.  In public they told everyone that they did so for economic reasons.  In reality they did it because of the biological values Jon Andrew and I discovered during the summer of 1981.

Now 33 years later, a full third of a century after the fact, the Pembina River still flows through those wooded hills from which Alexander Henry counted that massive herd of American bison more than 200 years ago. It has been 33 years also since I last stepped foot in those beautiful forests but I know from Google Earth that they are still there.  The basswood tree that the young moose used as a night roost 33 years ago last night is probably long gone and returned to the earth but the moose are still there and some of them are likely the offspring of the male I scared so badly in a beautiful aspen forest 33 years ago this morning.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Florida's Urbanized Sandhill Cranes

In my 62 plus years I have lived in seven states (Wisconsin, North Dakota, Georgia, Nebraska, California, Virginia and Florida), two other countries (the Bahamas Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands) and had 28 different addresses for whatever felt like home at the time.  I have visited six of the seven inhabited continents (plus felt the frigid winds of Antarctica from Ushuaia, Argentina, and from Hobart, Tasmania), been in 111 countries (and counting) and crossed over the boundary of each of the 3,076 counties or parishes in the United States.  Without doubt my most favorite country is Thailand and it’s followed very closely by Argentina, Australia, and South Africa.

Of the states I’ve called home, I miss Wisconsin, Virginia (Washington DC) and Nebraska the most.  My yearnings for Wisconsin are simple – that’s who I am.  Once my ancestors all decided to move to North America from Norway, Germany and the Czech Republic, they converged on the great Cheesehead state and all sorts of genetic mixing followed.  I have not physically lived there since Saturday, January 20, 1979, but I will always be a Packer fan and a Badger fan and a Cheesehead to the core. 

I miss living in northern Virginia and Washington DC because of the history, culture, the politics and the really cheap airfare.  Almost everyone living in NOVA (even some of the drug dealers on the corner of 17th and K Streets NW in the District) eventually develops a keen interest in the rich history of the area.  If you don’t have an interest in the Civil War (that would be the “war of northern aggression” or simply the “nothen wah” in Georgia) before you move there, I promise you will by the time you leave.  With venues like the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Ford’s Theater and the National Theater and the Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts all just a few metro stops away from wherever you are, many people develop an interest in the arts and some like me even begin to sound like they know what they are talking about when it comes to plays and various actors.  Politics, the number one industry in northern Virginia, are self-evident there.  Where else can you go where those talking heads you see on television are dashing in and out of Metro stops with you just like regular people (which they quickly forget that they are).  And cheap airfare - $58 roundtrips from Washington National airport (never EVER call it Reagan Airport) to Louisville, or $238 to Glasgow Scotland for a long weekend, or $520 roundtrip to Dubai in the United Emirates for a few days on the Arabian Peninsula? 

Although it lacks the social and cultural amenities of northern Virginia there are so many things to miss about Nebraska.  Most importantly I miss the people.  The only place other than my natal Wisconsin where I regularly met people who would literally give you the shirt off your back even if you didn’t need it at the time was Nebraska.  Then there is the incomparable Platte River.  Even though thanks to excessive water withdrawal to irrigate surplus corn that results in more set aside programs and more Congressionally-mandated payments to store what’s over produced, there are very few places in North America as majestic and as crucial as is the Platte River.  The river’s importance involves many species of wildlife on top of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people however without the river the continued existence of nearly 80 percent of the world’s population of sandhill cranes would be threatened.  And it’s all of those sandhill cranes that show up on the Platte River for 8 weeks every spring that I miss the most about Nebraska.

From about Valentine’s Day until about the 10th of April upwards of 500,000 sandhill cranes converge on the Platte River to prepare themselves for the continuation of their migration to nesting areas in Arctic Canada, western Alaska and eastern Siberia.  It’s along the Platte River where established pairs of sandhill cranes re-strengthen their bond with their mate (unlike humans, sandhill cranes remain mated for life) and should a sandhill crane be looking for a replacement after their mate died, or if you are a young sandhill crane trying to find a mate, the Platte River is the place to make that happen.  I once described the Platte as a sinuous pick up bar for birds and I still cannot think of a better way to explain it.

When I moved from Nebraska to suburban Los Angeles just before the start of crane migration season in 1993 I was afraid that a huge part of who I had become – a fanatic lover of sandhill cranes – would be buried my other more seemingly important things.  In California I worked on many issues like California condor recovery and desert tortoise conservation and trying to figure out ways to keep commercial sea urchin fishermen from killing the endangered California sea otter.  The office I supervised in southern California was responsible for the conservation of 118 species of plants and animals that had been added to the Federal endangered species list or the threatened species list and that left little time to think about sandhill cranes.

From California I moved to northern Virginia where for 14 years I was a regular patron of the Metro subway and bus system.  Although I had a car at times I wondered why I did.  In October 2007 I put exactly four (4) miles on my car the entire month.  With almost everything I needed just a Metro bus or subway ride away there was little need to put miles on my car and that month I barely did.  In Virginia seeing sandhill cranes was a major event.  Unlike Nebraska where you had to shovel them out of the roadway, and even in California where you could see several hundred at a time on the Carrizo Plain in northern Santa Barbara county, in Virginia sandhill cranes qualified for the rare bird alerts. When one or more, no doubt off course headed to or from Florida and the Great Lakes states, showed up near DC they were instantly added to the top of the rare bird alert and I would regularly drop whatever I was doing to dash out to see one.

My last day in my office and the last day I worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service was February 25, 2008.  On that day I left my office three hours early (what were they going to do – fire me?) and walked to the Ballston Metro station. There I removed any clothing that resembled working in Washington plus my wrist watch.  I bundled everything up and threw it in the garbage.  I put on a pair of flip flops and wore them as I rode the subway home one last time.  The following day I put myself and my car on AMTRAK’s Auto Train in suburban DC and headed for Florida.  I was wearing shorts, a Jimmy Buffett t shirt and jesus sandals (and no wrist watch) as the train carried me south.

Exiting the train the next day in Sanford Florida, I noticed as I drove out of the train station that a pair of sandhill cranes stood like sentinels along the roadway as they watched cars pass by.  A little later on the Beltway around Orlando I noticed other pairs of sandhill cranes and in the lawn of a hotel near the intersection of the Beltway and Interstate 4, not far from the entrance to the Ratworld complex, a flock of 12 sandhill cranes foraged vigorously in the recently mowed lawn of the hotel.

In a little over six years living in Florida I have seen sandhill cranes in 34 of the state’s 67 counties and in every county south of Interstate 4. I am lucky where I live in having a rather fecund pair that has produced colts every year I have been here.  Without fail every morning at dawn they fly over my home trumpeting their message to all of cranedom that this landscape is theirs and woe be to any other crane foolish enough to think they could take it over.  Many times at sunset I hear them calling as they settle in on a wetland on the University Park development where they spend every night. 

Unlike Nebraska where if you sneeze loudly you’re likely to cause a flock of 1,000 sandhill cranes to take wing and fly away, in heavily urbanized Florida (there’s hardly any “rural” left in this part of the state) they have come to tolerate humans and our often noisy intrusions.  Several years ago while on my bicycle I witnessed a crane-human interaction on a golf course that still makes me chuckle.  A golfer, totally oblivious to the presence of a pair of cranes and their colt on the fairway, swung his club and hit the ball and sent it on a trajectory for the cranes.  They saw the human and watched as the golf ball sailed closer and closer to them.  As it did the male (I assume it was the male) of the pair began trumpeting his utter contempt for this human-induced indignity.  The golf ball hit the ground and rolled to within inches of the family group of cranes.  The human, now aware of the birds, strolled up to the irate (and vigorously bugling) sandhill crane expecting it to move. But it didn’t.  Instead the sandhill cranes held their ground refusing to budge.  The golfer tried flushing the birds so he could get to his golf ball but the cranes fought back.  The dominant male in the group began pursuing the golfer every time he approached the family.  The bird was not to be intimidated and for a full 30 minutes would not allow the golfer to get to his ball.  I stood along the fairway and watched as the now indignant crane family made their final move.  The male walked up to the golf ball, took it in his mouth, and with a loud trumpeting call that I think would be translated from sandhill craneze as “fuck you,” took wing with his family in pursuit and flew off to some distant wetland.  The score was now - sandhill cranes 1, golfer 0.

This morning while driving on Cattlemen Road near the new rowing/sculling venue I came onto a group of 16 sandhill cranes strutting around in the roadway.  Looking at the coloration on the crowns of the birds it was easy to tell that four of them were this year’s colts and the rest were adults.  They were in no rush to go anywhere and through their slow and deliberate actions held up human traffic on southbound Cattlemen Road.  Eventually tiring of their newfound power, the birds called to each other, took wing, and flew south over the wetland and toward the Meadows. 

I listened to them talk to each other as they flew away and the scene reminded me of the Platte River only in miniature.  Seeing 16 cranes along the Platte River in early March isn’t even a good start, but in Sarasota County Florida that is a pretty nice way to greet the dawn.  As I watched and listened to the flock disappear it dawned on me that my love of Nebraska comes from being with cranes for 8 weeks in the spring and if I was lucky for 4 weeks in the fall.  In Florida, although I can’t see them in numbers anywhere near like what you see in Nebraska, I can see them and hear them and be in touch with sandhill cranes 52 weeks of the year.  They are here any day I need to be around them and that’s even better than Nebraska.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Deer-Bobcat Interaction in an Urban Landscape

Living where I do among nearly 300,000 humans in the Sarasota- Bradenton area I remain amazed by the relative abundance of wildlife that survives in this increasingly concrete-choked landscape especially in areas west of Interstate highway 75.  Since moving here in early 2009 I’ve found river otters quite regularly (including too many road kills), nesting swallow-tailed kites (the most beautiful raptor on earth), eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, several cottonmouth’s (including one on my front step during a torrential downpour), opossums, white-tailed deer and no shortage of armadillos.   The latter, almost all the time, are road-kills.

Probably the wildlife species most closely associated with “wilderness” has been the bobcat.  Before moving to Florida I had seen only two bobcats in my lifetime.  The first was crossing the road not far from Clint Eastwood’s home (and his empty chair) near Carmel, California in October 1980. The second was seen stalking a flock of Gambel’s quail along the San Pedro River in southeast Arizona in May 1998.  Since moving to Florida however I have seen probably 20 more in the wild including one not far from my house in a heavily urbanized area on January 24, 2013.

Location of the white-tailed deer and bobcat interaction this morning (left pin). The site lies just 0.78 miles from heavily traveled Interstate 75 (right pin) and two city blocks north of a major highway intersection.  Click on the image to make it larger.

My most recent sighting of this magnificent mammal occurred this morning while I was on my bicycle.  As I pedaled down Honore Avenue and approached the unnamed road that turns into the shopping mall where Staples is located, I noticed a fawn white-tailed deer, perhaps no more than a month old, dash across Honore (without looking for oncoming traffic) and disappear into the thick woody vegetation behind the shopping mall. About 2 steps behind the fawn was a second one (no doubt its twin) that was traveling at the same high rate of speed.  Perhaps two seconds behind the second fawn was an adult female white-tailed deer and what seemed like a nanosecond behind the adult deer was an adult bobcat running full out in pursuit of a late morning breakfast.

Once they passed I pedaled to the place where they were seen entering the thick woody vegetation.  There I saw white-tailed deer tracks and bobcat tracks but nothing more.  I waited a minute to listen for the sounds of a kill but heard none.  All I heard was a persistent male northern parula and some northern mockingbirds mimicking everything they had ever heard.

Defenders of Wildlife information about bobcats states that they primarily eat lagomorphs but also take birds, rodents and adult deer.   
Early June is the time of year when juvenile bobcats are still with the mother and are still fed by her.   My guess is that this animal was in pursuit of the fawns not the adult because of the size of the fawns and because of their vulnerability.  Despite the reason (and it doesn’t really matter anyway) it was exciting to see this interaction.  I only wish I could have seen through the thick vegetation to determine if the bobcat was successful.  Perhaps I’ll have a hunch if I see the female deer again but next time she has with her only one fawn.  Several recent studies have shown that white-tailed deer fawn mortality rate (rate of deaths from birth until their first birthday) ranged from 53 percent to 77 percent.  Thus it’s likely that only one of those fawns I saw this morning was going to live to blow out its birthday cake candle 10 months from now.

Regardless of the speculation about something I could never prove it was exciting to once again see an animal I usually associate with wilderness roaming around near two major street intersections, a heavily-traveled interstate highway and the homes of nearly 300,000 people.  Given that paving the countryside is the fate for most of Florida’s landscape in a few short years, I hope these urban bobcats continue to survive.  Even if the deer are extirpated, there is no shortage of house cats here.  Maybe Morris the Cat will become the principal food item of these bobcats.  At least then there would be one positive outcome of urbanization.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Who Does Your Newborn Resemble?

Meet Garrett Parker

Birth of a baby causes all manner of excitement.  Even though you have had 9 months to prepare for the big event, when the day finally arrives all of those plans seem to go up in smoke.  They follow that course because when a baby arrives everything that once was important suddenly becomes less important.  Your baby is what it’s all about now.

The birth of a newborn also sets in motion an enormous amount of speculation and most of it revolves around who the baby resembles.  Who among us has not been a part of the discussion about “Doesn’t he look like Jill?”  or “I think she has Ed’s eyes” or “Don’t you think she has Ellen’s forehead?”  Although I have never heard it discussed I’m sure that someone somewhere has speculated about “Don’t you think he has my great grandfather’s ear lobes?” 

Garrett Parker made his grand entrance into the world in a hospital in Alaska on March 21, 2014.  He was normal weight and normal length and he had a head full of thick dark hair.  When I asked his mother about him she told me that when he was first born she and her husband “thought he looked like an alien.”  Mom’s response reminded me of a similar conversation that occurred the morning after mom was born.

Garrett’s mom is my daughter Jennifer.  She made her grand entrance shortly after 10:00 p.m. one Friday night in early September in 1977.  It took Jennifer 16 hours to make that first appearance and when she did I looked at her with all that chalky looking goo covering her tiny little body and immediately checked her face, her fingers and her toes to make sure nothing was missing.  About the time I finished checking out my baby, the doctor announced that we had a girl.  As the nurses wrapped her in a blanket I looked even more closely at her.  She was all pink and wrinkled but to me she looked just like Jennifer.

At the time of Jennifer’s birth we were living in a very small and very drafty downstairs apartment of a house on South Main Street in River Falls, Wisconsin.  About two blocks from our home, at a major three way intersection across the street from the University of Wisconsin – River Falls, stood Swede’s Standard station.  Through seven years of undergraduate and graduate school I always stopped at Swede’s for gasoline and for car repairs.  After all those years it seemed that Swede was more like family than the owner of a gas station and I wanted to make sure he knew about Jennifer’s arrival.

At mid-morning the day after Jennifer’s birth I stopped at Swede’s to tell him the big news.  As I entered the station I saw that an old English literature professor of mine, Zane Chaffee, was also there.  He was drinking coffee with Swede and discussing (but not solving) all of the issues in the world.

Excitedly I interrupted their conversation and made the announcement that my baby daughter had arrived just 12 hours earlier.  As a huge smile crossed Swede’s face he began grilling me about Jennifer: “Does she have Ruth’s red hair?”  “Does she have your nose?”  “Who in your family does she look like the most?”

Taking in all of his questions I searched for an answer and finally came up with one.  All I said was “Swede, she is just this little pink wrinkled thing.”   I then added, “If she looks like anyone she looks like herself.”

Zane Chaffee, whom I more than once said was a reincarnation of Mark Twain, blew coffee out of his nostrils and with a hearty laugh said “You know, Craig, you’re the first father of a newborn baby I’ve ever heard tell the truth about his child.” 

I haven’t met Garrett yet but I hope to next summer.  When I meet him I will check him out and with luck maybe take him fishing.  I helped his mom catch her first fish, an Arctic grayling, from a river on the tundra of Canada when she was 3 years old.  Maybe I’ll be able to help Garrett catch his first fish from an Alaskan river when he is a little over one.  I’ll tell him stories about his mom when she was a little girl like the one about Harvey the Hog-nosed Snake that his mom insisted had to sleep in her bed with her when she was four. I might even tell him the story of that morning in Swede’s gas station when Zane Chaffee recognized the truth about newborns.

There will be many things to show him and many things to tell him but the most important thing to tell him is that Garrett looks just like Garrett and nobody can tell him any different.

Welcome to the world.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Wisconsin and the World War II Memorial

The World War II Memorial in Washington DC will be a busy place today, the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. I first visited the memorial about a week after it opened. It consists of a series of "mini" memorials to every state and every trust territory that fought in the war. On that first visit I instinctively sought out the Wisconsin mini memorial but quickly discovered that the states were not arranged alphabetically. In fact there seemed to be no pattern to them at all.

Frustrated I saw an old guy who was probably in his late 80s attached to a canister of oxygen and walking with the aid of a walker. He was wearing a University of Wisconsin t shirt and a Green Bay Packers cap (pretty solid evidence that he was a native born Cheesehead). Stopping him I said I was from Wisconsin and couldn't find our memorial. Not missing a beat he pointed over his shoulder and with a scowl on his face said "It’s over there - next to those fuckers from Minnesota."

Turns out the mini memorials are arranged according to when states were admitted to the Union. Wisconsin was admitted in 1848. Iowa admitted in 1846 was on one side of the Wisconsin memorial and Minnesota admitted in 1858 was on the other side of us. Oregon was admitted a year after Minnesota. I wish it had been two years earlier.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Happy 41st Birthday Chester the Chesapeake Bay Retriever

Chester the Chesapeake Bay Retriever entered the world on June 4, 1973.  His mom, a brood mother for a Chesapeake Bay Retriever breeder from near Shakopee, Minnesota, gave birth to Chester and his 7 siblings early in the morning that day.  The dog breeder, a well-known and highly respected person in those days, focused on Chesapeake’s because in his mind they were the finest hunting dogs on the face of the earth.

The fall before while hunting ducks in an area of lowland forest and wetland along the Mississippi River near Diamond Bluff, Wisconsin, I trudged out to my favorite pond breaking through ice as I walked.  On arrival at that pond I found another hunter had arrived earlier and set up his decoys in the exact spot where I liked to set out my spread.  He sat on a collapsible chair hidden by some cattails and next to him, in a hole created in the thin ice, sat his Chesapeake Bay Retriever.  Despite the cold temperatures and ice everywhere, his dog sat shivering in the frigid water scanning the sky and waiting.  A male wood duck flew by us as the owner and I talked.  He stood up and shot.  As the duck plummeted to the ice his Chesapeake sat motionless waiting for the command to retrieve.  With the duck lying dead on the ice the dog’s owner said, softly, “retrieve.”  The Chesapeake bounded from his icy seat, broke ice with every lunge, grabbed the duck in his mouth, and turned around to return to his owner.  Safely back by the hunter the Chesapeake dropped the wood duck at his owner’s collapsible seat, walked over several feet and shook himself off. Then, with no commands, returned to his icy seat in the open water, plunked himself down and began scanning the sky for more ducks.  I knew instantly that if I ever had a duck hunting dog it would be a Chesapeake Bay Retriever.

Dennis Maus, a local barber in Rice Lake Wisconsin was an avid duck hunter and proud member of Ducks Unlimited.  Denny hunted with a Chesapeake Bay Retriever and once, while clipping my hair, bragged to me that he and his son had shot 115 ring-necked ducks one afternoon the fall before from a blind on Red Cedar Lake.  The bag limit for 2 hunters then would have been 10 ducks between them.  When I asked Denny why he shot so many he said “They kept coming and we kept shooting until we ran out of shells.” 

Our conversation occurred in early June 1973 just after I received my bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin at River Falls and just before I began graduate school at the same university.  I told Denny of my interest in a Chesapeake Bay Retriever and he told me about the breeder in Minnesota from which he purchased his Chessie several years earlier.  After finishing with my hair cut, Maus called the man to find out the status of any puppy broods that may have been born recently.  As luck would have it one of his brood mothers had given birth to 8 puppies just a few days earlier.  He promised not to sell any of them until Denny and I had a chance to check them out personally.

Most dog authorities tell you that the earliest you should separate a puppy from its mother is at 7 weeks or 49 days of age.  For whatever reason, Denny Maus and I traveled to Shakopee Minnesota on Chester’s 5 week birthday – just 35 days.  We looked at the litter and I picked out the largest and most active puppy in the bunch.  He was a chocolate brown with the hairs on his back already curly.  His skin was oily (an adaptation to help them endure frigid water) and already the webs between his toes (an adaptation to help them swim) were growing and obvious.  I paid the breeder $150 for this magnificent dog and we began the trek back to Rice Lake.  By the time we returned home I had named my dog “Chester.” It had a bit of a Disney-esque ring to it but the name fit the puppy perfectly.

That first evening at just five weeks old, I drove Chester down to the boat landing at the east edge of Montains Lake (long before all of the uplands there were infested with houses) and summarily threw him in the water.  He splashed down, submerged briefly, and then instinctively paddled back to shore.  Unafraid of the water he shook himself off, turned himself around and pointed at the lake’s surface.  Taking the hint I picked him up and threw him back in.  That continued for an hour when I was tired of the exercise.  Five-week-old Chester still wanted to swim.

Duck hunting season 1973 opened on October 1 and on opening day a rapidly growing Chester sat in the front of my 13 foot canoe as we paddled around on Spring Creek looking for ducks. Not long after the 12:00 noon opening bell a flock of mallards erupted from the water’s surface and after three shots rang out three male mallards lay on the water their orange legs kicking.  Without saying a word, Chester was over the gunwale and paddling out to the first duck.  With it safely in his mouth he returned to the canoe, spit the duck out into my hand and turned around to retrieve the second duck.  He repeated the process again and retrieved the third duck.  Just a few days short of being 4 months old Chester had the concept of retrieving down perfectly.

He and I and my former wife enjoyed many days hunting in western Wisconsin.  It seemed that if an animal flew Chester would retrieve it.  Once while tromping around in the woods of an area known as the Mikana Swamp, Chester tried his hand at retrieving a porcupine.  The porcupine won and we wound up at the veterinarian’s office where the painful quills were removed from his mouth. Not one to quickly learn from such experiences a week later Chester tried his hand at retrieving another porcupine in the same forest.  This time the concept of “quills = pain” sunk in and he never tried for another one.

Our first daughter was born on September 2, 1977, and Chester immediately proclaimed himself the main protector of Jennifer.  Despite having known my parents for more than 4 years when they drove to River Falls to see Jennifer when she was just a couple weeks old they walked in the door and found Chester curled up at the base of Jenny’s crib.  My mom took one step toward Jennifer and Chester was on his feet, teeth bared, hair on his back standing on end, and a deep guttural growl flowing from his throat. Jennifer was his baby now and in Chester’s mind only he would determine who could get near her. 

Several years later in North Dakota, my youngest daughter Dana was playing with some neighbor kids.  At probably 2 years old Dana let out a squeal of happiness typical of a child that age.  Chester however heard the squeal differently and assumed that Dana was in danger.  His response was to walk up to the child who caused Dana to squeal, clamp his mouth on the offender’s forearm, and stand there doing nothing more.  The message however was clear “don’t you dare harm my baby!”  The neighbor boy who made her squeal never did that again.

Chester was in heaven when we lived in North Dakota.  I distinctly remember one morning on Sibley Lake in Kidder County.  He and I drove out there and set up our decoys in anticipation of the opening hour of 7:00 a.m.  Right on cue a pair of male American wigeon flew in and I shot them both.  Chester swam out and retrieved them both in his mouth at the same time.  Placing them at my feet he sat down and waited and soon two male mallards flew in and met a similar fate.  Chester retrieved both in his mouth at the same time and lay them at my feet.  With one more duck to go to have my limit we waited until a male redhead flew in and was taken.  With the redhead safely in our bag I looked at my wrist watch – it was 7:12 a.m.  We had a limit of ducks in 12 minutes.  Soon a flock of snow geese flew in and I shot four of them and Chester retrieved them with no instructions.  One goose was injured and swam ½ mile across the lake.  Chester was in hot pursuit and in the middle of the lake as the goose dove to escape Chester dove after him.  Returning to the surface he had a snow goose in his mouth that he returned to me.  Returning to Jamestown we picked up a limit of 3 sharp-tailed grouse and 10 gray partridge and Chester retrieved them all. That evening I went mourning dove hunting with some friends and took Chester along.  Between us we could shoot 50 mourning doves that evening and only because we ran out of shells we took 49. Despite his huge sloppy mouth Chester retrieved each mourning dove for us and never ruffled a feather.

I didn’t know it at the time but Chester’s last hunt was on November 8, 1982.  Friends from Jamestown and I went hunting and of course took Chester along.  Luck was with us as we shot a bounty of snow geese, several mallards and some lesser scaup.  With one duck remaining to fill our bag limit for the day we stopped at a wetland near Cleveland in Stutsman County and set out our decoys.  With a light snow falling and wind whipping a male redhead flew into the decoy spread and I shot it.  Chester picked it up and we all went home.  It was the last duck he ever touched.

A separation and subsequent divorce the following spring resulted in me living separately from my family and my dog.  For various reasons my almost-former-wife was unable to take care of Chester like he should have been, and the one-bedroom apartment I lived in was too small for a dog even if the apartment complex rules would allow.  With no other option I returned him home to my parents farm on his birthday, June 4, 1983. There as I was leaving I scratched his ears and told him I would see him soon but I never did.  My last sight of him was the dog chasing me down the road trying to catch me thinking we would go hunting again.   Despite having been a hunter since 1960 when I was 8 years old I have not picked up a gun or hunted another animal since the day I last saw Chester.  Without him my passion for hunting burned out and has never been relit.

About 2 years later in 1985, Chester bounded out of his dog house to greet the milk hauler who had arrived at my parents farm to pick up cans of milk from the previous day’s milking.  As he drove into the yard the truck driver didn’t see Chester and Chester wasn’t paying attention and soon Chester was underneath the left front tire of the truck.  He died instantly and was buried in the pasture at the southeast corner of our farm.  Twelve years later we spread the ashes of both of our parents on the same patch of that pasture where my dog was buried.  Most of my family seems to reside on that patch of ground now.

There has been only one other dog in my life since the loss of Chester.  Rauxi, a 105 pound Rottweiler who thought she was a human being was owned by a woman I lived with in Washington DC.  Despite the supposed ferocity that everyone associates with a Rotti, Rauxi was a cream puff.  I trained her to bare her teeth and growl when I said the word “Republican” and then trained her that squirrels were Republicans and whenever one showed up in the yard I’d send Rauxi on a frenzied chase across the back yard cleansing it of Republicans.

Despite having Rauxi in my life for 4 years she never could and never would replace Chester.  In fact 41 years after his birth (that is 287 dog years) and 31 years after I last saw him there is not a single day that goes by in which I don’t think about him or mention his name.  I still have dreams about hunting with him on North Dakota’s prairie and I still feel sad that my divorce put him in a situation where what he loved the most – hunting and protecting his family – were no longer a part of who he was.  

The Colfax Tornado of June 4, 1958

Wednesday June 4, 1958, dawned sunny, hot, and muggy in Menomonie, Wisconsin.  I was in the first grade at Coddington Elementary School where I had a serious case of pre-pubescent lust for my teacher whose name I have now forgotten.  As usual I walked the few blocks (maybe 10?) from our home to school in the morning and gave nothing else much thought.

My father, an artificial inseminator (a “bull cheater” in the parlance of rural Wisconsin in those days) made his usual rounds inseminating cows in the barns of his many customers in northern Dunn County.  One of his stops that morning was at the farm of George House, a generally prosperous farmer whose land lay next to State Highway 25 about 3 miles north of Menomonie.  My dad was at the House farm about 11:00 a.m. where he bred a cow, his last of the morning, and then returned home for lunch.  His afternoon rounds took him on his typically circuitous route and he completed those calls about 4:00 p.m.  I arrived home from school about the time he returned home and just as he did a farmer between the villages of Elk Mound and Colfax called saying he had forgotten to get in touch earlier.  He had a cow that was ready for inseminating and asked my dad to make a special trip out to service the bovine.

As we left Menomonie on US Highway 29 headed east about 4:15 pm it was rapidly becoming obvious that the sunny and muggy morning we had experienced was being replaced by large, dark and very ominous storm clouds off to the west.  In those days there was no such thing as advanced Doppler radar, or storm chasers, or even severe thunderstorm or tornado watches and warnings.  Then we relied more on instinct than some talking head from the three television stations in Minneapolis/St. Paul or WEAU-TV in Eau Claire to tell us what was brewing in Mother Nature’s kitchen.

My dad parked our Volkswagen Beatle (the “bug”) on the east side of the customer’s barn and entered it to breed a cow.  Meanwhile my mother and I remained in the VW bug fantasizing about trips that would never be taken and places she would never see.   As we waited the sky grew even more ominous and threatening.  Its color had turned an indescribable green, the bottoms of clouds were hanging from the base of the thunderhead, and all of the sky was rotating like a clock in reverse.  Suddenly in the distance the occasional thunder we had heard turned into a nearly deafening roar.  Not knowing what was happening yet, we assumed that the roar was just a continual chorus of thunder because the sky was lit up with lightning in every direction and nickel-sized hail was pelting down.

However the roar was not from thunder.  As everyone who has ever experienced a tornado will attest, the sound we heard was the “it sounded like a freight train” of a tornado.  The funnel emerged from behind the barn and twisted and churned its way across the landscape sucking up soil and everything else in its way.  Along with it was a second, smaller funnel that (at least at that time) hung from the base of the rotating wall cloud and did not touch the ground. We sat in petrified awe as this massive storm passed less than ¼ mile (1,320 feet or about 4 football fields) from us).  I still remember seeing soil and branches and almost everything else imaginable being flung into the air by the passing tempest.

The tornado eventually passed by us on its east - northeast trajectory and unknown to us at the time, slammed into the tiny village of Colfax, Wisconsin, from which its name “The Colfax Tornado” was born.  Later estimates of the damage caused by the storm caused most authorities to say that the Colfax Tornado was an EF-4 – the second most destructive storm on the Enhanced Fujita scale.  More recently I have seen some who claim the Colfax Tornado was an EF-5 (the most destructive of all tornadoes) for at least part of its dance across the landscape.  One report received about the Colfax Tornado claims that not one but two funnels slammed into the village.  A local meteorological expert (in Wisconsin that is anyone in a bar who has just looked at a cloud) claimed that the funnel hit a nearby hill and that caused it to split into two separate funnels that slammed into Colfax.  Later research has shown that multiple vortices are fairly common in large rotating wall clouds and the second funnel was most likely just that – maybe the funnel my mom and I saw dangling from the cloud before it touched down a few miles away near Colfax.

Returning to Menomonie after the storm passed we like many other foolish people that day drove out to the Dunn County countryside to see what had been destroyed in the tornado’s path.  At first we drove north of Menomonie on State Highway 25 and just before Tainter Lake, at a small bend in the highway we crested a hill and saw the George House farm where my dad bred a cow at 11:00 that morning. Now, at about 6:00 p.m. there was no barn remaining in which a cow could be stanchioned.  In fact there was virtually nothing remaining on or of the George House farm. The barn or at least the part that remained on the House farm was a pile of splintered timber.  All of the outbuildings were gone as was the house.  In fact the only structure that remained on the entire farmstead was George House’s bath tub.  It was still anchored to the foundation of what used to be a house that surrounded it.  There was no sign of anything alive on the House farm at 6:00 p.m. and later reports indicate that Mr. House had died in the chaos an hour earlier.

From the House farm we drove west on some country roads and saw destruction and devastation everywhere.  One thing that we saw that remains indelibly etched in my mind was at the remains of a farmstead near the village of Knapp. There standing next to a decapitated barn was a Holstein cow, still on her legs, with a 2x4 of timber protruding from a hole in her stomach just forward of her hip.  I still remember today, 56 years later, watching a man walk up to her, put a pistol to her forehead, and pull the trigger putting her out of what must have been immense pain.

The Colfax Tornado first set down in Ramsey County, Minnesota just north of the Twin Cities.  From its initial touchdown it roared east crossing the wide expanse of the St. Croix River and then churned its way across St. Croix, Dunn, Chippewa and Clark counties. Later estimates revealed that the funnel (or one of its offspring) was on the ground for nearly 130 miles.  It remains one of the longest track tornadoes ever recorded in Wisconsin.  Twenty-nine people died that afternoon in the path of destruction and many lives were changed forever.  The village of Colfax was essentially wiped from the face of the earth. 

The day following the tornado about the only topic of discussion in our second grade classroom was the tornado.  At recess that morning I still remember classmate Doug Clemmons sitting on the sidewalk trying to describe the destruction.  To illustrate what happened Doug pulled up a loose brick from the sidewalk and threw it to the side explaining that was how everything looked where the tornado had been.  Our teacher was quite helpful in assisting us in talking about what we experienced.  I remember (because I still have it in a frame) drawing a picture for her of what I saw from 1,320 feet away.  It was a water color on construction paper but the greens and the yellows and the blacks I saw that day all stand out.  So too does the rotation of the giant wedge funnel, and adjacent to it is a smaller funnel dangling from the cloud.  Could that have been the second funnel that slammed into Colfax? Nobody knows or will we ever but now 56 years later it’s fun to speculate.

You can read more about the Colfax tornado and see a collage of pictures of its destruction here, here, here and here.  Frustratingly there are no known photos of the Colfax Tornado but plenty of photos of its aftermath. 

The Colfax Tornado had a profound effect that remains with me to this day.  I vividly remember another storm in 1963 when we were living in Barron County (one county north of Dunn).  The sky was black and a wall cloud was hanging from it and as I watched it in horror I began chewing on the collar of my t-shirt.  By the time the storm passed I no longer had a collar on my shirt – only the dangling strings of what used to be one. 

For whatever reason, since that first tornado, I have seen more tornadoes on June 4 than any other day of the year.  For example:

June 4, 1978 – one tornado on the ground 10 miles south of Great Falls Montana while I was conducting a census of nesting songbirds on a patch of native prairie.

June 3, 1980 (a day early) – the night of the tornado outbreak in Grand Island Nebraska in which at least 7 separate tornadoes rampaged through the city.

June 4, 1981.  While giving our nearly one-year old daughter Dana a bath in the kitchen sink (don’t ask why we chose to bathe her there – I do not remember), we saw a tornado drop from the sky just west of our home in Jamestown, North Dakota and briefly dance across the prairie before dissipating.

June 4, 1991 – My daughters and I sat on a hilltop north of Grand Island, Nebraska and watched three funnels form to the southwest.  One touched down briefly but caused no damage other than churning up some corn.

June 4, 2010 – A funnel formed and touched down briefly at Blackwater River State Park in Santa Rosa County, Florida.  I was driving west on US 98, saw the rotating wall cloud, and pulled over to the roadside and watched.

June 4, 2012 – A funnel formed over the intersection of University Parkway and Interstate Highway 75 in Sarasota Florida.  I was riding my bicycle home and saw the funnel overhead one mile away.  Luckily it didn’t touch down.

Today there is an abundance of information about tornadoes, how they are formed and where they have been that is available on the internet.  One particularly useful site is The Tornado Project from St. Johnsbury, Vermont.  People working on this project are assembling a chronological list of known tornadoes by state and by county in each state for as far back in history as possible.  There are a few missing storms in the database which is to be expected.  However they have compiled a huge amount of information about these fascinating and destructive winds.

The Colfax Tornado and its aftermath were important in developing a deep sense of wonder about tornadoes and at the same time an incurable fear of them.  It was later that same year when my parents let me watch "The Wizard of Oz" for the first time.  Having just seen a real tornado a couple months earlier the fake one in the movie was too much to bear.  On top of that the damned flying monkeys scared me as much as the tornado that took Dorothy and Toto on their magical mystery tour.  

To this day, 56 years later, anytime the sky turns black and takes on tints of green and maybe starts to rotate a bit my survival instincts kick in and I start to panic a bit thinking that I’ll be experiencing another Colfax Tornado sometime soon.  Whomever says that people quickly forget negative things that happen to them as a child should have been sitting with my mom and me that day in 1958 when my outlook on weather was changed forever.