Monday, December 31, 2012

Blue savanna

Part of my job involves managing natural resources.  A pretty big part of it, actually.  Now, 'managing natural resources' means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.  For state parks in Minnesota, it means in part "... to preserve, perpetuate, and interpret natural features that existed in the area of the park prior to settlement ..."

Prior to European settlement, most of southwestern Minnesota was covered in tall grass prairie.  In river valleys and ravines there would be areas of oak savanna, which is prairie with scattered oak trees.  Fort Ridgely State Park is located partly within the Minnesota River valley, and contained areas of both prairie and savanna.  So a good chunk of our resource management involves trying to restore these natural features.

Without fire to suppress their growth, trees and brush have gradually invaded the park's grasslands.  Part of our efforts involve removing these invaders.  Ideally we would do this by re-introducing fire into the system.  Prescribed burning, however, has its limitations.  It won't knock back the bigger stuff, and getting the humidity, wind, staffing schedules and control measures to all cooperate at exactly the perfect way at exactly the right time is very difficult.

So we do a lot of cutting.  Chainsaws, brush saws and brush mowers.  It is painstaking work.  Not only do you have to cut the trees down, you have to decide what to do with the wood.  Small stuff can be left on the ground to rot, but bigger stuff should be hauled away.  And, you need to stop the stump from resprouting next year.  The easiest way to do this is to use chemical herbicide.

We use backpack sprayers to spot treat the cut stumps.  We add a blue dye to the sprayer to mark which stumps have been treated.

Every little small stump needs spraying.  In this picture you can sorta see the minefield of blue branches sticking up out of the ground.  The orange flag on the tree in the foreground marks a burr oak that we are saving, to replicate the scattering of oaks in the savanna.

In the foreground you can see the area we have mowed, cut and sprayed.  In the background is an area we haven't worked on yet, thickly filled with young trees and shrubs. 

Like I said, it is painstakingly slow work.  A crew of four people can work one full day and cover maybe, maybe an acre.  Depending on the types and sizes of trees in the area.  But it is rewarding.  Tall grass prairies and savannas are magical, beautiful places.  They are my favorite places, where a person can go and lose themselves for an moment, an hour, an afternoon.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Taking the sad away

Christmas has come and gone, but we still have our decorations up.  When I was growing up my mother would insist on taking everything down the day after the holiday.  "It's too sad to keep up" she would say.

I say the opposite.  It's too joyful to take down.  I plan on keeping the tree up until at least mid-January, when the branches have drooped and the needles are falling into piles on the floor.  Then we will carefully pack each ornament, each string of lights into their boxes and bring them back down to the basement.

It has been a melancholy Christmas for us.  My father, the best person I have ever known in my short life, passed away unexpectedly in the middle of this month.  At the funeral my youngest son, my six-year-old Benjamin, clung to his favorite cousin and said "this is the saddest day of my life."  Me too, little mouse.

And so the Christmas tree will stay up.  And the bells, and the candles, and the lights.  And maybe they will help take a little of the sad away as we head into the new year.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Currier and Ives

Eight inches of heavy snow on the ground.  It began snowing yesterday evening, and came down thick through the night.  Hubby went outside this morning to shovel the walk and alleyway.  Half an hour, it took him.  Half an hour!  Compared to four hours of shoveling to clear our driveway at our old house.  He even helped the neighbor lady shovel out her place.

The boys went outside for a few hours to play with the neighbor kids.  Graham came inside at one point asking for a carrot and buttons.  The carrot was an easy find, but the buttons could have been anywhere amongst the thousands of boxes still stacked around our house.  He settled for a scarf and a hat, and used rocks in leiu of buttons.

First snowman in our first snowfall in our first winter in our new house.

Merry Science

I love these things.  No batteries or electricity, no flashing and jingling and singing; just some pieces of wood, candles and eight twirling fan blades.  The best part -- I can explain how this works to my children.  I can't explain how batteries work.  Who knew that discussing atmospheric thermodynamics could become such a great holiday tradition?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Busy as a


A busy beaver has been busy along Fort Ridgely Creek.  Gnawing down trees, big and small, tumbling them down into the water.  A few trees went the wrong way and fell over the hiking trail alongside, but only a few.  A quick bit of chainsaw can take care of that. 

How does a beaver know which way to gnaw, so the tree will fall the right way?  Into the creek to build a dam, to slow the water, to make a pool, to build a lodge, to have a place in spring and summer and fall and winter to live and eat and sleep.  Must be that thing called In-Stinkt.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

I should have made soul cakes

After our month living at the park, we moved into our new home in New Ulm. When our realtor found out we wanted to look at this particular house back in early September, the first thing he said was: 'you should start your Halloween candy budget now.'  He told us this street was Halloween central, with lots of kids coming to trick-or-treat here.  I heard this and thought he meant 200 kids, maybe 300.  That is, after all, quite a few.

So we bought a few big bags of candy and looked forward to the onslaught.  We carved pumpkins, put up fake spiderwebs, found some costumes for the kidlets, and waited for the big day.

A week or so before Halloween I met one of our next-door neighbors.  She has a little girl Graham's age, and a little boy just a year younger than Benjamin.  I happened to bring up the subject of Halloween, and she said that she was taking the kids elsewhere this year.  I wondered why.  I asked her how many kids they usually got.  She said, 'oh, about a thousand.'

Holy shoebox.

A thousand kids.  My brain had some difficulty grasping the number.  How can a town of 13,000 produce 1,000 trick-or-treaters, all on one street?

But, just to be safe, we bought more candy.  And a bit more, just to be safe.  And then a bit more.  Better too much than too little, right?  I envisioned having a huge bowl full of almond joys and kit kats left over, and my sweet tooth grinned with glee.

The first ding-dong rang at 5:30 pm, and after that initial smiley-faced vampire turned away from the door, time went by in a blur of bat men and butterflies.  It became obvious very quickly that the whole door bell thing was not going to work.  As soon as I handed out one piece, another kid would be walking up the front step.  I grabbed a folding chair and parked it out front, my bowl in my lap, and began an assembly line of 'Happy Halloweens' and candy sack deposits.

Every so often I would call a quick pause while I ran inside, ripped open another bag of candy and filled my bowl back up.  Then I'd dash back outside before the kids piled up too thickly.

At about 8:00 pm people started thinning out, and by 8:30 I felt comfortable coming inside and turning out the porch light.  I sat down, in shock, and looked around me.

The kitchen table was covered in empty candy bags.  After a few moments of rest I collected the bags, read the amount of candy in each bag, and added the numbers together.  Then I looked at what I had left in my bowl.

I had started out with 1150 pieces of candy.  At the end of the night, I had 50 pieces left.

1100 trick-or-treaters.  Egads.

Yeah, I know, $100+ is a lot of money to spend on candy.  Especially spent on candy that will be walking right out the door.  But it was a fun night, and the boys had a blast going around the neighborhood.  They met a lot of friends from school, and it seemed the parents were having as much fun as the kids.  Despite my next-door-neighbor (and several others) ditching us for the evening, most of the neighborhood hung around and took part in the fun.  Lots of houses were decked out in orange lights and inflatable monsters, and I saw quite a few folks handing out candy in costumes themselves.

So there's a lesson for all you potential home-buyers out there:  always listen to what the realtor says.  And start your candy budget early if you live on Halloween central in New Ulm.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Best parts

During the month we lived at the park, hubby took the boys out for a hike every afternoon.  My eldest saw this as a penance to be endured; the younger two were more enthusiastic.

The hiking trails wind all over the park--through prairies and woods, in and out of valleys, over creeks and past scenic overlooks.  We have trails for hikers, bikers, horseriders, skiers, and snowmobilers.  Whatever your fancy, we've got it covered.  I think that's what I like best about the park so far -- the variety.

That's also what I like best about my job -- the variety of things I do.  I'm not stuck in an office or behind a counter all day.  Yeah, I spend a lot of time in the office (more than you'd think a park ranger should), but I'm also out walking the trails, fixing water lines, inspecting campsites, planting trees, burning prairie, driving tractors, and on and on and on.  Every day is different.  But above all, I am making sure that the people that come to the park have the best darn tootin' time they can have (within reason, of course).  Park rangers help people, first and foremost.

I like that part best, too.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The view

from the first tee.  Amazing, really, considering it is now the first week in December.

The posts lining the lower part of the near hill are attached to ropes, and mark the edge of an old staircase.  The staircase is used in winter by inner tubers (not your inner potato, but your inner kid), climbing laboriously back up to the top.  A couple of inches of snow on the ground and this hill transforms from a mild-mannered fairway into a spectacular sledding hill.  I should say tubing hill: no sleds or toboggans are allowed, only inner tubes.  Apparently this is because the hill is too fast for sleds.

It's been years since I've gone down a fast hill on an inner tube.  I can hardly wait.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


Fort Ridgely also has a nine-hole golf course, the only golf course in the Minnesota State Park system.  While living at the park, hubby and the boys took advantage of the rental clubs and went golfing one afternoon.

You can tell my kids have played a lot more baseball than they have golf.  Here Benjimouse is preparing to hit a home run.

 I wonder how many divots they left behind.

Hubby wisely decided to use Best Ball rules.  Otherwise they might still be out there playing.

The course is wonderful for both beginners and regulars.  The scenery is stunning, with the fairways surrounded by oak woodland and native prairie.  The walk between the 5 green and the 6 tee takes you past the historic fort site.  Hole 8 is our shortest hole, a mere 250 feet long.  200 of those feet, however, is the distance across a deep ravine that separates the tee and the green -- a ravine you need to cross in one shot, or lose your ball trying.

The boys had fun, but I don't think we have any future Tiger Woods in our crowd.  Too bad; we could have used a multi-million $ athlete son to keep us comfy in our old age.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Thursday, November 29, 2012

House of Stone

For the first month after we moved from Ortonville, we lived in a house made of stone.  It was built, as many of the buildings in my new park were built, by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930's as part of FDR's New Deal.  The walls are about 16 inches thick.

The rock it is made from is Morton gneiss, otherwise known as rainbow gneiss, and cut from a quarry near Morton, Minnesota.  According to Wikipedia, "The Morton Gneiss is an Archean-age migmatitic gneiss found in southwestern Minnesota. It has been dated to 3.6 billion years ago, making it one of the oldest rock units on the planet. It is believed to have originally been a granite before it was metamorphosed."

It is beautiful stuff.  I will try to take a closer picture tomorrow so you can see the ribbons of color that run through the stone.  All of the CCC and VCC (Veterans Conservation Corps) buildings at Fort Ridgely are build from it.

During supper one evening, my youngest son asked what would happen if a tornado came through.  My husband laughed and said that we were in the safest place we could be.  Every other house in the state could be flattened, and ours would still be standing.  It just might be true.