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Join the WTIP News Staff for a program packed with news, music and some humor.  This program covers politics, local news and issues. DayBreak airs 7-8 a.m. on weekdays.

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Points North: Times change, but Freedom is where you find it

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We stopped at Smokey’s Place for dinner two nights in a row because we were in the vicinity, even though we drove nearly 20 miles to get there. The food was good, but that wasn’t the only reason we returned. When you are in the vicinity of Smokey’s Place, you’re a long way from anywhere else.
 
We were somewhere west of the 100th Meridian, in the land some call the Big Empty, where the grass is short, the sky is big and the Great Plains are sculpted with buttes and badlands. In places, you can find pheasants, which is what we were hunting. After a day outdoors, it felt good to sit down someplace warm and out of the wind. People have gone to Smokey’s Place to do just that for years and years.
 
Nailed to the wooden walls inside Smokey’s are dozens of wood placards etched with a cattle brand and the name of the ranch where it is used. Also on the wall are ancient mounts of deer and pronghorn, as well as an even more ancient bison skull. Looking around the room, you can’t help but wonder how long Smokey’s has been around.
 
We got a little history from the proprietor, a woman who took over the place from her father. It turns out Smokey’s first opened in a town that no longer exists. It was moved to the present location when the other town was flooded during the construction of a reservoir. She seemed less interested in the building’s history than its present and was trying to block a drafty door before the winter winds blew. We were her only customers, which was a little surprising even in the middle of nowhere.
 
“People don’t come out anymore,” she told us. “We used to have pool leagues and stuff going on. Now I have trouble getting them to come out once a week to play cards.”
 
It’s a common tavern keeper’s lament. These days, fewer people socialize by going out for dinner and drinks. Some are too busy with kids or other commitments. Some are counting calories and watching what they eat. And some are worried about getting pulled over by the police on their way home from the tavern. Her next customer was one of the latter, a local fellow who stopped in for a beer and some human company.
 
“It’s just me and the dog out at my place,” he said to no one in particular.
 
Soon enough, he was talking to us. We learned he was a commercial fisherman in Alaska, mostly working on a long liner for bottom fish.
 
“I’ve been everywhere from southeast Alaska to the tip of the Aleutian Islands,” he told us. “About the only thing I haven’t done in the last 30 years is fish for salmon in Bristol Bay.”
 
Our newfound friend said in some years he was on the water from March to November on a boat that would catch more than a half-million pounds of bottom fish per season. When he wasn’t fishing, he came back to the Great Plains to “play at the farming game, driving tractors in big circles.” He also had a place in Yakima, Washington, but he didn’t like it there anymore.
 
“Washington has really gone downhill,” he said.
 
I asked if there was too much crime.
 
“No,” he replied, “too many immigrants and Democrats moving in.”
 
Our friend had spent his life in places where a man must be independent and as tough as nails just to survive. “Work hard, play hard,” isn’t a motto, but a way of life. For a guy like him, the kind of social changes that create the tavern keeper’s lament are especially difficult to accept.
 
“You just can’t do anything, even around here, without worrying about being pulled over,” he said.
 
While we didn’t go into specifics, we learned he had been ticketed for driving while under the influence. But he could remember a time when drinking and driving wasn’t the crime it has become.
 
“We used to run these highways late at night,” he said. “The old ranchers went to bed early and there wasn’t anyone on the road. We used to get out there in a ’69 Charger with a 440 and just go full out. We’d run a hundred miles. Hell, we’d run all the way to the Black Hills.”
 
He said they’d drive for miles without seeing another vehicle. When they saw the headlights of an oncoming vehicle, they’d slow down and play it safe. Then it was back to full out.
 
Growing up and living in northern Minnesota, I, too, knew the freedom of lonely places. But it fired my imagination to think about hurtling across the Big Empty in a powerful car with no destination other than the two-lane blacktop ahead of you. Talk about the freedom of the open road. But that was then and this is now.
 
“Times change,” I said.
 
“But not for the better,” he replied.
 
Perhaps he’s right. But old men have been nostalgic for their youthful good old days as long as there have been old men. In that respect, nothing has changed at all. Still, when you know from experience how it feels to go wide open, it’s easy to understand how someone like our friend feels a little less free these days.
 
As for me, I choose not to wallow in nostalgia like a dinosaur in a tar pit. The only way to deal with change is to land on your feet, keep moving forward and seek freedom wherever you can find it. I can pick up a shotgun and follow a bird dog across the Big Empty. The license in my pocket says I’m hunting pheasants. But out where the grass is short and the tumbleweeds blow, what I’m really after is something else.

Airdate: November 2, 2012

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Out There: Love at First Bite

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Out There is a monthly segment from WTIP volunteer and commentator Shelby Gonzalez. In it, she explores the great outdoors with a sense of humor and a nose for strange stories, odd critters, and unusual pursuits. In this edition of Out There, Shelby tries tenkara—traditional Japanese fly-fishing—and gets laughed at by some trout.


 
 

Points North: Molpus controversy underscores need to address forest access issues

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Not so long ago, northern Minnesota forests offered endless room to roam. Sure, you'd find some posted private land, but once you got away from areas of habitation, the woods were pretty much open to all. Few folks other than surveyors and foresters paid much attention to the unmarked and indiscernible property lines.

The land ownership pattern was (and still is) a checkerboard of public and private holdings. National forests, state forests and county-managed tax-forfeited lands were interspersed with private lands held by timber companies, mining corporations and hydropower utilities.  As far as the average hunter, snowmobiler or berry-picker was concerned, it was all just woods. A “tree farm” property tax rate for lands dedicated to forestry included a caveat that private landowners would allow public access to their lands in return for reduced taxes.

No landowner really cared what you did out there, because recreational users left little behind other than footprints. Primitive off-road vehicles were mostly limited to existing forest trails. Permanent deer stands were simple platforms made of natural materials.  Snowmobile trails were mostly ungroomed pathways. Aside from hunting season, it was pretty quiet out there.
 
Changes began occurring in the late 1980s when the value of forest land began to rise due to an expanding timber industry, a growing demand for recreational property and the development of new off-road vehicles that made it easier to venture into the woods. As land values rose in the 1990s, corporate landowners began looking for ways to capitalize on their vast holdings, including selling small parcels as recreational property, leasing hunting rights or selling all of their lands to timber investment groups. Wildlife biologists warned that northern Minnesota’s corporate-owned forests, which everyone had always taken for granted as open to public hunting and other recreation, were at risk of being closed to public use.
 
State policy-makers and conservation groups responded to the challenge in multiple ways. Among the first was the state’s purchase of Minnesota Power lands along the St. Louis River and its major tributaries, which was championed by State Representative Willard Munger. The acquisition protected miles of undeveloped river shorelines, added thousands of acres to the state’s timber base and ensured continued public recreational access. While the purchase was a good deal for the state, it wasn’t by any means a model for accomplishing similar objectives on corporate holdings totaling millions of acres.
 
Retaining public recreational access has been accomplished in a number of ways. Conservation groups, backed with state funding, have purchased permanent easements on some forest industry lands. For mining company land on Lake Vermilion, the state chose to purchase the property for a new state park. Sometimes, the interests of a company and the state haven’t coincided, leading to the sale of some holdings or leasing of hunting rights.
 
In 2001, the Minnesota Legislature passed the Sustainable Forestry Incentives Act (SFIA), which replaced the outmoded tree farm tax rate. Although the passage of the act attracted minimal attention among the state’s outdoor press and hunting organizations, it led to big changes in recreational access to private forest lands. While in the past, allowing public recreational access was part of the deal for receiving a lower tax rate on forest land, SFIA simply gave landowners with 20 or more acres of forest land a $7 per acre tax break if they agreed to grow trees on the property for a period of eight years. Only landowners with holdings total more than 1,920 acres (three square miles) were required to provide public access.
 
The SFIA has been a great deal for recreational property owners. At the start, it was a good deal for corporate landowners, too. Their tax break came to them as essentially a rebate payment. However, when the state’s budget woes became overwhelming, Governor Pawlenty and the Legislature reneged on the deal and capped payments to large landowners at $100,000. Since some corporations own hundreds of thousands of acres, the $100,000 payment was just chump change.
 
This brings us to the present, where Minnesota’s newest corporate landowner, an investment firm called Molpus Timberland Investment Group, recently threatened to close 128,000 acres of its northern Minnesota holdings to the public, including hunting, groomed snowmobile trails and even roads providing access to other private and public lands. The threatened closure was a response to the state’s cap on SFIA payments, which reduced to amount received by the company from over $2 million to $100,000. Molpus and two other corporate landowners took the state to court for breach of contract, but lost in the Court of Appeals. The State Supreme Court refused to hear the case. While Molpus has agreed to leave the lands open for now, the issue has only been deferred—not resolved.
 
Molpus wasn’t the only corporate landowner left holding the bag when the Legislature decided to cap SFIA payments. In fact, it may be best to look at resolving the issue of access to Molpus lands as today’s challenge. It is very likely future challenges remain to guarantee recreational access to other corporate forest lands. As for Molpus, northern Minnesota legislators Tom Bakk and David Dill say the deal they’ve reached with the company to keeps its lands open lasts only through the end of the 2013 legislative session. Does this mean the Legislature has a few months to fix whatever is broken in the SFIA? Or will they simply come up with a way to please Molpus and kick the SFIA can down the road?
 
The answers to those questions may depend upon the outcome of the election. If the Legislature remains controlled by Republicans, nearly all of whom hail from somewhere other than northern Minnesota , addressing the concerns of the timber industry and outdoor enthusiasts may be a low priority. While the odds of addressing the issue may improve if the Democrats assume control of one or both houses, the state may still have trouble coming up with the money necessary to do any deal.
 
An obvious source of funding is the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which was tapped in a big way a couple of years ago to purchase easements for corporate forests around Grand Rapids. While using heritage money to acquire permanent public easements is appropriate, it is also hugely expensive and could preclude other, equally beneficial, conservation acquisitions.  Also, if the Legislature decides to override existing Heritage Council spending recommendations to deal with Molpus or other corporate landowners, the resulting political fallout will be nasty.
 
At any rate, Molpus fired a shot across the northern Minnesota ’s bow when it threatened to close its lands to the public. As the old song says, sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Minnesota is one of the very few states where corporate forests are largely open to the public, giving us millions of additional acres available for outdoor recreation. Losing that access not only shuts out hunters, berry-pickers and others, but also diminishes the natural resource base upon which the tourism industry depends.  While maintaining public recreational access will be expensive, it’s a good investment in northern Minnesota ’s future.

Airdate: October 26, 2012

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Points North: Students, teacher learn lessons on phony blood trail

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In the world of television hunting shows, the hero always gets his deer. Most often we see footage of the mighty stag prancing around near the hunter’s stand like a cow in a pasture. After some tense whispering with the cameraman, our hero aims at the buck and squeezes the trigger. Then we are treated to the “kill shot,” often replayed in slow motion so we can watch every agonizing gyration of the animal’s mortal throes. If that isn’t pornography, I don’t know what is.
 
Someone must watch this hunting porn, because the shows play endlessly on a few channels tucked away in the far corners of the cable and satellite television listings. Most hunters I know find these shows to be boring or even repugnant. At the very least, TV hunters are far removed from the reality of hunting in the Minnesota woods. Here, a deer is often visible for just a few brief moments before it disappears again in the brush. Sometimes a deer falls down when you shoot it, but often it runs away, vanishing as quickly as it appeared.
 
If there is snow on the ground, this isn’t a big deal, because a running deer leaves tracks. When there isn’t snow, following a deer through the woods can be challenging—very challenging. Even a mortally wounded deer can go some distance before it expires. Depending on where the animal was struck by the bullet and the cartridge used by the hunter, it may run 50 yards or more before it begins to bleed. The blood trail may be difficult to find and follow.
 
A couple of years ago, a friend shot a buck with a .260 Remington as it walked about 30 yards away. He was certain he’d made a good shot, but no blood was evident when he began following the whitetail. Tracking the animal for a quarter mile through dry, fallen leaves—no small feat—he eventually lost the trail, but not his conviction that he’d fired a fatal shot. Hunting in the same area over a week later, I stumbled upon the dead buck, not far from where my friend lost the trail. Although spoiled, the deer was still intact. I found the bullet wound behind the front shoulder—where it ought to be—but it didn’t appear to have bled from the wound. I don’t know why not.
 
Tracking wounded deer is a part of hunting. Often you can easily follow an obvious blood trail and soon come upon a dead deer. However, in many situations the blood trail difficult to discern. That’s when you need good tracking skills.
 
Last week, I finished off a day-long deer hunting class with a field session on following a blood trail. My three students, novices all, had spent some time walking in the woods with me looking for sites to place deer stands, finding deer sign and learning more about how north woods whitetails relate to their forest environment. Then I sent the three of them off to scout on their own for 20 minutes while I laid out a pseudo blood trail.
 
The students set off on their scouting expedition. I went to work. In my pocket were three small bottles of phony blood from the Halloween costume section at the local five-and-dime. I started out by scuffing up the fallen leaves to simulate the spot where the imaginary deer was struck by the shot. Then I began walking, kicking up the leaves to leave some sign. About 30 or 40 feet from my starting point, I dribbled a few drops of blood.
 
The forest floor was damp from a light drizzle that ended a few hours previous. I quickly learned to carefully leave blood drops on large leaves, birch logs and the like to be sure it was visible for the students. I was surprised to find that when drops landed elsewhere on the forest floor, they disappeared. Like a wounded deer, I went in a straight line through the brush, occasionally veering at a sharp angle to my course. Sometimes, I’d walk a short distance before leaving a few more blood drops. I was able to go about 200 yards before running out of fake blood. I left the empty bottles at the end of the trail as the final prize for my student trackers.
 
When my students started out, I gave them a roll of flagging tape and instructions to work as a team, leaving one person standing where they found the last blood drops while the other two walked ahead to look for more. I told them to use the flagging tape to mark the blood trail. They started slowly, trying to spot the blood drops and discern the phony wounded deer’s trail. It wasn’t long before they picked up the pace, leap-frogging one another as they moved from one spot of blood to the next. When they eventually reached the empty blood bottles, they had enough confidence to track a real wounded deer.
 
The cool thing about teaching someone a new skill is you learn something, too. I was surprised to discover how difficult it is to see blood on the forest floor, even as you are intentionally laying out a fake blood trail. I wonder if all hunters make a thorough search for blood after they shoot at a deer. Compared to some real blood trails I’ve followed to successfully recover the deer, my simulated blood trail was a cakewalk.
 
At first the students asked why we were using flagging tape to mark the trail. Soon they realized the flags made it easier to follow the wounded deer’s course through the woods. Once we reached the simulated dead deer, they also realized the flagging would make it easy to find the deer again if they had to go get someone to help haul it out. We took down all the flagging tape when we were finished with the lesson.
 
I’d like to think my three students gained enough knowledge and confidence to shoot their first whitetails this November. If they do, my own hunting experience suggests at least one of them will have to follow a blood trail to find the fallen deer. If so, they’ll at least know how to do so. As for me, I hope any deer I shoot drops at the shot. Our little trailing lesson reinforced something I already knew. Without snow on the ground, following a blood trail is never easy.

Airdate: October 19, 2012

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Points North: Closing of the Beaver House marks end of an era in Grand Marais

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In Minnesota, many small towns define their greatness with cartoon monuments. Mythical logger Paul Bunyan looms over a couple of towns. Elsewhere, you can saddle up and ride a leaping walleye. Around the state, other outsized creatures include a prairie chicken, an otter and a Canada goose. But only in Grand Marais can you see a walleye swimming out of a building.
 
The Beaver House is known to anglers and non-anglers alike as the building with a monstrous walleye sticking out of it. The walleye was created by local artist Jim Korf and has drawn curious visitors into the Beaver House for more than 20 years. This fall the Grand Marais institution is closing its doors. After serving anglers since the 1960s, the Cronberg family is selling the Beaver House building.
 
"It's primarily due to my parents’ health," said Tyson Cronberg, who has been the main man behind the counter for many years. "The business is their major asset, so the sale will allow them to stay in their home."
 
The Beaver House has always been the sort of place an angler would call a fishing store, but anyone else wandering around Grand Marais would probably call it a classic tourist trap. In addition to the emerging walleye, the building's exterior featured colorful murals of outdoor scenes and another Korf sculpture of two beavers working on (what else?) a beaver house.  Inside was a fishing shop like no other.
 
In addition to an eclectic, yet comprehensive tackle selection, there were shelves with old bottles, antiques and one-of-a-kind items, like a homemade "walleye call." When it came to tackle, if you couldn't find it anywhere else, most likely they had what you were seeking at the Beaver House. They also had an impressive selection of hand-made spinners and live bait rigs, including the Cronbergs' signature Beaver Flicks, which are guaranteed to catch fish.
 
The Beaver House didn't begin as a fishing store. Cronberg said his father, Bill, and his uncle, the late Guyal Anderson, bought the building, formerly housing a co-op, in 1964. They started as a shoe repair and clothing retail business. During the long winters, they began making fishing lures, which they soon found attracted more customers than clothes and shoes.
 
"Guys were standing in line to get the lures, so they decided to focus on the fishing business," said Cronberg.
 
It turned out to be a life-defining decision for Tyson, who was born in 1965. He grew up packing worms and leeches in the Beaver House basement.  He also made ice (with a machine) for the family's ice business. Later, when he was old enough to drive, he delivered ice to resorts along the Gunflint Trail.
 
"We had the ice business until this year," he explained.  "When we decided to give it up, it was a big relief to know I didn't have to make ice this spring."
 
For customers, Tyson has long been a familiar face in the Beaver House.  His brother, Marty, who currently lives in Chicago, has been involved in the business and comes in now and then to help out. His sisters Bambi (Wiki) and Jenni (Morawitz) have worked there, too. His nephew, Steve, built the Beaver House website. Many other family members were involved over the years, too. A number of Grand Marais boys, now grown men, worked at the Beaver House as well.
 
"They all grew up to be pretty good guys," Cronberg said.
 
The Beaver House wasn't the only fishing business operated by the Cronberg family. They purchased Bjchee's Resort on Devil Track Lake and operated it until the mid-1990s. It was there Tyson learned about a different sort of fish. During his teenage years, he became an accomplished pool shark.
 
"Older guys would come in and play a game with me. I'd let them win the first one. Then we'd play some more and I'd take their money," he recalled with a laugh.
 
Tyson hasn't played pool for a few years. He isn't sure what he's going to do next spring, when the Beaver House won't be opening for business. The family is continuing the Beaver House website, where they sell fishing tackle. Tyson is considering becoming a fishing guide or simply teaching people to fish.
 
"After all, teaching people about fishing is what I've always done," he said.
 
Still, he is very cognizant of another change that contributed to the demise of the Beaver House, as well as many other small bait and tackle shops throughout Minnesota. Simply put, it's hard for Mom-and-Pop tackle shops to compete with massive mail-order operations and sporting goods box stores. Add to that the plethora of gas station convenience stores that carry bait and basic tackle, and little room is left for the Mom-and-Pops to carve out a business niche.

As an angler living in Grand Marais, I admit to being guilty of buying gear from catalogs and box stores, and picking up bait at the gas station. But I'll miss the Beaver House and Tyson's familiar, friendly greeting when I walked through the door. More than once, the Beaver House had a specific tackle item on hand when I needed it. Just being in the place delivered me back to a time when fishing-and life-were simpler. In that regard, we're losing more than a tackle store when they close the door.
 
At this writing, the Beaver House building was still in the process of a sale. The walleye in the wall is being sold with the building and hopefully will continue to be a downtown Grand Marais landmark.

Airdate: October 12, 2012

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Out There: Oliver

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Out There is a monthly segment from WTIP volunteer and commentator Shelby Gonzalez. In it, she explores the great outdoors with a sense of humor and a nose for strange stories, odd critters, and unusual pursuits. In this edition of Out There, Shelby becomes smitten with Minnesota’s smallest owl, the saw-whet, and wonders whether Bill “Owlman” Lane, Master Bander, would mind if she smuggled one home in her coat pocket.


 
 

Points North: The Brook Trout’s Revenge

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They say you shouldn’t drink the water when traveling south of the border, because you might be afflicted with an unflattering ailment known as Montezuma’s Revenge.
 
If you venture north of the border, the water’s fine. But when in Canada, beware of the fish.
 
I learned this the hard way last week, when Outdoor News editor Rob Drieslein joined me on a quest for king salmon in the Nipigon River on Lake Superior’s North Shore. Ray Rivard, our host at the nearby Quebec Lodge, offered to spend a morning on the river with us.  We were trolling with crankbaits when I hooked and landed a one of the river’s famed coaster brook trout. Clearly unhappy to be in the boat, the brookie struggled in the rubber-mesh landing net, which amplified each frantic flop as if it was bouncing on a trampoline.
 
Cautiously, I tried to pick up the fish without getting caught on the lure’s second set of hooks. I failed. Suddenly, I was hooked by the thumb to the trampoline trout.
 
“Not good,” I said. “Really not good.”
 
Moving quickly, Ray grabbed and held the fish while we tried to figure out what to do next. Using the multitool I carry on my belt, we cut the hook holding the fish and released it. This left me with a deeply imbedded crankbait in my thumb. Fortunately, the emergency room at the Nipigon Hospital was just a 20-minute drive away. Ray and Rob returned me to the boat landing and I headed to town.
 
When I arrived at the emergency room, the nurse directed me first to registration. The woman there recoiled and back-pedaled from the counter when she saw my thumb.
 
“I don’t want to see that,” she exclaimed.
 
As she registered me, I learned she likes to fish and has a phobia about hook impalements. From my impaled perspective, her phobia was understandable. With tongue in cheek, I said her initial reaction was almost worth getting hooked.
 
Finally, I went back to the ER and met Dr. Myhill-Jones, who was no stranger to fish hook injuries.
 
“I live in coastal B.C.,” he explained, “so I’ve removed a lot of fish hooks.”
 
His favorite way to pull them out is what he called the string method.
 
This entails putting a loop of line around the bend of the impaled hook, pushing down on the hook eye to improve the angle and then using the line to pull the hook out with a quick motion. I’ve used this method previously and it works. This time, however, the hook seemed too deeply imbedded. At any rate, I wanted to ensure my thumb was numb before any removal process began.
 
Examining the wound, the doctor agreed the hook was especially deep and decided to use an alternate method, which involves pushing the point and barb back through the skin, cutting off the barb and then backing out the hook. As long as numbness was involved, this was fine by me. So we started with a shot of a topical anesthetic.  Then the doctor asked the nurse for a pliers and wire cutter. She looked in the cabinet, but was only able to find an odd-looking cutting tool. The doctor tried to cut the split ring that attached the hook to the lure, but was unsuccessful after several attempts.
 
“Do you want to try my cutter?” I asked, pulling out the trusty multitool.
 
It worked on the first try. I asked if I’d get a discount for bringing my own utensils. The doctor smiled. Then, using the pliers on the multitool, he pushed the hook point back through the skin. The final step was to cut off the barb—again with the multitool—and slip the hook out.
 
Around this time a young doctor came into the room. Dr. Myhill-Jones asked him how he usually removed hooks. Surprisingly, the doctor responded that they didn’t often deal with hook impalements. He hadn’t tried the string method.
 
Suddenly, my impalement became a teaching opportunity. Dr. Myhill-Jones asked if he could use my thumb for demonstration purposes. When I agreed, the other doctor scurried off to find the resident physician, another fish hook neophyte. Since my camera was in my pocket, I decided to photograph the demonstration.
 
The young doctor and the resident physician soon returned. Dr.
 
Myhill-Jones pulled out a roll of gauze. He glanced at my trusty multitool.
 
“Does your tool have a scissors?” he asked.
 
It does, so he used it to cut a length of gauze. He tied the ends to create a loop about six or eight inches in diameter. Then he slipped it on his wrist, so the loop lay in the palm of his hand.  This way, he could make a smooth pull to remove the hook. He showed us how to position the loop in the hook bend and to press down on the eye. Then he showed us how to pull the hook out. Of course, the barb was already cut off, so the hook easily slipped out.
 
All that now remained of my ER experience was the billing. If I was a Canadian resident, all I would have needed to do was show my health card and the entire service would be covered. As a nonresident, I was presented with a $405 bill, due immediately. Out came my credit card.
 
The charge was a standard emergency room fee. For me, it covered the procedure, a topical anesthetic and a tetanus shot. I can turn in the bill as a claim to my U.S. health insurance.
 
Leaving the hospital, I decided a donut was in order and stopped for a snack at the Nipigon Tim Horton’s.
 
Then it was back to the river. The boys motored over to pick me up. While I was gone, Rob managed to land his first king salmon. We fished for a couple of hours without catching any more salmon, a 10-pounder.  However, I did land a limit of hook-in-thumb jokes.
 
And somewhere beneath the boat, a Nipigon River brook trout was savoring sweet revenge.

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Points North: Looking for Ducks and Finding Wolves

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While thousands of Minnesota duck hunters sat in swamps last weekend, I went walking in the woods. Sitting in a blind beside a stool of decoys goes against my restless nature. If few ducks are flying, as is often the case, I soon have the urge to move on. That's why I prefer to seek out mallards on secluded beaver ponds.
 
Scattered across the North Shore's backcountry are dozens of small drainages where beaver dams create a series of ponds. For migrating mallards, beaver ponds are like roadside motels where they can rest and find something to eat. Not all ponds are equally attractive to ducks. The best ones are shallow with mucky bottoms and lots of weedy growth.
 
I know the whereabouts of a few mallard motels. Not all of them are good places to shoot ducks. The best ponds are ones where you are likely to flush the ducks within range and where your dog can find and retrieve your kill. Some ponds are either too large or too brushy to be easy to hunt. Sometimes, ponds dry up or for some other reason become unattractive to ducks. That's why I'm always looking for new ponds to add to the hunting roster.
 
The best beaver ponds are rarely visited by people, so you have to get off the beaten path to find them. Usually you can walk along an overgrown road or trail part of the way, perhaps even shooting a grouse or two. Inevitably you'll end up busting brush to reach the water's edge. Sometimes you'll hear mallards quacking as you sneak to the pond. More often, you pop out on the edge; look around and suddenly the mallards explode in a flush.
 
That's pretty much what happened last Saturday. On one pond I found a flock of blue wing teal. On another I flushed a few mallards. Along the way, the dog and I walked up on a whitetail doe that didn't smell or hear us due to a strong wind. I also found muddy wallows and battered brush left by a rutting bull moose. I shot a few grouse, too.
 
The hunting was good enough on Saturday that I decided to follow the same routine on Sunday morning. It was breezy once again... I walked into one pond and then another without seeing any ducks. I wondered if the northwest wind had blown the ducks out I made a short drive to check out the series of ponds where I'd found mallards the day before. On the way there, I noticed fresh wolf droppings in the middle of the forest road. How did I know they were fresh? Well, the pile wasn't there the previous day. I made a mental note that wolves were in the neighborhood, although I didn't expect to see them.
 
We made a long and somewhat soggy stroll over a beaver dam and through the woods, then finally along the marshy edge of large pond. Aside from a couple of mallards that flushed beyond shooting range, we didn't see much for ducks. Reaching the end of the ponds, we swung away from the water and into a dense aspen thicket, headed for an overgrown trail leading back to the truck. The dog shifted into grouse-hunting mode. Whether he's after grouse in the woods or pheasants on the prairie, Tanner is a close-working flusher. Usually, he stays within 100 feet of me, zigzagging through the cover in a relentless search for birds. The thicket was so dense he was often out of my sight, but within earshot. Keeping track of his location by sound is second nature for me. Tanner frequently pops into view as he circles back to check on me.
 
When stuff happens in the woods, it happens fast. We were pushing through the aspen jungle when suddenly I heard more noise than one dog could make.  A wolf burst from the brush less than 20 feet in front from me, coming from the direction of the dog. I yelled, make that roared, Tanner's name. The wolf veered away and disappeared into the brush. Immediately, a second wolf came out in front of me. I roared again and it vanished just as quickly as the first one. The entire encounter occurred in seconds.
 
Ahead of me, I could still hear commotion from Tanner's direction, but I wasn't sure if there were more wolves in the vicinity. I called again. The dog came out in the same place as the two wolves. He followed their scent trail a few feet, but I called him over to me and commanded him to sit. Then we waited quietly for a few minutes, listening for any sound of more wolves.  When I was satisfied no wolves were around, I told the dog to heel and walked out to the logging trail.  Then, keeping the dog at heel, I walked back to the truck. Tanner seemed frustrated and clearly wanted to continue hunting grouse.
 
In retrospect, I'm not really sure what happened. Even though he was out of sight, Tanner was less than 25 yards from me when the wolves appeared.  I'm sure he encountered the wolves, perhaps at a closer distance than me. I heard no growls, snarls or yelps, so the wolves didn't attack him. I have a feeling they didn't even interrupt his bird hunt. Perhaps they were deterred by my yells. Or maybe they were as startled as I was.
 
While I could imagine a fanciful tale of being stalked by the pack or some similar nonsense, I suspect it was a chance encounter. I've had previous close encounters with wolves, although not when accompanied by a dog. In past encounters, the wolves came on fast and made an even quicker getaway. As hunters, I'm guessing they are drawn to the sound of something: me moving through the woods, mistaking the noise for a deer, moose or some other edible creature. Tanner and I were walking into the wind, so the wolves couldn't identify us by smell. Coming upon a dog and a hunter was likely a big surprise. Perhaps the two wolves I saw were young ones, which may explain why they didn't attackTanner. Both wolves were within point-blank shotgun range-less than 20 feet from me-so why didn't I shoot them? My attention was focused on Tanner.  Neither wolf was an immediate threat to him or me. Had I believed the dog was being attacked or in danger, I would have killed the wolves. However, it is sobering to think that had they attacked the dog, I may not have been able to run forward fast enough to prevent him from being badly injured or killed. Stuff happens fast in the woods.

Airdate: September 28, 2012

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Points North: BWCAW Land Exchange—Another Failed Effort?

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Congressman Chip Cravaack made headlines recently when the U.S. House passed his legislation authorizing a land-for-land swap between the U.S. Forest Service and the State of Minnesota for 86,000 acres of state land located within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
 
Cravaack’s bill supports state legislation passed earlier this year, which seeks to expedite a federal-state exchange and thus make more land available for mining and lakeshore development.
 
Attempting to remove state land from the BWCAW is not a new issue.
 
Northern Minnesota lawmakers have been trying to accomplish a land swap since the Boundary Waters became a wilderness area in 1978.
 
Their motive is valid. Most of the lands in question are state School Trust lands. Since mining, logging and lakeshore development are not allowed in the wilderness, the lands do not generate revenue for the trust.
 
Past efforts to complete an exchange have been unsuccessful, in no small part due to northern legislators’ insistence on a land-for-land swap, rather than a combination of purchase and exchange, which is the standard policy of the U.S. Forest Service.  In the past, the biggest conservation worry was that the state would gain undeveloped lakeshore in the deal and promptly sell it to developers. This time around, environmentalists worry the state is simply trying to acquire land to expand mining.
 
Cravaack and other proponents of the land-for-land exchange say their efforts are “for the children,” because possible new mining, land sale and logging revenues would go to the state’s School Trust. They also say the exchange is a win-win, because it doesn’t affect the wilderness and increases development potential in northern Minnesota.
 
Both claims are true, but this doesn’t mean the exchange will be a win-win for everyone.  The first hint of trouble is that Cravaack’s legislation exempts the swap from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), because an environmental review might delay the exchange.
 
At least, that’s what proponents are saying.
 
Other losers may be the small school districts in Lake and Cook counties, which will not receive federal in-lieu-of-tax payments for the exchanged lands due to another Cravaack exemption. The congressman defends the exemption by saying it keeps the exchange revenue-neutral for the federal government, and that all schools will benefit from the monies generated for the School Trust. However, it is highly unlikely the School Trust will suddenly become a horn of plenty or that small northern school districts will see any appreciable increase in state funding as a result of the exchange.
 
The biggest losers will be northern Minnesota property owners, hunters, anglers and others who appreciate and use the Superior National Forest. Outside the wilderness, 86,000 thousand acres of land that has been in stable federal ownership will suddenly change hands.
 
The new owner, the State of Minnesota, may not prove to be a good neighbor. If you have a cabin on a lake which has national forest land along the shoreline, expect to see it sold and subdivided if it suddenly becomes state school trust land. Folks who have bought property adjacent to the national forest and hunters who use national forest lands may find the state has different priorities than the Forest Service, like mining development.
 
Of course, this is a worst-case scenario and is based on the assumption Cravaack’s bill will be passed by the Senate and signed by the president. So far, Minnesota senators Klobuchar and Franken haven’t said much other than they support some form of land swap.
 
Given we are less than two months from the election, it seems unlikely a companion exchange bill will rush through the Senate. However, the pre-election passage by the House ensures Cravaack has something he can use to woo some—certainly not all—northern voters.
 
Only time will tell if Cravaack emerges as the champion of a land exchange over 30 years in the making, or if his attempt at a land-for-land swap fails like previous attempts. If BWCAW history is any guide, another failure is likely. In recent years, the Forest Service has been working through a BWCAW land exchange with the state and northern counties. The process was based on a land-for-land swap that provided public benefits and protected public land, as well as an outright purchase of most non-federal lands through a fair appraisal process. Northern Minnesota politicians instead chose to fight the federal government and attempt to ramrod their all-or-nothing land-for-land swap through Congress.
 
They say doing that same thing time and again while expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity. If that’s true, then northern Minnesota politicians are…sadly predictable. While they claim to be attempting this swap for the good of Minnesota ’s schoolchildren, whether they fail or succeed it is the kids who will come out losers. With failure, the BWCAW land exchange will return to the back burner and the School Trust won’t gain a multi-million dollar shot of cash from a federal land purchase. If they win, the kids will lose again, because public lakeshores and forests—their legacy—will be sold and developed for short-term gains.
 
If northern Minnesota politicians bungle yet another chance to get the state’s land out of the Boundary Waters, we all lose. 
 
First, we’ve wasted years of effort and untold tax money on a failed attempt to bully the federal government. 
 
Second, the state is still stuck with land in the BWCAW, meaning the issue doesn’t go away.  If that happens, hopefully we’ll have a little time to improve northern Minnesota ’s political gene pool before making another run at the exchange.
 
We can cross our fingers and hope political insanity isn’t hereditary.

Airdate: September 21, 2012

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Points North: North Dakota may be the next Paradise Lost

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About a decade ago, North Dakota hunters, upset with increasing numbers of out-of-state duck hunters, urged the state legislature to pass new restrictions on nonresidents. Many believed they were seeing too many vehicles with Minnesota or Wisconsin license plates at their favorite hunting spots. Out on the wide-open prairie, even a few hunters can seem like a crowd.
 
While the ire of resident hunters was directed at out-of-staters, North Dakota’s demographics were changing, too.  Growth of Fargo and, to a lesser extent, Bismarck, meant that a once-predominantly rural state was now mostly populated with city-dwellers, many of whom were not born and raised in North Dakota. Unbeknownst at the time, even bigger demographic changes loomed on the prairie horizon.
 
In 2009, we drove across North Dakota on U.S. Hwy 2 en route to the Rockies. We camped for the night in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Williston, just a few miles from the Montana border, because nothing else was available. The community was in the midst of an oil boom and newly arrived workers filled the campgrounds and other places to stay. Two years later, we passed through Williston again and were amazed at how much the community had changed. Temporary man camps and oil company operations sprawled across former wheat fields. Heavy truck traffic hummed along the highway. Williston’s atmosphere could be summed up in one word: grimy.
 
The oil boom has brought new prosperity to the northern prairie, but at a great cost to North Dakota’s landscape and way of life. Dakota Country magazine, to which I subscribe, does an excellent job of chronicling the damage to the land, water and wildlife occurring in the Oil Patch. Letters to the magazine describe the angst many longtime North Dakotans feel as they watch the western third of their state experience irrevocable change.
 
Perhaps it’s better late than never, but North Dakotans appear to be waking up to how much their state will continue changing as it becomes Ground Zero for domestic energy development. Among the big losers are hunters, because energy development is gobbling up land and displacing wildlife. Even larger than the Oil Patch is the Corn Patch, a monoculture spreading like cancer as cropland and grassland is converted to corn to meet the demands of the ethanol industry. In many cases, the conversion of prairie to row crops is permanent, because the land is being underlaid with drain tile to rush the water into ditches. Lost down the drain are the sloughs and prairie potholes--Mother Nature’s infrastructure for North America’s duck factory.
 
A story in the current issue of Dakota Country reports North Dakota has lost about one-half of the land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to retire erodible land from crop production. At its peak in 2007, North Dakota had 3.4 million acres of CRP grassland, which has since dwindled to 1.6 million acres and continues to decline.  Another name for CRP, by the way, is wildlife habitat.
 
Out in the Oil Patch, perhaps the biggest change is in people—as in lots more people.  Another Dakota Country story reports there are presently 7,000 oil wells in North Dakota with some experts predicting the number of wells may eventually reach 40,000. A much larger workforce will be needed to keep those wells pumping.  North Dakotans already know what more workers means. Dakota Country editor Bill Mitzel writes: “Cities in western North Dakota like Dickinson, formerly a nice, quiet, clean community of 7,000 good folks, will see population increases approaching 50,000 in the near future…"

In Minot recently, I was told there are presently nine large motels under construction in the city, along with 4,000 homes. Tiny Burlington to the west is expanding at an amazing rate, while Surrey, 10 miles to the east with 800 residents, is currently building 1,200 homes…Other cities, including Watford City, Williston, Stanley, Killdeer and Belfield, are already under siege from choking dust created by unstoppable trucks, unimaginable garbage along the roadside, strangers whose motives are unknown and a general downfall in their overall, previously healthy way of life. Most people don’t like it. Not all, but most. Thousands of ‘lifers’ in western North Dakota have already left their homes. More would like to, but various reasons,
cannot.”
 
It’s a sad state of affairs when our demand for energy so alters a place that the people who lived there previously must move away. It’s sadder still when better planning and regulations, as well as a greater respect for the natural environment, could have mitigated some of the most damaging effects of change. In this respect, North Dakotans are reaping what they’ve sowed. For years, the state  has taken a “we don’t need no stinkin’ rules” approach to environmental protection. Now, from the tiled and drained eastern Corn Patch to the grimy western Oil Patch, North Dakota is paying the price for its anti-regulatory arrogance--and ignorance.
 
For hunters, North Dakota seems well on its way to becoming yet another paradise lost. Already hunters worry populations of mule deer, bighorn sheep and other game are dwindling due to oil development. Bird hunters are resigned to finding fewer ducks and pheasants than they did during the “good old days,” just a couple of years ago.  The population explosion and landscape alterations occurring in the name of energy development will prove major obstacles to future conservation efforts. And to think that just 10 years ago, North Dakota hunters’  biggest concern had was that there were too many duck hunters from Minnesota.
Those were the days.

Airdate: September 14, 2012

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