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Magnetic North

Vicki Biggs-Anderson

Vicki Biggs-Anderson
Vicki lives on a 116 year-old homestead in Colvill that she and her late husband, Paul moved to from the Twin Cities years ago. She shares this special place with five goats, three dozen or so hens - bantams and full size, three talkative geese, an assortment of wild and domestic ducks, two angora rabbits, two house cats, a yellow Lab and a rescue retriever/kangaroo with plans to add a pet turkey or two just for comic relief.

When not feeding, chasing or changing "sheets" for all of the above, Vicki writes, volunteers, makes felted and thrummed mittens for folks, wanders the woods, balances rocks and, "when a fit of discipline strikes," dives into her decade of weekly columns for the old News-Herald in search of a book or more likely, a sit-com.  

Arts, cultural and history features on WTIP are made possible in part by funding from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Check out other programs and features funded in part with support from the Heritage Fund.



What's On:

Magnetic North August 5, 2009: Tripping the Shore

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Welcome back to Magnetic North. Far from the madding crowd, and just about everyplace else. 

Of late, my husband Paul and I have made the 240-mile round trip trek to Duluth almost weekly. Medical specialists are the draw. Oh, we’re both fine. We just want to keep it that way.

Of course, the scenery along the way is sensational. To think that people make driving the North Shore their entire holiday and we get to do it regularly….a little too regularly for some family members.

“I can’t believe you’ve hit only ONE deer in almost 19 years up there,” says my daughter, Gretchen. Gretchen, the Los Angeles soccer mom, who averages a collision almost yearly on L.A.’s freaky freeways.

But I digress. Paul and I usually set off on our Duluth runs with our yellow Lab, Scout, on the back seat, a backpack full of snacks and a to-do list that would take at least two days to do.
Always, always the very first to-do is stop at Dan’s Feed Bin in Superior, Wisconsin. Dan’s is a legend among northlanders. For, as the sign out front under a life-size painted statue of a steer says, “If we can’t feed it, you don’t need it.”
Over the years Dan’s has supplied me with lay mash, scratch, goat chow, hay, straw, duckling and chick starter, bunny bits, buckets, heated watering pails, a pair of geese, crates, leashes, medicines, useless pet toys and fox urine to scare away skunks.
A visit to Dan’s never disappoints. There are the cages of rescue cats up for adoption, heartbreakers all. And in early summer there’s always at least one tub full of baby birds. Last week it was bobwhite quail and pheasant chicks. Around the corner from the chicks expect baby bunnies, assorted juvenile songbirds and often, a huge parrot sitting atop a cage looking down on customers.

After taking all this in, I wander to the counter and order my 50-pound bags of feed for the week, get a slip of paper to hand the bruiser on the loading dock and then make sure the back of the car is ready to be filled to the ceiling with critter food.

Which pretty much cancels out everything else on our to-do list except those pesky doctor appointments because there simply isn’t any room left in our vehicle for stuff.
There is, however, room in the day left for play: A picnic up at Enger Tower on Skyline Drive overlooking the harbor and bridges of Duluth-Superior. And, always, always, always, a stop at Brighton Beach for Scout.
Paul and I love the little park running the length of an old road and rocky shoreline. We all three boil out of the car, towels in hand for the dog, and stumble onto the cobblestone beach. Scout wades and drinks down a gallon of good Lake Superior water while we people-watch and finally, either a snarly dog or a blast of chilly wind off the lake sends us back to the car and up the shore once more.
But the best part of road trips, be they on the scenic shore or inland highways, is conversation. The more inane the better, I say. Like, were those awful little shrunken heads they had when we were kids real? Or, remember those little rock cairns someone used to stick on top of bluffs all along the shore a few years back? So, do you suppose the guy who made them moved?
Soon enough, the Gunflint Ranger Station hoves into view and we are within minutes of home. Home, where chores await. Where messages clog the machine. So we skip dinner. Return calls. Check all the critters. Unload the car and hit the sack.
It’s a long slog to Duluth and back. And yet, as tired as we are after a trip up and down the shore, we never tire of the trip itself. Just another of life’s mysteries, I guess.


Magnetic North July 29, 2009: Poetic Antidote to Colvill Cat Fever

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where my six goats, one llama, eight rabbits and heavens knows how many feathered creatures live in blissful ignorance.  

Of what? Well, for instance:
• They don’t know winter is three months away
• They never obsess over the price of a bale of hay or bag of lay mash
• Nor has the fact that a cougar was within nibbling distance of them recently ever crossed their so-called minds

Yes, the report about a cougar sighting in Colvill that aired last week right here on WTIP referred to MY very own neighborhood.
My neighbor across the road spotted the big cat as she pulled into her driveway. At first, she thought it was our dog, Scout. Scout is a yellow Lab, a smallish yellow Lab, but a big dog. On second glance my friend realized that this critter was waaaaay bigger than Scout. AND its tail was longer. AND its face was a cat face. Hmmmm, not Scout. Not good.
It’s funny how the human brain defaults to denial when face to face with something that could eat us. Years ago when Paul and I were just getting acquainted with our woods, he came in from a long hike through them with an almost dazed look. “I just saw a really big German Shepherd out there,” he said.
“Who has a German Shepherd on the road?” I asked.
But he wasn’t so much talking to me as doing a mental moonwalk away from denial.
“It looked like a dog, but ........more like a wolf. But it acted like a dog. I mean, I was coming up that first slope back behind Johnny’s shed when I saw him. He was just loping toward me. Then he stopped and looked right at me. Really stared and I stared back......then he just turned and disappeared into the woods. On second thought, I think I just saw our first wolf on the property. Or....maybe not.”
My reaction to all this is lost in the fog of time, but what I can tell you is that the next time I saw my dearly beloved head off into the woods, he was toting his rifle.
But back to the cougar sighting last week. My neighbor said that the cougar – a/k/a mountain lion - reappeared in her yard later that same day. One of her grandchildren saw it this time. And again the child’s first reaction was to label what she saw as something benign, sweet old Scout. Then, the mental moonwalk began...twice the size of Scout, too long a tail, cat face.....”Gramma, come here!”
My neighbor contacted local wildlife experts and me, simply because I have a barn full of tidbits for a big cat. My understanding is that cougars kill what they are used to killing, ungulates like deer. That is why humans are relatively safe from attack and my goats are not.
Still and all, after my neighbor’s warning call I alerted another neighbor down the road, someone with children running around outside. And I kept the goats and llama in for a day. Oh, and I made one trip to the barn with a bucket of water in one hand and Paul’s rifle in the other.
After a day on alert, though, I decided to envision safety, rather than danger. And I am happy to report that we are just fine. For now.
Being content with being fine for now is the trick, though, isn’t it? We time travel back and forth between what was and what might be and get good and sick in the process. When we could just as easily stay where we are.
On our farm, staying in the moment happens naturally. When I’m trimming goats’ hooves I pretty much have to be right there in my head or risk losing a finger. And I defy anyone to sit and stroke a baby angora rabbit and wander off into the ‘what if’ woods.
I agree 200 percent with the 18th-century English poet, Thomas Gray, who said, “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.”
For the poetry afflicted, here is the entire stanza from Gray’s  “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.”
To each his sufferings: all are men,
Condemned alike to groan;
The tender for another's pain,
The unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! Why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
Tis folly to be wise.


Magnetic North July 16, 2009: Summer rains make memories bloom

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Welcome back to a wet but happy Magnetic North. After too many days without a drop of rain, it poured Tuesday night. All that day Paul and I watched the sky. Listened to the radio. Rain was definitely prophesied, as my mother used to say. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take a prophecy over a prediction any day.

And did we need rain! Grass should be soft, not crunchy. Dirt should be yielding, not petrified. And women of a certain age should be reading the latest mystery novel on the deck, not schlepping water to outdoor plants.

Well, for a few days now, all that is forgotten. The rain began after dark Tuesday and continued well past bedtime. It was pure magic. The rains sure fingers tapped out a steady beat on the roof. And the land drank and drank and drank.
I sat on the couch, chores done, dishes washed, listening to the rain and replaying the day: in my head:
*bonding with the new goat kids;
*hand-training the baby angora rabbits;
*moving the mallard ducklings from the brooder to their outdoor run.
"Ohhhhhhhhhhhh Nooooooooooooo!”
I was out the door before I heard Paul calling, “What is it now? Or who?”
"The ducklings!” I hollered back. “They aren’t old enough to get all wet.”
Fortunately, I was out of earshot by the time my beloved could comment about the danger of letting a duck get wet.
Fact is, folks, that ducks raised without a mother - like the ones I get in the mail from a hatchery - are at risk of hypothermia should they get wet before their adult feathers come in. Why? Oil. Water runs off a duck’s back because water birds preen their feathers with oil from a little sac hidden on their back.
Sort of like hair gel for humans. The big difference being that we human moms don’t need to rub hair gel on our babies lest they freeze to death after a bath. With ducklings, it doesn’t take much water to soak them through to the skin. The skinny little things just can’t make enough heat to combat that kind of thing.
Thus, about five minutes before our deluge arrived Tuesday night, I threw together a makeshift waterproof retreat. A big plastic trashcan laid on its side and stuffed lightly with straw was the perfect choice. Clambering around inside the small wire enclosure attached to the chicken coop, terrified ducklings around my ankles, a cloud of fireflies surrounded me, following me back to the house, then flitting about in the rain like naughty children at camp.
Around 5 a.m. the next morning, I stumbled outside to check on the ducklings. They were - of course - fluffy dry. Some even appeared to have grown tail feathers overnight.
Walking back to the house in the early dawn hours, I enjoyed the watery world around me. The spider webs framing the garage doors wore crystal beads of rain. Tiny droplets of dew sparkled on the fuzzy stems of my tomato plants and everywhere else my eye wandered.
And though there was no ocean roaring in the distance, no salt in the air, the memory of summer mornings after a rain at the Jersey shore bloomed in my mind. And I went back to bed in a hurry. Lest the image of beach combing fade before I could weave it securely into my dreams.


Magnetic North July 10, 2009: Fourth of July surprise

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where nature never ceases to amaze and surprise.
Take this past Fourth of July, for example. Holidays around our house tend to be uneventful.
We planned nothing more for the fourth than going to a memorial picnic for our dear, departed old buddy, John Anderson, then watching televised fireworks.
Sounds dull, right? But it wasn’t.
First off, the memorial involved a cannon and four solid blasts into the big lake in the vicinity of Five Mile Rock. Oh, and if the folks in that little fishing boat east of the rock are listening, know that you were not the target of the day. It was all about giving a lifelong fishing fanatic and friend the sendoff he wanted.
I swear, from now on whenever I drive by that old bump of a rock off the Colvill shore, I’ll smile and remember John. A man of legend, even six months after his untimely parting.
But it was early in the day of the Fourth that I got MY big surprise. A rat. At least, I thought it was a rat. Midway through chores, as I was doling out dandelion greens to my four angora rabbits, I saw this small, dark THING scurrying along the wall in the rabbit room. But let me back up a bit.
My rabbits live in a little shed attached to our garage: two in cages and two free-range on the tarp-covered floor. The floor bunnies are sisters. Plain brown and gray rescue rabbits named Muff and Puff. The other two are fancy bunnies, English Angoras. One, a white buck I call Harvey, is the rabbit equivalent of Brad Pitt. The other, Peaches, is featured on my WTIP website right next to my grinning face.
A while back I got it into my head that it would be interesting to breed Harvey, to Puff. But after just a few hours alone, Puff looked like she’d gotten caught in the lawnmower. Clearly, little Harvey, for all his handsome white fur, was a big fat bully. Nothing more! Puff recovered, but over the past month or so showed no signs of pregnancy. She did, however, begin to look a little scruffy. Post-traumatic stressed out, I figured.
Well maybe, but as it turned out, Puff was pulling her own fur out. Lining a nest. All on the QT while I busied myself learning the fine points of goat milking.
And thus, the “rat” I thought I saw the morning of the Fourth was a baby bunny, one of four. With eyes wide open and fully furred out. And judging from their size, at least three weeks old!
So much for delusions of indispensability on my part!
In fact, had I known the babies were there I probably would have done more harm than good, peering into the recesses of the nest with a flashlight or, worse, trying to pick one up. Now I spend the few spare minutes left in the day wondering how to house them all.
When I bragged about the newborns at John’s memorial later that day, my friend Harry had a word of warning. “So you went from four to eight just like that - y’know eight could become 64 pretty fast.” Thanks Harry, I needed that.
For while it is true that one can never have too many friends, especially friends like John, one can definitely have waaaaaay too many rabbits!


Magnetic North July 1, 2009: Harte of my Heart

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where my first try at goat milking is going much better.

Harte, my newly acquired Alpine doe, is still ensconced in my barn with her kid, Judith. And I am still milking her. When last I wrote, I was close to giving up. And why not? She laid down. She put her foot in the milk pail. She slid her backside off the stand. She did everything but break wind in my face.

And throughout all this, the amount of milk I got dwindled, along with my hopes for my very own goat’s milk, cheese and (sigh) ice cream.

And then - magic! The morning after e-mailing my wretched failure to a goat-milking friend, I opened the barn door to a stunning sight; there, inside the stable, Harte and Judith stood in profile in the early morning light flooding through the old barn board siding. A magazine cover shot. Norman Rockwellian even!
My fate and theirs was sealed.
I need to issue a warning to the squeamish at this point: Talk about the business end of a milk goat is ahead.
My friend Geri, who has a number of milkers, e-mails me tips on getting more milk. She says that her milk amount varies day to day. She recommends getting to Harte before her kid feeds, AND watching for a “tight udder.”
This fried me. Geri has a full-time job and I am retired. Yet, even with 16 hours of daylight nowadays I don’t have five minutes to spare to watch for a tight anything!
Geri’s breakthrough tip is something I can manage: She says to just push up into the udder BEFORE squeezing the teat. Push and - here’s the key - JIGGLE.
“Push and jiggle. Push and jiggle.” I repeat those words to myself as I tie Harte’s collar to the milk stand and position her yummy grain under her nose. Petting her head, then wiping her teats with a warm, soapy cloth, I keep up the mantra: “Push and jiggle.” Only I sing the words to Elvis tunes. “Love me Tender” works really well.
I’d be lying like a rug if I told you that this trick alone makes all the difference. It does not.
What keeps me milking and gets me more and more droplets of white gold every time is this: I QUIT MEASURING THE OUTPUT!
Instead, I concentrate on the color of Harte’s coat - white and black and brown with tinges of red. Or once I get the flow going, I talk to her about plans for adding another strand of electric wire to the corral fence or insulating the barn for winter, or teaching her and Judith to pack. She looks around at me often with various expressions of interest. No more snickering…just an occasional low gurgling bleat. A contented, “That sounds sort of cool,” kind of sound.
All this up close and personal interaction with Harte is filling my milk jars and depleting my available chore hours. My new mallard ducklings are farmed off to Bubbles, the super mommy blue Swedish duck. The angora rabbits get more of a brush off than a really good brushing daily. And my adoring white gander comes running to me now not to be cuddled, but to fasten on my calf or forearm. Hell hath no fury like a white Chinese goose scorned.
As for Paul, he has been too busy recuperating from a repair to his repaired hip to take note of my latest animal husbandry tangent. Although I did hear him telling a friend recently that, “I’ve never seen my wife happier - that’s all that counts.”