Archive for November, 2013

To Sleep with the Stars


Recently I came across a small, pocket notebook that I had used as a journal on a kayaking/camping trip in the Sea of Cortez off the Baja Peninsula. Upon coming across the journal, I forgot the task at hand and sat down to read. It was a dozen or so years ago, but suddenly it all came back like yesterday.

Nancy and I paddled together in a tandem kayak.  There were eight other folks in our group. The trip was sponsored by the Science Museum of Minnesota. The intentions were to explore the Sea of Cortez, find migrating whales and hike in the adjacent Sonoran desert. I was employed with the museum as a naturalist at Warner Nature Center and one of the benefits was that I often had opportunities to help lead various eco-trips to destinations around the world.

Our flight took us from Minnesota to Los Angeles and then south to Loreto, Mexico. On the first night, as we all gathered after supper for a brief orientation by the kayaking company guides, we each were asked to share our paddling experience level and to express a goal for the trip. This was an excellent ice breaker as none of us knew each other before the trip.

Most of the clients were from Minnesota, were you are practically born with a canoe paddle in your hands.  Consequently most had either kayaked or canoed. But there was one woman, a sprite gal in her early 40s, from Greenwich Village in New York City. All eyes locked on this black belt urbanite. She wasn’t shy about sharing her experience. “I’ve never paddled. . . anything.”

In all my years leading Science Museum trips, I had never met someone like Beth; the lady who lived in the handsome Brownstone that was aired at the beginning of every Friends episode.

Beth was a highly successful businesswoman and one of the most curious people I have ever met. She had learned of this particular kayaking and camping adventure while reading a random magazine on a business flight. She thought, “Now that would be different and push me out of my comfort zone.”

How many of us deliberately choose a path that leads us away from personal contentment? This attribute of adventure seeking had steered Beth toward a highly successful business career. She had founded Code Inc., an architectural expediting firm that helps architects understand and comply with New York City building codes

Somewhere lurking in Beth’s genotype was a gene that pushes her to new experiences. What would I be willing to do to step out of my comfort zone?

Throughout the week we explored islands and coves of this unique landscape where arid desert interfaces with the Sea of Cortez. Beth exuberated a childlike wonder over almost anything.

One clear night, Nancy and I decided to forego the tent and we slept on our tent drop cloth out under the stars. Without nearby light pollution, the black sky was awash with stars and the cloudy path of the Milky Way. And when we sat up in our bags to look around, the quiet shoreline was ribbed  with a glowing ribbon of bioluminescence washed up at the edge of the beach. It was magical.

At breakfast the next morning we exclaimed about the light show of the night before. Later that day after we paddled several miles to a new campsite, Beth strolled over to us and quietly inquired, “How do you sleep under the stars?”

I was taken aback by the question. I almost blurted out, “Are you serious?” Thankfully we used better judgment. We told her about sleeping on a tarp, and shaking footwear before putting them on in case a scorpion found your shoes a perfect hideout.

Throughout the week, Beth continued to push her comfort boundaries. Her eager willingness to try new things was an inspiration to both Nancy and me. And both of would grow fonder of this bright and articulate New York City girl with the passing of each day.

At another remote campsite, there was a shallow cave in the impressive rock feature rising just off the beach. To enter it you had to scrunch over. It was only about ten feet deep from the entry but it was still pretty dark during the day. Imagine what it would be like in this narrow haunt after dark.

Beth looked closely at the rocky sanctum. She walked over to me and declared, “I’ve never slept in a cave before.”

I’m betting that no one in the group had and that no one in the group, other than Beth, had any desire to do so. We wished her a good night’s sleep as she pulled a tarp and her sleeping bag into the cave. Somewhere inside the dark abyss, we heard a cheerful “Good night all!”

Near the end of the week she reveled in the fact that she did not have to take a shower daily and that she was capable of peeing on the beach in front of others. We were witnessing a metamorphosis.

One day we discovered a dried out corpse of a kit fox. Late we came upon a dead tarantula. At each corpse Beth asked if she could touch them. And she did. She learned to identify a dozen bird species that we commonly saw over the course of our trip. And she learned a handful of constellations that prior to the trip she had only read about or seen mundane images of.

Beth was such a fearless and curious rock star that Nancy and I developed a tight friendship with her. And now having experienced kayaking, she was curious about canoes. So we casually threw out an invitation to come to Minnesota some time to join us for a canoe outing.

Less than six months later, Beth flew to Minneapolis, rented a car and found our house. We paddled the St. Croix River. She reveled in spotting eagles. On the drive back to our house, she was ecstatic upon spying roadside ditches full of wildflowers. It was delightful to have someone point out the party-colored flora, even if we see these blooms routinely. It mattered little to Beth that some of these, like yarrow, orange hawkweed and dandelions are considered invasive aliens. She was still seeing the world through new eyes.

Back at the house, we learned that Beth loved to cook. Without a recipe, she whipped up her mom’s famous apple pie. Her mom and dad lived on Nantucket Island off Cape Cod. After we did real damage to that memorable pie, she wrote down the recipe for us.

Over the course of the few days of her first-ever Minnesota visit, Beth expressed how she was going to sell her business in the next few years and move out to Nantucket Island. Repeatedly she insisted that we come out for a visit sometime.

Over the next couple of years we exchanged letters and cards but we were all too busy to have a reunion. And then I bumped into Beth in a horrifically unforgettable way.

I was waiting in line at the grocery store. I scanned the cover of People Magazine, and my gaze froze. On the cover was a lovely smiling woman who looked just like Beth. When I read the bold print on the cover “Murder in Nantucket, Every Woman’s Nightmare,” I grabbed the magazine and added it to my groceries. I was so stunned I cannot remember even paying the cashier. In the car, I flipped to the story. I was shocked and saddened upon learning of the gruesome murder of Beth Lochtefeld.

She had fulfilled her dream of selling her share of the multi-million dollar business and moving out to Nantucket Island where she was enjoying living close to her parents and involving herself in various arts related non-profit groups.

A romance-gone-bad. I could not comprehend the fear this normally fearless woman must have felt as she encountered a darkness far greater than a Baja cave and was stabbed twenty three times with a knife.

Beth, you still inspire us to step brightly in pushing boundaries towards new experiences. Thanks for giving.

Annual Tree Survey

Woodhenge Tamarack

Three days ago, I eased past the gilded tamarack that grows along our stretch of driveway. The tree’s brilliance prompted a lingering glance over my right shoulder. It was then that I spotted, further back beyond our house, a new dominant tree rising above all the others in our humble little woods.  As if standing on its tiptoes, trying to be noticed above the crowds of dominating, broad shouldered red and bur oaks rises a single white pine.

Upon returning home later that day, I declared to my Lovely Lady that it was time for my annual inventory stroll. This ambling walk  forces me to move as slowly as the most skilled deerstalker and to simply pay attention. The goal is only to take note about what is going on out in our woods.

I entered the portal of woods-in-transition. Indeed, our ten-plus acre woodlot is a mutt of sorts, a collection of diverse trees; some native, an alien and others introduced. Admittedly some have been transplanted or sown, but most have managed to find their way here on their own. (Note I have included the updated tree census at the end of this entry.)

As I snailed my way, zigzagging through the woods, I made a discovery that stopped me in my tracks. Tucked in the leafy duff of the back corner of our woods I found the bleached skull  peering out from under a carpet of leaves. Immediately, I knew itt was  our beloved dog, Taiga. He had died an old dog back in the winter of 2009.

With the ground frozen, his big body was sledded to his final resting place, roughly a couple hundred yards from the house. With branches piled over his stiff corpse it was our wish to share his being with the local flora and fauna. We liked to think that the local deer mouse and chipping sparrow population might find his fur perfect for nesting materials. That coyotes, crows, ravens and raccoons might find his flesh suitable for their own feasting. And eventually the very rodents, the mice and squirrels that Taiga harassed on his forays back in the woods, would whittle his bones.  After a moment of fond remembrance, I tucked his skull back under the thick comforter of dried leaves and silently moved on knowing full well that Taiga’s essence lives on here.

I thought of how this woods has morphed over my lifetime of just over sixty years. Change is always on the prowl on the landscape. Like a game of musical chairs, there is a never-ending shifting of flora and fauna waiting to jump in when conditions are right.  And just as we watch our kids strike out on their own, we need to accept that no grounds can possible remain static.

As a kid I remember coming out here to my grandparents farm and helping call the milk cows out of this very woods where they were pastured.

“Here Boss! Here Boss!”

The old dynamite shed, that my great-grandfather stored his explosives  in was properly isolated  a good distance from the house and other farm buildings. These fused tools of destruction were used to clear the land punctuated with stumps.  Slowly he cleared the land so he could plant more potatoes and other crops.

As my grandparents aged, the milking stopped and the cows were sold. Consequently, around 1970, the grazing was no longer a factor in these woods.  Another decade would have us moving the old farmhouse, built by my great-great grandfather in the 1890s, to a semi-cleared corner of this old renegade pasture.

In the nearly 40 years that have passed, many species of woody and herbaceous plants have thrived without the annual bovine grazing. It went from looking like a fairly open park to a tangled jungle.

Moving away from Taiga’s resting spot, I noticed other changes. My stroll started to involve obstacles. Recent windstorms over the past two years have torn several big oak limbs from the trees and dropped a couple others. The downed timber assures me of a winter of chain saw work.

There is some oak regeneration. Out in he more open areas, there are many scarlet red oak seedlings. Back in the woods I was surprised at the number of bur oak seedlings.

In recent years there has been an explosion of  touch-me-nots (Impatiens patiens) in parts of this woods. Could there be come correlation with the increase of oak seedlings? With climate change happening, I’m pleased to see the high percentage of young bur oak seedlings. With a likely drier future, the oaks should do just fine.

Another highlight was discovering the increase in small white pine seedlings and saplings. There are easily forty to sixty or so young trees volunteering there way into the mix.  Luckily the whitetail deer in this area have other agricultural options to feed on because in some parts of our region, deer view white pine seedlings as a dietary prize, a hot fudge sundaes so to speak.

These fast growing trees can race to the sun as well as any tree in this woods. Clearly these are the progeny of the tall mature pines that grow in my neighbors yard a quarter mile to the west. Prevailing west-northwest winds deliver an annual flight of tiny winged pine sees.

I made my way to stand beneath the “new” tallest tree on our ten plus acres. The white pine has nosed past a tall red oak. I wonder if the oak is standing tall and bold as it faces its execution by oak wilt?

I’m torn about the impending march of oak wilt; the dead oak assures me of years of exercise and many cords of hand split firewood. However, as the oak wilt moves phantomlike from root system to root system, squadrons of gray squirrels are tucking acorns into the ground. Some of these will become winter calories while others will be mislaid and have the potential to be the next round of oaks growing here.

The biggest surprise on my stroll was finding an overlooked basswood tree growing near our eastern boundary. The fifteen-foot tall tree with its fat obtuse leaves provoked a smile from me. Also known as the Linden tree, it is the namesake for the surname of the famed 18th century Swede and so-called “Father of Botany,” Carl Linneaus. It is a species that I would expect to find on richer forest soils instead of the sandy soils of the Anoka Sand Plain. So pleased to see the sneaky newcomer, I have to admit I actually greeted the tree.

Living in the woods can do that to you.


2013 Basecamp Tree Inventory

Introduced (Intentionally or Otherwise)

1)   White Cedar

(planted in the early 1980s)

2)   White Spruce

(transplanted around 1981 from Cook County forest, near Grand Marais.)

3)   Black Spruce

(The ten inch seedling was smuggled back to Minnesota, blanketed with moist sphagnum moss and tucked in a #3 Duluth Pack, from the Hudson Bay lowlands of northern Manitoba. This international theft occurred around 1983.)

4)   Red Pine

(planted approximately 1994)

5)   Tamarack

(4 foot sapling transplanted from bog near Twin Lake, about 2 miles distant, around 2004)

6)   Mountain Ash

(two trees transplanted around 1984; given to me by WNC volunteer Babe Allan, whose green thumb could grow a bushel of nails; she lived in northern suburbs. Birds love these berries and are responsible for a few new mtn. ash trees thriving here.)

7)   Black Walnut

(The late, Verner Dahl left two big cardboard boxes of black walnut fruits for me to plant back in the late 1980s. I neglected them but the squirrels didn’t. Their caching of the fruits resulted in several surprise black walnuts that are now approaching 25 feet tall.)

8)   Sugar Maple or the Britta Maple

(Planted in the spring of 1983 in honor of the birth of my first child, Britta. She was born the previous November amidst a snowstorm; making tree planting a delayed celebration. I dug up the man high sapling from a friend’s property near Afton, Minnesota)

9)   Apple

(Several were planted, but the most noteworthy and prolific, is a Prairie Spy (or is it a Haralson?) that I planted the spring after my Valentine daughter, Maren was born. Of course it is the Maren Apple Tree.)

10) European Buckthorn (first noted in the 1990s)


10)                 Red Cedar

11)                 White Pine

12)                 Red Oak

13)                 Bur Oak*1

14)                 Paper Birch

15)                 Trembling Aspen

16)                 Large-toothed Aspen

17)                 Black Cherry

18)                 Red Maple

19)                 Box Elder

20)                 Basswood

(first noted October, 2013. Don’t know how I missed this fifteen foot tall tree before this!)

21)                 Willow

(The genus, Salix, is a confusing lot. My guess is that we have several species. Someday, I’ll challenge myself to sort them out.)


I collected a handful of bur oak acorns from a mighty stand of find trees at a highway rest area along I-35 in southern Minnesota. I tucked them in gopher mounds and am pleased to say that I have three four foot tall oaks out in our open field. Without competition from other trees, and with a little luck, they should become signature landmarks another century.