Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Downtown at the James J. Hill Reference Library...

A couple weeks back, we made a silly mistake. I had thought we were signed up for one of the student performances at the Ordway. We drove to St. Paul and I was really stressed. We parked at the Science Museum lot and walked the half a block to the theater and arrived at what we thought was two minutes late. Discovering the theater was locked, I fumbled through my bag and looked at my datebook and discovered I was a week early. Oops. However, it turned out to be a great mistake. The St. Paul Public Library's Central Library borders the small park downtown and is in the vicinity of the Landmark Center and the Ordway, yet I have never taken my children there. I haven’t been in there for years.

We decided to go in just to look around. Adjacent to the Central Library, is the James J Hill Reference Library. Though built on separate foundations and are separate buildings, the two appear to be one seamless structure. They are both stunning from the outside, but when you go in you feel transported back to an earlier and much grander time in architecture. The woodwork, the doors, the lighting fixtures are magnificent--and yet each has their own feel. The stones in the Public library side are worn gently from the hundreds of thousands of people that have visited over the years. A person can still definitely see and feel the historic significance—as beautiful as the library is, it is also important to take consider the impact the namesake had.

Hill was a shrewd businessman who made millions from the railroad. He made millions by hard work and perceptive decisions. He did not come from money—his story typifies the Horatio Alger stories and others from the late nineteenth century. However, rags to riches stories are fairy tales that rarely come true. For Hill, opportunities did present themselves and he made the right choices. However, like Rockefeller and Carnegie—he also used manipulation and bullying to help make his fortune even bigger. At one point when the economy was doing poorly, he forced his employees into taking lower wages despite being very solvent. He was known for coercing towns into giving him the absolute best property in town for his rail line with the threat of bypassing it. "Business" is fine, but there should also be a sense of fair play that just usually isn't present and never really has been. Though labor relations soured enough to force him to put him employees on the pre-crisis wages, his arrogance and disregard is shown in how little he cared for the people doing the work that made him such a wealthy man in the first place. So, visit this fine institution and enjoy it. But please also understand that Hill’s generosity came at a cost to the people who worked hardest for him. Wealthy men are noted by the buildings they leave and not the exploitation of the most vulnerable in their lifetimes.

Friday, March 26, 2010

My paparazzi….

Three years ago, I got my first really nice camera. (Wow, can it really be that long ago already?) I bought it for work related purposes, but that doesn’t keep me from really loving it—and love it I do. It hasn’t kept my children from really loving it either. I am spineless when it comes to squashing their enthusiasm; I have managed to keep their use of my camera under only semi-controlled circumstances. I have cringed so many times. My daughter has a decent camera—and she is good about using it. However, I had to break down and buy cameras for the boys last summer for their birthdays to keep them busy. It was just in time for trip to Voyageur’s National park on the Canadian border.

I usually find myself taking pictures of everything under the sun, but this time it was pictures of my kids taking pictures. Is it possible that only other moms could understand a card full of pictures of kids and their cameras? I love them so much—they are my life. I hope that this year when it comes time for their 4-H pictures to be chosen for the fair, they have plenty of great ones that they can obsess and debate over. Getting a taste of some of their mother’s dilemmas may give them a new appreciation when their mother asks them for their opinion! I am excited for them for the fair this year--last year, their first year showing, my oldest son received an honorable mention among all the blue ribbons. They are all hoping to be pulling those purples home this year.

We already had a painful lesson learned--my youngest lost all of his images. I tried to undelete them, but it was a lost cause. We are working on getting pictures backed up so they are safe in the future. the bright side of the picture is that while he may have lost some precious pictures, at least with the rest of ours--the memories are still safe. My boys, for whatever reason, loved to pull the used film waiting to be developed at the photo lab apart. Apparently, when you pull the film out of the canister it makes a cool sound. They must not have heard my heart cracking when I thought about the pictures that were lost--birthdays, Christmases and trips to the park. I was always disappointed when I discovered the exposed film lying in a pile, but my shutter finger has always been well used. At least I have others right?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Even roads share stories and the rodeo fish welcomes you...

Even Roads share stories and often present teaching opportunities. Sadly, we are often busily scurrying from place to place to really understand what is passing by us. Last fall, we went on a camping trip that kept us busy visiting the Forest History Center, watching bears at the Vincent Shute Bear Sanctuary and explore Voyageur's national park. On the trip home from Voyageur's, we were tired. I had passed some places that I really wanted to because I was concerned we would miss the tour in International Falls. I was also concerned that we would be too busy to stop on the way home. Our boat ride had been at noon and ended an hour an a half later. It is a long ride from International Falls to down by Rochester in a single day--especially when we were starting out so late to begin with, but I also knew that it would be a long time before we got back up here. On the way home I couldn't help but stop at "the fish." This oversized fish is the main attraction at the roadside stop that also offers educational information on the area. While I took pictures of the signs, we only really remember the fish for obvious reasons. What would you remember of the side excursion? The fish have stairs that help people climb the fish for the precursory photo op. Loved it.

We also drove by rocks that had been cut into for the road. It was interesting to see the drill holes that were made to help remove the stone. The kids all thought it was cool that we could also see where molten lava had been infused into the bedrock fractures millions of years ago. While geological forces are still present and working, both pieces of evidence will be around for a very, very long time.

We made another stop along a roadside resting area that the Minnesota Civilian Conservation Corps built during the Great Depression. The "boys" that were employed creating the public works project like this one have been passing away, but their work is still remembered and being used. I wonder how so many people's interest and curiosity are not sparked when driving by these places. I love how when we stop at places like this, my children will engage in conversations about these people, the times they lived and and the historical significance of the time. Is there any greater way to honor the people's legacy than to stop, think about their works, and just remember them?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Minnesota camping: not just state parks...

I admit it. I really like the state parks. No, I love them. We have learned so much about our state history and many times they have interpretative programs that we can participate in. When we went to Voyageur's last fall for camping, we initially stayed at McCarthy Beach State Park so that we could drive to the Forest History Center and the Vincent Shute Bear Sanctuary with relative ease. The park was the best compromise between Orr and Grand Rapids. Since the bear Sanctuary was north of the state park and halfway to the visitor center in International Falls, it seemed rather pointless to return to the park where we had stayed the night before. We knew we would arrive rather late in the evening at our new site, but we are pros when pitching a tent in the dark and we have learned to stay focused when nightfall approaches at a new campsite. The problem is that there are not many state parks right in the area of Voyageur's National Park.

We opted to try a go at the Minnesota State Forest Campgrounds instead; Woodenfrog campground is very close to Voyageur's and is managed by Bear Head Lake State Park in Ely. We even managed to arrive in time to have light to locate the essentials and pitch our tents in record time. Now, it is important to remember that state forest campgrounds are not state parks. They do not have electricity, running water, indoor toilets or showers. Not everyone wants to live without these amenities. However, they are very cheap: only $12 per night. It is also important to remember that the state forests campgrounds do not take reservations--this is both helpful and detrimental. I do not like leaving for an eight hour drive not knowing we have accommodations. Weekends on nice summer weekends can be almost impossible to find a spot at the state parks. However, the campgrounds and their primitive sites keep many away; it takes a special person to like these campgrounds and it usually means a more peaceful and relaxing stay when you find yourself there. No blaring music is a plus any day you find yourself in a tent.

There are also many other options for camping beyond the state parks, forests and private campgrounds. While we have never stayed in a campsite operated by the federal government there are many opportunities. You may elect to stay at a site within the national forest, national park or even sites operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. By searching this site, you may also look for opportunities in different states just by narrowing the search by state on the left side of the screen. The important thing to remember about these sites is that they too, are often unimproved beyond the basic privy. Unless you are an adventurous soul that doesn't mind forgoing showers or dealing with the occasional smell, you should really know what you are getting yourself into.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Way more than three little bears…

One of the things we did last fall when we went up to Voyageur’s, was to go to the Vincent Shute Bear Sanctuary in Orr. The Sanctuary opens at five in the evening—we arrived early and waited at the gate. After driving to the parking lot, paying our admission and looking at the inevitable gift shop (it supports the mission of the sanctuary), we loaded onto an old school bus to be brought to the viewing area. For my kids it was a weird experience: my oldest stopped attending public school in fourth grade, my oldest son stopped in preschool, and my youngest has never attended a public school. They ran to the back and we listened to the guides—many from Australia and New Zealand, explaining behavior of the bears.

The buses transport the people to an “inner sanctum” where bears are fed. While the bus is driving to the viewing platform, if a bear approaches a bus, the driver will blow the horn and people will yell and shout. This is to help the bears to not associate humans with food. When bears become used to humans and associate us with food is a bad thing—when they begin habitually coming towards people, often they will be put down. It really is a bad thing.

I understand what the sanctuary is trying to do—create a safe place for bears to be. However, I was a little disturbed to see the food placed out in such piles and I was concerned that they are not foraging enough. The staff did say that bears come and go so they aren’t dependent on the people and that is a good thing. The other concern I had was that a staff member was explaining that when the bears hibernate the females are growing with cubs. A female bear naturally regulates the number of cubs she has by the success she had in finding food that previous summer. More food=more babies. Normally, a mom will have one—maybe two cubs. Three isn’t unheard of, but it is unusual. A few of the bears had four cubs last spring. That is very unusual and I had to wonder if it correlated with the human provided food sources. Is it a good thing to inflate the bear population? I don’t have the answers to those questions.

While I had my concerns—I get that the bears really do need to have some space that is truly their own. Humans are scared of wolves and bears, yet we keep encroaching on their territory. I think the sanctuary is a great place to educate people on bear behavior. Bears—as cute and cuddly as they appear are not our friends or pets. A bear that is friendly to people is a dead bear; it will have to be put down because people have taught it to not fear us.

People have been told both to play dead and scream and holler if surprised by a bear. However, the advice seems to be leaning towards a common sense approach: speaking calmly and backing away slowly allows the bear to identify that you are not their usual dinner fare and keeps from startling and becoming agitated. I think if you are going to be in bear country, learning more on bear safety is crucial, but it is also imperative to understand bear attacks are extremely rare. I also think if planning a camping trip, it is critical that people put their food in lockers or way up and out on a tree limb. Animals absolutely know campgrounds are a source of food and that is bad. It is annoying if a raccoon gets to your bread—it is dangerous if a bear smells food in your tent. NEVER eat in your tent. Avoid cooking in the clothes you will wear to bed. Dispose of your refuse in a locked trash bin. We did burn some of our leftover food in the fire—but we were very aware of our neighbors (or lack thereof) so any smell wouldn’t bother them. Bears here have not learned what they have in Yellowstone—it is still safe to keep food in your vehicle.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Finishing? with Voyageurs National Park

Shortly after coming home, my family made the goal to visit every state park—and we completed that in under a little less than three years. We also tacked our National Parks onto our goal—there are only three: Voyageur’s, Pipestone and the Mississippi River Visitor Center. Voyageur’s National Park was the last of our parks on the list. My children’s summer schedules keep me extremely busy and there is not enough time for camping. Well, at least for me—never enough time for camping for me. However, last year, prior to my daughter starting college under the Minnesota Post Secondary Options act, I wanted to make sure we had completed everything.
We had finished visiting all of our state parks the year before—but, Voyageurs, so far up there on the Canadian border, had seemed so elusive. Voyageur’s has three visitor centers: Rainy Lake in International Falls, Kabetogama (south of International Falls) and Ash River in Ely. The center in Ely is only open seasonally during summer months. Each has some exhibits on wildlife and life as a voyageur.

We finally made it to the International Falls center and took a great tour of the park on a pontoon boat. We got to see a gold mine and an old fishing camp. It was interesting to hear about the gold mining that once took place here—never profitable, the gold mines were eventually abandoned. Since private cabins have been taken over by the National Park Service, the cabins have fallen into serious disrepair and the surrounding area is returning to a natural state. It was really funny to see an outhouse deteriorated so badly that the only remaining part was the toilet seat—the white ring sticking out of the lush green surrounding. Maybe a little elementary humor, but my kids were very amused (maybe me too). I met someone whose family’s cabin was taken under eminent domain when the park was created to help preserve a large tract of the boundary waters and accompanying wilderness. Though her family has a few more years to use the cabin they are not allowed to improve the structure. I believe the cabin will be eliminated after that time period has ended. As a park lover, I appreciate her family’s sacrifice. I don’t think that was any consolation.

It is a beautiful park that can make you easily think about what life in these woods would have been like before modernization or European contact. It, like so many other places, is dealing with invasive species, for them it is the water flea. To help combat the spread of the flea, private boats are limited and not permitted on interior lakes of the park. I enjoyed the park—but like so many things people visit, our visit didn’t do this park justice. There were so many things that I would have liked to do: canoeing, more hiking and exploring. I hope we can get to the Ely center this summer some time to get some camping in. We hope to see the other sites up there that we have been missing: the North American Bear Center, the International Wolf Center and Eagle Mountain—the highest point in Minnesota. How is it possible that every time we visit somewhere we only seem to add to our list of places to go and people to see?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In the midst of the woods: The Forest History Center

I think my spring fever is still growing and I keep pondering summer time fun. One place I have been thinking about is the Forest History Center, located in Grand Rapids—North Central Minnesota. It is a living history museum operated seasonally by the Minnesota Historical Society. With so much to do, we have managed to miss this wonderful place several times on camping trips in the area either because we were just too busy or we were around during the off season. We finally made it last year. I had always wanted to bring my mom up there, but after visiting, I am not sure she could handle the walking—I will have to see if there is a way around it. Located in the woods, it is a wonderful site to learn about how the loggers worked.

Logging was a convenient occupation for farmers who wanted to supplement their income because the majority of work can only take place during the winter months when the ground is frozen. The loggers would fell the trees and bring them to the river to be floated to the sawmills to the south during the heightened water levels of the spring thaw. Floating the logs was a dangerous job; men died getting the logs clear when the inevitable jams would occur.

The history center does a great job of interpreting camp life—the loggers’ quarters, the store and the dining hall. The
boys even had a chance to saw some logs—now if only I had such an effective way to harness that at home! They also got to see an example of a boat that would have been used to cook the meals for the men floating the logs down the rivers. They also saw a fire tower that would have been used in later years after the Civilian Conservation Corps had replanted the forests. Though the tower was closed on our visit, we have climbed similar towers. What a climb the towers bring, but—man, what a view! They also had these cute little sheds that would have been placed throughout the area to help firefighters when fires broke out. I know, cute probably isn’t the word people want used with fire equipment—but cute they are. The entire area is nestled into a beautiful area and is criss-crossed with scenic hiking trails.

The inside exhibits have fine displays for people to see vehicles used in the logging industry. My daughter loved the truck cab from the 60's. They also have ones used currently--a John Deere vehicle that has been developed to help loggers prevent damage to the forest and the trees not being harvested. Very cool! I would like to go back there, but with so many things—how do we choose? As many times that we have driven through Duluth to the north shore, we haven’t done a great deal in the city itself. Between issues with my mom’s mobility and my kids’ desire to see stuff within the city—maybe we should go that route. With the history center only an hour from my mom, maybe it is worth the attempt anyway. We’ll see.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Finding Camp Rabideau: a gem in the forest

It is early spring here in Southern Minnesota—with little snow remaining, there remains a possibility of more snow despite the chirping birds that are preparing their nests. This is the time of year I most want to go camping—I enjoy winter, but when it’s over, I want to dig out the tents. The best I can do is think of past trips and plan future ones. I have been reminiscing of a trip we took to northern Minnesota when lessons of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) became an indelible part of our memory. There are many examples of the work of the CCC throughout Minnesota—and the United States. However, there are only three camps that have substantial character remnants of the entire camp. Only one’s character has remained unaffected enough to qualify to be included on the National Register of Historical Places: CCC Camp Rabideau. This gem is tucked into the background of the surrounding countryside of a remote part of north central Minnesota. We discovered this completely by accident on a camping trip to Red Lake.

My mom had repeatedly expressed a desire to be included on our camping trips. We had gone “up north” with her so she could enjoy spending time with us on “those camping trips of [ours].” As we drove to Red Lake, we passed a small sign announcing the presence of the camp. Having pitched many tents in the dark, we wanted to ensure we didn’t do that with Grandma; we waited to drive in on our return trip. I had worried that perhaps, I had made the wrong decision when it took so long to find it on our way back, but we did indeed find it and it was worth the wait. The camp remains under the control of the US Forestry Service in the Chippewa National Forest in Northern Minnesota—though I suspect someday it will be transferred to the National Park Service like Camp Coldwater in St. Paul.

It was amazing to see the site returning to a condition that is more reminiscent of its natural state. The 112 acres was purchased in 1934 and had been stripped of the forest covering by the lumber barons. The “boys” of the camp arrived to a bare ground that they were able to set up a baseball field on. This is a hard fact to digest given that the millions of trees that the CCC had planted have now grown to a rich forest—though certainly not to the massive sizes that existed prior to the invasion of the lumber companies. When we were there two years ago, the camp was staffed by volunteers—some who where there as boys.

The stories were wonderful. One of my favorite was about a couple of boys that snuck out after lights out to go fishing. Caught by the Commanding Officer, they were worried they were going to be sent home—a terrifying prospect for boys who knew that their families needed the money that was sent home during such desperate times of the Great Depression. The commanding officer insisted that the boys “do what needed to be done” and fry the fish and share the meal with him. Two years later—and the story still gets to a soft spot in me. I hope the stories are documented for the inevitable time when the boys are no longer around.

Though no admission is charged or even asked for—a donation bucket at the end will accept any free will offering—no gift is ever too small. The monies collected are accepted very gratefully and are used for future restorations. A site definitely worth seeing—I hope you can enjoy the trip and benefit from the “boys” who are still there sharing their time, energy and wonderful experiences of a bygone era.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Garden reviews and March planning...

When my family returned home to Minnesota five years ago, our sewer line collapsed three months after moving into our home. We spent thousands digging it up and seeing our yard completely destroyed. We were required to move the natural gas line when it was repaired. We spent hundreds more on replacing black soil and planting grass seed. I put hours of sweat in trying to establish a relatively decent looking backyard. It finally worked—and we had grass by the time my husband left active duty and joined us at home.

The following year, my daughter expressed an interest in agriculture and establishing healthier eating patterns. She argued that a garden was the perfect thing—we would save money and it was a great hobby. I wasn’t too sure about the whole idea. I had grown up “gardening” and my memories were not fond ones. “Gardening” meant weeding hip high weeds that had grown in a hay field on the hottest day of the summer when we were in the doghouse. I wanted no part of it.

My daughter, determined to have a vegetable plot, kept researching…and researching…and researching. Of all the things she could have been interested in or pestering me about, this surely was a good thing. Right? It wasn’t something that remotely qualified as a thing to stress about. When she knew she had me, she excitedly shared her plans. I calmly accepted that she had known I would permit it all along. She didn’t know how unprepared I was to hear her detailed directions. “We need to do what?” I asked.

Step one: Remove sod. I asked her why couldn’t she have said she wanted a garden the spring before when I was working so hard to establish new grass? Innocently shrugging, she continued to tell me all about the seeds we needed and which catalogs we needed to order. The only thing I really got out of the rest of the conversation was the realization of why our attempts at gardening always failed when we were kids; we had never removed the deeply established grasses of our land in the country. Weeks later, I found myself removing sod, though in their defense, they had already made a valiant attempt to do so themselves.

This will be the fourth year of our gardening and it has gotten better. Weeding hasn’t been the complete nightmare that I had expected and dreaded. We haven’t had bumper crops, but I would say we have come close to breaking even. We even managed to can some stuff last year. I think our major issue this year was that we did not water the garden enough--the poor thing suffered because of it. Each year we learn something new and accomplish more: water your plants—simple and obvious, but often neglected; water early in the day; put up a small bordering fence to keep the Peter Cottontail from robbing you of carrots and lettuce; and harvest zucchini and cucumbers when the fruit is still small. I would encourage anyone who wants to garden to do so. Even people living in apartments can have some plants in a bucket and it is a great botany and life lesson for children. You’ll be amazed how good veggies are to them when they had a hand in growing them! It is never too early to start planning a garden—we are currently planning ours, and never too late to learn how.