Sunday, July 12, 2009

Day 15 - Lake Union

Sunday was a day goodbyes, following the 15-hour picnic of the day before.  Kristine and I didn’t leave for our planned day trip to Erskine until after 3:00 PM.  Our destination was the original family cabin on Union Lake, which my grandfather, Theodore W. Thorson, bought in 1928 for $500. 

Cottage at Lake Union, Erskine, Minnesota, has been in the family since 1928, and is about the size of many modern garages.

On the Way

Leaving Bemidji, I took a photo that captured two elements of water management. The water tower was new and solid, providing a guarantee of fresh water, even if the pumps or electricity failed during some catastrophe. And below the water tower, in a new housing development was a rain garden.


Water tower and rain garden in Bemidji, Minnesota. 

This isn’t a garden in the traditional sense.  Rather, it’s a steep-sided hollow into which surface storm drainage is routed via culverts.  Water that might otherwise run off rooftops and pavements into streams and then lakes is instead stored temporarily on the surface for as long as it takes to infiltrate into the adjacent sand and gravel.  This traps surface pollutants, reduces lake turbidity, enhances groundwater flow, offers herbaceous habitat to suburban wildlife, and provides a nice visual contrast the monotony of perfect green lawns.

Wheat was in the late 19th century, and remains now, the lifeblood of agriculture near Erskine, Minnesota, an archetype town at the edge of the prairie in northwestern Minnesota. 

Dryland farming has always been a risky business on the northern plains, where drought, hail, locusts, and late spring planting threaten crops.  Three of these four threats directly involve freshwater.


Countryside near Erskine, Minnesota is wet enough for trees and dry enough for wheat.

This farming village itself lies within a chaotic kettle moraine that gave rise to rolling farm country speckled with small kettle lakes and dominated by sandy loam soils.   

Wet spot in field is a kettle that didn't sink deep enough to become a pond.  Now, its a water hazard for tractors during spring planting. 

Only a few miles to the west are ancient beaches of Glacial Lake Agassiz, the largest lake known to have existed on earth.  The bottom of that former shallow lake gave rise to some of the flattest topography and richest silt and clay loams in the nation.  This was the original breadbasket of the upper Midwest, now being planted with corn for ethanol, canola for oil, and soybeans principally for livestock feed.  

My father was born in Fertile, Minnesota, which is aptly named. It lies on the pool-table flat bed of lake Agassiz, whose major port city was Fargo.  My favorite story about this glacial lake is the one told by Garrison Keillor in Lake Wobegon Days (1985). The first Norwegians settling in Wobegon migrated in from the west, having gone out there in search of a large lake they knew to have existed, but which had drained about 12,000 years earlier.

Lake Union

Lake Union is where the taproot of family lake culture was planted in my father, who spent his summers there during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  One generation later, Lake Union was also the place I learned lake culture at a child during the 1950s and 1960s. 

A family lake in Minnesota doesn’t have be much of a lake.  It merely has to be big enough to have game fish for grown-ups -- northerns, walleyes, and bass – and smaller, fish for children – sunfish, perch, and crappies.  It must have water blue enough to offset the chromatic monotony of seasonal green for summer, fall for autumn, and white for winter that is so characteristic of the northern glaciated plains.  I must have some topographic relied to offset the topographic monotony of flat sand plains and the undulating surface over which the glacier glided.  The water must be warm enough to swim in, and the lake surface broad enough to experience the adrenaline-pumping fun of traveling at fast speed in a motorboat.

Each summer the Thorson family of the baby boom joined the countercurrent of immigration to head east into lake country. This story, and what it means, is told in the chapter on family lake culture in Beyond Walden, which contains more memoir than history, literature, or science.    


View from the screen porch at the cottage, Lake Union, Minnesota.

This was my own personal Walden Pond during the baby boom.   Appropriately, the photo was taken on July 12, Thoreau’s birthday.  Perhaps that’s his image on the tree to the left.

The Hanson boathouse on the western shore of Union Lake, Erskine, Minnesota.

To the south, the shoreline of Union on July 12, 2009 looks nearly the same as I remember it as a child during the baby boom, with the only conspicuous difference being a docked jet ski, an invention that had not yet been invented.  They do little harm in deep water.  In shallow water, however, the powerful jets suspend settled lake-bottom muck up into the water, which greatly increases the transfer of nutrient and the problems that follow.  To the north, however, the shoreline looks completely different.  What used to be forest above a biologically rich bay has been converted to capacious lawns, large year-round houses, and a boulder-lined shore.  This story was told in the July-August issue of Natural History Magazine, published by the American Museum of Natural History.

In July 2009, the water surface of Lake Union stood about three feet higher than the previous year, owing to a thick late winter snow pack and drenching spring rains.  In fairly flat country such as this, the level of small kettle lakes is controlled entirely by the elevation of the water table, which always reflects the net balance of inputs and outputs.  The inputs are precipitation that infiltrated below the soil to the continuously saturated zone. The outputs involve evaporation from the lake, transpiration by plants, water pumped away for human uses (agriculture and domestic), and that which drains away in the aquifer.  With spring-fed lakes such as this, a higher water level usually translates into a cleaner, more enjoyable recreational lake.  Hence, water conservation at the surface makes sense -- even in a place with abundant fresh water -- because the quality is controlled by the quantity. 

Heading Back

For decades, the downtown park in Erskine, Minnesota has featured a large cement statue of a northern pike, the locally favorite game fish. 

Muskie statue in Erskine, Minnesota.

On U.S. Highway 2 just to the west a large billboard advertisement reads “Worlds Largest Northern.”  It is not clear whether the sign refers to a live catch or to the cement statue.

Beneath the pavillion, we met Dave and Heather. 


Cyclists Dave and Heather, resting in the park pavilion in Erskine, Minnesota.

They were in the process of pedaling a tandem bike between Lewiston, Montana and Atwater, Ohio when we met them.  Like us, they were approximately half way through their road trip.  Their blog is at www.bikerbeans.blogspot.comI've done plenty of overnight bike trips in my time, none of them this far.

From Erskine, we headed back toward Bemidji.  It ttook us an hour to cover what they did the next day.


Water tower in Fosston, Minnesota stands above the local John Deere dealer.

This image says much about the needs of small town Midwesterners, water and equipment.

We pulled into the driveway of the Thorson cabin for a late dinner, visited, and went right to sleep.  The reunion was over. Tomorrow we would leave.