Monday, July 13, 2009

Day 16 - Lake Wobegon

Today was departure day from Lake Plantagenet for the rest of our trip. After four nights with family in northern Minnesota, we were rested enough to set off in search of Lake Wobegon, which lies somewhere in the center of the state, probably in Stearns County. The search turned out to be so interesting that we fell far, far short of our goal of ending somewhere in South Dakota. Instead, we crashed at my cousin’s home in Richmond, Minnesota.

Leaving the cabin at Lake Plantagenet, we stopped to gas up a few miles away at Kabekona Corner. Sally, the attendant Sally had become intrigued by our Connecticut plates, inquiring where we were from.  This has always been a difficult question for us because, at present, we split our time between northeastern Connecticut and Conanicut Island in the state of Rhode Island. Before that, we’ve had a complex history of moves compounded by three year-long sabbaticals.  

When Sally found out that we had an Alaskan connection, she told her story about being "called," to Saint Lawrence Island, which has absolutely nothing to do with French Canada.  Instead, it lies off the west coast of Alaska within the windswept Bering Sea on what used to be the Bering Land Bridge.  This ice age the pathway, now drowned by the sea of the continental shelf, was used by the antecedents of the American Indians more than 12,000 years ago, whether they came overland on the tundra or skirted its edge using watercraft.  

Sally's favorite thought about freshwater was that "in spring, you can smell the snow melting and hear the water trickling underground."  Though I doubt it's possible to hear infiltration through the vadose zone, at least I had found someone who understands groundwater recharge. 

Lake Death

Lakes are places where sediment accumulates but cannot easily escape.  This is true for both the inorganic materials like sand and silt that wash off the land and organic materials that are created within the water by aquatic plants.  


Small pond just north of 11th Crow Wing Lake, Minnesota, being filled largely the accumulation of aquatic plant remains.

Given enough time every lake whose basin is not actively being enlarged by tectonic stretching or ground subsidence will eventually shallow and fill completely.  Lakes usually go through stages of marsh or bog before finally dying as swamps in the east and fens in the west. Lakes can also disappear when the water table drops.

Thinking about this inevitability should help us appreciate the lakes that we have.  Nutrient pollution is causing them to fill up much faster than normal.


Paul’s Birthplace


Akeley, Minnesota claims to be the birthplace of Paul Bunyan. This is largely due to the a logger named William Laughead (1882-1958), who lived in Akeley between1900 to 1908 during the peak of the timber trade. Allegedly, his stories, especially the one inventing Babe the Blue Ox, made Paul a legend after they were gathered into book form.   At least this is what the sign says out front of the gas station located next to facsimile storefronts form the logging-era.

Highway humor at gas station in Akeley, Minnesota, built for fun and to attract road-weary tourists.

This allegation could very well be true. According to historians, Paul Bunyan was invented on July 24, 1910, when journalist James McGillivray published a piece of pure fiction in the Detroit News Tribune. Because Laughead had already left Akeley by then, a local birthplace of the legend there is a distinct possibility.

To environmental scientists, LUST is an acronym for Leaking Underground Storage Tanks.  These are a very serious problem for groundwater contamination, because the fluids – gasoline, oil, additives like EDTA, or worse – leak down to the water table, usually float on its surface, and are carried down gradient as contaminant plumes.

It's far better to have them above ground where leaks are far less likely because there is less corrosion, and they can be spotted much easier.  Another advantage of above ground tanks is that they can also be made into folk-art reindeer.


Herd of Oil-tank Reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh just north of Akeley, Minnesota.

I excluded Santa from the photo because he was weather-beaten beyond recognition.  Just upslope from the reindeer is a good example of water pollution.


 Surface pollution below gas station just north of Akeley, Minnesota. 

Runoff from the pavement and adjacent compacted soil erodes a channel, which adds sediment to the car-related pollutants and nutrients being conveyed to the pond in the distance.  The water there is full of green scum and presumably invisible toxics.


Highway 64


Poplar is a township that seems to lack a village center. It’s also the common name for trees of the genus Populus, more commonly known as aspen. These fast-growing trees were often logged off for pulpwood used to make paper products.  Lumbering around here was a boom-bust business, peaking in the first few decades of the 20th century.


Abandoned building along Route 64 in Poplar, Minnesota.

The building, which sits isolated, looks like a one-room schoolhouse, complete with outhouse.  The handicap-accessible ramp to the left, the steel door, and the curtains on the windows suggest it was later used as a residence.  Now it is home to swifts, which have built dozens of mud nests between the porch overhang and the front wall. 

As the name of the township suggests, the logging economy preceded the recreational tourist economy, setting the stage for its rapid spread in the mid 20th century.


Smoked Fish


My taste for smoked fish probably started at Morey’s.


Morey’s Fishouse in Motley, Minnesota.

Long before I was a resident of Minnesota, my parents made an annual summer trip to the family cottage on Lake Union, with kids crawling all over the station wagon, as was then the custom. Their trip took them through Motley, so they made a habit of stopping at Morey's when it was then a fairly small operation.  Now the company exports its smoked fish all over the world.


Smoked Canadian whitefish in the sales case of Morey’s Fish House in Motley, Minnesota.

Interestingly, it imports its whitefish from Canada, because those in the state have been largely fished out.  In fact, my buddy and I used to net and smoke them when we were in college.

At Morey's, I had a chance to visit with Julie Mertens, the head fishmonger (manager of the store).  "The fresher the water," she said, "the better tasting is the fish...and the less polluted it is, the better they are for you."  This I would take a general rule for practically everything we eat or drink.

She then went on with a lament about people disrespecting water.  Her story was about a recent vacation to a coastal beach in Mexico, which was trashed by those who partied on the shore all night long. When she got up on the first morning of her vacation, she found so much trash that she had to find some bags and clear the beach before she could enjoy it. 

South of Motley, we turned south on Route 1.  Crossing the Elk River, we noted that it looked like a stagnant sludge canal covered with duckweed.   This was not a good sign for nearing Wobegon.


Linked Landscapes  


Todd and Stearns County Minnesota contain two landscapes. The dominant one is a gently undulating topography created when the moving ice sheet smeared glacially ground-up sediment to the land surface. The resulting soils hold water well, contain mineral nutrients, and have enough clay to be fertile. Hence, they are covered with productive farms growing soybeans, corn, grain crops, and hay for livestock.  This provides the most important part of the economy, farm products for export. 


Spray irrigation just east of Browerville, Minnesota. 

Barely visible between the wheels in the foreground is a tractor hauling a sprayer filled with something other than water, perhaps liquid ammonia for fertilizer, an herbicide, or an insecticide. The problem with this kind of agriculture is commercial viability requires the addition of chemicals that pollute the groundwater and stream systems.  Fertilizer provides the nutrients that plants need for lush and productive growth, generally phosphorous and nitrogen in water-soluble forms.  Any that escapes to aquifers or as surface runoff will eventually reach streams and lakes, causing excess growth of aquatic plants, principally algae and “weeds.”


The other landscape type consists of kettle moraines, which were built at the edges of former glacial lobes. Sand, gravel, boulders, lakes, and bumpy topography are the result. Because agriculture is generally restricted to haying and woodcutting, the economy is dependent largely on lake recreation.


Ochotto Lake, just north of Avon, Minnesota.

The pesticides and herbicides that reach lakes don’t stimulate plant growth, but change lake and stream ecosystems in ways that are poorly understood.  Another problem is that many of these toxins such as lead, mercury, and persistent organic pollutants bio-accumulate up the food chain into fish, which are often eaten by humans, creating a public health hazard.

In Long Prairie, we stopped at the Dairy Queen to interview a local resident.  There we found Jody, the manager, who was willing to share her stories.  She drinks water from her groundwater well at home, avoiding city water due to "that smell,” referring to the chlorine odor that comes from the treatment plant.  "You have to take it on faith," she commented, "that they know what they re doing," meaning the municipal water companies.  She's especially concerned about babies getting chemicals so early.  "Water is a resource we should never take for granted."   Her water highlight of the year is an annual family vacation to "Lake of the Woods," a Lake Agassiz remnant above the triple border between Minnesota, Ontario, and Manitoba.  

Perhaps we can't win.  Our wells can be polluted through agriculture. The city water puts in things you may not want, such as chlorine and fluoride, bottled water is a concern owing to the seepage of plastic residues, and the hard plastic water bottles of polycarbonate lose molecules into the water as well.


Main Street

Sinclair Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. He grew up in a small town on the edge of the prairie named Sauk Center, which is nestled against the shore of Sauk Lake. 

The Original Main Street in Sauk Centre, Minnesota.

The tallest architectural achievement is the water tower, followed by the grain elevators and church steeples.  The novel he set in Sauk Centre, Main Street, was a national blockbuster that has since become part of our cultural and literary canon. Within the novel are conversations within cafés, homes, churches, stories about lake life, and the conflict between New England pretensions and Minnesota realities. 

When researching that novel and the biography of “Red’ Lewis, I was struck by the similarity between the settings of Lewis's novel Main Street and Garrison Keillor’s novel, Lake Wobegon Days.  I was equally struck by the similarity of their biographies.   Though the purposes of the novelists were vastly different, their settings -- and in a few cases the descriptions of the settings -- are nearly identical.  Both are small lakeside towns at the edge of the prairie in the headwaters of the Salk River watershed, which drains to the Mississippi.

In 2001, Keillor suggested in passing that Holdingford, Minnesota was most “Wobegonic” of all. After looking at a map of Holdingford, I couldn’t understand this statement because everyone knows that Lake Wobegon's Main Street is nestled against the namesake lake.  So, when writing my recent book, Beyond Walden, I suggested that nearby Avon, Minnesota was a better fit.  

Hence, our search for the wide main street of Lake Wobegon took us to Main Street in Sauk Centre, main street in Holdingford, and main street in Avon in chronological sequence from 1920, 1985, and 2009. All three towns are located on the Lake Wobegon Regional Trail, where “all the visitors are above average.”

Sign in Salk Centre, Minnesota let us know we were on the right track.

Except for the plastic on the signs and the auto styles, Main Street looks similar to what it was in the first few decades of the 20th century.

The Palmer House Café, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is located on the “Original Main Street” in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, 

Could this be a precedent for the Chatterbox Café  in  Lake Wobego?  

Tastes in dress and music have certainly changed.  Several of the teenagers walking buy were dressed in hip-hop style, with oversized short pulled down to show underpants, and with chains and rapper caps turned sideways.  The public signs are also bilingual, with English and Spanish. 

When writing Beyond Walden, I tried to find out what Sinclair Lewis majored in when he graduated from Yale in 1909.  I didn't find this information in Lingeman's authoritative biography, nor anywhere on Yale's alumni website. So I asked the librarian in Sauk Centre, who didn't know but referred me to the local history museum, who didn't know either.  Perhaps one of my readers knows and will contact me.  

The town of Sauk Centre abuts Sauk Lake, which is regulated by a dam at its junction with the Sauk River.  As I approached the lake, I could see its green color, that of algae growing because of too much nutrient.  As I walked toward the river, the smell of decomposing algae was powerful.  One look at the falls below the dam, confirmed my suspicion that the nutrient laden water is very eutrophic, the term scientists use to describe a lake that’s too rich in nutrient.


Boys fishing at the head of the Sauk River in Sauk Centre, Minnesota.  From left to right they are Dylan, Jay, Matthew, and Jack.  The oldest was in 7th grade, the youngest in 3rd.

One look at the water pooled up below the dam in eddies made me wonder why anyone would tolerate such pollution.


Polluted water below the dam at Sauk Lake, Sauk Centre, Minnesota heads south to Richmond, where we spent the night.

I asked the boys if they could smell the water going over the dam.  "Oh yeah," one of the boys replied, it "doesn't smell too good."  When I asked them why, they said that it stunk because it was polluted.  Nevertheless, they eat the fish they catch, despite knowing if they've been tested and what might be found.  They even fish in the winter, because the river here never freezes, even though the lake above it does.  

Of course, if you want to make the lakes and rivers clear, you can stop adding nutrient to it. Unfortunately, this would ruin the agricultural economy.  Alternatively, you could add chlorine which kills bacteria an algae, and which is cheap, but comes at the price of frightening many people away from drinking it bacteria and algae that would otherwise grow. 


Chlorinated pool in Sinclair Lewis Park in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. 

The clarity of swimming pools and ponds is accomplished by the killing of microbes but not the people who use the water.




If Holdingford is the model for the mythical town of Lake Wobegon, then a revision of the architectural pecking order I needed.  The water tower, grain elevator, and church steeples, still rank from highest to lowest in terms of elevation. But today, the cell phone tower looms over them all. 

Entering Holdingford from the west.  Cell phone tower is barely visible to the right of the sign. The water tower and church steeple are clearer.

My how things change.  The "little town that time forgot" must now be full of young people texting each other for hours a day.

The landscape around Holdingford is productive and tidy.  So are the homes and churches. Then why, I wondered, was the downtown so small and so dominated by bars and liquor stores?  Country music was blaring from one of the storefronts. I noticed two Catholic churches but no place for Lutherans. 


Downtown Holdingford, Minnesota.

The engraved sign where the Lake Wobegon Trail crosses Route 17 has it right. Holdingford is not the town of Lake Wobegon, but the gateway to it.


Sign on Route 17 entering Holdingford, Minnesota from the west where it crosses the Wobegon Trail.




Holdingford is the gateway to Wobegon, not a stand in. That place is Avon, which lies a few miles south on Route 9.  Approaching it, we found the familiar bumpy, boulder, and lake-dotted terrain with trees here and there.  The large productive fields surrounding Holdingford have given way to more “Wobegonic” pasture and hayfield.  And most importantly, downtown is nestled against Middle Spunk Lake.


Downtown Avon, Minesota looks quite Wobegonic to me. 

The mural on the wall of a Laundromat summed up the setting in ways that a photograph could not.


Laundromat in downtown Avon, Minnesota.

Since leaving Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, I’ve been looking forward to the symbolic act of pouring water from Walden into it.  The place we chose was the boat launch, just off town.



Boat launch on Middle Spunk Lake in Avon, Minnesota.   The public swimming beach is barely visible on the opposite shore.

Of course, I filtered the water first, so as to serve as good model for preventing the transport of invasive species. (One of the most important is the zebra mussel, whose larvae are microscopic.)  



My bottle of filtered Walden water is empty. Location is the fishing pier in Avon, Minnesota. 

It was a great moment, witnessed by Clara de Loon who, when squeezed, gave her familiar cry of loon delight. 

Jamie, who was 14 and Sawyer, aged 13, had followed us to the boat launch from downtown, perhaps because they had seen the first Connecticut plates in their life.  Neither had ever heard of either Walden Pond or its most famous resident, Henry David Thoreau.  Hence, watching a grown man pour water into their lake from a lab bottle must have been a source of amusement, something to text one another about. 

The boys were of like mind on the ups and downs of freshwater.  There was "lots of fishing" to be done, which is getting harder because of the "weeds," by which they meant the invasive Eurasian milfoil.  

Having poured water from Walden to Wobegon, my plan was to return the favor by reversing the process.  This required collecting a sample. 


Collecting water from Middle Spunk Lake to pour into Walden Pond, to complete the water exchange.

Just as we were about to leave, we met two lifetime residents, Eric and Holly, who were 21 and 20 years old, respectively, were walking down during what looked like a lover's stroll. Neither had ever heard of Thoreau or Walden Pond.  When I put my questions to them, Eric responded immediately. "Obviously, you gotta love fresh water because you can go fishin' on it." Holly provided the down side of water.  "You get jiggers," she said.  These, she believed, were invisible parasites that are released into the water by goose crap, and which you get when you go swimming.  I believe she was referring to the schistasome that give rise to swimmer's itch. 

Then they reversed roles.  Eric said that "if you live too close the lakes, you get all kinds of bugs," meaning mosquitoes and flies. She countered with the something positive, "having a good time at the know...swimming, boating, and such.

While getting into our car, Larry and Harley, two thirty-something adults, motored up in their boat after some time spent fishing.  While they were trailering their boat for the road, I asked Larry if he had ever heard of Walden Pond.  "No, but I have heard of Walden Woods." "Walden Woods," was the name given to a project that saved a forested tract in Concord north of Walden Pond from development as a suburban office park.  Its chief sponsor was rock star Don Henly, who got involved and provided most of the funding.  

This is the only case I am aware of when a famous celebrity adopted a kettle pond as a cause.  I suspect it was the link between rock star and a pond, rather than the link between the Transcendentalist philosopher and the pond, that jogged Larry's memory.  This deduction was confirmed for me when I asked him if he was aware of any other famous person connected to that distant place.  "Yeah," he responded, "a guy named Henry James Thoreau.  I think he wrote 'Leaves of Grass.'" I didn't have the heart to correct him about Thoreau's middle name, but I did let Larry know that it w was Walt Whitman who had written that wonderful long collection of poems.   His fishing buddy, Harly said "No" twice when I asked him the same questions.

Larry, who must have been a family man, likes fresh water "for and what not." His concern was that lakes "get dirty easy," because the "rivers and creeks are polluted."  He was especially worried about blue green algae in Little Rock Lake, in the nearby town of Rice.

Just before dark, we took a tour of Big Spunk Lake, which lies just across the other side of the freeway.  This edge of town is beginning to look less Wobegonic, given the expensive houses we found along its shore.


Formal entry to an expensive beach house on Big Spunk Lake, Minnesota, made of local boulders from the moraine.

Our final stop of the day was at the public boat launch at Upper Spunk.  Unfortunately, someone had tipped over a Port-a-Potty.


Tipped toilet at the public boat launch at Big Spunk Lake, Minnesota. 

This could have been an accident, my guess is that some young person was inside using the toilet when one or more people pushed it over as a prank.  Did the contents leak?  Things are not all well in Lake Wobegon.

Our work done, we wandered down to Richmond to spend the night with my cousin John, who had been expecting us for lunch about seven hours earlier.  The lake landscape there is a delightful chaos of islands, isthmuses, and peninsulas to most people.  We saw it as a chance to get lost.  We drove around for at least half an hour trying to find John’s place before we nestled in for the night.