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Up the Creek
Ken M. Blomberg
Turn the page in the book of seasons and suddenly it’s the last month of summer. August has turned this outdoor man’s thoughts towards fall. Yet there are dogs to train, a favorite gun to repair and new territory to scout. The truck and slide-in camper need to be cleaned out and re-packed. And my hunting boots need oiling.
Few things outdoor related are as important as a good pair of boots. I’ve had my share – and perhaps, so have you. Boots can make or break a pleasant day afield. Close seconds are water repellant jackets to battle rain and snow, long underwear and gloves to keep freezing temperatures at bay and proper headwear and glasses to shade the sun’s glare.
I remember my first pair of quality boots - pair of expensive leather Red Wing Irish Setter brand. I was still a teenager, fresh from the nest and on my own. They cost more than my first bird dog, but somehow I managed to scrape together enough to purchase both that same year. While building a dog pen to cage in the new pup, I tore a hole in the right boot. A leather sewing awl from downtown Frank’s hardware put a partial fix to my dilemma – but my right socks were never again dry at the end of the day.
My father, bless his soul, served our country in Alaska and Italy during the Second World War. A forward observer in the infantry, he often said his boots and socks were as important as his rifle. “Be true to your feet and they’ll be true to you.” He survived the war, and enjoyed the next fifty years wearing dress shoes, loafers and open toed sandals. Boots were reserved for the few times he accompanied me afield hunting.
My current boots, 43 years since my first, are a pair of expensive leather Red Wing Irish Setter’s. I’ve tried other brands in-between, but keep coming back to the ones that have served me best. My first pair were sized 10 ½ and for 39 years I bought shoes and boots in that size. Then, after all those years, a thoughtful shoe salesman held to measure both my feet. Lo and behold, one foot, my right one, measured size 11. Well, that explained uneven wear on the right side. Did you know you can buy a pair boots in two different sizes? “Be true to your feet son.”
A few years back my Amish friend Vernon sold me a jar of Skidmore’s leather cream with natural oils and beeswax made out of Port Townsend, Washington. “Best stuff on the market,” he said. Made with “plants, trees and beeswax by humans, it cleans and allows leather fibers to breath. It makes leather soft and supple yet resistant to moisture.”
So a couple times a year, mostly around this time of the year – when thoughts turn to hunting, I apply a generous coating of leather cream to my boots. And I think of my dad, his reverence to feet and my God-given ability to still walk in the great outdoors.
Something so many of us take for granted. Be true to your feet.
Up the Creek
Ken M. Blomberg
I returned to Hugo late last month. To a small farmhouse on the shoreline of Amelia Lake, not far from White Bear Lake and just north of the Twin Cities. Not exactly a wilderness setting, but that’s in the eye of the beholder. Bedroom communities of the big cities for those that prefer “country living” to cement and congestion, but close enough to secure employment.
Look left and enjoy the view of fragmented farmland, woodlots and lakes. Look right and be greeted by shopping malls, movie theaters and convenient gas stations. I exited the interstate, and looked left and found a bit of paradise right across the road from the White Bear Township movie theater complex.
The century old farmhouse was the home of the late Art and Betty Hawkins. They had bought the property in 1954, the year I was born. Betty recently passed away and her youngest daughter Amy graciously invited me back for a visit. You see, about a year ago, I visited to interview Betty and dig into the files of Art – one of Aldo Leopold’s first graduate students at UW-Madison back in the 1930s.
He and wife Betty lived part of their lives in Wisconsin. First near Lake Mills and a place called Faville Grove. Betty was a child of early settlers. Art was a Leopold student researching the native flora and fauna of the remnant prairie landscape. Later, Art worked for the Illinois Natural History Survey, spent time during World War II serving the Army in Texas, back to UW-Madison working once again for Professor Leopold and finally as a USFWS Flyway Biologist in Manitoba and Minnesota. They retired in Hugo.
Art passed away on March 9, 2006 at the age of 92. I first met Art in a 2002 letter from Hugo. His last letter found my mailbox on March 10th, 2006, the day after his passing. It was dated March 7th. Classic Art – it was a two-pager, handwritten on legal paper – beginning and ending with warm pleasantries. In between the first and last letter there were scores of others.
Today, I sit at my desk, surrounded by letters from Art (I kept them all) and contemplate an ongoing assignment – a book paying tribute to a great man, who stood tall in the shadow of greatness. Eight chapters are complete, with ten or more yet to be assembled. Such is the way in writing a biography of sorts. Much of this book was written by Art himself. His letters, transcripts from lectures as well as columns and essays he wrote over the years. And Betty’s contribution comes from journals and interviews. To the very ends of their lives, they championed the Leopold Land Ethic. Their legacy lives on through their children and grandchildren. And the rich array of documents – letters, journals, photos and books – many early documents, writing and personal correspondence from Leopold himself.
While in their Hugo farmhouse, sitting at a table pouring through files, I gazed out a large picture window overlooking their back yard deck and Amelia Lake. There, I was entertained by raccoons, wood ducks, squirrels and dragonflies. Swans, gulls and loons graced the lake and as the sun set, loon music filled the air.
Not a bad place to be for inspiration - while writing a book about inspirational people.
Up the Creek
Ken M. Blomberg
Back in the late 1980s, a group of north central Wisconsin gun dog enthusiasts gathered and proposed that the state develop a dog training and field trial area on the DNR’s Mead Wildlife Area on the Portage and Marathon County lines. With the strong support of then Mead Project Manager Tom Meier, the Wisconsin Association of Field Trial Clubs (WAFTC) and state Legislative authority, a Mead Class 1 Dog Training and Trial Area was born.
The founders quickly organized a Mead Grounds Association (MGA) and began planning and constructing what has turned out to be one of the finest gun dog training areas among a dozen or so such areas across the state. A shelter, several parking lots, bathrooms, a well and water site improvements soon transformed an old, abandoned farmstead on the eastern edge of the Mead Wildlife Area. In a 1989 letter to WAFTC President Jack Wichita, Meier said, “Our Department has a unique opportunity to assist in this effort by providing personnel, material, and equipment. Your approval of MGA’s material funding request will permit this project to really get off and running.”
Well, as they say, the rest is history – and nearly 30 years later, you will find an area designed to provide participating groups and individuals the opportunity to train dogs and hold tests and competitive trials. The MGA, representing participating groups and the DNR, is charged with managing the grounds within the scope of long range plans and the intent under which the grounds was established. Permits for training and events are issued out of the Mead Project office and scheduling of all organized activities is taken care of through the Grounds association. At present the area comprises of 3 fields, forest fringe and open water wetland. Developments include 3 parking areas, bathroom facilities and a shelter.
The MGA’s mission states, “Management of this area is designed to encourage, through training, the use of dogs in sport hunting and to allow through test or trials, aspects of the art of dog training and obedience. Attempts will be made to incorporate and accommodate the needs of each interested group into present and future design plans for this area. This will be undertaken with the understanding that the size, topography, soils, and general field layout of the grounds as well as adjacent land use may limit the desirability of the area for trial and training groups. We will also hold yearly hunting dog seminars, youth hunts or other public activities to hopefully generate more breed club use of the facility.”
The 2015 schedule of events includes several sanctioned hunt tests for retrievers, and natural ability and utility tests for pointing dogs on four weekends in June and August. From this past March through the end of August several clubs have and will host 25 training days and 5 work days. A schedule of these dates is posted on the shelter. The training area is open to the public for their use during the week and on days when events are not scheduled. A good time to visit is when events are in progress. Folks there will be glad to talk about their clubs and show you around the grounds.
The dog training and trial area is located just north of the Little Eau Pleine River on County Highway O. From Dancy, take County Highway C west to O and head south. From Junction City take County Highway G north to O and continue north on O past the county line. There are signs marking the area on the west side of the road.
For more information on the MGA, contact its Secretary Sheryle Tepp 715-213-5208. The North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) local contact is President Gary Engebretson 715-457-2444. The Muddy Waters Retriever Club’s (MWRC) contact is President Justin VanDeHey at 715-383-3159. The CWMWR AKC Trial Club contact is President Rick Wilke at 715-824-2416.
Up the Creek
Ken M. Blomberg
I took a peek at fishing tournaments in our state this past weekend. I saw secondhand from the sidelines, the 25th annual Sturgeon Bay Open Bass Tournament with friends Roger, his wife Mary Joe and the boss. We were on an annual trek to Door County and brought our fishing poles. We rubbed elbows with participating fishermen at the motel we stayed at and at the bars and restaurants.
On any given weekend across our state, there are multiple fishing tournaments underway. I found a list of those held in the Badger state – and over the last 11 days in May there are 36 events alone! In June there are at least 107 tournaments.
The list of sponsors and prize money is enormous. Tournament participants take these games seriously. One only needs to look at the expensive, elaborate boats they use. I saw up close and personal a 300 horsepowered outboard motor on one rig. Some talented, perhaps lucky ones make money and a living at this outdoor sport. And they spend a lot of money in doing so. The annual economic impact of fishing tournaments in our state and nationwide is mind boggling. We’re talking billions of dollars.
Closer to home, Lake DuBay will be the site of a national bass tournament in July – and nationally televised on ESPN. This Bassmaster College Series National Championship will be hosted by UWSP student Big Dawg Fishing Club. And according to the Stevens Point Area Convention and Visitors Bureau is expected to attract 10,000 participants and bring $2.7 million into the region.
In Wisconsin, the DNR has specific regulatory authority over these contests. They have established limits on “the size and number of tournaments on some lakes and rivers to minimize concerns such as crowding, spread of invasive species, and indirect fish mortality.” State fees are required to cover the rising cost of overseeing the fishing tournament fishing program.
The smallmouth bass challenge we witnessed in Sturgeon Bay was a three-day event and one of two held each year – one in spring, the weekend after Mother’s Day, the other in fall, the weekend after Labor Day. They limit entries to 200 2-person teams. Entry fees were $510 per team. The payout was as impressive, to say the least. 1st place was a Ranger Z118 with a 150 Mercury outboard motor and $10,000 in cash and prizes – a total value of $41,640. 2nd place was $15,000 in cash and prizes - 3rd place $9,000 in cash and prizes - 4th place $6,000 in cash and prizes – and 5th place $4,000 in cash and prizes. Now you can see the incentive. Plus there’s the fame and glory – make no mistake.
This year’s winners, Chris and Cory Johnston, won with a two-day total weight of 55.75 pounds. Their Friday big fish weighed 5.13 pounds. Saturday’s tipped the scales at a whopping 6.93 pounds.
Roger and I plugged away from shore. We saw a few smallmouths cruising deep along the rocky shorelines north of Sturgeon Bay and on the Lake Michigan side north of Bailey’s Harbor - but brought nothing to the net.
Then again, both our bosses were patiently waiting in the car, anxious to return to shopping up and down the Peninsula.
That’s our excuse.
Up the Creek
Ken M. Blomberg
Ironically, the deadline for this week’s column fell on Election Day. That said, and with politicians on my mind and migrating songbirds aplenty, here goes.
I believe it was humorist Will Rogers who once professed, “I love a dog. He does nothing for political reasons.”
Perhaps, in the same vein, that is why I like all things wild and free – as they do nothing for political justification. Unless, of course, you take into account the daily entertaining show right outside our kitchen window – an event I submit to you as birdfeeder politics. Even an untutored eye will notice the backyard bird chain of command - on display for those willing to observe.
On top of the ladder is the governing shrike – appearing occasionally, now and then – but for the most part hiding in the shadows. When he enters the picture, all others scatter – bowing to his stature and position on top of the food chain. At his side, are the lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state – blue jays, one and all.
Our senate of cardinals come and goes as they please, but are first to arrive in the morning and last to leave at the end of the day. A mixed caucus of chickadees, juncos, redpolls and finches make up our assembly and can be found here, there and anywhere – quick to debate any birdseed deficit, swift to seek subsidy offerings. Their legislative support staff - nuthatches and sparrows, dig in and clean up after those higher on the feeder’s organizational chart. No matter what issues come to the plate, at the end of the day, all the political players at the feeder retreat and roost to survive the elements of the night.
Daylight each morning brings lobbying woodpeckers of various legal stripes, which can be caught roaming the box elder and locust halls, beaks open for leftover pork and fat scraps at the trough. Always on top of their game, they are at their best while entertaining feeder landlords, influencing bureaucratic birdwatchers and securing passage of suet legislation.
Bi-partisan at times, but for the most part, split by party - peace-loving doves on the left and more aggressive hawks circling the sky to the right. That is, until election storms roll in. Then it’s every bird for himself. Low pressure fronts trigger feeding frenzies, while feathered candidates perch above them all, singing promises of better weather, full feeders and sunny skies.
Will Rogers was a political satirist and friend of presidents, senators, prime ministers and kings. He loved to poke fun at elected officials from all parties. He knew the nature of their antics and enjoyed following the affairs of state and nation.
He summed it up when he quipped, “Politics is the best show in America. I love animals and I love politicians and I love to watch both of 'em play..."
That said it’s time to send in my column. The boss, No. 1 granddaughter and I are off to the Township Hall to vote – then to the cheese factory where thoughts of politics will fade amongst curds and aged cheddar.
Up the Creek
Ken M. Blomberg
Ah, spring - when the hearts of many turn to…fishing! No sooner had the ice gone out - the shanties and tip-ups stored - than fishermen dreams turn to open water angling. Here in the northwest corner of the county, our family measures the arrival of spring in in many ways. One surefire sign is increased traffic on the county highway passing by our home and leading to Dam Road. Car and truck numbers pulling trailered boats surge by right about the same time maple sap and walleyes begin to run.
Fishing is a year-round obsession for some people. One can have their line in the water nearly every day if they have a mind to. Rivers like the Wisconsin and to the east the Fox, offer year-round angling opportunities. They fill in the gap as many wait for the general opener in early May. Snow melts and warmer water passing through dams and over spillways attract spawning fish and anxious fishermen.
Early trout catch and release seasons opened earlier this month in certain streams, stretching that sport to nearly seven months. Traditional opening weekend – the first weekend of May – runs through November and “first ice” - a popular time of the year for ice fishing addicts. That’s more or less the case for my friend Dan from the Eau Claire area. According to friend Jim from the Tomah area, Dan is obsessed. Ice fishing is his favorite pastime and bluegills and crappies his fish of choice. When the ice melts, Dan and wife Rita head a bit north. They fish from their boat on a lake somewhere between Birchwood – the Bluegill Capital of Wisconsin – and Eau Claire. A lake I’ve sworn to keep secret.
This reporter is what many would call an occasional fisherman. Oh, I may fish a bit on the river down the road when the early crowds thin out, but opening day in May is soon enough for me. My sights are set on fly fishing for trout, bass and panfish. Friend Jim lives near the headwaters of the famed Kickapoo River and I hope to fish once again, a half-mile stretch that flows through his and an adjacent neighbor’s land. A couple more trout and bass streams in the Driftless Area of southwest Wisconsin are also on my wish list this year. While there, I plan to visit a couple of fly fishing sport shops. A list of locally tied flies with names like Turkey Leech, Pink Squirrel, Prince Nymph, Coulee Cranefly and Sparkle Minnow need to find homes in my soft-sided tackle box.
In a perfect world, I’d be heading north to fish walleye from friend Rick’s cabin on a lake near Clam Lake. Invites like his don’t come lightly and I hope the boss and I can swing a trip and cash in this summer. And then there are several trout and bass rivers to fish west of Rick’s place - made famous by Milwaukee Journal outdoor writer Gordon MacQuarrie – the Brule, the Namekogan and the St. Croix.
Closer to home, friend Dale promised to take me to his favorite walleye hole on the Little Eau Pleine River this spring. Who better than a retired fish biologist to guide the way? And number one son Erik will visit from out east and he, his brother and I will surely make our traditional day trips for smallmouth bass on the Wisconsin and Eau Claire rivers.
I have five weeks to prepare for opening day of the “real” fishing season. In the meantime, turkey hunting is at hand. The bird dogs need attention. Next year’s firewood needs to be cut and stacked. And woodcock banding with friend Mike begins in April.
Ah, so much to do outdoors and too little time.
Up the Creek
Ken M. Blomberg
I stood in darkness on the back porch the other night while the dogs relieved themselves. As I strained to see a falling star and make a wish, a train three miles away blasted its air horn at a grade crossing. I knew exactly where it was. I closed my eyes and imagined what neighbor Jerry heard – his house lays 100 feet from the tracks. Trains are required to sound warnings at road crossings – two or maybe three blasts per crossing.
I love the sounds trains make. Horn blasts and the rumbling of steel on steel in the distance are pleasant resonances to my ears. Once again, I may have my “head-in-the-clouds” – as the boss likes to say – but for me, distance transforms certain noises to song - and in this case, soften the night. However, I might not say likewise if I lived adjacent to the tracks.
The sun came up and from the kennel porch we gazed skyward and observed white vapor trails painted on a canvas of blue. The sight of airplanes flying overhead– between Minneapolis and destinations unknown – is a regular event. We live below a flight path that conjures up dreams and romance of distant destinations. At 30,000 feet, the jet noise is barely noticeable. However, I might not say likewise if I lived adjacent to the airport.
When the wind is from the south, we hear traffic noise from the east-west four-lane highway – two miles away. When it’s out of the east, we hear traffic noise from the north-south four-lane interstate highway - two miles away. Weekend traffic intensifies the din, but for me it’s barely noticeable. However, I might not say likewise if I lived adjacent to the highway.
Those sounds relate to year-round human activity. But it's the sounds and sights of Mother Nature that intensified this week as we watched spring's arrival.
A lonely goose honked and crane trumpeted while circling the neighborhood - crying out for relatives. Single robins and red winged blackbirds claimed breeding territories. Male woodcock, on the wings of warm spring breezes, will surely set up shop and began sky dancing for their soon-to-arrive female mates.
Late last week, my biologist friend Tim from the Tomah area said, “Still no woodcock peenting outside my office. Bet they show up next day or two.” The next day he said, “Robin singing this morning.” The next day he reported, “Still have not heard a woodcock peenting. Maybe I lost my ability to hear!” But then on Monday he said, “Red-winged blackbirds singing this morning along the creek north of office.”
Sure enough, the next day I saw both birds – a robin on the brown lawn, the blackbird posted atop a tree. By press time, the boss and I and Tim had failed to hear or see a woodcock. But rest assured they will be here by the end of the week and we’ll enjoy their dancing and singing along the tree line and creek out back.
The official first day of spring is this week Friday. Celebrate the season by taking a drive, a bike ride, or walk to enjoy the sounds and sights outdoors. Or simply sit on your deck out back and listen carefully – you may just hear the songs of spring right in your own back yard.
Up the Creek
Ken M. Blomberg
It was a trip down memory lane. The last day the ruffed grouse season and I returned to where it all began – 42 years ago.
Just west of our place along the creek lies 33,000 acres of public land locally referred to as “The Mead”. Property boundary signs appear five miles from our driveway. Stretching more or less ten miles east and west by 4 miles north and south – the Mead’s 40 square miles of flowages, wetlands, upland forests and grasslands is a hunter and nature lover paradise indeed.
Buster, my English cocker sidekick and I loaded up the truck for one last grouse hunt. We drove west from home and headed to places we know so well. Along the way, we chased dreams of tomorrow and pleasant memories from the past.
County Highway O took us north past the spot I hunted grouse and woodcock with several friends more than four decades ago - a place where friend Dale’s Brittany “Jesse” pointed and retrieved her first woodcock. Past a trail named after a black bear spotted by a friend while motorcycling to a nearby hunting dog field trial. Then we drove past the dog training, field trial area that friend Mike, Mead Project Manager Tom Meier and I worked together to establish back in the early 1980s. For nearly two decades we hosted a statewide woodcock and grouse field trial fundraiser along the Little Eau Pleine River bottoms.
We slipped over the county line into Marathon and followed County Highway C west to a place Buster flushed and retrieved his first grouse four years ago. It’s an area that is heavily managed for young forest wildlife and it was near there we parked the truck for a short one-hour hunt. The snow was deep enough to accommodate open snowmobile trails and an energetic cocker spaniel. Grouse tracks said birds were in the neighborhood, but alas none revealed themselves to us that day.
Farther down the road, we passed a special stone fence covert where No. 1 son shot two grouse several years apart. Then our journey turned south along County Highway S. Past Teal Flowage, where both of my sons learned to hunt ducks during early season youth hunts. Past an open field where then Project Manager John Berkhahn hosted the very first public dog training seminar with field trail association members - and my puppy “Dusty” stole the show during an introduction to birds demonstration. We traveled past a dead-end road leading to the Honey Island flowage, where I shot my first limit of woodcock over my first birddog named “Buck” back in 1975.
Across the road, the Mead Education and Visitor Center stood out prominently against the snow white landscape. A far cry from the old, original metal project office, it stands tall - a new chapter and a testament to forward thinkers and outdoor educators. Under the new building’s shadow I recall a woodcock No. 2 son and I banded one spring, a bear friend Tim’s dog pointed in a den in adjacent alder cover and a grouse No. 1 son and I both missed on the fringe of nearby Little Birch Flowage.
West again on County Highway H brought us to Smokey Hill Road, where the boss and I have conducted spring woodcock singing ground surveys for the US Fish and Wildlife Service for nearly three decades. Where No. 2 son passed up a sure shot at a grouse perched in a tree – showing his old man that even as a young man, his personal ethics ran deep. Then crossing Countyline Road I recalled a duck hunt thirty-four years ago - the day after meeting the boss on a blind date. I remember killing a teal, the dog’s retrieve and asking friend Dale – who set up the date – if he knew her phone number.
We passed the foot of Smokey Hill, where legend has it a Chippewa tribe camped and with the help of French soldiers, fought off marauding Winnebago tribesmen. Today, a flowage at the base of the hill serves as waterfowl refuge. Not far from there, and across the Little Eau Pleine River, is a spot where 40 years ago Professor Lyle Nauman handed me a clipboard, then grabbed his shotgun and joined hundreds of opening weekend duck hunters on North Smokey Hill Flowage. Fellow student and friend Ron and I were left to check hunter bags as they came off the flowage.
Ah, memories. So many pleasant memories from the Mead. So many, I could write a book. Maybe someday I will.
~~Up the Creek
by Ken M. Blomberg
It’s a fine spot to live, this place we call “Reality”. Our home, the land and the creek lie along the Wisconsin River valley, not too far from the county line separating Portage and Marathon. The house was built before the Great Depression and our family has called it home since the late seventies. It was here that the “boss” and I raised a pair of boys, a kennel full of bird dogs and a wide variety of other critters.
The creek that flows behind the house is the lifeblood of the land. It bisects our property after draining the neighbor’s woods and farm fields. Three-quarters of a mile in length, it controls the water table and eventually feeds a backwater slough that empties into the Wisconsin River. When the boys were very young, I’d dare them to spit into the creek, then ask them to imagine their salivas’ journey to the ocean, by way of the Mississippi River and New Orleans.
We share our space with a variety of wildlife, including white-tailed deer, turkey, bear, fisher, grouse, woodcock, rabbit, squirrel, as well as a host of non-game song birds, owls, hawks and bald eagles. As luck would have it, it was a majestic bald eagle soaring above the river valley that convinced me to buy the fifty year-old cheese maker’s house we now call home. I contacted the realtor and closed the deal that very same day.
Over the years, our place in the country has been home to scores of bird dogs, with German Shorthaired Pointers being our breed of choice. "Buck", my first shorthair puppy, spent his initial few months living in a dormitory at the local university. He and I were kindly given an early pass to move off campus. He came to me from a small game farm near Shawano named Kentwood and taught me more about bird hunting than I could teach him about being a good bird dog. He stayed with our family for two months and fourteen days short of 16 years. He’s buried down by the creek, but his ghost still runs in the uplands behind the house.
The shorthairs we own today are related to Buck, whose blood runs through their veins. The registered bloodlines of our dogs own the name of our township and a nearby river, called Eau Pleine. While many dogs from the past are buried along the creek, a new generation fills the kennel these days. And more recently we've added field bred English cocker spaniels - training, breeding and raising them at the kennel.
North central Wisconsin has been our home for nearly four decades. Much has changed, yet a great deal is still as it was. In many respects, progress has been kind, but the consequences of development have taken a toll on the landscape. Planned growth can save the rural nature of our counties in the future, but it will take a strong land ethic, an unwavering commitment by our decision-makers and support for those that own and live on the land.
This is an ongoing story of our life, the land, the creek and the thoughts that come to mind as we share this place we call "Reality".
Up the Creek
Ken M. Blomberg
I went back to school this week. Not exactly earth shaking news, but for this old timer who hasn’t taken any formal classes in nearly 40 years, it’s a big deal. I enrolled in a University of Wisconsin – Madison online course entitled “The Land Ethic Reclaimed: Perceptive Hunting, Aldo Leopold, and Conservation”.
It’s a four-week course that “looks at the emerging face of hunting today and modern models of conservation. In doing so, the importance of ethics in guiding management decisions, hunter choices, and the surrounding politics will be presented. We encourage you to reflect on how the use and enjoyment of natural resources has an impact on your communities and how you may get involved and participate in its wonder.” The overall goal of the course is to engage in learning about how wildlife management and recreational hunting play a role in the evolving face of conservation.
If you have followed my column long enough, you know I’m a big fan of Aldo Leopold. 40 years ago, while attending UW-Stevens Point I was introduced to Leopold by Environmental Ethics and Philosophy Professor Baird Callicott. To say Leopold has influenced my life is an understatement. Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know members of his family and several of his students. Last fall I spent a day hunting grouse and woodcock with Leopold’s great grandson and good friend Jed. I’ve also watched and supported the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s Leopold Center near the shack blossom from a concept to reality.
Deciding to enroll in this course was easy. Make no mistake about it; Leopold was a hunter – a hard core hunter. His detailed hunting journals tell the story. His father was a hunter. His brothers were hunters and many of his children and grandchildren were and are hunters. Hunting brought Leopold closer to the natural world he knew so well and loved. His land ethic owes much - if not everything - to time spent deer hunting, duck hunting, and following his bird dog hunting grouse and woodcock each fall.
And the discussion on surrounding politics in game management sure presses my button. Our state, along with others, have lost track of science based decision-making when it comes to fish, game and environmental issues.
Week one of The Land Ethic Reclaimed course began earlier this week. Students and instructors took a look at modern recreational hunting in North America. We explored the unique model of wildlife conservation used in North America and were introduced to Aldo Leopold and his land ethic. Over the next three weeks we’ll discuss the ecological dimensions of hunting, private lands: controversies & community models and the emergence of perceptive hunters.
Online learning provides several unique features. There is interactive discussion forums on all the subjects covered that began in earnest on the first day. The accompanying videos so far are of top quality. Students can participate at a “self-pace”. And the best feature, it is free! For this aging outdoor writer living on a fixed income, that’s a welcome bonus.
To earn a Statement of Accomplishment, one needs to watch the videos, read the articles and essays, complete the hands-on learning activities and successfully complete the weekly quizzes.
This is still week one, if you’re interested I’ll bet you can still enroll by contacting http://moocs.wisc.edu/mooc/landethic/.
Up the Creek
by Ken M. Blomberg
Local television meteorologists show weather related photos taken by viewers during their broadcasts – a feature I appreciate each evening before or after dinner. Many of those pictures come from residents of Portage County. Quite often, the subject matter is of seasonal changes to the countryside and wildlife. That was the case recently, when an image appeared of a flock of Lesser Scaup swimming on an open stretch of water on an otherwise frozen lake. The weather forecaster commented, “I wonder how those ducks handle such harsh weather conditions?”
How do they do it? How do mammals, birds, reptiles and insects survive severe, sub-zero temperatures and frozen landscapes? A break in the weather this week had me pondering the ability of local wildlife to manage winter conditions. I concluded those that do not migrate south, survive not by choice but by design.
Ducks, like the televised scaup, are covered with layers of feathers and down – insulation to keep their bodies warm. Down is soft and airy, with thousands of tiny fibers radiating from a core quill. They also have what’s called counter-current blood circulation. Warm blood from their hearts are interlaced with smaller veins carrying cold blood from their naked feet – causing a form of heat exchange – warming cold blood from the feet on its way to the body and cooling warm blood from the body heading to the feet. Deer are blessed in the winter with a thick, dense coat of hair covering a equally thick layer of fat reserve. Each hair is hollow. This traps and creates air pockets, retaining heat – just like quilts and home insulation. The fat layer slowly burns off as spring approaches.
Ruffed grouse, like pheasants, do best in burrows they create in deep, fluffy snow. They survive, just the same, when snow is lacking – taking cover in conifers, marsh grass and cattails most days and nights. They only come out to feed for short periods of time - saving precious calories to maintain their body temperature.
Body temperatures of other species of wildlife – insects, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals – are known to fall below the freezing point to survive. They simply burrow below forest litter debri, logs,or stumps - and in some cases, mud and sand in ponds and marshes. Some creatures freeze solid, others simply fall asleep and enter a state of torpor - a reduction of body temperature and metabolic rate. Possums, skunks and raccoons also enter tupor during the winter months, waking up from time to time to eat and stretch. In January and February, when temperatures rise above somewhere around 25 degrees, they emerge from their dens or ground burrows to mate. With gestation periods of just over two months, females give birth in March or April.
Other mammals like squirrels and predators like fox, coyote and wolves are active all winter long - squirrels seek their caches of nuts and seeds while predators seek rabbits, squirrels and larger game. Sometimes squirrels of the red variety seek shelter in the eves and rafters of homes. Unfortunately, that was the case this winter for us along the creek. The boss ordered an execution. Gun in hand, my attempts failed. After several sleepless nights due to scratching and chewing in the rafters, she took matters in her own hands. Let’s just say, the red squirrel lost the battle.
Long ago I realized not to lose sleep over the fate of wildlife during winter – by design they are survivors.
That is, if they steer clear of my wife, the boss.
~~Up the Creek
by Ken M. Blomberg
What a difference a year can make. A year ago, during late season ruffed grouse hunting, snow depths were knee deep. January ruffed grouse hunting was next to impossible. The final week of January was a real weather roller-coaster. If you recall, schools were closed that Monday and Tuesday due to extreme wind chill warnings – minus 65 below zero. Wednesday it had “moderated” to minus 10 below without the wind chill. When it warmed up to plus 20 degrees on Thursday we were ready to go hunting, but woke up to snowstorm that left another 5 inches. Visibility was terrible so I waited until Friday to hunt - closing day.
Buster, my hunting cocker and I found snow 27 inches deep in the woods - perfect conditions for snow roosting grouse. Buster had a blast. He hit the snow searching for grouse with the same reckless abandon as he does fetching a duck from a pond in fall. In both cases it involved swimming. For the most part I stuck to the plowed logging roads. Walking in snow over ones’ knees is not for old timers and the faint of heart.
But this year, hunting grouse is a different story. Late season ruffed grouse hunting is a real possibility. In Portage County, snow depths range from four inches at the northern county line and next to nothing at the southern border. No snow roosting for grouse this year, at least at this point. Grouse are roosting off the ground - utilizing the protection offered by dense pine trees.
That’s where No. 1 son and I took the dogs for our annual holiday hunt last weekend. He was home for Christmas and bought a non-resident small game hunting license. You see, he lives out east where he teaches wildlife courses at the University of Maine in Orono. He flew home for a week – grading papers at our kitchen table in the evening, spending daylight hours visiting relatives. And on several occasions, he hunted pheasants and grouse with his old man. It’s an annual holiday affair. Five years ago we found a spot on the Paul Olson Wildlife Area near Rudolph that attracted pheasants. We have yet to kill one there, but they have provided us exercise and always give Buster a good go. Last year a large rooster offered my son a shot, but escaped without losing a feather. This year, all we found was a pair of fresh tracks in the snow.
Last weekend we switched gears and concentrated on grouse. Saturday we hunted the Mead Wildlife Area north of Milladore. Fresh tracks in the snow in aspen clearcuts and along alder swales led us to a single flush on the edge of a spruce bog. “That’s right where Buster flushed one last year,” No. 1 son remarked. “It snuck out on the opposite side of the alders. I didn’t have a chance for a shot.” Sunday was his last full day home and with the Packer game scheduled that afternoon, we headed back to the spruce bog in the morning. No. 1 declared, “I’m going to take the dog in from the opposite direction and try to outsmart that bird.” With that, he unloaded his brother’s German Shorthaired Pointer “Finn” from a dog box, loaded his gun and headed for the spruces.
I took Buster into a nearby mature pine plantation that bordered an alder swale – an area that in years past produced several grouse flushes. Despite giving it his all, he failed to find a single bird. I returned to my truck, loaded Buster in a dog box and drove a half mile down the road to where we had agreed to meet. While exiting the truck and stepping on the road, I heard a single shot a hundred yards into the woods.
No. 1 son, Finn and a large male ruffed grouse capped off a perfect ending to this year’s annual holiday hunt.
~~ Up the Creek
by Ken M. Blomberg
I learned a bit from No. 1 granddaughter this week. At the ripe old age of 23 months, her knowledge of the natural world around her is nothing short of astonishing. I may be prejudice, but let me explain.
The kitchen window at her grandparents’ house has been instrumental in opening her mind to an environment beyond four walls. All God’s creations appeal to her - especially birds. When she visits, the parade of her feathered friends excites her to no end. Blue Jays, cardinals, juncos, goldfinches, sparrows, grosbeaks, orioles, crows, blackbirds – and her favorite ones of all, chickadees. She knows their names and calls them out when they arrive at the feeders.
Her intense love of birds led to a collection of stuffed toy birds. Not just any kind of stuffed toy, but an Audubon bird equipped with an authentic, squeezable Cornell Lab of Ornithology bird call. So it came to pass, this Christmas we added the Black –capped Chickadee to her collection. As she hugged and squeezed the new addition to her collection, it sang out a simple, 3-note whistled “fee-bee-bee”, not the more familiar call, “chick-a-dee-dee-dee”.
According to Cornell, “Chickadee calls are complex and language-like, communicating information on identity and recognition of other flocks as well as predator alarms and contact calls. The more dee notes in a chickadee-dee-dee call, the higher the threat level.”
So here’s where my yet-to-be 2-year old granddaughter indirectly taught me a lesson this week – a real aha moment. Birds vocalize in two ways. Why do birds sing? And for that matter, why do they call? What’s the difference between a bird song and a bird call? Again Cornell, “Birds communicate for many reasons, including to impress and attract a mate - declare territorial boundaries - identify family members - announce the presence of a predator - convey information about food. Most birds draw on a repertoire, or variety of sounds, to convey these meanings. Typical sounds fall into two main groups: relatively long and elaborate songs, used to impress and attract a mate or declare territorial boundaries; and briefer calls, typically used to identify family members, announce the presence of a predator, or convey information about food.”
From the beginning of our time, man has listened to, mimicked, and turned bird melodies into music. And low and behold, researchers have now discovered striking similarities between bird song and human music. In fact, they found passages in the song of the Musician Wren with striking similarity to passages from composers Bach and Haydn.
Writers also turn phrases in tune with bird song. I’ll share a favorite of mine from the past – Milwaukee Journal outdoor writer Gordon MacQuarrie, years ago reporting from the Brule River. “Never yet was a white-throat (sparrow) didn’t know a trout stream was the best place on earth to live…I was a long time pondering the music, thinking of those who said he sang ‘Poor Canada…Canada…Canada.’ And those who said he was really saying ‘Peabody…Peabody…Peabody.’ So do men fight to claim this mite of feathers for their own, and why not? Music like his has never been matched for simple beauty.”
So this, on the eve of Christmas, and out the mouth of my grandbaby, came the deeper reasoning behind bird music. From my family to yours, enjoy the holidays!
Up the Creek by Ken M. Blomberg
The weather forecast called for strong northwest winds and falling temperatures as a northern blast from Canada swept south. A duck hunter’s dream come true. For a smaller contingent of dedicated woodcock hunters, it’s a prediction they watch closely. I am a woodcock hunter, so the winds had Buster, my English cocker spaniel and I heading for a popple island in a sea of grassland south of Plover.
Our destination was 40 acres of prime woodcock habitat owned by good friend Mike. It’s loaded with earthworms – a prime food choice for woodcock – in the soil under dogwood, willow and quaking aspen. Historically, it’s a stop-over destination for migrant woodcock – on their way to Louisiana, or other warmer Gulf water states for the winter months.
On the eve of the storm it was cloudy and 54 degrees. Buster found six birds in that covert, and I shot at and missed four of those. Number six flew across a pond and landed along the edge of adjacent aspen woods. When Buster rousted the bird for a second time I finally connected. That afternoon, shot five was my lucky charm. When Buster retrieved the woodcock to hand, but before taking it from his mouth I noticed a band on one of its legs. On this, the day before the storm, I had shot my first banded woodcock. A bittersweet event, because it was a male I banded two springs ago on his nearby Buena Vista singing ground. You may recall that event as I reported it in this column at that time.
I banded my first American woodcock in the spring of 1984. Actually that evening – 30 years ago - my friend Mike and I banded 2 male birds caught in mist nets. They were “sky dancing” for their mates in nearby alders and dogwood. One of those birds was subsequently shot in December by a Winnfield, Louisiana hunter. I’ve been mist netting and banding chicks ever since. Woodcock band returns are rare – mainly because so few are actually banded. In Wisconsin, active woodcock banders number less than 10 individuals. Across the woodcock’s range – central and eastern Canadian provinces, Minnesota and states east of the Mississippi – woodcock banders are rare.
“To band a bird is to hold a ticket in a great lottery…the real thrill lies in the recapture of some bird banded long ago, some bird who’s age, adventures, and previous condition of appetite are perhaps better known to you than to the bird himself,” said Aldo Leopold, an avid woodcock hunter, bander and wildlife biologist.
The male woodcock I shot last week was an adult male in the spring of 2013. He had made the 2,000 mile round trip from his spring breeding grounds to his wintering grounds at least twice. The night after that hunt it snowed across the northern half of Wisconsin. The last of this year’s flight birds were moving on through – and my friend Pastor Craig reported from Ladysmith that he shot a limit of three on the last day of October and “saw probably 10 more on two little walks.”
Buster and I returned to the Buena Vista that day and only saw one woodcock. It had snowed a trace to an inch in our county overnight. The winds were strong out of the northwest, 12 – 20 miles per hour. On Monday – the last day of the season – we went back for one final hunt. The winds had shifted to out of the south. We found the woods November bare - as the leaves and woodcock were gone.
Next spring, friend Mike and I will return to our popple island in a sea of grassland and band a few more male woodcock as they “sky dance” for their mates in nearby aspen and dogwood. And another generation of this wonderful and mysterious game bird will grace the uplands once more.
~~~~Photo by Ken M. Blomberg – “The author and his spaniel Buster were pleasantly surprised this past week with a banded woodcock.”
~~“UP THE CREEK”
A NOTE TO PUBLISHERS & EDITORS
A WISCONSIN WEEKLY OUTDOOR COLUMN - NOW OFFERED IN SYNDICATION!
When your readership opens the paper, where do they turn to first? The front page, local news, obituaries, comics, letters to the editor, editorials, or outdoor news? Does your newspaper presently have a weekly outdoor column? Perhaps you’d like to supplement your current outdoor coverage. How does a timely, affordable, proven, reliable weekly outdoor column sound to you? A column ready for print with little or no editing required.
My name is Ken M. Blomberg, and I am pleased to offer at this time second rights to my weekly column, “Up the Creek” statewide in syndication. Can you afford not to share my popular column with your readers? My column has been and is currently running in central Wisconsin’s Portage County Gazette for the past several years. Prior to that, Gannett published the same column once a week for five years in their Wisconsin Rapids, Stevens Point, Marshfield, and Wausau daily edition – and in the late 80s and early 90s, it ran in weekly newspapers serving Plover, Amherst, Manawa and Iola. Needless to say, my column has stood the test of time.
From my current Portage County Gazette Publisher Gary Glennon, “Ken, We get many compliments on your submissions to the Gazette. And, I really enjoy it myself! Thanks, Keep ‘em coming!...Thanks to you for your part in helping our newspaper be the fine product that it is…”
From long time reader Brian Formella of Stevens Point, “With all the professional and family demands that I have throughout a busy workweek, your column is like taking a mini-vacation each time I read it. Your style of writing allows the reader a chance to slow down and appreciate what he might otherwise miss…your column calms and relaxes. It is good reading for the body, mind and soul.”
Nationally distributed magazine Sporting Classics included a quote of mine in their recently published book, “Passages –the Greatest Quotations from Sporting Literature”. Extracted from a column I wrote in the Badger Sportsman magazine back in 1992, it reflected my passion for fall, bird dogs and upland hunting. As a freelance writer my published works have appeared over the past 37 years in state and national magazines like Field & Stream, Fur-Fish-Game, Badger Sportsman, Wing & Shot, Pointing Dog Journal, Woods & Water, and others.
My column is nature based and revolves around the seasons. Recently retired from my “day job”, I am now in a position to travel the state and take my column with me. This will allow readers from across the state to not only follow the goings on in my backyard, but join me discovering the natural world that calls Wisconsin home.
Above are several introductory columns of “Up the Creek”. Feel free to publish them over the next few weeks, at no cost. Then ask some of your customers what they think. If you like what you see and hear, simply drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll begin sending your paper a weekly column every Monday morning. You’ll find them great companions to your morning coffee or juice.
I look forward to hearing from you soon!