“A Model Reservation”

Callaway TWP

When we last visited Mitchell and Amelia Trotochaud Spry, they were settled on a farm in the southern part of the White Earth reservation. Amelia’s parents Pierre and Angeline settled nearby on land north of Richwood. Amelia’s siblings married into other early families at White Earth, with names including McDougall, LaDoux, Blue, Vizenor, Pelland, Roy and Fairbanks.

The earliest histories of White Earth describe it as a thriving community and a success story, at least from the government’s perspective.  In fact, prominent leaders in Minnesota like Henry Rice were advocating the relocation of all the Ojibwe in Minnesota to White Earth. These designs were as much about getting at reservation land as they were about “civilizing” the Indians. The lumber companies in St. Paul were clamoring for access to virgin timber on the reservations. Meanwhile, the rapid settlement of the Red River Valley to the west had created demand for opening up the western parts of the White Earth and Red Lake reservations to create more cropland for whites.

In 1889, Minnesota Congressman Knute Nelson sponsored legislation to consolidate all the Ojibwe at White Earth and assign 160-acre allotments (first authorized by the Dawes Act of 1887) to individual Indians. The intent of the law was to allow homesteading of “excess” lands by white settlers. But even before the excess lands could be sold off, the allotment process was corrupted. Rules were changed, enabling whites and mixed-bloods with little or no connection to the bands at White Earth to claim allotments. This story has been documented in a book, The White Earth Tragedy by Melissa Meyer.

Among those who benefited were the Beaulieus, headed by Clement H. Beaulieu, the oldest son of Bazil Beaulieu, an old trader from LaPointe. Clem’s mother was a Lake Superior Ojibwe, and her son used the extensive connections of both his parents to build a thriving trading business in Crow Wing. Clem Beaulieu’s sister Margaret had married Martin Bisson, another French-Canadian trader. They had been among the first families to homestead at Belle Prairie, a community a few miles downriver from Crow Wing. The Bissons migrated back to Quebec during the Civil War years; when they came back, they brought two sons-in-law with them. One was Theodore Bellefeuille, who married Sophie Bisson in 1855. Theodore and Sophie settled at Belle Prairie and began raising a large family. Theodore’s brother Raphael also settled there.

As descendants of Lake Superior Ojibwe, the Beaulieus were not eligible for allotments at White Earth. But Clem Beaulieu successfully argued that he and his family became eligible when the 1854 treaty with the Lake Superior Ojibwe allowed band members living at Sandy Lake and Crow Wing to switch bands. Under this arrangement, the Beaulieus and their relatives, including the Bellefeuilles became eligible to receive allotments at White Earth.

Theodore and Sophie Bellefeuille moved to White Earth and claimed an allotment not far from Mitchell and Amelia Spry. Two Bellefeuille sons, Antoine and George, who had married and started families, also moved to White Earth. The Bellefeuilles and Sprys, being neighbors and sharing a French-Canadian cultural background, became close and several marriages between the families occurred. Another son of Theodore and Sophie,  Eusebe, married Lizzie Spry, Mitchell and Amelia’s oldest daughter in 1891. Lizzie’s brother Henry married Eusebe’s little sister Georgiana. Bellefeuille cousins, children of Raphael, also married Spry siblings: Josephene married Frank and Jonas married Amelia. Finally, in 1905, Peter Spry, my great-grandfather, married Adelaide, the daughter of Antoine and granddaughter of Theodore. All of the Bellefeuilles (over 40 individuals) received allotments. Early applicants received 160 acres each; beginning in 1891 the government reduced the allotment size to 80 acres.

Meanwhile, other developments at White Earth were leading to more Indians losing their land to whites. In 1902, Congress passed a law allowing Indian heirs to sell allotments they had inherited. In 1904, the so-called Clapp Rider enabled tribal members to sell timber from their allotments. Also in 1904, the Steenerson Act was passed to allow allottees who only received 80 acres to claim another 80. The two laws, passed a week apart, opened the doors to speculators and lumber companies.

The day before the additional allotments were to be made in the spring of 1905, people lined up outside the agency. Many had prepared by scouting out locations where there was merchantable timber.  Ojibwe descendants from all over the country came in hopes of acquiring valuable property. The “full-blood” Indians protested and attempts were made to give them an equal chance by forming a second line. But the net result was most of the choice pine lands being awarded to mixed-bloods of certain families who were connected to the lumber companies. When the full-bloods complained, government officials said the mixed-bloods had shown initiative and demonstrated they were adapting to the white world. The full-bloods were dismissed as lazy.

Were any of our relatives in line that day? The Minnesota Historical Society has a Becker County plat book dating from 1911 that shows several Sprys, Bellefeuilles and Trotochauds owning parcels east of White Earth in the forested part of the reservation. These allotments may have been selected for these family members, some of whom were children, by relatives or unrelated brokers. Most of these tracts were located around Big Sugarbush and Strawberry Lakes, which was dominated by hardwood forest with few pines. By 1911, the lumber companies had already acquired most of the valuable pine lands further east.

The government further eroded the Ojibwe land base in 1906 when a second Clapp Rider passed, allowing mixed-bloods to sell their allotments outright. Wanting to share in the bounty, full-bloods signed affidavits claiming they were mixed bloods so they could sell. Many allottees were swindled out of their land. Subsequent investigations identified Gus Beaulieu, son of Clem, and B.L. Fairbanks as the leading brokers who arranged fraudulent allotment sales to the lumber companies.

In 1911, a group of White Earth Indian leaders petitioned the Indian Office to have 86 people removed from the rolls, including Gus Beaulieu and B.L. Fairbanks. The group was well aware of the damage done by the mixed-blood brokers and wanted to punish them. Also included were 43 members of the Bellefeuille family, for reasons that are not clear. The Bellefeuilles did not seem to be involved in the fraudulent sales or tribal politics.

The Bellefeuilles may have been included because it was believed they had no connection to the White Earth Ojibwe, their only association being with the Beaulieu family. The Indian Office, beginning to recognize the role that certain mixed-bloods played in the allotment scheme, heard the full-bloods’ complaints and suspended the 86 individuals. None of the Sprys was included in the list even though we were affiliated with the same Lake Superior band as the Beaulieus and Bellefeuilles. Perhaps the White Earth leaders knew our family was connected to the Blairs and Trotochauds, who had lived among the Ojibwe at Sandy Lake and Little Rock.  The government reversed itself and reinstated all 86 in 1916.

By that point, much of the reservation land had been transferred to whites. The Indians that had not adapted to farming could no longer count on traditional subsistence without a land base. Extreme poverty and despair followed. The people of White Earth are still burdened by this history as they struggle to build a future.

As for the Sprys, their modest farm, supplemented by what local game they could harvest, enabled them to raise their family. Pete and Adelaide took over the farm from Mitchell and Amelia and raised their ten children there. Uncle Henry opened a store with his Bellefeuille in-laws in Callaway, a new town founded in 1907 where the railroad crossed the southern boundary of the reservation. Most of the rest of the Sprys had left the area by the 1930s. The Sprys who remained on the reservation continued to live close to the land as hunters, fishers and berry-pickers. Those traditions continue in our family today.


Henry Spry, Theodore Bellefeuille, Georgiana Bellefeuille Spry, Lizzie Spry Bellefeuille, Eusebe Bellefeuille, Antoine Bellefeuille in front of their store in Callaway.



Rez Plumbers


June 1977: In a community center in the village of Naytahwaush three old ladies were sitting in a circle, quietly conversing while they hand-sewed a quilt. I recognized one of them as Mrs. Keahna, the Ojibwe woman who came to our school the previous winter to demonstrate making traditional black-ash baskets. Downstairs in the basement of the former schoolhouse, Grandpa and I were putting in a new water heater, struggling to convert the old cast-iron lines to copper to make the connections. While I waited for him to signal me to turn the water on, Grandpa went upstairs to check the pressure at the sink. After the test, Grandpa walked past the old women on his way back downstairs. They grew quiet for a moment as he made his way down. Then I heard one of them say something in Ojibwe and they all tittered like schoolgirls.

Grandpa Ray was a man of many talents and many jobs. He was adept at stringing together just enough part-time work to pay the bills but not so much as to interfere with his hunting and fishing.  Of course it helped that Grandma Arleen worked full-time running their crop insurance business.  One of Grandpa’s part-time gigs was as a plumber for the tribal housing authority on the White Earth reservation. I spent my high school summers working for him as a plumber’s helper.

We split our time between new housing projects and service calls at existing homes, community centers and other facilities.  I liked working on new home construction best. The first step was reviewing the blueprints and figuring out what fittings and lengths of pipe we needed. Then we did the “rough-in”, starting with the PVC drain lines and stubbing the water supply lines into what would be the kitchen and bathroom. We came back several weeks later, after the drywall was installed and painted to set fixtures and hook everything up. By the end of the summer, I got proficient enough that Grandpa would have me doing nearly all the work in the crawlspace. Working on the new homes was predictable and easy because everything was new. There was also satisfaction in knowing that, in some cases, we were helping provide the first homes with indoor plumbing for some families.

Doing service calls around the reservation was anything but predictable. The work could range from fixing a leaky faucet in a mobile home to retrofitting old plumbing in a disused building being converted to a new use. Our supervisor, Bill Englund, did his best to brief us on the assignments for the day. Bill and Grandpa were hunting and fishing buddies from way back and liked to start the day with cups of coffee and the latest news and gossip. I still can picture Bill, his arms resting on the side of the pickup box out in the housing authority’s parking lot, telling stories in his low, gruff voice. Bill spoke with a sing-song rhythm unique to native people at White Earth. His stories were usually about colorful characters around the reservation, with nicknames like Cowboy, Dude and Smoke.

One such character was Pat Clark, Grandpa’s sidekick and my fellow plumber’s helper. Pat came from a large family of mixed-bloods who came to the reservation around the time my family did. A long-time farmhand, Pat walked stooped with his square head and big shoulders leading the rest of him. Pat was not much younger than Grandpa and probably in worse physical shape, so he mainly handed Grandpa tools and parts. More than his help, I think Grandpa enjoyed his company. Pat also spoke with that White Earth lilt, mixed with a brogue that suggested Irish roots. An inveterate gossip, Pat seemed to know everyone on the reservation, or at least he had a story about everyone.

Some days the three of us spent more time riding in the truck than working. Getting to remote parts of the reservation took a lot of time, but I enjoyed exploring this land of woods and water. Occasionally, Grandpa would get the itch to try out fishing on a small lake in the middle of nowhere. On these days he had his jon boat and three-horse Johnson outboard in the back of the truck when he stopped to pick me up on the way to work. That is not to say we played hooky, but finished up early enough to drop a line at the end of the day. Grandpa also liked to bring a small grill along and cook up lunch on the job sites.

Like so many of my adventures with Grandpa, working on the rez was a learning experience. As a farm kid from the edge of the reservation, my eyes were opened to a different world. In some homes dysfunction and despair were evident and the work was sometimes unpleasant. In others, we encountered families who lived mainly subsistence lifestyles and held traditional beliefs. Here we were met by people with a quiet dignity who were sometimes friendly and sometimes not. These encounters were my first real experiences with a different culture. What little I knew about my family’s history as mixed-bloods on the reservation did not prepare me. I went home everyday with questions spinning in my head: who were the real Indians? What did it mean to be Indian? Where do we mixed-bloods fit in? I still ponder these questions today.

As for Grandpa, he enjoyed meeting people and learning about their lives. He was not afraid to ask questions. As with the many other places he traveled, he made friends on the reservation. Many white men of his generation looked down on Indians with disdain but Grandpa treated everyone with respect. As a kid growing up in a white man’s world, I could have easily picked up bad attitudes about people different from me. But Grandpa showed me how to be a decent human being.


Wandering the Prairie


When I was growing up, we lived on the edge of the Red River Valley. From our farmstead to the west stretched miles and miles of farmland. Looking east, the dark line of Minnesota’s famed “northwoods” defined the horizon. We lived in an area that was once oak savanna, where the woods and the prairie met. Before white men came, clumps of oak woods dotted the prairies here, waging a ceaseless battle for territory against waves of grass, a fight arbitrated by wildfire. When the area was settled these woodlands were felled to build homesteader cabins, provide firewood and to clear more land for farming. Only remnants of the wood islands remain near my childhood home, clinging to the steep banks of the Buffalo River or other hillsides too steep to farm.

These wood patches drew me in whenever I ventured out from the farm to explore the natural world.  I had little interest in exploring the open country, which was a monotony of wheat and barley. In my mind, even the smallest patch of woods could still hold beauty and mystery. I wanted to find the wild places. Little wonder that, when I came back to Minnesota ten years ago, I settled in a place in the woods.

About the time I was an exploring farm kid, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources established the Scientific and Natural Area program to save remnants of the wild places. Today there are over 160 SNAs scattered across the state, preserving “natural features of exceptional scientific or educational value.” The program uses volunteers to monitor conditions on these sites and report any vandalism or other activities that would harm the resource.

When I decided to become a volunteer for the SNA program, I looked to serve as a site steward for an SNA near my home. I imagined having responsibility for a rare woodland habitat or a bog. But the nearest SNAs that did not have stewards assigned were out in the Red River Valley, at least an hour from my home. These were remnants of the tallgrass prairie that somehow avoided the plow over the past 140 years.  What little knowledge of prairies I had came from books – I had never visited one before. I decided it was time to do some on-the-ground learning and signed up as a steward for Santee Prairie SNA, located near Mahnomen.

Santee Prairie is a 440-acre parcel originally purchased by The Nature Conservancy, an organization that specializes in acquiring neglected parcels of habitat. Santee includes upland prairie, cattail marshes and patches of shrubs and small trees. Attempts were made to drain and farm the land years ago; old ditches criss-cross the site. The SNA adjoins a state wildlife management area providing habitat for deer and small game, raptors, waterfowl and songbirds. Large areas of the SNA are wet much of the year, supporting not only cattail marshes but lush meadows. Upwelling groundwater at Santee creates conditions favorable to certain rare plants.

Spending time at Santee was intimidating at first. Being used to the woods, standing out there on the wide, flat land I felt vulnerable. Other than some scrubby aspen stands, there was no place to shelter. I grew up hating the wind that never seemed to quit blowing out on the farm and at Santee I was exposed again to its force. I did the perfunctory checks on the access points and signs, but did not spend much time exploring.

I was also intimidated by my lack of knowledge of the native plants I found there. I had taken every botany and plant ecology course I could in college, but that was over 30 years ago. I never really got to use or expand that knowledge during my desk-bound career. On top of that, what little I did know about grasslands pertained to places like Montana and Idaho. I had to brush up on my plant identification skills to begin identifying the myriad wildflowers I encountered.

IMG_1965During my first few trips out (we are asked by the DNR to visit once a month, if possible) I was mystified by the lack of grass. The ground was densely covered with forbs (leafy plants) and woody species like like willow and aspen. Grass seemed to be only a minor component of the plant community, which went against my idea of what prairie should look like. Finally, when I visited in August I encountered the “sea of grass” I had imagined. Big bluestem and Indian grass stood shoulder-high, towering over the other plants. These are called “warm season” grasses, which don’t even begin growing until July. I realized I had been looking in May and June for the “cool season” grasses I was used to seeing in drier grasslands out west.

Wandering through the tall grass, I can experience what this place looked and felt and sounded like some 140 years ago when my ancestors came to homestead. I can get a sense of the wild land that greeted them and challenged them to make their home here. My great-great grandparents (see the Minnesota History page on this blog) relocated here when the White Earth reservation was established, homesteading about 30 miles south of Santee. They tucked their home into a stand of oaks above the Buffalo River, with a view of the tallgrass prairie stretching to the western horizon.


I learn something every time I visit Santee and look forward to my next visit. On my last couple visits I spent hours wandering the prairie, identifying plants I had never seen before, spotting sandhill cranes, hawks and owls. I find myself staying almost until sunset, when I run out of daylight to see and explore. I am not only learning about the prairie, I am learning about myself. I realize I can experience that sense of wonder I felt as a kid in the woods now out on this open and windblown, wild place.








This seems like the longest spring I can remember. Winter fizzled out this year, with little snow or cold weather beyond January. February kept us in a holding pattern. Winter seemed over, but we knew spring was a ways off. We began to warm up a bit in March and snow was mostly gone by mid-month.

During this time, I found myself looking for signs of spring, even though the calendar said it was still winter. All Minnesotans long for spring at some point. Even the most hardy winter lovers are ready to move on by March. But waiting for spring in this country can test anyone’s patience.

We’ve had some warm spells that have given us a foretaste of glorious summer. This year the ice was off the lake by April 4th, almost as early as last year, when spring came charging in full force in March. But this year spring advances and retreats like the last glaciers of the Ice Age. We’ve had temps in the 60s followed by temps in the 30s with snow.

On the lake, evidence of spring was proclaimed by the cacophony of waterfowl and shore birds from mid-March until ice out. We are blessed to have the outlet of our lake on the Crow Wing chain as our front yard. A small bay where the river reappears at the end of the lake stays open throughout the winter and is home to about 8 or 10 trumpet swans. As the the weather warmed and the open water increased in size, the swans were joined by Canada geese, then ducks including mallards, bluebills (scaup), goldeneyes and others. Then came mergansers and sandhill cranes (heard but yet to be seen). The loons and great blue herons arrived just before ice-out. A couple of juvenile bald eagles, probably raised in the nest between 5th and 6th Crow Wing, have been roosting in the white pines behind our house, eyeing the ducks and thinking about their first fishing forays.

In the much quieter woods, evidence of spring is slow to appear. Last week, my granddaughter and I inspected the hepatica, just beginning to bloom. A few mayflowers and violets are appearing this week. The red maples I planted last year flowered at Easter, as did the leatherwood. Other trees and shrubs have broken bud but have yet to unfurl their first leaves. Slowly, slowly is the spring unfolding.

I’ve learned to appreciate the waiting. When I was a kid, I looked forward to spring only as a precursor to the fishing opener and the warm-up to summer. Spring was just a season of mud and restless anticipation. And summers were always too short. Then back to school and more waiting, for hunting season, first snow, ice for fishing, for Christmas break.

Often I sense that time is accelerating as I get older. The weeks and months fly by and before you know it your first little grandchild is 12 years old and taller than her grandma.  Now this long, slow spring feels like a gift of time. There was time get in some woodcutting before the ground thaws. There is time to rake up last fall’s leaves and the winter detritus before the grass takes off. There is time to observe the each week’s arriving migrants among the songbirds. And there is time to walk in the woods with my youngest granddaughter to look for new wildflowers, to experience her wonder and joy. So let spring take its sweet time in coming, for the time is sweet.

White Earth: Settling In

When the Sprys arrived on the White Earth reservation in 1873-74, the area was not far removed from being a wilderness. There were no roads, other than a trail from Detroit (Lakes), where there was a railroad depot. There were about 500 or 600 people living on the reservation, many of them concentrated near the Indian agency at White Earth village. The village included a couple of stores, run by the McArthur and Fairbanks families. The federal government had built a gristmill and a sawmill at White Earth Lake. There was also a sawmill just off the reservation on the Buffalo River at the outlet of Buffalo Lake. A small village, Richwood, had sprung up there.

The homesteads the Sprys and Trotochauds started were located several miles south of White Earth (assuming they homesteaded where they received allotments years later). Although they may have gotten some of their supplies from Richwood, they likely conducted business in White Earth as well. The original treaty language required Indians to farm at least 10 acres to be eligible for 40; an individual Indian could claim up to 160 acres. As tribal members, Amelia, Angeline and the other Trotochauds were eligible to obtain land this way. An entry from May in 1877 of the day book of the Indian agent, Lewis Stowe, mentions issuing Pierre Trotochaud 10 bushels of wheat to plant. They may have gotten lumber to build their homes from the government-run sawmill at White Earth Lake.

About the same time our family arrived at White Earth, a Catholic priest named Ignatius Tomazin came to the reservation to start a church and school. Fr. Tomazin was likely known to our family, as he was a protégé of Fr. Pierz and also worked with Fr. Buh, who served churches and missions from Crow Wing down to Sauk Rapids. In January 1873 Fr. Tomazin planted a mission cross at the present site of Calvary Cemetery, two miles south of White Earth village. The following year, work was completed on a small church at the site. It is likely members of our family were parishioners there.

Fr. Tomazin served as the resident priest at White Earth until 1877, when he ran into trouble with the federal government. Almost since his arrival on the reservation, Fr. Tomazin protested what he saw as discrimination against Catholic Indians by the Episcopal-run Indian agency. The priest wrote letters to newspapers as far away as New York complaining about Episcopalians getting the best clothes and other supplies before the Catholics. Fr. Tomazin believed the Catholic church should have charge of the White Earth agency because there were more Catholics on the reservation than any other denomination. Another issue was funding for the Catholic school. Although the government had built the Episcopal church and the government school run by the Episcopalians, the agent refused to fund the building of a Catholic school. This was not just the policy at White Earth, but at other reservations as well.

The conflict came to a head in the summer of 1877, when Agent Stowe ordered Fr. Tomazin to leave the reservation. The agent claimed that Fr. Tomazin had broken the law when he transported the late Bagone-giizhig’s daughters off the reservation without permission. The priest brought the girls to St. Benedict Academy in St. Joseph to further their education. When federal officials arrived to force his removal, the priest began ringing the church bell, bringing his parishioners to see what the trouble was. The Sprys lived about 5 miles south of the church and may have heard the church bells. The parishioners maintained a vigil in and around the church and outside the priest’s house because of a rumor that the officials were going to burn the church down. Because the government was concerned that Fr. Tomazin would incite the Indians further, a small cavalry attachment was sent to White Earth from Fort Snelling. After another confrontation during which Fr. Tomazin refused to come out of the church for three hours, he was finally convinced to leave the reservation. It seems likely that the Sprys and Trotochauds were on hand to witness these events. As with most of the mixed-blood families, the Catholic faith was the center of their lives and they would have supported their priest and protected their church.

Fr. Tomazin’s exit paved the way for the Benedictines to come to White Earth. To replace the priest, the bishop requested the abbot of St. John’s Abbey provide a priest and nuns for the reservation. The abbot sent Fr. Aloysius Hermaneutz and two nuns, Sister Philomene Ketten and Sister Lioba Braun. They arrived at the White Earth mission in November 1878 to find the log priest’s house log church had been stripped of everything but two stoves. Within a week, they opened a school with an enrollment of twelve girls and three boys and had forty pupils within a week. The Benedictines would go on to build a new school and church in 1881 located less than a mile east of the original mission site.

Soon Indians that homesteaded along the Buffalo River, including our family, requested that Fr. Aloysius provide them with their own school. In 1882, Sr. Philomena began riding horseback to the Buffalo River day school, some eight miles each way from the mission. Because of the dangers of traveling in open country, the school was often closed during the winter months.

Later in the 1880s, Lizzie Spry, the oldest daughter, attended an industrial school in St. Joseph run by the Benedictine nuns. There she was taught sewing, cooking, gardening and other “household arts” as well as reading and writing. In 1896, at age 23 Henry, the second-oldest son, was sent to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, apparently to learn a trade. Henry only attended a month there before returning home. School records indicate he “ran”.

Mitchell and Amelia had a total of eight children, according to family records: Frank, born in 1871, Henry (1873), Lizzie (1874), Amelia (1878), Peter (1882), Ellen (1885) Lawrence (1891) and Madeleine (1894). Strangely, the U.S. Census in 1900 lists another son, Albert, born in 1886. Albert also shows up in annual Indian censuses conducted between 1886 and 1901. I can find no other record for this person.

The Spry family prospered in their new home, raising their family and watching the area around them change from wilderness to farmland. The land Amelia and Mitchell had selected for their home straddled the Buffalo River. They could have selected 160 acres of prairie, ready for the plow, but they chose to claim the woods along the river. This suggests to me they wanted to remain connected to woodland, to moving water. This allowed them to continue to hunt, fish and trap as Amelia’s family always had.

As they watched the land around them change, the Spry family also witnessed the debacle that unfolded with the passage of the Nelson Act, which established the allotment process and the Clapp Rider, which allowed Indians to sell their land. I’ll write more about this history in my next post.Spry family home

Frank, Mitchell, Lawrence, Peter, Amelia, Henry, Madeleine and Ellen Spry at their home, around 1892.


Although I still have a few sniffles, I appear to be over my bout with the flu. Over the past few days, sitting in my jammies binge-watching Cosmos, I began to ponder viruses. In short, they are amazing. According to Wikipedia (I’m too sick to go the library), a virus consists of a chunk of genetic material (DNA or RNA) coated with proteins for protection. That’s it.

Remember drawing cells with a nucleus and mitochondria in biology class? We learn cells are the basic building blocks of life. Life begins in a cell. Even single cell organisms (think of looking at Paramecium under a microscope back in Biology 101) are obviously alive, busy swimming around finding food. They have everything they need in their cell to replicate themselves, to carry on life.

Viruses are not “alive” because they are not a cell – they are lumps of organic material. They do come in interesting shapes and some even have “heads” and “tails”. But basically we are just talking about a chunk of genetic material lying about. Flotsam seemingly left over from the process of evolution. They are everywhere, “found in almost every ecosystem on Earth and the most abundant type of biological entity” (Wikipedia).

Viruses are not alive, but boy can they replicate. That’s where we come in. Viruses need to infect living organisms to propagate themselves. They sneak into our cells and hijack the equipment. Then, like the pep club commandeering the principal’s photocopier, they make a bunch of copies of themselves. After they have used up all the paper and toner, the viruses are ready to be spread to more hosts.

Once again, we lend a helping hand (especially if we don’t wash our hands). Viruses need us to spread them around. Because they are tiny, they travel through the air, propelled by a good sneeze or cough. This may seem like a random process, a biological accident. But viruses have evolved to become more effective at replicating and spreading.

Think about that. How does something that is not alive evolve? Another thing we learn in Biology 101 is that all living things seek to reproduce, to ensure their species survives. That’s called the biological imperative. Animals eat, sleep, hunt or gather, play, have sex. Even plants have sex with the help of pollinators. Viruses do none of these things. Yet they persist, mutating to find better ways to survive.

I am sure there are evolutionary biologists who could explain it all. But they would miss the point. The point is, viruses are amazing. Life is amazing.

Into the Whiteshell, Part 2


A painting by my daughter Hannah, based on a photo of Grandpa and me from a fishing trip in Canada.

Our trips to Whiteshell Provincial Park typically lasted seven or eight days, including travel time. Having five days in camp allowed us to explore the lake, trying out old fishing holes from Grandpa’s earlier trips and some new spots. Back in the 1950s and 60s Grandpa and his friends mainly fished for big northern pike, and occasionally got into some good walleye fishing. By the time I got to go, Echo Lake had developed an excellent walleye fishery.

My first year up, Dad brought along a 69-cent, hot pink lure with white feathers. Grandpa gave him some grief over it, but Dad tied in on anyway. For whatever reason, that lure was irresistible to walleyes.  By mid-day, the feathers were gone and by the end of the day the lure barely had any paint left on it! Grandpa tore through his tackle box, looking for anything with pink on it. Even though Dad had the hot hand that day, we all caught fish.

To keep under the possession limit at the time, we ate fish everyday. Sometimes Grandpa threw a frying pan, some lard and salt and pepper in the boat so we could a have a shore lunch, just like those fancy guided fishermen from the resorts. Grandpa did all the cooking on those trips and I did the dishes. The menu was never fancy but we ate like kings.

While we enjoyed catching walleyes, for real excitement we went after big pike.We checked out a spot on the lake Grandpa called Meat Market Falls. Located somewhere along the western shore of the lake, a creek tumbled down the rocks. It was a spawning stream for suckers, a favorite food of northerns in the spring.  Grandpa once caught a 28-lb. pike there years before. I remember admiring the big fish hanging on the wall in Grandpa and Grandma’s basement, its belly sagging below the edge of the mounting board. But we found the creek had been dammed up by beavers, so we landed the boat, hiked up the slope and inspected the dam.  It was the tallest beaver dam I had ever seen, over 10 ft at the centerline. Behind it was a pond of crystal-clear water where we tried a few casts but had no luck.

At the end of my first trip up, we stopped at a rock outcrop on the way back to the portage. Another sucker creek poured into the lake right next to the outcrop. It was a beautiful sunny day and we were in no hurry to leave. We cast spoons off the rock and hooked several nice northerns. Grandpa rigged up a frozen smelt on the end of his line and cast it out to sink about 6 ft below a big wooden bobber. When the bobber went down he told me to set the hook and start reeling. I fought the fish at least 20 minutes before Dad was able to get the landing net under it and haul it in. I had my first trophy northern pike, 42 inches long and about 18-20 lbs.

Grandpa was even more excited than I was and he and Dad decided right on the spot to have the fish mounted by a taxidermist for me. We carefully slit the belly on one side to clean it and packed it in ice. We brought the frozen fish to the taxidermist a few days after getting home. I remember the wait for the taxidermist to finish as excruciating – I couldn’t wait to see my trophy! Finally, after some months, we brought the mount home. Grandpa insisted my parents hang the thing in their living room where everyone to could see it. When I became an adult with a job and a house some years later my parents allowed me to take possession. The old mount has survived a half-dozen moves mostly intact, and hangs in our cabin to this day.

When we were not fishing or lolling around camp, we did some exploring. We hiked to nearby Forbes Lake, checked out islands for potential future campsites, and watched moose swimming across the lake. Grandpa always stopped to watch wildlife, whether beavers or bears or bald eagles.  Even though Grandpa lived to fish, he took the time to enjoy the beauty around him and enjoyed sharing the experience with me. Through him I gained a deep appreciation for the natural world and for quiet places. This is his greatest gift to me.






Into the Whiteshell, Part 1

Of all my experiences with Grandpa, our Canadian fishing trips had the most profound effect on me. Spending a week traveling to and camping in a wilderness in the Canadian Shield country, fishing for dinner, soaking in the beauty of the place, gave me a lifelong appreciation for the natural world. The Whiteshell country shaped who I am.

Whiteshell Provincial Park contains over a thousand square miles of rivers, forests, bare rock outcrops and crystal clear lakes and is located east of Winnipeg, Manitoba along the Ontario border. The area is essentially the western end of the Canadian Shield country that extends eastward through the Quetico-Superior country, the Boundary Waters and beyond. The exposed rock or shield is some of the oldest rock on the planet.

Whiteshell map.pngThe Whiteshell is named after the megis shell, a sacred object central to the origin stories of the Ojibwe. The area is known for its petroforms, which are rock alignments in the shapes of turtles, snakes, humans and other forms that historically may have been used by the Midewiwin or Grand Medicine Society of the Ojibwe, and probably are still in use today.

Our trips through the Whiteshell followed the Winnipeg River along the northern border of the park. This route was heavily used during the fur trade era, linking the Great Lakes to interior Canada.  The north half of the park is roadless wilderness, with only a handful of fly-in resorts and trail shelters for development. Our trip upriver was the most adventurous part of the journey. Dad, Grandpa and I traveled on Grandpa’s 14-foot Lund boat packed to the gunwales with gear, gas, food and beer some 40 miles. Grandpa’s boat was powered by an old 10-hp Johnson motor. He had a 3.5 hp Johnson motor that conveniently folded in half for storage, as a backup. That durable little motor is now in my garage.

Leaving Pointe du Bois, just above a large hydroelectric dam, at dawn we weaved our way among the many islands along the river to Lamprey Rapids. Here we had a choice of shooting the rapids or portaging around them.  If the water was high, the rapids were barely discernible and easy to traverse. In low water years, we typically unloaded a few critical items from the boat and then hand-towed it along the edge of the rapids to the upstream side.  We had good reason to use caution. Grandpa recalled a time when he and Grandma encountered another couple at the rapids who had been drinking. They later learned the couple drowned attempting to shoot the rapids.

Above Lamprey Rapids, we continued upriver, Dad reading an old map and pointing out the route to Grandpa. The dotted line on the map showed how to weave through the islands and outcrops. At the outlet of Eaglenest Lake, the river again shallowed and numerous rocks just below the surface had to be avoided. At the south end of the lake we reached Little Echo Creek and followed it back west. We traveled through a couple of smaller lakes to reach a falls and portage around mid-afternoon.

The portage, although only about 500 yards long, was the toughest part of the trip. We unloaded our boatload of gear and packed it over the rocky trail, making innumerable trips. On my first trip, at age 12, I thought we would never finish! I was stripped down to my long underwear, sweltering even though it was only late May.

The worst part was lugging the 14-ft aluminum boat up the portage. Dad grabbed the bow line and pulled it over his shoulder until the bow lifted up. Grandpa and I each took hold of the handle on each side of the stern. We would go about 20 steps, put the boat down and rest. We attempted to make the work lighter the next trip by inserting two aspen saplings through the seat braces to make like a wheelbarrow. Another year, Grandpa completed the wheelbarrow concept by welding up a wheel mounted to brackets which were in turn mounted to the boat. After thinking about this idea, working it up in his shop during the winter, and hauling it all the way upriver, Grandpa was convinced it would do the trick. But it didn’t, and the contraption probably still lays in the woods next to the trail where Grandpa discarded it.

Finally, after getting all our gear over the portage and reloading the boat, we were on the northeast arm of Echo Lake, our destination. The lake was incredibly beautiful, with many high cliffs, tranquil bays and incoming streams. Even though a wildfire several years before had burned off much of the timber, all the rocks and water, the sheer wildness of it – I was enthralled.

On my first trip, we camped on a rocky point near the south end of the lake. This was the site of an old trappers cabin that Grandpa and a group of friends leased back in the 1950s. Unfortunately, over the years more friends and friends of friends abused the privilege, leaving behind trash and letting the cabin fall into disrepair. Park rangers eventually burned it down. We set up an old army tent on the site, built a temporary table against a tree for washing dishes and preparing meals and gathered downed wood for the campfire.

I’ll write more about our experiences at Echo Lake in my next post.




Passing Judgment on Squirrels

As I had hoped, my office in the new house is a great place to watch birds visit our feeders. We have enjoyed watching the comings and goings of over a dozen species. Last week we had four different woodpeckers (red-bellied, pileated, hairy and downy) at our feeders at the same time! But with the birds come the squirrels. No doubt, squirrels can be entertaining, but do they have to eat so much? Are they making it harder for the birds get enough food?

We have both grey squirrels and red squirrels raiding our feeders.  The grey squirrels, which may be really hybridized fox squirrels, are at least twice the size of the red squirrels. But the size difference does not seem to bother the aggressive red squirrels. They attack whenever a grey squirrel comes near my feeders. They chase up and down, spiraling around tree trunks, making death-defying leaps. The action rivals the best chase scenes from Hollywood.

From what I can tell, the birding (or bird-feeding) community online spends a lot of time discussing ways to keep squirrels out of feeders. Bird feeder makers tout the latest innovations in “squirrel-proof” feeders. I found at least one site on-line that stated the squirrels can keep birds from feeding effectively. But the biggest complaint and reason for controlling squirrels appears to be just how much expensive birdseed squirrels consume.

Because most bird-feeding enthusiasts like all kinds of wildlife, their typical solution is to provide alternative feed for the squirrels away from the bird feeders. This can include corn cobs and peanuts. This strategy sounds good in theory, but does it really work? I would think squirrels habituated to bird feeders and the goodies contained therein are not going to go out of their way to feed on something else.

I find myself getting outsmarted no matter what I do to keep the squirrels away from my feeders.The expensive “squirrel-proof” feeder I bought includes a wire grid that surrounds the feeding tube. But the dimensions of the grid are just large enough to permit a red squirrel to squeeze through. Following on-line instructions I built a platform feeder 10 feet from the nearest tree and five feet above ground. I found out that squirrels, at least our well-fed brood, can leap vertically over five feet.

I bought a small live trap, thinking I could remove the squirrels humanely and relocate them to a nearby state forest, or at least somebody else’s woods. But the squirrels have ignored it so far. Something too small to trip the gate, probably mice, has raided the trap and stolen the bait a few times.  So much for being a nice guy.

Sometimes I can convince our dogs to go out and chase the squirrels away from the feeders, but the squirrels make fools of the dogs every time they begin the chase. Evidently, Mabel, our cockapoo, and Buddy, our springer spaniel, have not figured out that the squirrels are up a tree and out of sight before they take three steps out the door. Lately, the looks the dogs give me at the door suggest they are realizing the futility in giving chase.

My dad shows no mercy when it comes to squirrels at his feeders. Dad grew up in farm country where varmints like skunks and coyotes were routinely dispatched. To Dad, a squirrel raiding his feeders is a varmint. Dad has no compunction about treating his squirrel problem with “a little lead behind the ear”. Of course, he does this legally in accordance with Minnesota’s small game regulations. Dad is pretty proud of the sharpshooting skills he has developed defending his feeders over the years. But he admits the squirrels keep showing up year after year.

I tried using an old BB gun still around from when my kids were little. I was not trying to hit the squirrels, just scare them, which is just as well because the gun’s accuracy was questionable. But the BB gun quit working and now I am considering getting a pellet gun. With a Crosman Nitro Venom .177 Caliber complete with scope, I could act as judge, jury and executioner. But do I really want to shoot them? I have a firm belief in eating what you kill. When it comes to squirrels I’m not that hungry, especially with fresh venison in the freezer. I would feel guilty chucking a freshly killed squirrel into the brush.

My wife does not buy my lofty moral stance. She claims I really like engaging the squirrels in this contest of wits, even if I am losing. As she says, “if you got rid of the squirrels what would you do all winter?” As I write this, a huge grey squirrel is gorging himself at one of my feeders. Wait…did he just wink at me?