Road-trips, ravines, and rattlesnakes

By Kelsey Brock, Southern District, Mankato Crew - 10/11/2018

Last month, our crew completed our first ten-day spike trip all the way to Nebraska. This started off with a ten-hour car ride, and then meeting up with one of Rochester’s crews at Scott’s Bluff National Monument. This was not only a place with gorgeous scenery, but also has the Oregon Trail running through it as well.

When we finally arrived, we got to see all the amazing sites this place had to offer, from down into its ravines all the way up to the views from the top of the bluffs. We even got the chance to attend a star gazing event at the top to check out some planets and constellations.

 Once we got to work, our main focus was to spray invasive species of thistle, along with some removal of puncture vine. So for the next week and half, we adventured across prairies, down into ravines, and climbing up bluffs to take down some thistles. Rattlesnakes were seen, pants were ripped, and the sweat was very real. But it was a great opportunity to be able to work everyday surrounded by such unique beauty, and we had a lot of fun doing it. .

*many thistles were harmed in the making of this spike trip*

Water Trails: "So, what do you do?"

By: Erin Bjork, 10/9/18

"So, what do you do?"
"I'm an AmeriCorps member, and most days I run chainsaws on boats."
"You what?!"

Since last spring, this is usually how my conversations go when meeting new people and describing my work on the Minnesota Water Trails.

To zoom out to the big picture, the Water Trails consist of stretches of river (or lakeshore in the case of the Lake Superior WT) designated for recreation by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and maintained by the DNR and three Conservation Corps young adult crews. If you have a canoe, kayak, or paddleboard, you can register it with the DNR and use any of the trails (many are appropriate for motorboats as well). My favorite Water Trails to recommend are the Snake and Kettle, two absolutely beautiful rivers that give the feel of the North Shore but are only a little over an hour from the Twin Cities. If you explore the Water Trails on the DNR website and take a look at WT maps, you'll see that each trail has marked boat launches for canoes or motorboats, campsites, rest areas, and notes on the river/lake.

Some of our responsibilities as Water Trails crews are to perform maintenance on the campsites and launches: from mowing to installing new signage, even occasionally creating new campsites or taking down old ones. On rivers with portages, we do the same--the aforementioned Snake and Kettle Rivers have a couple of long portages that we visit once a year for mowing, signage checks, and cleaning up their campsites (with breaks to snack on wild blueberries, if we hit the right time in the season).

These maintenance activities are important to the Water Trails experience—making sure signage is up to date and correct, and providing clean, well-kept campsites and portages help river users have a great trip. However, the real gem of Water Trails service is our snag removal work: what I always call "chainsaws on boats." In a nutshell, if a tree falls across a river, or a logjam accumulates, it can be dangerous and difficult for paddlers, so we cut safe paths through or around these snags.

When I first heard about snag removal, my 2017 term Crew Leader called it "underwater chainsawing" and I thought he was kidding. Turns out that's really what we do, spraying water with our saws as we cut away hazardous branches under the surface of the water. In a jonboat, we operate our saws directly from the boat, working as a team to keep the boat in position and make safe cuts. When we canoe, we have to get out and stand in the river to operate our saws--their motors are powerful enough that they could easily drive (and tip) the canoes!

One of my greatest challenges is analyzing and manipulating the physics of the trees we work on. On land, gravity and tension determine how a tree will fall or roll. In the water, buoyancy and current come into the picture as well, multiplying the chances of getting a saw pinned in a branch if a cut isn't made just right. Exploring and confronting these forces, and working on such a variety of projects, gets me excited about my service term every day.

While much of our work is for the benefit of recreation, we also keep in mind the ecology of the rivers we visit. We try to keep our cutting minimal and all woody debris we cut or dislodge is left in the river to serve as important habitat for fish, invertebrates, birds, and all the wildlife surrounding these river habitats. I often fish trash and recycling out of logjams for proper disposal, almost invariably finding at least a couple mismatched flip flops or Crocs, cans and bottles, and inflatable balls.

I am honored to have had the opportunity to ensure great recreational experiences for others, learn about water resources, and spend my days in some of the most beautiful settings our state has to offer. As a kid who never went camping, having the opportunity to live in a tent all summer long has truly been a dream, and I am so thankful that the Corps took me on as a member last year and allowed me the chance to lead a crew this 2018 term!


Before and After: Fish Passage Restored

By Eimy Quispe, Conservation Apprentice with the Carlton Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) - 9/28/2018

Field season this past summer has been incredible. Stream surveying for culvert replacements can be a challenge since some streams in Carlton County are not in the best shape, but that’s made our surveying time unforgettable. After stream surveys are completed and field data is collected, planning and designing efforts take place in order to complete a project. Culverts around the county are in different conditions and surveys allow us to take a closer look in order to address some of the stream’s problems such as erosion control, fish or aquatic organism passage, water quality, etc.

  Caleb Maki, Public Work Supervisor for the City of Scanlon

Caleb Maki, Public Work Supervisor for the City of Scanlon

Scanlon creek is a trout stream, and home for other aquatic organisms in Carlton County. Due to the notably undersized culvert connecting the stream under the road, there was local concern about causing barriers for aquatic organisms to pass through the culvert. The structure that was in place was also heavily deteriorating the road going over it and producing flooding upstream while the backed up water waited to pass through the culvert. This is why the culvert connecting Scanlon creek was replaced in July of 2018 as a cooperative project.

The Scanlon Creek culvert was replaced thanks to the joint work of the City of Scanlon, Carlton County Transportation Department and SWCD, Conservation Corps Apprentice: Declan Devine, and Contractor involved with this project. Our Conservation Corp Apprentice’s stream survey, culvert design, and overall collaboration with field work needed for Scanlon creek to have a properly sized and installed culvert is an important part of what has made this project happen.

The goal of having a properly sized and installed culvert in this case is to reduce sediment erosion and increase aquatic organism connectivity. Sometimes projects don’t happen immediately but over an extended period of time and, in this case, the work done by Declan last year has had a positive impact that can now be highlighted. Some comparison pictures below illustrate the work that was completed this summer!

BEFORE - Summer 2017

AFTER - Summer 2018

Stream Surveys 2018

Back to the Basics

By Caroline Fazzio, Individual Placement Program – 9/25/18

Although fall has officially begun, it was just a few weeks ago when the the Minnesota State Fair was in full swing. Alongside the other shows, the Department of Natural Resources took the stage, setting up a multitude of different exhibits within the central DNR building. Featured among them was the invasive species station complete with educational materials, free tattoos, and some sweet swag bags. While working the invasive species exhibit and fielding questions, it occurred to me that I often take it for granted that everyone else knows all about invasive species, but this is simply not the case. Therefore, we’re taking it back to the basics of aquatic invasives—what are they, why do we care, and what can we do?

What are they? – Defining “invasive species” can be difficult, as scientists have debated for years about what terminology is best used to describe these species. Typically something is called “invasive” when it is non-native and a nuisance, but there are non-natives that never become nuisances and there are natives that can be pests. The State of Minnesota defines an invasive species as a non-native species that causes economic, environmental, or human harm; or threatens natural resources in the state.

In Minnesota, many people are concerned with aquatic invasives that can harm lakes. The most well-known of which are: curly-leaf pondweed, Eurasian watermilfoil, starry stonewort, and zebra mussels.

Why do we care? – In invasive species work, the question always arises, “why do we care?” Opposition arguments include “these species will inevitably arrive in new places, so why waste time and money?”; “birds and animals spread species more than humans, so why should we be concerned?”; and my personal favorite, “the planet is already doomed, so why bother?”.

In an attempt to tackle these thesis-long topics in a paragraph, I will simply say this—First, many of these species have been around for thousands of years; if their arrival here is inevitable, they likely would have come already. Second, the movement of invasive species around the globe has accelerated alongside the global movement of humans. Even in Minnesota, infested lakes tend to be those most heavily recreated by humans. So while the birds and the bats may play some role in transporting species, humans are the primary culprits (if you don’t believe me, look up scientific literature on the subject—google scholar “pathways of spread of invasive species”). Third, there are no change-bringers among doomsayers, so instead let’s work together to make positive change.

What can we do? –This oft-cited question permeates through many environmentally-concerned fields. There is rarely a definitive answer, but I will keep mine simple.

Be aware.

It seems obvious, but just imagine you’re loading your boat after a day in the lake. It’s hot and all you want is to go home and collapse on the couch in the air conditioning. How likely are you to remember to check your boat thoroughly for strands of plants before leaving? Being aware enough of invasive species to remember this simple task can go a long way to preventing their spread. Completely eradicating an invasive species from an ecosystem is nearly impossible. Therefore, preventing the spread of invasive species is the best form of control. It’s something everyone, including you, can do. So let’s take a couple minutes out of our day to clean our outdoor gear and be mindful of the impact we have on this earth. The path to any change begins with a single step.

*All photos courtesy of the MN Department of Natural Resources