Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Last of the Doughboys - Memorial Day 2010

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row…

This weekend we will again observe Memorial Day; a holiday first set aside to honor the fallen soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War, and which has since become a day to recognize all those who died in military service. Unofficially, the day is an occasion to honor all our nation’s veterans, especially those who have died, either in service or later in life.

Every Memorial Day I take a mental trip back to my hometown in southern Minnesota, where they have a community observance rooted in decades-long tradition, and of which, playing in the high school band, I always had a ringside view.

The day started in the cool of the morning with a parade forming for a march down Main Street. There would be a veteran’s organization color guard, followed by the band, scout troops, veterans groups, and Gold Star Mothers. After reaching the edge of town we’d hop in a bus for a short ride to the city cemetery a mile out of town. At the cemetery there would be a program which always included recitations of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the poem, “In Flanders Fields,” a speech by some area politician, and concluding with a firing squad’s salute and, of course, the poignant tones of Taps.

The elder statesmen of the veterans groups marching on those humid Memorial Day mornings were the World War I veterans, the Doughboys who went to France and added the needed surge of military energy to finally end the war on November 11, 1918. They were, in my youth, the civic leaders and established businessmen of our community. One of them operated the local theater where he sat in a tiny ticket booth, and inside, where his wife, my mother’s cousin, took our tickets and sold popcorn. Another of those veterans was the city manager and one of my first bosses when I had a summer job in 1959 digging ditches (really).

The last time I was back home over Memorial Day was over 30 years ago and the last few local veterans of the Great War rode down Main Street in the back of a convertible.
Those old veterans are now all gone, having taken their last rides down Main Street years ago.

In fact, of the 65 million or so soldiers, sailors and marines from around the globe who fought in that terrible war there are just, at last count, three veterans whose service is verifiable, all age 109, still living. Claude Choules, the last surviving seaman, joined the Royal Navy at age 15 in 1916. He moved to Australia after the war and later served in the Royal Australian Navy in WWII. Florence Green is the last female veteran and the last veteran living in the U.K. Frank Buckles is the last American veteran. Buckles served as an ambulance driver on the Western Front. He was held as a prisoner in WWII as a civilian. He lives in West Virginia. The last known person who fought for Germany in the war died January 1, 2008 at age 107. Canada’s last veteran, who lived in the U.S. after the war, died last year.

The poem, “In Flanders Fields,” was written by Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian Army physician who witnessed at first hand the horrors of war in the Ypres sector of the war. He wrote the poem the day after he personally conducted the funeral for a friend, a Canadian lieutenant killed in a bomb burst. Col. McCrae, himself, didn’t survive the war, dying of pneumonia in 1918.

Traditionally, we observed Memorial Day on May 30, but that changed to the last Monday of May in 1971, following passage of the Uniform Holidays Bill in 1968. Whether this holiday is the first holiday weekend of summer or the last holiday of winter, as it often is in Montana, let’s not forget those whom we honor this weekend.

…if ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Not So Silent Prairie

When we think of prairies we usually think in terms of open vistas of rolling plains and grasslands. We don’t often dwell on the sounds of the prairie.

We took a springtime trip across Montana to Minot, North Dakota this past week to see our son, Kevin, and his family. While there, we went fishing, of course. It’s a good reason to go there in the spring.

Fishing, of course, doesn’t come with guarantees. All you can do is wet a line and hope for the best. Sometimes, spring trips produce a lot of fishing action but this wasn’t one of them. The end of April and beginning of May seemed unseasonably cold here in western Montana, and that was also the case in North Dakota. One of the things TV weathermen keep tabs on in North Dakota is soil temperature, and while we were there soil temperatures were dropping—which is bad news for farmers putting in their crops.

While fishing was slow, there was lots of activity going on all around us.

We spent one day fishing at Devils Lake, the massive eastern North Dakota lake complex that has, in the last 20 years, tripled in size. Kevin pointed out that a few years back he’d go there and marvel at fishing spots we went to back in the 1970s and 1980s that were no longer accessible, as they’re all under water. Now it seems to be a yearly thing. You look for a spot where you fished the year before, and now it’s gone. Farms are continually going under water—and it has nothing to do with the mortgage bust.

But birds are everywhere. There are incredible populations of waterfowl, with ducks of all kinds, giant Canada geese, and shorebirds everywhere. The Devils Lake area is a magnet for birdwatchers that come there just for the myriad shorebirds.

On another day I went to Lake Sakakawea, the big Missouri impoundment downstream from Montana. I fished along a shallow bay, hoping the sheltered waters would be warming a bit. It was a good plan, even if the fish didn’t go along with it. In recent years I’ve spent a lot more time hunting pheasants along the lakeshore than fishing, and it was hard not to think of pheasants on this pleasant spring day.

As the saying goes, in springtime a young man’s fancy turns to love, and that’s certainly the case with pheasants. Cock pheasants in springtime are a vocal group, presumably advertising to hen pheasants their availability for a good time, as well as letting other roosters know that the territory is already staked out.

A discordant note comes from an oil-drilling tower at the head of the bay I was fishing. Western North Dakota is a beehive of oil drilling, exploration and pumping, along with heavy truck traffic. In fact, it’s downright mind-boggling. A few weeks ago, the New York Times did a feature story on the difficulties oil patch workers have finding housing in Williston, the informal capitol of the western North Dakota oil fields. There are lots of jobs, but finding a place to live after work is tricky.

On another outing, this time to a small lake away from oil country, at the public access point I was greeted by a chorus of birds, including the usual ducks, geese and shorebirds, but also song birds of various kinds concentrated in a patch of trees and shrubs. There were dozens of bird songs happening all at once, with birds trying to out-do each other in making themselves heard above the crowds. And, again, pheasants were calling from their hangouts on the prairie hillsides.

While the prairie was full of sounds, tiny prairie wildflowers were in bloom, adding bits of color to the green shoots of grass and last year’s dried grasses.

At the end of the day, birds settle down, but there are new sounds. Stepping outside Kevin’s house one evening, frogs were talking from a nearby wetland and open field. “Those are western chorus frogs,” Kevin explained, as we enjoyed the sounds of the chilly evening.

The photo above is Kevin and our Labs in the Devils Lake area. A year ago, farmers were driving tractors and farm trucks down this road.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Poison Ivy Can Ruin Your Day!

A long ago hunt for ruffed grouse on an early fall day in North Dakota hangs in my memory. I don’t recall whether I brought home any grouse. I do remember, however, developing a rash on my left arm a few days later. Somehow I brushed up with some poison ivy.

The rash healed up after about a week, and while I haven’t had any more of those unpleasant encounters I’d rather not have another. Accordingly, I perked up when Gary Burris of Tec Laboratories, of Albany, Oregon, made a presentation on poison ivy and oak at the annual conference of the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association, held a couple weeks ago at Seeley Lake, Montana.

The nasty ingredient that makes life miserable for people who encounter poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac is urushiol, a resin-type oil contained in the leaves and stems of these plants. It’s powerful stuff. “The amount of urushiol on the tip of a needle is enough to give 100 people a rash,” Burris said. Looking at it another way, urushiol would have to be diluted in olive oil at 60,000 to one before it wouldn’t cause problems.

Urushiol also doesn’t break down with age. Burris told of a piece of poison ivy wood that had been in a museum for 100 years. After that period, someone moved it and a few days later came down with a rash. Also, burning can release urushiol in smoke, and if inhaled can cause major problems.

The best remedy for poison ivy and poison oak problems is to avoid it. The old saying, “groups of three: leave it be,” is still the rule of thumb when it comes to these toxic plants. According to the USDA-NRCS website, both poison ivy and poison oak are present in Montana, from one end of the state to the other, though not in all counties. It’s not present in Silver Bow County, but is found in Madison, Gallatin and Park Counties in southwest Montana. I haven’t knowingly seen any, though I’ve heard from others about poison oak along the lower Madison River in the Beartrap Canyon area. Poison sumac is not found in Montana.

As to what to do if exposed to poison ivy and poison oak, the first thing to do is get it off, and it takes something that can break down the resins in urushiol. A pumice-based soap, such as Lava, is effective, as is Dawn dishwashing detergent.
Tec Laboratories makes a product, Tecnu, which the company’s founder, Dr. Robert Smith, developed in the 1960s to wash off atomic dust particles, back in that backyard bomb shelter era. The Cold War never turned hot, but after the Smith family moved to Oregon their children all became exposed to poison oak. In a fit of anger, Mrs. Smith went out and pulled up, with her bare hands, all the poison oak on their property. Her work complete she decided she’d better wash up and spotted a container of fallout scrub and washed with that—and avoided the nasty rash altogether.

That was the beginning of Tec Laboratory’s line of poison ivy and poison oak remedies.
Other remedies on the market include Zanfel and Terrafil.

Burris further recommended that besides washing skin surfaces, clothing should be washed with Tide laundry detergent. Tools and gear should be wiped down with a Tecnu-saturated cloth. Pets, such as dogs, normally don’t react to poison ivy, though an animal exposed to urushiol can certainly pass that nasty resin on to humans. Burris also mentioned that his company’s product is also effective for removing skunk spray, as well as creosote and tar.

Once a poison ivy rash develops things get more complicated. It’s important to avoid scratching as that can spread the urushiol to other parts of the body. Caladryl and hydrocortisone-based ointments can relieve the itching, and, yes, his company makes those, as well.

Some people, roughly one in 100, don’t react to poison ivy and poison oak. On the other hand, that immunity isn’t necessarily permanent. If you spot these nasty plants, avoid touching them and you’ll avoid a lot of potential misery.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The State of the Southwest Montana Fisheries

Like storm clouds hanging over the western Montana mountains, the prospect, after a mild, dry El NiƱo winter, of a warm, dry summer, with diminished stream flows, again threatens the blue ribbon trout streams of southwestern Montana.

That was a common theme among Montana Fish, Wildlife &Parks area fisheries biologists when they made their annual State of the Fishery report to the annual meeting of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited on April 22, 2010.

Jim Olsen, the biologist in charge of the Big Hole River, reported on the Pennington Bridge stretch of the river, the area from the Pennington Bridge Fishing Access Site, downstream to the river’s confluence with the Beaverhead River to form the Jefferson River. This is an area where the river has been channelized, with riprap on stream banks, and with frequent de-watering in dry years.

In electrofishing surveys, Olsen said he found relatively low numbers of brown trout and rainbow trout, though with the low numbers of fish, there are relatively good growth rates with the fish that are there.

Olson also reported on a study he’d made on mountain whitefish, the first such study in at least 20 years or more. Whitefish, he found, migrate long distances upriver for spawning. Then the fingerlings migrate back downstream where they grow faster in the relatively warmer water of the downstream reaches.

FWP has begun a fish-tagging survey on the Big Hole River. During electrofishing surveys, biologists tagged trout of 12 inches or more last fall. They have placed kiosks at fishing access sites from East Bank to Pennington Bridge where anglers can pick up reporting cards to carry with them on the stream. The tags are placed next to the fish’s dorsal fin, and after a short time in the water get covered with algae. Anglers who catch a tagged fish can wipe off the algae and then record the tag number and other data, such as where the fish was caught, species and size of fish, and drop the card at the kiosk at the end of the outing.

Olsen says FWP hopes to get data on effects of drought conditions, importance of tributaries, migration, and other such information from the tag study.

Jefferson River biologist Ron Spoon reported on some Future Fisheries grant-funded projects on Willow Creek and Parsons Slough, Waterloo-area spring creeks, where FWP has made a number of modifications to the streams to improve rainbow and brown trout spawning and rearing conditions. He reports that the project has dramatically improved fish numbers on that stretch of the Jefferson River.

“It’s the only reason there is a fishery there,” echoed veteran fishing guide Tony Schoonen who frequently works the upper Jefferson River.

Both Spoon and Olsen reported on projects to shift mountain lake stocking from Yellowstone cutthroat trout to westslope cutthroat trout, as westslope trout grow faster. Olsen also reported on an upcoming project on a Big Hole tributary, Cherry Creek, near Melrose, where they will install a fish barrier on the stream and then replace brook trout and rainbow trout with pure westslope cutthroat trout.

Jason Lindstrom reported on the upper Clark Fork River, basically from Butte to Gold Creek. Lindstrom said he’s been trying to find reasons for a steep decline in fish numbers in the Clark Fork downstream from the Warm Springs Ponds. Fish numbers are just a fraction of what they were in 1987, though further downstream, in the Galen area, fish numbers are still consistent with what they were in 1987.

The stream is almost exclusively a brown trout fishery, with some westslope cutthroat trout and, rarely, rainbow trout, which, primarily, came out of the Warm Springs Ponds.
Lindstrom is cautious about pointing fingers at the cause of the decline of fish numbers, saying, “I am still trying to do more work on the issue and get things wrapped up.” On the other hand, he says there has been a decline in water quality on the Warm Springs Ponds, with arsenic levels much higher than in years past. He says, “I can’t prove the fish decline is due to water quality, but my gut says it is.”

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A View of Earth Day 40 Years Later

The annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America will be held, this coming June, in Rochester, Minnesota. Assuming I go, it’ll be a trip back home, as Rochester is about 30 miles from my hometown of Zumbrota, a small town that got its name from the Zumbro River, which wanders through southeastern Minnesota on its way to the Mississippi River.

A part of the conference program that caught my eye was trips to trout streams of the area, plus smallmouth bass fishing on the Zumbro River. Previously, I’d also heard from others about great smallmouth fishing on the Zumbro.

The reason I have to do a double-take about smallmouth bass fishing on the Zumbro is that when I was a kid there weren’t, to the best of my knowledge and recollection, any sport fish on our local river, and certainly nobody was doing guided trips on the Zumbro. Nobody went fishing on the Zumbro, except for rough fish, such as carp or suckers.

Why wasn’t there sport fishing on my hometown stream? That’s an easy one. Pollution.
Just for starters, my hometown and neighboring communities all dumped raw sewage in the river. There’s a local cheese factory in town where most of the local dairy farmers sell their milk and cream. My dad made trips to town every few days to fill old oil drums with whey, the watery part of milk that gets separated in the cheese-making process. The cheese factory gave it to any farmer, free for the taking, and my dad fed it to the pigs on our farm. What the cheese factory couldn’t give away went straight into the river, which was, conveniently, just a block away, and the cheese factory had a direct sewer line that fed into the river.

The town also had a dump right on the banks of the river, and no, it didn’t rate being called a sanitary landfill, and you’d better believe a lot of what went to the dump ended up in the river.

In the context of the times, there was nothing particularly unusual or newsworthy about this pollution. In 1969, Time magazine reported on the Cuyahoga River, which flows through Cleveland, Ohio, “Some River! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. ‘Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,’ Cleveland's citizens joke grimly. ‘He decays.’ The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: "The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.’ It is also -- literally -- a fire hazard.” In fact, over a hundred year period, the river caught on fire a number of times, including 1969.

Closer to home, the Yellowstone River is considered one of Montana’s premier recreational rivers and is celebrated for a premier trout fishery in the upper river. In the lower river, downstream from Billings, there’s a thriving fishery for paddlefish, channel catfish, smallmouth bass, walleye and sauger.

Yet, as many people will recall, at one time the community of Gardner dumped raw sewage into the Yellowstone, as did the city of Livingston. My wife grew up in Glendive in eastern Montana, and when she was a kid nobody fished on the river—because of the pollution.

What happened to restore these rivers and fisheries? We can look directly at Earth Day, which happened the first time on April 22, 1970, just 40 years ago this past week, and a grass roots movement that led to the passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and the framework to create wilderness areas, as well as creation of the Environmental Protection Agency—all achievements of a Republican administration.

Last week, public television broadcast a documentary on the history of Earth Day, with a narrator noting that while President Nixon “didn’t have an environmental bone in his body,” he certainly had a fine sense of how political winds were blowing. And that’s how the bi-partisan legislation that has done so much to restore America’s rivers happened.

From today’s perspective of perpetual congressional deadlock, it seems even more amazing.