Monday, July 22, 2013

The Dog Corner

It was time.  A long sought after rainy afternoon- a rare day this summer, cool and wet “forced” me into the garage for a 3 hour date with organizing and cleaning the man cave.  My garage has racks for bikes, space for gardening, a corner for straps, bungies and extension cords and plenty of car and truck oil to be recycled. Rearranging the location of various items proceeded, screws and nails of various sized snuggled into jars, bike and auto cleaning supplies lined up by cleaning process. But there is also the “dog corner.”  It was time. 

In THAT corner were the collars of dogs I’ve loved.  The township and rabies metal tags long since silent hanging on a hook.  Hanging there quietly since the day I needed to say good bye to each one of them.  Max, my first Golden, back in 1987 was maybe the toughest.  My first dog not under my parents roof, a retriever of my very own.  No formal training as in hunting, but he did well and I remember vividly his final retrieve on my dads land late in a November-a grouse I’d miraculously shot at …and hit, and he had little trouble finding.  I remember his slow trot back, wings still flapping in his muzzle, and knowing his cancer already sapping every stride back to me.  Weeks later, we needed to say good bye.

  Dewey, the “recovery” dog, a black lab from a family in Marshfield, the first dog the children grew up with, although they very young at the time.  He developed from a mere family dog to a suitable hunter as well.  He learned to sniff out timber doodles and "partridge" with the best of them in his younger years, but later, sadly, the report of a gun or rumble of thunder, sent him scurrying to safer locations.  He was well loved, even with the premature graying snout and white hair between his toes. 

A puppy arrived before Dewey left us- Ruger, a fur ball of a golden retriever puppy.  The two dogs played, and more than tolerated each other, eventually becoming buddies and comrades in cahoots.  It house became a bit quieter after the sad farewell to salt and pepper  “Dew”…another victim of the all too-present cancers in large retrieving breeds.

 Ruger became THE dog for the kids-fuzzy and full of life, he too picked up the hunting bug with ease.  Maybe the best of our ‘pups’ as a game dog, he could tarry thru the thickest cover-just knowing a bird was in there-and always confident was his retrieving- sniff ‘em out and bring them back….abet, a touch unwillingly at times.  In water “The Ruugs” was great-he’s swim like an otter and if he had his way, would stay dripping and wet-dog-smelling whenever he could.    Nothing tugged at our hears like when we found out he too had a cancer and would have few months to live that winter. 

Like before, another dog found her way here-seemingly the right thing to do.  A second dog for companionship, maybe extending Rugers life.  Molly was already full grown, but had spent her life in a breeding kennel.  Her pedigree and natural instincts were top notch and it was obvious she would be a keeper.  Ruger and Molly hung out for a half a year until our daily snowshoe hikes began to take it’s toll on the elder dog.  My heart ached when I had to encourage him to keep trudging thru the snow-something he’d lept at before, just to make it back home.  When the time came, we knew.  His collar hung up by the rest in the garage on an old rusty nail.  Tags dangling motionless.

So this day, it was time.  Molly vigorously wagging her tail to go out and do anything….sadly realizing I was just cleaning, not heading to the lake to retrieve with her.  I realized it was time to unhook all those collars, slide the rusty scratched up tags off them and get them washed up.  Maybe a good cleaning would be the acceptable thing-not for Molly, she would never wear them, they weren’t hers.  Just to have them clean and maybe on a new hook in the garage in the “dog corner.” That would just be the right thing to do… was time.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Paddling Oxbo Pond

“Oxbow: A U-shaped body of water formed when a wide meander from the main stem of a river is cut off to create a lake.”

I’ve always been a wanna-be paddler- specifically in a kayak .  I’ve had chances to dip a paddle from time to time, years separating those excursions it seems, but enough to whet my appetite.  I don’t own a boat, but a few friends do, and when asked, I’ll gladly join them to explore some outdoors 6 inches above the waterline.

“Oxbo Pond” is located in the 68,000 acre Black River Falls State Forest, 11 miles east and north of Black River Falls off State hwy. 54 on South Cemetery Road.  Good friend Tom Krotzman suggested  this quiet, off the beaten path waterway to survey-a good choice for a reserved paddle as I discovered.  Oxbo Pond is a day use area, hidden below the mostly flat surrounding jack pine forest.  Facilities include parking and a few scattered picnic tables.  The “lake” was once part of Robinson Creek, which noisily flows nearby, separated by a thin strip of land.  The shoreline is low and easy to slip the boats into to begin our trip.  Although it’s a small body of water, the meandering ribbon seems to open up a new door around every corner.  I was reminded of Thoreau’s quote: “Wherever there is a channel for water, there is a road for the canoe.” Some of the shoreline is beautiful floating bogs, sprinkled with blue water Iris and other wetland plants.  The next bend in the shore reveals towering sand banks and evidence of beaver working hard to slide trees down into the water for a winter cache.  Towering, hundred year old white pine, once carpeting this part of the state, line another shore.  Tom and I marvel at the size of these trees and remark how majestic the forest must have looked at one time prior to the lumbering years.  The remnants of an eagle nest lay strewn beneath one, no doubt blown down during a strong windstorm-we see the platform of sturdy limbs 90 feet above us as we slide by in the water.

The pond constantly changes directions and we make no effort to reach the next bend quickly, but rather just pull on a paddle from time to time and drift slowly by the shore, water silently lapping against the hull.  The cool surface gradually gives up a thin veil of steam as the sun begins to warm, on track to produce another humid day after we leave.  I busy myself with the camera, trying to “see” pictures as I float by things I don’t see everyday.  Tom seems more intent on just letting the nature come to him, very Zen-like as we drift along.

 Although this was once part of a river, the stream long ago changed it’s mind and it’s course and we too soon approach a dead end. I’m a bit wistful at reaching the turn around point, but expect to see things I’d missed as we reverse course.  We do. The sun has climbed higher and throws light a bit differently on the shore.  Signs of animals, who make their home above us on the bank and opposite in the wetland are everywhere, although on this day stay hidden save for many species of birds flitting around.  The water trail takes us back to our starting point, the widest part of the waterway, and we split up, encircling the bay in opposite directions, each exploring things we may have missed on the outbound paddle.

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water. -- Loren Eiseley

Oxbo Pond is a little gem, hidden away, and mostly unheard of, but worthy of exploring if in the area.  Jackson County, not only home to the state forest, but also an expansive county forest, has many other waterways to venture out on.  From what can be a big brandishing river like the Black to small still waters like Teal and Potters Flowages to lesser rivers and streams like Halls Creek and the East Fork of the Black River.  All seem to have a bit of that “magic” Eiseley speaks of.  For me, it was another chance to hear one of my favorite sounds, the serenity of quiet beads of water dripping off the paddle tips into cool water.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Wolf Flight

Pre-Flight Check

Pilots take no special joy in walking. Pilots like flying.
Neil Armstrong

Probably no quote better describes Beverly Paulan,  a Lead Pilot for the Bureau of Forestry Protection in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in Eau Claire.  She does spend her share of time on the ground-perhaps during Karner Blue Butterfly habitat surveys or volunteer hours tracking bats, but the sky is her home to be sure.

The opportunity to join her on a wolf survey flight was one I just couldn’t pass up as I’ve taken a great interest in them over the years-especially several radio collared ones in my home area recently.  I’d hoped to do a winter flight at some point for the chance to photograph them from the air, but a summer flight would prove very rewarding as well.  

Before joining the Wisconsin DNR as a pilot in 2010, Beverly was a full time flight instructor, charter pilot and also worked with cranes at “Operation Migration.”  As she told me, she’s “loved flying as far back as I can remember.”  It took awhile, but landing the DNR job as a pilot, (pun intended)with her love of wildlife and the outdoors, was a perfect fit.  “I have the best office in the world!” she happily shared.  Besides wolf radio tracking from the air, she and fellow Eau Claire pilot Leo Bunderson, also fly swan, wintering duck and eagle surveys, Whooping crane studies, Otter counts, fire protection and monitoring Gypsy Moth spraying. 

Some of the flights, especially the bird surveys, can be “challenging” to say the least.  Low altitudes, sometimes just 80 feet above the deck, are required of pilots in order to count nesting birds, eggs or the progress of hatched eaglets, “colts” (cranes) or cygnets.  “Be careful, because the ground can come up and smite thee!” is a serious word of advice from her father.  Besides the normal array of radio and cell towers, it’s becoming more common to come upon portable, non-licensed towers popping up 100’ which can pose a real hazard to these fliers.  

Although Whooping cranes are fitted with radio collars, they do not have mortality signals like wolves do (or other collared mammals), so visual confirmation is needed when monitoring them-requiring a balance between getting low and close and not causing any change in the birds demeanor, something very important to Paulan.  “Whether a wolf or crane, I don’t want to see any change of their normal behavior when observing them-that’s just my principle when flying close.”

On our flight, we left the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport, which is the base of operations for DNR flights in this sector of the state.  The goal was to pinpoint the locations of 6 wolves that were transmitting radio signals and record their movements from earlier flights.  Especially important were checking on two wolves collared the previous weekend to be sure they were doing okay.  Every collar is assigned a frequency and every wolf designated a number (and sometimes a nickname by researchers).  “I know I shouldn’t get attached to an animal, but you do.”  Beverly mentioned.  “An animal you’ve kept tabs on for a long time or one that went off air and returned much later can cause a little celebration in the cockpit!” 

One such animal for me was “Seca” or #795, a wolf trapped and collared last year when I joined a monitoring team and had the privilege to photograph.  Since his location was near my home, a biologist friend kept me apprised of how he was doing and his movements in the area.  We were all pleased he appeared to be doing well and came through the inaugural wolf hunting season this past winter.  Unfortunately, earlier this summer, Seca “went off the air” and no mortality signal was received.   Weekly flights turned up no further sign of him and Paulan shared that most likely he was the victim of “lead poisoning” or illegal shooting.   The animal is poached and the expensive collar quickly destroyed, leaving valuable scientific research unfinished.  “Some areas of the state are particularly difficult to keep a wolf alive,” a hint of frustration in her voice.  Paulan also shared that studies are showing there is more suitable habitat for wolves than previously thought and numbers seem to be stable.  Packs tend to be smaller as is their territory and at times overlap, but they seem more tolerant than wolves in other parts of the country.  Wolf surveys, hunt harvests, car kills and other causes of death are used to determine populations and goals.  What’s not known is how many animals, like Seca, just “disappear.”

As our flight headed east, the first wolfs’ transmission was quickly picked up very near its previous GPS position.  Each wolf (and crane or other surveyed animal) have a GPS waypoint from their last known fix, making it easier to quickly find a signal.  It’s pretty amazing to see Beverly fly the plane, flip switches between two antennas on either wing, cradle the transceiver adjusting squelch (sensitivity to a signal), punch in a new GPS point and hand write a note in her observation folder….almost all at the same time.  Dropping altitude and circling tighter usually was rewarded with a comment like “Yep-he’s right under us.” Or “somewhere in that patch of pine.”  Slight nudges of the pedals or a touch to the yoke, set us on course to the next wolf.

If it’s only a weak transmission-perhaps from an old collar and batteries, we’d ascent higher to try and catch the cone-like signal to narrow in on the location.  Dropping down low would then pinpoint the exact spot within a hundred yards or closer.  I’d not flown in such a small craft like Paulan’s  Cessna 172 but tolerated the ever tightening steeply banked turns required to hone in on a fix-kinda fun, actually!

Flying at just 3000 feet above the landscape was such a great perspective-particularly since part of our flight was over county forest I know well.  Seeing trails, forest roads and wetlands from above kept my head glued to the window, camera at the ready.  Recording one wolf location after another, we continued south east and made a slight detour to check on a whooping crane occupying a nest.  The bright white speck was easy to pick out from the surrounding lush green marsh, and it’s posture told Beverly that the eggs were not hatched as of yet.  Both male and females will help incubate the eggs she added.  Trying to photograph from the plane proved to be difficult- a lot of movement and we did stand off a bit so as not to disturb the nest.

Two wolves occupy territory within the Air National Guard’s Hardwood bombing range and surrounding wildlife area south of Babcock, and yes, animals have been lost here because of military training.  Beverly radioed ahead to Camp Douglas to confirm the range was not” hot” (open for training) and safe to enter.  It was rather odd to see tanks, containers and aircraft randomly scattered in the thick forest below in various stages of destruction.  Apparently, it still can be home for wildlife, as the two wolves here were found and we headed back out. I wished inside, they’d perhaps move to a safer habitat. 

The newly collared wolves were pinpointed and I perceived some relief from Paulan, “It’s always comforting to get that first signal after collaring, a strong signal tells us everything is working well.”  I was surprised how far one of them had moved-maybe 4 or 5 miles from the capture site.  “Actually, I’m happy to see them on the move like that-it tells us they are healthy and doing well.” commented Paulan.  Sometimes successive flight observations can also help gauge how they are recovering from an injury, for instance.  One subject, who had suffered leg trauma, visibly could not use that limb at first.  Each week, Paulan observed him recover slowly, a limp, then gradually full use of leg.  It also told researchers that he was with a supportive pack or he would not have survived.

Our return flight took us over the Sandhill Wildlife Area, where we had a chance to observe bison settling down in their sand wallows-the giant animals easy to pick out below.  Small flowages I’d duck hunted in many years past were nearby and I recognized some here within Sandhill.  It was amazing how quickly you can get from point A to point B in this small plane, yet we were only traveling at 90 or so knots.  Landscapes take on a whole new look, the topography isn’t always obvious.  I’d pick out features like the Black River, Lake Arbutus or Lake Eau Claire to get my bearings-Beverly used major road ways.  Near Augusta, one easy landmark contrasting from the surrounding Amish farms was a massive frac sand mine with a mile plus conveyor moving sand to a plant and rail road spur.  From the air the huge holding ponds nestled right next to small farms and cropland could easily be distinguished.  How the influx of these mines must have changed the living environment here.

After gently setting down back in Eau Claire, we had a chance to review parts of the flight, their profession as pilots and some like minded discussion on wide ranging topics, from hunting to public service careers.  What became clear is that for Paulan, being a DNR pilot is not so much a job, but rather a calling-for she is just as passionate about the environment, outdoors and wildlife and their well being as she is about flying.  Although Armstrong said-  pilots like flying,” and Paulan does, she also takes very seriously why she is in the air and what her work provides for biologists, scientists and anyone who loves Wisconsin’s outdoors.