Pain in Paradise. The first half of June has passed in a whirlwind of activity. Due to a drought enveloping Wisconsin and Minnesota this spring, the unexpected happened: I had to water—not only the new plantings, but everything—trees, bushes, perennials, annuals, and yes, even parts of the lawn! As I trudged around our entire one-acre property called Northern Bliss, dragging a hose during sweltering, record-setting 90-plus-degree heat, I wondered “Where is the bliss?” Other summers, I’ve divided my time between gardening in the morning pursuing creative projects during the hotter afternoon. This June, I’ve spent the mornings watering and the afternoons recovering. For two weeks, muscles aching, I didn’t have a creative bone in my body. 

The local evening news was filled with stories of the unusual Upper Midwestern drought. After the first nine days of temperatures over 90, the talking heads exclaimed: “Our record in here for all summer is 13 days over 90! So far, we’ve had nine days and counting.”

 

Gunter and I chuckled at first. It never rains in Southern California, where we spend our winters. And here, the locals complain of the heat when the temps climb over 80! After 5 more days, we quit laughing. The temperature kept breaking records, the nearby St. Croix River descended to record lows, and even the Great Mississippi shrank under the bridges crossing from Wisconsin to Minnesota. Here at White Ash Lake, one could walk on the shore alongside the riprap that prevents dashing waves from destroying shoreline. 

The local electric company chose the middle of a drought to rake and sow grass to repair the parts of the lawn damaged by burying electric cables last October. We appreciate the good job they did, but their timing was way off. “Just make sure to water those two sections and you’ll be fine,” a worker told me as he climbed into their truck and it rumbled off.  Those sections are at the far corners of the property. Reluctantly, I joined hose lengths together to reach them. More watering! I ordered more sprinklers from Amazon (the local Menards—similar to Lowes or Home Depot—was 100% sold out). With sprinklers spread like octopus legs from the house and cabin, the two well pumps ran all day. The next morning, still in my PJs, I moved and reset them before the sun rose high.  But after 30 minutes, the 1946-era cabin pump had enough. It blew its fuse. 

“Better call Mike,” we said simultaneously.  (He’s our son-in-law and “fixer.”) He found that the pump had burned out—probably because the sand point well was depleted due to receding groundwater. 

“Better call a well driller,” Mike said. Well drillers here are busy, as are plumbers, builders, electricians, and handymen in this part of rural Wisconsin. They are “backed up” until late fall or early spring. Fortunately, we have no visitors booked for the cabin this summer and we do have water in our main house, so we’re okay. Besides, drilling a new well at the cabin would mess up my perennial garden. As for the grass, watering was no longer an option. We would just have to wait for the elusive rain.

Day Tripping. “Let’s blow this pop stand,” I said last Saturday morning. “The forecast is for rain on Sunday—Father’s Day. God knows the farmers need rain more than any other gift they could receive. I think it will happen.” We threw a bag with snacks and water bottles into our Equinox and we were off to Crex Meadows, a wildlife area north of Grantsburg, less than 40 miles away

Crex Meadows is known known as a staging area for Sandhill cranes, but they would have already migrated; however, there’s always something to see. The Meadows encompass 30,000 acres, with wetlands, brush prairies, and forests scattered across a gently rolling landscape. It’s part of the Northwest Wisconsin Pine Barrens. These “Barrens” extend from northern Polk County (where we live) to southern Bayfield County (where we visited last fall); it covers 1500 square miles. This huge, sandy plain was left when a glacier retreated about 13,000 years ago.  The southern part of the Barrens where Crex is located contains huge marshes, part of ancient Glacial Lake.  

The 30,000 acres of Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area is managed by the Wisconsin DNR, Bureau of Wildlife Management. This habitat is now home to over 280 bird species, 720 plant species, 96 butterfly species, and a wide variety of reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Amazingly, every species of mammal found in Wisconsin has been on the Crex property at some point; even moose and mountain lions wander through occasionally.  You can download a map here. 

The Visitor Center wasn’t open when we drove through, but we picked up a map and bird checklist outside in a box to the right of the entry door. In addition to a number of small birds, we saw hundreds of trumpeter swans. Even though we have a resident pair on White Ash Lake, seeing flocks of them was exhilarating! Some swans were close to the overlooks and dike roads, so hiking wasn’t necessary to take these photos:

The Burnett Dairy Cooperative. This co-op has piqued my curiosity ever since I read an article in the local press about how they helped the farming community. It was the last week in March, 2020. Covid-19 had shut the country down.  Within a few weeks of the U.S. lockdown, Gunter and I escaped San Diego to wait it out in the country. With Wisconsin schools shut down, farmers here had lost a valuable distribution outlet. Milk and cheese were a vital part of state school nutrition programs. Restaurants also closed, causing the cheese market to dry up. And shifting butter production from tiny packets for restaurants to large blocks for grocery stores couldn’t happen overnight.

With distribution channels decimated, local farmers were forced to dump most of their milk. “Milk is being disposed of because of a massive and sudden loss of markets — more than half the nation’s restaurants are closed, sales of cheese are down 70 percent and some 44 percent of the nation’s cheese is sold through food service channels,” Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin announced.  Burnett Dairy, a vertically integrated cooperative, came to the rescue: “The Burnett Dairy Cooperative and our member farmers recognized an opportunity to make a difference during an extremely challenging time for our country and the dairy industry,” said Dan Dowling, CEO and president. “Farmers have always been the backbone of the national food supply, so we felt a responsibility to marshal our resources — and a little ingenuity — to fight hunger in our communities….” Cooperating farmers donated milk, Burnett Dairy made it into cheese, and Chell Trucking of Siren, Wisconsin donated refrigerated trucks to distribute cheese to food pantries and other nonprofit  organizations supplying free meals—including the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area.

Dumping milk

Burnett Dairy was on our way back to Northern Bliss—that is, if we took the Hwy 70 route from Grantsburg. From the highway, we couldn’t miss the humongous dairy with its sign supporting Wisconsin farmers. As we entered the retail section, we couldn’t believe our eyes! The store is designed with an array of tempting eye-candy islands. It has separate sections for cheese, deli meats, souvenirs, and snacks. In one corner, customers were lined up for scoops of every flavor of ice cream imaginable. Grouped around the perimeter were coolers full of milk, cream, cheese, sausage and pizzas topped with mozzarella, Gouda or cheddar gruyere. The store was packed with families—a destination in its own right. The goodies are also available online. Go to the SHOP NOW section on their website to have cheeses, snacks, puddings and gifts delivered right to your doorstep. We tried the potato pork sausage: excellent!

Support Wisconsin Dairy Farmers sign
Burnett Dairy Coop
Burnett Dairy Cheese Board

Upon returning home, I had the urge to water, but I refused to give in. It WILL rain, I told myself. Sunday, I woke to the sound of a light, gentle rain—perfect for settling all that dry dirt. And later, the rain came down in torrents—a real soaker. Yay! A multitude of prayers were answered. The cold front brought a windy Monday but as I write this, the weather is perfect. The drought isn’t over, but this is a great first step!

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


 

A commotion on the lake woke me up in a flash. The splashing was accompanied by a sound I hadn’t heard here—a deep note, like that of a French horn, with a lingering ring. I ran to the window just in time to see a family of five swimming past our dock. My bird book identified them as Trumpeter swans—the largest waterfowl in North America. The next day they came back and I managed to take photos. What a sight—and a privilege.

These swans have had a touch-and-go history in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The last wild nests were located in Heron and Everson Lakes in the late 1880s. The birds were killed for food; their feathers were used for ladies’ hats, and their down, for powder puffs. By 1935, fewer than 70 of these majestic birds could be found in remote areas of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. That year, Red Rock, Montana became a refuge for Trumpeter swans. Hennepin Parks, Minnesota hosted restoration efforts in the 1960s. Then in 1982, Minnesota’s DNR (Department of Natural Resources) joined the effort by transporting swan eggs from Alaska to Minnesota. The offspring, called cygnets, were raised for two years and released. Now, over 2000 swans trumpet in Heron Lake, Swan Lake, and St. Croix State Park. In Wisconsin, thanks to the state endangered species act and a public-private partnership, trumpeter swan populations are recovering. Trumpeter swans doubled the goal of 20 breeding pairs by 2000, and were removed from the state endangered species list in 2009. Today, the number stands at a modern all-time high of nearly 200 nesting pairs in 23 counties. You can view them at Crex Meadows in Burnett County and Sandhill Wildlife Refuge in Wood County—or come to White Ash Lake, where we have one family of five.

Family of FIve Trumpeter Swans

Family of FIve Trumpeter Swans

Life Cycle: The male and female build a nest on a muskrat or beaver dam, on a floating mat of plants, or build up enough plants to make a platform. The female incubates the clutch of 4-6 eggs for 34 days. One day before hatching, the chicks begin to peep. Cygnets can swim as soon as their down is dry, but they stay on their nests for a few days. For the next three weeks, until their new feathers grow in, they are brooded by their parents and fed snails and insects from the bottom of the marsh. The juveniles stay with their parents through their first winter until they return in the spring to the same breeding area. Then they hang out with their siblings for 4-6 years until they are mature enough to mate and raise their own young. If a pair uses the same nesting location two summers in a row, they form an almost unbreakable attachment to the site.

Pair of adult and juvenile swans

Pair of adult and juvenile swans

The swans create quite a commotion when they take off. They run on top of the water with their wings flapping. Just after take-off they pull their necks into an S and then straighten it out. They sleep with their head tucked down under their wing.

Fluffiing feathers to dry off

Fluffiing feathers to dry off

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


“The hard edges of life move into softer focus up north,” says Joan Steffend. And Standing Bear said, “Man’s heart away from nature becomes hard.”

IMG_6126 Budding Wildflower with Butterfly

During Gunter’s recovery from his knee replacement surgery, I couldn’t wait to get back into nature at Northern Bliss, our lake home. Your own “up north” could be anywhere you choose to  get away and de-stress.

“The volume of life can creep up slowly…

the white noise of the daily routine…

distortion of unnecessary busy-ness…

groans of a big picture lost in a to-do list,

as the peaceful voice of our own nature

seems to grow fainter and farther away.

Up north you can turn up

the Silence of Divinity.” –Jimmy Brandmeir

Last week, with my Canon EOS hung around my neck, I crept close to butterflies and dragonflies while touring the dikes and watersheds of Crex Meadows in Grantsburg, Wisconsin. Time stood still while reeds rustled and sedge grass swayed in the light breeze. Even though July is off-season for the migratory fowl these wetlands are famous for, the day was a blissful communion with nature. As Tolstoy said, “One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken.”

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