Ax and Saw: A Project for Fall and Winter

There are two quirks of my personality that have a habit of sabotaging me this time of year. One is my natural tendency to want to hibernate as the days get colder and darker, and I’ve written in the past about how I struggle in the fall to keep up my positive attitude and maintain healthy habits. The second is that I always want to be doing something productive. It’s hard for me to convince myself to go outside to take a leisurely walk on cloudy cool days because it doesn’t feel productive; I might, it feels like, as well stay inside and get something done around the house. For these reasons, I don’t go outside as much as I would like to in the fall, which also means that I don’t get much exercise either.

So this year, I conspired against myself. There is a row of box elder at the property, running along a tall bank on the edge of the old river channel. The trees are short and mangy, which is pretty much the standard with box elder. As we think about the work we want to do on the land, we see opportunity to plant different trees in this place.

Row of box elder along the old river channel.
Row of box elder along the old river channel.

I decided that my project for this fall and winter would be to take down this row of trees so that we can plant something else (probably oaks) there in the spring. Also, I decided that I would do as much of the work as possible using hand tools. Hopefully, I thought, having something productive to do during the cold months would be a convincing way to sidestep my tendency to cocoon this time of year. A few weeks ago I bought a small double-bit ax (which turned out to be more like a large hatchet) and small bow saw with an extra blade made for green wood. Then this weekend was the time to test it all out.

Overall, it was a good start to the project. I cut down a half dozen or so box elder trees. Some were only a few inches in diameter and it only took a few seconds to saw them down. It was interesting to see that box elder trees have pink wood at the boundary between the heartwood and the sapwood. This is a known trait of the species, but I just learned it while watching the saw kick out pink shavings as it cut through fresh wood.

Small box elder stump.

I knocked down several smaller box elders and dragged the tops into the woods, piling it up to make homes for little critters and decomposing organisms (aka rabbitat). I also cut down some tag alders along the shore that seemed likely to compete with the future seedlings for light. Some of the tag alder I dropped directly into the old river channell, presuming that beavers will appreciate them once the water is fully iced over. Others I temporarily placed in a pile along the shore—in a week I’ll come back and see if beavers have taken advantage of the easy food source (and saved me some work of dragging the brush elsewhere).

The last tree that I decided to knock down that day was also the largest. It was about 8-10 inches around, and it took me a half hour of work to get it down. I alternated between using the ax to make a notch in the direction I wanted the tree to fall, and sawing on the opposite side. Much of the time I would saw while kneeling on the ground, making in easy to take small breaks, look around, and enjoy the day. After it dropped, I sawed off the smaller branches of the crown and carried them into the woods, leaving the large bole on the ground to deal with later. While picking up the last of the sticks, I heard a funny sound across the old channel and stopped to look and figure out what it was.

It was an otter. I quickly grabbed my tools and hurried the dogs to the cottage, and then came back with binoculars. Hiding behind the newly-fallen tree, I watched the otter feed in the old river, which was skimmed in a thin layer of soft ice. The otter would swim in the breaks between the ice, dive down, and resurface in another opening.

Watching an otter from behind a felled tree.
Watching an otter from behind a felled tree.

When I decided that I was going to cut down the trees by hand, some of my friends laughed at me a little and asked why I wouldn’t use a chainsaw. While I was dragging tree limbs into the woods, I could imagine my husband pointing out that we have a tractor that could make the job easier. I knew it would be hard, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it. But in just a few hours, I removed about a quarter of the trees without too  much difficulty. It was exactly what I wanted: an excuse to go outside and work, so that I could really play.

My New Thanksgiving Tradition

My new Thanksgiving tradition is to go for a run. Not a formal Turkey Trot like many towns have, just an average solo run from my house, down the road, and back.

My first Thanksgiving run was two years ago. That year, the first snow dropped about two feet of fluffy snow in a single day right before the beginning of the gun deer season. Cold temperatures and deep snow meant that some hunters were stranded in their deer camps, while others couldn’t get get to theirs. On Thanksgiving day, it was cold, maybe only 15 degrees out. I bundled up and went for a three mile run, excited to be outside and have the day off. The roads are quiet on Thanksgiving, and so I probably only saw a car or two. Near the end of my run, a man was driving his four-wheeler in the opposite direction. We were both bundled up and looked cold. I was enjoying my run and felt that of the two of us I had the better deal, but he may have thought otherwise.

I don’t remember last year’s run, except that I did run and that I remember thinking how different the conditions where from the previous year. We had a mild fall last year, and it was only on the evening of Thanksgiving that the weather switched and our first snow started.

This year, the conditions were somewhere in between those two years. Our first snow came about a week ago, and a few inches of sloppy, slushy snow fell last night. Getting ready to run, I put on wool socks and prepared to have cold, wet feet the entire time. But I was lucky and the snow on the road had melted enough that I didn’t need to run through much slush. It was almost entirely quiet out on the road, mostly just the sound of my steps and my breathing. In covering 4 miles, I encountered only two trucks. The highlight was watching a crow (or a raven; I still can’t tell the difference) fly from tree top to tree top and listening to the sound of its wings. There were some chickadees too, and a few screams from my neighbors’ kids playing in the woods back behind their house. But other than that, it was very quiet. Just me and the woods and my thoughts.

While I ran, I listed off some of the things I’m grateful for: the health of my friends and family; that I have such wonderful friends and family; that I can run 4 easy miles without much effort; that my feet weren’t sopping wet. I thought a little about what I want to do better next year, too. But mostly I just ran and didn’t think too hard.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Sun Still Rises

In the morning, I found myself grateful that the sun always rises. Every day, cloudy or clear, the sun still spins on its axis, spinning circles among the sun and stars.

Before dawn, the sky was partly clear. Enough to make out the Big Dipper and North Star hovering above the woods. The North Star is high in the sky this time of year since the Northern Hemisphere leans toward it. Orion was visible to the south, providing the early morning greeting that I’ve gotten used to as I walk from my house to my car in the darkness.

The sky was brighter when I arrived at work, both because of city lights and because of the rising sun. Only two stars were visible, one dimly to the west and another bright in the eastern sky. The eastern morning star is probably a planet, probably Jupiter now that I have the time to look it up. In the morning, I stared at one faraway space rock while standing on another that was right under my feet.

Then, the sun rose. And it stayed up for about nine and a half hours. This might have been the best part of my day, even though I was indoors almost that entire time.

I’ve been a bit ornery the past few days. This time of year is always rough. I hate the time change in the fall because the abrupt shift to an earlier sunset makes me starved for daylight. Two hours of sunlight after work becomes one, and suddenly I don’t know what to do with myself with it getting dark by 6 pm. When can I find time to garden, run, or do any of the other things I want to do?

I’m not sure. That’s a struggle every year. But until I figure that out. I can watch the sky and be grateful that the world still spins and the sun still rises, every day and no matter what else happens.

Meandering Rivers and Roads

I went home to visit my family in south central Wisconsin last week, but this time it was a bit different because I was coming from Minneapolis. Despite growing up just four hours from the city, and it being one of the closest cities to my current home in the U.P., I’d only been to Downtown Minneapolis once before: for a National Honor Society field trip in high school.

When my work in the city was done, I started to head home. The original plan was to go home directly via the freeways and arrive in about 4 hours. But I thought that it would be a good idea to find a spring and load up on artesian water before heading to the sandy farmlands of central Wisconsin. Instead of staying on the freeway, I headed south along the Mississippi River.


In the small town of Prescott, Wisconsin, I stopped at a park that overlooked the merging of the substantial St. Croix River into the even bigger Mississippi. A train traveled north on the tracks located at the bottom of the bluff, and I talked with two nice old men who were out watching birds at a small nature center.

I continued my trip along the river. The spring didn’t pan out; it was on heavily-signed private property and inaccessible. But by that point I was captivated by the oak bluffs and river views along the road. I continued south along the Mississippi on the Minnesota side until I was close to the crossing in La Crosse, Wisconsin, adding at least one hour onto my trip by taking slow roads and making a few stops.


When it was about time to turn east into Wisconsin and leave the Mississippi River, I turned west and drove a few extra miles to Great River Bluffs State Park. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time left to reach my parents’ house before dark and so I couldn’t linger as much as I wanted to.


I wished that I’d planned my day better so that I’d been able to spend more time along the Mississippi, and in Wisconsin too. I finally headed east to Wisconsin, driving down from the river bluff forests into rolling farmlands. I also wished that I’d read the appropriate sections of Wisconsin’s Ecological Landscapes so that I’d had a better sense of what I was driving through and could appreciate it more. Regardless, I enjoyed seeing new places and extending my mental map of the landscape a little farther westward.

That wasn’t my only meandering trip. After spending a few days in my hometown, I had to drive south to Madison. Again, my original plan to take the most efficient highways and freeways was tossed aside when I realized that I could wander through some new places. I took the county roads south, winding through the Amish country that I had visited the previous day with my brother.

I stopped at a bridge that crossed the Fox River. I grew up on the Fox River, but much father downstream where the river is 100 yards wide and an eerie opaque green color from flowing through miles of farmland. Here near the head waters it was just a small creek, flowing through mostly woods and marsh. I had not thought much about the Fox River upstream of where I lived, only it’s northeasterly path downstream to the paper mills and factories stretching from Appleton to Green Bay.


Not far down the road, I was given another reminder of the Fox River, as I passed the location where Marquette, the Jesuit priest, portaged the short distance from the Fox to the Wisconsin River, before continuing on to the Mississippi. I’d been to this spot and to the nearby historical buildings during a field trip in fourth grade, but I don’t remember much from that. If we were taught the river’s looping upstream course in school, I remember none of it. From this point, I passed into the Wisconsin River watershed and into a different landscape of large, flat farm fields on soils more suited to agricultural production. And then into Madison.


I’m always struck by how much I love the landscape where I grew up. I don’t think I could live there ever again; I feel too crowded by people and roads and private land when I visit. But I love to visit, and see the place where I grew up with fresh eyes. I love the small, rolling hills and the marshes and the oak forests (although not the buckthorn that has taken over the understory). I picked a part of the U.P. that has some of these characteristics to be my home now; I just hope that I can learn the characteristics of this place without having to move away.

2016 Gardens in Review, Part 2

When I was thinking about the past garden year, I was mainly thinking about my vegetable garden. Who knew that I would have so much to say about perennials? But I did have a lot to say, enough to make have an entire post on my perennial gardens. Now, I’ll focus on my vegetable garden.

This year I took the the Master Gardener class and went to a season extension workshop at the North Farm, both of which really motivated me to spend more time gardening this year. It also motivated me to spend more time planning, which I didn’t anticipate but I do appreciate because it allowed me to use my garden space much better than I ever have before. I’ve always been one to push the boundaries of our short growing season by planting lettuce as soon as the snow melts, but I now have a better foundation for understanding how to really get more out of my garden.

My new view on gardening is this: there is not a single garden season. Rather, being a gardener is perhaps like being a professional athlete. Really!—hear me out on this. There is not a single garden season that lasts from May to September, with the rest of the year being dormant for both garden and gardener. Nope, the gardener’s season is like that of the professional athlete. There is a pre-season intended for getting ready; it involves new gear, sore muscles, and even a few pre-season games in the form of early-season greens. The regular season is what always comes to mind: the weekly routine of planting, weeding, and watering where the big stars like tomatoes and peppers get all the press. During the post-season, you reap what you sowed earlier the year; if you didn’t perform well in the earlier seasons, its too late now. And while people don’t talk about the off-season, it’s a critical time for taking some time to relax and recover while also building the foundation for the next year. Continue reading “2016 Gardens in Review, Part 2”

2016 Gardens in Review, Part 1

Last week I was feeling pretty unmotivated in the evenings and watched a lot more TV than normal. The weather was generally okay, in that cool, damp, mid-fall kind of way. Part of me wanted to go outside, but a bigger part of me was lazy and couldn’t think of anything to do outside, so I stayed in.

Upon reflection, I realized what the problem was: the gardening season is practically over. I didn’t know what to do with myself since cool weather, short nights, and dying plants were making it difficult to garden in the evenings. And that was bumming me out.

The garden season isn’t quite over yet. Amazingly enough, we still haven’t had our real first frost—last year it came late around October 18 and this year it will be even later. Plus, there are still a handful of chores that I can focus on before the snow flies: weeding grasses, fixing the garden door, amending soils, and maybe experimenting with planting seeds in winter. I still have a friend’s tiller that I borrowed earlier this year (in April!) and haven’t returned, so there’s also the opportunity to create more garden spaces too.

A bee enjoying comfrey.
A bee enjoying comfrey.

Perennial Fruits

One of my garden goals for 2016 was to establish more perennial fruits—raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries—and so I spent a lot of time working on this early in the season. Continue reading “2016 Gardens in Review, Part 1”

Weekend Warrior in the Keweenaw

We stayed pretty close to home this summer on account Sexy’s broken ankle (better now!) and getting our very own camp.  We’ve also been especially busy at work the past few weeks. Because we haven’t had a lot of time to play, we decided to head to the Keweenaw for the weekend for a series of small adventures.

We started out by visiting an undisclosed location so that Sexy could see how suitable an area would be for deer hunting, which involved about 3 miles of walking on Saturday morning. It was a gorgeous fall day with bright colors.


From there, we went up to Copper Harbor and I raced the first day of the Keweenaw Cup—a two-day cyclocross race that’s part of the Upper Peninsula series. I started off way to hard and burned myself out early in the race. I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to finish because I was feeling really sick. Once I started feeling a little better, I fell on a tight corner. I scratched up my knee, and I had to fix my chain, which had fallen off my bike. Later, I realized that my front wheel was loose (probably from the fall) and had to stop and fix that. And then later in the race I had to do it again. But I did finish! Continue reading “Weekend Warrior in the Keweenaw”

Two Rules to Dress for Cold-Weather Running

When it gets cold, I forget how to get dressed.

As fall transitions to winter and the temperatures start to drop below freezing, I respond by piling on more and more layers (and eating more and more cookies, although that’s not the point here…). This sounds warm and cozy, but it’s problematic when I go for a run. Just the other day, which was beautiful and sunny, I looked at the snow on the ground (just 2 or 3 inches), the temperature below freezing, and the slight wind and decided to pile on the layers so that I could stay warm during an easy run. Well, I’d severely overdressed. Not much more than a half mile in, I was unzipping my light jacket, and ditching my gloves. At the first mile mark, I had to ditch my hat and tie the jacket around my waist.

This situation reminded me of two great rules for dressing for cold weather running that (when I follow them) work like a charm: Continue reading “Two Rules to Dress for Cold-Weather Running”