2006 Paul Gruchow Essay Contest Co-Winner, Mark Herwig
Mark Herwig of White Bear Lake, MN won with his essay entitled: “Observations of White Bear Lake: “The Veil, “Lights Out,” “Emulsified,” Moonrise over Manitou.”
Herwig has been an avid volunteer, professional conservationists and writer most of his life. His other life-long pursuits include bird watching, canoeing, gardening, and relief woodcarving wildlife scenes. He is the father of a grown son and daughter. Herwig is editor of Pheasants Forever Journal for Pheasants Forever, The Habitat Organization.
Observations of White Bear Lake
By Mark Herwig
Like a demurring maiden, White Bear Lake covered itself in a veil of swirling fog this evening, as if to hide while the warm spring winds stripped it of its icy robe.
Fog is evidence of the struggle between earth and sky. It was late March, a few days after the equinox when day and night are equal, when the forces of winter are strong, but waning, and the forces of spring are weak, but waxing. The struggle between winter and spring can be fierce. Warm, moist air from the south was clashing with the waning forces of winter from the north in the form of a charging cold front out of arctic Canada.
The battle order began with booming thunder and jagged lightning, the first to explode over the area since autumn. Then came a warm spring rain for an hour or so. The warm rain hit the cold, icy surface of the lake, melting it and pumping even more moisture into the turbulent air.
Toward evening, as the sun set, the air began to cool and mix with the warmer air on the ground, spawning a strong ground wind. As the super moist warm and cold air mixed over the ice-chilled lake air, a heavy fog was born, swirling and churning over the lake and over the land.
This atmospheric cauldron provided some seldom seen lake dramatics at the marsh, where Wolf, my springer spaniel, and I stood watching in wonder. At first, a river of fog came blowing straight into our faces. It was like putting your face squarely in front of a blowing humidifier. The air was so thick with moisture it was practically condensing on my face and dripping away. While a humidifier blows only a small stream of moist air, the lake that day spewed cold steam over a distance of miles.
For several moments, we were in a complete whiteout, barely able to see 10 yards out as the fog intensified. The next moment, however, the blowing wind shifted and revealed the faint outline of tall maples on Manitou Island some 100 yards out. Then the fog bank would thin a bit and the crown and trunks of those tall trees would appear, fog filtering through the straight black trunks and spreading branches. It looked as if the whole island was smoldering in fire, smoke billowing out through the trees.
Then from across the lake, the faint outline of the shoreline a mile away would suddenly appear through the roiling tempest. A gust of wind would blow, and in a brief moment we were once again plunged into a complete whiteout. A few times, as the fog blew thick at ground level, it would thin overhead, revealing welcomed patches of blue sky and white clouds for but a moment before it, too, was obscured by the ghostly fog.
Through all of this, I heard a familiar cry from the east. Soon, two dark forms appeared winging in low. It was the season’s first wood ducks (check here if you see a wood duck___) on the lookout for open water and possible nesting sites. Five months earlier, sighting but two would have been a disappointment compared to the hundreds that crowded the marsh during the fall migration.
But after five months of lifeless winter, their noisy appearance was cause for hope the long, cold nights of winter were finally retreating.
The first redwing blackbirds (check here if you see a redwing blackbird___) were also on the marsh that day, shrieking their territorial call to ward off competitors from their chosen nesting sites. This week also saw the arrival of the showy hooded merganser, the plucky ring-necked duck, large common mergansers and ever restless, laughing gulls. There, too, appeared the first gangly great blue herons and the clownish bufflehead duck, twittering around on its indifferent wings. (check here if you see a ringneck____; bufflehead___; laughing gull___; blue heron___)
Wolf, exuberant at the season’s first warm weather, ran uncharacteristically helter-skelter in the open water at the edge of the lake ice. He briefly charged a pair of mallards swimming about and a muskrat lounging on the ice edge. All easily eluded his plodding charge through the icy waters.
As the sun slowly sunk in the west, the fog storm began to die out. After raging only a half-hour, the storm was deprived of its energy by the setting sun. The show was soon over, and Wolf and I began the bike ride home.
Everywhere the ice-covered lake and surrounding land was dappled with patches of snow, small puddles and flowing rivulets. The lake and land were preparing themselves to give birth to a new burst of life brought on by the strengthening sun, lengthening days and warmer air. The land and lake are indeed maidens full with the wetness of courting and the spring. The sun was already impregnating both with its solar seed that will soon spawn an abundance of new plant and animal life both on land and in the water.
As Wolf and I neared home, the darkening sky revealed the shining crescent moon and Venus, the goddess of love, consorting in the evening sky overhead.
The gloom of frigid, cold winter nights was quickly disappearing before the warm light and restless life of spring…and none too soon for the winter weary here in the north.
Sunday evening, May 9, 2004, a rare occurrence happened on the lake. I write this tale longhand with only the flickering flame of candlelight to guide my pen. A computer is useless without electricity.
A few hours before, I was standing in the backyard watching a thunderstorm descend on the area. A tornado north of here briefly touched down before retreating back into the blackened sky that spawned it.
Suddenly, a massive lightning bolt struck in the south, snuffing out the street lights in the blink of an eye. Immediately, the house lights went out, the fridge shut down and the television set blinked to black. Then, a great silence descended.
And in that silence and darkness was an opportunity. By the single stroke of a lightning bolt, the city was taken back a hundred years in terms of technology. People all over the city were pulling out candles and lighting them. They left their houses and sat on their lawns. A century ago, before electric lights and television, that’s what people did — they sat outside, talked to their neighbors and took in the fresh evening air.
In that blackened sky, I realized, was a rare opportunity to experience the great lake as it had been at night for most of its 10,000-year history – completely dark. I could not resist seeing the lake as it would have been a century ago, sans Mr. Edison’s electric lights, without the drone of television sets and radios – enveloped in total darkness and near silence.
In the 1800s, the only light for those living on the lake would have come from the stars above or a glimmering full moon, from a half-concealed Dakota campfire on Manitou Island or a scattering of fireflies searching for mates on a calm summer night. It was a much different world back then, and in some ways, a better one.
Fearing the city’s artificial lights would come back on any minute, I hurriedly put on a hat and jacket and climbed aboard the bicycle to race into the great blackness. I quickly peddled over to the lake for a glimpse of the past.
It was odd crossing Highway 61, which is usually abuzz with traffic, lights and noise, to find the great modern artery subdued and relatively quiet. All was dark, and the few cars on the move that evening were going at an unusually slow, cautious speed. But once I made the lake, just 4 blocks from home, even the dim light of those passing headlights faded into glorious, primitive darkness.
In a few places, I could see pale candlelight flickering through the windows of the grand homes that line Lake Street. Few people were still up, for by now it was after 9 p.m. Already the petroleum-like scent of burning wax could be detected mixing with the cool, night air and the sweet perfume of purple lilac and apple blossom.
The wide expanse of the lake was black and brooding, as if abandoned and alone. Were it not true. Oh to have seen it in such a time and place, primordial. Even Manitou Island betrayed not a shaft of the artificial light that usually beams through its tall maples.
Only the chorus of mating frogs in Matoska Marsh broke the stillness. In the distance, far to the south, the storm raged on. Flashes from frequent lightning bolts diffused into a low cloudbank overhead, creating a fleeting dome of light miles across the southern sky. The frogs were undisturbed by the fireworks. They’re used to such accompaniment. (check here if you’ve heard frogs calling___)
For a time, I felt transported to the far north of Minnesota where darkness still rules the night, where man’s lights do not spoil the virgin, wild sky. For a time, the calling of ducks and geese far out on the marsh sounded just a bit wilder and the south wind off the lake a bit freer. Lights out on White Bear Lake, I think I could get used to it.
One sweltering hot July day I was driving down a busy highway near White Bear Lake. The black tar road was giving off waves of shimmering, sun-fired heat. Acrid car exhaust soured the still air, while diesel smoke colored it black.
Driving through this scene of polluted, mechanized mayhem, I suddenly noticed a little mouse dashing from the grass on the side of the four-lane, divided roadway. I silently cheered him on as he made a panicked dash for the other side.
But it didn’t look good. The little mouse had run right beneath a huge dump truck bouncing along at 50 mph, gravel piled so high it was nearly falling out. The dump truck looked huge to me, but up against that little mouse, it looked downright dino-saurian. I knew what was coming next.
The little mouse made a valiant effort to escape the lumbering beast. They are quite fast when they have to be. First, the mouse ran beneath the truck, scrambling for all it was worth. Just as quickly, the mouse reversed and tried to turn back to the safety of its grassy roadside home.
Then the panicked mouse ran right under the dump truck’s massive black tires. The full weight of that industrial barge came to bear on that scrambling ounce of frightened fur, flesh and bone. In the blink of an eye, I witnessed that living mouse transformed into a little spray of red blood and juice. The red splash flew into the air off the back of one of those hellish black tires. What was left of the mouse was then totally obliterated by a stampede of yet more tires that drove over the little wet spot.
In the whole, huge scheme of things on Earth, a single mouse amounts to but little. Yet, the mouse’s destruction seemed to represent something larger in terms of modern man’s overall relationship to nature. It spoke of our callous, ill treatment of our natural home. We are not just obliterating mice on the roadway, but whole countrysides around the globe. Can such destruction continue endlessly on? I think Ernest Hemmingway once penned an answer to that question. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
Moonrise over Manitou
“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion, which stands at the cradle of true art and science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle.” — Albert Einstein, physicist.
A fast-moving thunderstorm drenched the backyard around 4:30 p.m. one summer day, freshening the air and settling the dust of two dry summer weeks. Thirsty flowers, garden vegetables and trees immediately came back to life with that fresh dose of nitrogen-rich manna from heaven.
The increase in humidity released the perfume of a thousand blossoms on a showy, white catalpa tree across the road. The catalpa tree is like a gigantic white lilac bush, and just as fragrant. This particular tree is 50 feet tall and 20 feet wide in places. When in bloom, every little branch is covered with 3-inch white flowers, the edges of their folded petals tinged red. The fragrance is so intoxicatingly sweet that you’ll find yourself stopping in your tracks to draw in the dizzying perfume.
Later, the day warmed to the 80s and the humidity grew, so I waited until the coolness of evening to take Wolf for a bike run around the marsh. Dogs don’t run well in hot weather.
But soon we were off. We first stopped at the edge of Matoska Park, Wolf still on his leash. I looked around and spotted a raccoon digging around in the dirt, no doubt looking for turtle eggs. Wolf quickly spotted the little bear and went on full alert. I dared not turn him loose for fear the scrappy little coon would injure Wolf in a fight. Coons are tough critters.
I pointed the raccoon out to two passing middle-aged ladies. “Oh they’re so ugly. I wish they weren’t around,” one grumbled.
I’ve always thought the raccoon a handsome creature. This particular coon was young with a beautiful black and brown coat all fluffed out and in perfect summer condition. Its face clearly showed the characteristic black bandit mask and dark muzzle.
The ladies soon strode off as did the coon, all parties obviously preferring other company. Wolf let out a bark at the departing animal. The coon jerked its head up in alarm and quickly scrambled up a nearby cottonwood tree. Summer’s long days must cut into the normally nocturnal coon’s hunting time, which probably explains why it was out in broad daylight.
The raccoon safely up a tree, we moved on and soon arrived at the old abandoned Matoska boat landing. As usual, I tossed a tennis ball out into the water with a thrower for Wolf to fetch. He eagerly dove in after the faux duck.
Out over the water, the swifts and swallows were making a night of it, bobbing and weaving in long graceful sweeps in pursuit of their insect dinner. The ducks were flying into the marsh to roost for the night, while a catbird sang its melodious songs from a nearby grove of maple trees. The usual flotilla of sailboats, their sails slack from a lack of wind, were motoring back to their moorings at the lake’s west end.
To the far northeast and northwest anvil-topped thunderheads loomed high into the evening sky, leftovers from that passing storm. The bottom 4/5ths of the mammoth clouds were already shrouded in darkness. But their tops were colored in a striking shade of brooding pinks and russet oranges. High winds were shearing off the very peaks of the thunderheads, creating horsetails that streamed out for miles. These too were soon set ablaze by the setting sun. The thin horsetails were now back-lit by the setting sun, themselves set afire for a few brief moments before the waning sun dipped below earth’s horizon.
As the sun bid adieu in the west, I noticed yet another cosmic glow gathering in the east, this one gentler than our powerful star. There, slowly rising over the mist-shrouded treetops of Manitou Isle, was the giant, glowing orb of a full moon. The gentle rising of that huge full moon cast a spell over the lake. Even the usually noisy creatures of the marsh seemed to fall silent, as if hypnotized by the moon’s gigantic presence looming in the sky above. They soon caught their breath, however, with the frogs the first to sing their approval.
Moonstruck ourselves, Wolf and I soon awoke from our trance and turned toward home, passing several onlookers on the way. They, too, were just standing there, silently, in awe at the moonrise over Manitou.