Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Willow, Water and Winter Bonding with Ames Lake

By Sage Passi

French Immersion student hauls willow and cottonwood cut by
Minnesota Conservation Corps crews at Ames Lake on the east side of St. Paul

Becoming a steward of the land and water demands a certain bonding with a place. My childhood wanderings with field guide in hand around the wetland edges of Foot Lake at the outskirts of my small hometown Willmar were the early catalysts that set the stage for my career in water protection. For Nick Gasho’s fourth-grade students at L’Etoile du Nord, French Immersion School, the anchor is Ames Lake, a tiny, tucked away oasis just east of Cub Foods on the east side of St. Paul. If you didn’t grow up in the area you might not know it exists. 

French Immersion students frolic on the Ames Lake ice shortly
before a blizzard hits.

The restoration at Ames Lake.
Ames Lake has always had a colorful history. At one time it was a much larger lake, but in the 1960s, in anticipation of Interstate 94 being built through the neighborhood, the lake was filled in and Phalen Shopping Center was “planted” on top of it. Marian Seabold, age 97, an elder in the community tells stories from her youth about walking past the lake/wetland serenaded by chorus frogs as she stopped to admire the colorful array of prairie and wetland plants adorning the lake.

Years later as an adult, she recalls, sadly watching as the dump trucks filled in the lake that had held so many happy first memories for her. In the late 1990s, the neighborhood observed cattails popping up in the parking lot. Disgruntled by the sinking pilings and the flooding in the shopping center, they rejected the covering up of Ames Lake and made a big pitch for its return. The Watershed District contributed $500,000 toward restoring the lake and its surrounding habitats.

Thus Ames Lake was reborn.

But, as with all restoration projects, there is still on-going work to be done. Early this winter, I checked in with St. Paul Parks and Recreation Natural Resources Technician Meghan Manhatton to ask her about the status of invasive plants on the site. I was involved in the original restoration and have been watching over the years as more and more of the area has been overtaken by willow and cottonwoods that shade out and threaten the vitality of the diverse array of prairie and wetland species that we planted back in 2001. I asked, “What can the students do to help?”

Nick Gasho's fourth-graders stack willow and cottonwood at
Ames Lake to be hauled away for mulching or to be burned
to provide heat for downtown St. Paul.

Left: Meghan Manhatton from St. Paul Parks and Recreation has been spearheading this winter's willow and cottonwood cutting.  Right: Katie Clower, Program Assistant for Friends of the Mississippi River prepares the site for willow removal.

After some deliberation and thoughtful discussions, a tentative work plan for the next year emerged. Katie Clower from Friends of the Mississippi River jumped on board to provide education about wetlands with funding assistance through the McNeely Foundation. We decided to focus on willow removal in 2014 and complete some re-plantings of native prairie species on the north slopes of the lake next year if the park staff’s efforts to eradicate an infestation of crown vetch are successful. 

Nick Gasho, French Immersion fourth-grade teacher,
supervises the stacking of willow and cottonwood brush.

Teachers like Nick Gasho, Lequyen Tran and others led by Henriette Bissoy, the science teacher have been involving their students in hands-on learning about restoration ever since they began partnering with the Watershed District six years ago. Their principal, Fatima Lawson, has been a strong advocate for environmental service learning. At their former Bush Avenue school ground, they sought out many opportunities to engage students in watershed stewardship including planting prairie plants on the hillside to
resolve serious erosion issues and constructing a rain garden and butterfly gardens.

But this fall when they moved into their new location at the former Ames Elementary School just off of White Bear and Case Avenues, they discovered that gardening space was quite limited. So those once close-at-hand opportunities for involvement had dwindled. But with their move, new doors have opened up.

Planting the hillside restoration at their school.

The school is now within walking distance to both Ames Lake and Beaver Lake. Nick is taking advantage of it with full gusto. By the end of the year his students will have taken four walking trips to Ames Lake to experience its uniqueness through the seasons, study its
habitats, learn about water quality and work on several of its issues.

In February a French Immersion student augers
holes in the ice at Ames Lake to create access
for water quality sampling equipment.

In the fall the class walked around the circumference of the lake, studied its ecology and investigated some of its challenges including graffiti, vandalism and invasive species. In late February, on the day of the last big blizzard right before the snow came down fast and furiously, they walked the mile or so to Ames Lake to see what they could learn about water quality in the wintertime.

With the help of Dave Vlasin, the District’s Water Quality Technician, they drilled holes in the ice and measured some of the parameters used in water quality monitoring including dissolved oxygen and conductivity. They discovered very low oxygen levels, typical of a very shallow lake and somewhat high levels of conductivity that left them pondering about the implications. It was a good chance to raise awareness about the changes that occur seasonally with lakes and learn about methods to measure water quality.

Dave Vlasin, RWMWD, explains the functions of the Sonde Sampler, a water
quality monitoring tool.


On March 14 Nick’s class seized the moment to walk to the lake again. On a glorious pre-spring day they stepped into action to help out Ames Lake by teaming up with the Watershed District, St. Paul Parks and Recreation and Friends of the Mississippi River to help haul willow and cottonwood stands that had been recently cut by Minnesota Conservation Corps teams who have been using the area as a practice site to train their crews to use chain saws.

An invigorating way to spend an early, warm "spring" morning.

Removing cottonwood logs at Ames Lake.

Small teams of Gasho’s students hauled and stacked willow, cottonwood brush piles and logs to locations along the edge of the trail around the lake that could easily be picked up by a clam truck that will take the brush to either Pigs Eye where it can be mulched or to the District Heating where it will be burned to provide heat for the downtown St. Paul area. It was a good opportunity to learn cooperation skills, get a good workout, soak in the sun and improve the habitat at Ames Lake.

Tackling the large branches of willow.  The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension,
Wells Fargo Bank, and nearby townhomes (in background) were built around the
wetland since the restoration.

Next trip: a clean-up at Ames Lake in April with their other two fourth-grade classes. In May they get to take a trip to Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary to remove garlic mustard, visit a larger scale restoration project and learn all about the cultural and ecological significance of that area. Kudos for getting acquainted with their community and making a difference!

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