Thursday, June 18, 2015

Rebuilding “Memory Lane” – 2015 Keller Creek Restoration

By Sage Passi

Reflections along the banks of Keller Creek

When you descend the hill to Keller Creek from the Golfview Picnic access parking lot a view of something more remarkable than a golf course appears. All along the edge of this rambling creek is a panoramic “canvas” about to be transformed into a masterpiece.

By next summer the vibrant wildflowers, butterfly milkweed, blue eyed grass, prairie smoke, Midland shooting star, spiderwort and aromatic aster should be coming into their prime.
Rattlesnake master and native grasses, little bluestem, prairie dropseed and side oats grama will be dancing in the breeze along the upper banks.
Below the prairie, the wet meadow plants, cardinal flower, turtlehead, fox sedge and Joe Pyeweed will be calling out to the hummingbirds, monarchs, dragonflies and damselflies to visit their colorful blooms and seed heads.
The emergent plants along the water’s edge, with their feet under water and their vegetation looming above the surface, will inspire frogs, herons, egrets and spawning fish to seek out this restored habitat to spend their summers searching for food and raising their young. 

All these habitats are much better homes than the buckthorn and reed canary grass they have replaced, don’t you think?

Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum)

An Apt Nickname for a Motley Creek

What’s a better nickname than “Memory Lane” for a place that several hundred kids had their first experience restoring a rich habitat of native plants? It seems like an apt epithet for a place that is reclaiming some of the essential qualities of Minnesota’s pre-settlement ecosystems.

Ann Nelson assists fifth graders in planting upland prairie
species along Keller Creek.

I met Ann Nelson, a creek volunteer, at a salon talk I was giving in March about water quality issues. She expressed interest in the project then and came back numerous times to help us work with classrooms that were planting. Here is what she had to say about the experience:
"Thank you for presenting information about the Watershed District's work at the salon conversation. I thoroughly enjoyed working with you, your staff and the kids on the planting project. Please keep me in mind for other projects if I can help in any way. Thank you for your good work."
That's the kind of affirmation I like to hear!
Keller Creek is a place you want to come back to. People have been hiking, biking, paddling, driving, planting, picnicking, practicing archery and fishing along this corridor for generations. A group of inspired women back in the 1920’s nicknamed the grove they planted along its banks, “Memory Grove”. This grove of elms was located next to the spot where we dug our first trowels full of soil to begin the restoration. One lone tall elm tree is what remains below the hill but there is still an stone monument with remnants of a plaque on it that honored their efforts to recreate a forest. The City of Maplewood, with help from the University of Minnesota Forestry, recently did a core boring to count the rings of the tree and determined that it was close to 100 years old and within the age range of a tree that could have been planted during that era. 

Twelve classes were involved in the planting, including these students
 from Mounds Park Academy who engaged in the creek restoration.

Each day this spring, as I returned with a new group of students to assist with the restoration, energy was high and people were cheerful and happy to be there. It’s no small task coordinating all the scheduling with teachers, students and Master Gardeners who turn out to help us each year, but there was lots of enthusiasm for participating. I found it meaningful that our first volunteers this spring were three fifth grade classrooms from American Indian Magnet School. 

American Indian Magnet fifth graders learn how to plant at Keller Creek.

Simba Blood, Natural Resources Technician for the District,
explains the planting process.
In the early 1800’s the Dakota Tribe from the village of Kaposia would travel along this passageway coming from the Mississippi River through its marshes and wet meadows on their way up north to their summer hunting, fishing and ricing lakes. The Dakota guided their friend, French Canadian voyageur, Ben Gervais, along this creek to find a location to build a mill and farm on the banks of Gervais Lake and Gervais Creek to the north. If you follow the creek through the narrow culvert to the other side of Highway 61, you get to a spot where evidence of the Woodland Period (1000 BCE to 1000 CE) culture was uncovered when the construction of the road was in process in the 1974.This creek has been at the crossroads of a lot of activity for a long, long time!

Keller Creek flows out of Keller Lake at the south end. This
was the location where Woodland Period artifacts were found.

Some TLC for the Creek and for All of Us

The weir on Keller Creek

The creek has gone through many metamorphoses over its lifetime. It has been through-the-ringer, so to speak. It’s been dredged and dammed, armored and paddled. It was high time for some TLC if you ask me. I guess that’s what was the opinion of Bill Bartodziej, our Watershed biologist, when he initiated the restoration project. 
From mid-May to early June twelve classrooms from St. Paul, Maplewood and North St. Paul participated in the process of restoring native plants in about a 12,000 square foot area (1/3 of an acre) along the shoreline of Keller Creek.

A restoration project provides much more than your average planting experience for kids. Lessons about water quality issues, ecology, history and watershed geography that are built into classroom experiences prior to planting day culminate in a hands-on project that calls for teamwork, eye-hand coordination, physical effort, dexterity and attention to detail. The rewards are fresh air, a beautiful place to spend a spring morning or afternoon, a chance to interact with nature and do some environmental observations, a sense of accomplishment, an opportunity to make history and some happy memories. What more can you ask for?

Farnsworth Aerospace environmental science classes
investigate water quality in the creek.

David Barrett reveals the contents of a geocache he hid for
his students near the Frost Avenue Bridge over the creek.
David Barrett, aerospace instructor and environmental science teacher at Farnsworth, walked the area in advance of the planting to get his own bearings. He took some time to develop additional activities to complement the planting, hid some geocaches and then invited his long time geocaching buddy to join us on the day of the planting. He is the kind of educator who is committed to building high quality outdoor experiences that enhance skills and connect students to the nuances of a place. Despite the intermittent rain on their planting day, his students and his colleague, Hannah Scanlon’s class used this opportunity to measure the water quality of the stream, identify birds and apply GPS to find the geocaches Barrett hid in various locations.

In early June members of the District’s Citizen Advisory Commission and Landscape Ecology Award Program Team joined forces to lend their hands to the efforts. They made a night of it and filled in plants in the wet meadow zone and explored the newly reconstructed portage.

LEAP and CAC members assist Bill Bartodziej
(far right) with the planting.

Photo credit: Anita Jader

And Then There’s The Dirty Work……..

Coconut fiber logs help control erosion in areas along the creek
where grading was done along the shoreline.

I asked Simba Blood, the District’s Natural Resources Technician, to give me a quick low-down on some of the steps that went into getting the area ready for planting. Revisit her article "Connecting the Spots" in the February edition of the Ripple Effect for more details on the overall project. Also, check out "Three Creeks in One" in the April edition to learn more about the history of the creek.

One of the first questions students asked when arriving down at the creek is, “What are those rolls in the water?”

Simba answered,

“In places where we’ve moved soil, we use biologs along the shoreline. These are coconut fiber logs that are sturdy and act as erosion control measures where we have loose soil that could wash into the creek. In areas with cut banks where we didn’t disturb soil, we use brush bundles made from willow and buckthorn rolled up in an erosion blanket. They are cheaper and don’t function as erosion control, but they serve as a flow break in areas where they can buffer and allow some of the soil washing into the stream to accumulate instead of moving downstream.”

Brush bundles made by Youth Outdoors help
in buffering soil that washes into the creek.

“How did you prepare the area before planting?” I inquired.
“We treated the weeds and turf with herbicide and did a lot of invasive removal. There was a lot of poison ivy we needed to get rid of and we did some “spiking” of the burdock. We used a special shovel to cut the burdock root a couple inches underground. Before we covered the area with erosion control fabric, Bill seed drilled the planting areas to break up the soil so it would be easier to plant into. While we were out there working on the planting areas for this year, the Youth Outdoors groups assisted us in starting to work on next year’s restoration area on the other side of the creek. They took out 8-10 large garbage bags of garlic mustard. There’s lots more of it though so we will be busy getting that out of there next year.

There is one special part of the project that rises to the top and stands out as a major accomplishment. As any of you may know who have tried to canoe or kayak from Lake Phalen to Keller Lake, the weir in this area of the restoration, up until now, has always presented a major challenge when traveling up or downstream. Prior to the latest renovation, the “portages” next to the weir were very steep and cumbersome to climb with a canoe. 

Mike Goodnature, Ramsey County Parks,
Bill Bartodziej, RWMWD Natural Resources Manager, and
Randee Edmundson, RWMWD Citizen Advisory Commission,
converge at the creek.
On one of our first days at the creek, I asked Bill to tell me about the efforts of redesigning the portages. I'd missed seeing them be rebuilt, but I knew there had to be a story in it.

I caught up with him on the trail while he was talking to Mike Goodnature, Natural Resources Manager for Ramsey County Parks and Recreation, one of our partners in the project. At the time I was showing Randee Edmundson, a Citizens Advisory Committee member, the newly finished portage to get her nod of approval on the improvements before she headed off to South Africa for six months on a teaching gig. Randee is a veteran canoe guide who leads teams through the Canadian wilderness. I knew she would give me an honest reaction.

The north access point before the restoration was very difficult
to use as a portage because of its steepness and narrow "steps".
Here’s what Bill had to say about the re-creation of the portages.

One of the new "rebuilt" portages on Keller Lake

“The repositioning of the limestone slabs that made up the wall near the dam was very tricky. We had to bury the slabs several feet deep at the portage points in order to make the steps less steep for people carrying canoes and kayaks up and down the portage. Due to some limestone rock fragmentation upon relocation, we came up two rocks short in the southern access point construction. This type of limestone is very difficult to locate and quite expensive.

We urgently called City of St. Paul Staff, and they found two surplus limestone slabs left over from our Phalen restoration project in their yard. But when they tried to lift one, it was too large and heavy and impossible to bring to our site. In the process of trying to lift it, one of the limestone slabs dropped and broke into two pieces that just fit perfectly in the places we needed them. We really appreciate St. Paul’s willingness to donate them to the project. It was a pleasure too to work with Semple Excavating and their veteran operator who provided invaluable expertise with the access point construction.”
Needless to say, we were all quite excited about the improvements to the portage and from the evidence we’ve seen of people using it, not only for portaging, but also for fishing, since it’s been completed, the “nods” have it. 

Three generations fishing along the banks of Keller Creek.

Photo credit: Simba Blood

Thank you to those who worked on this project.
  • A big thank you to Watershed staff and interns for their awesome support in engaging youth in projects like this. Their dedication to education and service learning is what makes our program strong.
  • Thank you to Bill Bartodziej, Natural Resources Specialist, for his vision and expertise in directing this project and to Simba Blood and her interns for all their hard work and efforts to make this project come to life.
  • Kudos to the Ramsey County Master Gardeners and several other volunteers who rose to the occasion and helped us out, including several of them who helped for multiple sessions and days. 
  • Thanks to Rachel Katkar, from St. Paul Community Education, for coming to assist with her Youth Leadership Team and for providing funding for the buses for the St. Paul schools who were involved.
  • And finally, a big thank you to the teachers, classes and parents from L’Etoile du Nord, Farnsworth, American Indian Magnet, St. Peter and Mounds Park Academy for their enthusiastic involvement and assistance!

Now, isn't it about time to take a trip down Memory Lane?

Portages on the creek now provide much easier access to navigate around the weir.
Photo credit: Anita Jader


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