Monday, July 20, 2015

Gervais in July

By Sage Passi

The jungle above Gervais Creek in July

Gervais Creek is never very far from my sight. I look out my office window every day and watch it flow peacefully past me under the weeping willows as it winds its way gently down to the Gervais Mill Ponds. Not long ago I heard a poem about the generosity of ordinary things. The poet, with observant mindfulness and gratitude acknowledges how a floor cushions the footsteps of a person who walks upon it and a towel accepts and absorbs the water droplets from a bather’s back. She ends with the question, “What could be more generous than a window?”

Every time a white egret sails by my window I am stirred out of the trance I am immersed in and brought back to wonder. How do you rediscover the story of a place that surrounds you in your day-to-day existence? A summer or two ago I was tasked with designing a staff training for one of our meetings. I decided to create a scavenger hunt around Gervais Mill Ponds that are adjacent to our office site. It turned it into a “walk about” game of observation and discovery reminiscent of the childhood ramblings I loved to experience around the lake and wetlands in my hometown.

Gervais Mill Pond in July

On my “bingo sheet” I included some cues like “named after a father and son team of botanists,” the teapot tree, a jumping fish and prompts like, “the year the mill was razed” and “the highest point of land you see.” Learning new facts and technical tours/presentations are typical fare but what I was after was getting people to be in the present and see things with new eyes, like a child.


Highbush cranberry, one of the many discoveries
on a recent Gervais "scavenger hunt".

Sometimes it takes a surprise visitor to draw you back into the “now”.

When a young woman from Ghana appeared out of the blue at our office on a Friday afternoon in July inquiring about the lakeshores of Lake Gervais and Gervais Mill Pond, I knew I was heading down one of those mysterious paths that takes me round-about into the present. I found myself grappling with what would be the relevant stories to tell about this place.I fell into trying to explain the relationship between nutrients and algae, run-off, and explaining the rain gardens that we built onsite to catch the stormwater. As she took notes, I wondered if any of this made any sense to her.

In the midst of our dialogue I learned that Sandra is a college student at St. Paul College. Her assignment for a biology class was to explore a lake/wetland and a natural place and find out what was living there – animals, plants, birds and insects. Her questions were simple but the answers are not.

I liked the approach her teacher was taking. Make it experiential. Go see for yourself. Look. Listen. Find a lake or a wetland and see what you see. 

At first, her choice of Lake Gervais seemed a bit of a mystery to me, but I learned that she lived in an apartment in Little Canada just up the road. She took out her cell phone and showed me a few photos she had taken at the lake. I told her I had been involved in a restoration along its shore. Time for a moment of reminiscence. I pulled out an old three-ring binder that had snapshots from back in the late 90’s when I was first beginning to involve students in restoration.


Shoreline restoration at Lake Gervais in May 1998

Her questions prompted me to remember about my first experiences with the Watershed District. For me it had all started on a winding road on a warm summer’s walk. I didn’t know at the time why, on my lunch break, I would be drawn from the hot concrete walls of downtown St. Paul to this lush and vibrant waterway I discovered along Keller Parkway. I stepped out of my car, walked down into a marshy area and my eyes caught the glimpse of a tall and regal stand of pink swamp milkweed. I would not know until the following spring that this “sighting” would launch close to a twenty-year career in native plant restoration for me.

Embraced by the generosity of the ordinary.

“Are the plants still there at Lake Gervais,” she asked? I knew I didn’t have enough time to drive over to the lake, but there was plenty to see nearby so I asked, “Would you like to take a walk?”

For the past couple of days I had been in the midst of calling people who have done shoreline planting projects on their land. I visited an older couple who live on Lake Owasso who decided that since their shoreline was weedy and messy anyway, why not replant it with native plants that would be more beneficial to the animals, insects, birds. Their shoreline is in its infancy, newly planted in the late summer of 2014. “A toddler,” I thought to myself when I stopped by for a visit.

A shoreline restoration planting on Lake Owasso, in its infancy, planted in the early fall of 2014

I also called another homeowner who did a shoreline project back in 2006. I asked him how his project was doing? His response was, “Well, it’s not exactly a work of art, but it’s doing what it does.” “In its early teens,” I thought. He seemed to be the best kind of parent for a project in that stage, honest and accepting.

When Sandra walked into our office I was on the phone confirming the Owasso site I had visited for a future stop on a garden tour. I’ve concluded from experience that most people like “infants” so this new project seemed the most enticing for a tour.

I had a destination in mind for my Ghanian visitor. Gervais Mill Ponds, long past their infancy, were constructed in 1994, but they still have quite a charm about them. And they are gainfully employed providing services upstream and downstream. These three ponds treat 1,790 acres of land upstream. Their dimensions are engineered to slow down the water flow so that pollutants will settle out to the bottom of the ponds and not go into Lake Gervais.

A caption on one of the signs near the treatment ponds
Sandra and I began our stroll down to the ponds. On our way we passed by the District’s office grounds, that are resplendent this time of year with the array of orange, pink, purple and blue hues of butterflyweed, purple coneflower, purple prairie clover and hoary vervain. After a couple of photos she shot from her cell phone, her battery was close to dead. I ran back for my camera.

Butterflyweed, purple coneflower, purple prairie clover and hoary
vervain ablaze in the upland around the District office.

As we crossed the road and approached the bridge over Gervais Creek, I directed Sandra’s attention to the gravel berm just below the Noel Drive overpass. It was placed there for flow control of the creek during the 2006 winter cleanout of the Noel Drive culverts. It remains there to slow flows for in-stream sediment settling where maintenance dredging can be most cost effective.

The berm across Gervais Creek helps some of the sediment settle
out before it reaches the Mill Ponds.

At the entrance to the park I pointed out a historical monument. When we were back at the office, Sandra had asked me how Gervais Lake and Creek got their names. I recounted the story of the French Canadian voyageur, Benjamin Gervais, who had settled in Little Canada in 1844 to build a farm and mill. Just across the road at the entrance to the park is a replica of the grindstone he used to grind corn and wheat. His grist mill was the first commercial grain mill built in Minnesota. I told her that the Dakota, from the village of Kaposia on the Mississippi River, were friends of Gervais when he had a land claim near Fort Snelling. They had guided him up through the creeks and lakes and along this channel to find new land for his farm and mill. This area was their summer hunting and fishing grounds until treaties drove them off their land.
A replica of Benjamin Gervais' grist mill stone rests above the creek.
As we wandered down along Gervais Creek, I pondered its changes over time. As more settlers continued to move in, more farms were carved out of the native forests and prairies and residential areas slowly developed. The creek that once powered a mill was ditched to drain excess stormwater away from farm fields, muddy streets and houses. Ditching this creek meant that it was straightened out so it was no longer a meandering stream. The creek became known and managed as County Ditch 16, a drainage ditching flowing into Gervais Lake. It would be years before calling it Gervais Creek became commonplace again.

We continued down the walking path along the creek to the first pond. When the treatment ponds were created native prairie and wetland seeds were sown. I can remember coming to the ponds with RSVP elders and sixth grade students from St. Paul to plant plugs along their edges, long before the District purchased land nearby and built our office. 

As was typical at the time, no on-going vegetation management was conducted and invasive plants quickly dominated the park. Invasive weed control efforts began in 1999. Since that time, the park has seen a gradual shift in the plant community to one rich in colorful native prairie and woodland species. Most recently, a cooperative buckthorn removal project between the City of Little Canada and the Watershed District, with assistance from Ramsey County Correctional Facility Greenhouse staff, has made a major improvement in the quality of the woodland surrounding the ponds. With its abundant native flora, Gervais Mill Park attracts a wide variety of diverse urban wildlife.

Two river birch entangled
by wild grapevine

Perhaps the Joe Pyeweed, towering cup plant or arrowhead that Sandra and I were now looking at were offspring of some of those first wetland plants we reintroduced to the area.
Water lily and arrowhead provide habitat for aquatic wildlife.

As we circled the pond, the egret that frequents the area made a guest appearance. Overhead green herons were diving through the air and hovering above the pond. A golden dragonfly perched on a leaf, its landing eased by its soft cushioning grasp.

A dragonfly lands on a Joe Pye Weed.

As we stood in silence on the edge of the water, we were awed by the generosity of these “ordinary” things. The wind on the pond, spreading ripples across its glistening surface, had the last word.

A wood duck house perched above Gervais Mill Pond

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