Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Keller Creek's Spring Revival

By Sage Passi

Mounds Park Academy biology students, along with fourteen other classes, help recreate habitat along Keller Creek in year two of this restoration project.

Keller Creek has been traveled for centuries by migratory birds in their long-distance treks, the Dakota journeying to their summer hunting and fishing grounds, egrets in their summer pursuit of frogs, steam powered excursion boats carrying tourists around the “jeweled” lakes, and kayakers exploring the route from Lake Phalen to Lake Gervais and beyond. For a glimpse of Keller Creek’s meandering history follow this link.

This well-traveled stretch, grown over for years with invasive plants, is undergoing a remarkable restoration at the hands of staff and community members.

To witness the progress on Keller Creek to date, mark the night of Wednesday, July 13, on your calendar and join us in celebrating the half-way mark in our four year restoration efforts. We will be gathering creek-side for a wildflower and nature identification walk, creek dipping for aquatic life, bird watching, a visit by Urban Boatbuilders who will show off their custom-built boats, other fun activities and free ice cream! It’s high time we showcased our project! 

Keller Creek Restoration Celebration
Tuesday, July 13, 6:00 - 8:00 PM

Keller Lake Regional Park, Golfview Picnic Area, Maplewood
For more details on this event click here.

Keller Creek Restoration to Date

Keller Creek is an integral part of the Phalen Chain of Lakes, flowing from Keller Lake into Round Lake and Lake Phalen. The creek is a component of a regionally vital fish and wildlife corridor, connecting restored habitats at Lake Phalen, the Phalen Golf Course and Round Lake with those at Keller Lake, Keller Golf Course, and Lake Gervais. With the addition of the new Ramsey County trail and boardwalk, the creek is also part of a large, easily accessible recreational area. 

Keller Creek restoration 2015

In 2015 restoration work began, addressing issues on the east bank of the creek, between Frost Avenue and Highway 61. Invasive plant species were removed, eroding creek banks were protected, two wet meadow areas were created and thousands of native flowers and grasses were planted by students and other volunteers. Two large stone access points next to the weir were reconfigured to improve safely for fishing and portaging. Then last fall work on the western hillside began. Large scale removal of invasive brush and trees began.

Work on removing invasive plants on the western slope and hillside

So what’s been happening in year two at Keller Creek? Let’s travel back a few weeks to the pinnacle of this spring.

Keller Creek’s Spring Revival 2016

The perfect spring morning along Keller Creek

There’s always something quite magical about those last two weeks in May. The Baltimore orioles trill in operatic fashion rivaling Mozart, the sky shimmers with a brilliant cerulean sheen and the crisp spring morning air freshens our spirits. Simba Blood and I wait on the bridge as ducks glide past, bouncing on the gentle waves. Natural Resources interns and Master Gardeners wait in the wings next to trays of native seedlings and pairs of gloves, buckets of trowels and pails stacked nearby. 

Natural Resources intern, Dan Kutschied and Master Gardeners, Sharon Hardy and Jan House, wait for students to arrive while Carrie Taylor, NR intern, waters seedlings.

Then we catch a glimpse of the first class of the season. Emerging from the school bus, they have the energy of butterflies unfolding from their cocoons. They gaze for a minute at the hill’s vista below and then come racing down the steep slope, some of them rolling into a free fall through the grass as they tumble gleefully to the bottom.

The first bus arrives

They pass by the excavation site in the field at the base of the hill. Tuj Lub courts are being constructed there on parkland adjacent to the restoration area. Tuj Lub (pronounced “too-loo”) is a traditional Hmong sport involving spinning tops. The courts are expected to be completed later this summer. Follow this link for more information.

Home for the new Tuj Lub Courts near Keller Creek

The class stops for moment to take in the panorama of reawakening prairie and wetland shoots rising from the east bank and then head along the path to the bridge. Bulrush and arrowhead stand tall, next to the biologs with their feet tucked in the creek’s mucky substrate.

The weir, rebuilt in 1991 to control the flow of water in the Phalen Chain, captures the kids’ attention momentarily with its compass embossed into the stone and the shimmering water slowly rolling southward under its solid arch. We peer curiously at the fish darting beneath the creek’s mottled surface for a few mesmerizing minutes, then cross the creek and arrive at the site of our project.

A view of the weir above Keller Creek shot in 2015.

Those of us who were here last year agree in amazement that the planting site doesn’t look anything like it did last spring. The area has been radically transformed. If you had been here during the first wave of plantings in 2015, and had looked across the water to the western edge of the creek, you would have seen a forested wall next to the creek’s slope, thick with invasive buckthorn, honeysuckle and other unwanted vegetation. It’s been transformed into a thick carpet of newly mulched trees and shrubs spread thickly across the western shoreline. Towering above the shoreline edge is a forest of native trees and shrubs that will thrive better without having to compete for space, light and nutrients. 

Insuring a Rich Diversity and a Haven for Pollinators and other Wildlife

The western shoreline of Keller Creek awaiting planting by students.

Four thousand square feet of planting area next to the shoreline are soon to be occupied by four hundred plus students, packed in pairs in small planting squares on a steep and challenging slope over the next few days.

Wall-to-wall traffic at restoration site. Master Gardener Donna Andersen (on right) teams with Weaver fifth graders.

Herculean efforts by Natural Resources staff, interns and a Ramsey County Corrections Nursery team a few days before miraculously made it possible for us to be ready for May 17, the starting date for our two week planting spree. Rain and other challenges on the site had forced the completion of the site into a tight schedule.

In shoreline restoration projects we typically plant into erosion blanket, but this year was going to be different. We were planting under a thick blanket of coarsely chopped mulch, through root riddled ground in tight quarters. Some of the squares were up against brush bundles or biologs placed at the toe of the slope so the kids in the bottom planting areas were right next to the water. But the creek is shallow and no one seemed to mind. Some kids even volunteered for those spots!  

Planting next to the edge wasn't for everyone, but there were some brave volunteers willing to work close to the water!

An occasion fit for dressing up!

Some dressed for the task and some came a little overdressed, but they all dug in, had some fun and worked very hard to accomplish the task of getting their plants in the ground.

We outfitted kids with buckets for the soil they dug out and for removing the deeper mulch around their planting area. Each day we had a new set of classes who alternately planted for about forty-five minutes, then spent the next half hour to an hour exploring the history, landmarks and ecology of the creek as it traveled to Round Lake and Phalen Lake.

Clearing the mulch to plant

We were planting close to thirty wet meadow species – a rich variety of grasses, sedges, rushes and wildflowers including everything from blue bottle gentian and blue flag iris to tussock sedge, turtlehead and wool grass. These long-rooted seedlings, grown by Ramsey County Corrections Nursery, would be planted a foot apart to increase biodiversity, provide sources of pollen and nectar for pollinators, create habitat for wildlife and slow hillside erosion. 

Natural Resource Intern, Dan, assists a student with removing a lake sedge from its pack.

When we reached the last day of planting with all fifteen classes, we experienced a sense of completion and satisfaction, having successfully planted about 3000 seedlings.

Who is involved in these restoration projects and why do we involve them?  

Level Up Academy students pose on the bridge over Keller Creek on their way to Round and Phalen Lakes.

We strive to engage classrooms that we’ve been working with all year. Our first priority is to involve students who have been learning how to stratify and start native seedlings and tending them from start to finish for use in projects around the district. We like to complete the year with a culminating service project, celebrate a year of learning and ground their knowledge in a natural setting. Our target classes this year included six classes of fifth graders from American Indian Magnet and L’Etoile du Nord in St. Paul and three fifth grade classes from Weaver Elementary in Maplewood, a class of 7th and 8th grade environmental science students from Farnsworth, a class of fifth and sixth graders from Level Up Academy in White Bear Lake and three classes of high school biology and environmental studies students from Mounds Park Academy. 

“Teasing” the roots to loosen their root ball before they go into
the ground is an essential step in planting plugs.

Many of these classes have been involved in other planting activities for a year or two before experiencing this opportunity to work in a watershed directed project organized by Natural Resources staff. Each spring before the planting we present a slide show with historical and ecological background about the current restoration project where they will be volunteering.

Master Gardeners who assist with these kinds of projects often return in multiple years to help us. This year, in addition to veteran Master Gardeners, six new Master Gardener interns signed up for shifts. A CAC member, A LEAP team member, our WestFest coordinator and one Master Water Steward also joined our team of adults assisting students with the plantings. I always hear positive comments from both teachers and Master Gardeners who comment on the potency of engaging the community in rebuilding habitats and teaching valuable skills in the art of restoring native plants.

Nancy Nygaard, who works with school classes during the growing season, fell in love with the Keller Creek site during the restoration. “I’m going to have to bring my grandchildren here!”


Each year, Mitch Thomsen, a Mounds Park Academy science teacher involves his classes in growing many trays of native seedlings for community watershed projects. He also tends the school’s own large prairie and wetlandhabitats. He offered these comments and a thank you after his classes worked on the Keller Creek project this spring.

“Thanks again for the great opportunity yesterday. I was pleased with Simba’s excellent instruction and the wonderful assistance provided by the interns and master gardeners. It was great that the students were able to see the progress on the work we did last year on the east bank. It is amazing to see how far this area has come in just a few short years. They worked hard, no one fell into the creek and lots of plants were planted." 

Simba Blood, the District’s Natural Resources Technician who is leading the restoration efforts at the creek, demonstrates how to plant with Mounds Park biology students.

Mitch continues, 

“Whatever ties you have with the weather are perfect. Like last year, this year’s weather was great. The explanation of natural corridors will dovetail nicely into our ecology unit next week. It was a wonderful experience for all and I was, at last, able to get some pictures and send to the school so they have a sense of what we are doing there.” 


Diane Noll, Level Up Academy music teacher, and Tracy Leavenworth,
school consultant who works with classrooms throughout the District

Diane Noll, the music teacher for Level Up Academy who has engaged their entire school in watershed related activities this year, had this to say about the restoration outing,
"THANK YOU!!! We had a wonderful experience planting and walking the Keller Park area! You do such important work for our environment, and our future. THANK YOU!!!"
"All the way back to school on the bus, the kids were all a-buzz about everything they saw and did. You are surely planting the seeds for future environmentalists."
One of the many discoveries at Keller Creek – a dragonfly emerging
 from its nymph stage as it sheds its exoskeleton (exuvia) on the Keller Creek weir.

Our Watershed District would like to send out our huge thank you to the many hands that helped out this year. We are looking forward to witnessing how the plants mature and watching the pollinators and other wildlife return!

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