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From the Woodlot
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From the Woodlot

From the Woodlot

This past week I talked about how fortunate I am to have natural spaces in which to sit and ponder life and our vast world. A simple stump head bobbing on a lake surface has for years been a main character in my ponderings. It’s in front of our small off-grid cabin on a remote Wisconsin lake.

“It’s always been there,” I often tell folks visiting us at our lake cabin.

My wife named it “Stumpy” and the name stuck.

I’ve had about 50 years to ponder old Stumpy. As a kid I spent time trying to make the perfect cast with a bobber and hook, rigged with an angle worm, right next to the old stump. It was a great spot to catch bluegills.

In the past few years I’ve thought more about why a rooted stump is 15 yards from the shoreline. I looked to a scientist for help and found a fellow University of Illinois graduate who was kind enough to engage with me after I sent him an email.

Kyle Herrman is a professor of fisheries and water resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He teaches courses involving water resources and soils, wetland ecology, applied ecology and water chemistry. As a side note I asked him if his work ever involves agriculture.

“Yes,” he replied. “It’s impossible to work in the water-quality world in the Midwest without intersecting agriculture.”

Herrman generously took the time to answer my random email asking about old “Stumpy.”

“Without giving it too much thought, my immediate response would be that historically the lake levels were lower than they are today,” he said. “The only way for a tree to germinate and establish itself in a specific location is for that spot to be dry. Once the tree is underwater it will die. But its stump can remain for incredibly long periods of time due to the stunting of decomposition. So it’s hard to say how long ago the lake levels were lower, but my quick scan of the 1938 aerial photos show your little Oneida County lake identical as it is today.”

I asked why the lake is deeper now. Herrman said he was “flying off the cuff” because he wasn’t familiar with our specific lake.

“My guess would be one of two things,” he said. “One could be your ‘lake’ was much more shallow – and potentially drained into a nearby river. During early colonization of the area the outlet from the area could have been filled – either on purpose or by accident – and as a result the lake became deeper. This would have flooded out the surrounding forested wetland and that would leave behind stumps.

“The other explanation could be related to the drainage pattern of the larger landscape. Both rivers on either side of your lake could have been influenced downstream by dams. If they are draining the general landscape of the area around your lake and are dammed downstream they will back up the hydrology ever so slightly. Dams can result in higher water tables, which could increase the lake levels. Even just a few feet in this type of landscape can result in dramatic changes. So if that occurred then the historically wetland habitat would also be flooded out and the once-forested landscape would turn into more of a lake.”

Herrman’s observations opened the possibility that old Stumpy could have been a tree thriving on the shoreline 15 yards from the current lake edge.

But there’s more to the story. Another email came from Herrman the next day after he remembered an old land survey.

“There is also the 1851 Land Survey that was done in Wisconsin,” he wrote. “Here is the map for the area where your lake should be; in 1851 your lake was not present. The surveyor notes indicate swampland with spruce, tamarack and cedar. And in the drier locations they noted hemlock and white pine. So somewhere between 1851 and the 1938 aerial photo, your lake was established.”

As I read his email my perception of the timeline of life shrunk in an instant. Suddenly 1851 didn’t seem that long ago. This little Northwoods lake that has meant so much to me hasn’t always been here – and it might not always remain as I now know it. Perhaps the little kettles filled with dark tannic waters that lie in the mysterious bogs surrounding the lake that I have a cabin on will someday be lakes themselves. Perhaps they will even overtake the lake I’ve come to revere.

I know what I’m going to do at my next opportunity. I’m going to paddle my canoe along the entire shoreline of that little 68-acre lake looking for stumps and other signs that will likely have me doing more pondering. Because I never know where my ponderings might lead.

I’d like to extend a special thanks to Herrman for taking the time to help open the door to possibilities on something I’ve been pondering for a long time. It’s a stump 15 yards from shore in a small Northwoods lake – a stump that knows the call of the loon, the howl of a wolf and the sight of a full moon as well as any human I know.

Greg Galbraith, a former dairy farmer who owns woodlot property in eastern Marathon County, Wisconsin, writes about the rapidly changing nature of the agricultural landscape. He has built a lifetime connection to the land and those who farm it.

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