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While living in Iowa, my girlfriend and I visited the north shore a few times yearly. Finally, I proposed marriage to her on the shore of Lake Superior. As a result, our wedding and honeymoon were on the north shore.
A year after we were married, my wife and I traveled to Alaska to help my Uncle John and Aunt Di move from Fairbanks to Silver Bay, Minnesota. After that, our trips north became even more frequent. We made sixteen trips to the north shore during our final year in Ottumwa. We had already been looking at houses in northern Minnesota; the time was right to pack up and move north.
After we bought our house in the north woods, Uncle John and Aunt Di gave us the coolest little housewarming gift; a hand-made bird feeder that looked like a miniature Northwoods cabin. It was made by a local crafter near Two Harbors. We immediately filled it with black-oil sunflower seeds and set the feeder on the railing of the old wooden steps at the back door. That birdfeeder has provided countless hours of entertainment watching our feathered friend's feed. But the birds aren't the only ones scoring a snack at the little cabin.
After I removed the old staircase from the house, I built a larger deck. During construction, the bird feeder was placed on top of a barrel in the yard. Soon, the deer discovered the feeder, helping themselves to the bounty at every opportunity.
Although the new deck was framed, I did not install the top planking. I wanted to wait until all the work inside the house was done before finishing the deck. (Drywall dust stains everything it touches, especially on a walking path.) For construction to continue I laid down a plywood walkway across the stringers. The birdfeed sat across the framework on the edge.
The birds enjoyed the seed. Soon chipmunks and squirrels joined the feast. The birdfeeder was becoming quite the gathering spot for various flying and small, four-footed wildlife. But more animals came, and they were bigger.
Many seeds fell to the ground below. However, nothing goes to waste in the woods. First, the deer came along throughout the day to clean up after the birds. Next, the raccoons wanted in on the deal and would come at night to finish the daily offerings. So much activity could not go on unnoticed. One morning I went out to restock the bird feeder, but it was gone!
I walked the top edges of the two-by-ten stringers with the same caution and skill as an ariel tight-rope walker. Then, from the edge of the framework, I saw the feeder laying upside-down on the ground below. "Darn, raccoons must have knocked it off," I complained. I climbed down a ladder to retrieve the little cabin and noticed paw prints in the muddy dirt. BIG paw prints.
I took my 25’ Stanley PowerLock tape measure from my belt. "Seven inches across," I said to my Dog, June Bug, standing on the plywood walkway above. "That's a darn big raccoon!"
"Um, Dad," June said in reply. "It might have been a big bad wolf, but I don't think that was a raccoon."
I smiled, "I know, Buggy. I'm just messing with ya. This was definitely a bear!" I pulled out the yellow metal tape, locked it into place, set it by a paw print, and took several pictures. I picked up the bird feeder and the broken hinged roof when the photo shoot was done. "Crazy bear," I complained. "I don't mind you taking the seeds, but did you have to break the roof off?"
I asked June, "Do you remember the story I told you about the big bad wolf that huffed and puffed and blew down the little pig's houses?" June remembered. "Maybe I should build a bird feeder with bricks!" June and I shared a good laugh about that as I carried the pieces up the ladder, onto the walkway to repair the little cabin.
Being from Iowa, I had no experience with bears. However, I showed the photos to my uncle, a friend who works for the DNR, and a few experienced bear hunters. Based on a seven-inch paw print, their guesses ranged from a bear that would weigh around three-fifty to four to even five-hundred pounds. However, there was one thing upon which they all agreed: "Get that bird feeder away from your house! You don't want that bear coming up on your deck."
I justified that the deck is five feet in the air and doesn't even have steps yet. They all told me the same thing, "Five feet is nothing, not even for a small bear, and a large bear has a substantially higher reach. Get rid of the bird feeder," they advised. But their advice fell on deaf ears. The deck was completed that fall, and we've kept the bird feeder on the top ever since.
The rare visit from a bear doesn't compare to the days, weeks, months, and years we've enjoyed sitting on our deck watching the activity at the feeder. Animals gather around that feeder like people around the well in ancient times, fetching water in the center of the town.
Sometimes the chickadees will drop a seed between the feeder and the pine tree branch, where they'll break the shell and eat the kernel. This results in a few random sunflowers sprouting around the house's foundation. One year a seed got dropped in an old pot of dirt on the deck. It grew and bloomed in the summer. We enjoyed its bright color and beauty so much that I make sure a couple of seeds find their way to the pot each year. Still, for all this magic, there is one thing I'm not crazy about with our view from the deck.
Our septic tank is just twenty-five feet from the deck in the backyard. The tank has two large black lids. Two six-inch white plastic pipes with caps stand about eighteen inches above the ground, and there is also a gray exterior electrical box with wiring for the pump inside the system. Frankly, they look like…well, a septic system. Although it is indispensable for our home, there is nothing attractive about the service points of a septic tank.
My wife planted some daylilies in the area, but they don't hide anything.
I came up with some creative ideas: paint the white pipes like mushrooms. Maybe paint signs on the big black lids: "Swim At Your Own Risk" on one and "No Diving" on the other. Unfortunately, clever paintings would only draw more attention to the presence of these eye sores. But, then, I got an idea from the birds; plant flowers, and lots of them.
Last fall I tried transplanting several species of flowers and ferns from our property. Not a single flower plant popped up this spring. However, several of the little ferns seem to have taken hold. I also scattered some lupin seeds. Five small lupin clusters are coming up, but that's not enough. I got another idea from the chickadees – sunflowers!
The plants that grew from the 'bird feed' sunflower seeds only got about three feet tall; they bloomed but did not produce seeds. What if I planted regular sunflower seeds intended for growing sunflowers in the garden? I should get an excellent crop of plants.
I ordered two variations of seeds, then staked out an oval area about eight feet wide and twenty feet long. Finally, the seeds arrived, and I set Mother's Day as my day for planting. I probably should have planted them sooner, but there was still snow on the ground.
Mother’s Day was beautiful. The sun was shining, the temperature was in the sixties, and I was pumped about planting my garden. I could not till the soil over the tank, nor did I want to. I didn't want to disturb the perennial daylilies or the new lupin plants. So instead, I turned the soil in numerous small circular areas, planting two seeds in each space. In all, I sowed about seventy-five seeds. Assuming they all germinate; I will need to thin them out and should end up with about thirty-five sunflower plants.
The traditional yellow sunflowers plants in the middle will grow to over ten feet high. Then, finally, I'll have a perimeter of tiger-eye sunflowers that grow to be about three to four feet tall. Both should produce a healthy crop of seeds to harvest, and the birds will eat well next winter. But not only the birds will benefit from these plants; the bees will also love them!
Speaking of the bees, I have a bunch of wildflower seeds a friend gave me. This week, I will plant my entire septic mound, about a sixty-foot oval, with all kinds of flowers to create a pollinator field for the bees – not to mention the flowers will make the yard more beautiful! Before I can seed the mound, I need to do a little preparation, adding peat moss and spreading manure to fertilize the plants. Who better to spread manure than an old radio guy, right? I'm excited to see how this will all turn out.
I can imagine thirty-five or forty sunflowers opening each summer day to the rising sun in the east. Then, follow the sun until it's setting in the west. West where they will be facing a giant bouquet of wildflowers on the mound. But there is always a chance none of my seeds in the new gardens will grow. Fortunately, I am optimistic the latter will not happen, but just in case, I'm following the lead of our feathered friends. (I dropped a few seeds in the pot of soil on the deck, but this year, I added a second pot.)