Thursday, December 29, 2011


From WATERWORKS, an Outdoors Column by Gordon Prickett for 1/4/2012, Aitkin Independent Age

Who could have known that there would be five weeks of ice - so far - with hardly any snow covering our lakes? Or that the sub-zero temps would hold off so that the ice wouldn’t get thick? But this has given us a unique opportunity to watch ice ridges and cracks form, and to listen to the groaning and booming of the ice, circling the shore. In seventeen winters I’ve never heard such a percussion performance from our lake. But now let it snow! Let it snow!


One of the toughest of the aquatic invasive species (AIS) to detect or prevent in our lakes and rivers is Zebra Mussels. They look like small clams with a yellowish or brownish “D”-shaped shell, from 1/4 to 1 ½ inches long. They have dark- and light-colored stripes like a zebra. Zebra Mussels grow in clusters and firmly attach themselves to solid objects - docks, boat lifts, boat hulls, water intake pipes, and rocks. They grow in shallow algae-rich water, less than 30 feet in depth.

This is an excellent time to go down to the shoreline and crawl around and under your dock and boat lift, while they are pulled up on shore. Without having any snow to interfere with a careful examination, look over the surfaces that were underwater all summer. Young Zebra Mussels on a smooth surface feel like fine sandpaper. If you find something suspicious, call the DNR at 218-927-3751.


With new state regulations against transporting lake water in bait buckets and live wells, there will be stepped-up enforcement when the ice goes out. The service providers who handle docks, boat lifts, and who store watercraft will be trained and certified in the future, in order to identify and prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species. The Aitkin County Lakes and Rivers Association (ACLARA) has arranged training sessions by the DNR for AIS awareness in 2011, and will continue to do this in the new year.

It is not only the points of public access that need to be checked, however. At every dock, and with every lake visitor who tows his boat from another lake, there is a potential for harmful invasives to enter our county lakes.


One of the roles of ACLARA is to assist folks around a lake who have an interest in organizing a lake association where one does not exist. It is not too early to start planning for the 2012 season. You can call me at 218-927-2267, and we will be happy to get together with you.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


From my Outdoors Column WATERWORKS for December 7th, Aitkin Independent Age

All across the county we are watching and waiting. On Monday, November 21st, we looked out to see total lake coverage, as a thin sheet of ice had covered all 414 acres of Nord Lake. But for the next week and a half there was thawing, freezing, then blowing and drifting ice. Each day had a different view of a lake changing its mind.

No doubt about it, the cold is on its way. Snowmobiles are ready. Grooming machines have paraded downtown. Skates, skis, and augers are ready to go.

The DNR wants to tell us about “safe ice.” There isn’t any. But go out and chop a hole and measure it. If it’s more than four inches thick, you probably were safe getting out there. When there’s 15 inches or more, you probably can drive your pickup onto the lake without losing it. But be careful out there! Already little kids have made the Twin City news by running out on a shallow pond and falling in.


For the loons on many county lakes it was a pretty good summer. Our three nesting pairs on Nord Lake hatched at least three chicks that were observed. One of them survived early predation to become a juvenile. If the baby chicks can make it beyond two weeks, when they learn to dive, their chances of living greatly improve.

Lake representatives at the county lake association (ACLARA) have reported a good hatch of loon chicks on their lakes this summer. In 2010 there were 24 county lakes with loon watchers who counted 85 adults, 25 chicks, with 9 constructed nesting platforms in use. To learn about a particular loon count or how to become a loon watcher, ask the leaders of your lake association. Or you can find the information from me, in care of the water planning task force at 927-6565.

One of the measures of water quality in our lakes is the clarity or transparency. The readings this summer on Nord Lake were just a little below the long-term season average. With unusually heavy rainfall in the spring, lasting through July, there was extra shoreline runoff, and lake levels stayed up at snow-melt elevations. With the dry spell in August and September, the level receded to normal. At Nord Lake the Secchi Disk average reading is between eight and ten feet. The white disk disappears below that depth.


How we manage our shoreland plays a large part in keeping a lake healthy - for fish and wildlife, and for future generations. One of the simplest and easiest measures to clean the water from the watershed, before it flows into the lake, is to leave a natural area unmowed at the water’s edge. This buffer, 10 to 20 feet wide, filters out what we should not put into the lake.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


WATERWORKS Outdoor Column by Gordon Prickett, from
The Aitkin Independent Age, 11/2/2011.

Back in July 2009 Minnesota businesses began collecting an extra 3/8% sales tax on those items that are subject to this tax. In much of the state it was pegged at 6½% before the 25-year constitutional amendment went into effect.

When this amendment received a “yes” vote in the November 2008 general election, it surprised a lot of Minnesotans. A very savvy group of state legislators, from both political parties, had assembled a coalition consisting of hunters and fishermen, environmentalists, outdoor camping enthusiasts, and patrons of the arts. The politicians then drafted a bill to send a “Legacy Amendment” directly to the voters. This procedure effectively bypassed Governor Tim Pawlenty, who had taken a “No tax increase” pledge when he battled for the nomination of his party in the 2002 gubernatorial campaign.

The receipts from this new sales tax fall into four separate pots of money, to be parceled out by four different entities every year, and subject to approval by the state legislature. The four new funds are Clean Water, Outdoor Heritage, Arts and Cultural Heritage, and Parks and Trails. In this column I am looking closely at how the clean water money is spent.


With tens of millions of new sales tax dollars coming in every year, from 2009 through 2034, this is the breakdown among the four causes:
clean water fund 33%
outdoor heritage fund 33%
arts and cultural heritage fund 19.75%
parks and trails fund (of regional & statewide significance) 14.25%

This is new dedicated money, beyond what the legislature and the governor budget in each legislative session. It protects the “essentials” that its supporters consider will maintain Minnesota’s excellent quality of life.

The clean water money is directed to “protect, enhance, and restore water quality in lakes, rivers, and streams and protect groundwater.” A critical balance is being struck across the state, between restoration of polluted and contaminated waters, protection of waters currently in good shape, and enhancement of waters under threat, but still “pretty clean.”

The state agencies charged with administering the clean water fund are mainly the Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the Board of Soil and Water Resources (BWSR). However, the Department of Health has responsibility for water wells and aquifers, and the Department of Agriculture tests well water and monitors runoff from pastures, feedlots, and soil erosion.

These state agencies seek grant requests for clean water projects from local units of government and from engaged community groups. Projects are underway in this region to expand water testing, gather available lake quality data into assessment reports, and conduct shore restoration planting. The priorities established by updated county water plans are guiding the grant awards and the execution of clean water projects.

The Aitkin County Lakes And Rivers Association (ACLARA) will focus on how member associations can participate and benefit from new clean water funding in years to come.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


by Gordon Prickett WATERWORKS Column Oct 5th Aitkin Independent Age

In this land of many freshwater lakes we hear reports of climate change and weather extremes. If, as some say, we are borrowing this environment from our children, then what are we leaving behind for them?

So far in 2011, I have noticed nothing on our lake to worry me. Lake clarity is holding steady. Our count of loons this year includes one surviving juvenile who will soon make his incredible journey to the Gulf of Mexico without adult parents who have protected him all summer. Wake boards, kayaks, pontoons, sailboats, canoes, fishing boats, and jet skis have shared the weekend waters pretty well all summer.

Across Aitkin County there are about sixty lakes with public access landings and about a hundred lakes with some shoreland that has been developed by settlers. In the entire county we have more than three hundred lakes larger than ten acres. Just 251 of these have been given names. This provides an incredible bounty of fresh water for the future.


The Aitkin County Lakes And Rivers Association (ACLARA) has been updating its by-laws this year and just completed the job in September. Careful attention was given to restating the purpose for this coalition of individual lake associations. With a membership from twenty county lakes, we approved the following five-part purpose for ACLARA:

1. Protect, preserve, and improve the waters and shoreland of Aitkin County, enhancing aesthetic, economic, and recreational values.

2. Serve as a voice of the membership to governmental bodies and agencies.

3. Inform and educate citizens of the County in becoming more effective stewards of our water resources.

4. Connect and communicate with individual lake and river associations and with coalitions in Minnesota. Also help form new lake associations in the County.

5. Support safety and courtesy in the use of county waters and the use of shoreland, and support compliance with all applicable rules and regulations.

This list ought to keep us active and engaged well into the future. Our Annual Meeting is this Saturday, 9:45 am, October 8th, at the Aitkin Library, and is open to everyone.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


(This content is from the Outdoors Column "Waterworks" by Gordon Prickett for the Aitkin Independent Age,9/7/2011.)


There is this image of endless sandy beaches that we take from our visits to the Gulf shores or the oceans on either coast. People arriving at Minnesota’s freshwater lakes look at the aquatic vegetation on their new shoreline and think “How can I get rid of these unsightly weeds?”

But we are not living on the shifting salt water shores of Florida, Texas, or California. The bulrushes and cattails plus other useful aquatic vegetation up here have a useful role to play. Before buying devices that rotate on the lake bottom to scape off every aquatic plant near shore, there is a lesson for us to learn from scientists who have studied the fish and wildlife that were here long before cabin people came north. The natural shores of our lakes, with their “weeds,” are where fish spawn and thrive. This is where waterfowl breed and nurture their young.

Rushes and cattails protect the shore from wave action that erodes bluffs and beaches. There is a different image here in the lake country from that of the ocean side. Small boats and canoes, kayaks and sailboats head out from docks on the shore. Shorelines with trees, shrubs, and sedges protect the habitat of many creatures, and provide a unique Minnesota beauty for photographers vacationing far from the oceans.

In short, the less you tear up from your beach, the more there will remain to enjoy on the lake. Think again about these “good weeds.”

Thursday, July 28, 2011


From WATERWORKS, Outdoors Column by Gordon Prickett coming 8/3/2011 in the Aitkin Independent Age

The pleasures of our lake country are at their best in these summer months. When the rest of the country is sweltering in record heat or beset by drought and wild fires, we jump in the lake and cool off, even on the hottest days. And invariably, it is "cooler by the lake."

A common theme in the purposes of our county lake associations is "to protect the lake and preserve it for our enjoyment, and for that of coming generations." But... my enjoyment may not be the same as yours. As the vacant shoreline increasingly fills up with cabins and mansions, after the best campsites have already been taken, this question of whose enjoyment can be tricky.

The DNR has recognized the pressures of lakeshore development and increased lake surface use (boating), and it has attempted to put regulations in place to help us "enjoy the lake."

We should also consider the "enjoyment" and the survival of the various species of fish and wildlife, whose habitat we invade when we come into this lake country. Boating maneuvers that churn up fish spawning grounds and disrupt waterfowl vegetation areas diminish the enjoyment for some of us. That is why the Minnesota Boating Guide restricts the speed of personal watercraft (jetskis) to 5 mph or less (no-wake), when operated within 150 feet (half a football field) from the shore.


Last week I met the new Publisher of the Independent Age, Kevin Anderson, in the office, and told him how much I have enjoyed writing this column for the past thirteen years. It looks as though we may continue the arrangement that I made back then with Dick Norlander. He didn’t charge me for carrying "Waterworks," and I furnished the content without cost, on every first Wednesday of the month.

Monday, June 27, 2011


From Waterworks by Gordon Prickett, July 6 edition, The Aitkin Independent Age

County Sheriff Scott Turner has been making the rounds of lake association meetings and radio interviews lately with a message for the Aitkin Lakes Area. "Be careful out there. Be alert to danger. And be a good steward in your neighborhood."

Shortly after hearing the sheriff on KKIN I received a call from a lake association member across the lake. The previous evening at suppertime, two fisherman near the public access had climbed onto their docks and were looking over fishing equipment at waterfront residences. The owners responded quickly and the trespassers left in a hurry. Conservation Officer Bob Mlynar was notified along with the sheriff’s office.

Their pickup truck has been traced and local law enforcement is on the lookout for the visiting fishermen. “Invasive aquatic species” come in different forms, as these would-be pirates demonstrated. Half of our lake association members are connected through the internet, and we put out an alert around the lake. More than half of our lake residents are away from their cabins in the middle of a work week. Many of the boat docks are not visible from houses on shore. Our message was “Be alert and remove contents that easily could be stolen from your boats and docks.”


Fifteen years ago I asked Steve Hughes this question at the Soil and Water Office, when we had just moved onto our lakeshore. Back then there wasn’t any association. But seven years ago a committee of neighbors was interested in organizing. Today the Aitkin County Lakes And Rivers Association (ACLARA) has a coalition of twenty member associations. ACLARA works with folks in the county to help them start up a lake association where they live and vacation.

Our organizing purpose on Nord Lake was to preserve and protect the lake and get to know the neighbors around the lake. Now another purpose is clear - to help provide for the safety of us all.

Friday, May 27, 2011


From WATERWORKS, a column in the June 1, 2011 Aitkin Independent Age
by Gordon Prickett

Minnesota bucked a trend of nationwide anti-tax zeal in the November 2008 election.
We passed the “Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment” to the state constitution, which meant that we actually voted to raise our state sales tax by three-eighths of a percent. By a sizeable margin, the decision was reached that it was time to do a better job for clean water, for wild habitat, parks, trails, and culture.

Two years later, in November 2010, state voters mixed their message to St. Paul, voting in a wealthy governor who wanted a higher tax bracket for the rich, and choosing a legislature that wants less government. The result could shut down state government come July 1.

One of the most interesting sessions at the recent 2011 Lakes and Rivers Conference in St. Cloud was titled “The Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment: Where is the Money Going?” The director of the watchdog group “Conservation Minnesota,” analyzed the first two years of this 25-year amendment, and looked ahead at the next 23 years. There are four funds where this dedicated sales tax goes.

The Clean Water Fund and the Outdoor Heritage (Lessard-Sams) Fund each get 33% of this new money. 19.75% goes to the Arts, History, and Cultural Heritage Fund, while the remaining 14.25% supports Parks and Trails with regional and statewide significance.

The state legislature receives regular reports on how this money is being spent. In fact, during this conference report by Paul Austin, two agency people identified themselves from MPCA and the DNR, as the persons who count the legacy expenditures for the state legislature.

The Arts funding is well documented and has been well publicized locally. In Aitkin we saw Gregory Peck in the classic movie at the Rialto ”To Kill a Mockingbird,” paid by this fund. Recently the library brought the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet to perform in its meeting room with arts fund money. Minnesota authors are currently visiting libraries across the state to meet their readers in arts-funded programs.

Those of us who partner with local and state agencies to clean up and protect our waters have found that the Legacy Amendment is helping. The Clean Water Fund contains new money for assessments and remediation of polluted waters, as well as for additional monitoring and protection that prevents degradation of rivers and lakes. The process of obtaining grants from Outdoor Heritage and Clean Water money can be complicated. Mostly the funds are funneled though local agencies, such as Soil and Water offices and County departments. There is a concern that the current legislative budget cuts will rely on legacy funding to replace natural resource appropriations. With watchdogs like Conservation Minnesota, I am hopeful that this can be prevented.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


WATERWORKS an outdoor column by Gordon Prickett 5/4/2011 Aitkin Independent Age

A nesting pair of Mallards swam by at sunrise on Easter Monday. Loons and Canada Geese call across the lake, as we prepare the dock, the canoe, and fishing boat for launch. There are chores to be done after our three-week Amtrak excursion, but my focus is on the water. I phoned a neighbor long distance from Texas to confirm Ice Out on April 19th. The first loon had landed. But that was just for the folks on the North and East Shores.

There were still ice floes drifting around the South Shore. For our official lake records (since 1976) the date should be April 20. This is at least one week later than the average. Our gravel access roads were graded last Tuesday to fill up the pot holes. Moisture was still boiling up on the road from deep winter frost, but Mud Season is now over. All the posted road restrictions should be gone in a few weeks.


Recently the son of a family that used to have a summer cabin on our lake, read news on-line about the effects of the recession in Aitkin County. He searched on the internet for more local news and got in touch with me. His message told about the long ago Nord Lake Store and the farms that bordered the northeast shore. He described how my neighbors had gotten together some fifty years ago to build the access that became Nordland Township Road 304. The familiar family names have come down through the years, as properties have been subdivided and sold off, and given to children.

More than fifty of our many county lakes have DNR public access and have become the site of vacation cabins, resorts, and early farm homes. About two dozen lake associations have been organized in recent years. The earliest peoples chose the best lake sites with good fishing, available game and timber, and sandy beaches. Then Europeans “discovered” these occupants and began trapping and logging. Shortly after Minnesota became a state we had a railroad crossing the county, and the river boat town of Aitkin was founded.

Some of our lake associations have been collecting the stories of settlement around their individual lakes. Sewing more of them together could make a “patchwork quilt” to tell an important piece of Aitkin County’s history.

At the Rivers and Lakes Fair on Saturday, June 18th, the Aitkin County Lakes And Rivers Association will have a booth where you can learn about how lake people have been organizing. You are welcome to drop by and share some of your lake stories.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


WATERWORKS is a Sports & Outdoor column by Gordon Prickett for the 4/6/2011 Aitkin Independent Age.

Maybe there won’t be much more snow this Spring. I had just gotten sight of a few inches of open water at the edges of our lake ice when the latest snowstorm and blizzard blew in. Cold Winter has spilled into "Spring" and forced us to order a third delivery of propane for this heating season. Rapid melting of new snow under a warm sun is backing up puddles of melt water before the ground can soak it up.

Aitkin’s diversion ditch for the Mississippi River will pay off again this year. It looks like some heavy flooding in other parts of the state.
My prediction for "Ice Out" this year is April 15th, for most county lakes no deeper than 40 feet and no larger than 500 acres. Road restrictions will probably last a good while on the muddy back roads.

Minnesota has new Commissioners to lead the Pollution Control Agency and the Natural Resources and Agriculture Departments. Also Aitkin County has elected two brand new commissioners in Districts Three and Five. With shifting control of state and local governments this could be a time for changes in water policy. Both Commissioners Paul Aasen (MPCA) and Tom Landwehr (DNR) will address the Minnesota Waters Lakes and Rivers Conference in St. Cloud on April 29th. Aitkin County Commissioners Don Niemi and Anne Marcotte are on hand for county board meetings on the first and second Tuesday mornings of every month in the court house.

Those of us who believe that more can be done, to limit aquatic invasive species and to curtail over-development around our shores, can let these public servants hear from the people they were appointed and elected to serve.

The Annual Rivers and Lakes Fair is coming to the Rippleside Elementary School in Aitkin on Saturday, June 18, from 9 am to 2 pm. Featured this year will be reptiles from the Long Lake Conservation Center and the threat to our lakes posed by spreading aquatic invasive species. The popular minnow races will be back. Admission is free. An inexpensive lunch and snacks are available.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


from March 2nd Aitkin Independent Age

I attended a roundtable at the Community College in Brainerd last week where eight scientists and supervisors from Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources converged on our region. The DNR is holding four meetings around the state to consult with citizens and special folks called “Stakeholders.” I’m thinking that stakeholders are the ones who are particularly concerned about our Minnesota waters and anything that threatens them.

The topic at these public meetings is “Management of Aquatic Invasive Plants and Animals.” In the DNR’s Annual Report for 2010 on Invasive Species, the Problem is defined as “non-native species that have the potential to threaten our water resources and cause serious harm.” Most of the discussion at Brainerd concerned Eurasian watermilfoil, curly-leaf pondweed, and zebra mussels.

In recent years in Aitkin County we have learned about some of these “invasives” at the annual Rivers and Lakes Fair, held in June at Rippleside Elementary School. Volunteers from a number of lake associations have been trained by DNR specialists in how to conduct boat inspections and instruct boaters in procedures to prevent the spread of species from lake to lake. The DNR has placed part-time interns at public access landings on Big Sandy Lake during the busy summer hours to meet boaters and make them aware of new regulations and how to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species (AIS).


In the roundtable discussion and brainstorming exercise in which I took part, the consensus was that more education and information is needed by the boating public, with better focus and clearer messages in newspapers, at bait shops, and in the broadcast media.

In those lakes where infestations have been attacked there needs to be long-term follow through to provide effective control throughout the lake. There are some success stories where a few infested lakes have been successfully treated and areas of invasives, both Eurasian watermilfoil and curly-leaf pondweed, have been limited or reduced.

Clearly, the DNR is asking for help from those who want to address the AIS problem. My meeting was just Phase 1 in a three-phase process. Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


WATERWORKS Column by Gordon Prickett for the Aitkin Independent Age, 2/2/2011

In my midwinter musings I am thinking about the “State” of things - the State of the Union, the struggling state of the economy, and our divided State Government. As our lake association members and boards consult this winter to plan our meetings and programs for the year, it might be a useful exercise to look into “The State of Our Lakes.” The beautiful lakes of Aitkin County.

In the county there are approximately 57 lakes with one or more public access landings that the DNR maintain. About two dozen of our lakes have active lake associations. Roughly, the same number of lakes have had volunteers counting loons and monitoring their lake water quality in recent years. This has resulted in a treasure trove of lake data that resides with the individual volunteers, their lake associations, the DNR, and the Pollution Control Agency.

The Common Loon is an “Indicator Species,” as are the several kinds of frogs found along the lakeshore and in wetlands of each watershed. Water quality volunteer monitors have lowered their white Secchi disks during the Summer months and recorded lake water clarity readings - the depth where the disk can no longer be seen. As local loon populations vary and as water conditions appear to change over years, we have an indication of the “state” of these twenty- or thirty-some developed lakes that are subject to serious use by visitors and residents.

Then there are public agency professionals who conduct more intensive water sampling, chemical testing, and lead shoreland revegetation projects. In any given year several of the county lakes are the focus of protection and remediation studies, using state and county funds dedicated to environmental purposes of clean water and wildlife habitat. When lakes and streams are discovered to be “impaired,” their use for recreation is compromised. Staff scientists and technicians from county and state governmental agencies then work with local lake dwellers to identify the causes of impairment and correct the conditions that have harmed these waters.

Aitkin County contains more than 300 bodies of water with an area greater than ten acres. Of these, 251 have been given names, and 50 of them are classified as General Development lakes or Recreational Development lakes. Dozens of remote lakes are simply referred to as “Unnamed,” although they carry a Division of Waters identification number and appear on our maps. We have 164 lakes classified as Natural Environment lakes, which are predominately undeveloped.

As I have reviewed the variety of data contained in the current Shoreland Ordinance and County Water Management Plan, I can confidently report that the “State of Our Public Waters” today is “pretty good.” Our challenge for this year and for future years is to protect and improve them as much as possible.