Presidents Day broke overcast with a temperature right around 30 degrees, a typical mid-February day. It also happened to be a day off from school for Troop 401 Boy Scout Andrew Wolf and an opportunity to get outside and work on his Boy Scout conservation project.
The world of Scouting has changed since I was a Scout many years ago. Today Scouts can choose to learn a wide range of skills as reflected in the more than 100 merit badges they can earn including a select combination that results in the exclusive William T. Hornaday Awards.
The Hornaday Badge, Bronze and Silver medals are presented for distinguished service in natural resource conservation. They require the completion of one or more projects in specific conservation categories along with earning specific merit badges that correlate to each award. Scouts work with a qualified counselor to plan out individualized projects to fulfill each of the requirements.
Through the North Star Council’s relationship with the St. Croix Wetlands Management District and specifically US Fish and Wildlife Service Wildlife Biologist Chris Trosen, Andrew and his father found out about the need for someone to inspect and where needed, repair, more than 80 wood duck houses located on various waterfowl production areas (WPA) throughout the wetlands management district.
“I like doing this. Chris gave us a big packet of information that I have been reading. It’s mostly new information to me. My favorite part of the project is locating the duck houses. We’ve gotten lost a few times. We’ve been here, when we should have been here (pointing to a map). Today we’re going to be working at Erickson WPA,” Andrew said.
Working together with his Hornaday counselor, Bob Elliot, Andrew decided to take on the wood duck house project as part of fulfilling his requirements for earning a Hornaday Badge. Beginning in mid-January, Andrew and his family have spent weekends commuting across the river from their home in Shoreview, Minn., to inspect and repair wood duck houses working off of maps of specific waterfowl production areas provided by Trosen.
This morning after filling me in on the details of his project at McDonald’s, I follow Andrew and his parents, Jim and Robin, out to Erickson WPA just north of New Richmond.
We pull into a driveway adjacent to the property and begin bundling up and assembling gear. The hike in will be about a mile through 10 inches of snow with a crust thick enough to support Andrew but making for a joint jamming walk for the rest of us. Andrew starts out pulling the five-foot sled loaded with a ladder, rope, and assorted bags of gear containing tools, a clipboard, maps, an inspection checklist and a first aid kit. Jim carries a compass and Robin is decked out in blaze orange, a precaution they have found useful as they frequently share the terrain with hunters and suspicious landowners.
On the hike in, Jim regales with stories about Alaska from trips he and his family have made over the years. From sharing rivers with grizzlies, to battling giant mosquitoes and surviving whiteout blizzards, he and his family have lived a more than exciting life, which accounts for Andrew’s determination and love of the outdoors.
We follow a line of fir trees bordering a rolling prairie for most of the way in before making a turn and heading down toward a flooded wetland and the first wood duck house.
Andrew feeds the sled under a barbed wire fence and slides it down to the edge of the frozen pond. Jim cautions everyone to be careful as it has been an unpredictable winter when it comes to ice.
Seventy-five yards across the pond we can see the second house perched on a pole not more than 20 feet from a stretch of open water. Four trumpeter swans take flight only to be replaced by an immature eagle watching us from the opposite shore as we venture out onto the ice toward the first house.
“My best day was when we got four different sites done in one day. It wasn’t windy and I didn’t get wet. It was perfect. I also like to take the eggs out especially the ones that didn’t hatch. One house had 13 that didn’t hatch. All of the eggs were in mint condition except for one,” recalled Andrew.
“We came across one house where bees had taken it over. When we opened it up, we found five lines of combs inside,” Jim said.
“It was layered. There had been a duck in there with all these eggs under the combs,” Robin added.
“And then under that nest was a field mouse in his nest,” added Andrew.
Andrew obviously knows what he is doing as he pries loose a nail in the base of the house allowing the panel on the side to swing open revealing a jumble of old wood chips, feathers, egg shells and rodent droppings.
Andrew reads the story told by the debris as he uses a paint scraper to remove it from the house. Despite its precarious location just inches above the water’s surface, it appears the house was used last season judging by the egg shells inside, Andrew estimates as many as six maybe seven eggs.
He measures the height of the house from the water and notes that the metal skirt or predator guard designed to deter predators from climbing into the house is frozen in the water inches below the base of the house, not a good position. Andrew also measures the height and width of the hole in the front of the house to see that it is the appropriate size to accommodate a wood duck.
Once all of the debris is out of the house, Andrew checks for a strip of chicken wire that should be attached below the hole on the inner face of the front wall. The wire helps the ducks and ducklings scale the wall to enter and exit the house.
Unable to adjust the skirt or raise the house, they complete the inspection and refill the house with a fresh pile of cedar wood chips.
Robin pulls out the checklist from one of the bags and she and Andrew mark the appropriate boxes describing the general condition of the house and then write in specific comments about the contents they found.
She snaps a few photos and then it is on to the next house across the pond and a repeat inspection.
Inspection of the second house tells a different story with different problems.
The house is emptied, new wood chips installed, notes are taken and photos snapped. We note a set of otter tracks nearby and then load the gear back onto the sled and begin the long walk back out to the cars.
At least on the way out the trail is already broken.
Andrew and his team have completed an amazing amount of work over the last month learning about the lives of wood ducks and the environment while in the process fulfilling a requirement for the coveted Hornaday Badge. It was refreshing to spend the morning in the company of Jim and Robin and their inspiring son, Andrew, sharing stories and exploring the outdoors in a landscape of learning.
Scouting appears to be alive and well and serving a purpose more important than ever in engaging families and teaching a new generation of conservationists values that will last a lifetime.