When E.P. Fullington (a Civil War veteran originally from Vermont) picked out the core acreage that is now our farm, he had a keen old-timer’s sense of what needed to be on the property. This included a flowing freshwater creek, which likely helped to water the livestock until the well could be dug.
The creek (an unnamed tributary to Hay Creek) adds much beauty to the farm as well, with habitat for wildlife all year long — migratory birds, frogs and turtles, muskrat, herons and even a visiting otter this year. But the creek comes with its challenges as well. Not the least of these is the need to cross it.
The creek runs between our Farmstead Creamery and the main part of the farm. Our lane crosses over it, which is our only access. There have been several springtimes when we’ve left our vehicles on the other side, however, because the combination of snow melt spring rains was too much for the culvert to handle, and the waters came over the top. I remember us wading across in our chore boots, being careful not to slip and be washed away.
But spring thaws are temporary, and usually the waters flow through with a comforting bubbling sound that is pleasing to stop and listen to on my morning walk down to Farmstead. Early in the season, marsh marigolds are the first to bloom amidst the reeds, and in mid-summer, the orange jewel weed blossoms dangle over the banks of the creek. It’s peaceful and tranquil, most of the time.
This summer, however, was one of the first I can remember the creek stopped running. The drought hit this watershed hard, as what little rains we did receive soaked right into the ground and there was no extra for the creek. Frogs made fewer appearances, as did the painted turtles, and there were no bubbling sounds on the morning walk.
When the fall rains finally started coming, however, it became apparent that we had a new type of problem at the creek. Other critters of the creek environment were also bemoaning the lack of water and had decided to do something about it. The water began to rise on the north side of the lane, but down-creek on the south side there was hardly a trickle. Once more, we were up against the deeds of our local beavers.
This is not the first time that the beavers have decided that the culvert was the easy place to have a dam. Some years, they prefer upstream, making a pond back in the National Forest, while other years they like further downstream, flooding out a swampy area behind our house. But this fall, they decided the culvert was the spot. Some years they pack the heavy metal grate that we wedge against the up-stream side. I remember one year we came down with the tractor and hauled it up every morning to strip off the sticks and cattail leaves and mud that had been packed into it. By the next morning, it was full again.
But this time, the beavers had decided to fill the culvert entirely with debris. Kara went in from the down-stream side with a long rake and tried to pull out what she could reach. Neighbors arrived in waiters to help dislodge the jam, but to no avail. In the process, it was also deemed that the culvert itself was failing from old age and rust and ought to be replaced. It was time to give the creek crossing a makeover.
We share the lane with descendants of E.P. Fullington, who have a cabin back in the woods. We agreed that we would source the culvert, and they would bring their equipment and do the installation. Instead of the ridged metal version, like the ones the beavers had so adeptly wedged all their sticks into, we decided to procure a smooth-interior heavy grade plastic one. Not only would this not rust in the future, but because it was smooth inside, the flow rate for the water nearly doubled, and it would be much harder for the beavers to fill. Maybe, through this process, we would also cure the problems of the spring thaw.
On the day of the dig, we once again made sure we had a vehicle or two on the farmstead side of the creek just in case we would need to run for supplies or an emergency. With backhoe and skid steer on the ready, and all the power and phone lines duly marked, it was time for the old culvert to come out.
Many years ago, a massive water event had ripped the an older culvert out of the ground, and this one had been installed by Bert Fullington (E.P.’s grandson and the dad of crew on deck for the newest install). But as the excavation went underway, not only was it clear that the beavers had packed it tight, but that the metal culvert was so deteriorated that the whole bottom was gone and it fell apart into pieces.
Finessing the new culvert into place took some work, including Kara having to wade into the creek to help hold it in place or slide it out of the way while the trench was dug deeper. With a rush, the backed-up water churned through the ditch where the culvert had been, until it equalized. The beavers were thwarted once again . . . at least for now.
This morning, a painted turtle was resting on the bank of the creek, splashing back into the water when it saw me. Little fish in a school (possible baby brook trout?) sported about in front of the outlet of the new culvert, dashing inside at the approach of my shadow. I did not hear the splash of a beaver, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve already scoped out the changes to the neighborhood. I’m sure it won’t be the last time we tangle with them.
See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. She can be reached at (715) 462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com.