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Conservationist Looks Back at His Life’s Work

August 1, 2008

By Joe Knight, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis.

Aug. 1–NEW AUBURN — A house wren was chattering somewhere outside the super-size screen porch behind Jim Dahl’s rural New Auburn home. It likely is the wren that took over the bluebird house and filled it with sticks.

You might have thought he would object, as he is the former county coordinator of the Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin, but now he didn’t mind.

Dahl has been spending most of his time on the porch, serenaded by summer birds in the day and the crickets at night. If the wind is right he can hear Sand Creek gurgling below where it tumbles over rocks before widening into his favorite pool for brook trout.

But this will be his last summer on the porch. After 30 years of living on Hay Creek, he and his wife, Betty, have put the home and surrounding 2 1/2 acres up for sale.

Dahl, 84, has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. His arms don’t function anymore. The muscles in his legs twitch involuntarily, but he still can walk short distances.

His memory and powers of observation remain sharp.

Last Friday afternoon we sat on the back porch and chatted about fishing and other important topics.

The first time we fished together for bluegills, casting wet flies and poppers to gaps in the weeds on a lake on the Chetek chain — I don’t remember which lake — he brought an old canoe and an old fly rod and wore an old hat with four or five flies or poppers stuck in it.

At the time I didn’t think that was much tackle to bring for an evening of fishing, but I learned that for him that was traveling heavy.

He told me he once came back early from fishing on Sand Creek behind his house, and Betty asked why he was back so soon. He had brought only one fly and it started to unravel, so he came back to the house, clamped the fly in a vise, got out some thread and repaired it. Then he went back to the creek and continued fishing.

When he was a boy his uncle would take him fishing on Marshmiller Lake. They would strap cane poles to the car. Usually they would fish from shore, sometimes climbing out on logs, he said. If they were feeling extravagant they rented a row boat for 50 cents a day.

“We didn’t do that too much,” he said.

In rural Chippewa County in the early 1930s, that was a considerable sum.

His uncle owned a farm on McCann Creek, which was where he learned to trout fish. Again, a cane pole was his tool of choice during those early years.

From those childhood experiences, a conservationist was born. Later, as a member of the Trout Committee of the Conservation Congress, he helped win approval of a new set of trout regulations that matched the size limits and bag limits of trout with the size and productivity of the stream.

He represented Chippewa County on the Conservation Congress for nearly 50 years.

As a member of the Chippewa County Board for 16 years, he was on committees that developed the Quality of Life fund to buy County Forest land and the county stewardship program to partner with conservation groups to preserve key environmental parcels. Both funds come from a portion of the county sales tax.

He served on the Duncan Creek Citizens Advisory Committee and was involved in the program to clean up nonpoint sources of pollution to the creek.

One of the most interesting panels he served on was the one that negotiated with Xcel Energy on relicensing the Lake Wissota dam. “We finally got rid of that 10- to 12-foot drawdown on Wissota,” he said.

For years the power company dropped the lake level during winter to the detriment of the lake’s ecology.

Making a 100-acre nature area along the Chippewa River from the former county farm was one of the county’s finest moments, he said.

He frowned when our discussion turned to an innovative shoreland zoning ordinance the county failed to adopt that would have given more protection to sensitive lakes. The real estate interests that derailed it never understood it, he said.

Then he shrugged it off. “That’s time gone by,” he said.

When Dahl stepped down from his committees he got some plaques from the county and Conservation Congress commemorating his years of conservation work, but a healthier Duncan Creek and Lake Wissota probably are a better legacy.

Iwo Jima

An afternoon thunderstorm interrupted us. Rain beat loudly on the roof, and rain striking the screen showered us with a fine mist. Betty decided it was time to move inside.

Once inside, he got a second wind and told a few war stories.

He was in the third wave of Marines to land on Iwo Jima during World War II. He wonders if his disease had its roots in a blast he took when a mortar shell landed in his fox hole, killing his companion and knocking him unconscious. He was pretty sure it was a U.S. round. When he woke up he carried a soldier who had been hit by shrapnel from a hand grenade. He never learned if the soldier survived.

When he returned from the war he studied forestry in Montana, planning to be a forester in a Western state, but circumstances brought him and Betty back to Chippewa County, where he found a job in a lumberyard.

Later he became a rural mail carrier, traveling a route of more than 100 miles, often on gravel roads. He became the postmaster of New Auburn.

He never became a professional forester, but he helped the cause of conservation locally, including serving 16 years on the Chippewa County Board’s forestry committee.

Headwaters

“Did you bring your fishing rod?” he asked.

I had.

The storm had blown through. The sky was blue again, and the birds and bees were out. A huge limb torn from a maple in their front yard was the only immediate sign of the violent weather.

The Dahls had to run in to Bloomer. I headed for Sand Creek.

It’s a narrow creek where it runs through the Dahl land and is overhung with alders and nettles. It doesn’t get much fishing pressure now that Jim’s fishing days are over.

I wondered if it would be fishable at all as I approached the creek, but I found a pool that was wide enough for casting. The water was cold and slightly off-color from the rain. I tossed a dark fly with a white wing into the pool, and the line tightened. I brought in a colorful, 5-inch brook trout.

I worked my way upstream, plowing through overhanging alders much of the time, but I found some deep corners where trout took the fly — if I didn’t hang up on the elderberries, nettles and alders.

After a little more than an hour of fishing, I came to a stretch where the creek was covered in a tangle of alder branches as far upstream as I could see. A deer trail cut across here, and that was my exit. It led me to some conifers near the Dahl home. I hadn’t covered that much ground.

The Dahls were back, and Jim was in his familiar spot on the porch. I stopped in and gave a short report.

I told him how the bergamot were doing well in the field where he had planted some prairie flowers. The field was a sea of purple. He couldn’t quite see it from the porch.

I told him how the wild raspberries were ripe now along the creek and how a pretty chestnut-sided warbler had visited me while I fished.

He smiled when I told him about catching several brook trout from his favorite pool.

He asked if any trout were rising. I told him I had seen a few, mostly in places where I couldn’t cast to them. The storm had washed in some beetles. Maybe that’s what they were eating.

He smiled again. It seemed important to him that on a late July afternoon the brook trout were rising in the hidden bends of Sand Creek.

Knight can be reached at 830-5835, 800-236-7077 or joe.knight@ecpc.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis.

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