A Flock of Sheep Chapter 2: The Flood

Flooded pasture with sheep in the far background.
Flooded pasture with sheep in the far background.
The flood of June 20, 2012 hit northeastern Minnesota at the height of the growing season. Trees were fully leafed out, grasses were tall and some were even in bloom. Birds had built nests. Gardens were planted. The rains fell several times a week for a whole month saturating the soil to the point where it could hold no more water. Some rain events dropped 9 inches in a night. Small puddles and pools formed in upland areas. Rivers, streams, and lakes overflowed.

But this was not a normal flood event. Around here normal floods occur in the spring in April when the snow melts and the rains fall. They are not catastrophic just very big and by May the waters have receded. Small floods might occur in low areas and along sluggish streams after a heavy summer rain but they seldom persist for more than a week and they do not wash away towns.

In the last decade the normal pattern of spring thaws and rain has changed. Floods associated with spring thaw have begun during the second week of March not the third week of April. Summer rains are heavier now. In 2009 about 30 inches of rain fell between June and September. That is what should normally happen in 12 months including snow. That flood lasted until November when it finally froze over. The years 2010 and 2011 saw heavy spring floods starting March and lasting into May. In 2012, 35 inches of rain fell during May and June and that was on top of the already wet soils and rivers swollen from the winter’s melted snow.

So what has this flood got to do with sheep? Quite a bit. I do not graze my sheep in some swampy pasture. They are grazed on what a wetland ecologist would call “upland”, that is, soil that is not saturated, has not developed under conditions of saturation and anaerobic chemistry, and supports plants adapted to well-drained soil with high levels of free oxygen. The soil is named “Cloquet Fine Sandy Loam” and is described as well-drained and drought prone. The sheep pasture is about 800 feet from the small stream (West Fork of the Moose Horn River) that flows through my land, a stream that is 16 feet wide and about ten feet lower in elevation. The flooded river did not flood my pasture, gardens, and basement. There was a separation of about 400 feet between the river’s flood line and the flood in the pasture. Constant rain flooded them.

After I bought my sheep that April and brought them home I turned them out into their new pasture. My garden was looking good with lots of garlic coming up. I had planted about 2,000 garlic gloves the previous year and they were coming along very beautifully. The month of April was warm and trees were leafing out two weeks ahead of normal. That month I put in 100 feet of trellis for cucumbers and 25 feet each of trellis for pole beans and squash. The corn patch was tilled and mulched waiting to be planted. My new chickens had arrived in the mail and were growing fast. It was getting close to the time to plant potatoes. As June arrived everything looked great. Except for the constant rain.

It rained every few days. Sometimes an inch, sometimes three inches. A few times we got 5 to 8 inches of rain. There was hail, a real rarity here, and strong winds which blew over trees. The rain pounded the soil. It was not gentle rain. The spring flood was becoming a summer flood rising higher and getting closer to the yard. Soil in my gardens had turned to mud. The driveway had a permanent puddle. And the sump pump in the basement ran every 10 seconds.

I worked hard to get more pasture fenced in but between the rain and my regular job I finding time was not easy. Finally, I got a 100 by 100 foot paddock enclosed and just in time. On the afternoon of June 19 I was walking up my driveway and saw something glimmering in the field. It was a pond about a foot deep. The pond was in a depression that does not have any outlet but it is sandy soil and so shouldn’t the water just seep down into the sand? Some years it would get damp in the spring but now it was a pond. At that point about 25 inches of rain had already fallen in 30 days. That’s almost equal to one year of precipitation in one month. The ground was soaked and couldn’t hold any more water.

When I went to bed that night it rained again, a pouring rain that overflowed the gutters and ran off the roof like a waterfall. Good thing the sump pump is running, I thought as I fell asleep. The basement floor was dry but not for long as I would later see.

In the morning I got up to feed the chickens, who were now housed outside now, not in the basement, and bring the sheep fresh-cut grass. What I saw was astounding. The sheep shed was surrounded by water that came all the way to my corn patch some 50 feet to the west. Their manger was floating in a pond and they were out in the open in their new paddock. Luckily, I had finished fencing that the day before and had opened the gate to it. The rest of the pasture area that was incompletely fenced was flooded. The new planting of pasture grass I just put in was flooded. The water depth in the flood plain along the stream was 6 feet above the normal level, a record level.

I fed the chickens and the sheep and went back to the house. The sump pump was running nonstop so I went to the basement. There was 2 feet of water in there. It was a huge mess that would take a week to clean up once the water was pumped out.

The flood was a catastrophe, not just for me, but for thousands of people in my county and the surrounding region. Two small towns, Barnum and Moose Lake, which downstream of me, were flooded with 16 feet of water. Roads, culverts, and bridges were washed out, an expensive repair job for small communities like mine. I was stranded for three days because two roads were washed out and the others were under water in several places. My furnace and water heater were partly under water. It would cost over $1000 to fix them. Tools and machines were destroyed by the flood. My well pump was dislodged and floating around in the basement. Luckily it sustained no damage but I was without clean running water for a week. To add to our misery FEMA provided no help to homeowners. None. Many who were flooded, like me, do not live on floodplains but to FEMA that did not seem to matter.

When July rolled around the rains stopped and then the heat came with highs at 100 degrees farenheit. I was lucky none of my animals died. My garden was very damaged especially the garlic which rotted in the wet ground. Still I managed to harvest a lot of winter squash and summer squash, tomatoes, potatoes, flour corn, and cucumbers. The winter squash was on high mounds so they had good drainage and the cucumbers, tomatoes, summer squash, and corn were in the highest parts of the garden. The potatoes were just lucky. All my other crops were ruined. I eventually fenced in the rest of the pasture when the land dried a bit and got my chicken coop built too.

Soil saturation remained high all summer killing many trees like birch, balsam fir, and white spruce and herbaceous plants like smooth goldenrod. Terrestrial invertebrates such as ants, bees, and spiders were drowned. Bird nests were pummeled by the constant rains, others were swept away in the flood.

I’m looking out the window now at the snow-covered pasture noting its slope, wondering if there will be a flood again. The snow is melting fast in the 35 degree temperature and today is only February 26. Maybe there won’t be a catastrophic flood this. Maybe just a flood like we usually get but I think that the “old normal” weather, the weather we were used to, is now just a memory.

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