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A walk in the woods

Sun, Sep 17th, 2000
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Monday, September 18, 2000

Theres always a welcome relief to a September. The kids are back in school, the humidity and temperature drop a point or two and even the pesky summer bugs are starting to disappear. Its a perfect time for a walk in the woods.

And who better to take a walk with than a veteran woodsman like Walt Norby. Walt has lived the better part of the past eight decades in the vicinity of the Big Woods in Eastern Fillmore County and is a walking encyclopedia of the areas legends and lore.
Walt spent his boyhood on a nearby ridgetop farm and, after a career of logging and farming, his connection to the Big Woods is both spiritual and practical. Hes an avid fisherman and arrowhead hunter and the years havent slowed him down hardly a bit. In fact, I had to hasten my step to keep up with his pace in order to hear what he was going to tell me about next.

The woods, to Walt, are a place to learn and to look at nature, but most of all the woods are a place to remember those who walked there before us.

Walt said he had a full days work of chores to do back at home where he runs a campground. "I love walking, though," he laughed. "Id rather walk in the woods than work anytime."

He told me that a good place to find arrowheads is in a mold board-plowed field right after a rain. "Thats your best bet," he said. "If you look along the streams youve got to look where the loose gravel and small rocks have piled up." I asked if hed been having much luck finding anything this year.

"I found an 1878 Indian head penny right here on this trail awhile back," he said. "Then I found a 1911 dime after another rain."

Its clear that Walt is none too fond of 4-wheelers in the woods. "Its a fright. Just look at the ruts theyve made here by going through when its too muddy," he said. "I like to bring my horse and buggy down this trail and with these ruts it makes for a pretty rough ride."

Walt stopped for a moment and pointed across the South Fork of the Root River at a pine and oak covered hillside. "There was a farmer named Johnny Munts who used to have a hayfield on top there," he said. "He got tired of hauling hay down that hill and so he strung two telephone wires side by side. Then he put the loose hay on the wires and it worked pretty good in getting the hay down to his barn. But then he jumped on and tried to ride the wire down. He pretnear cut himself in half doing that."

Then there were the Indians who used to camp in the river valley. Walts dad told him, that in the winter of 1900, one hundred Indians, from the Navaho tribe, camped along the South Fork.

"Their chief was too sick to travel back south that year, so they had to stick out the winter here," Walt said. "They had a pretty tough go of it."

There had been a local outbreak of hog cholera and it was considered too risky to eat the meat of the diseased animals, but the Indians, paid no heed to the farmers warnings. "Theyd keep the meat cool by storing it here in the river," he said. "And it didnt seem to bother them at all."

Walt pointed out the signs of debris still evident from the past summers flooding. The entire valley from hillside to hillside had been full of raging water. Just up ahead, he said, was where the Wisel Creek entered the South Fork. On an August night in 1866, along this otherwise serene stream, David Wisel and fifteen other people were swept away to their deaths, by sudden floodwaters.

Walt said that a farmer cultivating downstream near Choice about forty years ago uncovered a human skull. "We assume that it was one of the flood victims," Walt said. "Only seven of the sixteen who drowned were ever found, you know."

Walt said that the kitchen stove from the Wisel house had been recovered and that it was sitting, rusting away in a nearby polebarn.

We walked some more and Walt told me about the wolves he had heard and seen over the years. "One time I came upon a Grey wolf who was working over a couple horses in a pasture," he said. "He had those horses pretty riled up."

Wolves? I didnt think theyd made it this far south yet.

"Theyre here," Walt replied.

The morning was getting muggier and it seemed as if it could start raining at any minute. It suddenly felt more like the middle of July than September. We headed out of the woods and I followed Walt up the last steep grade, an eroding path that 4-wheelers had rendered almost unwalkable. But Walt made his way steadily up the path with a sure-footed ease.

Back at my pickup, I thanked Walt for the interesting walk in the woods, and I headed west towards Preston. Within a few minutes I drove straight into a thunderstorm.

It was September, the end of the wettest summer on record, and the rain was still with us.

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