Black Walnuts

Growing up in Hibbing and specifically on the block I grew up on, I did not pay much attention to the large walnut tree that grew (it is still there) in Frank Pascuzzi’s backyard.  Every fall, the alley would be littered with husks from the tree’s seeds – green-husked, tennis-balled shaped-and-sized things; squirrels could be see carrying husk-less nuts in their mouths while run down the low-slung electrical wires above the alley.

My mother would yell at me, “don’t touch the husks, they’ll turn your hands black!”  I never really figured out what the big damn deal was with the husks; it is not like the husks were the walnut-equivalent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Violet Beauregarde‘s three-course-meal-chewing-gum; I wasn’t going to turn into a black-and-green-husked walnut.  My hands would just be stained for a short while.

Even with the threat of stained hands, the walnuts made fantastic weapons.  Pegging your friend (or enemy) in the head with a thing that looked like a tennis ball but felt like a baseball was awesome.

juglnigr-rangeBut, there was one thing that I did not realize until late last fall.  That the walnut tree (and now, a likely offspring of that tree growing in a yard across the alley) should not be growing in Hibbing.  This is not some political should not or a moral should not, this is more of an oddity should not.  Black walnut trees (Juglans nigra) generally can be found as far north in Minnesota as the Twin Cities.  Even then, looking at the map, walnut trees are a southern Minnesota thing.  The walnut tree in Hibbing is effectively 200 miles too far north.

As the USDA lays out on their website, “Many . . .  environmental factors, in addition to hardiness zones, contribute to the success or failure of plants. Wind, soil type, soil moisture, humidity, pollution, snow, and winter sunshine can greatly affect the survival of plants. The way plants are placed in the landscape, how they are planted, and their size and health might also influence their survival.” It is very much possible to have isolated populations – like the small patch of them, indicated on the map, in South Dakota.

Microclimates abound as do odd strains of genetics.  A tree growing in Eureka, Missouri may be a Juglans nigra, but it might not be able to survive a winter in Hibbing.  Likewise, a black walnut from Hibbing might not be able to survive the summers of east-central Missouri.

Trees and particularly fruit trees, have piqued my interest for a while; a year or two before leaving Proctor, I had planted several cherry and apple trees at that house.  Our first spring here in Saint Paul, on our acre-of-earth, we planted cherry trees, apple trees, plum trees, and a hardy peach tree.  This was in addition to the existing pear and apple trees at our place.  Adding to that list of trees, we also have several large black walnut trees, mulberry trees, hackberry trees, and dozens of understory trees, like buckthorn, lilac, and ironwood, in the forest that covers the back of our property.

In addition to the penchant for trees, I have beeing tossing around a bit of an oddball idea: buy tax forfeited property and then plant trees on it.  Minnesota’s more heavily forested counties tend to have many pieces of land available for purchase (or here).  It is a bit of a goofy idea and there are bound to be hiccups with such an idea.  None of my friends that I have run the idea past, have seemed interested or enthusiastic.  You could grow fruit trees, but there is predation by those pesky ruminants that are spread throughout the state.  Though, that is often an issue with young trees no matter what they end up bearing.

Last fall, I was looking out at the back yard, looking at the walnut trees with their clusters of tennis-ball-sized-green-husked nuts, and it occurred to me that I could grow my own trees from seeds.  Mentally, I have connected my crazy buy-tax-forfeited-land with collecting-tree-seeds-to-be-planted.

There is a proverb floating out on the Internet, often attributed to being of Chinese origins, that says, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago.  The second best time is now.”  This could also just be metaphorical in the sense that you should do something soon rather than later.  So, with that in mind, I started to collect tree seeds.

Melissa called me a human-squirrel.  We would be in a park or at the highway rest area, and if there was a nut tree with seeds under it, I would start to gather up nuts.  I gathered walnut seeds in St. Paul, Blue Earth, Iowa City, Eureka, MO, and Racine, MN.  Unfortunately, I did not get up to Hibbing in time to gather walnut seeds there.  I branched out from walnuts and collected oak acorns, too.  Hastings, Winona, St. Paul, and Rochester, MN.  I collected bur oak, swamp white oak, white oak, and red oak seeds.

Generally, these seeds to be stratified in order for them to begin growing into trees.  Stratification is the process of chilling seeds for an extended period of time; in the real world, this is generally called winter, but for the seeds I gathered, this was the wine-chilling drawer in our refrigerator.  But before going into the shallow-freeze, I needed to get a better handle on whether the seeds were actually viable enough to be likely to grow.

That’s where the float test comes into play.  In the case of the walnuts, the husks needed to be removed first.  I let the seeds sit for a few days in a cool, dry place before attempting to remove the husks.  Removing the husks involved latex gloves and serrated knife.  Once the husks had been removed, you can try the float test.  Fill a jar or tall glass with water and just place a nut in the water.  If it floats, your nut is bad.  If it sinks, you have a slightly more viable candidate-nut.  Floating means there is air trapped inside the nut.  Air in a nut is an indication that there is likely a worm in the nut.

The nuts that passed the float-test (or failed to float in the float-test) were put into ziplock bags filled with damp sawdust and placed into the refrigerator.  The length of stratification varied from 137 days for the walnuts picked up in Racine, MN, to 196 days for the Quercus macrocarpa (bur oak) picked up in Rochester, MN.

We waited.  And, we waited.


With some of the seeds in the refrigerator for over six months, Melissa, at times, became annoyed that I had all these bags seeds and wet sawdust in there taking up space.  The bags of wet sawdust with seeds, each bag being marked with species and date of collection, stayed in the refrigerator until late March (2014), I started to catalog the seeds in a Google Doc’s spreadsheet, writing the encoded identifier on the plastic or wood markers, and then plant the seeds in small pots.  Eventually, little tiny trees began to poke through the soil. Black walnut seeds from Blue Earth, MN, were the first to nudge through to the surface.  Walnuts from Racine, MN were followed by St. Paul and Iowa City.  Eureka, MO, is the hold out; I think, though, that are one or two nuts from there are about to sprout.

Oaks, as it would seem, have a slightly different sprout-timing.  While the walnuts have been pushing up tiny trunks, an equally tiny tap-root has been pushing downward.  The oak acorns that are sprouting, are busy pushing down a tap root – their tiny trunks will be pushed skyward later.

Getting these seeds to grow seems to have relatively straightforward; next, will be getting these little trees through the summer and into the fall.  Then, I’ll start to collect nuts, again, as I travel here and there — hopefully collecting some from the trees in Hibbing.


Links of interest:

Dempster Odyssey: Characters

Nearly twelve months ago, I was wrapping up CSci 5109 – Visualization at the University of Minnesota (where I am now a graduate student in Computer Science).

Mean while, my long time friend, Andy Baldwin, was wrapping up his life in Bozeman, MT; he was waiting out the Spring term for his girlfriend to wrap up her undergraduate career.  By the end of the summer, Andy and Jen would be in the Seattle area.

Very early on the morning of May 17, 2013, I headed out the front door of the house here in St. Paul, got into the Volkswagen, turned the engine on and drove west.  Sixteen hours later, as the sun was starting to drop behind the Rocky Mountains, I arrived in Bozeman, MT, at Andy’s apartment.  Andy and I were Yukon & arctic-circle bound, but leaving Montana would wait for one more night; I was tired; Andy was, however, jazzed about the trip.

Over the course of the trip, which would stretch on for nearly three weeks,  we  traveled through plains, mountains, inland-rain-forests, coastal boreal regions, and tundra.  We would see the sun never-really-set; some of the most beautiful “sunsets” I have ever seen.  We saw a crazy-assortment of North America’s large mammals; woodland bison, caribou, elk, whitetail deer, brown bears, grizzly bears, and black bears.  We even saw skeletons, at a museum in the Yukon, of North America’s largest-ever land mammals.

I also chronicled a large swath of the adventure on this very blog (here, here, here, and there are many others, apparently). Since the trip, like one would expect, life has gone on. Andy and his girlfriend have uprooted from Montana and now live near Seattle, WA.  In reminiscing, with Andy, recently, about the trip to the Yukon & the arctic circle, he kept bringing up one point: we met a lot of characters on the trip.  And, so, Andy came up with a rough list of characters and I filled in some of the details and these names are in no real order.

Aloof Border Crossing Guy

Crossing the Alberta/Montana border, the border patrol person (Canadian side) never actually looked at me.  He just watched a monitor which showed the output from a camera that was pointed at me.  It was surreal.  He also asked me no less than six times, if, “[we] had any guns? handguns, rifles any guns.  sometimes people forget about a handgun under the seat or a rifle behind the seat.”

“Nathan Lane”

This person was actually a woman.  Between lack of sleep on our part, the truck having just broken down, and we, ending up at Eagle Plains by way of hitchhiking, “Nathan Lane” was the name that popped into my head to best describe the woman who ran the outpost.  She was extremely nice, yet, very gruff.

Toothy Guy

Another character at Eagle Plains.  He was one of the cooks; nice, yet, a bit simple.  He also had some interesting teeth.  I was nice to him and in return, he told me his story about how he ended up at Eagle Plains.  He had been in Calgary, living with his sister.  She had told him that he either needed to get a job in Calgary or leave.  He somehow applied to an job placement agency that subsequently placed him with the Eagle Plains Hotel.  Over the course of the day twelve or fourteen hours we were stuck at the hotel, Nathan Lane, filling out paperwork, asked him several times whether he wanted to be employed full-time or just part time.  He decided to go with full-time and then tell us as such several times.  He also had a gap between his front teeth that would make Lauren Hutton proud.


I was waiting in the dining room of the Eagle Plains Hotel.  Picking a way at a very greasy breakfast that Toothy had cooked up for me.  Nathan Lane had given me the password to the WiFi, and so, I was updating Melissa (my wife) with the status of things.  Andy and I rode in different trucks and Andy was still back at the oil platform; he’d be up to Eagle Plains shortly.  Frenchy saw that I was kind of tired, so, he asked, “What’s bothering you, mon ami?”  He had a decidedly heavy French-Canadian accent.  I told him that our truck snapped an axel a few kilometers to the south.  He proceeded to say, “You think you have troubles, I have troubles:  woman troubles.”  (remember, when you read this, read it with a French accent).  He continued to tell about his “dead beat girlfriend” in Montreal who “stopped sending him money.”  In my head, I said to myself, “You mean, your ex-girlfriend, mon ami.

Potato Woman

Again, it was likely the lack of sleep, but this woman’s physical construction struck me as being similar to that of a potato with pipe-cleaners for limbs.  Like most of the people at the hotel, she was nice, unlike most of the people at the hotel, she did not talk at all to anyone besides herself.  She just sort of busily made the motions of a person doing things.  Attempting to clean, going to get cleaning supplies, semi-mumbling to herself all the while.  Shortly after Andy shot the video (below), she came back through – making the motions of vacuuming with the vacuum cleaner…except it wasn’t plugged in.

Elvis the Walrus and His Sidekick

“Elvis” and sidekick were Yukon Highway workers we ran into on the Dempster.  They were the two man crew that were going to grade the Dempster near Eagle Plains for the spring once the top layer of the road thawed.  These two individuals were obscene and vulgar beyond belief.  We never caught their real names, and we last saw them tearing south on Yukon Highway 2 – heading toward Whitehorse – going 100 mph in an F450 pickup truck.  It should also be noted that these two individuals were supposed to be the responsible parties for that section of the Dempster Highway.  The very section that we broken on.  The section of the road that was so rough, we sheered a ball joint on the truck and tore an axle.  If it was not for these fine individuals, Andy and I may very well have had a different trip and a different set of stories.

Jamie, the Truck Driver

Jamie was the water truck driver that I caught a ride with to Eagle Plains.  He was in his late 20s, chain smoked cigarettes and loved hip-hop.  He was from Inuvik, NT – a small hamlet near the Arctic Ocean, on the Mackenzie River delta.  Jamie was also Inuit; he also had two kids.  During the week, Jamie and the other water truck driver would make at least three trips each day with water from a river to the north of Eagle Plains to the two oil rigs that were south of Eagle Plains.  Jamie said he made a lot more money than most in Inuvik and that he stayed away from alcohol; added, “If you and your buddy wanna make a few [hundred] dollars, take a few bottles of vodka to Inuvik.”

Norm, Eagle Plains Tire & Service Shop owner

Norm was in his mid-50s, and like many others in rural Canada, he chain-smoked cigarettes.  He ran the tire & service shop at Eagle Plains.  His shop consisted of a couple garage stalls and small office.  He had a nudie calendar on the wall – it was a current calendar and also had his shop’s name on it.  Norm was also the person who lent us a truck to finish out the last few kilometers to the arctic circle.  He also told us stories about when the Dempster Highway was punched into the wildnerness in the 1970s.  He was on the road crew that built the Dempster; he just never left once the road was completed to Invuit.

Doug’s Towing: Doug Ukrainetz

Doug is by far the most memorable character of the trip.  We initially did not speak to him – Norm took care of calling him.  We would not see Doug for nearly ten or eleven hours.  I mostly slept or took advantage of Eagle Plains’ wifi; Andy slept or fretted about where the hell Doug was at.  Andy was hoping for flatbed tow truck – something with a cushy quad-cab.  Instead, Doug rolled into Eagle Plains with a rebuilt 1982-ish Chevy C50 – single cab, single axle and exhaust pipes cut off just at ear-height by the cab.  As Doug hooked up the Andy’s Chevy 2500HD, he mused out loud, “With this much weight at the ass end [of the tow truck], I bet the front will bounce like a mother fucker.”  That would not be the last time we heard the word fucker or a form of it from his mouth for the ten hour drive back to Dawson.  Doug burned through 40 gallons of gasoline on the trip up; when we asked if he was going to refill for the ride back, he said, “Norm’s got the market up here by the balls; fuck no.”

We learned a lot about Doug on the drive back.  He had been a logger in British Columbia for a number of years and then decided to head north, you know, “…to get away from the people.”  His girlfriend, while he was in B.C. was a hot number from California.  Toward the end of that conversation about his old flame, he bowed his head slightly and said, “God rest her soul.”  Head up, he turned to us and said, “Fuck all, she’s dead, you know, ahy?”  He had wandered into emotional territory and want to clear up that he was still tough.

Doug smoked more than his rebuilt C50 tow truck.  He talked about wanting to quit but he also admitted to being addicted to the things.  He got a kick out of me when I said, “Well, you know, each cigarette is your last cigarette.”  He smoked from the time was left Eagle Plains, until the time we arrived at the repair shop in Dawson.  Twenty packs of cigarettes.  He had nicotine and tar in his mustache on one side – where he exhaled the smoke through one nostril.

Doug also ran through his reasons for not trusting most ethnic groups; I tried to sleep; it was difficult in the bouncing, stiff-shocked truck.

We finally parted ways with Doug a day or two later – in Dawson.  The only ATM in town was broken, and Doug only took cash.  I joked that, “Cash makes it easy to not leave a trail.”  He quipped back, “I pay my fucking taxes, fuck all, ahy?”  With the machine fixed and we got our enormous stack of Canadian $20 bills (85 of them to be precise), we paid Doug his loot (as he called it), we shook hands, and Doug drove off in his early-1990s Ford Taurus.

When Andy and I got back to Montana, we dropped Doug and his girlfriend a letter with some pictures of the adventure up the Dempster.  We never heard back. Maybe I will drop him another letter soon.

Doug’s girlfriend Louise

We never actually saw Louise, but we talked with her a couple times on the phone.  Doug had described her to us while we drove back to Dawson.  A “short little number with curly black hair; she’s from Quebec.”  Doug joked about being too tired after the Dempster-run to “chase her around the house.”  Doug seemed very enamored with her; he talked at length about her, and what she did around the house.  Kept a flock of chickens; they had had pigs a couple summers back, too; she also maintained their garden and greenhouse.

Italian gold miner in Dawson

His name was Sandro.  We met him at the bank in Dawson.  He was hoping to get some cash, but, the cash machine was broken.  So, we bummed around the town with him for the morning.  He owned the mineral claim he was reconnoitering, but he was tossing around having a company from Italy do the heavy work of mining.  He motioned at one point in the general direction of the proposed mine, and said, “it’s out in the sticks a long way away.” He was an interesting fellow to hangout; he was educated, did not use the word fuck as a speech dysfluency, he did not use that word at all.

“Muktuk” – Drunk individual in Whitehorse

We rolled into Whitehorse at 10:00 pm, and pulled into the Best Western Gold Rush Inn.  Stepping out of the truck, we were immediately pestered by an intoxicated First Nations’ guy.  He mumbled to himself; Andy thought he was saying, “muktuk”.  That’s how we named him.  He asked us for money.  I told him we didn’t have any, and sorry.  “Just a dollar or a toonie, fuck, come on.”  He seemed to disappear into the shadows when an RCMP (“Mountie”) drove by the hotel.

Later that night, after Andy and I found the only place open in the town, a place called Boston Pizza, we headed back to the hotel where Muktuk was back, slightly drunker, and demanding larger sums of money.  “Come on, guys, I just five dollars, that’s it.  Maybe you got a light?  ”  I silently mouthed to Andy, “Wow, inflation?  It was a couple dollars last time.”

Beringia Museum Paleontologist/Archeologist 

The last major character to bring up is also one of the few highly educated individuals.  Andy had looked him up before we left Montana, and so, when we arrived at the Beringia Museum, Andy made a point of asking for him.  Sadly, I cannot recall him name.  He showed us around the museum, and we sort of parked ourselves with him between the skeleton of North America’s largest wooly mammoth and the skeleton of an extinct species of boar that once inhabited the Beringia region.  Andy and the scientist talked for at least an hour.  The topics ranged from his time at Penn State as a PhD candidate, to moving back to the Yukon, to his dissertation topic: caribou shit and miniature “glaciers”.  He pointed out the window of the museum at a hillside; “See that snow-pack in the shadows, it never really melts. I took core samples of those – they’re full of caribou shit – you can then analyze bits of their DNA, and get a profile of how they have changed over the years.”  He went on to say that you can find old arrow heads from First Nations hunters; the caribou will gather on this spots of snow in the summer which made them easier to hunt.

Finally, there were many other minor players in this adventure.  Like the highschool-aged waitress at Burnt Toast Café in Whitehorse; she seemed so bored with Whitehorse and could not fathom the idea of driving up the Dempster.  There was also the RCMP officer in Smithers, B.C., the college student working her summer job at Jade City, the resort owner at Fraser Lake, B.C. who kept apologizing for smelling of patchouli oil, the inept shopkeep at Dease Lake who wanted so hard to tell Americans what was exactly wrong with the United States.  For over an hour, we listened and chatted with her; her trinket shop smelled heavily of mothballs and mildew.

The last set of characters to make note of are the five people from Temptations Bakery in Stewart, B.C.  Hilarious, vulgar, and obscenely Canadian.