July–August 2021

Down on the Boardwalk

A property owner’s new walkway treads lightly on the land while providing access to the water.

Will Weaver

The “Lake Lot for Sale By Owner” sign was overgrown with grass. My wife and I drove past it daily coming and going from our home on Stump Lake, a 300-acre broadening of the Mississippi River east of Bemidji. Beyond the sign was a smaller, tree-covered lot with a crown of higher ground. Some mature oaks, aspen, and birch. The Mississippi River glinted beyond. From the road there was nothing not to like about this waterfront lot, yet it had gone unsold for the 15 years we had lived here.

My wife and I loved this section of the upper Mississippi—the nature, the neighbors, the fishing—but #Downsize2020 was our plan. Sell our current lake home, build a smaller one more energy efficient and with less upkeep. A smaller footprint on the earth.

“We should check out that little lot up the road,” I said to her one day.

“I wonder why it hasn’t sold?” she replied.

The next day we explored. Crossing the ditch, we pushed through the underbrush and on to higher ground. Two white oaks, their trunks thick as beer kegs, capped the knoll. There was plenty of room alongside them for a modest-sized house. A river cottage. But then we saw the trouble. The back side of the lot dropped off to a dense tangle of alder and swamp grass—wet land that stretched a hundred feet or so to the river.
“How would we get to the water?” my wife asked.

Stepping hummock to hummock around pockets of water and occasional blue flag iris, we made our way forward. The center of the low area was neither ground nor land, but a bouncy sedge mat of alder roots, grass, and moss. The river’s edge, though, had a firm bottom where bright water lapped on rocks and gravel. Altogether we had a good beach and a good building site. The problem was the bog between.

“I see why it hasn’t sold,” my wife said, disappointed.

We crossed this lake lot off our list and began to look for other parcels on the water; however, a good, buildable lake lot anywhere near Bemidji was hard to find. As a real estate agent told us, “The ones left these days usually have issues.”

Our plan to downsize stalled. We were almost resolved to stay put. After all, we had a perfectly good lake home where we had planted trees and shrubs, now maturing, and where we left shoreline mostly wild for critters, not lawn. Then one day in mid-June we took our yearly spring pilgrimage to Bemidji State Park to check out the lady’s-slippers. We made our way to the Bog Walk, a popular promenade for wildflower viewing that carried visitors just above the delicate bog. We had hardly stepped on its sturdy planks when I said, “A boardwalk.”
“Yes?” my wife said, as if to remind me that we came here often.
“For that river lot,” I explained.

That afternoon I called the local Soil and Water Conservation District office along with my township shoreland zoning person. Arranged for a site visit. We gathered there a couple of days later. I held back on my idea for a boardwalk; with zoning officials it’s best to let them do their work, which, in the end, is mostly about problem solving. The two walked the lot lines. Measured. Strategized.

“You have to maintain a 100-foot setback between your house site and the water,” the zoning guy explained. 

“But you can’t bring in a bunch of fill to make a path to the water,” the SWCD guy added. “That includes soil and wood chips.”

“About the only thing you could do is build some kind of elevated walkway,” the shoreland zoning official said.

The SWCD fellow agreed. Together the two drew a sketch of a boardwalk on the lot site, including best placement over the wet land plus a note on allowable dimension (no more than 5 feet wide). With everyone on board for a walkway, I contacted the lot owner, who was ready to sell. We signed papers, and then it was on to the fun part: planning and building the boardwalk.

To get started I called Lake Bemidji State Park. The manager, Pete Harrison, was fully up to speed on boardwalks. “Their goal is to minimize human impact on an ecosystem,” he said. “With wetlands the simplest walkways use basic dock poles. Others, like the one up at Big Bog State Recreation Area [near Waskish], have pilings driven down to the bedrock. It all depends on your site.” Beyond support structure, we addressed the actual walkway. Aluminum sections, composite boards, or treated wood were the options. The first two were expensive, I knew, so we focused on pressure-treated wood. I had concerns about treated wood and its chemicals so close to the river. Harrison offered a primer. Previous to 2003, most treated wood contained CCA, or chromated copper arsenate—arsenic, in other words. Today’s “brown-treat” wood uses ACQ, an alkaline-copper mix that is far more earth-friendly. “No reason you can’t use treated wood as long as it’s the new kind,” Harrison said. 

With building permits in hand, I began work in September. For the house site I had to cut down several red pines, which I repurposed into the boardwalk. I cut some of the logs into round blocks about 24 inches tall for support posts; others I took to a local sawyer, who milled them into rough-sawn 5-by-5 beams for use as cross-members. Treated wood planks would go on top. But the hardest work was clearing a path to the water. The alder clumps were persistent. Gnarly. It was rugged work with hip boots and chainsaws. A couple of woodsmen pals and I opened a path halfway to the river’s edge before cold weather and Mother Nature shut down work until spring—when my best laid plans went awry.

In Minnesota to every season there is the right jacket, the right gear, the right approach to the outdoors. My plan, come spring, was to bring in a skid steer to finish clearing the boardwalk lane while the ground was still frozen. By mid-March the heavy snow had mostly melted but for a few leftover banks, and the earth remained hard. The timing seemed perfect.

I made a call to a local construction company. When the skid steer operator, Travis, arrived, he surveyed the project, then said, “Just so you know, there’s not a lot of frost this year.”

I looked at him.
“All that snow last fall,” he added. “But let’s see how it goes.”

It went well—at first. Travis powered up his Caterpillar 299D and drove the sharp edge of his bucket into an alder clump—which sheared off neatly at ground level. “Beep-beep. Beep-beep.” Back and forth, back and forth, the lane to the river lengthening, brush piles growing just as I had envisioned. But in the last stretch, a wind-blown bank of deeper snow caught by cattails, the skid steer’s rubber tracks began to turn up mud. It smelled nutty and rich, like coffee grounds. Twenty feet from the river’s edge the skid steer’s tracks spun as if in brown grease—and the Caterpillar broke through the sedge mat.

Travis, quick-thinking, extended his bucket to stabilize his machine and scrambled out. The skid steer sank a third of the way down through snow and mud—then held.

We were stuck. Big time.

Travis made a call on his cell phone, and as we waited for help, at my suggestion we tried an old, stuck-in-the-mud trick: “corduroy.” With a chainsaw we cut and arranged a bed of short, sturdy pine limbs to give the skid steer tracks something to grab onto. But the tracks spun, mud flew, and we only worsened the situation. As the saying goes, “Once in a hole … .” Soon a second skid steer arrived, but its bucket did not have the reach or the strength to lift up the first machine; there was danger of getting both machines stuck.

Travis made another call. Within the hour, a large John Deere excavator arrived. It clattered cautiously down toward the stuck skid steer. With its long arm extended and a heavy chain dangling from its bucket, the track-hoe hoisted the skid steer straight up—there was a sucking noise—and over onto solid ground. The hole created by the skid steer quickly filled with water, a muddy pond about six feet in diameter.

“Well,” one of the guys said, “now you got a nice spot for ducks.”

Soon the fellows and their heavy equipment were gone, my checkbook was lighter, and I was left to do what I should have done in the first place: work by hand.

Spring cooperated with dry bright days. Friends and I set the support blocks in two lines like pegs on a cribbage board. Each stub of red pine was screwed atop 2-by-6 treated wood “shoes” about 30 inches wide. This gave the blocks stability, allowed them to disperse weight, plus would let the boardwalk ride—and flex—atop the sedge mat. It was pleasing handwork, slow and steady, through the heart of the bog. Past a green ash and a black spruce. Alongside red-osier dogwood, swamp milkweed, bottle brush sedge. Beside cattails with their sharp-edged leaves and moss as delicate as spider webs. Peepers were first to claim my miniature duck pond; they fell silent if we worked too close. We assured them we wouldn’t be long.

Laying the boardwalk planks was a fun couple of days with friends and screw guns. We built toward the river plank by 16-foot plank. Soon enough we had a sturdy walkway 100 feet long and 5 feet across—perfect for two people to stroll down side by side. When the last board was laid, we stood erect. I felt an ancient sense of victory—humankind’s mastery over nature, I suppose. But really it was a collaboration. An agreement with this delicate environment, one about access, careful use, and no small amount of respect.

There was still a lot of work to be done on the boardwalk. I added a rope railing for adults. A low sideboard to keep grandkids’ bikes on the straight and narrow. And of course a roll-out dock where the boardwalk met the water’s edge. But it was soon ready for summer fun: an evening amble down the boards to our waiting pontoon. A cruise upriver for fishing or birdwatching. A pleasing return to our walkway home. The boardwalk was clearly the solution to living on this one, unique acre in the world. It would not last forever, but for a quite a long time, and then it could be rebuilt. “Permanent” is not in the vocabulary of nature. We don’t really own any part of this earth. It’s pretty much the other way around—a lesson, to be honest, it took me a long time to learn. So most summer evenings you’ll find my wife and me down on the boardwalk catching sundown on the upper Mississippi, taking in what the river offers and at the same time letting it go. 

Walk the Planks
Check out these strollable, scenic boardwalks on Minnesota public lands.

Big Bog State Recreation Area, near Waskish. The mile-long boardwalk is Big Bog’s central attraction, allowing visitors to keep their feet dry while traversing a section of the largest peat bog in the lower 48 states.

Lake Bemidji State Park, Bemidji. The quarter-mile-long Bog Walk, a favorite trail at this park, goes through a conifer bog.

Theodore Wirth Park, Minneapolis. In the heart of the city is a 1.2-mile trail that takes hikers on a short boardwalk across the Quaking Bog, a 5-acre peat bog that floats on water.

Tamarack Nature Preserve, Woodbury. Two miles of trails, including boardwalk sections, traverse a bog-like “rich fen.” Like the Quaking Bog at Wirth, this preserve holds some of the state’s southernmost tamarack trees.

Scenic State Park, near Bigfork. A sturdy 1,000-foot-long wooden boardwalk runs along Coon Lake through stands of huge red and white pines and ancient cedars near the Chase Point Campground.

Orr Bog Walk, Orr. A half-mile-long boardwalk takes visitors through various types of wetlands and along the Pelican River.

Baylor Regional Park, near Norwood Young America. At this park on Eagle Lake, a boardwalk nearly a quarter-mile long goes through a cattail marsh.

Itasca State Park, near Park Rapids. The 2-mile-long Dr. Roberts Nature Trail includes a bog boardwalk as it loops from Douglas Lodge to the Old Timer’s Cabin and back.