The Pine Creek Project - Restore & Preserve Brook Trout

June 20, 2018

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I have to say at the outset that I love Wisconsin's Uplands Geographic Province and especially the Upper Mississippi River region that borders western Wisconsin. I never get tired of visiting this area.

I took a few day trip to explore there. I used Maiden Rock as my staging base and stayed at the
Maiden Rock Inn. While I was at the Inn, talking to the owners, Gary and Jennifer Peterson, I learned about the Pine Creek Project, which was very near the Inn and the town. The website Trout Unlimited has a nice article about it, from which I will draw.

I confess as soon as I returned home from this trip I "Google'd" Pine Creek, and somehow came across a couple fabulous maps of the creek. Now that I decide to write a story about it, I cannot find those maps. I have found a few I will try to use and hope that someday I find those good maps.

Research into the Pine Creek Project unveils a ton of interesting geologic, geographic, and environmental information. Had I been smarter, I would have brought some waterproof boots up to the knee to walk around what was, in March 2018, a pretty wet area. My photography regrettably was confined to what I could get and keep my feet dry.

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Pine Creek emerges from springs at the base of the bluffs along the Mississippi such as these.

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It is a tributary of the Mississippi. This photo shows a fairly wide Pine Creek flowing into the Mississippi. The bluffs historically have been a superb habitat for Eastern Brook Trout. Speaking broadly, those who treasure trout fishing and trout habitats have been the main force behind saving and improving typer quality of the creek. It is amazing and gratifying that such an effort would be spent on a creek.

My intent is to first give you a glimpse of the creek from a drone, then set your bearings to show you where everything is relevant to this story. and then walk you through a few topographic maps to help you visualize why the creek is where it is. I'll show my photography taken on a bleak day in March. Then I'll highlight what interested parties have been doing with this creek to make it better.

There is a very nice, short
video showing Pine Creek, probably taken from a drone. I want to give you a few video grabs just to give you a sense for the creek in summertime on a nice day!

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Like I said, it's a creek.

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I mentioned earlier the creek emerges from springs at the base of the bluffs along the Mississippi. You can see evidence of bluffs on both sides of the creek here. When I get to my maps. You are looking to the west. You see the Mississippi River in the distance. The creek rises from regions behind this camera, to the northeast and east. The road you see is CH AA, which runs off Hwy 35.

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I'm showing this map to give you bearings. The Village of Maiden Rock is to the northwest, the main highway is Hwy 35, the "Great River Road." You can see CH AA slanting to the east and Pine Creek just below it emptying into the Mississippi. After a very short distance, CH AA turns to the south (turns right) and then loops around. For a period of time, it follows Pine Creek on its southern side. Rustic Road 51 is also known as 20th avenue, and connects County Road AA to County Road C. It is 4.3 miles long.

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Hwy 35 in this area is a lot of fun. It is lined with cliffs. One of those is Maiden Rock Bluff, which is a bit south of the village and south of Pine Creek. I should familiarize you with the legend of this bluff. There are several versions. I will give you the one documented by James Duane Doty who accompanied Henry School-craft on an expedition through this area in 1820. Briefly, a young, beautiful Sioux girl was attached to a young Indian. They intended to get married but the relatives interceded. They wanted her to marry someone else, a man she despised. The tribe sent her true love away and ordered her two marry their choice. Instead of doing that, she climbed up the bluffs and jumped off, committing suicide. A sad story indeed.

I'll now employ a couple less-than-optimum maps to give you a feel for the topography and show you why the creek flows the way it does.

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This shows the topography fairly nicely. It only shows the last mile of so of the creek. Nonetheless, you can see it east to west horizontally on this map between the bluffs. The creek itself is at an approximate elevation of 660 ft. The bluffs to the north and south range from 700 to 1,000-plus ft. elevation, so there is about a 400 ft.delta between the bluffs and the creek.

I want to highlight another point with this map, Note there is a stream coming from the south that meets the creek. The North Branch of Pine Creek goes to the north, and has water intermittently. Some people call the main creek the North Branch, which I believe is incorrect.

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Don't try too hard to read the text on this map. The main point I wish to highlight is how many streams feed into the Pine Creek from the south. Squint a bit if you have to. I have seen much better maps of this section but, like I said, I can't find them again. Also note how the North Branch extends to the northeast.

Let's now switch gears and talk about the creek's environment and the restoration project.

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Let me first introduce you to some organizations involved with the restoration project. There is a national organization known as Trout Unlimited (TU). it has about 300,000 members organized into 400 chapters and more than 30 offices worldwide. It is made up of grassroots members and a staff of lawyers, policy experts and scientists. Its mission is "to conserve, protect and restore North America's cold-water fisheries and their watersheds."

TU was founded in Michigan in 1959. It seeks to "to protect headwater spawning habitat for trout and salmon, reconnect tributaries with their rivers to ensure resilience, and restore waters where development has impacted trout and salmon and the opportunity to fish for them." This matter of reconnecting tributaries with their rivers was the central theme of Gary and Jennifer Peterson's discussion with me while I stayed at their
Maiden Rock Inn. I can't recollect exactly what they said, but I recall how amazed they were that workers had been able to reconnect a set of streams — I think I recall three — to the main Pine Creek and work on the flow to the Mississippi. TU also has a list of activities to sustain its work omg the ground.

For our purposes, the Kiap-TU-Wish Chapter is the one dedicated "to protect, reconnect, and restore the cold-water fisheries and their watersheds in Polk, Pierce, and St. Croix Counties of Wisconsin." So that's an odd name. It stands for "the rivers of St. Croix, Pierce and Polk Counties that it protects. Kinnickinnic, Apple, —Trout Unlimited— Willow, Rush."

Through Kiap-TU-Wish, I learned about the National Fish and Wildlife Service (NFWS)
National Wetlands Inventory which is "a publicly available resource that provides detailed information on the abundance, characteristics, and distribution of US wetlands." Using that inventory website, I was able to use its Wetlands Mapper. Always looking for a better map than the ones I provided earlier, I took a snapshot of Pine Creek from its mapper.

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It's a little better, not much, but a little. I neglected to mention earlier that Pine Creek is in Pierce County but very close to Pepin County on its southern border. Let me blow up a small section of this.

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This is a much better view of the conglomerate of streams flowing into the Pine Creek and you can better see the North Branch coming from the north. The Mississippi River is just off the graphic to the left, or west.

I walked around this area as much as I could without getting a "hotfoot." Let me show you some photos. Once you have turned off Hwy 35 onto CH AA, about 0.6 miles on CH AA you'll see a parking area marked by some rocks. Now remember, it's early March. Not much greenery.

I'm not sure I'm going to do a good job on this, since as usual everything was new to me and I took terrible notes. But I'll try to reconstruct where I was when I took the photo.

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We have our hands full with this map. I certainly was confused when I got back there. CH AA turns off Hwy 35 and turns east, then turns south passing over Pine Creek, continues south and changes names to CH E. Just after the overpass, Rustic Rd 51 turns to the east stopping at CH CC. It closes in the winter so you cannot make your way to CH CC by this means. Please note the location of American Legion Post 158. I'll talk more about it a few moments.

I parked at the first sign of an open area marked by rocks, on the upper left of this photo. I believe I walked down to the creek, turned to the east, and shot the Plunge Pool.

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A plunge pool is a depression, sometimes a deep depression, in a stream bed caused by erosional forces. I think it was virtually straight ahead after parking the car. There are some beautiful summertime photos of this plunge pool on the internet.

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I think what I did here was walk a bit above the plunge pool to take shots of the creek upstream. First the straight away, followed by some meandering.

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I took this from the overpass looking upstream. This is among my favorite photos. I surely could have used high water-proof boots here. At center photo, you can see another stream pouring into Pine Creek. That was one of the objectives of the restoration: tie the various streams into Pine Creek that were not tied in well before. This was done to several small streams.

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After the overpass, I turned left on Rustic Rd. 51. I stayed on the gravel road which ran roughly alongside some other streams feeding the creek. I then came to the William E. Greer, Inc. American Legion Post 158 of Maiden Rock. I was apprehensive about walking on the Legion's grounds as I was a VFW member but not a Legion member! So I took this shot through some heavy underbrush. Thankfully there was no foliage.

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When I got home to look at the imagery, I saw that I photographed a wooden bridge over a stream and what looks like a covered picnic area. Here's a second shot I took that is more difficult to see. The arrow points to the wooden bridge crossing the creek. You do get a better sense of the size of this stream from this shot, however.

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This blew my mind as the Google Earth imagery I was viewing did not show a stream here (left). But, I noticed the Google imagery I was viewing was from 1992. So I dialed it up and found an image from 2012 that does show a stream going right through the Legion's grounds (right). The next problem was there is so much foliage on Google Earth that I cannot tell from where this stream came and to where it goes, a great item for investigation on my next trip.

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I borrowed a photo from the Legion's web page and sure enough there she is.

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I then back-tracked on Rustic Road 51 with my heart set on finding a stream near this road which ultimately fed into Pine Creek. This was hard work. I had to fight off the bush branches and mud. These are the best shots I could get. Once again, high boots would have been a great advantage.

I mentioned earlier that the website
Trout Unlimited has a nice article about Pine Creek. It was actually presented by one of TU's chapters, the Kiap-TU-Wish chapter of western Wisconsin. I indicated I would draw from it and need to do that now.

It said, in part:

"The Pine Creek watershed is part of the karst landscape of the Driftless Area, which is characterized by thin loess soils underlain by fractured limestone. As is characteristic of many streams in the Driftless Area, Pine Creek has outstanding water quality but suffers from severe stream bank erosion."

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I address this Driftless Area in the "Quick look at geography" section of this site, but will repeat what I said there. I wrote, "One of the more incredible features of this (Wisconsin) glaciation was that the ice sheet did not cover the entire state. In layman’s terms, there was a large hole of geography never covered by the ice, shown here by the coral color.

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It is known as the Driftless Area; that is, the glacier, when it withdrew, did not leave any drift there because it did not cover this area. This area extended into parts of Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois as well. Certainly in the case of Wisconsin, it left a steep and rugged landscape untouched, something most noticeable when traveling through the southwest region of the state."

Said simply, it is that part of the American Midwest that was never glaciated. The rugged terrain is due to the lack of glacial deposits, or drift. The Area contains deeply-carved river valleys and elevations ranging from 603 to 1,719 feet.

So it is the Driftless Area in which Pine Creek finds itself. I had to look up the word "loess" which adds meaning to the follow-on word "soils." Loess means a "loosely compacted yellowish-grey deposit of windblown sediment of which extensive deposits occur," such as in the American Midwest, including Wisconsin. These loess soils have trickled down the cliffs over centuries and made their way into the Pine Creek watershed. The creek is still moving these deposits to this day.


Interested parties including Kiap-TU-Wish and two other TU chapters determined in 2006 that the creek need restoration work. They knew it had great potential to form a first-class trout habitat. But there simply was too much sedimentation and erosion of the banks. The West Wisconsin Land Trust bought two large properties on the creek. After consulting with the Wisconsin seedDepartment of Natural Resources (DNR) it transferred the property to DNR. In 2007 DNR, volunteers from TU and Fairmount Minerals began work to restore the creek.

This was a good move because developers were pressuring to build homes in the scenic Mississippi River Valley.

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The overall goal was "to restore and conserve the native brook trout population." Brook trout are also known as Eastern Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis). The objectives were to "stabilize the severely eroding banks, provide in-stream cover, and provide increased trout spawning and aquatic habitat in the stream."

This species of trout likes cold, clear, well-oxygenated streams, lakes and ponds. Many such streams, especially in western Wisconsin, flow out of the limestone karst geology.

The
Pierce County Herald said on August 31, 2011, "Sedimentation and grazing by cattle resulted in blown-out stream geometry with high cut banks and shallow sediment-filled channels. Brook trout habitat in many Driftless Area streams was destroyed and the brook trout were forced to retreat to the small cold headwaters creeks … Brook trout are indicators of the health of the watersheds they inhabit. Abundant wild brook trout populations demonstrate that a stream or river ecosystem is healthy and that water quality is excellent."

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They graded the eroding banks to a more gentle slope to reduce stream bank erosion, installed "Lunker" structures. A typical stream restoration project would include building a series of wooden lunker structures for placement in the stream bed in order to manage bank soil erosion and to create overhead cover and resting areas for fish. The ones used for Pine Creel were covered with rock and soil and then seeded that with live vegetation. The photos show a lunker structure being installed on the outside of a creek bend in New York. The other photo shows completed bunkers on the same creek bend now c covered with rock, soil and seeded growth.

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Volunteers as far back as 2008 handpicked prairie grass seed from the top of Maiden Rock bluff and spread it along Pine Creek in the valley below. They worked to collect the seeds in the morning and seeded in the afternoon. Here you can see the prairie grass from the top of Maiden Rock Bluff.

A Driftless Area Symposium was held in Lanesboro, Minnesota in October 2008. A paper by Kent Johnson of the Kiap-TU-Wish Chapter was presented entitled, "
Physical and Biological Metrics for Measuring Stream Restoration Success." The abstract noted:

"Kiap-TU-Wish has developed physical and biological metrics to quantify restoration success. Stream improvements are being documented by directly measuring pre- and post-restoration Eastern Brook Trout densities and size distribution, temperature and habitat conditions, and macrophyte (aquatic plant that can be seen with the naked eye) and macroinvertebrate (animals without a backbone) community health in Pine Creek. In 2007 and 2008, Kiap-TU-Wish volunteers collected pre-restoration data on stream temperature and habitat, including stream bank condition, stream channel morphometry (process of measuring the external shape and dimensions of landforms, living organisms, or other objects), stream bed substrate, and macrophyte and macroinvertebrate presence."

The
Pine Creek project had measurable goals as outlined in a slide presentation (which you may want to study as there is quite a bit of information in there; there are a lot of issues involved):

  • Restore 3,500 feet of stream bank and habitat
  • Reduce stream bank erosion to 10 percent of pre-existing conditions
  • Reduce fine sediment and increase coarse bottom substrate by 50 percent
  • Increase numbers of Eastern Brook Trout by 40-50 percent
  • Increase numbers of Eastern Brook Trout greater than or equal to 10 inches by 50-100 percent
  • Increase aquatic macrophyte growth by 25 percent

A monitoring program was also set up

The brook trout numbers and size of individuals have increased markedly in the restored stream.
Bob Hujik, fisheries supervisor in Eau Claire, wrote:

"Pine Creek near Maiden Rock is becoming one of the premier brook trout streams in Western Wisconsin. Trout habitat improvement activities over the past two years by the DNR, various Trout Unlimited Chapters and many other conservation organizations have restored more than 2.5 miles of the fast-flowing stream. Brook trout have responded with numbers ranging from 2,000-3,400 trout per mile. The stream is incredibly clear so anglers need to take a stealthy approach to their fishing. The beauty of the valley and stream make this fishing destination a must for any angler."

Andy, writing "
It's a Small World (after all)" for "Adrift:"

"It was clear upon arrival at our intended destination, the upper Pine, that TU had put forth a Herculean effort on this little stream. It was vintage Disney. The water features conceived by the imagineers were beautiful and impressive. The runs were crystal clear and absolutely loaded with trout. My research told me that that it was running about 6,000 fish per mile, but I felt as if I could almost see that many in the first pool alone."

Before closing out, let's watch the restored Pine Creek make her final trek to the Mississippi:

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So, there you go sports fans. Restoration works.

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