Clearing logjams from ‘Froggy Bottom’ all in a spring day’s work
A water-logged volleyball, a capped but empty old beer bottle, a couple beer and pop caps, assorted Styrofoam, a spent shotgun shell, and “tons” of twigs, sticks, branches, dead grass, heavy limbs and logs, soybean stubble and more – it all ended up in the winter wash that was jamming my little creek this spring.
Brushjams, or logjams, are the bane of free-flowing creeks but they are inevitable, even if you have to wonder how the heck some of this stuff gets in there. But let it pile up too long and the next thing you know, someone will want to petition the county to a habitat-destroying ditching project because of flooding in crop fields.
So I spent several hours on a recent sunny Sunday afternoon clearing several jams along about a quarter mile of creek. The only tool I needed for this little stream – after years of getting it into shape – was a long-handled hoe to reach out to haul out the clutter to above high-water marks.
It was not always that way. More than 40 years ago, when I set down roots overlooking this low-lying creek that I call Froggy Bottom, the stream was an engineered mess. It must have been “cleaned” with a backhoe and other machinery some years prior, for the banks were all but skinned of cover other than grasses and thick flats of willow saplings, pencil- to finger-thick and maybe 10 to 12 feet tall. The willow flats jammed the stream and were causing it to split into braids, which created further brush-and logjams that accumulated even faster than before. This is why county engineers say a stream is “on maintenance.” It has to be rechanneled after a few years at taxpayer expense.
I labored mightily that first couple of summers to clear out the willow flats with hand tools – shovel, axe, hoe, machete and more. It was muddy, sweaty, heavy-duty work. But I labored with some wisdom in mind – George Palmiter’s wisdom.
Palmiter, who died in 2012, was a railroader by trade and outdoorsman by love from Montpelier, Ohio, way up in the northwest corner of his state. He loved to fish, canoe, and camp on the St. Joseph River there, and was familiar with the problem of logams and such. He also was too familiar with proposed channelization and “ditching” project that were threatening to wreck the wooded habitat and beauty of his stream. I wrote a story about him and we became fast friends.
The result of his concern was the Palmiter Method of stream clearing, which is labor-intensive and low-tech, and keeps a stream natural, not an ugly, straight ditch. George eventually won a national Rockereller Public Service award for his efforts, and even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers published a document detailing his method.
On a large stream such as the St. Joe, Palmiter and helpers at times used chainsaws to cut large fallen trees and to clear huge logjams, using steel cable anchored to the bank to hold sawn logs or trees to stabilize the banks.
I don’t need such heavy-duty cable tie-offs on my little creek, but one important point Palmiter stressed was to leave a canopy of tree and/or shrubby cover over the stream to shade out willows or other plants that can clog a stream bottom and create jams.
So back when I first “Palmiterized” my stream, I would leave a single willow or other sapling on or near the bank, so it could grow into shade-cover. In the course of a few years, the stream became mostly shaded and the willow invasion of the bottom disappeared. One spring I noticed that the shaded banks and undercuts, after ice-out, were providing spawning cover for northern pike, which made their way all the way up to my little creek, a branch of Muskellunge Creek, from the Sandusky River.
For years now, all I have had to do is tend to light maintenance – in effect defusing log- or brushjams before they pile up into big problems. You can do the same for your own favorite stream, though you may have to twist some official arms or cajole neighbors for permission. Enlist a local Scout troop, or similar young strong backs, for help if the project is sizable.
The reward will be keeping a free-flowing stream natural, its banks providing all manner of wildlife habitat for mink, muskrats, and other small mammals and birds. Its bends and riffles will be home to all manner of minnows and other small fish, crawfish, frogs, salamanders and more. And the creek will work the way it is supposed to in terms of draining its watershed and reducing flooding of surrounding land.
The Palmiter method is a useful, smart, low-tech, and lost-cost alternative to machined, straight, sterile ditches, and channels. I can testify, after 40-plus years on Froggy Bottom, that it works.