Stories & Experiences
For the last 17 years, I have been involved in the most amazing project. The all-volunteer Lady Slipper Scenic Byway Board (LSSB), of which I am a member, rescued then restored Showy Lady’s Slipper orchids on the scenic byway throughout a multi-year highway reconstruction project. The byway was well known for, and in fact named for, the lady’s slippers that grew naturally and in abundance along the road. We couldn’t let the reconstruction destroy the state flower!
The reason I became involved with the byway board dates back to 1989. Throughout the 80’s I attended several photography seminars conducted by Craig and Nadine Blacklock. They were probably my most influential nature photography instructors. Lady’s slippers became a frequent subject of my photography, due to an experience with Nadine. We had become good friends over the years. In 1989 Nadine was in the process of gathering new photographs for a revised edition of The Hidden Forest (text by Sigurd Olson, original photographs by her father-in-law Les Blacklock). She came to visit me in Blackduck when the Showy Lady’s Slippers were blooming. I was assisting her when she photographed the beautiful group of lady’s slippers, located on the current Lady Slipper Scenic Byway, that became the cover of the revised edition of the book. The photograph also became one of her most well-recognized images. When she died in a traffic accident in 1998, I became very protective of that group of orchids.
I started hearing rumors of highway reconstruction along the byway, Beltrami County Highway 39, in about 2005. The route had been a Chippewa National Forest (CNF) Scenic Byway. The CNF had applied for and received designation for the highway as a state scenic byway in 2003 and had launched a scenic byway governing board. The CNF and the byway board had been negotiating with the Beltrami County Highway Department about rescuing lady’s slippers prior to and restoring them after each phase of their 5-phase project. I decided to get involved with the board. I could never have imagined that the experience with Nadine would have led me into a 17-year, 20-mile lady’s slipper rescue/restoration project!
In 2006 the Forest Service botanist designed a survey form to use for cataloging the locations of the of the existing orchid colonies. Along with the botanist, a few of us LSSB volunteer members traveled the roadway and marked orchid locations with GPS coordinates for three years. We made a spreadsheet from the “field” surveys. From the spreadsheet the Chippewa National Forest Graphic Information Systems specialist plotted the waypoints on aerial photo maps, and the data was also imported to the highway department which allowed a lady’s slipper location overlay on the highway construction plans. A nursery/storage site was identified by an LSSB member and the CNF botanist. This preliminary work was invaluable in planning the rescues ahead of and restorations after each phase of the construction project.
Over the years our group worked with National Forest Youth Conservation Corps (YCC), Rabideau Conservation and Learning Academy youth (RCALC) and Conservation Corp of MN/IA (CCMI) for this project. Working with these young people was a favorite part of the project. It was so rewarding to see how interested they were in this unique experience and how good they felt about being a part of it.
Throughout the project we maintained close communication with the Beltrami County Highway Department. We also needed to coordinate with multiple other agencies including Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Department of Natural Resources, Beltrami Electric Cooperative and Paul Bunyan Communications. Funding had to be found for hiring crews for a number of the transplant projects – which meant grant writing and reporting – my least favorite part of the project!
On our byway, the first orchids were removed from the county highway right-of-way in late summer 2009. The first phase of the project was a section of Hwy 39 between the Cass County line and the intersection of County 20. Our Lady Slipper group supervised the rescue and storage of the orchids, working first with youth from the Rabideau Conservation Academy and Learning Center (RCALC) then finishing with the Conservation Corps of Minnesota/Iowa (CCMI). The RCALC youth and their leader devised the transplant method we used. Plants are dug deep enough to contain all the roots and extra soil. The plants are placed on tarps and carried to a trailer for transporting to the storage area. Sapling fences were built in the storage/nursery site to protect the lady’s slippers from deer predation. One of the Conservation Corps participants posted a couple of short of videos on YouTube documenting the process:
The first phase of construction encountered several delays, and in 2011, before the orchids from the first section of highway could be replanted, we needed to remove orchids from phase two of the construction. All salvaged orchids were stored on the National Forest land we had identified as good orchid habitat. The orchids survived the first relocation in very good condition.
In 2012 we were able to return the orchids that were rescued from the first phase of construction to the roadway. Conditions were not ideal as the weather had been extremely dry. The CCM crew was able to bring a water tank along and water the transplants.
In July of 2013 we completed a year one assessment of the first phase restored orchids. We once again partnered with the youth from Rabideau CALC. They were taught to navigate to the sites using GPS units. At the sites the youth did a stem count and recorded their findings and comments on field notes. The survival surveys allow us to determine whether the orchids will thrive/increase or decline in the future. We were pretty excited about what we found! Of the 15 sites along the road south of the Pennington Bog Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), only one small site yielded no lady’s slippers. Of the 30 groupings that were returned to the edges of the SNA, four were not found but two unmarked groups were discovered. For the most part the transplants looked quite healthy. After all these years of planning, surveying, rescuing, storing and finally restoring these orchids, we were very happy with the findings of this first year survey.
We have surveyed the restoration sites at least the first year after planting, and some of the sites after two or three years. The first-year surveys overall showed about a 67% survival. However, one year after the 2022 phase 5 restoration we found 85% survival! The sites that were surveyed after about 3 years show mixed results with some sites doing really well and others struggling.
Even with some of the restored sites struggling we feel the project was worth the effort. If the lady’s slippers had all been destroyed, it is possible they might have eventually returned from seed. However, it can take up to 15 years for an orchid to produce flowers from seed. That’s not OK for a scenic byway named for lady’s slippers!
Shirley J. Gilmore
Nadine Blacklock and her well-known photograph
In 1989, Nadine visited me in the Blackduck, MN area when the showy lady’s slippers were blooming. Her project at the time was new photography for a revised edition of The Hidden Forest. The original book was a collaboration between Sigurd Olson, the nature writer, and Nadine’s father-in-law, Les Blacklock, the photographer. While driving south on the byway she spied a picturesque bouquet of showy lady’s slippers. We stopped to capture the image and I helped her hold in place a dark cloth to isolate the bouquet and a diffusion tent to soften the harsh light. We spent the greater part of two hours at the site to get just the right photos. We didn’t know then that the cover photo for the book had just been created. It became one of her best-known photos.
Nadine, a gifted photographer, was also a talented writer and a champion for the environment. Sadly, she was killed in an automobile accident in July 1998. Her family chose the lady’s slippers photograph to place on the front of the program at her memorial service. This special lady’s slippers group is located near easily identifiable landmarks. I had been monitoring them occasionally, and since Nadine’s death I have tried to visit every year. In 2004 I took my own photographs of the group (adjacent) and at the time, the number of plants and blossoms had increased. I think of it as a living memorial to Nadine. I miss her.
Shirley J. Gilmore
Rabideau Conservation Academy & Learning Center
Camp Rabideau is in the process of being upgraded into a “Conservation Academy & Learning Center” for young adults aged 16-25. Just as the original Camp Rabideau CCC was created to employ young men doing conservation work throughout the region, Rabideau CALC will employ young men and women for the same purposes. Participants will be paid a living allowance and stay on-site for terms of 6-9 months; doing conservation projects throughout the Chippewa National Forest. At the end of their term of service each participant will receive an education stipend for post secondary education. This will impact the local communities in many positive ways and allow visitors who tour Rabideau to see the best preserved CCC in the United States, as well as an actual working model of a modern day “New Deal” program.
Turtle River, MN
LPTV Common Ground - 2011, Guided Bus Tour of the Byway
A well-attended event at the 2011 Lady's Slipper Festival was the bus tour of lady’s slipper sites and CCC Camp Rabideau. Video below. No future festivals or bus tours are scheduled at this time.