Childhood fantasy a work in progress for Little Falls man

“I’ve fantasized, so to speak, about having my own woods and wetland for wildlife, ever since I was a kid,” 63-year-old Joe Valesano said.

He has lived in Little Falls for most of those years since. He and his wife, Laurie, have owned and operated Gemini Electronics on the west side of town for 37 years, mostly repairing televisions and, more recently, electric fence power units (fencers). Joe likes to fix things.

Their grandchildren and nephew are delighted by the wildlife habitat pond that Joe and Laurie Valesano added to their property on the outskirts of Little Falls. Joe, far right, was helping launch the duck boat, built at Larson Boats in Little Falls in about 1970, Joe believes. The kids afloat in the pond, which averages 2-feet deep are (from left): Oliver, Andrina, Jack, Lilia and Aria.

He likes building things too, with a well-equipped wood shop at home. Still, he had not been able to make that fantasy come true, until it matured into a real possibility two years ago when they purchased a home on 40 acres just outside of Little Falls.

The enduring success of Gemini Electronics paid off rather awesomely in that respect, as well as in the raising of their daughter and two sons. That is a fair assessment since their home is surrounded by towering, primeval, white pine trees — as big as those in Pine Grove Park in Little Falls.

“I don’t know why they were spared or what their history is,” Joe said. “Almost all the other stands of white pines throughout our region were cut down for lumber.”

More than 100 of them tower above even the red pine, oak, poplar and other mature trees on their land. Awesome woods but no wetland. The land has a small creek, fed by marshlands north of their property, and emptying into the nearby, larger Pike Creek — but no pond for the wildlife.

Joe knew he needed big help for the wetlands dream to come true. So, he contacted the Morrison County Soil and Water Conservation (MCSWC) office. “They were really helpful, answered lots of questions,” Joe said, and they directed him to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFW) Commission’s Ron Beam, who is based at the Crane Meadows Wildlife Refuge near Little Falls.

He told Joe, “We get a federally funded budget for restoring wetlands on private properties.”

Then Beam visited the Valesanos’ site, saw that it would fit the program, and put it on the list for funding by the Partners for Wildlife Program. Joe got the necessary permits from the MCSW office, who later also inspected the completed project, and the fantasy was several steps closer to being a reality.

Beam manages all that program’s work for Morrison County through his office.

“We are able to do a number of projects per year,” he said. “The number depends on the budget, as well as the number of interested people (land owners). The reality had to wait.

Not for long.

“We use up our budget each year, so I’m happy that we still were able to do it that year (2015) — even though it ended up getting done pretty late in the season,” Beam said.

    “There was a narrow dirt road crossing (over the creek) with a culvert. We raised the culvert up and put in a dike with a rock spillway. That raised the creek about 15 inches,” said Beam. That road can still be used, although it’s now a few inches underwater, he said.

Before the spillway was finished, “the plug in the bathtub,” Joe called it, he had Kieffer Contracting excavate and shape a 3/4-acre pond site, as recommended by the DNR.

“I learned that Kyle Kieffer had done projects like this,” Joe said,

“I’m very pleased with the work in all respects,” Joe said. That includes having Kieffer deposit most of the excavated material on the east side of the pond and shaping it into a firmly packed knoll that’s about 6-feet taller than the rest of the pond’s embankments, and 10-feet above the pond for a great view of the action there.

That knoll is where Joe especially enjoys having a cup of coffee in the morning, he said, while watching the wildlife already attracted to the wetland site. That has included “a lot of deer and wild turkeys,” Joe said. “I’m not hunting here, but my sons can.”

Joe hunts ducks elsewhere too, because, “They’re kind of like my pets here,” he said.

It’s a work in progress, and there has been a lot of that. Joe has surrounded the pond with 22 houses for bluebirds, tree swallows, wood ducks, Mergansers, Martins and sparrow hawks or small owls. He also put up three mallard nesting tubes, an experimental barn swallow nesting structure that replicates the eaves of a barn, and a bat house. Laurie said while laughing, “I hope we get a lot more birds — they eat bugs.”

Joe and Laurie Valesano stood by towering white pine trees, near the front of their home of 3 years, blessed with more than 100 of the primeval survivors of the late 1800s lumbering days around Little Falls.

Beam said, “The critters benefit, in addition to waterfowl and invertebrates like crayfish and microscopic critters — all essential to the food chain. Deer, turkeys, any type of wildlife will utilize it, including reptiles, turtles, frogs. … It is a magnet for wildlife.”

Apparently, that includes bears. Laurie was cutting thistle weeds near the pond last summer, when the magnet attracted a black bear — to within 30-feet of her (and just a few miles of downtown Little Falls).

“I was crouched down among the weeds and, when I stood up, there was the bear; it was as surprised as I was,” Laurie said, “so I yelled to get it to back off, but it stomped its feet on the ground and, then stood up and kept staring at me.” Before long, Laurie won; the bear left.

“It’s amazing how fast they can move,” she said. “It was gone in a flash.”

Laurie Valesano was cleaning algae off the dike’s spillway, to help keep it flowing. She said it only takes about 15 minutes, every once in awhile.

A lot of work is still in progress. While removing a few undesirable plants in some areas, the Valesanos have planted many trees and bushes, especially beneficial to wildlife, including: almost 100 hemlock trees, several dozen flowering crab apple trees, a few hundred gray dogwood and about 30 red dogwood bushes, 30 winterberry (holly) bushes, and the list goes on. After all, the Valesanos have been there for almost three years now.

And so, Joe’s childhood fantasy was pretty much fulfilled, literally, as the drought resistant pond filled, creating the year-around wetland that the property had lacked. Laurie pretty much lived that fantasy while growing up on the LeBlanc Game Farm, co-owned by her parents, Bert and Helen LeBlanc.

Another 15 acres of their land has been corn or soybean cropland for many years, rented to nearby farmers by the previous owner. The Valesanos intend to turn it back into native grassland for more wildlife habitat.

Joe Valesano was lounging on the observation deck he built overlooking the wildlife habitat pond that he, several agencies and Kieffer Contracting were involved in creating on the Valesano property. Joe painted the characters shown on each side of him in this photo, hoping they would accustom the pond’s visiting wildlife to his presence, even when he wasn’t there. Swallows and other birds landed by him or swooped close, so the artwork seems to have the desired effect.

“I especially hope to attract meadowlarks and bobolinks,” Joe said, “as well as other birds that depend on open grasslands.”

MCSW will buy the native grass seed  and the USFW will plant it, he has been told. Joe will be responsible for maintenance such as prescribed burns of that grassland every few years, as recommended by the USFW.

It’s a fantasy work in progress, for a man who likes to fix and build things and loves wildlife.