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Rusty and Daisy Defoe get strange looks from many passersby in front of their homestead on Binsfield Road.
The couple and their three children, along with pigs, goats, sheep, turkeys, chickens and assorted dogs, have taken up residence on five acres of land they purchased just south of the Calvary Tabernacle United Pentecostal Church.
Until last Thursday, the family lived in a tent tucked right up next to the pig pen. Now, a shed-like storage building has been dropped on the land and the Defoes are working to convert it into a tiny home.
The building arrived in the nick of time to beat a series of powerful thunderstorms that battered the Ashland area.
"We pitched camp in there because it was too wild and windy to stay in the tent," Rusty said. "We've had wind and rain before, but this time it was too much."
So the family huddled in the uninsulated structure with their dogs and waited out the storm.
"Every couple of hours we'd check to make sure that the trees hadn't fallen on the animals or fences," said Daisy. "A couple of the chickens got out, but it was better than the chaos I had pictured. The tent was entirely blown down and couple of the poles were snapped, but it still remained pretty much water-tight. It was an interesting night."
It is a tale worthy of the era of Wisconsin homesteading, a time that ended shortly after the turn of the 20th century when immigrant farmers tried to scratch out a living in the cutover lands of northern Wisconsin.
The Defoes set their sights on homesteading several years ago when Rusty, a resident of Red Cliff, studied cooking at Le Cordon Blu, a
culinary college in San Fransisco. There, at a martial arts studio, he met Daisy, who lived in Santa Ana, near Los Angeles. She studied at San Francisco State University before earning a degree in business administration from Victorville College. The couple married and Rusty joined the Marine Corps. Following his tour of duty, the two rented a small farm in Lucerne, Cal., but soon realized buying a place of their own was never going to be practical in California because of the high price of land.
"In California you have to be a millionaire to farm," Daisy said.
They farmed for a while in Minnesota before financing became available to buy the land on Binsfield Road.
The property is located within Ashland city limits in a district that is zoned for future development and was formerly zoned agricultural. Nevertheless, agriculture, including raising livestock, is an acceptable use in such a district, said Ashland Director of Planning and Development Megan McBride.
"They have pulled permits to put up fencing and a shelter for the animals, they have not yet pulled a driveway permit or a permit for the home that will be going on the site as well. Since the lot is over five acres, a singlefamily home with farm is an allowable use in the future development district," she said.
McBride added that there was no city ordinance prohibiting the Defoe family from camping on their own land on a temporary basis.
"Zoning was very important for us when we bought the land, because we wanted to bring our livestock with us," Daisy said. "We are hoping to expand the operation in a year or so."
The expansion would give them about 15 acres of land, but before they can do that, they have to fence off the current farm, build permanent animal pens, insulate the house, and build solar panels that would enable them to live off the grid.
One thing that slows down the process is that they have to clear all the land by hand.
"We don't have the money to come in with a bulldozer and take the brush down; I don't even have a chainsaw. This is my guy right here," he said, motioning to a machete. "That's what I've cut down most of the brush with."
They continue to face a lot of challenges. A short driveway requires a permit, a culvert and several hundred dollars worth of gravel.
"It adds up to about $1,200 total," Rusty said.
The family will be allowed to use a composting toilet, which bypasses a major expense. However they are still hauling in water until Rusty can drill a well.
The two understand the magnitude of the project they have taken on, but they say it is a lifestyle they have learned to love, and once they are able to produce enough livestock to market, they believe it will be self-sustaining.
"Everybody has to have someone to produce food, and farmers are dying out at an extraordinary rate. There are not that many young people who want to become farmers," Daisy said. "I want people to know that we are willing to take care of animals that will eventually wind up on their plates. We want them to know where their food comes from."
Ron Nordin started hiding trail cameras on and off the Red Cliff Reservation five years ago just to see what all was out there.
As the newly hired wildlife and forestry technician for the tribe, he wanted to identify which species were living in the area, which were thriving and which might be struggling.
That curiosity now has turned into a full-scale science project, tracking endangered species and, this spring, identifying a brand new wolf pack that is living on the Red Cliff Reservation itself.
"We're calling it the Miskwaabikong Pack, which means the Red Cliff Pack," Nordin said. "As far as we can tell there are three adults and five pups. On May 11 we trapped the yearling female and got a GPS collar on her, and that led us to their den."
That tracking allowed Nordin and his 15-year-old daughter to behold one of the wonders of the Northwoods.
"When we went to the den the pups all looked good," he said. "We only got our hands on two of them and they
Nordin didn't set out to put tracking tags in wolf pups — or to work with the University of Wisconsin on a project that's trying to determine how climate change is affecting snowshoe hares and the animals that depend upon them, or to count endangered pine martens.
It all started taking off when he began retrieving video from his cameras, seeing things he thought were interesting and then posting footage on the tribal Facebook page.
He has no specific training in the science of wildlife — other than a lifetime spent in the woods trapping and hunting and camping. What he does have is curiosity and a sense of what's interesting an unusual.
"We pretty much started looking for martens and then wolves, and we saw we were getting really cool wildlife footage so we started putting it on the Facebook page and people started really liking it and following us," he said.
Pine Martens are important. They once were trapped out of existence in Wisconsin and are back now but endangered after reintroduction efforts. They also are culturally significant to the Ojibwe people.
"They are one of the clan animals — the warrior clan, I believe," Nordin said. "Members of that clan are hunters and warriors that help provide for the clan and the tribe."
Nordin, the Red Cliff tribe and state Department of Natural Resources now are working together to put feeding platforms in the area with cameras watching them. The platforms require martens to stretch upward to get to bait, which allows scientists to identify individual animals by the light-colored patches of fur on their throats.
"We had martens in Red Cliff in 2016, and that was the last time we saw them until we got them on camera again this spring — one for sure and possibly two," Nordin said.
The other science going on in the woods around Red Cliff now involves those snowshoe hares, which have brown fur in the warm months and white fur during the winter. UW scientists want to see how climate change is affecting their population because predators — everything from wolves and bobcats to martens, owls and hawks — depend upon them.
"With the climate changing and less snow, we want to know how well they might survive," Nordin said. "A white hare out there when there's no snow on the ground is like ringing a dinner bell."
Private lives of animals
All that science is great, but what really thrills Nordin is opening up video files every week to see what's going on in the wilds of the Bayfield Peninsula.
He has as many as 11 cameras out at any one time, and there's no telling what they will capture.
"During marten and fisher trapping we saw a bear put his head right into the trap and wiggle it around," Nordin said. "That was pretty cool."
He's also seen a wolf chase a bobcat off of a deer carcass and up a tree, and any number of critters that have sensed the camera and then come up and mugged for it.
"What's really cool about wolves is you can kind of see the hierarchy when we get more than one wolf in the video," he said. "You can see who the dominant one is because it's up feeding or being aggressive to the others, and it always is the first to feed."
Two animals Nordin has yet to capture on camera are his holy grails — the Canada lynx, which only very rarely visits Wisconsin from its homeland, and the cougar.
"I had a camera really close to where a guy did have a cougar on camera here in Red Cliff, but no luck yet," he said. "Honestly, I'd rather not see them here because it would make me think twice about going in the woods. But I guess if they're here, we'd love to see them on camera."
Bayfield County moved into the state's "high risk" category this week as coronavirus cases and transmission rates continued to increase across the Bay Area.
As of Friday, Bayfield County had 12 positive COVID-19 tests and Ashland County was at 10, up from just five total at the beginning of summer tourist season and both up one since Thursday. Bayfield County was monitoring 163 people who had test results pending, had contact with a confirmed patient or otherwise were at risk.
As cases surged this week, Ashland County, the Bad River Tribe and National Guard announced they will hold another free testing session Monday, starting at 11 a.m. at Lake Superior School on Binsfield Road. Organizers intend to have 400 test kits on hand, the same number that ran out at an Iron River session earlier this month.
The sharp increase in local cases this week prompted the city of Bayfield to adopt an emergency ordinance requiring masks in all public areas, indoors and outdoors, within the city. But neither Ashland nor Bayfield County has formally proposed a mask rule, nor has the city of Ashland — though both counties issued an advisory calling for face coverings in all public settings, which took effect Friday.
Ashland County Board Chairman Dick Pufall said neither the city nor the county has set its agenda for upcoming meetings, and a mask ordinance could wind up before either or both bodies.
The next city council meeting is scheduled for July 28, and City Administrator Brant Kucera said Friday that the only thing he is aware of that is likely to be on the agenda is a resolution in support of the Ashland and Bayfield county
Health Department's advisory calling on the residents of both counties to wear face masks.
In the absence of municipal mandates, Walmart, Walgreens and other large chains this week began imposing their own rules. Super One grocery in Ashland joined them Friday morning when the store opened.
"So far, we've had no problems, no backlash," Super One Manager Dustin Copp said Friday, after the store had been open a few hours. "On Facebook there's been a lot of support, but some negativity, too. We just looked at what Bayfield and Ashland counties said in their advisories, and if they said that's what we should do to keep people safe, then we should do it."
Bayfield Mayor Gordon Ringberg told the Daily Press that the city passed its ordinance Wednesday to support such local businesses that imposed mask rules.
"That's the real importance of this. We want you wearing a mask so you're not spreading your germs around," he said. "What this does is give this community backup so that if businesses are having problems, they can give (police) a call. Were not looking at police going out and stopping people on the street for not wearing a mask."
Gordon said city leaders are aware of problems that have copped up across the country in which customers have become belligerent and even violent when stores have told them they couldn't come in without masks. They adopted the emergency ordinance, which is punishable by fines of up to $500, with those incidents in mind.
"Businesses have always had the power to tell people to wear a mask or leave the store and we really want to back them up," he said. "If someone got really nasty I suppose there could be other charges brought against them, too."
In fact, Bayfield leaders weren't certain they had that power when they began considering the ordinance, Ringberg said.
"But after some research by our city attorney, we learned we could do it if we kept it very simple and very direct," he said. "It's something we had to do because when you go from four cases to 15 here in two weeks, that's telling us something."
Ringberg said the city would really a countywide rules about masks. But failing that, Bayfield leaders felt they had to act on their own.
"We don't want to be the lone spot in Bayfield County doing this. To protect everyone in our communities we really need it to be countywide," he said. "We want people to come and enjoy Bayfield, but we have to be sure we're protecting our residents and businesses and visitors."
Copp, the manager at Super One, said he too is taking additional precautions to protect customers and employees. His staff was beginning Friday to make the arrows and signs that direct oneway traffic through the store more prominent.
"We just want everyone to be safe," he said.