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An Engineer in the Woods, Installment 8: The Woodland Pond

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

“What do you mean you have to give away the koi?  You’ve had some of those fish for over 10 years.”

Kristen and I were standing on the back deck of our home in Plainfield next to the koi pond that I had built, improved and repaired many times over the past fifteen years or so. I didn’t want to respond to her by letting her know how many of those fish were “replacement” fish due to midnight snacks by heron, egrets, racoons, turtles, and the world’s largest crawdad.  Or how many deaths had occurred due to hot weather, cold weather, inopportune pump failures and the inevitable fish fatalities that plaque every aquarist.  So, I just said, “I agree that I don’t have time to construct a new pond at the new house, and I agree that our current leaky pond could scare people away from buying this home, so I have to fill this pond and give the fish away.”

“Even the yellow one?”  She pointed at the fish that was making lazy circles around a lily pad, probably in some sort of death spiral.  If my memory was correct, that would be the sixth yellow koi over the years and I might soon be shopping for number seven, but I had Kristen where I wanted her, “All the fish.”

“Can’t you keep them in an aquarium?”  We have many aquariums.

“The 125 gallon tank has the African Cichlids, Ricky’s 55 is too small for 15 large koi and they would destroy his plants. We don’t have any working equipment for any of the 10s or 20s (yes that was plural).  I could cram them into Ricky’s 75 for a couple of weeks, but I definitely couldn’t keep them in there for long.”

“Well maybe you can build a small pond…”

“Once I build it, I can’t make it bigger, and if it’s too small I’ll just be feeding the mink and racoons.”  I love the feeling when a negotiation begins to turn my way.

“Well maybe you can spend a weekend on a pond once we get the demolition done so that John (our carpenter and friend John Knoop) can start working.  But NO WATERFALL.”

“But I promise you will LOVE a waterfall,” big puppy dog eyes camouflaging a massive Grinchy grin.

“Whatever you can do in ONE WEEKEND.”

The Grinch snuck-out, “I’ll order the liner and filter boxes.”  The design was already completed.  Here’s my sketch:


For most of my life there had been a “Rock Garden” on the hill along the northwest side of the house.  When I was young, every spring Mom and I would plant impatiens into the rock-lined planters in a flagstone wall and between the naturally eroded karstic limestone boulders that Grandma Ham had brought from Texas decades earlier. In the early 1900’s, Grandma would go on family drives into the Texas hills to collect interesting boulders.  When the family moved to Joliet in the 1920’s, she brought many of the rocks with her, and when she would return to Texas on visits, she would bring more back to her rock garden on Cowles Ave.  Eventually she had her goldfish pond filled due to repeated leaks (the apples don’t fall far from the trees in my family) and many of the boulders found their way to my parent’s rock garden.  Most are still there today.

When Mom and Dad aged, making it too difficult for them to maintain the rock garden, the trees had grown and created an impenetrable canopy making it impossible for anything to grow in the dark, the frost had crumbled and heaved the limestone walls and steps, and the daily deluge of destructive deer had resulted in the elimination of anything green that was edible and could survive the darkness– the once beautiful garden became a pile of rocks buried under euonymus, poison ivy and wild garlic with many daffodils struggling to reach above the jumble each spring.  I was going to bring it back, and make it even better.

Our son Ricky loves EVERYTHING about fish and he volunteered to dig the pond before he returned to Iowa State for the fall semester of his sophomore year as a double Business major (Finance and Management).  Middle daughter Sean was preparing for her junior year at Iowa State, double-majoring in Horticulture and Spanish.  She would help with the planting.  Oldest Aileen had just graduated from Iowa State in Kinesiology and she had plenty of nervous energy available as she waited to learn of her eventual acceptance to the Physical Therapy Doctoral program at Creighton – she would excavate the waterfall. I had my team!

Since the pond sits mid-point on a clay hill, near an ancient oak tree, the plan was for Rick to dig the main pond as deep and wide as he could without affecting any air roots of the oak.  He would dig until he hit roots, then stop.  He would also pile the excavated clay around the perimeter of the hole to make the pond deeper than he could dig, and excavate a shallower portion, a little closer to the oak tree, that would become a bog.  Ricky even brought friends to help with the labor.  It was a challenge, and he really “dug in.” I used surveyor’s marking paint to layout out the limits and lath and string lines to control elevation. Being a true engineer I even setup a laser level, but that soon proved to be more trouble than it was worth.

One afternoon as Ricky was digging I noticed that when he stood up straight I could barely see his head above the pond edge, “Hey Rick!” He turned his nearly 6-foot frame toward the sound of my voice, “I think that’s deep enough!”  The main pond was excavated!  It had taken more than a weekend, and the summer break was over, but we had success!

Now that the main pond was dug, I laid the carpet that I had saved from the living room into the pond hole to serve as a cushion for the liner.  I had learned from my previous pond that roots can work their way into a liner, and once they find water they will destroy a pond quickly.  The carpet would both cushion the liner and provide a barrier to roots.  At this point I had dismantled the pond at home and moved the fish into Ricky’s 75-gallon aquarium where they waited for their new home.

I laid-out the waterfall for Aileen to excavate from the dining room patio (future kitchen deck), down through the rock garden, and to the pond.  Summer was over, but she had a brief fall break from Creighton, we had a young family ready to move into our home in Plainfield, and the koi were displeased with their accommodations in the 75-gallon aquarium.  Most of the fish, and especially the catfish that were in the tank before the koi were added, had shredded fins or no fins left at all.  Only one or two had expired, but none of them were happy. We had to finish the pond and move the fish to their new home before freezing weather hit.

A “break” during a doctoral program does not mean no studying.  Aileen was reading, researching and writing for hours every day.  At the end of her week she had dug a little of the waterfall, but had a lot left to go.  I took Friday afternoon off work so that we could work together to finish before she returned to school on Saturday.  We worked hard, but progress was slow since we had to move rocks and daffodil bulbs with almost every shovel-full of hard packed clay.  As the sun began to set I could see that we still had about an hour of work to complete, but slightly less than an hour of light remining.  I had already arranged for my sister Helen’s middle child, Mitchell, a junior and starting offensive tackle on his high school varsity football team, to come help me lug the 500-pound pond liner into place on Sunday afternoon, so not finishing was not an option.  Then the forest shadows began to move ominously around us.

We couldn’t tell what they were, but they were big, there were a lot of them, and they were getting closer.  Then we heard the first “gobble” from the darkening sky.  They weren’t just in the woods, they were in the trees over our heads, watching us!  We counted about a dozen turkeys working their way high into the oak, maple, linden and hickory branches over the pond.  Aileen was enthralled, I was angry!  We had to finish now and we didn’t have time for distractions!! Our work became, dig, dig, “Dad, look at that one!”, dig, “Dad they’re so cool!!!”, dig, dig, “I hope they don’t fall out of the trees!,” dig, dig, dig, “Take a picture of me with the turkeys in the trees!”

My patience disintegrated as frustration began to boil my brain, “Aileen, quit looking at the damned turkeys and help me finish this waterfall before dark.  We’ll have years more to look at the stupid birds!”  We’ve yet to see them again like they were that night (future story), but we finished the work!


Here are a couple pics and a movie of the completed pond and waterfall.
















If you are having trouble viewing the above video please click on the below link.

Woodland Pond Video.


Have a great day!