I was driving into Rochester the other day from U.S. 14 when I saw ahead of me in the middle of an exit ramp a large, feathered beast.
As I approached, the big bird paused and waddled to the other side.
It was a slow, arrogant waddle. You know, the kind of waddle that says, ``Sure, I'll move because if I don't there's a good chance you'll squash me. But before I do, I want to make it clear that I own this town, mister. And don't you forget it.''
And he'd be right.
Now, let me get something out in the open right away. I like Rochester's geese. A lot of people don't. In fact, a couple of my colleagues are about ready to throw me off the Seventh Street bridge just for writing about them. They think the geese get way too much publicity. Besides, they say, geese are messy, they're noisy and they'll leave lots of disgusting stuff on your lawn if you don't chase them away.
Of course, some local politicians possess those same attributes, especially at election time. But nobody complains about them getting too much ink.
Anyway, to get this column in print I had to cut a deal. I had to agree not to write about the geese again unless there's a very compelling reason -- to comment on a massive goose strep outbreak, for example. And I had to agree to tell both sides of the Rochester goose story.
There's good reason for that exit-blocking goose's arrogance. Rochester's prized collection of 30,000 or so giant Canada geese has come to be nearly as highly revered here as the brothers Mayo.
In fall, winter and early spring, they cover that muddy hot tub we call Silver Lake like a floating feather pillow. In morning and evening they fill the sky and squawk like cackling witches on the way to meals in nearby cornfields.
They can be found everywhere. In golf courses, parks, playgrounds and ponds. On lawns, ditches, driveways and dirt piles.
I hadn't realized how much a part of our psyche the geese are until a few months ago when my 18-month-old boy, who's desperately trying to make sense of the English language, began referring to anything that flies as a ``geese.''
``Look at that pretty red bird,'' I'd say.
``Geese,'' he'd respond.
``No, cardinal,'' I'd correct.
``Geese,'' he'd shoot back confidently.
Surveys have shown that we Rochester residents love our geese, and the city has backed that up by negotiating a deal that will keep warm water from the city-owned power plant flowing into Silver Lake into the next century. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources even goes so far as to grow corn for the garrulous critters so they can stay fat and happy all winter long.
The geese keep coming back year after year. And wouldn't you? Free food, a giant steam bath, friendly people. This friendliness extends only to the edge of town in the fall, however. Beyond the city limits lurk hunters who would just as soon eat a goose as feed it bread crumbs and take its picture with the kids.
Most of the geese are gone now. Our huge, traveling tourist attraction has taken its show to northern Manitoba, where they will mate, raise babies and maybe take in a few hockey games before catching a return flight to Rochester in October or November.
But they're not forgotten.
You see, it's spring cleaning time around Silver Lake as homeowners rake up more than leaves, twigs and old candy wrappers. And this is where we get to the other side of the story.
``When we first moved here I ruined a perfectly good pair of tennis shoes,'' said Sarah McIntosh, who lives near the lake. ``They turned green.''
Then McIntosh unknowingly made another mistake. When her kids asked her what geese eat she jokingly told them Captain Crunch cereal. ``I didn't think they'd take me seriously,'' she said.
But they did, and so did the geese, which swooped into their backyard in hungry droves.
And not just at breakfast time.
``For a while there it was like Alfred Hitchcock's `The Birds' every time we'd open the door.''
Don't get the wrong impression, though. McIntosh actually gets a kick out of the geese. ``I like them. I really do.''
But you won't get that kind of endorsement from Tim Higgins. Higgins is director of golf for the Rochester Park and Recreation Department, and he's going to spend part of his summer trying to figure out how to keep geese off Soldiers Field Golf Course in the fall.
Now that trees lining the Zumbro River have been removed to accommodate the city's flood control project, the geese have a clear, open view of the golf course. They've come to view it as a giant salad bowl.
``You take the ladies tee box on Number 17,'' Higgins says. ``They've just nipped it right down to the dirt level. There's almost nothing there.''
Then, of course, there's the obvious problem that occurs every year when the snow melts. ``You can't put your bag down anywhere on the course without getting that stuff on it.''
Need I say more?
Higgins is considering everything from hiring human scarecrows to driving around the course in the morning and evening when the geese feed, to administering a nasty tasting goose-be-gone substance to the grass.
``I wouldn't wish this problem on my worst enemy,'' he says.
So there you have it. The good, the bad and the squishy lowdown on Rochester's famous geese.
I still haven't told you what role the Mayos played in establishing Rochester's goose flock, or how a subspecies of the Canada goose, thought to be extinct, was rediscovered here.
To do that, though, I'd have to write another column. And it's a long way to the water from that Seventh Street bridge railing.@et