June 30, 2021
Highland Park, Macalester-Groveland, Summit Hill, Cathedral Hill, Downtown, Lowertown, Dayton’s Bluff, East Side, Battle Creek, West 7th/West End
The idea for today’s ride goes back to the summer of 2020, to a chance meeting I had with another biker on Railroad Island. He wasn’t a recreational biker. This young man was an employee of the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District (MMCD) who told me he was putting mosquito growth inhibitors in storm sewers on Railroad Island. I knew that the MMCD, a governmental agency, aggressively works to reduce mosquitos in St. Paul and the rest of the metro area. I had no clue, however, that it involved bike riding mosquito slayers. This story was tailor made for my blog, Saint Paul By Bike: Every Block of Every Street. Nonetheless, I had to wait until the COVID-19 pandemic subsided to move ahead with the story.
The main goal of the MMCD is to protect more than 3 million people of the St. Paul-Minneapolis metro area from disease-carrying mosquitos through habitat treatment and tracking. Control efforts also target nuisance, or biting, mosquitos.
I contacted the MMCD last spring and we scheduled a mid-June meeting with one of their bike crew. A tire blowout on my bike forced a postponement until today.
On this day Jenni Kanz was assigned to treat stormwater basins in the Battle Creek neighborhood just south of Interstate 94 to prevent mosquito larvae from growing into adults. We met in the parking lot of the Battle Creek Park Waterworks, about a block east of the St. Paul-Maplewood border. It’s also where we talked about her job before starting her route.
The Mosquito Control District classifies Jenni as a Mosquito Field Technician, but she prefers another name. “I like to say mosquito hunter. It sounds cooler.”
Jenni is enthusiastic about her work, gracefully interspersing scientific terms with common language to illustrate what she does. Her multi-colored pants and Wonder Woman shoes are extensions of her personality and enthusiasm for reducing the number of carriers of West Nile Virus, encephalitis and other mosquito-borne diseases. Her electric green MMCD T-shirt was the one required piece of clothing.
I was shocked to learn the number of mosquito species living in Minnesota. “There’s over 50 in Minnesota, ” Jenni explained. “For human biting, there’s 11. For what we’re looking at, we see Culex, we see Culocitae and we’ll see occasionally Aedes japonicus, which was an invasive mosquito, but is now here to stay.”
Jenni is in her eighth season with the MMCD. She graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield with a Bachelor of Arts degree in environmental studies and went to work for Dakota County Parks. Growing up in Rochester, Minnesota, Jenni didn’t know the MMCD existed. She learned about it from a Dakota County coworker and landed a summer job there. Winters she continued at Dakota County Parks.
For her first seven years at MMCD, Jenni worked out of the Dakota County facility, driving to and then hiking through wetlands, forests, even the Minnesota Zoo, treating breeding grounds for mosquitos, ticks and black flies. “I get to go out and explore new places, things that I wouldn’t normally see or even learn about, even hiking through a park. It’s very different, the perspectives that we would have through Mosquito Control and we get to go to so many different places.”
In spring 2021 Jenni wanted to get some new mosquito hunting experience so she transferred to MMCD’s East District. She first worked in North Oaks and then St. Paul, where she spends much of her time on a bike . Jenni enjoys being part of the bike crew. “I didn’t realize how fun it was. We always did our stormwater basins or catch basins from trucks. It’s boring if you’re in a truck. Stop. Treat. Go. Stop. Treat.”
Jenni oversees the five catch-basin technicians who treat the City’s stormwater basins by bike. “My crew comes from all different walks of academia,” though an academic background isn’t essential, she explains. “It just seems to work out really well for college students to do this in the summer and then go to school. It can work as a really good internship or learning opportunity for anyone going into biology, environmental studies or entomology.”
During the season Jenni and catch-basin technicians usually bike St. Paul neighborhoods four days a week, spending the fifth day in the University Avenue office. Each day begins with a meeting, which in true Minnesota form involves weather talk. “Because we are generally a ways from our trucks, being aware of what the weather is going to do is very important,” she explains. After the briefing they gather their treatment supplies and equipment, maps for the day, and water and food before heading out to their assigned neighborhoods. Jenni pedals about 15 miles a day, and periodically up to 20.
Jenni’s familiarity with St. Paul was limited to the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood and Como near the State Fairgrounds until she hit the streets on her bike. “I didn’t realize how many cool, hidden places there were to discover, like the West Side of St. Paul. I was there my first week. Very cool. I really like the West Side.”
Specifically, she says, “The views are awesome, and it feels like a small town within a big city with all the cool little old buildings that are along that main street, Cesar Chavez. And Smith, that bridge was very cool!”
Jenni told me her work recently reacquainted her with the Capitol, which she enjoyed. “It’s been a while since I’ve been to the Capitol, since like middle school.”
I asked why the catch basin techs do most of their work from bikes in St. Paul but trucks elsewhere. She explained that because St. Paul has its catch basins in clusters, it’s more efficient to be on bikes. Elsewhere, the treatment sites are more spread out.
Additionally, said Jenni, “St. Paul has designed their stormwater structures to be focused around these storm drains on the side of the roads to collect water and debris. And the majority of them are built to have this retaining basin below the drainage pipe, which will hold water and leaves and anything else that goes into them. Mosquito larva love decaying organic matter. So it is the perfect habitat for them.”
The MMCD uses a larval control material called methoprene. “It is hormonal so the mosquitoes ingest it,” Jenni says. “It will stop their growth once they’ve reached the pupal stage. It essentially stops them from becoming mosquito adults and biting people. And it affects all mosquito larvae, female and male, and affects only mosquito larvae.” Methoprene treatments last about 30 days, even through heavy rain.
Jenni rides in the same direction as vehicular traffic and tosses methoprene into storm drains as she bikes past. She doesn’t get too many queries about what she’s doing. “We’re through an intersection in a few seconds, so people don’t generally get a chance to ask us. But if I see someone that looks like they want to ask something, I try to stop because I want people to know about what we’re doing.”
MMCD staff, including catch-basin technicians, do what they call “dipping” the basins to count mosquito larvae before and after treatment. In one basin dip prior to treatment earlier in the summer, Jenni counted 800 mosquito larva, “half of which would have gone to bite people, and all of those probably had the potential to contract and then pass on the West Nile Virus.”
When I asked how noticeable 400 more biting mosquitos would be, Jenni quickly replied, “Have you been to the North Shore? It would be like that.”
According to Jenni, Mosquito Control staff study the effectiveness of treatments through “control” stormwater basins that are left untreated. MMCD also uses test basins to analyze new larval control materials that work even better.
Jenni and the catch-basin technicians also carry materials to sample water in old tires and other human-made items, which can be havens for mosquito larvae. Jenni told me that while wetlands are controlled and treated by the East facility, “We are biking a lot more up and down the streets than they would because they go right to a wetland. We’re the eyes on the ground for a lot of the human-made mosquito habitats.”
Reducing your own backyard mosquito population means “cleaning out your yard for anything that could hold water,” according to Jenni. Even trees can provide mosquito breeding ground in between where limbs branch out. “It’ll create a little hole that will hold water. That can have some nasty mosquitoes in it too. So that can be filled in with sand or dirt so that they don’t hold water.”
Surprisingly, mosquito bites are not a hazard of the job, Jenni said. “They’re usually out at dusk and dawn. Daytime isn’t, generally, their time to be out and about.”
I hadn’t done much riding around the Battle Creek area so while Jenni had lunch I kept riding and exploring. Another fun part of the day was experiencing the memorably named Larry Ho Drive.
This curvy, six-block road in 1959 was bestowed the pen name of newspaperman, poet and former St. Paul Mayor Laurence Curran Hodgson, according to The Street Where You Live by Don Empson.
Larry Ho Drive runs east and west between McKnight Road and Ruth Street. Homes line the south side of the street and Battle Creek Park abuts the north.
By all accounts, Larry Hodgson (1874–1937) was extremely popular in St. Paul and beyond. In a column in the June 19, 2018 Park Bugle newspaper, Roger Bergerson described Larry Ho as “one of St. Paul’s most remarkable characters in the first decades of the 20th century.”
Shortly after graduating from high school in the late 1800s, the young Larry Hodgson began writing for the Minneapolis Times, which is where he picked up his pen name. Larry wrote for several St. Paul newspapers in between stints as a staff member for a couple of St. Paul mayors and at least one Minnesota governor. Hodgson served two non-consecutive terms as mayor from 1918 to 1922 and from 1926 to 1930. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1920.
This subdivision was built in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, which explains the plethora of split-level homes.
Moving south, I crossed Upper Afton Road to a subdivision officially platted in 1960 as the Afton Heights Addition. Like other parts of Battle Creek, this neighborhood consists primarily of curving streets and mid-century homes.
A delightful benefit of living in the Afton Heights Addition is its nearness to the west section of Battle Creek Park (with one of the metro’s best off-leash dog parks), Rec Center and Elementary School.
Jenni and I met again after lunch, this time on North Park Drive, which, not surprisingly, traces the northern contour of Battle Creek Park. I wanted to capture a few more photos of her treating stormwater basins before heading home.
We parted ways again, so Jenni could work and soI could continue scoping out the neighborhood.
Almost immediately I beheld a massive brick structure, its function difficult to identify until I got close to the entrance.
The immediate neighborhood surrounding Battle Creek Middle School is almost exclusively apartments and condos. By far the largest is Villages on McKnight, its many buildings sitting on the equivalent of six or seven city blocks. This sweeping conglomerate of residences is enveloped by McKnight Road and Winthrop Street, Burns Avenue and North Park Drive.
I want to thank the MMCD for the opportunity to bike with Jenni Kanz, especially to Vector Ecologist Kirk Johnson, who is Jenni’s supervisor, and Public Affairs Coordinator Alex Carlson. The biggest thanks goes to Jenni for sharing her thoughts and much of a day with me.
Here is the map of this ride. (Click to enlarge)