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Archive for the tag “Minnesota travel”

Visiting Three Minnesota State Parks

Three MInnesota State PArks

Visiting Three Minnesota State Parks

H. Bradford

08/12/19


One of my goals is to visit all of the state parks in Minnesota.  There are 67 of them and my New Year’s Resolution was to see three new ones in 2019.  My total since I started this challenge is about 24.  Suffice to stay, with a minimum of three a year, it will take me some time to see all of them.  This goal has helped me to appreciate the diversity of Minnesota’s landscapes, but also how large the state feels once I’ve hit the nearby parks.  This summer, I visited Forestville Mystery Cave State Park, Father Hennepin State Park, and Schoolcraft State Park.  Here is a review of each:


Forestville Mystery Cave State Park:

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I was most excited to see the Forestville Mystery Cave State Park.   The park is located about four hours drive south of Duluth near the Iowa border, so going there is a commitment in itself.  But, the park promised the longest cave in Minnesota, as well as a restored town from the 1800s.   The idea of exploring the longest cave in the state lured me to the driftless area of Minnesota, which is a bluff region which only experienced two of the last four glaciations on the last million years.  I had really built up the cave in my head and this park has spent a long time on my bucket list.  But, as the journey wore on, further and further into sparsely populated and agricultural area…I began to wonder if it was worth the visit (Dan accompanied me and I also worried that he might not have fun).  The cave itself is located a few miles away from the main park office at a separate location.  The cave has its own park office, so visitors can go directly to the cave rather than stopping at the park (as we did).  Once there, visitors can enjoy the artifacts and informational displays at the visitor center and sign up for one of several types of tours offered by the park.  The tours include a basic scenic tour, lantern tour, geology tour, photography tour, and wild caving tour.  I went on the basic scenic tour (and had thought about going on a second tour such as the lantern tour, but never did).

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The basic scenic tour attracted a crowd of several families.  It lasts about an hour and costs $15.  The tour provides a basic overview of the geological formations and history of the cave.  The finale is the Turquoise Lake, which was smaller than I imagined, but still pretty.   Another point of interest in the cave were fossils, one of which was a nautiloid affixed to the ceiling.   Other fossils found in the cave or cave environs include trilobites, tube worms, sponges, bryozoa (a phylum of small filter feeders that I am not really familiar with), snails, etc.  The fossils attest the cave’s early history as a sea bed 450 million years ago.   Ocean debris and mud slowly built up and compressed to form the sandstone and limestone of the cave (which itself was carved/dissolved by water over time).  Another unique feature of the cave are iron oxide cored speleothems (a fancy word for cave formations), which are very rare.  I probably should have taken notes, or perhaps gone on the more in depth geology theme tour.  Instead, I scurried along at the end of the group taking photos.  As a whole, the tour seemed short, and after four hours in a car, my attention was disrupted by road weariness.  I would recommend a more in depth or adventurous tour than the basic scenic tour, which I found a little too easy.  I would also recommend time to unwind if traveling across the state.  I honestly felt a little disappointed by the tour, as in my head I had built the cave up to be something more fantastic.  It was not the most interesting cave I had ever visited, but perhaps an additional tour would have added some more depth to the experience.

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Forestville Mystery Cave State Park also features a recreated 1800s village of Forestville, complete with costumed reenactors.  By the time the cave tour was over, the day was already getting late.   The town was closing for the day by the time we arrived.   The town of Forestville floundered after it was bypassed by railways in 1868.  Today it is restored and operated as a living museum by the Minnesota Historical Society.   After wandering around the buildings and peeking inside a few, the remainder of the evening was spent hiking in the park.  It was June and the gnats were terrible.  I ended up with many welts on my shoulder and neck from gnat bites.  This put a damper on enjoyable hiking, but under better conditions it seems like there is diverse nature to explore as the park is situated between prairie and deciduous biomes.  As for camping, we stayed at the nearby Maple Springs campground.   The campground is conveniently located outside of the park’s main entrance (so even though the state park campground was full, it was a nearby alternative.).  A campsite without water and electricity is $25 per night, so comparable to the state park’s prices.

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Overall, I think I built up the park a bit too much in my imagination.  It was certainly interesting and offered a variety of activities (cave tours, historical town, hiking, etc.) but the gnats soured my mood and ability to experience the park.  Later that week, I learned that the gnats were at their worst over that particular weekend, as many had just hatched and there was a larger population this year due to heavier rains (they like moving water).  Thus, the menacing gnat clouds that seemed intent on getting stuck in my hair may have been worse than other times.  The park is definitely worth the visit, but the cave, while unique to Minnesota and full of unique characteristics in its own right, it not the biggest or most interesting that I’ve been to.  So, perhaps with more modest or realistic expectations it would not disappoint.  To be fair, I did not really explore the cave or the park to the fullest.

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Father Hennepin State Park:

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Father Hennepin State Park is a small state park located by Isle, MN on Mille Lacs Lake.  I visited this park on a solo day trip.  Even though I didn’t spend the night, I felt that my day trip was an adequate amount of time to explore the park.   The park entrance was near an osprey nest, which I briefly observed before heading to the main parking lot.  The lot is located near a beach, which was active with families enjoying the summery weather.  My interest was exploring the trails, so I set off exploring.  Unfortunately, the park does not have an extensive trail network.  In all, it has under five miles of trails, which form a loop around the park (with two long ends).  The trails are easy to stroll along and feature a view of Mille Lacs Lake and an observation point for watching Common terns.  Common terns nest on two small islands on Mille Lacs Lake, which are one of only four breeding colonies in Minnesota.  I didn’t see any common terns as the islands were beyond the reach of my binoculars, so bringing a spotting scope would be a good idea for a visitor who has one.  The observation point is only about .5 miles from the parking lot.

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In addition to missing out on the terns, I didn’t see any of the park’s albino deer.   However, I did see a woodchuck climb a tree and saw/heard several species of flycatchers.  There is also a nice collection of interpretive signs along the trails and at the beach.  The park is named after Father Hennepin, who was a French priest and explorer who visited the region in 1680.   At the time, the area was home to Mdewakanton Dakota.  His exploratory accounts are believed to be exaggerated (for instance, one account spoke of being captured by Native Americans and traversing thousands of miles by canoe in just a month) and did not portray Native Americans favorably.   It would be great if the park’s name was changed to something else, perhaps something that recognizes Native American history instead.  I am not aware of any effort to change the park’s name, but did learn that the Ojibwe word for Mille Lacs Lake is Misi-zaaga’igan.  It is a small, but pleasant and pretty park that is easy to explore.  It is only 20 minutes away from Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, which is a much larger park with more trails.  The two could easily be combined if a person wanted to camp by the lake (at Father Hennepin) then spend some more time hiking (at Mille Lacs Kathio).

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Schoolcraft State Park:

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The third park that I visited this summer was Schoolcraft State Park, which is located about two hours west of Duluth near Grand Rapids, MN at the confluence of the Mississippi and Vermilion rivers.  Like Father Hennepin State Park, the visit was a solo day trip rather than an overnight camping excursion.   Of all the state parks that I have visited thus far, this one was the smallest and emptiest!  The park did not have visible staff or a park office.  Instead, there was a self-serve kiosk for purchasing firewood, camping fees, or a park pass.  The park did not even have a large sign, like most parks often have.  On the plus side, I had the park almost entirely to myself.  So, in that sense, it felt pretty remote!  The main objective of the visit was to see a 300 year old white pine and to do some hiking.  The hiking was not an extensive adventure because the park only has two miles of trails!  The park is probably a better destination for people who wish to canoe or fish.  I followed the Hiking Club Trail, which looped around the park.  I even backtracked and detoured a bit to hit various segments of trail that cut across the loop.  I didn’t see many birds, but I did see quite a few butterflies during the hike.  In all, it is very easy to explore the whole park within a few hours.

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The main attraction of the park is the 300 year old white pine.  The pine was spared by loggers because it was too crooked.  Thus, it stands along the Mississippi river; its arboreal cohort is long gone.   The tree doesn’t have a sign or, to my knowledge, a name.  But, it is distinctive enough to identify as the old one, since it is large, forked into three, and located right in front of the main parking lot along the river.  I took photos of the tree, then set off walking.   Along the short loop of a trail are some interpretive signs- which in the absence of a larger park or extensive trail network, offer a visitor something to do or find.  The signs discuss the nature and history of the park.  Like Father Hennepin state park, Schoolcraft State Park is named after a white explorer.  In this case, Henry Schoolcraft was part of an 1832 US expedition to the headwaters of the Mississippi River and later became a Superintendent of Indian Affairs (through which he obtained millions of acres of land for the U.S. government through treaties and sought to acculturate Native Americans into a farming).  He married an Ojibwe and Scottish writer named Jane Johnston, who taught him about Ojibwe language and culture.  She is believed to be the first female Native American writer and poet, though I don’t recall information about her on the interpretive signs.  Perhaps the park should be named after her.  After she passed away, Schoolcraft married a pro-slavery writer named Mary Howard.  It would be great to rename this park as well.  PFather Hennepin State Park, Schoolcraft State Park, and especially Sibley State Park (Sibley fought against the Dakota Uprising in 1862, which culminated in the largest mass hanging in US history when 38 Dakota prisoners were executed) could all use a name change.  Changing the name does not undo U.S. history of genocide or even promise better treatment of Native Americans today, but at least it doesn’t celebrate or honor colonization.

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I enjoy visiting state parks and would certainly recommend all three.  Schoolcraft State Park is small enough that I probably wouldn’t suggest spending a long time there (multiple days) or a recommend long distance travel that only entails that park (perhaps it could be visited along with another state park in the area).  Father Hennepin State Park is another small park, but the location is pretty enough that staying longer might be worthwhile for the opportunity to relax and enjoy the lake.  Finally, Forestville Mystery Cave State Park is large enough that it could be visited over multiple days as it has many things to do and see.  It is a bit more remote than the other two, but also much more popular.  In the case of the two smaller parks that I visited, it prompted me to think a bit more about the ways in which state parks commemorate colonial history.  This is a topic that I should spend some time looking into a bit more.  It is great to enjoy fossils and 300 year old trees, but these spaces are largely white and middle class and some of the names signal who belongs and matters and who does not.


		
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A Tale of Two Interstate Parks

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A Tale of Two Interstate Parks

H. Bradford

8/25/18


Summer is quickly coming to an end in the Northland, so I wanted to squeeze a final camping adventure in before the season shifts to fall.  To this end, I headed out towards Interstate State Park, which is actually two state parks.  There is a Minnesota Interstate Park and a Wisconsin Interstate Park.  They are located within 10 minutes drive of each other, straddling the banks of the St. Croix River.  Both are located around two hours south of Duluth/Superior near the towns of Taylor Falls, MN and St. Croix Falls, WI.  Both can be reached by taking either Interstate 35 in Minnesota or HWY 35 in Wisconsin.  I opted for HWY 35 in WI, which is a pleasant, leisurely drive through many small, Wisconsin communities.   Here is a review of the parks! Image may contain: sky, plant, tree, outdoor, nature and water


 

Interstate State Park, Minnesota

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Interstate State Park in Minnesota is the second oldest state park in the state, after Itasca State Park.  While my other state park adventures were filled with solitude and insects, this park was swarming with people!  It is a popular tourist destination and more tourist oriented than the other state parks that I have visited this summer.  Despite the buzzing throngs of humans, very few opted to go on the free glacial pothole tour that was offered at noon.  Every weekend and Monday at noon, park staff provide a free tour of the park’s glacial potholes.  I went on the tour and learned about the formation of the large potholes in the park, while meandering around some of the large potholes near the park’s entrance.   Basically, when the glaciers around Lake Superior began to melt 10,000 years ago it created a powerful torrent of water which created the modern St. Croix river.  The cliffs through which this water flowed were formed 1.1 billion years ago from the lava released from a mid-continental rift that spreads from Minnesota to Kansas.   The powerful river once rushed over these cliffs, creating potholes in the landscape as smaller rocks got caught and scoured holes into the surface.  Interstate State Park boasts the largest “explored” pothole in the world.  This means that there are larger potholes in the world, but they have not been dug out to determine their actual depth.  Visitors to the park can actually stand inside one of the larger potholes.  These potholes were manually shoveled out earlier in the last century and the visitor center features some modern artifacts that have been retrieved from the potholes over the years.  Each year, the potholes are pumped out, as they fill with water, leaves, and other debris.  Aside from the potholes, the naturalist also told us about the billion year old basalt left behind from the mid-continental rift.  The surface of the basalt is pock marked with air bubbles from when the lava cooled.  It was neat to learn about this history and to think about walking on top of such ancient rocks.

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After partaking in the tour, I set up my tent at my campsite.  At this point, I may have gone hiking, but instead, I wanted to explore Taylor Falls.  About 10 minutes drive away from Interstate Park is the Franconia Sculpture Park.  On Sundays, the park offers a free tour at 2 pm with one of the sculptors.  So, after the glacial pothole tour, I went on a sculpture park tour not far from the park.  Prior to the weekend, I had never heard of the sculpture park.  I expected to find a quaint community project with a few quirky sculptures.  Instead, I found a massive field of impressive sculptures, some created by famous artists from all over the world.  Artists even stay at the park as residents and interns.  There is also a workshop wherein artists can created their works.  It was an impressive artistic institution pretty much located in the middle of nowhere (Taylor Falls only has a population of about 900 people).  Once again, the guided tour was not well attended.  It was myself and two local senior citizens.  However, it was great to learn more about the artists, their methods, and the meaning of some of the sculptures.  I hadn’t put much thought into sculptures before- or at least not the process of making them.  An artist was busy making a metal sculpture from a mold she made over a plastered comforter spread over a friend’s body.   The artist was not an engineer, so she had to figure out for herself how to work with metal and create something structurally sound.  I could better appreciate the technical challenges of erecting giant sculptures of metal, cement, or stone after the tour. Image may contain: plant, outdoor and nature


Since Interstate Park is located within Taylor Falls, Mn, the local tourist attractions warrant mention- as these are connected to the park through the Railroad Trail.  After visiting the Franconia Sculpture park, I returned to the state park and followed the River Trail from the campground to the town.  Within Taylor Falls, I grabbed some dinner at the Drive In Restaurant.  The Drive In Restaurant is an old fashioned drive in, where you can eat in your car.  I chose to eat at a table.  The servers wear Poodle Skirts and serve classic American foods like malts, sundaes, burgers, fries, etc.  They actually had a veggie burger on their menu.   This is easily within walking distance from the park, as are several other restaurants.

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On the way back to the park, I followed the Railroad trail, which follows along an old railroad bed.  It is less stunning than the River Trail (which follows the St. Croix river) but worth hiking simply to mix things up.  Together, the trails make for about a three mile loop.  Thus, Minnesota Interstate Park does not have many trails (as these are the main two trails in the park).  It is not a state park to visit if you expect to do a lot of hiking, but worth visiting if you want to enjoy the St. Croix river and some local tourist attractions.   The Railroad trail leads hikers past the Folsom House (which is up the hill from the trail), which is a house built in 1854 by lumber baron, W.H. Folsom.  The house was closed when I visited, but it is generally open on the weekends during the summer and fall.  The trail also brings visitors past the historic rail station.  Another attraction, back in town and not on the trail, is a small, yellow library dating back to the late 1800s (it was built in 1854 as a taylor shop but later became a library).  The diminutive library continues to lend books to this day.  Finally, for those looking for something else to do after hiking to two short trails, the state park is unique in that it offers steamboat tours.  Tickets for the steamboat tours can be purchased near the park’s visitors office.  Tickets cost about $20, which I was content to forgo as I had already explored the river on foot and didn’t feel like spending more money.   The St. Croix river can also be explored by canoe or kayak and there are several rentals in the area.

Tiny Library from the 1800s


 

  Park Overview:

Pros: Beautiful cliffs over the water, many local tourist attractions, guided pothole tours, largest explored pothole in the world, riverboat tours, kayak/canoe opportunities, easy hiking trails, and well-staffed park and campground.


Cons: Very busy with tourists, loud traffic, not many hiking trails, relatively small park Image may contain: tree, sky, plant, outdoor, nature and water


Interstate State Park, Wisconsin

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On the other side of the St. Croix River is Wisconsin’s Interstate Park.  As mentioned, this was Wisconsin’s first state park.  I visited here early Monday morning after camping at Minnesota’s park.  At 7am, the park was devoid of tourists and hikers.  This gave me the opportunity to explore the park’s trails alone.  Unlike the Minnesota state park, there are many trails to explore.  Most of these are small loop trails which connect to each other in a series of lopsided figure eights.  Each loop is usually about a half a mile to under a mile long.   I hiked several of these small loop trails.  One of the highlights was the Pothole Trail.  Like the Minnesota park, the Wisconsin Interstate State Park also features potholes.  These potholes are smaller in width and depth, so they are not as impressive as the Minnesota potholes.  But, if you want to take in  more glacial potholes, the trail is still worthwhile and the trail itself features a nice overlook of the St. Croix river.  I also followed the Meadow Valley Trail, which was a bit swampy and buggy.   It is mostly just a connector between a parking lot and the Pothole Trail.  Another trail is the Summit Rock Trail, which brings visitors to the highest point on the bluffs.  This trail features the best observation point of all of the trails, since it is the highest.  I also followed part of the Echo Canyon Trail, though this was done to get to the Lake o’ the Dalles Trail.  The Lake o’ the Dalles Trail is a one mile loop around a small lake.  This is the only place between the two state parks where visitors can go swimming.  Otherwise, the currents of the St. Croix river are either too strong or the cliffs/bluffs are too steep.   This area features a beach house and the trail is described as a wildlife viewing trail.   I didn’t see much for wildlife, but I did encounter poison ivy.

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I didn’t mention that the Minnesota Interstate Park was buzzing with both people, but also a new colony of honeybees.  I have never seen a swarm of bees colonize a tree before.  The naturalist pointed them out and put up a sign so that everyone would avoid that area.  After a few hours, the bees were settled down in their new home.  Despite nearly walking by the swarm, the bees were content to focus on their new home.  Other than this brief and interesting encounter with these bees, I had no major insect incidents over the course of my park visit.  However….I did notice how there was NO poison ivy in the parks.  This was a first, as the other parks I have visited this summer had abundant ivy.  I guess I was lulled into complacency, since during my hike around Lake o’the Dalles, I noticed a lush gauntlet of poison ivy right by the trail (which I had already been following).  When I looked down at my legs, I saw they had small red bumps near the ankles and lower calves.   I couldn’t do much about it at the time.   This was a good lesson in paying attention and wearing taller socks/shoes/long pants.  Several days later, my legs are still bumpy, red, and itchy.   This was my first brush against poison ivy and the reaction was not that severe, just annoying and ugly.  I have used Vicks Vapor Rub and Cortisone cream on it.

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Despite the poison ivy, I saw a Giant Swallowtail butterfly, which are rare…


There were a few other trails which I did not have time to explore.   Otherwise, the park also features a small museum and gift shop.  The museum features information about glaciers.  It also has a display of various clams found in the St. Croix River.  Traveling HWY 35, one passes by Clam Dam and Clam Falls, which alludes to the mussels found in the river.  Personally, I haven’t paid much attention to mussels, so the display was neat because it showcased the variety of local clams.  The mussels have unique names, such as Fawnsfoot, Higgin’s Eye, Monkey Face, Snuffbox, and Winged Maple leaf.   Some of these mussels are endangered and I know that I certainly have never paid attention to the differences between species of clams.  The St. Croix River has over 40 species of mussels, making it one of the most significant mussel habitats in the country. No automatic alt text available.


I did not explore the local tourist attractions outside of Wisconsin’s Interstate Park.  St. Croix Falls, the community near the park, is larger than Taylor Falls and also more spread out.  While I did not stop here, I did stop in Balsam Lake (which was slightly out of the way but roughly 15 miles away from the park).  The small community features a museum, a city park with camping, a few eateries, and some historic buildings.  I ate lunch at KJ’s New North.  The deli/coffee shop does not have any vegetarian items on the menu, but they made me a veggie sandwich with all of their veggies (peppers, pickles, lettuce, tomato, avocado+cheese).   The food was tasty and the service was good.  Since the town has its own municipal self-serve camping in the park, this might be a camping option when the state parks are full.   Pine Park features disc golf and the basic camping sites have a shared restroom and shower.  I visited the park briefly and found that it was great habitat for woodpeckers.  I saw four species of woodpeckers in my first fifteen minutes in the park, including a red headed woodpecker.  This was my only birding on the trip.

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Park overview:

Pros: Various hiking trails, glacial potholes, swimming opportunities, camping,  quieter than MN Interstate Park, close to St. Croix falls and other nearby communities, gift shop/mini museum, first Wisconsin State Park, and cheaper camping fees than MN.


Cons: Poison ivy and tourists (but less busy than MN Interstate Park…though it was a Monday)

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Conclusion:

Both parks compliment each other well.  Minnesota’s Interstate Park is great for its potholes, boat tours, and proximity to tourist attractions.  Wisconsin’s Interstate Park is great for hiking, swimming, and its interpretive center.  Together, the parks give visitors an appreciation for geology, knowledge about glaciers, and great views off the bluffs divided by the St. Croix river.   The proximity of the parks to the Minneapolis area and the dramatic natural beauty ensures that both are a popular destination.  They aren’t the most tranquil state parks, but if you don’t mind the sound of cicadas, traffic, and people they are a great place to visit.

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Aitkin County Fair Review

Review of the Aitkin County Fair

Aitkin County Fair Review

H. Bradford

7/30/18

Aitkin County is Minnesota county with a population just over 16,000.  Despite the fact that is the neighboring county to Carlton County, where I grew up, I have never attended their county fair.  I usually attended the Carlton County Fair or a fair in St. Louis County.  This year, I attended the Aitkin County Fair with my family.   The fair was held early by fair standards (July 4-7th).  I attended on Saturday, which was the final day of the fair.  Here are my general impressions of the fair, though it may be an unfair assessment.


 

Pros:

 

Free Admission:

Most fairs charge a fee to enter.  This was always true of the Carlton County Fair.  The Aitkin County Fair costs nothing to attend!  There is a $5 parking fee, but this is easily avoided if a person parks further away.  This means that a person looking for free summer fun can wander around the fair at not cost.  Of course, rides and food are a bit spendy, but a person could choose to spend nothing! Image may contain: 1 person, standing and outdoor


Children Activities:

There were a variety of free activities for children.  There was an entire building dedicated to free crafts for kids, where children could make noodle necklaces and spinners.  My nephews did a few of the free crafts, but were less interested in other free activities such as viewing animals or learning more about farming in an interactive, children’s barn.

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Tractor Parade:

Another highlight of the fair was the tractor parade.  There is something really fun about watching a parade of tractors.  The drivers tended to be older men, but there were also some kids and women.  The tractors followed the perimeter of the fairgrounds for a 20 minute parade that showcased the mostly older model tractors. Image may contain: sky, tree, outdoor and nature


A Variety of Booths:

The Aitkin County Fair featured a two buildings of booths.  My favorite booth was for the Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge.  This booth was selling guidebooks on a variety of topics at half price.  I purchased a guide to ferns, a guide to moths, and a wildflower guide.  I also purchased two half priced children’s books for my nephews on the topic of bats.   I collected pamphlets from other booths on gardening in Minnesota, Minnesota trees, and pollinators- which may have come from booths for the DNR and University of Minnesota Extension.  The Aitkin County History Society also had a building at the fair.


 

Aitkin Gobblers:

This doesn’t have much to do with the fair, but the mascot for the Aitkin schools is a turkey, since the area was once known for turkey farming and processing.  Aitkin County once produced a half million turkeys each year and Land-o-Lakes operated a turkey processing plant in Aitkin until 1985.  The school adopted the turkey mascot because of the importance of turkeys to Aitkin.  Well, I think this is a great, unique mascot.  I made a point of trying to find an Aitkin Gobbler T-shirt while in Aitkin, but I could only find one at a local thrift store.  I purchased the shirt for $3, but was disappointed that it did not feature the image of a turkey.  At the fair, there were only a few turkeys.  One of them looked droopy and had an empty water dish, so I gave it some water (which it immediately stepped on and knocked over. Oh well, at least its foot was no longer dehydrated..)  There are not many turkeys in Aitkin any more, but at least a few could be found at the fair and I found a Gobbler shirt.     The range of wild turkeys is expanding, so it is more common to see wild turkeys in Aitkin and Carlton counties.  So, perhaps the turkey will return as a wild and free bird.  Fair organizers should really play up the importance of turkeys…

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Fire and Rescue Table:

Aitkin County Fire and Rescue had an awesome table tucked away in the far northeast corner of the fair.   The table gave away full sized bottles of water for free to combat heat exhaustion.  We were all given at least one bottle of ice cold water.  They also gave us vials of insect repellent and other free items related to staying safe.  We were encouraged to take us much as we wanted.  Maybe because of the isolated location of the table and the fact that it was the last day of the fair, we were given a large amount of free goodies.


 

Cons:

Banana Derby:

The Banana Derby should probably go into the “con” category.  It is one of those surprising things that seem out of place in this day and age.  The attraction was literally a race between two dogs with monkeys riding on their backs.  It was free to observe and money was made through promotional photographs with the monkeys.  This didn’t seem right.  Monkeys in sweaty, polyester jockey costumes holding on to dogs as they ran on a small track.  Even if the dogs and monkeys are treated well, that sort of performance is probably stressful and tiring for the animals.  Is this the worst offense of the fair?  After all, animals are put on display for several days or served as food.  This is a complicated issue, but there seemed like something distinctively exploitative about carting dogs and monkeys around the country and training them to race.  Perhaps it is simply the unusual nature of this particular entertainment that calls into question the issue of animal treatment.  I will say that whole thing was pretty surreal.

 

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Lack of Produce:

Because the fair is held in early July, most gardens have not produced many crops as it it too early in the season.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, eggplants, peppers, and so on tend to arrive later in late July and August.  Thus, the fair did not have many vegetables on display.   What could be done?  Maybe people could be encouraged to enter peas, lettuce, or immature versions of the later season crops. Image result for shriveled vegetable

Not an actual photo from the fair…but my impression of the veggies…


Business Booths:

While there was a building full of booths for organizations, there was another that was focused on businesses.  These offered prizes to promote their business.   These prizes seem a little scammy.  For instance, I received a call that I was one of  the finalists for a prize at the “Atkin” county fair.  Considering that the caller did not know how to pronounce Aitkin, I felt that it was not a representative from a local business or a genuine prize.  My brother also received a call regarding another prize, and it was clear that everyone who entered likely got a call from the business.  The prize offerings seemed like a way to gather customer contact information to trick people into purchasing products and services.


Lack of Swag Bags:

While at the fair, I tend to collect various pamphlets and free things.  Soon, my arms were full of books, pamphlets, and booklets.   None of the booths offered any sort of bag to carry the items in…except…the Aitkin County Republican Party.  I grabbed several bags and gave them to my family members.  I didn’t mind carrying my stuff around in a bag that said “God Bless America- Aitkin County Republican Party” as I found it rather ironic.  I didn’t feel ashamed, as it felt more like a prank or that I was a troll.   Is this wrong?  Should have I cared more?  I would have felt more embarrassed with a Democrat bag, since at least that would seem halfway plausible to the rest of the world.  A long story short, I guess I should have come prepared with a purse or backpack large enough to carry my loot.

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Not an actual photo of the bag, but you get the idea…

 

Overall:

The Aitkin County Fair is definitely a small fair.  There aren’t huge crowds and it is easy to amble along, enjoying this slice of rural living.  Rural life has been in a long decline, so there is a sense of emptiness at the fair.  Still, there is a sample of what once was with barns of goats, rabbits, cows, turkeys, pigs, and chickens, even if there are only a few representatives of each.  The few withered vegetable entries were sad, but on the other hand, there seemed to be robust interest in creating art, as the art barn had many entries.   There are carnival rides, free activities for kids, organizations with booths,  and of course, the tractor parade.  There is also music, fireworks, tractor pulls, 4H demonstrations, and a magician.  I did not partake in those events, but I am sure that each would add to the experience.  As a whole, I think it was a charming fair and worth a visit precisely because it is a small town affair and because of the hard work the community puts into organizing it.

A Review of Three Minnesota National Wildlife Refuges

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A Review of Three Minnesota National Wildlife Refuges

H. Bradford

7/29/18


This past weekend (+Monday and Tuesday), I visited three state parks as part of my goal to see all of the state parks in Minnesota.  As it happens, all three state parks were not terribly far from National Wildlife Refuges.  Thus, I also visited three National Wildlife Refuges during my mini-vacation.   National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) are administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service for the purpose of conserving…well, wildlife!  I will admit that I am not as familiar with NWRs as I am with state or national parks.  From my limited experience, it seems that NWRs that I have been to differ from state parks in that they typically do not charge a fee or requite a sticker.  At the same time, camping is not typically allowed and there are fewer amenities, programs, and regular staffing.  They also seem less busy or tourist oriented than state or national parks.  On the other hand, some allow hunting and trapping, which is not always allowed at state parks.  My general impression is that NWRs are less family and tourist friendly, but great for bird/wildlife watching and a variety of independent outdoor activities.  There are 13 NWRs in Minnesota, which are among the 550 spread across the United States.  This is a review of three of them.

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Sherburne NWR:


Sherburne NWR is located near Zimmerman, MN and about a half an hour south-east of St. Cloud, MN.  I visited the refuge with my brother as a Saturday excursion during my weekend visit.  The park contains oak savanna, wetlands, and prairie ecosystems and offers hiking, but also a wildlife drive and opportunities for fishing and hunting.   My brother and I mostly partook in the wildlife drive, which provides a few opportunities to stop for short hikes.  The primary purpose of the visit was birding.

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The wildlife drive took us through a variety of landscapes, including the three mentioned on the website: prairie, wetland, and oak savanna.  We took a short hike in the prairie area, which unlike the state parks I had visited over the weekend, was devoid of bothersome insects.   While it seems that woodland wildflowers peak in the early spring, the prairie wildflowers were in full bloom, creating colorful fields of orange and yellow.   As for birding, the park has several species of sparrows which are not regularly seen in Northern Minnesota, where I live.   For instance, during our short hike, I heard a Field sparrow.  The song is very distinct, even though I have never seen or heard one before.  I imagine that it is the sound of a Frisbee being thrown or a UFO taking off.   There were also many grasshopper sparrows, another sparrow that I hadn’t seen before.  They have an insect like song that sounds like a cross between a buzz and a hiss.  Over twenty species of sparrows can be found in the wildlife refuge, so it seems like a great place to visit to see sparrows (even if I only saw a few species).

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The wildlife drive follows along some lakes, where trumpeter swans, double-crested cormorants, great blue herons, and various ducks can be seen.  For me, a highlight of these area was seeing black terns, which are another new bird for me.  I was unable to photograph them, as they zip along pretty quickly.   They don’t range near Duluth, but are found in other parts of Minnesota in prairie or prairie transition areas.  Another highlight was hearing a Least bittern in a ditch by the lake, though I did not see the bird hidden in the thick vegetation.   I am not a great birder, so I would suggest that less skilled birders (like myself) review bird song/calls before heading to the park.  It definitely helps with sparrow identification (as they all look pretty plain and brown) and for hard to spot birds.  I listened to a bird CD in my car on the way to Lake Maria State Park from Duluth (a three hour drive) so a few vocalizations were fresh in my head.

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The only buggy area was on the north-west end of the lake, where there was a small oak forests and trail.  We were too mosquito bitten to venture far, but we did see a red bellied woodpecker.  This was a new woodpecker species for me and one that I later saw more of at Charles Lindbergh State Park and Crane Meadows NWR.  As a whole, I would say that the park offered great birding opportunities.  I would definitely return to see more sparrows and to view the Sandhill cranes which migrate through the refuge in large numbers each fall.    I like that the park offered a wide variety of ecosystems and a wildlife drive.  While we didn’t do much hiking, I would like to return to try out the trails.  The park was surprisingly busy, with several vehicles slowly moving along the wildlife drive, also trying to spy on birds.  There isn’t much room for passing, so, be prepared to take it slow and follow the caravan of wildlife enthusiasts!   The refuge is about 30 minutes drive away from Lake Maria State Park, so both could be visited in the same day (though I visited them over the course of two days).

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Crane Meadows NWR:


Crane Meadows NWR is only fifteen minutes away from Charles Lindbergh State Park and only about ten minutes away from Little Falls.  This makes it very accessible and very easy to take in along with Charles Lindbergh State Park.  The NWR was a welcome reprieve from the mosquito swarms that characterized Charles Lindbergh State Park.  Crane Meadows NWR was bright and sunny, and although the trails followed along the Platte River, the wildlife area lacked the deer flies and mosquitoes that plagued my other outdoor adventures over the weekend.  Crane Meadows is only 2000 acres (compared to over 30,000 for Sherburne NWR) and does not have a wildlife drive.  Instead, it offers a few looped trails along the Platte River to Rice Lake.  The longest loop is just under four miles.  I hiked this loop, which was the best hike of the weekend because 1.) it wasn’t buggy.  2.) There was an abundance of birds.  3.) The trail passes a variety of ecosystems, such as oak savanna, tall grass prairie, sedge meadow wetland, and more!  The trail can only be used for hiking, so horses and bicycles are not allowed.  Perhaps owing to the length and limited use, I did not see any other people on the trail.

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As I already mentioned, the hike was very enjoyable, with easy terrain and a variety of habitats in one relatively small area.  I did not see as many birds as I did at Sherburne, but I also covered a smaller area.  There were some noteworthy birds on the hike, including a great crested flycatcher, another new bird for my list.  The yellow, gray, and rusty orange bird is easy to identify (which is not true of most flycatchers, which look pretty similar in their variations of pale yellow, olive, and gray plumage.)  Another highlight was a few red headed woodpeckers, which I have not seen in Minnesota before.  I also saw red breasted woodpeckers and a swamp sparrow.  Other sparrows included song sparrows and chipping sparrows, both of which are pretty common in Duluth.  The martin house was busy and there were also many barn swallows.

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Like Sherburne NWR, I would definitely visit Crane Meadows again.  The leisurely hike and variety of birds made for a great way to spend an afternoon.  I would say that the main downside of the NWR is a lack of amenities.  There are no toilets on the trails, but there is a port-a-potty at the parking area.  On the other hand, there was hardly anyone at the NWR, so that was a plus.  As a whole, it is a nice, compact wildlife area with easy access to Little Falls.

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Rice Lake NWR:

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The final NWR that I visited was Rice Lake NWR, near McGregor, MN.  I have visited this area many times, but couldn’t resist making a pit stop on my way home to Duluth.   Of the three, this NWR has the widest variety of things to do.  There is a wildlife drive, which I have done many times.  There is an observation deck and several hiking trails.  The NWR also features Native American and Civilian Conservation Corps history.  Native Americans continue to use the wildlife area for harvesting wild rice and maple syrup.  In fact, Native Americans have used the park since at least 1000 BC and there are burial mounds within the refuge.  Each time I visit, there are usually at least a few people fishing, which seems to be the most popular activity.  Rice Lake NWR is rich in waterfowl and each spring and fall during migrations.  In fact, the area holds the state record for the most waterfowl seen in one place at one time, when a million ring necked ducks were observed in 1994.   Like the other two parks, there is a wide variety of sparrows that can also be seen, including the rare LaConte’s Sparrow (which I have not seen).

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Where the wild rice grows…


In addition to the hiking trails, wildlife drive, fishing, birding, and Native American history/use, this NWR generally has pretty good amenities (at least compared to the other two refuges).  There are several toilets or port-a-poties spread throughout the refuge as well as two picnic areas.  There is no running water, however.  The refuge itself features mixed forests, lakes, and bogs.  Because it is a very wet environment, there are always lots of insects!  Of the three refuges, this was the worst, with swarms of deer flies AND mosquitoes.    I have never successfully hiked in this refuge since these attempts are almost always thwarted by voracious insects.  Even an open window during the wildlife drive attracted unwanted deer flies into my vehicle.

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National Wildlife Refuges are a different experience than state and national parks.  While they may not be as full of tourists, activities, and amenities, they are great places to spend a day taking in nature.  All three of these locations are relaxing, tranquil, and great for birding.  All three are places that I would visit again.   There are only 13 of these gems in Minnesota, and only 12 can be visited!  I will definitely be visiting other NWRs in the future and hopefully you will be inspired to visit them as well!

 

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