The depth of winter

_MG_2314.JPGThis is something like the Minnesota March version of that standard image of a bent-over palm tree. Instead of being on a white, sandy beach, this one’s hunched over something like 2 feet of snow. We’ve gotten significantly more than that in recent weeks here in the Twin Cities without much thawing; I’m thinking the weight of each new snow blanket is simply compressing the snow underneath. There’s just a lot.

I’m not thrilled with the “bold north’s” winter at this point, but I have been getting a feel for its details: the knocking of several woodpeckers at once on still days, the ice on my face and inside my nose, the bulldozers and dump trucks loaded with snow, the ever-deepening valleys of sidewalks. Somehow only short segments of the Mississippi River freeze even now, but those that do genuinely resemble the surface of the moon.

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A downy woodpecker surrounded by its handiwork.

I took these yesterday at Hidden Falls Regional Park in St. Paul. The falls are indeed hidden, frozen solid and covered in snow, but the rest of the park gave a nice opportunity to follow snowshoe trails, which are a little easier than raw snow to negotiate, down to the Mississippi and back.

Speaking of wintry details, I’d like to circle back to something I caught a glimpse of in this blog post back in November: odd root- or fractal-like patterns that appear in pond and river ice around here. I’ve since found a lot more of these shapes and actually wrote up a story for work about them here. There’s a few guesses out there, but they might form from warmer water trickling up from below or from water on top of the ice flowing back down through a hole or break.

Here’s some examples:

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IMG_1053.jpgThere are little treasures to find even when it seems like nothing but ice and snow outside.

Thanks for looking,

Dan

Split Rock

_MG_1550.JPGI foolishly thought Lake Superior’s edge would be frozen in some interesting way this past weekend, but the lake was too rambunctious for that.

A piercing wind blew in from the choppy water and pushed up waves a few feet tall that crashed too loudly for conversation. Occasionally a deeper, concussive boom sounded as the water slammed against Split Rock Lighthouse State Park’s dark cliffs. It was another gray, overcast day on the North Shore, yet the waves and churning bubbles somehow glowed a vivid teal. I was entranced.

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_MG_1270.JPGIt seemed ideal for the lake to be in a lively mood for this visit. The Minnesota Historical Society’s visitor center says the park’s namesake lighthouse was built more than a century ago, even before a road reached the spot, shortly after a disastrous storm rolled over the lake in 1905. The storm sunk or damaged a couple dozen ships and killed more people, including some within view of the lighthouse’s future perch.

Lake Superior is the biggest and deepest of the Great Lakes and is full of danger and shipwrecks from edge to edge, including that of the Edmund Fitzgerald from the 1970s over on the eastern end. The area’s weather and wind get much of the blame, but the historical society also pointed out the iron in the very rock, which helped make the region so important for shipping to begin with, could also screw around with ships’ compasses. I never would have guessed that.

The park’s just a few miles from another park we visited back in October, but still far enough to see a new side of Superior. The water was placid then, and the old, igneous rock of the shoreline was wine-red there instead of black. Instead of October’s fall colors, last weekend we hiked through a foot of snow.

I’m still waiting for the Cities to get that kind of decent snowfall this season.

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Thanks for looking!

Dan

Minnehaha on the rocks

_MG_0364.JPGSome of you might remember my first visit to Minnehaha Falls in June, when it was tumbling over a verdant cliff in a lush valley. Six months later, a good snowfall and a week of freezing temperatures have given the 50-foot falls a set of icicles almost as tall.

I went Minnehaha Regional Park last weekend right after that snow arrived and saw miniature snowmen and snow-plastered trees. But the creek itself was almost completely clear of ice.

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_MG_0348.JPGSo I went back today to see what the cold had sculpted since then. Minnehaha Creek has frozen itself into narrow channels and ice tunnels. The ice’s surface often looks topographical, forming stair-step terraces, sometimes a few feet tall, that remind me of terraced rice fields or canyon walls. Instead of wearing away at these canyons, the water has built them.

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_MG_0395.JPGThose white blobs are bubbles that continuously flowed through what looked like a 4-foot-long, crystal-clear ice straw.

_MG_0425.JPGIt can be hard to see with transparent ice, but the shot above shows a good example of the terrace sets I saw: maybe 3 feet tall and stepping down from the upper left to lower right, with water gushing on the left side.

This last shot is what looked to be another set of terraces somehow under the water, giving them a distorted and unreal appearance.

_MG_0419.JPGThanks for looking!
Dan

Minnesota Valley

_MG_0006.JPGThe Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge has already established itself as my new Ozark National Forest: nearby, beautiful and endlessly teaching and surprising me.

The refuge follows several miles of the Minnesota River, which is much like the larger Mississippi was before we engineered and tried to corral it. The Minnesota overflows often, leaving a chain of lakes and wetlands that are essential for all sorts of birds, mammals, amphibians — literally, take your pick of wildlife. I learned a lot about the place from a park ranger named Joel Vos, who talked with me for an article at work. But I was set on seeing it on my own time, too.

Ryan and I last weekend went out to the refuge’s Louisville Swamp Unit, a section about 25 miles from Minneapolis’ core — far enough for quiet and stillness. After the first 10 or 15 minutes of walking, we didn’t see anyone else. The loudest sound came from occasional groups of what I think were snow geese, whose call is less of a Canada goose’s honk than an excited chatter.

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_MG_0038.JPGA few stone ruins like this one mark where a family or two set up more than a century ago, small pieces of a terrible local history. In the early 1860s, some bands of the Dakota tribe, hungry and repeatedly betrayed by the United States, killed hundreds of U.S. civilians and soldiers and lost many of their own. It all ended with many of the Dakota’s exile to reservations outside of the state.

Some of the Dakota have returned since then, and the refuge today is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the state Department of Natural Resources. The trail we hiked is named Mazomani after a Dakota leader who tried to make piece in the conflict and was killed by the U.S. for his trouble.

Humans aren’t the only ones with stories here.

Life in many forms sticks around here during the cold months. In fact, the weather can make life easier to see. The snow was a canvas for three-clawed turkey and five-toed raccoon tracks, for instance. The frozen ground also helped us reach places that might be impassably soggy, if not flooded completely, in warmer months.

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_MG_0098.JPGSee the rabbit tracks there?

Throughout the second half of the hike was something I’d never seen outside of a zoo: beaver habitat. The gnawed, fallen trees were the first sign. Then there were the pond-side mounds of sticks, likely beaver homes. Next I saw twigs strewn around with their bark etched away by teeth. And finally came what I’m pretty sure were a pair of beaver dams near a particularly pretty stretch of trail. It seemed like every piece of the nocturnal critters’ lives but themselves was on display. I couldn’t believe the trail got so close to them.

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_MG_0143.JPGWe turned around at the glacial boulder, an elephant-sized hunk of rock dropped by retreating glaciers thousands of years ago and a cracking monument to this place’s history, human and otherwise. _MG_0135.JPG

_MG_0144.JPGThanks for looking.
Dan