The 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.
A 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.
See 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.
We 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.
Thanks for looking.