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

New neighbors

_MG_8689If you missed the news, I’m now living way up north in the Twin Cities. It’s the biggest move I’ve ever made to the biggest place I’ve ever lived, as I keep telling all my new coworkers and acquaintances. I miss some of Arkansas’ people and places and weather; it’s been gray and chilly for most of my time here so far. Between the storms, I’ve started exploring this place, meeting some of its ducks and lakes, some of its people, its downtown and its Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, for a start.

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IMG_0775..jpgThe FairShare Farm community garden sits a few steps from my fourplex door, so that was one of my first stops. The growing season is obviously winding down, but some of the garden’s regulars tell me I should join the neighborhood clearings and plantings there over the next several months. I can’t turn that down.

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_MG_8791This is a nice little corner of Minneapolis, a piece of a metropolitan area with more people than all of Arkansas. There’s a lot of life here, good and bad. Many of the people at the nearby farmers markets and shops originally hailed from the Caribbean, Latin America, Somalia, Russia and southeast Asia. Just south of here, scores of tents line one particular highway exit, and a grocery store keeps its supplies of baby formula and vanilla secure behind the customer service desk with the cigarettes. International flights roar over the wildlife refuge down near the Mall of America.

I’m looking forward to learning about the Twin Cities’ mixtures and contradictions.

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_MG_8829Thanks for looking and following along with the journey.

Dan

Peak autumn

_C1_5869.JPGThe zenith of fall’s colors lasts only a few days, and for some reason or another, I think I’ve missed it every year I’ve been here in Arkansas. But this year’s peak fell on a weekend with beautiful weather and plenty of time for a hike — this weekend. I took advantage at the old standby, the Ozark National Forest around Devil’s Den State Park.

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_C1_5695.JPGWhat continually amazes me about the annual color explosion is that plants have a lot of the pigments that make it happen year-round, part of a chromatic net to catch as much sunlight as possible. They’re just overwhelmed by the familiar green of chlorophyll. Plants usually have to keep remaking the stuff and stop doing so around this time of year. So the oranges and yellows of carotenoids burst forth, sometimes in a way that looks almost pointillist, as with the oak leaf above. The same class of compounds gives carrots their color. The red is my favorite, though, and comes from a combo of sunlight and sugar.

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_C1_5902.JPGIf  you want to see it all, hurry. And thanks for looking.

Dan