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

Boxed In

_C1_8646Zoos are tricky places.

They can be fun and educational for kids and adults, if they’re paying attention, but they hold animals that would range over thousands of square miles in a complex of a few dozen acres. Many contend zoos make people care more about the planet’s other inhabitants, but others dispute the notion. They work to bring animals closer to us, but we’re still safely remote behind windows, fences or moats. Zoos expand enclosures, but animals still grow either lethargic or edgy, pacing over and over.

Zoos are tricky.

_C1_8698These issues were on my mind when I went to the Tulsa Zoo this weekend. I don’t know the answers. I had a good time in Tulsa, and I’ve seen animals I’d never see in person otherwise thanks to Tulsa and the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo. It’s hard to argue with the excitement and wonder from kids as they watched the elephants and chimps and hellbender salamanders. Maybe the only answer is zoos are good and bad.

Anyway, here are some photos.

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_C1_8613This, bizarrely, is a smaller snake curled up within the coils of an eastern diamondback rattlesnake. The rattler didn’t seem to mind.

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_C1_8583Thanks for looking, and for tolerating my ramblings. I hope it was a good weekend.

Dan