Trail proposal could guide many to Renville County’s best

Trails in Skalbekken Park lead to both scenic overlooks and popular fishing spots.


Fortunate we were some years ago to have Ed Stone as our guide.

Since 1979, he’s lived in a home surrounded on three sides by Renville County’s Vicksburg Park along the Minnesota River.

Stone has a keen eye and well-developed appreciation for the natural world and especially, this bluff land wilderness. He led us atop granite outcrops that offered stunning vistas of the Minnesota River, and pointed out locations where he’s called to great horned owls and whippoorwills. He showed us cacti in full bloom on the granite outcrops, and led us down steep trails to the locations on the Minnesota River where anglers find the best action.  Others, he pointed out, seek these locations simply to enjoy a picnic or the quiet of the riverside.

There are miles and miles of adventures like this waiting in Renville County’s seven parks, in particular those along the Minnesota River.

The county is now on the verge of adopting a master plan to develop a hiking trail system that will open the parks to those who appreciate these opportunities, and don’t have a guide like Ed Stone waiting to lead them.

Mark Erickson, community and environment director for Renville County, told the Renville County board of commissioners recently that the county park board and a specially-appointed trails committee have developed a draft plan for developing a marked trail system in each of the seven parks.

The plan outlines the routes for trails in each of the seven parks.  It also describes how the trails will be signed and sets standards for the width of trails and how much vegetation to clear.

There are currently some maintained trails in the parks, but for the most part hikers are making their own way by following long-established paths. Many of the existing paths are really well-tread deer trails that hikers keep open by their use.

The trail committee and park board have been working to develop a plan for a developed trail system for just over three years ago now, Erickson told the commissioners. Parks maintenance director Andy Lang has already completed much of the ground reconnaissance for the proposed trails.

Cactus bloom atop granite outcrops in Renville County’s parks along the Minnesota River.

There’s a long ways to go, assuming the county adopts the plan as hoped.

Erickson noted that currently, the parks workers are too busy from Memorial Day to Labor Day to do anything but maintenance work. Trail development would occur during the off-season, as time allows.

He is also hopeful that the county will be able to find some outside assistance. There is the possibility of finding grant funds as well as recruiting workers from the Minnesota Conservation Corps.

There is no way to know how many people visit the parks to hike the trails, but there is no doubt. Hiking in the parks is a popular activity

A developed and maintained trail system would also open the parks to more usage during the winter. Input gathered at this year’s county fair showed that many park users would like to see trails for snowshoeing and cross country skiing, Erickson told the commissioners.

Purple martins staging at roost area south of Willmar; give them a ‘brake’ and slow down

Kandiyohi County sports the state’s only roadside sign advising motorists to slow for purple martins.

WILLMAR – Minnesota roadways come with advisory signs to watch for all kinds of wildlife, from moose and deer to turtles.

But only in Kandiyohi County will motorists find signs urging them to slow down for purple martins as the birds congregate at an end-of-summer roosting site just south of Willmar.

Please do, asks Richard Doll, of Willmar.

The purple martins are now staging at the roost site, and a number of the birds have already been struck by vehicles. He counted 15 that were downed one day earlier this week; that’s more than were struck all of last year.

The birds began roosting this week, and can be expected to continue to congregate at the site until September 1. That’s when they will depart en masse for destinations in South America, primarily in the Amazon rainforest area of Brazil.

The Willmar roosting site is located in farm fields near 45th Avenue Southeast (County Road 19), about one mile south and one mile east of the Mill’s Auto Center near the Highway 23 bypass. The county recently paved the road.  The seasonal sign advising motorists that birds are staging there is erected.

Doll said residents living along the road and others familiar with the area have been very mindful of the need to slow down for the birds. He suspects the unfortunate collisions this week were the result of motorists unfamiliar with the area.

The tendency is to look up to spot the birds, but the real concern is for birds that may be on the roadway or road shoulder. They can be slow to take wing when vehicles approach.  The younger birds are most vulnerable, said Doll.

Motorists might also spot Doll near the roosting site. He maintains a purple martin colony at his home north of Willmar, and works with scientists to monitor the birds. He uses a spotting scope to read the bands on the birds that join at the Willmar roost.

He also bands birds that make his colony their summer nesting home, and in more recent years, has worked with the Purple Martin Working Group to place tiny geo-locators on some of the birds. The geo-locators are helping scientists learn about the birds and their annual migration route and destinations.

Purple martins today rely on “homes” we provide them.

At the Willmar roost, he’s been able to spot birds with bands from colonies all over Minnesota and the Dakotas.  This year and last, he’s also spotted bands that identify birds from Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada. Scientists did not realize that purple martins in the two western Canadian provinces veered this far east on the northern leg of their migration.

Doll was also surprised to learn that the Canadian birds are among the first to reach the Willmar roost. He always suspected that the more northerly birds followed in the wake of southern birds on the trip to their winter homes.

The purple martins can be seen near the roosting site at the end of the day. They’re easy to spot as they congregate on power lines. They’ll swoop into the roost area- mainly a corn field today- around sun down.

No one is sure how long the Willmar roost site has existed. Doll suspects it may have been established by purple martins when wetlands connected to Lake Wakanda existed in the area where corn fields are now found. Purple martin roosts elsewhere are more typically associated with wetlands.

No doubt about this: The Willmar roosting site is an important, seasonal destination for a large proportion of the state’s purple martins. When the birds take flight at the start of the day, they show up on Doppler radar as an expanding “doughnut hole.”


In the eye of the storm

Trees were uprooted and toppled alongside our tent, although we didn’t hear them fall in the roar of the 60- and 70-miles per hour winds.

No more philosophical musings about whether or not a tree has fallen in the woods if no one hears it.

Lots of trees fell, many with trunks more than two-feet in diameter, all about us as we found ourselves in the eye of the storm that raced through portions of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness sometime after 1 a.m. on July 22.

We never heard a single tree fall.

The roar of the 60- to 70-mile winds and the sound of our tent’s rain fly snapping like it was about to be shredded were all that we heard.

My wife Cindy, grandchildren Owen, 8, and Brynn, 13, and yours truly were enjoying our third night in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and feeling pretty darn good about things as we raced the mosquitoes into our tent as dusk arrived. We were camped on Lac La Croix, a large lake on the border between the U.S. and Canada. We had entered at the Moose River North entry point west of Ely on Saturday. We camped on Lake Agnes, made our way into Lac La Croix on Sunday, camping across from the pictographs on the lake’s eastern end. On Monday we made our way west through Fish Stake Narrows and paddled just north of Lady Boot Bay before landing on our campsite across from Pocket Creek, which we would follow the next day.

All of the larger trees at the campsite were uprooted. Our tent spot and canoe were one of the few spaces not covered by the downed trees.

We had caught fish in our corner of the lake, made a great meal of them, and enjoyed the cool water on a hot and humid day. We could see the storm clouds building, but I was feeling good about things. At the last minute I had chosen to pack a heavier, Eureka Timberline Outfitter tent instead of a lighter and cooler tent for the trip. I was thinking I had made the right decision in terms of being prepared for rough weather.

We had rented a four-person, We-no-nah canoe all of 23-feet long. Expecting a storm, we carried it up from our campsite’s landing to place it behind our tent.  I tipped it over our Duluth packs to keep them dry and lashed it to a tree.

The rumble of thunder and flash of lightning woke me up, and at fist all seemed well. The rain came hard and driven, but we remained dry.

It would not be for long. There’s no exaggerating the ferocity of the winds that raced out of Pocket Creek that was aimed at us like the barrel of a shotgun.  The roar of the wind matched that of a train. What worried me more was the snapping rain fly and the fear it would be torn to shreds. I believe it would have been too, except that suddenly the back (and downwind) end of the tent went down. The ‘A’ frame poles in the front bowed as I held them from inside, hoping to keep them from snapping.

We soaked up water inside and held tight. Owen was in the middle of the tent and only the bottom of his sleeping bag got wet. He woke up long enough to ask if he was in the lake. Told that he was not, he went back to sleep.

His sister had felt a tree branch brush her as the back of the tent went down.

When the winds finally slowed, I crawled out of the tent to see if I could put it all back up again.

I could not believe what my headlamp and the flashes of lightning revealed to me outside. Large trees were fallen all around us, uprooted.  It was the branches from one of the downed trees that had clipped our tent. Our canoe was lying sideways in the downed brush behind us, unharmed. I grabbed the saw and cut the limbs and righted our tent. All four tent poles were bowed, and a portion of one pole that kept the rain fly over the front had snapped.  The fabric had not been ripped.

The rain continued until 7:30 a.m., after which we could emerge from the tent and start anew. We made breakfast, packed up and made our way down the creek to our next destination. We managed to repair the tent and gusty winds and sunshine allowed us to dry our sleeping bags and tent by nightfall.

The following day, we met one of the U.S. Forest Service crews that had come to clean up in the wake of the storm. We learned from them how others had been injured at campsites located a few miles east and west of our location. The damage was not as widespread as the Boundary Waters Blowdown of July 4, 1999, but there were pockets within this storm’s path where bursts of wind had flattened trees with the same effect.

“Dang,’’ the ranger said when I pointed out where we had camped. She had been there, and could only express surprise we had paddled away unharmed.

If left us much to ponder.

Owen and Brynn hold a stringer of walleye and northern pike they caught.

Eyes in the sky over the western prairie

Four cows in this herd grazing the Chippewa Prairie are fitted with GPS equipped, satellite linked collars that record their movements.

Moose research in the northeast corner of Minnesota is providing an unexpected, and totally high tech boost to research on the Chippewa Prairie along Lac qui Parle Lake.

Four GPS-equipped and satellite-linked collars used to track moose calves are now helping researchers follow cattle.

The collars had been attached to moose calves shortly after their births in spring. The collars made it possible for researchers to quickly reach the calves when they died and determine the cause of mortality.

The role of the satellite-linked collars on the prairie is not quite so dramatic, but no less important. They make it possible to precisely monitor the movement of cattle as they graze a 2,000-acre prairie area.

Each spring, an area of this open prairie is deliberately burned.

Known as a patch-burn regimen, it mimics the natural prairie when bison and elk moved in after prairie fires to graze on the newly-emerged vegetation.

A cow outfitted with a collar.

The collars will help offer “answers to the questions,’’ said Joe Blastick, with The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy and DNR own the 2,000 acres of native prairie and former pasture, and are partners in this research.

Dave Trauba, manager of the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, had learned that the collars from the unfortunate moose calves were collected and held for use next year. He asked to borrow a few of the collars for the summer season.

Every hour, the collars send a signal to satellites giving the precise location of the animals. From the comfort of an office, Trauba and Blastick can click a mouse and see exactly where the cattle are grazing, as well as look at where they have been in any of the previous days.

Along with location, the collars also record when a cow has her head up or down, indicative of whether she is grazing or moving.

Joe Blastick with The Nature Conservancy (left) and Dave Trauba with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are among those monitoring how the prairie responds to the fire-grazing regimen.

This is the third year the patch-burn grazing research has been taking place on the prairie. In the past, Trauba and Blastick tried their best to keep track of the cattle’s grazing patterns, but could never spend all the time needed.

The collars will now provide researchers with comprehensive information on just how much time the cattle actually spend on the burn patch grazing. The information will help assure that the cattle are managed to best benefit the prairie.

The goal is to see that the natural disturbance provided by the cattle increases the diversity of native prairie plants, while also helping keep non-native plants in check. The grazing should also keep the flowers and grasses at a shorter height, which benefits grassland birds and other wildlife.

The anecdotal evidence to date is encouraging. “I just think the grazing-fire interaction begets diversity,’’ said Trauba as he pointed to the lush mix of forbs and grasses at the site.

The DNR-owned lands here are part of the wildlife management area and are open to hunting. The cattle will be removed in early September, before the start of the deer archery season.

Trauba, an avid hunter, knows that many hunters are watching the DNR’s use of grazing to manage grasslands with a cautious eye. The goal here is to make this a win-win situation.

The fire-grazing regimen should provide improved habitat for wildlife of all types, including pheasants and other game species. While the relatively small portion of this prairie that was burned last spring may have ankle-high grass, upland bird hunters will still find knee- and waist-high growth throughout the majority of the remainder of the area.  They should find plenty of birds to flush.

The portion of the prairie that was burned and now grazed by the cattle is thriving.



Happy campers at Sibley State Park as naturalist programs return

Samantha Schwartz uses a vacuum bug collector to catch a dragonfly while participating in a naturalist program at Sibley State Park on Thursday.

SIBLEY STATE PARK — Bennett Schwartz has not been invited to the Home Run Derby at Target Field, but at Sibley State Park he proved he could swing a butterfly net like a major league pro.

On Thursday he was snagging dragonflies zipping by like speed balls fired by Aroldis Chapman.

He was having a lot of fun, said his grandmother, Jonette Engan, She was more than happy to have escorted him to the park for a park naturalist program on dragonflies.

Engan said she was very happy to see the return of naturalist programs at the park.

The park has been without naturalist programs since Dick Clayton retired last December after 35 years with the park.

Melissa Rothwell took on the duties on July 3, and hasn’t missed a beat. “She hit the ground running,’’ said Jack Nelson, park manager.

It’s familiar ground to Rothwell, a Spicer native. She served as a seasonal naturalist with the park during the summers of 2010-12. She introduced the park’s popular archery program.


She holds a degree in natural resources management from the University of Minnesota, Crookston, She’s certified as an instructor for both archery and flatwater paddling.  Rothwell said she will be offering these and many other programs in the weeks ahead.

She is serving as a seasonal naturalist in a position funded through Legacy funds into late September. The seasonal position works well for her. Her husband is in the military.

A tight budget has forced state parks to leave some positions unfilled when vacancies occurred. The naturalist position at Sibley is among them. Last year’s harsh winter and the unexpected rise in the cost of propane for heating added to the financial challenges, noted Nelson.

Sibley State Park is one of the most popular state parks, ranked sixth overall in usage with more than 300,000 visitors in a year. It has also established a reputation for offering one of the best naturalist programs, and Nelson said that tradition will remain.

By weathering the financial challenges today, he is hopeful that the park will be in a better position to lobby to replace the permanent, naturalist position next spring.

Bennett Schwartz runs with his butterfly net to catch dragonflies while participating in a naturalist program at Sibley State Park on Thursday.

In the meantime, he’s hearing from campers and day visitors alike about how much they enjoy having naturalist programs back at the park.

Rothwell’s focus is on offering programs that combine education with hands on, outdoor activities. Programs are mainly offered Thursdays through Mondays. Upcoming programs are listed on the park’s website, in the West Central Tribune and neighboring newspapers, and on fliers in the park.