Since it's the month of July, it's time to pack up the camper and pick a trip destination. State Parks are usually our first choice. The scenery is great, the campsites are well-kept, and there is always a series of trails for hiking.
Since we live in the North Woods, it's always a treat to see a change of geology. Last year, we tried the western part of the state and got a pleasant surprise at Glacial Lakes. In this area, there's a nineteen-mile-wide band of glacial hills unlike any other in the state, extending from Detroit Lakes to Wilmar. One glance at those high, rolling mounds of grass, and you feel you've been transported "out West."
Indeed, the park is located at a "crossroads" between the original prairie land to the west and the hardwood forests to the east. Today, only about one-tenth of one percent of the original Minnesota prairie remains. Glacial Lakes preserves a portion of rare native grasses within its boundaries.
After securing a campsite in the park, we gathered our gear: light packs for the kids consisting mostly of snacks, while I carry the raingear, water, and etceteras. Richard, as usual, has his bevy of photography equipment and sets off like a well-packed army mule.
I find an immediate thrill in this new terrain. With only hills and prairie, the sky is a clear blue, stretching to the end of the world. From a distance, the prairie looks uniform...a large expanse of flawless green. But once you're ankle deep in grass, you discover a patchwork of plants and wildlife exist within.
Like wildflowers...goldenrod, pasque flowers, wolfberry, and wild rose to name a few. There's also a wide variety of grasses and forbs such as big and little bluestem. But bring the bug repellent. In this grass the woodticks rule.
Here at Glacial Lakes you can see the many typical glacial landscape features such as kames (conical shaped hills), kettles (depressions that usually become a lake or marsh), and moraines - the dumping area where the glacier left its debris.
The origin of the debris tells about the movement of the glaciers. For example, rocks have been found here that contain iron ore, indicating they were transported from the ore-bearing formations in the now-famous Iron Range. Other rocks contain granite that could have come from St. Cloud. There's also basalt, a dark, heavy rock probably originating from the North Shore of Lake Superior.
Richard stops to photograph some limestone, possibly chalk, formed from the skeletons of ancient tiny sea animals that are too small to see with the naked eye. This particular piece of rock looks like it might have been home for some more recent creatures. The kids and I keep moving, forging ahead to another hill and finding a pond below. We press on, but the sea of grass is deceiving. It feels as though you could walk for hours and never get there.
Eventually, we reach the pond and sit in the waist-high grass on its banks. If we look hard enough, we can almost picture buffalo grazing on the other side.
Although the park has several lakes and marshes, for us, the most enjoyable activity is hiking along the ridgetops of those steep hills. Like humps on a dragon, they continue on and on, and the desire to see the view from the next ridge keeps you going for hours.
It's hunger that finally takes us back to our campsite, but as mom and dad heat up the frying pans, the kids have discovered a wonderful diversion...striped gophers. The critters seem to be everywhere, popping up their little heads in hopes of spotting a handout.
Grabbing a box of wheat crackers (only healthy treats for camp beggars), the kids experiment to see if the little fellows will really take a "goody," or simply duck back into their holes. Suddenly the sound of laughter pulls Richard and me away from the cook stove. Out in the prairie grass, the gophers have come up for a picnic! Though remaining characteristically shy and not venturing half as close as their shameless cousin, the chipmunk, these striped gophers are more personable than any gophers we've ever seen. Grabbing the camera, Richard sits in the grass and waits for our new guests to investigate him.
Cautious at first, it takes a few crackers to keep the gophers above ground, but curiosity wins out, and soon they stretch long necks to see just what Richard is doing.
With dusk comes a clanging and banging sound. The kids and I climb from the camper to have a look. It's a raccoon. He's pulled off the cover of the garbage can and is sitting in rubbish, licking the insides of a bean can. Richard joins us, and the raccoon's antics keep us cheaply amused for the next twenty minutes.
There's a less pleasant surprise when we get back to the camper. The door has been left open, and the lantern has attracted more guests. Approximately 100 mosquitoes line the walls of our humble abode. We spend the next half-hour swatting.
The sun and the trill of birds has us eating breakfast outside the following morning. We spend the better half of the day hiking, including a trip to the highest elevation in the park, some 1352 feet. From this elevation comes a panoramic view of the farms that surround the area. The scene is so peaceful, so bucolic, you might forget that this very development contributed to the disappearance of the original grasslands.
Most prairie has been obliterated. Millions of acres have been destroyed through conversion to agriculture, intensive grazing, or development. What were once extensive tallgrass prairies with large numbers of bison, elk, and deer are now reduced to small, isolated fragments.
But successful conservation is connecting human beings with nature in order to allow grasslands to survive. In different areas of the Midwest, environmentalists and Native Americans are participating in land recovery. Recent interest about our prairie heritage through books and nature programming has also played a large part in greater stewardship.
To partake in the magic of prairie life, all you have to do is gaze at a blazing sunrise or sunset, listen to the wind and birds in the tall bluestem grass, or watch the seemingly eternal approach of a thunderstorm.
Grasslands are a world of their own. Visitors at Glacial Lakes State Park won't want to miss this excellent opportunity to appreciate the Minnesota prairie.
Copyright ©1996 Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller
July 1, 1996