I saw the doe moments before she saw me.
She stood in pond water past her belly, feeding on reeds. I rolled to a stop and threw the car into reverse for a better look. That’s when her golden ears twitched, her alert dark eyes took in my vehicle, and she melted into the tall grasses of the Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge in McGregor, Minn.
The dirt road I was on rose slightly from the landscape and stretched ahead unwaveringly, so I could easily imagine the rail line that once hummed along this passage. It’s the kind of straight shot that a person could zip along quickly.
Fortunately, I had earlier encountered a local on the shores of Rice Lake, near an observation platform that rises over the calm grassy waters to offer visitors a topside view. He and his family of four had piled out of his red extended-cab pickup, training their eyes on the lake and the ducks they might find there. His wife held a camera, weighed down with a serious zoom lens.
“People drive too fast around here,” he told me. “I saw an eight-point buck one day right in the middle of the road. Another time, a fox practically followed the truck. But most people scare away the wildlife, they drive so fast.”
I wondered what I’d already missed as I sped along the sometimes winding 10-mile self-guided auto tour. Rice Lake was stop No. 6 of 10, so I learned the locals’ driving lesson none too soon. And that doe was my reward.
A revealing auto tour
The refuge sits just off Hwy. 65, a major thoroughfare between the Twin Cities and the Iron Range. I’d passed it many times, a sense of intrigue tugging at me as it disappeared in the rearview mirror. I always seemed to miss the turn. I typed it into my smartphone map on a recent Sunday as I made my way home so I wouldn’t miss it.
When I veered into the parking lot of the visitors center, the day was sunny and hot. The air buzzed with singing crickets and chirping birds as I pulled at the locked door (the visitors center isn’t open on weekends), and then grabbed a brochure from a kiosk for the driving tour. Back in the car, I kicked up dust as I headed into the boggy landscape.
At the first stop, Mandy Lake, I parked the car to explore. What I saw looked quite unlike the northern forests I am used to roaming in Minnesota. At the water’s edge, I saw a reed-filled expanse rimmed by water-loving trees such as cedar. I half expected to see an airboat scoot by as if it were plying the waters of the Everglades.
These wetlands are the result of prehistoric powers on the land. Moraines, or glacier-formed ridges, held in water when the glaciers melted more than 10,000 years ago. Ridges ring the refuge on three sides; on the fourth, the Rice River flows toward the Mississippi. The Mandy Lake stop contained a boat launch, a toilet, a hiking trailhead, a picnic table and enough deer flies to send me dashing back to the car.
Stop 2 was eerier. Beneath a forest, archaeologists have found the earthen burial mounds of an ancient people. On this high ground between Mandy and Rice lakes, the dead have rested for 1,300 years. It is, according to the brochure, the largest known concentration of linear mounds in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Farther down the road, there were more signs of long-ago lives. Along Twin Lakes, a spot where Dakota Indians likely lived in temporary hunting or rice camps, an ancient dugout canoe was uncovered in 1969. At another location, an ill-fated livestock ranch got started in 1900 (ranchers tried to drain the lake to harvest marsh hay). A young forest spreads over land where loggers harvested old-growth white pines.
Another budding forest is taking hold where refuge employees cleared the land to create habitat for Canada geese and sharp-tailed grouse. In 2012 — in an effort to restore the native forest — 35,000 tree seedlings were planted for the future benefit of birds like scarlet tanagers and pileated woodpeckers.
A nearby patch of land once held 24 buildings of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. The workers had come to develop the refuge that President Franklin Roosevelt had established in 1935.
Go in the fall
The boggy refuge was a treat to see in mid-August, bugs and all. But the local I spoke with at Rice Lake told me the best time to visit: “Come in fall. You can’t believe all the ducks. The water is covered with them.”
The lake — shallow and vast, much of it nurturing nutritious wild rice — lures an astounding amount of waterfowl.
Later, I called the refuge office to get details from refuge manager Walt Ford.
“Migratory songbirds start passing through starting,” he paused, “now, pretty much,” he said of a visit to the refuge in autumn.
In October the place comes alive with ducks, he confirmed. The refuge holds the state record for the most waterfowl observed in one location at one time. During the second week of October 1994, more than a million waterfowl had collected there; 60 percent were ring-necked ducks, 40 percent were mallards.
Last year, the count built slowly: 221,000 waterfowl on Oct. 5; 650,000 on Oct. 17, peaking at 965,000 on Oct. 31.
“It’s a true refuge here for waterfowl,” Ford said. The wide-open water provides a place to rest and refuel. “The fact that there is no waterfowl hunting makes the refuge doubly attractive,” he said.
Fall can also bring American Indians onto the waters. They come to harvest wild rice using the traditional methods of their ancestors, using sticks to knock the grains from grasses to the bottom of the canoe.
As for fall colors, expect to see oaks, maples and aspen in full-tilt flamboyance.
When I visited, I saw no autumn hues, but other sights abounded.
Just as I was about to leave the family at Rice Lake, the man said “Oh, look, the trumpeter swans are taking off.”
In the far distance, flashes of white hovered above the brown water and rose into the sky.