Brassy honks of greeting slice through a winter day's silence. It takes only a few shakes of cracked corn to lure more than 50 trumpeter swans from scattered points on Park Rapids' Fish Hook River.
They glide effortlessly toward us, no hint of feet paddling below. The cloud-white mass converges near the bank where our girls help their grandparents dole out 50 pounds of feed. Necks fluidly bob up and down, beaks belt out eager honks and a few restless young swans goose the ones getting in their way. It's comedy and ballet, frenzy and graceful retreat.
On the verge of extinction 30-plus years ago, trumpeter swans have made an impressive comeback in Minnesota. The largest wintering flock still bases itself on the Mississippi River in Monticello, but smaller ones are congregating in new locations such as Park Rapids, which sits among 400 lakes, the 660,000-acre Chippewa National Forest and several state forests.
January and February reign as the best time to view these majestic birds. They're concentrated in groups and are far more social during the mating season. They honk more, waggle their necks and seem to converse earnestly while paddling like synchronized swimmers. Be patient, and you'll catch them rising out of the water with wings like angels.
As lakes begin to thaw in March, swans head off in pairs to remote nesting grounds.
WHAT TO DO
Enjoy the wintertime quiet: The famous Mississippi headwaters may freeze for the winter, but it's still fun to explore the quiet season at the popular 32,000-acre Itasca State Park, 21 miles north of Park Rapids. You can rent snowshoes for a winter's walk beneath massive red and white pines, which are especially pretty at Preacher's Grove. Cross-country skiers and snowmobilers can hop on 31 miles of groomed trails. There's a fireplace for thawing cold limbs and benches for bring-your-own-picnics at the Jacob Brower Visitor Center. Its hands-on museum uses kid-friendly exhibits to tell about Mississippi headwaters, forestry industry and North Woods wildlife. Recorded loon calls -- hoots, tremolos, yodels and wails -- bring back the voice of summer.
Winter programs include "Walkabout Wednesdays'' on Wednesday and Feb. 29 and an "Animals of Winter" night hike March 3 (1-218-699-7251; www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/itasca).
Cruise the Heartland Trail: The 49-mile Heartland State Trail leads snowmobilers from Park Rapids to Walker (a good lunch stop) through one of the prettiest sections of the Chippewa National Forest. It also connects to Hubbard County's groomed trails and the 120-mile Paul Bunyan State Trail, which runs from Bemidji to south of Brainerd (1-218-308-2372; www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_trails).
Browse boutiques: Downtown Park Rapids beckons with a variety of fun shops: Fresh Catch for stylish, comfy footwear; Blank Canvas Gallery for local artwork; Amish Furnishings for cabin décor; Beagle Books for good reads; Wildwood Enchantment for funky jewelry and gifts; and Ben Franklin for a dose of nostalgic kitsch and games like fish-themed Uno.
Ogle collectibles: If you're a fan of History Channel's "American Pickers," you can't miss Toys for Boys with its colorful hodge-podge of vintage gas pumps, coin-operated kids' rides, tin signs throughout the two-story building and a glass telephone booth occupied by a much-photographed mannequin. Inside, Santa lookalike and owner Dick Rutherford and wife Nancy have a staggering array of Betty Boop and 1950s collectibles, along with jukeboxes, pedal cars and nostalgic treasures. It's a pop museum meets antiques shop. (Call ahead for hours; 1-218-732-5668; www.tfbcollectibles.com.)
WHERE TO STAY
Itasca State Park has winterized 12 two-room suites in the six-plex buildings by Douglas Lodge. They sleep up to four guests. Kitchenette, TV and Internet included ($99/night; 1-218-699-7251; www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/itasca).
Rainbow Resort rents skis, skates, snowshoes and fish houses, and maintains its own system of ski trails on the northern edge of Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge about 20 miles from Itasca State Park. Trail passes are $5 a day for visitors and free for guests staying in their knotty pine cabins. (Rates start at $140/night; 1-888-734-1140; www.rainbowresort.com.)
WHERE TO EAT
The Good Life Café on Park Rapids' main street offers a globally eclectic menu with tomato basil soup, daily noodle bowls, drunken chicken and Minnesota comfort food such as a BLT on ciabatta bread with a walleye fillet and wild rice hot dish (1-218-237-4212; www.thegoodlifecafepr.com).
IF YOU GO
Find more information at the Park Rapids Lakes Area Chamber: 1-800-247-0054; www.parkrapids.com.
Lisa Meyers McClintick of St. Cloud is the author of Sutro Media's Minnesota Lake Vacations travel app and blogs at www.10000Likes.com.