Craig Mandel, a volunteer refuge naturalist, led a bird-watching group in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge near Carver.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune



It's quiet at the Minnesota Valley refuge -- too quiet, in fact

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON
  • Star Tribune
  • May 1, 2012 - 12:26 PM

When you try to Google Map it, you land in an empty farm field way, way down the road.

Approaching by car, you find yourself on a scarred gravel road warning "Dead end."

If you persist and make it to the visitor center, you're likely to find a windswept dead zone, absent of human life.

No wonder there's a sign in the window screaming "YES WE'RE OPEN."

Years after the federal government upgraded and opened a beautifully contoured piece of property in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge along the Minnesota River between Shakopee and Carver, officials admit they have a bit of a problem:

Hardly anyone comes.

"We're trying to increase awareness that we exist down here," said Leanne Langeberg, visitor services specialist.

The absence of humanity is not a bad thing for the wildlife. And for those who do find it, and weren't really there to hang around with strangers anyway, it means a singularly serene experience of nature.

But the refuge is speaking up, cautiously beginning a campaign to signal to the wider world that you're missing something if you haven't checked it out.

Cautiously, because there are a lot of things you can't do there: No dogs off leashes, for instance, and no snowmobiles.

Cautiously, too, because there are seasonal perils to deal with. Hunters fire loud weapons in the fall. Trails on the floodplain turn into river bottom during high water -- last year, that was the case for eight straight weeks. And in summer, you'd best bring bug repellent, because no one is bombing insects with chemicals.

"Mosquitoes are welcome here," Langeberg admits. Not a drawing card for humans, to be sure.

But the reward for those who do show up, Langeberg and others say, is a place with incredible views from high bluffs. A place with so many wild raspberries and mushrooms to gather that the staff orders you to keep it to a gallon per party. A place where people have been known to spot 10 eagles at one time when the rocky rapids are keeping the river too lively to freeze over and they gather near open water to watch for fish to swoop down and eat.

"I've seen mink, river otters, possum, fox, and it's really one of the wonderful places for wildflowers," said Craig Mandel, who's there a lot leading mostly birding tours.

"Otters in particular are great to see: a cool little animal, really busy, and one of the few animals that looks like they're having fun -- that does things there's no reason to do except for fun. They'll slide down a bank and go back up and do it again. And these are places really close to the visitor center. I've only seen them once, but you see their signs a lot.

"And for me, it's a 35-minute drive from my house [in Minnetonka]. I do all the state parks -- which are underutilized, too, by the way -- and a lot of them are six hours away. It's very rare to have a federal wildlife refuge this close to a metro area."

The 'other' visitor center

The refuge's "other" visitor center -- the main one is in Bloomington -- exists because of the expansion of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Plans to add a runway led to serious wrangling in the late 1990s because it would send screaming blasts of noise down into a federally protected wildlife area.

The airport folks coughed up millions of dollars, and much of it went to buy up more land -- about 1,500 acres -- to extend the refuge upriver, as well as to install a quieter alternative visitor and education center in Carver County.

For Scott County, visible from the new building and with lots of ties to it -- schoolchildren from Jordan use it a lot, for instance, and Langeberg herself commutes daily from New Prague -- it became potentially an important new recreational amenity. The county's population was exploding, but its parks system was still far from fully developed.

But today, Langeberg says that while probably 100 folks a day make it to the Bloomington center, it's probably closer to five in Carver.

The irony of that, said Al Loken of Duluth, a birder who often makes it to the different pieces of the refuge when he's in town visiting family, is that he at least finds the so-called Rapids Lake area in Carver far more impressive for its scenery than the territory the refuge holds in Bloomington.

"Mind you," he added, "I'd take Duluth itself over either one, but whereas the Old Cedar Avenue bridge area [in Bloomington] is probably the best known, Rapids Lake is more impressive for its scenery."

More than 100 varieties of birds nest on the different parts of the refuge, Mandel said. Not all of them are readily visible to the average person, but there are frequent walks led by experts with high-quality gear.

"You have species living in floodplain forests, for instance -- the prothonotary warbler, the cerulean warbler, light blue and way high up in cottonwood trees -- hard to see sometimes, but with a spotting scope, and mine cost me $3,500, it takes you to a whole different level in terms of what you can see.

"Ten species of sparrows nest there most years, and some are pretty unusual. A bird you might think of as 'brown' and uninteresting with the naked eye, if you get a really good closeup look, can be pretty amazing. Even a common song sparrow turns out to have nice little stripes and neck markings and colors on its back."

Once a farm

The site has a long human history: It was a family farm, whose aging historic home still sits empty, though what was once the stable area has been reduced to stone ruins.

The family in the end wanted to safeguard the property from mining that could have wrecked its natural features, Langeberg said, and was happy to have the federal government step in as buyer.

There are miles of trails laced about the property, most of them just dirt tracks, with minimal changes from what the land would have been for centuries. And no one cares if you wander off of them -- in fact, there are features to see if you do, including Rapids Lake itself and an area of rapids on the river.

The goal, then, in terms of human use?

"We'd love to have some steady use throughout the day," Langeberg said. "Twenty-five or more would be a good number out here."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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