When snow dusts the prairie, a quiet settles in. Brown grasses poke above the white landscape. Ice skims over ponds. The sound of wind prevails. While the vibrancy of summer has faded — no purple coneflowers or yellow goldenrod among the grasses — a different, stark beauty emerges. It’s a Midwest kind of beauty.
Prairie once covered parts of 14 Midwest states, including about a third of Minnesota. What remains here, lined up on the western border, stands as a reminder of the tallgrass ecosystem that once blanketed the region with a lush life of gophers, painted turtles, bobolinks and more.
Just outside Fergus Falls, Minn., amid the rolling beauty of Otter Tail County, the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center may be one of the best places to explore prairies. And winter may be the time.
The center, set in striking buildings in colors of rust and gold, sits on the 330-acre Townsend Waterfowl Production Area. The surrounding land holds native and restored prairie and is a prime example of a particular kind of grassland: prairie potholes.
The Prairie Pothole Region, in the northern stretches of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem, is dotted with depressions that were formed by receding glaciers. Those ancient dips in the land fill with water as the snow melts, creating a welcoming home for waterfowl. According to Ducks Unlimited, the Great Plains and Prairie Pothole Region is among the most important and threatened waterfowl habitats on the continent.
At the Prairie Wetland Learning Center, 3.5 miles of walking trails wind around more than 25 marshes, ponds, lakes, sloughs and potholes. Six walking trails are available, from the short spur Mallard Marsh Trail to the 3-mile loop Tintah Trail. Winter hikers can follow those trails. Snowshoers and cross country skiers can explore off trail.
Prairie life carries on even with winter’s frigid temperatures. Chickadees flit among the grass stalks. Foxes and mink hunt voles and mice, which scurry beneath the snow. Even deeper, in crevices sliced into the ground, land frogs fall into such a deep icy sleep that their hearts stop beating and their lungs stop breathing until the warmth of spring revives them.
For visitors, those frozen frogs just might come to mind when the unhindered wind cuts across the prairie.
While the visitor center is closed due to the coronavirus, the land is open year-round from dawn to dusk. (Hunting, pets and bikes are not allowed on the grounds.)
For more information, go to midwest.fws.gov/pwlc.