WEST-CENTRAL MINN. - When traveling the pothole country of western Minnesota in mid-September, you would expect to see ducks. Don't hold your breath.
On Sept. 16 my significant other, Janis Anderson, and I drove northwest from Brainerd to Detroit Lakes and then down through the prairie pothole region to Fergus Falls. From there we traveled farther south and west.
We saw no ducks. Not one. At least not until we reached the newly designated North Ottawa State Game Refuge, located a few miles south and east of Tintah on the Grant and Traverse county line. It is closed to hunting.
The landscape there is flat. Fields of corn, soybeans and sugar beets dominate the countryside. Nary a blade of grass has escaped the plow.
The rich black soil that once grew lush with prairie grasses and forbs -- which supported abundant wildlife -- was wet from recent rainfall. Drainage ditches were full. Those flowing north and south eventually dumped into those flowing east and west, until all the water was aimed at the Red River. Nothing was in the water's way. No shallow, weedy wetlands to hold or slow down the flow. No potholes to contain the overflow. Nothing to stop the proverbial 100-year floods from occurring several times each decade as waters rush unchecked toward the Red River.
The one bright spot was the North Ottawa Refuge.
Parked atop a man-made dike, Janis and I watched through binoculars as ducks -- mostly mallard and green-winged teal, but also a scattering of pintails, gadwalls and blue-winged teal -- occasionally rose and settled in a mix of flooded vegetation. The birds were often worried into flight by a passing bald eagle or red-tailed hawk.
The North Ottawa Project was originally developed for flood control. The 3-square-mile area has since been designated a state game refuge by the Minnesota DNR as part of the Long Range Duck Recovery Plan. The DNR's objective is to establish the area as a safe feeding and resting location for migrating waterfowl and other wetland-loving wildlife.
Dikes surrounding the refuge were constructed by the Bois de Sioux Watershed District to prevent flood waters from rushing unchecked into the Red River basin.
Secondary objectives of North Ottawa Project are to present feeding and resting areas for migrating birds. By using the water-control structures to alternately raise and lower water levels within the refuge, the DNR is promoting the growth of annual plants, weeds if you will, which produce seeds, root tubers and cover attractive to ducks, geese and swans. Drawn down, the exposed mudflats will attract shorebirds. The DNR calls this process "moist soil management."
The refuge is divided by dikes into nine pools. The water levels in each can be controlled separately at different times of the year and for different reasons.
As the sun neared the western horizon, ducks began to pass back and forth with more regularity. Even though the North Ottawa State Game Refuge is but a speck on the otherwise bleak western Minnesota landscape, and the dikes and water-control structures are an eyesore, a repair of a damaged ecosystem, we felt a flicker of hope that someday, like a mallard leaping from a marsh, another "project" will rise, and then another, until once again the prairie sunsets will be dotted with a multitude of waterfowl trading between wetlands meant to be.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors photographer and columnist, lives near Brainerd.