NEAR ST. CHARLES, Minn. – The man coming toward us in waterproof camouflage jacket and boots was the fourth angler we had seen that morning along the Whitewater River.
He stopped to point out his favorite winter hikes — a snowshoe tramp along the bluffs just visible from our trail.
All summer, the local retiree said he avoids the crowds at Whitewater State Park. “Let the kids get some fish,” he said with a grin.
But on this clear mid-November day, he was back, drawn by the park’s solitude and stark beauty.
At parks across the state, there’s a sharp drop-off in visitor traffic between October and early November.
Humans, as well as animals, turn inward and hunker down as the light fades and winter’s cold sinks in.
“It definitely quiets down,” said Sara Holger, naturalist at Whitewater State Park, about 25 miles east of Rochester. Traffic at the park drops from a high of 45,000 visitors in July to a low of 2,600 in January.
But the quiet season — November through February — has its own beauty. The crowds are gone, the foliage thins, and the bare bones of the trees and the land are visible in a way they aren’t in any other season.
“You see more wildlife — the animals figure it out, too. The people are gone,” Holger said.
At Afton State Park, naturalist Linda Radimecky said November is a pause between peak leaf viewing in October and ski season, when the phone once again starts ringing.
The park’s traffic plunges from more than 20,000 visitors in a typical October to about 10,000 in November.
“It is a tough time to do programming,” she said. Many animals are hibernating or migrating. The leaves have fallen, seeds are off the plants.
“The beginning of November always has me starting to look skyward,” she said, to catch the last migrating geese and swans. “If people are new to bird-watching, it’s a good time to learn. There are fewer species.”
With the leaves down, it’s also easier to read the landscape and see traces of old homesteads and other changes in the park.
Radimecky said she also looks for smaller changes in the landscape: the first ice forming, warm air coming from the ground where animals might be hibernating.
“My focus gets smaller for those little changes in the species that remain,” she said.
And the first dusting of snow is the perfect time for animal tracking to notice little details like “a tail dragging, toe imprints, nails,” the naturalist said. “If you follow them, they tell you a story about what happened when we weren’t here.”
“I like this time of year actually because it is a little slow,” she said. “Everything is slower, it’s a chance to breathe after summer.”
On the flyway
At Wild River State Park, north of the metro near North Branch, the campground stays full through MEA weekend in mid-October, park naturalist Mike Dunker said.
November, when the park quiets down, is a good time to spot wildlife. “I see a lot more people with cameras out,” he said.
Wild River’s access to the St. Croix River means that many birds are still migrating through, including raptors, swans and sandhill cranes on their way to the Crex Meadows wildlife area to the north in Grantsburg, Wis. Deer are also out in Wild River’s mixed terrain of hardwoods, conifers and prairie.
“One of the big parts of being in Minnesota is that you can come out every couple of weeks and you’re going to see something different,” he said.
“This time of year, with the leaves dropping, you can see fantastic views from the overlook that you didn’t see before.” Dunker said he spots hornet nests and eagle nests that he wouldn’t notice at other times of year.
Winter trout haven
On a mid-November visit to Whitewater State Park, my mom and I had the hiking trails to ourselves, but we saw signs of wildlife everywhere.
Just past a bridge, beavers had whittled a row of stumps to stubby points; bat houses at the group camp were lined with honeycombs, and my mom, an avid birder, pointed out the delicate pouch of an oriole’s nest hanging from a tree over the river.
The park’s trout stream, one of just three open year-round at a state park, is a magnet for anglers in the winter, Holger said.
“Trout fishing closes in mid-September everywhere else,” she said. “I really think people are drawn here for that.”
She said the park’s spring-fed water stays open most of the winter and makes for stunning winter photos.
“You have rushing water, snow-covered trees and limestone outcrops; it takes your breath away,” she said.
We left the park and passed through the wildlife management area, where pickup trucks were parked at every turnout and wash for the hunting opener.
We were looking for an overlook where we could see tundra swans congregating before heading east to their winter grounds at Chesapeake Bay.
After a wrong turn on Hwy. 61, we found them along the Mississippi — thousands of swans, geese and ducks, feeding along the river flats in the golden light of the early sunset.
The sound of their honking was a musical clangor, a wild, watery sound full of longing and the season’s change.
It filled our ears, even from the road.
We’ll be back for a taste of more next November.