by Dave Simpkins
Minnesota’s forests have stories to tell.
Rachael Nicoll, a member of Itasca State Parks Naturalist Corp, told a few of those stories to a group along the Dr. Roberts Nature Trail.
The Naturalist Corp is a special project funded by the Legacy Fund, providing summer interns to lead tours and give presentation at state parks.
“While people may walk through the woods and see simple flowers and trees, we see unique plants with a story to tell,” said Nicoll.
Nicoll’s two-mile tour started at the boat landing below the Douglas Lodge and ended at the Old Timer’s Cabin overlooking Lake Itasca.
The group of 32 was welcomed to the trail by a collection of snowy lady slippers. While people rushed to photographed the state flower Nicoll warned them not to touch or pick the protected flower.
She noted the lady slipper can live 100 years, and it takes five years to flower.
It can also be poisonous.
As they moved into the bog, she urged people not to step into the bog because it is very delicate. A foot print in the bog can remain for an entire year.
Nicoll stopped at a red pine tree to explain how it differs from white pine. Red pines have a scaly, reddish-colored bark while the white pine is grayer with a tighter, grooved bark.
She stopped at a fir tree to notice how it differed.
“The balsam fir has flatter leaves and it called the friendly pine because its needles are soft to the touch,” said Nicoll.
The young naturalist stopped her tour to notice the fine two-foot-tall horse plants growing along the boardwalk.
“The horse tail plant is an ancient plant that once grew to heights of 300 feet in the days of the dinosaurs. Much of the oil taken from the ground to make the gas you used to drive here today, came from those ancient horse tail plants,” said Nicoll.
While showing how to identify a black ash tree by its compound leaves, Nicoll issued a warning about moving firewood around the state.
“We’re in danger of losing our ash trees to emerald ash borer, which normally doesn’t move very fast across the state. While it is mostly in the Twin Cities, it can be carried out state very fast in firewood,” said Nicoll.
According to Nicoll, the bog was a food source for Native Americans. They used the inner bark of the tamarack tree for a tea and the wild ginger plant to season food.
The logging of conifer trees has created an increase in the deer population from two to eight deer per square mile to 40 per square mile. This is why you see many trees surrounded by small fences protecting them from the deer.
Nicoll is a graduate of Albany High School and the University of Minnesota Department of Forestry. She plans a career in forestry and interpretation.
“I’ve always loved the outdoors and believe it is important for people to understand what nature has to teach us,” said Nicoll.
The Naturalist Corp is a state parks program giving young people experience in interpretation while providing parks the needed help in telling their stories.