It had snowed a couple of inches of soft fluff and there were still a few flakes falling like feathers in the darkening twilight. I was registered for a Full Moon Snowshoe Hike at Lebanon Hills Regional Park and the clouds were expected to clear, it looked to be a perfect night.
I hung my snowshoes on a cross country ski rack and joined the twenty or so others who were gathering inside the Visitor’s Center with Dakota County naturalist Amy Forslund. Before going out she showed us a few different kinds of snowshoes and talked about the park animals we might see (owls and deer) and those that we would not (painted turtles are in their near-death state of torpor, which is similar to hibernation, and snuggled in the lake mud for the winter).
After trooping outside to the campfire ring we fumbled about putting on our own or rented snowshoes. The Visitor Center glowed on one side of us and on the other the black shadow of the forest hung between a white snow field and the ceiling of clouds that reflected the lights of the Twin Cities.
Amy helped anyone new to snowshoeing with their straps then we waddled around a bit to get a feel for our footwear. Finally lining up like ducks in a row we strung ourselves out behind our leader and crossed the field toward the woods.
Lebanon Hills Regional Park straddles the border of Eagan and Apple Valley and covers nearly 2000 acres. There are picnic areas, fishing docks, a campground, one of the Twin Cities premier mountain bike trails, and a swimming beach along the perimeter. The interior is crisscrossed with hiking and equestrian trails that convert to snowshoe and cross country ski trails in winter. The place is a haven for city dwellers that need a little bit of wilderness close to home.
The park is mostly covered with oak forest with an area of pine plantation and others of restored farmland. It is a rolling landscape dotted with small ponds and lakes covered with a typical Southeastern Minnesota forest of oak, maple, and elm populated with deer, birds and squirrels.
A familiar place, except that we are going there in the dark. The woods are different then, familiar but unrecognizable. To me always a little bit of a scary indecipherable blackness. But it is winter and the snow softens the edges, adds shades of grey, and defines the ground and spaces between the trees. It also helps to be with a crowd and have a full moon and stars appear behind thinning clouds.
Every once in a while Amy would stop and wait until we all shuffled close before describing an unusual plant or tree we were passing. In the field she plopped down next to a patch of goldenrod, several of which had a large gall (bulb) halfway up its stem. Inside each gall is a Goldenrod Gall Fly larva waiting for spring when it will escape through a tunnel it dug last autumn.
Farther on she stops by a tall tree stump and describes seeing an unusual wasp last summer. It was the Giant Ichneumon Wasp, a big insect with a body up to an inch and a half long. Even longer was its tail, an additional three inches. The wasp is not aggressive and the long tail is not a stinger, but an ovipositor, an egg laying appendage that can push through up to four inches of solid wood to deposit an egg.
Deep into the forest Amy asked us each to find a tree to lean against and to spend five minutes in silence. City sounds dominated but beneath them was a beautiful stillness.
We took the long way back in order to cross through some Barred Owl territory. The owls are already nesting in February and Amy suspected their eggs may have already hatched. Recently she had seen the owls out in the daytime, a sign that they were doing extra hunting.
We continued on strung out comfortably along the trail. It wasn’t long before someone cried out and pointed to a dark shadow silently gliding over our heads. It was a Barred Owl using its phenomenal senses and flying skills to maneuver through the confusion of branches in the dark. One man spotted its landing place so we all got a chance to see the large bird silhouetted against the star filled sky.
To finish the trek Amy led us off-trail so we could use our snowshoes to their advantage. We spread out across Schultze Lake, frozen 18 inches thick, and broke our own trails back to the glowing Visitor’s Center.
Moonlight Walks & Paddles at Twin Cities Parks
Registration is required for these Three Rivers Parks events.
Walk When the Moon is Full: Maple Moon, Eastman Nature Center, Wed, March 27, 2013
Walk When the Moon is Full: Tree Moon, Lowry Nature Center, Thurs, April 25, 2013
Richardson Nature Center, Sat, April 27, 2013
Walk When The Moon Is Full: Frog Moon, Lowry Nature Center, Sat, May 25
Walk When the Moon is Full: Firefly Moon, Crow-Hassan Park Reserve, Sat, May 25, 2013
Canoe When the Moon is Full, Cedar Lake Farm Regional Park, Fri, May 24, 2013