By Jim Umhoefer
Freeborn County. 3 miles southeast of Albert Lea on County 38. Park exits are marked on both I-35 and I-90, though Exit 11 on I-35 is the easier approach. Highway map index: J-21.
Because of its varied terrain, this park is one of southern Minnesota's prime birding spots. Hiking the Great Marsh Trail in the park's southwestern corner during spring and fall migrations, you'll see white pelicans, Canada geese and a variety of ducks. Shorebirds and waterfowl are common in the park during summer, as well as hawks hunting rodents in the grassy meadows. The park also boasts more than 450 kinds of wildflowers.
The Esker Trail, in the northern end of the park, features part of the area's glacial history. An esker is a long, narrow ridge of coarse gravel deposited by a stream flowing through a tunnel under stagnant ice. As the ice melted, the sinuous streambed remained. The retreating glacier also left ice blocks that formed shallow lakes and marshes as they melted in basins. Albert Lea Lake is one such lake, with an average depth of 3 feet. At one time, the lake was clear and had a sandy bottom. Today it is rich in dissolved nutrients that have reduced the lake's oxygen level, favoring plant life over animal life. The lake still attracts summertime anglers, though, who go after panfish, carp and bullheads. The park has no guarded swimming beach, but there is a municipal pool in Albert Lea.
Participating in the naturalist programs is the easiest way to become familiar with the park's natural and cultural features. The Owen Johnson Interpretive Center, named for an area resident who campaigned for a state park here, is headquarters of naturalist activities. Nestled on the forest edge on Big Island, the year-round center has one of the country's largest collections of Indian artifacts. A picnic area with enclosed shelter is adjacent to the center.
Myre-Big Island State Park offers a wide range of camping facilities. A large semi-modern campground and a primitive group camp are located on Big Island. New York Point, on an arrow-tip peninsula of the mainland, is a full-facility group center with a dining hall, kitchen and crafts building. This camp is available for church groups, scout troops or any organization at a nominal fee. Contact the park manager for reservations.
The park maintains another semi-modern campground on the mainland, though it is more open than the one on Big Island (100 total sites, 32 electric, in both campgrounds). If you'd like a private camping experience, backpack to one of the park's four primitive sites, strung along the shoreline of a large peninsula just off one of the hiking trails.
Winter means action at Myre-Big Island State Park. The interpretive center, open weekends during winter, offers one-hour programs that cover such topics as attracting winter birds to your backyard, viewing evening stars and waxing cross-country skis. The naturalist also leads winter hikes, with tips on animal signs and tree identification. Snowshoe hikes and moonlight cross-country ski outings are other scheduled events.