By Jim Umhoefer
Cass County. About 15 miles west of Grand Rapids. Drive west on Highway 2, south on Highway 6, and turn west onto County 28, following the park signs. Highway map index: I-9.
On his way up the Mississippi River in search of its origin, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft camped near here with his party of explorers. He found the headwaters on July 13, 1832, in present-day Itasca State Park. The area bounded by Schoolcraft State Park remains virtually unchanged since the explorers paddled through. The park boasts many virgin white-pine trees in woods where songbirds seem louder than voices. Wild rice still thrives in the marshes, and deer still sip from the river at dawn. Schoolcraft Stat Park is open nine months of the year.
SHERBURNE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
Sherburne County. Refuge headquarters is southwest of Princeton off of Highway 169. Highway map index: I-15.
Canoeing is a gentle experience on the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. Maybe it's because the St. Francis River doesn't seem to be in a hurry, twisting past high sandy banks and through lowland marsh. You could spend about three hours on the river if you were going to paddle the whole 12-mile route in the southeastern corner of the refuge. It'll take even longer if you fish.
Camera and binoculars come in handy here, no matter how you explore the refuge. Canoeists and boaters (no motors) may spot great blue heron, great egrets, white-tailed deer and many kinds of waterfowl. You can also get good views of wildlife from roads and trails. Many visitors take their time on the Wildlife Management Drive during spring and fall migrations. This 12-mile drive is open only on weekends and holidays during a two-month period both in spring and fall.
Sherburne's trails are used all year by hikers and cross-country skiers. The Mahnomen Trail, 2.5 miles long, features an observation tower, boardwalk and rest area. Pick up the leaflet for the Mounds Loop. The Blue Hill Trail is a 6.25-mile trail system that also has an interpretive loop.
Groups are welcome here. The Old School House, near the refuge headquarters, is an outdoors center with displays, a library and audio-visual equipment. School groups and other organizations begin their refuge visit here. Snowshoes are available for school group outings.
The 30,665-acre Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge encompasses much of the St. Francis River Valley. The shallow marshes and natural lakes that dot the landscape were formed from the last glacier. Human history dates back over 10,000 years, with Indian village sites discovered on the refuge from 1300 A.D. When white men arrived during eh 1870s, the St. Francis River basin was considered one of the finest wildlife areas in Minnesota. The combination of marsh, wild rive, open water and tamarack swamps was a wildlife haven.
Settlers, scratching out a new life, logged the oak forests and drained the wetlands. The oak savannas, protected from fire, were invaded by woody vegetation. Wildlife declined. By the early 1940s, a sportsmen and conservationists recognized the potential for preserving and restoring the St. Francis River Valley as a wildlife area. Their dream was realized with creation of the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in 1965. Sherburne is now an important link in a chain of refuges operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service along the Mississippi flyway.
Sherburne supports a diversity of wildlife within three main habitats: wetlands, woodlands, and grasslands and oak savannas. The refuge wetlands include over 20 pools and natural lakes that provide homes for many species of waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, mammals, frogs, turtles and salamanders. Although most of the wetlands are shallow and freeze out in the winter, some are capable of supporting populations of northerns, panfish and rough fish, which attract migrating ospreys and bald eagles. Not all of the pools are kept at the same depth. By controlling water levels, the refuge creates a variety of wildlife habitats.
The refuge is open for public use during daylight hours. Hunters may get a leaflet that outlines hunting regulations on the refuge. You can cross-country ski and snowshoe throughout the refuge, except for the Blue Hill and Mahnomen trails, which are for cross-country skiers only. There are no camping facilities at Sherburne, but ask at the office for information about nearby public and private campgrounds.