Have you ever strapped on snowshoes at a popular park only to find the trails well-packed and better suited for regular boots? A hike on Saturday at Wild River State Park offered a better way.
For starters, the snowshoe trails were full of untrodden snow. We left from the Trail Center -- where we rented a pair of snowshoes from a helpful employee for $15. Because the park's maps are a little old and outdated, they don't show this trail, but you'll find it easy enough right outside the building.
A short route along the edge of a sprawling golden prairie -- where a murmuration of snow buntings danced against the horizon -- brought us to the edge of the bluffs. Here we followed a road which in the summer leads to the canoe and boat landing, but is unplowed and quiet in the snowy season.
Down at the river, we looked for Trumpeter swans, which we had been told might be around.
As we scanned the river, a pair soared down on their massive wings and landed against the Wisconsin shore, and then we heard the sound of more swans. Only then did we pick them out drifting in the sliver of open water along the opposite bank, almost impossible to see against the snowy background.
Our funniest bird sighting came then. A very large brown bird soared across the river from Minnesota toward Wisconsin. I could only think it was a bald eagle, but it didn't seem quite right. As soon as it landed on the other side and started running up the hill, we realized it was a turkey. Despite appearances, turkeys can fly up to 60 miles-per-hour.
Spring Creek spills into the river not far from here. If you walk back to the snow-covered parking lots, you can get a good look (and listen) at the creek.
The park recently posted a photo on Facebook of a Wilson's Snipe in the creek -- this long-legged and long-beaked shore bird requires open water to eat, and thus isn't often found in Minnesota during the winter, but a free-flowing spring-fed creek is apparently suitable. We didn't see the snipe, but did admire a big beaver dam just upstream before heading back.
Speaking of beaver, for our route back we picked the Amik's Pond trail (amik means beaver in the Ojibwe language, and the trail circles beaver ponds between the bottom of the bluffs and the river). We hadn't gone far when we decided to leave the trail and take advantage of snowshoes' true strength: cross-country travel.
Wetlands that are nearly impenetrable in summer are perfect for exploring on snowshoes. We wove around to avoid thick stands of willows and other shrubby trees, and enjoyed soft snow and the feeling of adventure.
Up and away
We hit the trail again at the base of the bluffs and headed up. I think the climb was easier than it would have been on skis. At the top, we stopped by the Visitor Center, perched at the edge of the bluffs with a great view of the river and valley south.
From here, we hiked the final half-mile back to the Trail Center and our car. This section took us through thick hardwoods and then the open prairie again.
The park was busy on Saturday -- lots of folks getting out on a relatively warm day with perfect snow conditions -- but yet we felt a surprising amount of solitude along the hike. Wandering a trackless swamp is a good strategy, but overall it felt like everyone was spread out. We could sometimes hear voices through the trees, but more often it was just the wind.
Guided hikes scheduled
Next Saturday (February 16) there are two snowshoe events at Wild River:
Noon to 2 p.m. - Snowshoe along the St. Croix: Birding for Beginners
Join the Naturalist for a leisurely walk along the St. Croix River on snowshoes. Designed for ages 8 and up; a 1-mile hike. Program is free and limited to 30 participants.
6 to 8 p.m. - Full Moon & Folklore Snowshoe
Enjoy an evening of snowshoeing under the full moon as the Naturalist tells tall tales along the way! Hot chocolate and marshmallow roasting over a warm fire will take place after the 1-mile walk. Limited to 25 participants ages 8 and older.
Both programs require registration by calling 651-583-2125 x227.