We threw our backpacks into the trunk of the car, fully packed with gear, clothes, and food, and headed west toward the Dakota border. We’d booked a walk-in site at Lac Qui Parle State Park and were on our way to see if there were any interesting birds in the vicinity.
What did we see along the way? Perhaps I ought to begin with the family of sandhill cranes we saw standing in a row, in a field, at the crest of a hill, just off the highway west of Waverly. Though they all looked roughly the same from the window of a speeding car, the children were half the size of the adults. For cute.
Next, I might mention the burritos at Rosita’s Hole-in-the Wall restaurant on 4th Street in downtown Willmar. Fantastic! We ordered them to go, but there was still a considerable wait, during which I saw Columbia score two goals against El Salvador in a World Cup qualifier on the TV against the far wall. Extraordinary.
Our campsite on the hill above Lac Qui Parle was amazing. Though it’s a “walk-in” site, it’s only thirty feet down the hill from the parking lot—you could probably roll all your stuff down to it. But it’s a hundred yards or more from the main campground, looking off down the hill, where you can see the lake in several places through the trees.
Pelicans flew overhead in twos or twenties all afternoon. (More than a thousand are nesting a mile or two upstream.) We hiked across fields and hills toward the lake, heading off into the woods eventually. There were yellow warblers and warbling vireos in the woods, and when we got to the road again we saw a sign on the other side that said Cottonwood Tree.
Well, we’ve seen plenty of cottonwood trees in our day. But something told us this would be different. So across the deserted highway we went, and up the hill into the woods, then down another hill, where we soon came upon a very big cottonwood tree. It wasn’t all that tall, but its girth was remarkable. I suspect this is the tree on state land near Watson that’s recorded on the DNR list as the biggest cottonwood tree in Minnesota.
The afternoon lighting was superb and the grasses around the campsite were a deep, rich green, due to the heavy rains. We’d set up the tent before our cross-country jaunt, but it was a very windy afternoon I was happy to see that it was still standing when we got back. The wind died down with the waning sunlight and we made bold to put up the rain fly, which would probably have been a serious mistake earlier in the afternoon.
We ate a cold dinner of cheese, crackers, grapes, almonds, and salami, and sat reading in the lovely evening light.
As I was sitting in my little camp-chair, I saw two robust sparrows in silhouette fly repeatedly into the grass nearby. Suspecting a nesting site, I got up to examine the spot more closely, only to see an orchard oriole fly off. There were several, in fact, and later Hilary got a good look at one of them, too.
As twilight descended we got a fire going The fireflies also began to emerge and we spent a half-hour waiting for them to appear in greater force—dazzling us with fields of bobbing pin-pricks of light—rather than a single burst here, another one there, then nothing. They did.
Meanwhile Venus has appeared in the west, and I made a lucky guess that the reddish star in the south was Antares, with the rest of Scorpio soon to appear. (It did.)
Though the wind had died down it was still blowing. Nevertheless, pleasing child-like squeals occasionally made themselves our way from the campground up on the crest of the hill. Two young Asian men who (I suspect) had been fishing down by the dam hiked in to another site across the field, set up their tent, and then drove off again—either back to the dam or down into Montevideo to have a few beers.
The night air began to grow cool. Hilary decided to hit the hay, and I poured a little water on the fire, though our jug was getting low and I decided to wait a bit to see a few more stars come out as the glowing embers spent themselves.
It was then that I saw a creature coming silently and swiftly down the path in the dark. It looked like a robust cat in shape (which is all I could see) but it didn’t have a tail. Other species flashed through my mind, but I’ve seen lots of coyotes, fox, raccoons, ground squirrels, skunks, and even martins and fishers in my day. No. It was like something I’d never seen before. When it got right in front of me it suddenly realized I was standing there in the dark and darted off into the thick grasses at the edge of the campsite. It didn't have a tail.
In fact, I have seen bobcats several times before…in California. And I once saw a lynx up at Agassiz Wildlife Refuge. This was much smaller. Totally silent. Bulky, and no more than 18 inches high.
Later in the night, I climbed out of the tent to take a leak—the air had grown cold, morning was nigh (as the poets used to say) and the breeze was now mellow. Looking off to the north I noticed some Northern Lights low to the horizon, with a few tall streaks leaping from the solid band. Wow!
In the morning we wandered the backroads between Odessa and Ortonville. In some places the grassy countryside had an ethereal, almost African beauty. The north shores of Big Stone Wildlife Refuge was lined with rocky exposures covered with oaks, larkspur, poison ivy, and even a few clumps of cactus. Among the birds we saw were yellow-headed blackbirds, green-back herons, and a pair of western grebes.