Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Prairie Weekend

Heading west on a Saturday, which was turning gray, with worse to come. Why west? There are birds out there that we will never see here in the Cities. And expanses.

It’s a mind-boggling fact that from our house to Lac Qui Parle State Park takes almost the same amount of time, whether you take Highway 12, Highway 7, or Highway 212. The drive is not quite three hours—though it takes longer when you stop along the way.

We stopped in Dassel to poke around a few garage sales and buy a donut or two at the bakery downtown, which has obviously been modeled after the Louis Sullivan Bank in Owatonna.

Our next stop was the world’s biggest ball of twine—made by one person—which sits just south of main street in Darwin. The public library in Litchfield is always worth a visit. They have a shelf of give-away books, from which I selected a hardcover copy of Finland in the Twentieth Century by D.G. Kirby. You never know, I might read it some day.

And in the metropolis of Willmar we stopped at Rosita’s Mexican Restaurant downtown, where they make a killer burrito for $5.99. We ordered a large and a small but the man at the counter advised us that a large would be plenty for us to share.

We thought we might pull off at a city park on our way west on Highway 40, but there was none to be had, so we ate our burrito a half-hour later in the gravel parking lot of Milan’s grain elevator complex. A pheasant was dashing around in the grass on the near side of the highway as we ate.

If you find yourself in Milan, you might as well stop in at the Folk Art School just off Main Street. Last time we were there some men were learning how to make furniture, and several were splitting the wood out in the front yard with axes. It looked like a scene from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. This time, mutatis mutandis, there were a group of women inside making jewelry out of broken pieces of china and silver filings caked in clay.

At the state park office a few miles down the highway the ranger told us about the location of an owl’s nest. Once we’d checked into our camper cabin, perched on a hilltop overlooking Lac Qui Parle,  we went down to the dam to find it. Yes indeed. There was the baby owl, peering out from a hollow in a tree near the highway.

Later, we saw some teal, wood ducks, and hooded mergansers in the backwater sloughs of the lower park. We thought we saw a golden eagle, too—it was a huge bulky bird with a distinctly rich brown caste, unlike the more steely brown of an immature bald eagle. But the location and the time of year argued vehemently against such a sighting.

There were Boy Scouts wandering here and there in the woods, engaged in what we used to call “orienteering.” Now they call it geo-caching. We used a compass. They use a sophisticated GPS device encased in Space Age orange plastic.

The weather had begun to look ominous by the time we got back to our little cabin. Just slightly. We walked down the hill to cut a few switches for the hotdogs. By the time we got back it had begun to drizzle.

The hotdog was the best I’d ever had. Really. Hilary felt the same. (Cold weather will do that.)

A pheasant was wandering around in the tall grass nearby, and when he came out onto the mowed path, we got a very good look at him from the window inside the cabin. Pheasants are far from rare in these parts, but it was a pleasure to examine one a length at close range. Magnificent bird…too bad it’s not a native.

That night we listened to waves of thunder lope across the  landscape like wild horses at a bowling alley. It sounds different when there’s nothing around to stop it and you can follow its course. The windows turned suddenly white, then dark again, like a theater set, as the lightning struck. Once or twice the blast was so immediate that I was sure we’d lost power. But that never happened.

The next morning, in the Riverview Restaurant in Montevideo, we sat across from two women, one of whom was carrying a bird guide.

“See any birds?” I asked.

“Well, our group saw 130 species,” one of the women replied. “I doubt if we saw half that.” They’d seen most of them on tiny Salt Lake, a half-hour drive to the west down 212, on the South Dakota border.

We’d seen perhaps 30 species the previous day, though we weren’t counting. But  the women were talking about “those little birds that swim in circles in the water.” Phalaropes? And it was only 8:30. We decided to drive out to Salt Lake.

You would never find Salt Lake if you weren’t looking for it and also had some inkling where it was. No sign will lead you to it. I had a little trouble finding it myself, heading too far north toward Marietta before turning west on gravel roads. As a result, we hit the lake on the northwest side…and that’s where the phalarope was.

I must confess that the entire way out to Salt Lake I was saying to myself: “Is this really a good idea, in the rain? With a 3½ hour drive back to the Cities?”

One look at the phalarope and the answer became obvious. Good idea? Yes. The phalarope made the trip. I haven’t seen one anywhere near Minnesota for a good twenty years. The last one I saw was in a tiny harbor on the south shore of Lake Superior.

They’re spotted regularly at Salt Lake, year after year. Yes, but I hadn’t gone there. I hadn’t seen one. They’d dropped from the radar of what one  might see. Yet the previous day sixteen of them had been spotted at Salt Lake.

And it’s a beautiful bird. A feverish, beautiful bird.

As we circumnavigated the lake, we saw a raft of canvasbacks—another beautiful bird. A few hundred yards on, we drove by a nondescript church, the parking lot of which was overflowing with cars. What a God-forsaken place to put a church, I thought. But perhaps the congregants were bird-watchers!

On the other side of the lake, we got a chance to watch horned grebes and eared grebes drifting side by side, along with a few ruddy ducks.

From there it was a long drive back to the Cities, with a brief stop for Dunn Brothers coffee in Hutchinson.

The serious rain didn’t start until we got to Waconia. We were practically home!

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