The creek sings along Different water, same stream Flowing through lifetimes
When I step out of my car on the prairie, the north wind catches me by surprise. It carries a coldness that won’t last much longer at these latitudes. Despite the wintry gusts seeming out of place, I’m the one dressed for spring.
The wind is insistent but manageable as I set off from the trailhead. A month ago, it would have been unpleasant; today it pushes through my jacket and chaps my hands and face. It’s good to be outside.
Seeking exercise, nature’s solace, and migrating birds, I have decided to hike at Standing Cedars’ Englewood land preserve south of Osceola, on the bluffs of the St. Croix. Standing Cedars Community Land Conservancy has preserved thousands of acres of land here, and volunteer crews and grant-funded projects have reconstructed a fine example of what this landscape looked like before European immigrants arrived.
There are broad prairies and wooded bluffs. There are rare plants and animals, and there are lovely trails winding through it all to let visitors wander through this unique landscape.
I don’t wander at first, though. I head directly for somewhere I can find shelter. I am looking for where the rolling hills, brush and trees might protect me from the atmosphere, and feeling like homo sapien in its natural habitat. Interacting with the land more than just observation deepens and expands my understanding of it.
In bushes along the trail and in the tread itself, song sparrows hop about and occasionally fly up to a perch to belt out their chirping call. They are drab brown birds in their boldest feathers of the year. They have arrived at this huge prairie and are eager to eat and perhaps stake out a nesting territory.
The bushes give me a little shelter, and then the trail dips between two ponds, where the wind is weakened. Here I’m reminded that natural prairies in this region are often pretty wet, full of ponds and marshes. It’s one reason they can hold so much water, which helps reduce erosion, runoff, and flooding in the St. Croix River.
This large piece of prairie features plenty of sun-baked grasses, but the gentle rolling of the terrain produces low spots where water settles. After a wet few weeks, there are plentiful puddles that may not even be here in a month, but for now provide valuable habitat.
The water is where a lot of life is found. Today the frogs are singing at full volume. One wetland I pass seems to be dominated by chorus frogs, while another is mostly spring peepers.
Angie Hong of the East Metro Water program recently reported on how important prairie wetlands are for many species.
Approximately half of all frogs and one-third of all salamander species in North America lay their eggs in ephemeral wetlands, which usually exist only in the spring or after heavy rains. The upper Midwest is dotted with prairie potholes that formed when glaciers retreated thousands of years ago, leaving behind a pockmarked landscape. These areas also provide habitat for migrating birds and insects such as dragonflies.– 500 Frogs a Croaking, April 9, 2020
There are wood ducks on one piece of open water, and a red-winged blackbird calling from another. The song sparrows and bluebirds — which eat insects — also seem to be most abundant within 100 yards of water.
I turn south and have the wind behind me. Everything feels calmer.
Falling into the rhythm of the walk, my feet find the way a mile or so to the river. Leaving the prairie, the trail takes me down a long slope which winds through the forested bluffs. The wind retreats to the treetops, and peace falls over me.
The forest is oak and maple, basswood and cherry. The ground is shaded and sheltered, my views are limited to perhaps 100 feet. In the space of a quarter-mile, I have gone from sunny and windblown to cool and calm.
Again I am stricken by the value of this land. All in one preserve, Standing Cedars offers several zones of habitat stretching from the upland prairies down to the banks of river backwaters. The layers of the ecosystem are enough to make me forget about other things for a little while.
Robins occasionally appear on the path in front of me, and fly off as I approach. Leaves flutter on the ground behind them. I see my first golden-crowned kinglets of the year. These tiny birds are notorious for being difficult to photograph, because they never stop moving. They seem to pick over the smallest twigs and branches, constantly flitting through the understory. There are also hermit thrushes, a downy woodpecker, chickadees, and turkeys gobbling somewhere up the slope.
Farther down the trail, I glimpse dark blue through the bare forest. It’s a different world below the bluffs, the season feels a week or so behind the prairie. The river is high, having flooded all the islands, erasing the braided channels. There’s just a sheet of water with trees sticking up through it between Minnesota and me.
I sit on a log by the water for a while, and write down what I see. I recommend trying that sometime. It helps a short hike feel like a long journey.