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Winter Prairie Walk (Part II)

Winter Dunes 064Walking along we noticed in some places the birds had been working over the seed heads of the various prairie plants, the remains were sprinkled a top the snow at the base of the plants.

“Do you suppose we walked over some snakes?” Larry asked, eyes gleaming.

“I hope so!” An abundance of snakes hibernating underneath the ground beneath our feet would be amazing.

Winter Dunes 065Larry paused by a firebreak. I drew up alongside him, for of course I had been trailing behind. He explained what we were seeing – lots of oak and red pine that needs to come out – needs more burning. Firebreaks help to control the fire, keeping it smaller and easier to contain.

We climbed up a dune covered with small, young black oak trees and small pines. Standing next to a pine I touched its needles, “So this is a red pine?”

Winter Dunes 071“Yep.” We didn’t linger but continued walking across the top of the dune. As we descended we noticed the prairie plants occurred in higher density on that dune’s southern slope and on the dunes ahead of us than on the dunes behind us. Larry mentioned aspect, the position of the dunes and the placement of the plants on the dunes, as an important factor impacting the plant populations.

Winter Dunes 073We continued walking, down a dune and up another. The distant bluffs disappeared in the morning fog. The fog seemed to compound the vastness of the prairie. Distinctive features or landmarks didn’t seem to be there on the prairie – it was hard to tell where we walked and to recall when and where we stopped to talk so this accounting isn’t an exact, chronological telling.) The temperature was just a couple degrees above freezing, warming and softening the snow. My feet slipped in the warm snow as I walked, wearing me out (I was reassured by Larry saying it was exhausting). I had worn too many layers as well, which not only made me hot and sweaty but were also heavy.

“You can see some of the dugouts made in the 1930s and the roads going to melon patches. There’s active sand blowing.” The density of plants sticking above the snow had increased since pausing on the first dune we crested to smell the mint. Those various dead and dried prairie plants added beauty to the landscape. As we walked we saw a deer run up a dune and elegantly bound over it, appearing to sail gracefully over the top.

Winter Dunes 075We had turned to our right, no longer heading south but west, on to a wide firebreak, so wide it seemed almost like a driveway. Pausing, Larry again explained what we were seeing. He pointed to our left, to the restoration prairie and how it looked different than the prairie to our right – we talked of new prairie and changing prairies. Larry was really excited by how good the restoration looked. It will need to be burned often to keep trees at bay.

Winter Dunes 078Continuing to walk, we followed the firebreak. In some places, it felt like we were walking on ice. I was mesmerized by the plants, their beauty stunning.  While I was marveling at the plants, Larry halted several feet ahead, stooping to examine something on the ground.

Winter Dunes 080“That’s a nice piece of meat. I wonder who would have left it and why?” I came up alongside him to take a look. He picked up the chunk of meat and took out his pocket knife and cut into it. It was solid meat. After examining it for a couple minutes he threw it aside and wiped his hands on the snow. Of course, Hank wanted to check it out, “Leave it alone Hank, someone else needs it more than you.”

Winter Dunes 081We turned again to our right, going north. On our left, west, stood a lone windmill in the distance. I was trying to figure out where we and where the windmill was in relation to highway 84, I didn’t recall seeing a windmill while driving on 84.

“If you come in by that windmill and walk straight out, it’s a good place to see the pasque flowers in bloom.”

Winter Dunes 084As we were hiking across the prairie, Jake walked a little ahead of us, content to be out and about. Hank kept finding sticks and dropping them in front of Larry, whining and begging for them to be thrown. Larry took the stick and tossed it. Hank raced after it, found it and brought it back to Larry again, whining and begging. He had become more persistent in asking to play fetch as our walk went on.

Winter Dunes 087We halted next to a tree. “You can see what happens in the shadow of a tree,” Larry explained, his hand on a small scrubby tree (I believe a wild plum). Brambles grew around it. “It gives a place for predators to sit and watch.” Our pause at the tree lasted only a moment before we were off again. Hank found another stick he wanted thrown, whining more insistently.

As we came to another old road, Larry said, “There’s an old foundation around here somewhere. He scanned the dunes both to our right and left, trying to find it but didn’t waste much time doing so, and since he couldn’t find it we continued on, turning again to our right.

Winter Dunes 090Cedars, oaks, and pines became more dense, not just one here and there but clumps of them. “You can see how when you let the trees move in, you have your work cut out for you. It’s why we should prohibit them from moving in. Increase frequency of burning. I’ve cut a lot of trees down – a lot of red cedar.” (He ignored Hank’s whines for a few moments each time before giving in and throwing the stick.)

We hiked up to the top of a knoll; it seemed bigger and more permanent than the dunes, more like an actual hill. Jack pines and black oaks covered most of the top of the hill. At the top, we sat down in the snow for a little rest, legs stretched out over the slope. Walking up and down the dunes in soft snow was exhausting. We soaked in the scenery, the beauty around us. Listened to the sounds; bird song, train whistle, sound really carried in this open landscape. I thought it was a nice spot to sit (with a great view), go up there with drawing pad, journal, camera and binoculars; just sit awhile. I said as much to Larry; he agreed.

Winter Dunes 096“Sneak out here, stow your stuff under the trees and spend the night. Look up at the stars. Listen to the sounds.” Jake and Hank had been sniffing around the top of the hill behind us. Then Larry threw a snow ball down the hill. Hank took off after it. Larry continued throwing snow balls for him. Hank leapt into the air several times trying to catch the snow balls that went soaring down towards him. Jake was busy doing his own thing, too old to be interested in chasing snow balls.

Gazing at the prairie before us, especially to the west, Larry said, “I need to get out here and do some cutting.”

Before long it was time to keep moving, which was good, the snow had started to soak in. Standing up, we turned to look at the small pine trees behind us. “There are only a few spots in Minnesota that Jack pines are native. I’m not sure if this is one or not. If so we have to be careful not to cut too many of them.”

We walked down the hill, across the way to another hill and up that. A deer stand perched on the top near the edge. Through pine trees that grew thick in that spot and down the hill, we hiked. Larry noted coyote tracks in the snow – blood splotches with the tracks had caught his attention. He wondered aloud, “Was it bleeding or had it caught something?” We followed along the tracks as they went over and down a dune. “I suppose a coyote can get scuffed up once in awhile.”

Smiling, I replied, “Occasionally.”

“Scratched on sticks or rocks while pursuing prey.”

Winter Dunes 101There was a three-strand barbed wire fence on our left, our trek on the prairie nearing an end. We stepped over the fence into the woods, walking down the hill, leaving the prairie behind. We came down the same hill we had climbed up to reach the prairie, only we came down further west than we had gone up. Winding through the trees, we quickly came to the road and walked along it to the truck.

Before heading back to Larry’s, we drove down Pritchard’s to the landing. Then out on to the ice. It was a new experience for me. Faster than walking but it removed us from the place, we weren’t connected to it, our senses beyond sight not plugged in – and it was too easy. Again, we saw birds on a mound on the ice far off in the distance. It looked to be another dead deer that had gotten caught on the ice.

As we left the dunes and surrounding wetlands, we observed a red tail hawk in a tree and another on a fence post near the road, so close we could take in and really appreciate its size.  We headed back to Larry’s; another adventure behind us with the hope of another to come soon.

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