Saturday, June 17, 2017

At Home on the Range...

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not cloudy all day.

For the past 2 years, Eric and I have been wanting to camp at Blue Mounds State Park in Luverne MN, but for one reason or another, it just didn't happen... until this past weekend. We made a reservation a few months early, and were set to go. And then when we were doing our last minute prep, I checked the DNR park website and read that the water was no good. It's positive for E. coli, and we can't drink or use it for brushing teeth or cooking. Oh no! Do we cancel, or do we go anyway? We decided to load as much water in as many Nalgene bottles we owned, and off we went!

What's the draw?

For me, it's the idea of hiking along side the buffalos that drew me in. After our great trip in Utah's antelope islands and seeing this majestic beasts wandering freely, lazily lying in the hundreds, I had to experience that again.  The more I read about Blue Mounds State Park, the more excited I got. The park is working with the Minnesota Zoo to breed genetically pure bison herd. As many of us know, this animal was already on the verge of extinction from hunting, and to save them, they were cross-bred with cows. Only by accident was it that the Blue Mounds herd remain free of cattle genetics. Conservationists found that 1% of the bison population was still pure. Now, as part of conservation efforts, at the annual roundup, the herd is thinned of those with less-than-pure bison genes. So, why were they trying to save bisons from extinction aside from the obvious reason of saving these beasts? It's said that farmers were hoping to produce "superior" beef animal that could withstand the harsh winters in the Great Plains....but it didn't quite work out as the crossbreeds were still smaller and not as adaptable as they had hoped. So, it wasn't really for pure altruistic reasons. With the conservation efforts in Blue Mounds, which has been expanded to Minneopa State Park, there's a few hundreds of bisons now in MN. Eventually, I hope these bisons will wander freely in Blue Mounds' prairie just as in Utah's antelope islands. 

What else did we see?

On the way to Blue Mounds, you'll see hundreds, or seemingly thousands, of windmills dotting the plains. At the site, we were surprised by the circularly cleared area on our camp ground. Apparently, teepees used to be on there. Heard, but not seen, were coyotes howling in the middle of the night.

"Giant pinwheels!"

Tamar spotted prickly pear cactus, which was such a great surprise for her! Maya loved seeing the "big red rocks "along the hiking paths. The flora is definitely different from what we normally hike - a sea of prairie grasses and flowers dotting the trails. It was hot, in the upper 90s, but was breezy.  First, we hiked on top of the quartzite cliff, and made our way down on a gradual descending trail to view the cliff from below on our way back.

The state park is named after the roughly 1 mile long Sioux Quartzite bedrock, and has been referred to as the Stonehenge in America. It's actually pink, not blue, but supposedly appeared blue to early settlers, hence the name. It is said that the sunrise and sunset on the spring and fall equinox closely align with the wall’s east-west orientation. There's an Eagle Rock point along the trail where you can see miles in every direction
 - in one corner, Iowa, and South Dakota in another.

Natural rock amphitheater made of quartzite

Bison jump?

Native Americans are said to herd bison and drive them over the cliff when hunting. So, was this true at Blue Mounds? No one knows. What I've read is that there has been claims of piles of bones at the base of the cliff, but no evidence to date to corroborate it.

Sioux Quartzite

Did we see Bison?

You see, there's never a guarantee that you'll see them in the park. The park range is expansive; There is a viewing deck, where you may be able to spot these animals from afar, and I would have gone there if we didn't chance upon them. By pure coincidence, we got on a trail we didn't intend to hike, and in spite of the hundreds of acres of roaming land, the herd was lounging next to the flimsy fence close to the path. SO close... I could almost touch them. But that would be reckless... and so not smart.

Why the fascination with bison in the wild? I don't know. I guess it reminds me of the story of the Last Unicorn, but it's real life, and the experience leaves me very hopeful for humankind.

B. bison, found only in North America, has rebounded from extinction. Whew!

After 6 miles of hiking, and short on water, we went back to camp for well-earned dinner, smores and origami!

Second day

Since the first day was already adventure-filled, and the tiny legs were tired, we decided to take it easy on the 2nd day. We took a short hike at Touch the Sky prairie, where all you see throughout are tall  grasses. We did see one bouncing, long-tailed deer! And the trail led to a delightfully hidden small waterfalls.

Hidden falls after a short 1.3 mi hike

3rd day, Fun day!

We decided to take a ride to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to check out Falls park and treat the kids to the Butterfly House and Aquarium. The drive was short, and the waterfall was impressive.  In contrast, the butterfly house and aquarium was smaller than I expected. Nevertheless, the kids had a great time touching the sharks, rays, and starfishes. It was definitely a highlight for them, and I'm glad we went.

Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Swimming with the fishes!
On the way back, we passed by Minnesota's Largest Candy Store, and boy, we were all like kids in a candy store! Definitely a sweet treat to end a sweet camping trip.
Biggest candy store in MN

And because it's Father's Day tomorrow, I want to give a shout out to the guy who introduced me to the FUN that is camping. It's been a real adventure, my dear!

This earthly life is a battle,' said Ma. 'If it isn't one thing to contend with, it's another. It always has been so, and it always will be. The sooner you make up your mind to that, the better off you are, and more thankful for your pleasures.  
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little Town on the Prairie