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ISSUE 120 VOL 3 PUBLISHED 10/6/2006

Northfield for nature lovers

By Sara Perelli-Minetti
Contributing Writer

Friday, October 6, 2006

It's October and it's 80 degrees. It's also the peak of the fall foliage.

Welcome to Minnesota. Buckle your Chacos, fill your Nalgene, put on a back pack and get your Hill-residing self out to the hundreds of acres of stunning natural lands waiting in the Northfield area.

Southern Minnesota is known for its incredibly diverse flora and fauna, and fall is perhaps one of the best seasons in which to enjoy it. From the bluffs of Winona to the plains of Rochester, this area has just about any landscape a nature lover could want. And lucky for St. Olaf students, an excellent representation of these many habitats is as short as a five minute walk onto our cross country trails or as long as a 20-minute drive to Nerstrand – Big Woods State Park away.

No student should graduate from St. Olaf without spending some time wandering at least a few of the school's hundred acres of natural lands. The easiest way to see them is to walk down behind Skoglund or Ytterboe and follow the cross – country trails. Take a turn around Skoglund pond or spend half an hour browsing the Ytterboe woods.

Spending time outside is the best way to “stay aware of your surroundings – of what's going on in the natural world – not just your textbook,” said St. Olaf student naturalist Amber Collett '07. Both she and fellow naturalist Willie Richards '07 find a few hours outside the easiest way to de-stress. That sounds like something we could all use.

St. Olaf's trails are always enjoyable while running, but for something a little different, try a night hike. Bring a head- lamp or a flashlight to try to catch the glinting eyes of a raccoon, fox or coyote. Or stop for a moment and watch an owl dive into the fields. Abandon the lamp entirely and take a few minutes to view the panorama of stars away from the campus' ambient light.

For the daytime adventurer, take an hour to join Richards on one of his bird watching hikes. Tailored to the seasonal migrations of the local fowl, the hikes are designed for “anyone who's interested,” Richards said. Fall is a prime time to observe the transition between the songbirds of September and the waterfowl of late October, with birds of prey passing through in between. Last week a group saw a bald eagle swoop over the baseball field.

Richards posts signs and sends e-mails to science majors before one of these hikes, but the easiest way to find out about them is to look at the student naturalist board, located on the second floor of the Science Center, just outside of the ecology lab.

If you are craving something on a slightly larger scale than the Olaf natural lands, bike, walk or take the Love Bus over to Carleton's arboretum for 800 acres of an almost completely different habitat. Unlike the relatively young forest, wetlands and restored prairie of St. Olaf, Carleton's land is filled with hundreds of acres of hardwood deciduous trees, prairie and floodplain. The careful eye will notice myriad waterfowl, snapping turtles and even the occasional otter alongside the river that runs through the lands. The Upper Arb, which is closer to campus, is a veritable maze of trails accommodating cyclists, runners and hikers alike. For additional information and trail maps, visit the Carleton College website.

For the enterprising Ole in possession of a vehicle, Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park, located off of Highway 264, is a great place to begin. Approximately 800 acres of forest is riddled with 13 miles of moderate to easy trails that can be explored by hiking, or for the more ambitious, running. There is a very reasonable $5 group entry fee to the park.

Trails in Big Woods are clearly marked, although be sure to pick up a map at the ranger station when you get your parking pass. Of particular enjoyment is the seldom-trafficked Hope Loop in the northwest corner of the park, where one walks through a golden canopy of birch, maples and the occasional dogwood tree. Deer and squirrels of a much slimmer build than the St. Olaf variety can be found rustling in the fallen leaves.

Certain more popular trails, such as the loop to Hidden Falls, are lined with informational plaques full of interesting facts about the history, flora and fauna of Big Woods. One such sign informs that the current Big Woods is actually only a remnant of an original area of 5,000 acres set aside by settlers in 1854.

Another sign tells of the United States’ only working dairy farm operating in a state park, nestled in the heart of the woods. Big Woods Dairy not only uses a unique rotational grazing system, but also runs a completely hormone and pesticide-free operation.

Big Woods is also one of two easily accessible local camping options. Cannon River Wilderness Area, located just off of Highway 3, is another. The Cannon River area provides a chance to hike an extensive network of trails, as well as see habitats that include oak savannah, floodplain and areas for nesting wildlife not available on the St. Olaf campus.

Don't have your own camping equipment? Check out tents, sleeping bags and pads from the St. Olaf Outdoor Recreation Program (STORP) for a small deposit and enjoy a night outside before winter sets in. STORP is on the bottom floor of Tostrud, just past the weight room. For more information on events led by the student naturalists, be sure to check out the naturalist board in the Science Center.

For the busy student, it is often difficult to imagine taking an hour of precious study time simply to look at some wildlife. But the truth is, it's one of the easiest ways to relax and take in the beauty that is around us. So go for a walk, a hike, a bike ride or a camp-out at night. St. Olaf's miles of trails are a short walk away – what are you waiting for?

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