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Seeking refuge: Backyard wilderness sees bump in popularity

The sumac leaves have turned burgundy and prairie grass has transformed into golden waves. Overhead, flocks of migratory birds head south.

It’s definitely autumn at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

For residents of the southwest metro, the refuge offers a backyard wilderness oasis. The refuge covers over 14,000 acres along the Minnesota River, scattered across 70 miles between Bloomington to Henderson, with 46 miles of trails. Often the refuge is hidden just behind a cul de sac or off a highway.

While the visitor centers in Bloomington and Carver have been closed since the beginning of the pandemic, that hasn’t stopped residents from exploring the refuge on foot.

“We’ve seen about five times more people on our trails than typical,” said Cortney Solum, refuge assistant visitor services manager.

In the spring, “when people were itching to get out of the house,” it was hard to find a parking spot at some of the refuge sites, Solum said. Now, it’s cooled down, but the refuge remains popular nonetheless.

“I think it’s really simple. They’re seeking refuge in a refuge,” said Sara Blood, interim executive director with Minnesota Valley Refuge Friends. The Friends organization is a citizen-supported group that advocates and raises funds for the refuge.

With more people working at home, people are discovering the refuge. “It’s free. That’s the other thing. It’s free to anyone. It’s open 365 days a year, sunrise to sunset,” Blood said.

AUTUMN

The recently completed Cedar Avenue Bridge project in Bloomington has become a much-visited spot in the refuge.

“It’s really easy access — parking is nearby. It’s a popular spot for birders and photographers, because you can get right over the water and see wildlife,” Blood said.

There are about a dozen units in the refuge, each with various personalities and habitats, such as floodplain forests, wetlands, tallgrass prairies and oak savannas.

In the southwest metro, the Rapids Lake Education Center near Carver and the Louisville Swamp Unit near Shakopee are popular sites, boasting beautiful vistas and oak savannas.

Autumn is a particularly beautiful time to visit. “Migration of birds, the changing of the leaves. I like to say it’s a season for the senses,” Blood said.

“There’s a lot of different things happening as the seasons change. You can see a lot of wildlife foraging around and you can see the flowers and trees start to change as the weather cools and days shorten,” said Solum, who also reminds hikers to be aware of hunters during hunting season, and wear orange or bright pink to make themselves more visible.

Nicole Menard, urban biologist with the refuge, notes that visitors can spot bright yellow Maximilian sunflowers or the lavender-colored asters. One of Menard’s favorites is the spotted touch-me-not.

She also reminds visitors to keep an eye out for birds during their migration. “I’m seeing a lot of species I wouldn’t normally see coming through,” she said.

“This is a great time for folks to get their nature fix,” Menard said. Blood agrees.

“The crunch of the leaves underfoot. You can smell the changing of the seasons, and it’s getting colder,” Blood said. “I love sweater weather. Bring that mug of hot chocolate with you and make a day of it. It’s a wonderful place to be.”