Tamarac Trails and Tales

Oh, Tamarac. Have you ever failed me? Not even once that I can recall. Be it summer or fall, and now, early in spring, when so little was seasonally correct thanks to our long and lingering winter and shortened spring. Yet you once again shed away the intricacies of life from your tree-filled valleys and hills, those rocky, reed blessed shores surrounding your placid and picturesque lakes; those sneaky reflection pools hidden in little pockets that surprised us with those bright yellow marsh marigolds! 

What a beautiful surprise, as if you had decorated the dining room table with a bouquet of beauty. You also offered us colorful dainty forest flowers within the tree leaf duff, just below the warblers and fleeting colors of that chorus of birds. Then you added the suspense of swan domination intermingled with such grace and style. Then there was the photographic “poetry” in the greening of the forest as a new spring came to life around us. 

We drove the three hour trip after setting an alarm for 5 a.m., which was somewhat shocking in itself. My partner, Roberta, had intended to wake me a few days earlier for this trip I seemingly just had to make. On this more successful waking morning when the alarm went off we both jerked awake from our pillows with shock in instant consciousness as did poor Joe Pye. My ever hopeful hound didn’t quite know what to make of it, looking from the blaring old clock radio to us. Although it took a bit to gather ourselves, including making our tea and coffee, we were out and on the road in about 45 minutes. Through Graceville, Herman, Pelican Rapids and finally Detroit Lakes. As we turned onto U.S. 34 we were mere minutes from our goal: Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge.

On the edge of Tamarac we caught perhaps a fight over a pecking order on a small wetland.

We were blessed even before we reached Blackbird Trail, the gravel thoroughfare through this North Woods paradise. We began passing swans huddled in stalk fields a few miles before the park entrance that included several on a small wetland that were in some sort of ritual, one that included a bit of a dust up followed by ritualistic rising and lowering of their necks. We guess we had witnessed an establishment of a pecking order of young, unattached swans for there were a couple already on nests. Their mating rituals are seemingly quite different for that occurs in water, with a beautiful neck and head movements between the male and female, an almost ballet-like ceremony of artful lust.

Yellow Warblers were amazingly common, although we also caught Yellow Rumped and Chestnut sided in the Refuge.

What we witnessed was decidedly less serene and beautiful. Nonetheless, swans provide us with one of the beautiful successful rebound stories in nature. The numbers have increased significantly over the years, for when I was young they were extremely rare. I recall being on a trip to Christchurch, New Zealand, in the 1970s where I kayaked through more black swans than of all the native white swans I’d seen in my lifetime to that point. Now they’re fairly common, including some that nest in our nearby prairie wetlands. Swans are such a beautiful bird. So elegant and figurant, so graceful and poetic in form. I never tire of photographing them. 

Moments later we pulled into a broad turnoff to pick up some literature, we lingered at the overview to look at the lake below. Suddenly we caught a flash of yellow and we were suddenly immersed in one of those hide and seek games with Yellow Warblers. Fortunately we were high above the trees for a change, making the game even more fun. While I was working for warbler images, Roberta had spied a large wading like bird in the shallows below. I could see it briefly and captured a few images, although reviewing the images both on the camera and later on the computer, the identity remained mysterious.

A little “photographic poetry” helps the soul …

Tamarac has usually offered a beautiful bouquet of flowers. While we didn’t see the beautiful blue flag iris blooms that have enchanted me in the past we saw numerous bellwort, hepatica, violets and wood anemone. A few years ago that five mile stretch took nearly three hours as I was constantly in and out of the car with the camera, bending over and actually laying on my belly in seeking different angles. Now, just months shy of reaching the ripe age of 80, I am feeling somewhat limited in seeking those same and similar camera angles. And it seemed that just as I was about to push the shutter there would be a nearby flutter, and my eyes would roam from the flowering offering to the nearby brush or canopy. Such joy. Such beauty. 

Between the warblers and forest-friendly wildflowers, it would be awhile before we came upon one of those “little pockets” of marshy waters and the jewel-like marigolds. What a startling sight! On the ridgetops of ankle to knee deep drops, they beckoned like stars in the night. Our stop there lasted long enough that a park ranger drifted in, the only vehicle and human we had seen in the nearly two hours of traversing Tamarac. She was soon out of the pickup and bending over with Roberta as they chatted about the wild range of hepaticas. Meanwhile, I was shutter happy. The marigolds were like icing on a cake, to use a metaphor. 

As we gathered ourselves another sense was awakened. That of sound, and the sound was the rapid rat-a-tat-tat of drumming Ruffed Grouse. Interestingly, although we had been in and out of the car numerous times we hadn’t heard the drumming until then. And, from multiple directions. The ranger said grouse were common and acted a bit surprised that we hadn’t encountered on our drive. 

Shortly thereafter we reached the gravel portion of Hwy. 29, and decided we should head back for the second third of our journey, one that would include Maplewood State Park and the rookery in Fergus Falls. There was some wonder if the rest of our day-long adventure would measure up to Tamarac, and although the other places were interesting in their own rights, Tamarac was once again inspirational and beautiful. Once again this sanctuary of wildness, here since 1938, was a special delight. It has yet to let me down whether I’m looking for wildflowers, feathery inhabitants or photographic poetry.  

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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