Sax Zim Bog: a primordial winter retreat

Contrary to what most of my posts suggest, I do actually spend lots of time in Minnesota, exploring the outdoors mostly near home, but sometimes a fair jaunt away to the more remote reaches of the state. img_2457

This is the case with one of my latest ventures, which was coordinated with an effort to achieve three northern Minnesota Checkpoints in one day (for more about the Checkpoint challenge, see my post from last year.) But Mission One was to make a stop at one of the premiere wilderness areas in the state: Sax Zim Bog.

The bog is renowned by birders, especially during winter, for the number of boreal species that winter there, most notably the enormous and ghostly great gray owl, as well as sharp-tailed grouse, white-winged crossbills, pine grosbeaks, boreal chickadees, and a number of other rarely seen owl species. The mixture of woods and fields makes the location an attractive habitat for these birds, many of which have flown south from the far reaches of Canada and beyond. The area is also home to northern mammals such as moose, gray wolves, and pine martens.

Typically, a bog conjures images of a muddy wetland. I always envision dark fairy tales of lost wanderers stumbling blindly after malicious will-o’-the-wisps and meeting their demise in quicksand-like mud pits, or urban legends (based on truth!) about human remains that are found mummified and unnervingly well preserved by the acidic, oxygen-poor conditions of the surroundings. Really a bog is any wetland area where dead plant material is accumulated (mostly mosses), and in the case of Sax Zim it is populated by a mix of spruce, tamarack, and white cedar, in addition to nearby hayfields and sedge meadows. This offers a wide variety of terrain, which makes it perfect for the large number of species that reside there. img_2459

The bog is north of Cloquet, about a 2 1/2 hour drive from my home near the Twin Cities. We traveled into the tiny town of Cotton and went west a number of miles down a snow-packed country road to the heart of the nature preserve.


The drive took us through Cloquet, where we passed by the famous Frank Lloyd Wright gas station.

A tiny welcome center, heated with solar energy and lacking running water, sits on the property. Nevertheless, it is kept warm inside and several birders were sitting patiently with long lenses nearby, waiting for something interesting to visit the feeders. Each year, the organization Friends of the Sax Zim Bog hosts a winter birding festival, this year to take place Feb. 17-19.


Somehow I had a feeling this would be the only owl I’d be seeing on my visit.

Feeders containing seed and suet are placed in various places around the bog, and these are often the best spots to find bird activity. Most people simply drive slowly down the long, snow-encrusted roads, scanning for movement without ever leaving their cars. Others prefer to hike, ski, or snowshoe through the area. Our time was limited, so we asked the desk volunteer where we might spot the best activity from the warmth of the car.

She pointed out a loop slightly north of us following Admiral and McDermitt Roads. She described the area as quintessentially boggy, full of spruce trees, and recommended a drive through at dusk to look for owls. The day earlier, she said, a great gray had been spotted sitting directly on the feeder.


Squirrels were aplenty at the Sax Zim feeders.

On our drive through, we occasionally encountered other birders stopped on the road along the way, indicating a sighting nearby. In fact, small traffic jams started to build up this way. The first of these was a really fun encounter with a ruffed grouse, which was busy peeling the bark from a few thin branches and was twisting and turning this way and that, nonplussed by the observers in the nearby vehicles. Photography is challenging in this environment because if one chooses to stay in the car, the heat emitting into the cold air from the open window will cause a rippling wave effect which can blur the picture quality.


Ruffed grouse

Unfortunately, our drive did not result in any other species observations (other than the numerous black-capped chickadees and red squirrels that were common at the feeders.) Despite the lack of bird cooperation, we were treated to a magnificent sunset along the jagged edges of the spruce tree line; an idyllic northern Minnesota scene.

We had three other cities to get to that night, so we had to hit the road after only a few hours at Sax Zim. I hope to revisit the bog soon, to keep looking for those elusive northern species. img_2526


Ultimate MN Scavenger Hunt

Lowell Park

Checkpoint in Lowell Park, Stillwater

I can’t believe this is the first time in my life that I’ve heard of MN Checkpoint–a yearly statewide challenge that encourages Minnesotans to visit areas of the state they normally never see.

There are ten Checkpoint locations across the state–since the challenge opened on Dec. 3, I have already visited two. The premise is simple: take your photo with the signpost declaring this spot as a checkpoint, upload it to the MN Checkpoint website, and earn points that you can exchange for prizes. Depending on how many of the ten points you end up with, you can win anything from wool socks to a three-day hotel getaway.

For one checkpoint, I took a weekend drive to the Zumbrota Covered Bridge with my constant travel companion cousin. We reminisced about an earlier trip to the area, during which we became horribly lost in Zumbrota, took a break, contemplated thieving silverware from a restaurant, and bought cheap travel mugs at a Casey’s General Store, which still fondly leak all over us to this day.

I gained another one yesterday in Stillwater’s Lowell Park, as I happened to be downtown for the holiday book sale at the Warden’s House Museum. I took riverfront photos for several other groups who were enjoying Stillwater that day, and explained the premise of the Checkpoint challenge to anyone who would listen. I think it’s a marvelous idea.

The challenge is competitive, and the prizes go fast. The last time I looked at the site, many items had already run out.

While this is somewhat disappointing, I think the real value in participating is the experience you get out of making the voyage to each location. Road trips seem out of the question during this time of the year; more likely to happen over the summer months. But there’s no real reason it should be this way! Yeah, it’s a little colder. And sometimes driving conditions can make winter travel a hassle. But given our unusually warm, misty, rainy winter thus far, the timing seems ideal. Zumbrota

The challenge is commercially stimulated, of course (what isn’t?) but MN Checkpoint is ultimately a way for people, especially ones who tend to interpret the arrival of winter as the termination of fun, to get out and enjoy their home state in a new way. Whether I end up with two points or ten, it’s still fun to be a part of it. And maybe I’ll start a little earlier next year. 😉

The challenge runs through Jan. 31, 2016. Seems like a worthy New Years project to me.

Locations left to visit:

August Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm

Arctic Cat, Inc. in Thief River Falls (a location I am eager to visit after an incredulous Englishman approached me on a visit to the U.K. inquiring if Thief River Falls was a real place)

Voyageurs National Park

TCF Bank Stadium (for anyone in the Cities, that’s one easy point for you right there)

Mille Lacs Kathio State Park (Ah! The famous campground featured in the story of the time we brought the rain fly but forgot the tent.)

World’s Largest Freestanding Hockey Stick and Puck in Eveleth

Cuyuna State Recreation Area in Crosby-Irontown

Hopperstead Stave Church in Moorhead