Friday, August 12, 2016

Discover Voyageurs NP wildlife on trail

A former beaver pond at the end of the Beaver Pond Overlook Trail.
Beaver Pond Overlook Trail
Day hikers can spot iconic Northwoods wildlife – or at least signs of it during an off day – on the Beaver Pond Overlook Trail at Voyageurs National Park.

The short hike runs 0.4-miles round trip. A parking lot for the trailhead sits off of Mead Wood Road (on the way to the Ash River Visitor Center) north of County Road 129/Ash River Trail.

Before heading to the overlook to search for wildlife, check out the outcrops of coarse pink to red granite along the trail’s edge. Some of the pink feldspar crystals are as large as four inches across, an amazing sight.

From the trailhead, the path climbs uphill to a rocky terrace.

Among the wildlife you might spot are moose. The largest animal in the national park, it can stand up to 6 feet high at the shoulders and weigh a thousand pounds. Only a few of the park’s moose reside off Kabetogama Peninsula, and beaver ponds are a great place to catch them enjoying a drink. Northern Minnesota represents the southern edge of the moose’s range in North America with about 40-50 in the park. The park’s moose population recently has declined, in part due to the increased heat during summer months thanks to global warming.

Predation from gray wolves also has taken a toll on the stressed moose population. The territories of about 6-9 packs, each consisting of about a half-dozen wolves, cross into the park, mostly on the peninsula. In addition to moose, wolves feed on deer and beaver. Though mainly gray in color, their coats also can be a red hue or even pitch black. Adult wolves are about 5-6 feet long; females weigh 50-85 pounds with males slightly larger at 70-110 pounds. Though reclusive, sometimes they can be seen crossing the park entrance roads, or their tracks can be spotted in the mud.

Also keep an eye out for black bear prints. About 150 black bears reside in the park. Common across forested regions of North America, the black bear is the smallest of the continent’s three bear species. Ranging from 4 to 7 feet long from nose to tail tip, males can weigh anywhere from 150-300 pounds with females just slightly smaller. Omnivores, they feed on berries, carrion, honey, insects, nuts, and small mammals; sometimes they’ll hunt small deer and moose calves.

If you don’t see any of these three animals, just pause and hold a hand to an ear. You’re certain to pick up red squirrels chattering and scampering around, as well as many of the park’s many bird species. Warblers abound on the trail, and near sunset owls usually can be heard.

When you reach a break in the forest canopy, look up. You may very well see a bald eagle. A year-round resident of the park, bald eagles enjoy the park’s tall white pines that line the large, deep lakes chockful of fish. About 42 breeding pairs reside in the park. Adults stand up to 35 inches high and sport a wingspan of six to eight feet.

Sightings or at least hearing the unmistakable, tranquil call of the common loon is even more likely. Around 190 loons reside in the park. Their black body sports a white checkered pattern, which allows them to blend well with a lake’s sparkling water. Adults are about 30 inches long with a wingspan of 60 inches.

Less likely to be seen flying the skies along this trail is the double-crested cormorant. Though populous in the park, they mainly reside on Rainy Lake’s rocky islands. Cormorants typically are a dark brown or black with iridescent highlights, but during breeding season their throat pouch turns a bright yellow, and along with teal-blue eyes, they can stand out from a distance.

At the trail’s end is the overlook, which sits high over a pond created by beavers, a common creature in Voyageurs and one of the very reasons that the park’s namesake came here. During the 1700s, French-Canadian traders exchanged European goods for beaver pelts that the local Ojibwe obtained by trapping. Due to overharvesting over the next two centuries, by 1900 the beaver almost disappeared from the area. The population has rebounded, though, and about 3000 beavers now reside in the park.

Beavers are no longer active at the pond seen from the overlook, but you still can observe how they re-engineer their environment by damming streams and small rivers. As the pond fills, they construct a lodge in which they raise their young. Beavers have created hundreds of ponds across Voyageurs.

Once you’ve taken in the view at the overlook, retrace your steps back to the parking lot.

If looking to extend your hike, consider picking up the nearby Sullivan Bay Snowshoe Trail. The trailhead is located just north of the turnoff for the Beaver Pond Overlook Trail.

At 1.2 miles round trip, the Sullivan Bay trail is mostly flat with one small hill toward its end. The trail heads to a picnic area with a scenic overlook from Sullivan Bay’s north shore.

Usually a loon or two can be seen on the bay; their diving and resurfacing, as well as their calls, can make for quite a show. In autumn, black-eyed Susans bloom trailside.

Learn more about the park’s day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at Voyageurs National Park guidebook.