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AUSTIN EDITION - State park crowds thin in winter

Temps in the 40s warm up winter camping ritual

With last week's stretch of warmer weather, it seemed like a good time to enjoy my annual ritual of winter camping.

Temperatures soared into the mid 40s, so the experience wasn't full of the cold weather challenges encountered in a bygone era. Although it got a bit chilly at night, the solace of the outdoors this time of year can't be beat.

Forestville State Park near Spring Valley was deserted after the rangers left for the night. Paying a nominal fee to have the whole park to yourself was well worth the expense for a small group of hikers looking to spend a day on the lam.

Eagles on the wing

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Taking a hike through the valley at Forestville doesn't offer the same views as the western mountains, but there are striking similarities. The state park isn't real big, but it does have it's own unique taste of wilderness.

A resident population of bald eagles signifies a healthy ecosystem. These majestic birds of prey are just as impressive to watch flying through a small valley in southeast Minnesota as in the wilds of Montana.

Last Wednesday afternoon afforded the hiker a viewing opportunity that can only be witnessed in the colder months. An overcast day cast an icy gray backdrop on the land, which made for a vivid contrast to the white plumage of an eagle flying through the trees.

Patches of open water bring the eagles close to the trail along the south branch of the Root River. A new stretch of trail put two hikers from Austin in full view of an eagle soaring above the river. In full plumage, with the characteristic white tail feathers and white head, the bald eagle in flight is awe inspiring.

The pleasure of viewing wild creatures in their habitat is not a luxury we should take for granted. In the past, the use of certain pesticides severely reduced the numbers of our national bird.

To be able to see wild creatures in their habitat takes an effort from the citizenry and the government to the keep the environment in proper shape. It's only from the neglect of humans that the ecosystem becomes unbalanced.

Although we still have a long way to go in terms of addressing environmental concerns, the presence of eagles provides proof that, at least in some cases, things are better than they used to be.

Many other types of wildlife can also be encountered on a trip to Forestville, including mink, muskrat and raccoon.

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Sights on the trail

Going for a hike, whether along the Austin trail system or in a state park, is a way of beating the indoor blues experienced by folks this time of the year. A brisk foray along the trail can lighten the load.

The paved trail in Austin that follows the Cedar River and winds its way to Todd Park is a huge improvement to the local landscape. Fewer than 10 years ago, if somebody wanted to walk where the trail now goes under the Roosevelt Bridge, they had to sidestep a junk pile from the industry then situated along the river.

The cleanup along the river has been a boon for the wildlife as the flocks of geese and ducks can attest. Now, if the river itself can be cleaned up, then myself and photographer Nate Howard can take another canoe trip down the Cedar to report a story of positive change for the beleaguered environment.

Scott Kolb is a Post-Bulletin sports columnist. He writes a weekly Tuesday column and can be reached at skolb@postbulletin.com.

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