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A Day at Tamarac with Judy

Thursday July 10, 2014
Bear Paw Campground
Itasca State Park, Minnesota


We pack a lunch this morning and are on our way in what we think is plenty of time to arrive at the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center by 9:30.  The Judy Bell led tour takes off at 10:00 and we’d like to take a peek inside the Refuge’s new visitor center and see the film before we go.

Things don’t go quite as planned.  When I put the exact street address into my phone maps it takes us to Tamarac Lodge.  Close but no cigar.  So after calling the Refuge and getting directions we do manage to get there on time for the tour.  Everyone is gathered and waiting. There are 5 of us on the tour.  The van is ready to go and in short order we are off.




The refuge is very large at 43,000 acres.  Larger than Itasca State Park at 32,000 acres.  Just typing those 3 zeros after the numbers makes me smile.   That so much land is being preserved without development to the benefit of the other species with whom we share this magnificent planet is wonderful.   Way to go Minnesota!

Of course our driver knows just where to take us to see one of my main objectives, the trumpeter swan.  They are too far away for great pictures but I can see them in the binoculars.  Boy are they huge birds, the largest species of swan in North America.  Adults can measure 4’6” to 5’5” with a wingspan of 6’1” to 8’2”.  They weigh from 15 to 30 lbs.   Boy would I love to see them flap those wings.   But they are floating regally along. 

We are lucky enough to see the one surviving signet with them.  Judy says it has been a very difficult year for the swans and the loons.  They have lost most of their babes to predation.





No wonder Judy has returned here, it is such a beautiful place.




One of the real advantages of taking a tour at Tamarac is not only that you get to learn from Judy but she will take you places normally closed to the public.  No other way to see these sections of the refuge.   We get to go down some of the roads she and Bridget check regularly for fallen tress.   David is gate keeper today and he does a very fine job.

The roads are two tracks and you get the feeling that you really are right there in the middle of a wild place where few other people get to go.





Just one postcard spot after another.   This is something Judy knew David would like, some work done here by the CCC.  We see the tranquil waters of Chippewa Lake on one side here and the water shooting out on down the river on the other side.  Judy says she has sneaked up here and come upon an eagle sitting just off the edge picking off the fish as they come through.  Oh the experiences she has had.





Our tour guide has told us she will stop for anything anyone sees along the way and we are hardly back in the van when someone spots this sand hill crane moving through the grasses.




Tamarac is a very interesting refuge in that several habitats converge here, tall grass prairie, boreal forests and northern hardwoods.  



The osprey population is doing well but Judy tells us that two long time eagle nests were lost this winter.  I wonder what a shock it must have been to the birds she says have nested 7 years in that spot to return and find their nest has disappeared.  We don’t see any of Tamarac’s eagles today which is unusual I understand.  They aren’t in their “normal” trees.  Perhaps they have found new special trees.  Very interesting that this osprey nest in a dead tree standing out alone managed to hang on while the larger heavier eagles’ nests in live trees in the forest were blown out.   I guess it’s all in where the wind blows the most powerfully.





Not why does the turtle cross the road, but how.

We are a two time turtle rescue team today.  First Judy helps this painted across the road and later David herds a faster moving turtle further on his way across.




Ever the guide, she holds him up so we can see his lovely colors before setting him down safe and sound on the other side. 






Judy is telling us about the Chippewa spirit houses that are located through the grasses on a small knoll at this spot. The Chippewa believe that after 3 days the spirits of the dead have departed and there is no need to continue to maintain the house.   Part of the Refuge is on the Chippewa reservation. 

A stone plaque on the site indicates that these are the graves of Ah She Quaince and other members of the family.  The spirit houses are constructed over the graves and supplied with food, clothing, weapons, toys that the departed spirit may need for the 3 days it will take the spirit to move into another realm.  The diamond opening at the top of the house is for the spirit to be able to leave.  We are lucky to be able to see even these remains as clearly in only a few years there will be no sign of them. 

What an interesting tour this is.













Just down the road from the spirit houses is a bridge at the site of a roller dam used by loggers in the early part of the 20th century when the original white and red pine forests were logged.  Logs were piled up on the sides of the river during the winter.  The dam was closed in the spring causing the water to rise behind it  and then opened so that the flood of water would float the logs down stream to the mill.   We are all looking at a log in the water which has been there since this time.








The prairie grasses and flowers in this area are really lovely. Everyone wants a picture of the Prairie Lily.


















This is how Judy gets the gorgeous pictures she puts on here blog Travels with Emma.   She has a much shorter account of this day than mine.  Check it out.




This is our last stop for the day and our now professional gate keeper makes sure we get through and things are locked behind us.






Back at the visitor center we watch the excellent movie and spend not enough time with the exhibits.  Another one of those we will have to return places.  We are already slightly late for our lunch appointment at the Chippewa Picnic site on the banks of the Otter Tail River.  Boy would I like to see one of those Otter tails.







A fine place to sit and look out over the lake and the bird feeders, binoculars supplied.




Sadly, no otter tails at our picnic spot but this 13 lined ground squirrel was too cute and didn’t give a hoot about us.  This is such a beautiful place for lunch.  It’s a shame the picture,  we almost forgot to take before we left, doesn’t show the lovely river just beyond us.









Judy wants to show us Lost Lake and had suggested we might kayak it this afternoon.  But time has gotten away from us and it is a bit late for that also she thinks it might be a bit too windy for her inflatable kayak. 

We go down to see the lake anyway and when we get there, the swans are here as well.  Terrific!

Notice that brave Judy is in short sleeves and shorts while I am in long sleeves, long pants and have my socks up over my pant legs to fend off both the mosquitoes and the ticks.   

There are many things to see in this delightful location.  One right after the other.  It is a gorgeous day.  Perfect weather for being in a wonderful natural area.








I did not alter the color on these damsel flies.  Isn’t it amazing?  But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.


I was a bit far away to get a good shot of the loons on the lake and was really really hoping they would call but just seeing them makes me smile and I want to remember they were there.





It appears today was damsel fly love day.  I have never seen them making hearts like this.  Just amazing!



As we go back to the car Judy realizes she may have left her keys in the van and won’t be able to get into the volunteer site area since the gates are locked at 4:00.   She zooms on down the two track and we follow along in time to see Bridget come to the rescue to open the gate and the building to get the keys.   All is well.




We arrive at Judy’s home sweet home where Emma has been waiting all day to get out and patrol the yard.



She greets us enthusiastically but then heads off to patrol under the bird feeders.  Squirrels must be in the area.  She’s really staring someone down.



We relax on the patio at her really nice site.  Judy says they put the patios in last year as well as a clothes line so the volunteers could hang out their clothing if they liked.   Nice ways to show appreciation for the efforts of the volunteers.   I know they could not run the refuge as well without them.  Looks  like they know it too.




Emma’s not interested in the conversation.  She just relaxes in the yard near her squirrel.  No wonder she likes to chase the real thing.



Look at this view would you?  Who wouldn’t want this for their home site?



Soon we head over to Judy’s neighbors, fellow volunteers John and Bridget, who are also having visitors, Dave, Marci and their 2 sons.  The nine of us have a wonderful meal with fried pickles as an appetizer.  John and Bridget are from Mississippi and found out Judy, from the North, had never tried them.   We all pronounced them delicious.  Even me and I don’t like dill pickles.  Thanks Tom and Marci for including us in your feast.





Our biggest gratitude goes to Judy for sharing a wonderful day with us at one of  her special places.   Cool beans!!




  1. Very cool that you got to hang with Judy. She was the first blogger we met while traveling west.

  2. One of these days, I must go up and visit Judy, you know....play city slicker tourist, ask where the bathroom is while on tour.

    I have seen it asked, "When is the best time to visit Mn and avoid bugs?" Hands down it would be after Labor Day and before the snow flies.

    1. And that will be exactly when I return next time.....now when does that snow start to fly???

    2. Normally around Thanksgiving, we begin to expect the first major storm. Colors usually peak around late September to mid October.

    3. Interesting thing about the swans, from about December to February they all come to a small section of the Mississippi near Monticello Mn. Not some, but pretty much the entire midwestern population. All 2000-3000 are fed in a backyard of a standard city lot.

  3. damsel flies? wow HAHaaa Emma and her squirrel. how cute is that … great pictures and description of the day as always, Sherry… a day with Judy in her world.. good stuff...

  4. Cool beans is right! I'd say getting to tour with Judy is pretty special! She works some pretty amazing gigs!

    Love those damsel fly hearts, I have never seen anything like that, and they are so neon blue! What a nice day.

  5. Minnesotans are a hardy group of people. They wear short sleeves and pants nearly all year around! Your post brings back so many memories of my visit there last year.

  6. How cool you got to meet and spend time with Judy. She's a special lady.

  7. We enjoyed meeting y'all and spending time with fellow bloggers. It was a great day!

  8. A tour with Judy! How wonderful is that! My favorite photo is the damsel flies today. Hello to Judy from us!

  9. Wow, you got some great pictures on your tour! John and Bridget took the 4 of us out, too, but unfortunately, we got rained on!! We were still able to get some pictures of the eagles and the swans. Such a beautiful place - I sure wish we could have stayed in the area longer! It was great meeting up with old friends and fellow bloggers!!

  10. We're jealous, we want to meet Emma, oh and Judy too :-)

  11. Great day with Judy in such a beautiful place!! Really nice that you got to meet up with Tom, Marci and The Boys. But to top it off with FRIED PICKLES...it just doesn't get much better than that ;o)

  12. How nice that you got a personally guided tour. I can see you and David volunteering at a place like that. It would seem to be right up your alley.

    We learned about fried pickles several years ago and have them whenever we find them. Yummy! We've met Tom and Marci in Florida somewhere. You just never know who you'll run into next, do you?

    Great pictures and a very nice tour of the refuge. Those damsel flies are beautiful and interesting when they form the hearts. Judy certainly does have a nice spot.

  13. Very cool to get a tour with Judy. Love the dragonflies pictures too! Swans too!

  14. We also loved meeting Judy. Looks like you guys had a great day!

  15. So fun to see Judy shooting a Sulphur Cinquefoil as I was doing the same thing recently! Meeting Judy is on my bucket list, but I'll wait until she's somewhere that has less ticks and mosquitoes. I saw that pic of everyone walking through the field and all I could think of was how bad the ticks probably were there!

  16. We've taken a tour with Judy a couple of years ago, she is so knowledgeable on nature's wonders, it was a once in a lifetime thrill. We hope to repeat it again. ;c)

    Nice post, great to see two of blog lands greatest nature lovers together enjoying the sights and beauty.

  17. This tour was marvelous and a special treat by Judy. Love fried pickles.

  18. Great day with Judy. Very interesting story about the Spirit houses.

  19. It's always nice to have an appreciative audience for my ramblings...

  20. What a wonderful day -- your narrative and photos were terrific, as always -- sure wish we could have tagged along! For many years there were trumpeter swans in Lithia Park (in our hometown of Ashland, OR). Eric worked for the parks department and took charge of the young swans -- they thought he was ""Mom" and would come running whenever we were in the park. They weren't too nice to anyone else, though.

  21. If I had seen the dragonflies in a movie, I would have said CG!! How amazing that they are the real thing. Had no idea the Trumpeters were that large. Wow, such great info and pictures - I had a great time :-))).

  22. What a wonderful day full of knowledge from a "local!" Judy did give you the deluxe tour. Glad you helped out the turtles:) Those damsel flies are gorgeous. Love the hearts! Beautiful flowers. Cool beans is right:)

  23. Well, as I was reading your post, I kept thinking of things to comment on...but then that last photo of Judy took it all away except for what a great guide Judy is. Our tour in the back roads of Anahuac were her were a high point of our winter months. So glad you were able to see so many wonderful things with her knowledge and willingness to share. Happy days! oh yeah...those dragonfly hearts were incredible!

  24. Great tour! I'd love to see those swans spreading wings as wide as I am tall. Wow! Beautiful area and some neat finds. I definitely liked the dragonfly hearts. Even the lunchtime squirrel was cute :) Thanks to Judy for a great day!

  25. Are damsel flies the same as dragonflies? We had tons of them around us when we went tubing on the James last summer. They made those interesting shapes. Love the swans- so graceful looking! Also the flowers-


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