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Blane Klemek column: Minnesota's waters, habitats are special

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I remember as a boy watching an old Hamm's beer commercial and enjoying the catchy jingle, "From the land of sky-blue waters ..."

If I recall, the scenes were pure Minnesota -- the lakes, the pine trees, the rivers.

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We Minnesotans are blessed to live in a state with an abundance of water and diverse landscapes. Indeed, not too many states have three major biomes converging within its borders. And of course, these biomes contain abundant wildlife from grassland nesting sparrows and upland sandpipers within the prairie regions to abundant warblers and thrushes of the forests to waterfowl of all kinds inhabiting wetlands everywhere.

We also live in a state that has more riparian habitat than Hawaii, California and Florida combined. One could almost say that Minnesota's water resources -- streams, rivers, wetlands and lakes -- are biomes in and of themselves.

Take for instance a lake. What do you see besides water? Limnologists, or lake ecologists, see different zones that harbor different plants and critters. These zones are identified based on the location. For example, the middle of the lake, generally deeper, is less desirable for species of fish and wildlife than say, the zones where vegetation occurs more abundantly. Shallower areas of a lake often provide better habitat for aquatic insects, which in turn attract minnows, larger fish, birds and other animals.

While people are attracted to lakes for both living beside and recreating on, lakeshore owners should be more cognizant of wildlife that depends on natural shorelines and the habitat it contains. Have you ever watched a great blue heron slowly stalk its prey from the tranquil back bays and shorelines of undisturbed lakes and rivers? Or fished within the bulrush, lily pads and trees that have fallen into the water? Often is the case that shorelines become sterile environments from human development and shoreline alterations such as the construction of docks, fancy landscape designs, herbicide use, and the removal of "undesirable" vegetation -- both in and out of the water.

Shores are important. Not only the vegetation on the shore, which serves many functions, including as buffers and wildlife habitat, but for what grows in the water, too. Though docks can serve as cover for fishes needing something to hide below and to escape the heat of the sun, I'm certain that, if given the choice, many of those fishes would prefer the shade of dense vegetation or the branches of a felled tree. And chances are that a belted kingfisher would find such places desirable as well. Many times I have marveled at this chunky bird's ability to dive into the water with astonishing force and, a second later, emerge with a small fish.

I have had the fortune of fishing and hunting within relatively undisturbed waters. Perhaps one of my grandest experiences occurred on a fishing float-trip on the wild and scenic Good News River in Alaska. This river, fed from interior lakes and mountain snowmelt, coursed through a landscape as wild as I have ever seen. Salmon, trout, and grayling swam below our rafts and were our sought after quarry but, along with the wildness of aquatic life, were the terrestrial and avian life forms. Caribou, grizzly bears, bald eagles, species of gulls and terns, Harlequin ducks, and numerous songbirds of which songs were never heard by my ears prior or since.

But one doesn't have to travel to the wilds of Alaska to appreciate natural and untouched waters. I have enjoyed times hiking along the banks of the Red and Red Lake rivers in pursuit of solitude and recreation and have relished in the wildness of a flooded woods, the strewn debris of enormous logs and limbs, and the thick understory beneath mighty cottonwoods. Wildlife abound, too. Deer, wood ducks, geese, pileated woodpeckers, common yellowthroats, and black-billed magpies have kept me company on numerous occasions, all in the confines of a narrow riverine corridor that seems larger than what it really is.

So, too, are places such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness along the Canadian border and the deep and cold clear lakes you can find there. Gold-colored walleyes and lake trout swim within the clean waters, while loons swim and call from the surface and hunt below.

There are still out-of-the-way lakes, ones in which few people live along, that offer fishing and wildlife viewing opportunities unimpeded by the clutter of dwellings and the clatter of human activity.

Yes, there are many of us who enjoy casting a lure or a hooked worm within the tangles of submerged tree limbs of fallen trees along the shores of lakes and banks of trout streams or catfish rivers. We also enjoy listening to the unusual vocalizations of American bitterns within the security of dense cattails along some of these very waters.

So, too, these shorelines, natural and wild, are signs of what a healthy and functional system should be, should look like, and what we Minnesotans appreciate about living here as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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