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Blane Klemek: NAS facilities are ‘jewels in the forest’

Residents and visitors to northwest Minnesota should know about two chapters of the National Audubon Society and the properties the non-profit local chapters own and manage: the Neilson Spearhead Center, located 11 miles southwest of Bemidji, and the Audubon Center of the Red River Valley and Omdahl Arboretum (formerly known as Wetlands, Pines, and Prairie Audubon Sanctuary), located eight miles southeast of Warren.

The Spearhead Center, which is nestled alongside beautiful Spearhead Lake and is owned and operated by the Mississippi Headwaters Audubon Society, is a jewel in the forest.

The entire shoreline of this tranquil lake is natural and undisturbed. And the Audubon Center, once a property that was actively farmed, is a veritable diamond in the rough complete with wetlands, waterways, planted trees and shrubs and wildlife galore. Aside from providing wildlife with much needed food, water, shelter and space, both Audubon facilities serve the public as environmental education centers.  

The Spearhead Center is home to white-tailed deer, black bear, fisher, otter, flying squirrels, and even an occasional gray wolf. Bird life flourishes year round. In the summer, birders are routinely treated with sightings of numerous species of woodland warblers, thrushes, bald eagles, nesting loons and osprey, as well as great blue herons, wood ducks and other species of waterfowl.

Plant life is just as diverse, if not more so, at the Spearhead Center. Bountiful fruit and nut-bearing trees, shrubs, and herbs provide wildlife with abundant food. Tall jack pine and Norway pine trees are prevalent, as are aspen, oak and maple. In the lowlands, one can find tamarack and black spruce.

It is, of course, a difficult task to paint a descriptive picture of the Spearhead Center with words alone. But to stroll along on one of its many trails, or to sit under whispering pines overlooking the sparkling lake, or to probe Revoir Creek for signs of rare plant and animal life, or to paddle a canoe around the lake to fish or just enjoy the sound of one’s canoe paddle dipping into the water, comes pretty close. There is something for everyone, young and old alike, at the Spearhead Center.

It is all thanks to a donation by Katharine Neilson Cram, who once lived on the property. Today, the Neilson Spearhead Center is a popular area for birders and young students. Each summer, the center hosts the popular “Young Naturalist Program,” where children can enroll in week-long summer classes to learn and explore throughout the outdoor classroom environment.

More than 200 plants have been observed and recorded at the Spearhead Center; some of which are rare, endangered or a species of special concern. The lake and woodlands are alive with the songs and calls of birds. And furry mammals of many kinds, as well as terrestrial and aquatic insect life, frogs and toads of several species, painted and snapping turtles, fishes such as walleyed pike, northern pike, and bluegill sunfish and countless other species of fish and wildlife inhabit the riches of the Spearhead Center.

And just as important, it is also a place of discovery. As already mentioned, every summer children of all ages attend naturalist-led programs about the outdoor world. The education committee of the Audubon chapter organizes and administers this successful and engaging program. The Spearhead Center is also a place where outdoor enthusiasts can cross-country ski, snowshoe or ice-fish on winter days. And to help visitors become acquainted with the Spearhead Center, a year round caretaker lives on-site and is always there to help and guide the way.

Meanwhile, the Audubon Center, which is owned and managed by the Agassiz Audubon Society, is a diverse landscape of tree and prairie plantings, trails, observation overlooks and wetlands and waterways.

It is part of an erosion-prone sand ridge of an ancient beach of glacial Lake Agassiz, and has been planted to trees, shrubs, and native grasses and flowers. Some parcels that were once prairie but later farmed have been restored and have effectively displaced weeds on retired farm fields with tall native grasses such as big bluestem.

Wetlands have been constructed in low areas aided by digging waterways to divert spring run-off into ponds and canals; native and non-native coniferous and deciduous trees and shrubs have been planted to provide diverse habitats for wildlife; and plantings of a variety of fruit-bearing trees and shrubs provide additional food and cover for wildlife. The Audubon Center is also one of 43 sites along Minnesota’s first-ever birding trail — the “Pine to Prairie Birding Trail.”

Like the Spearhead Center, the Audubon Center offers birding, hiking, skiing, and snowshoeing devotees plenty of exercise and wildlife viewing opportunities along its scenic trails. Another Audubon Center trail, the “Bluebird Trail,” is a two-mile mowed trail that loops throughout the property. Along the trail are an assortment of bluebird houses occupied by eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, house wrens, and, occasionally, white-footed mice.

And also like the Spearhead Center, the Audubon Center is an environmental education center for people with a wide range of interests. From school children discovering the many wonders of nature, through adults learning how to recapture that youthful curiosity, the Audubon Center provides visitors the chance to learn and grow in environmental awareness.

A full-time manager employed at the Audubon Center conducts wildlife management activities and administers on-site environmental programs. Activities encouraged at the Audubon Center include special visits by schools and other groups, self-guiding trails, interpretive nature programs, and workshops.

Indeed, having managed the Audubon Center for two years and having served for two years as a director on the Mississippi Headwaters Audubon Society board — not to mention sending my own two children to the Young Naturalist Program at “Spearhead” each and every summer, I learned firsthand of the bountiful natural resources and opportunities for discovery that both centers provide.

Indeed, many dedicated people work tirelessly at managing and maintaining these wonderful treasures as places for not only flora and fauna to flourish within, but as special places for people to learn and appreciate the ways of nature as we to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

— Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at