October 30, 2021
Who knows where wildflower chasing will take us? A trip to Minnesota’s only salt lake to check on red saltwort, a state-threatened plant, ended with us driving through one of Minnesota’s ghost towns looking at rock outcrops.
Although we’ve never caught the succulent-looking red saltwort that grows along Salt Lake’s shores actually turning red, we live in hope, and we drove west in and out of blankets of fog into a glorious October day. When we had stopped at Salt Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA) earlier this fall, drought had dropped the water level and the few saltwort we saw were still resolutely green. Now the lake brimmed again, and we did find a solitary green saltwort plant with, we convinced ourselves, at least a few tinges of pink.
No matter. This western Minnesota landscape has become one of our favorite flower-chasing places, so next year we’ll try again to catch red saltwort actually turning red.
We had planned our drive back to stop at some of the gneiss rock outcrops strung along the Minnesota River Valley, a gift of the glaciers when glacial Lake Agassiz emptied out and glacial River Warren rushed to the sea, stripping away the earth to some of the planet’s oldest rocks. We’d been to Morton Outcrops Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) a few times, as well as Gneiss Outcrops SNA. Now was a chance to check out some of the other spots where the bones of the earth poked through.
First stop: Blue Devil Valley SNA where we came across a crew contracted by the Department of Natural Resources to remove invasive buckthorn. Here among gnarled oaks we clambered over rocks, finding large pockets of brittle prickly pear cactus nestled in moss as well as rock spikemoss, prairie onion gone to seed, and the leaves of Carolina cranesbill and Carolina anemone. Many colors of lichens, including one vivid yellow-green, grew on the rocks, and ferns found a roothold in cracks. A little river flowed below, the sky beamed blue, and we promised to come back again in the spring to see what might be flowering then.
Next on the list: Swedes Forest SNA, a huge, rounded, pink outcropping above a little lake where seven white swans swam and occasionally went bottom-up searching for food. A few bluets bloomed in cracks, along with a few goldenrods and yarrow, and at the top of the rocks we found many clusters of brittle prickly pear cactus. This was a grander landscape, with a sweeping view from the top of the rocks at other, smaller, scattered outcrops that we’ll wander among on another visit.
Our list of rock outcrops to visit included Vicksburg County Park, but the maps on our phones kept showing us a cemetery instead of a park, so we had crossed it off our list until, driving down a back road to get to River Warren Outcrops SNA, we saw a sign: Vicksburg County Park. How could we not take that sharp right turn and drive past smaller outcroppings of rock, glimpsing larger ones along the edge of the Minnesota River? A sign at the park exit told the story of how this was once a thriving town until the railroad passed it by. Our phones weren’t wrong—there really is a cemetery there, and next time we are out among the rocks we’ll stop and explore more.
The day was stretching toward evening, and we had one more stop at River Warren Outcrops SNA. In the parking area a hunter was unloading his gear, and, not wanting to be mistaken for deer, we assured him we wouldn’t be long. We weren’t. A quick hike along a trail showed us rock outcrops that we’ll come back to explore, but it was time to head home. The late light stretched ahead of us, setting the turning trees on fire, as we drove back east.
No red saltwort this trip, but there’s always next year. And the next. And the one after that. So many places to explore, and who knows what we’ll find? We live in a place on a planet rich in possibilities.