A little time with Zachary

Due to some recent "discoveries", (and with the help of Zachary's Den Leader / Scoutmaster), it has come to our attention that Zachary's "Weblos" career is need of a little "attention".

So, together Zachary and I have been working on "catching up" on a few of the things he still needs to complete.

A few weeks back (because of our outrageous schedule), we forgot about a planned hike his den was going on. The hike is one of his (incomplete) requirements, and after our recent motivation to get him caught up, and back on track, I felt horrible.

I talked with his Scoutmaster (who I am discovering is a really helpful guy, and due to some recent changes, has taken it upon himself to lead Zachary’s den – a very selfless undertaking!). I made plans to take Zachary out on a hike of our own to fulfill the 3 mile hike requirement.

It was going to work out perfectly. The kids had two days off of school, we were watching the neighbor’s children – getting at least one of seven children that would be in the house that day was going to be beneficial for EVERYONE! (With seven children in the house it was going to be beneficial for my sanity too!)

With a couple of different options available to us, we decided to hike the Rapids Lake Unit of the Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge. Ok, I’ll be honest here folks. I chose Rapids Lake, because it is still open to hunting. I thought we could get a “two-fer” in on this hike. We could complete the hiking requirement while (at the same time) get a little bit of squirrel hunting in too. I told Zachary about hunting, and he nearly jumped out of his skin. He had a smile on his face that could light up an auditorium! I called the visitor center to make sure the unit was still open to hunting, and was told to be aware of a small “controlled burn” that scheduled for that day. Dealing with “controlled burns” at work, this worried me little to none, so we packed up for our “hunting-hike”, and headed out.

Upon arrival at the unit, there was a fire truck and several firefighters on scene, and a few trucks from the refuge staff. I parked and headed to the information kiosk in the lot for a map, and a copy of the hunting regulations. A white truck drove up the highway, pulled up into the parking lot and approached us. Inside were two staff members from the refuge. I said hello, and told them of our plans. I acknowledged the “controlled burn”, and of my conversation with the Visitor center. The passenger, a very friendly female – told me of the actual plans for the day’s burn, and was told that the fireline was headed in our direction, and even though I did not want to hunt where the burn was being held, that most of the rest of the day – I would have fire between our location and the parking lot. (As this was being explained to me by the very helpful female, the very quite male driver was discreetly trying to write down my vehicle license plate. (Trying being the operative word because I was able to see what he was doing out of the corner of my eye. What he needed it for, and what he was going to do with it was beyond me – but I let it go because I had nothing to worry about, nor was I going to cause these folks any problems.

As we began parting ways, I flagged down the helpful female staff member, and asked her if there were any areas of the unit that I could access, at least just for hiking and not for hunting. She filled me in on some very new and interesting news!

Just three short weeks ago, the Refuge opened another Visitor Center! I was told it was pretty much empty yet, and there may not even be anyone present at the center, but there were a few paths from the visitor center. This was PERFECT! We left the Rapids Lake unit, and (after gassing up the car) went to visit the new Visitor Center.

We parked quite a distance away, and started hiking down to the center. We arrived and discovered that indeed the new center was locked and un-staffed. Peeking in the windows also verified that (as of now) it was still pretty empty, but I was able to tell that this is going to be a really great place!

We chose a trail, and started our hike.

This visitor center is very close to the Minnesota River, and the trail we choose took us right down to the river’s edge. (You can see the river in the background of this photo!)

The first thing we noticed from the top of the hill, was the clucking of a pheasant off in the weeds at the bottom of the hill. Try as we might, we were unable to locate the yummy little delicacy pheasant hiding from us.

As we continued down the trail, we came across the crumbling rock foundation of two old buildings. They were very interesting, and I can not speak for Zachary, but my imagination was running wild with the “what could this have been”, “who lived here”, “what was life like for these folks”, “how old are these structures”, and a myriad of other intriguing questions. We milled around “inside” (if that is what you can call it), took a few photos, and continued down the trail.

Just past the rock foundations, we found an old abandoned house! Yes, a whole house (and outhouse) boarded up. The day was overcast, and in the woods, the house had a very creepy feeling.

After a short exploration of the house and outhouse, we continued down the path.

There were many fun and unique things to see. It was wonderful watching the gears of Zachary’s brain ticking away, as he rambled on about his theories about why certain trees had fallen the way they did, why (or how) bark was removed from other trees, why there were potholes in the path (and how they got there), how high the water gets during spring flooding… The list goes on and on.

We came upon a small pond, that was skinned over with a thin sheet of ice. We stopped to take a look, and Zachary took the opportunity to see how much force he had to use when throwing rocks at the ice to have them break through. (This was such a “Mayberry” moment!).

After spending time putting holes in the ice, we moved down the path. We hiked until we reached a clearing at the top of a hill. We found a nice spot in the grass, and broke out our “snack”. We had salami sandwiches, a Pepsi, and a little Halloween treat from the treat bags!

We sat, and ate, and visited some more. I honestly have not had Zachary talk to me so much. During “snack time”, Zachary seemed to grill me endlessly about my likes and dislikes when it comes to candy. (Fueled by the Halloween mini-treats we were eating). Zachary was full of questions about what my favorite candy bar was, and my favorite sweet candy (non chocolate), my favorite kind of chocolate, and soda pop.

After snack, I laid down in the grass, and closed my eyes - Listening to Zachary ramble on and on, asking question after question, answering his questions as they came up. It was one of the most relaxing, and enjoyable times I have had in a very long (way too long) of a time. It was fun to give Zachary some undivided attention, and he seemed to gobble it up. At the same time I could (laugh at me if you want - but I could literally) feel some of my recent stress melt away. (Note to self: Do this more often, or at least die trying).

The time had come that we needed to start heading back. Following the Boy Scout Principal of "Leave No Trace" we packed up that which we packed in, and headed back down the trail. We passed all that we came upon on the way in. As we approached it, Zachary wanted to make one more quick "explore" of the abandoned house / outhouse, which (because it was so cool) was A.O.K with me!

Once we finished our second and final "exploration" around the abandoned house, we started back up the hill towards the newly finished Resource Center - we started noticing garbage along side the trail. Continuing on the lesson(s) of "Leave No Trace", and adding my own lesson of "Leave it cleaner that you found it" - we started collecting garbage along the ditches on the way back to the car.

When we arrived at the Resource Center, we ran into the same "friendly female" Ranger we met at the burn site. She remembered us, and asked how we liked the new facility. As we walked through the lot and towards her car, Zachary asked her about the abandoned house. She told us the story of how the previous owner(s) did not want the river front land to be developed, and so when they were ready to move out, they donated the land (and the house) to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife services for the Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge!

Side note: I don't know who these people are or if they will ever read these words - but they made an UNBELIEVABLE and long lasting impact on the region. They should know that at least one family thanks them more than they will ever realize for the sacrifice they have made!

We hiked the remainder half mile from the lower parking lot to the upper parking lot (collecting garbage along the way), packed out more garbage than we brought in (in the spirit of "Leave No Trace" and "Leave it cleaner than you found it") and arrived back home just in the nick of time (about an hour longer than we planned).

I cannot say enough just how much I enjoyed this hike with Zachary, and just how needed it was for my mental health, and our father/son relationship.

Zachary has since asked to return to the trail. I am going to HAVE to find a way to fit it in!


  1. Very Cool! Looks like a great hike - good for you for spending some quality time with your son.

    Looks like that was once and executive class outhouse, eh? ;-)

    Take Care.

  2. ...And here I always thought that
    'Built like a brick $h*thouse'
    was just an expression.

    Looks like you guys had a lot of fun.

  3. I hope you enjoyed a fine cigar!

  4. I like to think about old houses and ruins in the same way. Sounds like a great hike. I bet it was peaceful.

  5. Nope... hadn't read that one before. Thanks for sharing... and for the reminder that as the weather breaks, I also need to find more of those opportunities. Looks like a great place to explore.


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