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The colors of early autumn are on display in the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge near Ortonville Monday. Maple trees along the Minnesota River are showy reminders of the season, but don't miss the far more subdued, but enchanting colors offered by the open prairie grasses and forbs in the refuge. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

Newly-improved Auto Tour re-opens in Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge

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outdoors Willmar,Minnesota 56201 http://www.wctrib.com/sites/default/files/styles/square_300/public/fieldimages/1/1130/20091010100509bigstone4.jpg?itok=5tYoHqd5
West Central Tribune
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Newly-improved Auto Tour re-opens in Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

ODESSA -- Whether hunkered down in duck blinds or busting trails through tall grass, hunters know that autumn is the greatest of seasons to enjoy the outdoors.

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Now those who prefer the comfort of their automobiles can get in on the action too, right where countless hunters enjoy their favorite time of year.

The popular Auto Tour Route and Low Flow Access have re-opened in the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge after a year-long project by Duininck Brothers Companies of Prinsburg to repave the roadway and improve the amenities along the way.

"Any community would be envious of Ortonville for having this in their back yard,'' said Rich Papasso, operations specialist with the refuge as he led the way recently on the 5.2-mile drive.

The refuge comes alive in autumn. Thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds use the refuge as their fall migration resting and feeding stop. Canada geese and ducks by the tens of thousands -- at times as many as 50,000-70,000 mallards have been counted -- can be observed in the refuge's wetlands.

The refuge encompasses 11,586 acres of the Upper Minnesota River Valley. It is appreciated for its many acres of tall grass prairie, scenic granite rock outcrops, and the two large wetland complexes known as the east and west pools. The Minnesota River snakes for 11 miles through the refuge.

Waterfowl hunting is not allowed, but thousands of acres in the upland areas of the refuge are open to other types of hunting. This weekend's pheasant opener will bring many shotgun-toting hunters to the refuge, and they will be followed later by others in pursuit of deer.

But Papasso also knows that many visitors in the coming days will be carrying binoculars, cameras or possibly nothing more than the coffee in their vehicle's cup holder. The Auto Tour Route is part of an area within the refuge off-limits to hunting, but open to all of the other popular activities here: hiking, biking, and of course, sight seeing.

The Auto Tour roadway was deteriorating and in need or rebuilding, said Papasso. The approximately $1 million project also includes upgrades to hiking trails, observation platforms, fishing piers and restrooms.

Special attention was paid to making the paved route, a hiking trail and all of the stopping points accessible to those with physical handicaps, according to Papasso.

The only work remaining is the erection of informational signs along the route and at kiosks. Papasso said that portion of the project probably won't be completed until sometime next year.

The refuge was formed in 1975 on lands managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for flood control.

The refuge is unique for its granite outcrops and the rare plants they hold, including prickly pear and ball cactus. The golf-ball-sized ball cactus is not found elsewhere in Minnesota. The population of ball cactus is declining in the refuge at an alarming rate, said Papasso. It's feared that the plants are being removed by people who want them for ornamental gardens.

The refuge hosts an estimated 30,000 visitors each year. A majority of them, or roughly 23,000 are there for "observation visits'' rather than consumptive activities such as hunting or fishing. It's a favorite destination for many bird watchers.

Even after a 24-year tenure at the refuge, Papasso said he can still be amazed at the passion of birders. An Internet posting of a rare bird being seen at the refuge will invariably bring other enthusiasts in search of it within hours, some coming from many miles away.

Yet without a doubt, the Auto Tour attracts most of those who come for observation visits. Just as everyone knows Venice, Italy, for its gondolas and canals -- even though the city is chock full of historic buildings and sight seeing destinations -- so too is the story of the refuge. Most people seem to know the refuge for the Auto Tour Route, but Papasso said there is so much more to see.

A car is a great starting point, but for those who can, he recommends strapping on a pair of hiking shoes, launching a canoe or hopping atop a bicycle. A paved, two mile trail now offers bicyclists a safe connection from Ortonville to the refuge where it connects to a hard-packed gravel trail and the paved Auto Route.

There are also put-in and take-out sites along the river for paddlers. There are plenty of access points along with observation decks and piers for those who just want to relax with a fishing pole.

The Auto Tour route is open through October, but closed for the winter beginning on the first weekend before the Minnesota deer firearms opener. The route is available for hiking, snowshoeing or cross country skiing during the winter months.

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Tom Cherveny
Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.
(320) 214-4335
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