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Wilebski’s Evergreen Acres in Minn. a haven for wildlife and nature enthusiasts

A bull elk stands in the snow along one of the trails at Wilebski's Evergreen Acres in Kittson County in this undated photo taken by Larry Wilebski. Elk are just one of the many wildlife species inhabiting the northwest Minnesota property, Wilebski says. (Photo courtesy of Larry Wilebski/ Evergreen Acres)1 / 4
A large metal sign greets visitors at the driveway to Wilebski's Evergreen Acres in Kittson County of northwest Minnesota. The getaway has attracted visitors from nine different countries, including Peru and South Korea. Photo Brad Dokken / Forum News Service2 / 4
A photo of Minnesota birding enthusiast and nature photographer David Astin marks the site of the Astin Rest Area along one of the trails at Wilebski's Evergreen Acres near Lancaster, Minn. Astin is among the birders and photographers who have made the trek to experience the nature opportunities on the property. Photo Brad Dokken / Forum News Service3 / 4
Information about wrens is featured in one of the trailside kiosks at Wilebski's Evergreen Acres in Kittson County. The nature getaway near the Manitoba border has more than 5 miles of hiking trails. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service4 / 4

KITTSON COUNTY, Minn. -- It’s a brutally cold January day, but signs of life continue to stir at Wilebski’s Evergreen Acres.

Redpolls, chickadees, juncos and even a hairy woodpecker flit around a bird feeder outside the dining room window. Tracks in the snow betray the presence of deer nearby, and large dents in the snow along a trail indicate elk have bedded down sometime in the not-too-distant past.

There’s always something to see, something to learn at Wilebski’s Evergreen Acres, says Larry Wilebski, whose 280-acre property and residence near Lancaster, Minn., is a sanctuary, of sorts, for wildlife and for people who seek nature and solitude.

“It’s not for everybody,” Wilebski said. “If you don’t like nature and you don’t like wildlife, it’s not for you. Or if you like driving a snowcat or a four-wheeler 30 miles an hour. But I have people who come to ride horses, go cross-country skiing (or) snowshoeing.”

Visitors from nine different countries, including Peru and South Korea, have made the trek to this part of northwest Minnesota to experience what Wilebski is happy to share. How many people have visited is hard to say for sure, Wilebski says, but he has five guest books filled with photos and comments from visitors.

At least five professional photographers have snapped their shutters at Evergreen Acres.

The list includes Robert Janssen, one of Minnesota’s best-known birders and bird book authors.

“When I take pictures, they can look at my  pictures and tell me what I’m doing wrong, and that’s kind of neat, too,” Wilebski says, describing himself as a self-taught nature enthusiast and wildlife photographer. “It’s the people you get to meet that make it all worthwhile. And almost everybody you meet that comes out here, you learn something from them.”

Fitting name

Evergreen Acres is a fitting name for Wilebski’s nature haven. He bought the property from an uncle, and with help from family -- he has five grown children and 12 grandchildren -- along with friends and neighbors, Wilebski says he’s planted 113,000 trees since 1995.

Various types of evergreens, mainly, but also maple trees and juneberry bushes, among others.

Wilebski buys the trees from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and rents a planter to put them in the ground. He plans to plant another 3,000 trees this spring.

“I’ve always liked evergreens,” he said. “We had a guy up north of Lancaster who had all kinds of pine trees, and I always wanted to do that, so then I planted trees out here after I bought it from my uncle.”

Evergreen Acres “just kind of evolved,” Wilebski says.

“I think the first year, we planted 20,000-some trees, and I’d never planted a tree before,” he said. “And then it kind of gets into your blood. I like having trees, I like having the wildlife and I tried to create a lot of different habitats here. I’ve got habitats here that are old woods that get flooded. Well, then you have woodpeckers, you’ll have wood ducks, maybe an owl will go in there, chickadees will nest in cavities or at least go in for the night.

“And then I have the evergreens. And I have a field that’s pretty open like the prairie grass.”

The more habitat he can create, the better the odds for attracting different types of wildlife, Wilebski says.

“It’s small; it’s not a park (and) I don’t get anything for doing this,” he said. “But I can do what I can, and that’s what I’m doing.”

Weaving through the trees are 5½ miles of trails Wilebski mows and maintains during the summer months; in the winter, they’re perfect for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or even hiking if the snow isn’t too deep.

“If you were to walk it all, it would take you quite some time,” he said.

In addition to trails and varied habitat, Wilebski’s Evergreen Acres has some 150 birdhouses for songbirds, wood ducks and kestrels. A brother, Frank, comes up from the cities to help get the birdhouses in shape before nesting begins.

There’s always work to be done, it seems.

“If it wasn’t for my family and the neighbors, I don’t know that I could do it,” said Wilebski, who works full-time at Motor Coach Industries in Pembina, N.D. “I’ve got the best neighbors in the world. If I get stuck, if something happens, I can call, and they’ll be here.

“I’m surrounded by good people.”

Occasionally, Wilebski says he’ll get checks in the mail from people who have visited or heard about the place with notes such as “fix birdhouses” or “this is for your trail.”

“Some of the people have never been out here -- they just heard from somebody else,” he said. “So there are a lot of good people out there. You hear about the bad ones, but we’re pretty blessed.”

Behind the lens

Wilebski prefers to be behind the camera rather than in front of it and didn’t want to be photographed for this story, asking instead that the photographs focus on the land and the work he’s done on behalf of nature.

His extensive collection of wildlife photos includes elk, deer, bears, a bobcat and numerous bird species. His Facebook page, Wilebski’s Evergreen Acres, has nearly 1,800 followers.

“To me, it’s all about the sharing,” Wilebski said. “If I couldn’t share, then there’s no point in me having it, as far as I’m concerned, so we get people from all over.

“There’s basically somebody out here all of the time, so it’s fun.”

Everyone who visits Wilebski’s Evergreen Acres has their own reasons for coming, he says. Maybe it’s listening to the birds over a cup of coffee. Or watching the sun set over the Little Joe River from the upstairs deck that overlooks Wilebski’s back yard. Or photographing nature in its many resplendent forms.

On this day, though, it’s too cold for more than a short hike that offers just a taste of what’s here to experience.

The solitude, at times, can be gloriously overpowering.

“A lot of people say they’ll sit, and it’s prayer time for them,” Wilebski said. “It’s just a nice getaway for people. So, it’s kind of up to each their own.”

Evergreen Acres has hosted class reunions, youth outdoor education events and provided memorable wildlife experiences for everyone who visits.

“It’s just a peaceful, quiet place,” Wilebski said. “If you don’t like peace and quiet, you’re not going to like it.”

For more information visit www.facebook.com and search for “Wilebski’s Evergreen Acres.”

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