Sunday, September 18, 2016

let's talk about the Bramble Park Zoo.

I wouldn't call myself a zoo connoisseur, but I've been to a handful in my lifetime. The Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls, the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, the Como Zoo in St Paul, the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, the Denver Zoo in (duh) Denver, and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs. They all had their merits, but one zoo has always stood out above the rest.

The Bramble Park Zoo in Watertown, South Dakota.


The Bramble Park Zoo is the zoo I grew up with. 
circa 1992
Same picture, circa 1994.
Some of my very earliest memories involve me feeding the pushy goats at that zoo. The Bramble Park Zoo was very likely the ONLY zoo I had visited up until a third grade field trip to the Sioux Falls zoo - and after years of the cozy environment of Watertown, I was unimpressed with all their concrete and dust.

The Bramble Park Zoo feels less like a zoo and more like a park that happens to have animals in it. There are winding sidewalks in between grassy patches upon which peacocks roam free, and nearly all of the park is shaded with trees. 
And sometimes the peacocks are albino!
You can take your time wandering through the park, stopping to take in the enormous pond with its resident fowl, or perhaps feeding the farm animals with handfuls of corn you buy for a quarter.


There was a natural progression to our zoo trips, and the first place we always ALWAYS went was to the birds. The bird house was/still is an enclosed mini-ecosystem that you enter by walking through these plastic hangy-down chains (which were a total blast when you were a kid, but now are mostly just gross). 

This little bird area was a large rectangle, and you followed the sidewalk around until you arrived back at the exit. At the opposite end of the entrance was a waterfall and a bridge over a small pond, which was where the ducks and scarlet spoonbills hung out. 
The outside was lined with huge greenery-filled cages, housing birds and lemurs. (When Mom and I visited the zoo last fall, we met a 32-year-old lemur named Gwen. She was the best.)


From the birds, our next stop was usually the monkeys. If you've ever been to a zoo EVER, you know that monkeys are hilarious. We could watch them for ages - a typical cast of monkeys rarely failed to include an adorable baby, a shy corner-hider, and the asshole monkey who keeps trying to push his friends off the branches.
BABY!
After the monkeys, our stops were dictated by the general feeling of the group. We never skipped visiting any of the exhibits, but the order in which we saw them would vary.

The Watertown Zoo had bears and large cats - tigers, panthers, and leopards. 

They had bald eagles and a super awesome wingspan chart where you could see how your own wingspan measured up to that of large predatory birds. (I never grew beyond a red-tailed hawk.) 



This is obviously everyone's favorite part.
There were gorillas and chimpanzees to see, and an alligator at which to marvel. The petting zoo was always a favorite spot, where donkeys let you scratch their necks and goats jostled to be at the front lines to munch feed corn from your outstretched hand. The Watertown Zoo had kangaroos (SO ADORABLE I COULD DIE), along with a pack of three wolves. There was a viewing area where you could peek in for a better view of the wolves, though they typically avoided your gaze. However, when Mom and I visited the zoo on a quiet October day last year, the wolves were totally STANDING IN THE WINDOW AND LOOKING FOR SOME PEOPLE TO EAT. It was amazing/terrifying.

No zoo is complete without a collection of large hoofed animals, and the Watertown Zoo had a stock of buffalo and camels. 
We also could not miss the snake house, nor would we bypass the foxes and owls. This place was our own childhood heaven. 

And it wasn't just for summer. One winter day, Mom took us three kids to the zoo. It was free to go to the zoo since it was so cold, and we were the only people in sight. It was a relatively mild January day, and honestly? It was the best zoo day I've ever had. Not only were we the only people there, but the animals were out in full force. Many of them were enjoying the cool weather, even though some of them originated from warmer climates. The camels were frolicking, and the wolves were running. The big cats were basking in the winter sunshine, and the bears played with their toys. If you ever get the chance to go to the zoo on a warm(ish) winter day, DO IT: the animals are much happier and will totally show off for you.

In the (many MANY) years since I was young, the Bramble Park Zoo has added a lot of great stuff. When I was in high school, they built an indoor exhibit hall that houses exotic fish, not-so-exotic fish, insects, and reptiles (including a python). They also acquired otters (!!!) and penguins, and super-cool park areas with metal dinosaurs in one and tractors in another.



But since I am a firm believer that zoos are not just for children, I have made plenty of trips to the Bramble Park Zoo to enjoy these later additions. The first time I went to the zoo without my family was when I was 17. I went with my friends Bob and Tiffany, and we roamed the zoo while acting like idiot high schoolers. It was the best, though I'm pretty sure the other zoo-goers would've hated our guts - but in my memory, we were some of a very few people at the zoo that day. Who knows if that's true, but I hope it was for the sake of those who would've had to put up with us.


The summer after I graduated from college, I visited the Bramble Park Zoo not once, but twice. The first time was in mid-July: I had been in Denver for an internship at the art museum, and I had come back to South Dakota for a week to see my sister Darrah off to basic training. For a farewell activity, she chose the Bramble Park Zoo. Darrah and I went with James and our college friends Nate and Sara, and it was a perfect send-off. 


The second time I went to the zoo that summer was right before I took off for an internship in New Orleans. Mom and I went to the zoo together as my farewell - it was the first time just Mom and I had gone to the zoo together, and it was wonderful. 

We have an affinity for the dinosaurs.
Mom and I made another trip to the Bramble Park Zoo last October (remember the hungry wolves?), and we continued our great track-record of visiting the zoo when there were almost no children present. YES.


There were so few people around that we could to stuff like this and no one would bother us.

My latest and greatest Bramble Park Zoo experience was just this past summer. The zoo hosted an adults-only (!!!) event called the Sunset Zoofari. You had to be 21 or older to attend, and you would be able to sample wine, beer, and food from around the world while enjoying the animals and having the whole damn place to yourselves. Mom, Dad, and I went, and it was absolutely delightful. We had fish and chips and Vegemite and fry bread and baklava, not to mention cherry cola beer and summer shandy. 
We got so caught up eating food and talking to the people at the booths that we ran out of time to see almost all of the animals. (The only animals we saw were the ones along the food trail, like the otters and the bears.) 


It was absolutely my favorite day at the zoo thus far, and I'm hopeful they'll do it annually. I'm 100% in.

Moral of the story: the Bramble Park Zoo is the best, and if you haven't been, go there. It's not the biggest zoo in the world, but it's clean and cozy and friendly, and sometimes you can drink beer there. The best.

Monday, September 12, 2016

ode to northern Minnesota.

As a born-and-raised South Dakotan, it took me nearly thirty years to understand why people kept losing their shit over northern Minnesota.

It also took me nearly thirty years to actually GO to northern Minnesota, so that would explain that.

Growing up in southeastern South Dakota meant that our vacation spot of choice was usually the Black Hills. That’s just where South Dakotans go. And that was fine – the Black Hills are beautiful, and we Bjorklund kids loved Wall Drug and Dinosaur Hill.
 
I STILL love that stuff.
My family also gravitated towards the Rapid City area because it was the approximate halfway point to the Denver and Colorado Springs areas – our other vacation spots, as they were (and still are) home to a handful of family members. Said family members would often meet us in Rapid City for summertime reunions, as it was a pretty easy six-ish hour drive for all involved.

The Black Hills are, unquestionably, the most scenic part of South Dakota. Our fair state is long on prairies and rolling hills, but rather short on mountains and trees. So if we eastern Dakotans wanted a landscape to please the eye, we headed six hours west and found it.

Little did I know that my Minnesotan counterparts were doing the same thing… but instead of heading west, they headed north. Southern and central Minnesota isn’t nearly as barren as eastern South Dakota (except for the southeastern corner in which I reside… go figure), but if you wanted some serious forests and lakes, north you’d go.

But I didn’t understand this. Until I moved there for college, I had spent precious little time in Minnesota. I went there for the occasional Minneapolis trip with my family, and I spent one harrowing week in Bemidji for Norwegian Camp (which is certainly northern Minnesota, but I was too busy being traumatized by enthusiastic Scandinavian camp counselors to notice).

Upon arrival in Minnesota (Morris, to be precise), I would often hear my new Minnesotan friends talk about the glory of “up north.” I heard about lakes and trees and fishing and canoeing, and that all sounded fine, but I could see and do all of that practically in my parents’ backyard. Whatever the big deal about up north was escaped me.

It took until 2010 for me to get a taste of the north – that was the summer James and I took a trip to Duluth. We were living in Minneapolis, and he was about to leave for his job in southeastern Minnesota. Upon hearing that I had never been to Duluth, James insisted that it was a place I needed to see. We scraped together the tiniest bit of money that we could spare and headed the two hours north - and I LOVED IT. We saw a ship come in and the lift bridge go up, and I stepped in the chilly water of Lake Superior and nearly went into hypothermic shock. It was glorious.
 
So young. So bad at selfies.
James and I went back to Duluth in August 2011, a mere month before I moved away from the land of lakes and into the land of prairies and... prairies. Moving to Sioux Falls meant that instead of being two hours from glorious Lake Superior, I would now be six. Since neither of us would be able to afford twelve hours' worth of gas in the foreseeable future, this would be goodbye for now.

But not for long, thankfully! James and I spent our honeymoon in late July/early August 2013 driving through Winnipeg and northern Minnesota. We came home via International Falls and Duluth, and that was my first little bit of exposure to northern Minnesota. We drove through George Washington State Forest, and we saw huge pines and deer the size of cows. We saw bald eagles and not another car for miles. It was wild and wonderful, and I got a small taste of Minnesotans' affinity for the northern part of their state.


And then it became OUR state. James and I moved to the southwestern corner of the state right after we got married, so I've been a legal Minnesotan for just over three years. As a Minnesotan, I wanted to become better connected to this state I call home. I commute to South Dakota for work every day, and my family and friends live in South Dakota, so I often forget that I am actually a Minnesota resident. I pay taxes in this state, but I am never around to enjoy the best parts of it.

I’ve lived in Minnesota for a number of non-consecutive years: four years in Morris for college, two years in Minneapolis after college, and (so far) three years in Luverne. After all that, South Dakota still feels like my home – I did live there for eighteen straight years (plus two spare years in Sioux Falls). James and I have no plans to remain in Luverne for the long haul (it’s slowly killing our souls, after all), but I do love Minnesota as a whole. I have always loved the cities, and Morris is near and dear to my heart. James and I visited Fergus Falls this summer, and we were blown away by the lakes. Even our disastrous camping trip to Lanesboro was salvaged by its beauty. Aware of the mythic beauty of northern Minnesota, I knew that this was something I needed to experience if I was to call myself a Minnesotan.

So summer 2016 became the Summer of the North.

(Sort of. Not really. We went to the North Shore twice, but indeed, that is twice more than I’d been before.)

James and I spent our Fourth of July weekend camping in Duluth. We had no real intentions of driving up the North Shore that weekend, but we found ourselves in Duluth without much of a plan. As I had never actually been up the North Shore of Lake Superior, we thought it would be a pretty neat thing to with a few spare hours.

HOLY SHIT I LOVED IT.

We were barely into our drive on scenic 61, and I had James stopping at every scenic overlook and every harbor so I could marvel at the titanic sprawl of Lake Superior. I marveled over the still waters and the cliffs jutting out from the shore. It looked as though we were in the Pacific Northwest, not somewhere north of Duluth in Minnesota.

At every stop, James had to practically drag me away from my superior (ha!) view, telling me that we'd never make it to Gooseberry Falls and the Split Rock Lighthouse at this rate. The Split Rock Lighthouse was as far north as we could get that trip, as we had to drive the entire way back to Luverne from there (nearly six and a half hours away), and our afternoon was going fast.

Split Rock Lighthouse took my breath away. The lighthouse itself was great (we land-locked Midwesterners tend to get really thrilled about lighthouses as it is), but the view from the shore was spectacular. It was all forests and cliffs and huge rocks and blue water and then LIGHTHOUSE. 
Gooseberry Falls was nothing to sniff at, either - northern Minnesota is chock-full of waterfalls, and you can expect to see as many as your heart desires (or, as many as your feet will allow you to hike to).


James and I went back to the North Shore with our friends Nate and Taylor at the end of August. 
However, this North Shore trip was NORTH: we went past Grand Marais and up the Gunflint Trail to the Boundary Waters, land of lakes and trees and no cell phone reception. We stayed in a cabin on the south side of Gunflint Lake. On the north side of Gunflint Lake? Canada. So we were NORTH.
We kayaked across the lake to CANADA.
Neither of us had been that far into northern Minnesota before, and we delighted in its unsullied beauty. We hiked to Devil’s Kettle (a waterfall and rock formation in which half of the Brule River disappears into a chasm of unknown depths) and to the High Falls in Tettegouche State Park (the tallest waterfalls located entirely in Minnesota). 


We explored Honeymoon Bluff with our friends, and we ate wild blueberries on Blueberry Hill (where James stepped in bear poop, convincing us that we would soon meet our end in the jaws of a bear). 

We kayaked and canoed; we had campfires and watched loons on Gunflint Lake. 


We saw countless lakes and towering pines, we saw a bear cub and a fox (!!!), and we basked in the quiet wonder of this wild and wonderful place. If I were a religious person, I would think this is what heaven must be like.


On our drive home from Gunflint Lake, our stops were frequent. Not ready to give up the majestic views, we took in as much as we could: Grand Marais, the Temperance River Falls, Sugarloaf Cove, and Palisade Head. 



We soaked it all in, trying to burn these glorious hours into our memories so we could feed off their joy in the joyless winter months.

As soon as we hit Duluth and Lake Superior faded slowly into the background, the disappointment in the air was palpable. Now that we had tasted true northern Minnesota, we were loath to leave it behind.

Now, finally, FINALLY, I understand what the big deal about northern Minnesota is. I GET IT. Nate and Taylor, north woods veterans, told us we would love it there.
We believed them, but I didn’t know that this place would get under my skin and into my blood. I think about the north all the time, and I find myself staring longingly at some of the photographs I took and wishing desperately I was there. (In the two weeks since we’ve been back, I’ve already framed an 11x14 print of the Split Rock Lighthouse, and I’m already scouting spots on our crowded walls for a print of the Lake Superior shore at Grand Marais.)

Our trips north have also helped me along in my quest to become more connected to my state of residence. It’s so easy to forget that the magnificent north is part of the state in which I live, the state that I’m trying to call home. And really, the vast majority of Minnesota is pretty great. The southwestern portion aside, Minnesota is a damned beautiful place, and I would do well to remember that – and now that I have been north, I know what true Minnesotan beauty is.

And it sure is something.