At 6AM in the morning on the first day of the new year I grabbed my Starbucks Trenta black iced tea with 2 pumps of classic and hit the road north to Jay Cooke State Park in Carlton County. I of course had a ton of other materials with me, but the tea got me going for the drive.
So on a big year in all the MN State Parks, why did I pick Jay Cooke as my first visit? I asked myself that question a number of times and really couldn't come up with a single solid answer. I just knew that I wanted to visit the park in every season of the year so I wanted to get started right away. I want to see how it changes from the depths of winter (it was -16 when I arrived this morning) to the first warm days of spring and into the lush days of summer. I wanted a park big enough that every experience would be different no matter how many times I stopped and a place where I could pick a new trail to hike during each trip. I felt in the end that Jay Cooke had the adventure I so deeply crave.
With a short stop for gas in Carlton I arrived at the park at 8:19AM.
I saw just a single car in the main parking area that appeared to have been there over-night. As noted -16 F is stupid levels of cold and I learned that very quickly. I parked in front of the new swinging footbridge over the St. Louis River and got bundled up best I could. Taking some pictures and video in the first light I saw a spectacle of frozen water below set against rapids too quick to freeze while the morning light bathed the ends of the river valley.
The most boisterous of northern mammals, the Red Squirrel, was already actively raiding the generous feed stations in both the front and back of the main park office. My hands quickly went into a deep freeze as I made the mistake of thinking I could take a glove off while walking over the footbridge for a video segment. I raced back to my car and warmed up and thought better of taking gloves off the remainder of my stay.
I was happy to see both Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers show at the feeders in numbers while joining the Black-capped Chickadees (1st bird of the year for me) and White-breasted Nuthatches.
Part of me thought about hanging out at the feed stations for an hour or so to stay warm and snipe birds from such a bountiful food source, but I decided against it in the end. I want this year to be about adventure and lingering at bird feeders doesn't really say much in the way of adventure.
I drove down the road with nary a car in sight finding my second marked location, a historical marker and trail head for a potential hike on the Ogantz Trail. One of the few designated for hiking/snowshoeing in the winter months. An overlook was available and I made the hike to that spot for some pictures and additional looks at the river valley below.
Despite the distance from the river I could hear the rapids even with 90% or more covered in a crust of ice. A single Raven gave a hoarse call from a nearby grove and I stumbled upon my 4th Pileated Woodpecker of the morning. I decided that with double digit negative temps still in control that a hike on the Ogantz Trail was going to have to wait. This would just be a sample visit and I could be happy to have seen some wonderful sights while staying close to my lifeline. (My Toyota RAV4.)
I eventually made my last main park stop at the trailhead and water access point for the Grand Portage Trail. Mother Nature was still sleeping though as I heard little bird chatter and the river valley was silent still.
On the way from the park I probed down a couple side roads inspecting them for warm weather possibilities. I happened upon a parking area / trail for the Hemlock Ravine SNA and noted it for future exploration. Near the same location was a bit of parking and a view of a well frozen retention basin (Forbay Lake) perched above the river valley.
On the way out of the park on 210 I stopped quickly at a river side green space called Chambers Grove. I marked it on my map on the off chance it had swift enough water to be open, but the deep freeze had claimed it as well. This spot is fun though in that it is a location you can look directly west into Wisconsin from Minnesota, which is typically not a thing. I was able to get a bit more humor from the gag driving out of the grove on 23 west while my Google Map narration said, "Welcome to Wisconsin" and then a half mile later said "Welcome to Minnesota".
Just down the road I had marked a stop for a Historical Marker that proved a bonus in an outstanding view back up the river valley of the State Park all the way to the Carlton water tower, just visible with my super zoom camera. (Nikon P900.) This also ended up being a the spot I was able to snag a couple passable flight shots of a Common Raven.
My time at Jay Cooke was nearly at an end as a Bald Eagle could be heard calling in the distance. It was still near -10 on the thermometer as I left the park behind thinking I would like another shot at it in the winter. I didn't even see/hear a Red-Breasted Nuthatch while in the park.
The Great: Jay Cooke has an amazing arsenal of views, enough to satisfy any photographer or person that appreciates great scenery. The main office near the swinging bridge has an above average bird feeder station that is in both front and back of the building. I would expect any bird watcher visiting this park would give it at least a few minutes to see what might visit.
The Meh: From my own standpoint the park is limited on winter trail space for hiking. I of course understand this since MN is a ski loving state, but I personally don't wish to do so and that does limit options for winter hikes. One trail is the 3.3 mile (Carlton Trail) one way along the river back towards the city of Carlton and noted as treacherous in winter. This is the kind of situation I would personally avoid in the winter. A one-way 3 mile trail unlikely to be hiked by anyone else seems like a way to find trouble if an injury occurs.
The Verdict: Despite the cold on this day, the park was everything I wanted it to be and more. I can see this being a place I visit for years to come looking to explore every inch of trail possible. I may limit my deep winter visits, but with little hiking today I would say enough meat is on the bone to warrant another trip or two for winter birding.