<< Day 48: Central Iowa to St. Paul, Minnesota | Day 50: St. Paul to Mitchell, South Dakota >>
St. Paul, Minnesota
Today marked the 7-week point in our trip. We had seen amazing places, visited with family and friends, and had incredible experiences. My sensory levels were full. I needed a low-key day.
Before our trip began, I had identified several possible activities to do in St. Paul today--visit the zoo, explore a historical fort, and tour a flour mill museum. We opted for the zoo, with a free afternoon to enjoy the pool and relax at the RV park.
Genevieve and Sebastian shot off to the playground while Ben and I cleaned the RV this morning. They dug a big hole under the climbing structure.
We loaded into the RV and drove about 20 miles to the Minnesota Zoo.
The Minnesota Zoo was founded in 1978, with the express mission “to connect people, animals, and the natural world.” The zoo has over 500 animal species, and almost 3000 individual animals. Over a million people visit each year, observing the animals in exhibits that are designed to resemble natural habitats. The zoo is also a world leader in conservation efforts. Many displays throughout the park engage children and adults in learning about threats to specific animals and their important ecosystems.
We made a big loop through the zoo, starting with the marine center called Discovery Bay. Several open areas allow people to touch small tiger sharks and other sea creatures. I reached my hand into the water and gave a short gentle stroke against the body of a swiftly moving tiger shark. The shark’s skin felt slick, leathery, and fuzzy—all at the same time.
The tide pool area:
The floor to ceiling tanks held a variety of fish. The "cheeks" on this one were very interesting.
Genevieve was mesmerized by the rows of teeth on the big shark.
The Atlantic Bottle-nosed dolphins were a huge hit with the children (as well as Ben and I!).
Outside, the children ran over to greet the huge bear statues near the water spritzer area.
Our path then led us through a series of exhibits that re-created the Pacific Ocean shoreline of Russia, called “the Grizzly Coast.” The icy waters there are the home of the playful sea otter, whose antics had us all laughing.
As many as 300,000 sea otters used to live around the northern Pacific coastline, along Russia, Alaska, Canada, California and Mexico. About 300 years ago, the soft warm pelts of the sea otter became a hot commodity in the international fur trade. By 1911, when an international treaty finally banned sea otter hunting, fewer than 2000 sea otters remained. Today’s population is estimated to be around 100,000. However, sea otters are fairly fragile, and large numbers can die quickly—for example, the population in Alaska decreased by 80% from the mid-1980’s to 2005. The animals still face constant threats from poaching, oil spills, over-fishing, and disease.
We then entered the caves of the grizzly bears.
Peek-a-boo! (These are my cuddly bears!)
All of the brown bears (also called “grizzly bears”) were napping this morning. The bear in the photo below is named “Kenai”; in September 2006, he was found as a tiny cub on the Kenai peninsula in Alaska. If he hadn’t been rescued, animal specialists believe that he would not have survived—baby bears learn to hunt from their mothers, who they usually remain with for the first 2 to 4 years of their lives.
We learned that brown bears sleep about 7 months in the winter, when food is in short supply. Technically, the sleep period is not called “hibernation” because the bears can be woken up.
Brown bears live all along Russia’s Pacific Coast; they thrive in the cold environment. The bears generally avoid confrontation, except when they are hungry or threatened. Their powerful jaws and teeth allow them to eat just about anything they want.
Kamchatka, one area on Russia’s Pacific Coast, has more brown bears than any other place. However, their population has decreased in half over the last 15 years, primarily due to the poaching and loss of salmon. Sometimes poachers catch thousands of salmon in one day, strip the salmon of their roe (for caviar and use in face lotion), and then dump the fish carcasses to rot on the banks.
Genevieve compared her hand to that of a grizzly.
The bear closest to the camera, below, is named “Haines”; in July 2006, he was found as a cub wandering around the yards and porches near Haines, Alaska.
This sleeping bear is “Sadie”; she was found as an orphaned cub roaming near Sadie Creek in Kotzebue, Alaska. She spent the first two years of her life at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (along with Haines and Kenai). The three bears joined the Minnesota zoo in 2008. Check out Sadie's claws!
The zoo offered a large sand pit with some buried wooly mammoth fossils. Genevieve and Sebastian had to hunt for the bones, of course—their compulsion to dig is almost as strong as their “gotta climb” instinct.
The wild boars here were much bigger than those that I see almost every week while dirt biking in California.
We learned that boars are ancestors of pigs. Wild boars usually live in woods or forests. They have poor eyesight but excellent hearing. Their bottom canine teeth constantly grow forward, forming into tusks that they use for digging through mud or snow, and sometimes killing prey. Boar snouts are very flexible and made of large discs of cartilage attached to muscles; they are great for smelling and digging. Boars are very versatile, and they reproduce quickly—without a strong predator population, their numbers would quickly expand.
Our experience at the Amur Leopard exhibit was so fascinating! The leopard came right up to the glass window and looked at us for at least five minutes.
We were all in awe of this majestic creature.
We were saddened to learn that there are only about 30 Amur Leopards left in the wild. They once lived in large numbers throughout China and the Koreas. Through hunting and expanded residential settlements, humans have decimated the leopard population and reduced their homeland to a 1000 square mile pocket in eastern Russia.
The Amur Tiger exhibit covered a large area.
We could see a tiger relaxing in the distance, seeking privacy among the shrubbery.
Only a few hundred Amur Tigers are left in the wild, primarily along the coast in eastern Russia. They once roamed throughout northeastern China, the Koreas, and a large expanse of Russia. The tigers prefer dense woods with some open fields, and each male covers a territory of 450 square miles.
We left the Grizzly Coast area and wandered the path that would eventually take us to the African animals.
Along the way, there was an exhibit with a few Takins—an unusual animal that looks as if it is a mixture of goat, antelope, and perhaps a small cow.
Takins exist in a category by themselves, as a unique species. They are found in the high altitudes of Bhutan and Tibet (in Asia). Ben and I had seen Takins for the first time last year on our motorcycle adventure through the Himalayan mountains in Bhutan. (You can read about our first encounter with Takins here: http://www.onejourneyatatime.com/Site/post/Bhutan-Day-9.aspx. ) The zoo also had a small herd of bison (sometimes called American buffalo).
The prairie dogs were very charismatic and social, and we all were captivated by their rollicking play.
We learned that prairie dogs used to inhabit 100 million acres of prairie land in the United States. The animals dig extensive underground tunnels, piling soil outside of the tunnel entrances; they contribute greatly to the health and fertility of the prairie by churning the soil and bringing rich minerals to the surface. Unfortunately, 98% of all prairie dogs were exterminated in the 20th century; they were viewed as destructive pests by people who converted the prairie lands to agricultural fields or pastures for grazing.
The severe decline in prairie dog towns has led to the near-extinction of the black-footed ferret, whose primary food source is the prairie dog.
The giraffes (my favorite animal) were being fed nearby, so we got a wonderful up-close look.
We learned that giraffes love to eat leaves from mimosa and acacia trees. They use their long tongues (sometimes 20 inches) and muscular lips to rip the leaves from tall branches. They get most of their water from the leaves and can go for weeks without drinking.
Here is a young giraffe eating some low tree branches.
Their legs are so long that they have to spread them out in order to nibble on the sweet grass.
Giraffes also have excellent vision and a sharp sense of smell; with their tall height, they are often able to spot predators first and warn surrounding animals. Surprisingly, their long necks contain just seven vertebrae, just like humans!
While once found throughout Africa, giraffes now live primarily on nature reserves and protected parks. The current “wild” population of giraffes is about 36,000.
An ostrich was strutting nearby. I had never before noticed how soft the plumage looked.
The ostrich is the world’s largest bird—generally, 8 feet tall and 300 pounds. While they cannot fly, they can run up to 40 miles per hour. Contrary to popular myth, ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand; however, they do “hide” by lying on the ground with their necks outstretched.
Ostriches almost became extinct in the 18th century, as people hunted them for their feathers (to use as pens and as clothing accessories). However, ostrich farms sprung up in the mid-1800’s, which allowed ostrich feathers to be gathered by plucking without killing the birds.
This wolf had a large habitat consisting of trees and lots of shrubbery.
While we watched, the wolf made several circuits of his/her territory, following the same set path, up and down and around, up and down and around.
Nearby displays addressed the sad plight of the wolves in North America. The Mexican wolf, or “lobo”, was once found in the mountains of the Southwest. It is now extinct in the United States, and listed as “highly endangered” within Mexico.
The “gray wolf” was once common throughout North America, but they were killed and eliminated from most areas by the mid 1930’s. The wolf was finally classified as an endangered species in 1974. Today their range includes Canada, Alaska, and the northern areas of a handful of states (Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin and Wyoming).
As we continued our wanderings through the zoo, we stopped to admire the antlers on these caribou.
With caribou, both the females and males have antlers. The females’ antlers are generally more slender, and the females do not shed them until late winter or early spring. The males have much larger antlers, which they shed earlier.
The antlers on this caribou were so HUGE that he appeared to be having difficulty holding his head high as he walked.
Woodland caribou are now considered an endangered species in the United States. They were once prevalent in Minnesota, but their numbers declined rapidly in the 1800’s from extensive hunting and the logging of the forests where they lived.
As we completed our walking tour of the zoo, we passed by these beautiful trumpet swans.
The zoo playground had many creative elements, such as a tree house, suspension bridge, a spider web, and a hanging bird’s nest.
Sebastian was fascinated by the coin launcher in the zoo lobby; the launched coins rolled around and around the big circular structure until they finally disappeared into a hole in the middle—with all coins going to the zoo’s donation fund.
When we returned to the RV park, we all took a much-needed nap.
Then I had some quiet time in the laundry room, while the kids played in the pool. Ben got an arm workout tossing the children.
Genevieve came and kept me company while I waited for the dryers to finish.
Genevieve had met two new friends at the pool. The girl, Dayton, was six years old; she came over before dinner and invited Genevieve to play at her campsite. Her brother, Mason, was eight. He said that his family were from Iowa and had been here before; he loves all of the fun times that they have in St. Paul.
Mason, Dayton and Genevieve.
After dinner, we all took a leisurely walk around the campground. Then Ben built a fire, and we roasted marshmallows.
Afterward, Ben and I hung out by the fire, chatting quietly and holding hands. It was a peaceful end to our relaxing day.
<< Day 48: Central Iowa to St. Paul, Minnesota | Day 50: St. Paul to Mitchell, South Dakota >>
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