Cruising along western Minnesotas Central Lakes Trail, its tempting to keep a scorecard.
Egret, five. Blue herons, seven. Beavers, three. Turtles, two. Loons, three. Pelicans, 20. Giant concrete coots, one.
Lots of warblers, hurtling over the trail like guided missiles, and warbler-sized dragonflies. Chipmunks racing the bike across blacktop. Patches of wild rose, and fountain grasses waving their pink heads in the breeze.
In Minnesota's Otter Tail County, everything comes extra-large and in multiples.
Few know that this county near the North Dakota border has more lakes than any other in Minnesota 1,048 or even that it has lakes at all.
It also has the state's densest concentration of giant mascots and
roadside sculptures, largely thanks to a scrap-metal wizard who also is the father of an astronaut.
Its a radical idea, but here goes: In Minnesota, you can go up to the lake by heading west.
These lakes not only are out west, theyre less than two hours from the Twin Cities, in a pocket of the state many overlook.
It was a secret to me, said Michele Stillinger, a former Twin Citian working as a naturalist at Sibley State Park. I thought I wouldnt find anything out here; I was very surprised.
There are many colossal lumberjacks, voyageurs and Indian chiefs scattered around Minnesota, all paying tribute to a colorful past.
But there's only one Big Ole.
He stands at the end of Alexandria's Broadway Street, 28 feet of glowering Viking, brandishing a spear and clutching a glistening silver shield that reads "Alexandria, Birthplace of America.''
In Kandiyohi County, it's thanks to the last Ice Age that life's a beach today.
Near Willmar, a lobe of the last glacier came to a grinding halt 12,000 years ago, dumping massive blocks of ice that made big dents in the ground.
Now, they're lakes, popping up like mirages at the edge of soybean fields, behind screens of ash and cottonwoods. Farther north, they're hidden amid rocky meadows and rolling hillocks full of glacial rubble.
It was an early January day in western Minnesota. A biting wind was blowing off the prairie, and the mercury was sinking faster than the Titanic.
But it didnt matter. I was at Maplelag, where the world is my iceberg . . . um, oyster.
At Maplelag, no matter how inhospitable the outside world is, the lodges stained-glass windows turn the wan rays of winter into gleaming golds and apricots. The steam billowing from the giant hot tub creates a dome of warmth amid the tundra. Bottomless cookie jars and baskets of hot fry bread keep guests fat and happy.