My son, Joe, and I step off of the paved trail and peer across a small, lonesome body of water called Hamline Lake, which, on this late-summer afternoon, is blanketed with lily pads. In the shallows on the opposite shoreline, a great blue heron fishes for dinner. Joe, age 6, is mesmerized by the bird's slow, yoga-like movements, a reaction that fills me with visceral joy.
The trail that led us to this quiet moment adjoins our backyard about a third of a mile to the south. We live in Mahtomedi, best known for its prime location on the east shore of White Bear Lake. But residents of the funky little St. Paul suburb are equally proud of its funky little trail system.
Did I say "system"? It's really more of a tangled patchwork. Picture miles of paved paths and dirt trails linked, Chutes and Ladders–style, by a series of "neighborways"—essentially public access points on private land. Once you've mastered this byzantine network, you can hike great swaths of the city without ever touching foot on street or sidewalk. It's an excellent amenity, one that has the cumulative effect of making Mahtomedi feel like a large park where people also happen to live and do business.
Many of the trails are quiet and wooded, others awkwardly egalitarian, like the neighborway that cuts through two residential lots in order to shuttle pedestrians down to a public beach. Still others are busy, mixed-use arteries enjoyed year-round by a hearty crew of runners, cyclists, power walkers, dog walkers, lollygaggers, and, after a good snowfall, the occasional cross-country skier.
Built along a former streetcar line, our stretch of mixed-use trail has three distinct sections. Near my house, it's surrounded by stands of oak, maple, ash, and elm. It opens up a bit to the north, next to the local school district headquarters, then ducks into the trees again, where it skirts along a cattail bed and Hamline Lake before terminating at the head of a grassy hiking trail.
My wife and I use this path nearly every day—to walk our neurotic poodle-Bernese mix, to let the kids blow off steam on their bikes, and to keep an eye out for the seemingly endless array of wildlife found on and off the trail.
That last activity is Joe's favorite. In fact, the two of us have spent the past year conducting an unofficial biological survey of our path, which we nicknamed Muskrat Alley last spring, when the rodents were especially active on Hamline Lake.
In addition to muskrats (and hungry herons), we've spotted numerous white-tailed deer, a family of wood ducks, a red fox trotting down the trail with a rabbit in its mouth, painted turtles basking in the sun, monarchs and goldfinches flitting in the cattails, a mouse scurrying into the confines of a rotting log, bald eagles stalking overhead, and, according to Joe, an alligator that only he can see.
We've encountered death too: flattened snapping turtles, headless chickadees, frogs floating belly-up. We've heard familiar sounds—loon yodels, coyote yips—without ever viewing the source. And more than once, we've solved a mystery. During a hard rain in June, we watched a rust-colored moth land on the steaming black pavement and sit there, as if to wait out the weather. We had never seen this species before, but the pair of pearl-like spots on each wing later helped us identify it as a white-dotted prominent.
Muskrat Alley is no Walden. It's no Listening Point. It's just a humble thread of a humble web of trails in a humble town on a lake. But at the same time, it's everything. An entire world on the tip of a pin.
Chris Clayton, editor in chief