Grouse By Day, Parks And Trails By Candlelight

The window is small, if you wish to experience both. And it opens into an active world of both light and darkness.

Well, not total darkness, thanks to all those luminaries.

As a sort of kickoff to the new year, and winter, candlelight hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing events are scheduled in the evenings around Minnesota’s state parks and trails starting Dec. 31.

And, for those wanting to enjoy winter walks during the daytime, maybe getting in some ruffed grouse hunting while you’re at it, the season that opened Sept. 19 runs through Jan. 3.

Yes, there are only a few weeks left, but this could be the best part of what has been, according to most reports, a fairly uneventful grouse-hunting season. It seemed to take longer than usual, but the leaves have long turned and fallen and, as of Tuesday, not much of previous light snowfalls remained across the state. So, the birds aren’t overly difficult to see, and getting around in the woods also isn’t much of a chore. And grouse hunting doesn’t require much gear — just pack a small-game license, shotgun, some decent boots and warm clothes, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says.hunter

That’s not to say it suddenly will be easy for grouse hunters down the stretch. Quite the contrary, actually, when typically hunting grouse this time of year.

“Late-season grouse hunting is different, and challenging,” said Ted Dick, ruffed grouse specialist with the DNR. “There are fewer birds, and survivors are often warier and more easily spooked. Each bird harvested is considered a trophy.”

Once there is adequate snow — a winter storm is expected later this week in Minnesota and across much of Northland Outdoors country — grouse roost beneath it for much of the day, often not coming out into the trees until dusk.

Still, the possibilities — the list of places to hunt ruffed grouse in Minnesota — are endless. The state has 528 wildlife management areas in the ruffed grouse range that cover nearly a million acres, 50 designated ruffed grouse management areas and 600 miles of hunter walking trails, according to the DNR. And state, county and federal forests across Minnesota offer numerous opportunities as well.

That’s the story, too, as those “ruffies” disappear into the trees at dusk. According to the DNR, 35 of the popular candlelight events are scheduled around state parks and trails this winter, starting New Year’s Eve and continuing through the end of February. Depending on the location of the event and the amount of snow, participants may hike, snowshoe or cross-country ski along the lighted trails.

Events at Lake Carlos State Park near Alexandria and Fort Snelling State Park in the metro kick off the candlelight season Dec. 31, with a New Year’s Day walk scheduled at Luce Line State Trail, also near the metro. A First Day Hike, part of a nationwide initiative, also is included in the New Year’s itinerary at Luce Line.

For snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, equipment is available for rental or to check out at some state parks (the DNR advises calling in advance to confirm availability and to reserve equipment). The candlelight events are free, but a vehicle permit is required to enter state parks ($5 for a one-day permit, $25 for year-round). For candle-lit ski events, skiers 16 and older must have a Great Minnesota Ski Pass to participate.

“There’s just nothing quite like being out for an evening walk with your family or friends on a candle-lit trail,” said Erika Rivers, director of Minnesota state parks and trails. “As anyone who’s ever been to a candlelight event at a Minnesota state park or trail knows, it’s an unforgettable experience.”

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