The Push-Pull of Nature – Wild River State Park Completes Exhibits and Visitor Center Improvements

By Deborah Locke, DNR Information Officer



A couple years ago in the fall, park naturalist Mike Dunker returned to the Wild River State Park visitor center from his work outside — which could include prairie seed collection or a public program on prairies. His sense of smell was heightened from the hours of exposure to tall grass, bergamot, hyssop (which smells like black licorice), and sage.

Mike went inside for a meeting with DNR interpretive and park staff, and with representatives from a company that designed and built exhibits. He asked if there was a way to introduce seasonal smells to park visitors.

That question – and many others — was followed with 29 months of planning, design, construction and exhibit installation throughout the visitor center. Today among the new exhibits you’ll find a scent station that introduces smells like plum blossoms, fall foliage and wood fire.

The project’s finishing touches were made in August with exhibits located both inside and outside the building. They tell a story of the way diverse habitats coexist, from a prairie to a river, and from the ground to the sky. The final installation was a unique sculpture, crafted by local artist Jessica Turtle. The 9-foot-tall structure shows a marsh marigold bursting from an oversized soil core sample, laced with hidden creatures and tiles made cooperatively with park visitors.

“We already have a sculpture garden here, and the St. Croix Valley is full of artists and talent,” Mike said. “So, the exhibit company contracted with a sculptor and came up with a plan.” (The 50-acre Franconia Sculpture Park, located on ancestral Dakota lands of the Wahpekute in Mni Sota Makoce, is located on the St Croix Trail in Shafer, Minn.)

The early choice to create exhibits that were unique was very deliberate. “We don’t want visitors to walk in and see the same themes as Mille Lacs Kathio or St. Croix state parks,” said Megan Johnsen, DNR exhibit developer. “So, we lean hard into each site’s unique stories.”

Mike Dunker added that examples of nature pushing and pulling are evident at Wild River State Park. The face of the park has changed dramatically over time, from the native homeland of American Indians with forest and prairie to trapping, timber and gravel harvesting, farming, and now back to forest and prairie. The exhibit shows that nature is not just one thing but is alive and always changing.

The exhibits help visitors draw connections among the soil, water, and air — and the plants and animals that live there. With an audio tour for the blind, mechanical interactives, seasonal scents, touchable textures and fun hidden scenes, this exhibit will engage all ages. The project also added a staff workroom and service counter. “It’s just a better place to work now,” Megan said.

Text from a new exhibit at Wild River State Park:

Wild River State Park staff and volunteers are restoring the prairie. As with any ecosystem restoration, they’ve had to grapple with some hard questions. Should we restore historic species from 175 years ago? Or should we choose species more likely to survive climate change? Though there is no perfect solution, we continue toward our goal. Every burn, every planting improves a healthy, diverse ecosystem and brings a brighter future.

Wild River State Park is near Center City in central-east Minnesota. Some storm damage occurred to park trails in July, but most have been cleared. See the park website for program information, notifications, and alerts, as well as information on pre-purchasing the $7 daily park permit which should be displayed on your vehicle dashboard. You may also purchase online a $35 annual permit which gives access to all 75 parks and recreation areas. Bring your own drinking water.

Photos courtesy of DNR staff.

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