Living Among Wildlife In Northern Minnesota


September 30, 2023

by Laurel Latham

Retired in April 2022, Gretchen Mehmel spent more than 30 years as the manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area. Gretchen and her husband Jeff Birchem, a Conservation Officer, lived at Norris Camp during those years.

Norris Camp is one of two surviving CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) work camps in Minnesota. Built in 1935, Norris Camp housed workers of the Beltrami Island Project. The CCC was one of President Roosevelt's New Deal programs, created to spur the United States' economy out of the Great Depression by hiring unemployed young men for public conservation work. The Camp is also a DNR wildlife management station.

"Our family enjoyed living at Norris Camp," reports Gretchen. "Our kids never complained about growing up so far from town. They first started school in Warroad, but then since we were in Lake of the Woods County, a bus was sent from Lake of the Woods School to pick up the kids. We had two wonderful bus drivers. I would prepare some breakfast for them to show how appreciative we were that they made that long drive. We would meet them at Faunce in the afternoon and save them several miles. It sure was wonderful having the kids picked up for school in the morning!"

Gretchen put a few miles on the family van.

"We had a Toyota Highlander that seated seven," recalls Gretchen. "Norris Camp is about twenty miles south of Roosevelt on a gravel road, so the 360,000 miles on our van were hard miles. I remember one time there was a culvert washed out and a gap in the road. I was going too fast to stop, so I yelled 'hang on!' and kept on driving. We made it ok!"

Originally from Willmar, MN, Gretchen earned a bachelor's degree in wildlife management, graduating from the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus in 1983.

"I first planned on being a veterinarian," explained Gretchen. "I love animals. But then I heard how the whooping crane was in danger of becoming extinct and I decided there would always be dogs and cats and horses and cows. I wanted to help wildlife."

On Tuesday, October 17, from 6:30 p.m. until 8 p.m., Gretchen Mehmel will speak at Warroad Folk School on the history of wildlife in northern Minnesota. Gretchen's passion for wildlife is a passion she hopes to pass on to others.

"I will start with how our area developed beginning hundreds of years ago, as glaciers melted and the Canadian Shield became worn down," said Gretchen. "Our area gradually changed as European settlers built homesteads. There were more changes with the Industrial Age and when small family farms became larger farms. Wildlife moved further north and west.

"At one time there were herds of buffalo in northern Minnesota and pronghorn antelope. Grizzlies also roamed our area. Not all of them were black, some had coats of a cinnamon brown-black that were better camouflage on the prairie.

"Climate change is another issue now affecting the wildlife in our area," continued Gretchen. "Cardinals rarely were seen this far north, but with climate change, we are now seeing cardinals. Our area is such a great area for wildlife, with the prairies in Roseau County, the boreal forest in International Falls and Kenora and the bog area that creates ideal conditions for plants and animals to thrive."

Gretchen and Jeff now live in the community of Carp, a rural area twenty miles south of Baudette.

"Settlers thought that sucker fish were carp, and that's how Carp got its name," said Gretchen with a laugh. "It was a fortunate mistake, because I'd rather live in a town called Carp than Sucker.

"Jeff and I are keeping busy. We've recently been approved as foster parents. Jeff continues to give talks at schools about the science called phenology, the study of recurring life-cycle events of plants, animals and all life forms during the changing seasons. I gave a talk at the Baudette Distillery called History on the Rocks; the wearing down of the Canadian Shield. I'm also involved with the museum in Baudette, who recently received a grant to make improvements. I'm hoping to continue to hold classes about living among the wildlife in Northern Minnesota."

Warroad Folk School is a nonprofit organization located at 319 Lake St. N.E. The History of Wildlife in Northern Minnesota presentation on October 17, 6;30 p.m.-8 p.m. will cost those attending a small fee of $5.


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