Editor’s Note: The Hibbing Daily Tribune and Mesabi Daily News offers part five of a six-part series celebrating National Travel and Tourism Week.
SOUDAN — Ask Interpretive Supervisor James Pointer what there is to do at the Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park in the summer, and he will rattle off all sorts of things.
Camping in the growing state park; hiking of many miles of trails, with more being developed; picnics at designated areas; birding and geocaching opportunities; self-guided surface tours.
Of course, there are the longstanding tours of the mine, which operated as an underground enterprise from the 1890s to 1962.
And, now, the park is offering new types of mine tours which are broadening the experience for newcomers to the historic site and those who have taken the original tour, perhaps many times already.
But the one thing everyone gets rather batty about is, well, bats.
The park provides a number of interpretive programs each summer, including its most popular, “Batty About Bats.”
The programs — ranging from observing the night sky to Canoeing 101 — draw visitors and area residents alike. More of the experiences have been added now since the state park campground opened in September 2017.
Pointer, of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which operates the park, leads most of the programs and has been teaching the public about bats for nearly 15 years.
“Batty About Bats” is consistently well-attended, probably, Pointer says, because the Soudan Underground Mine is “one of the few places where you can actually see them.”
That statement is becoming more and more true as white-nose syndrome — a fungal disease that causes a visible white fungal growth on infected bats’ muzzles and wings — continues to kill bats in North America.
The disease, first observed in New York in 2006, has spread westward to at least half of the country and portions of Canada. Transmitted bat to bat, it’s been knocking down populations of the winged mammals, including those residing in the deep subsurface reaches of the Soudan mine.
What researchers once estimated at more than 8,000 bats at the mine has dwindled over the past few years due to a “90% mortality” rate from the disease, Pointer said.
But visitors showing up on a set July or August evening at the mine will yet be treated to a display of the “creatures of the night” as they emerge from the Soudan’s Alaska Shaft — a bit like popcorn. A few at first, then a bunch popping out of the shaft at once.
Probably 100 or so of the little brown myotis, about the size of a mouse, will come out at dusk on their nightly search for food, Pointer said.
But first, a whole different set of bats put on a display. The program begins with a series of educational games and activities, including one in which participants — often the young ones in the group — pretend they are bats and prey.
“Bat, bat, bat…” a child will say, running around with closed eyes in make-believe pursuit of that bat’s dinner, as another youngster yells out, “moth, moth, moth…”
It’s a simple, and entertaining, representation of how bats use echolocation (using sound, not sight) to find their prey.
While Soudan bats have been affected by white-nose syndrome, research taking place underground at the former mine — long a site of scientific work — could actually one day combat the deadly bat disease, said Pointer, who talks with bat program participants about the topic.
This year’s bat program will be held on the evenings of July 23 and 26, and Aug. 1 and 6.
Visitors often plan summer trips around the interpretive programs of interest, Pointer noted.
Most programs are free, with necessary materials provided. A few require registration.
The second most popular program is the “Night Sky of the Northwoods.” Two different Night Sky sessions will be held this summer.
The first, on July 12, will focus on optics. Participants will first learn how optics make astronomical viewing possible, and then go outside to use a high-power telescope for observation of astronomical features, including the various summer constellations.
The telescope is strong enough for attendees to “see that Saturn has a ring … and moons,” Pointer said. Participants also enjoy looking at the craters of “our Moon.”
The Night Sky program on Aug. 9 will be “more traditional,” with participants viewing celestial sights using the telescope and binoculars. The Lake Vermilion vicinity is “a dark sky area,” Pointer said, where people can observe such sights without the light pollution of other parts of the country and metropolitan locations.
The August presentation is also held as close to the Perceid Meteor Shower — which peaks mid-month — as possible. Night sky programs are best during quarter moons, when the sky is darker, Pointer said. “You can also see the Moon’s craters better when it’s not full.”
The park is looking into obtaining an even larger, stronger telescope, he added.
The new campground has also brought “new opportunities” for programming, he said.
Last year, for its grand opening, the park held a “Traditional Campfire” program. People enjoyed the family-friendly time so much, it’s back again this year and will be held June 21, July 19 and Aug. 16. Participants spend the evening around a campfire, singing songs, telling stories and performing skits.
Lake Vermilion and the waterways of the area also offer a chance for specialized programs.
Pointer will lead three types of water-related experiences this summer.
“Canoeing 101: A Beginner’s Guide” is set for June 15 and July 20. Participants will learn canoe safety, paddle strokes and techniques, and have a chance to “see the park from a different vantage point — out in the water.” Life jackets are provided and attendees must be age 8 or older.
A “River Canoe Trip” program will be held Aug. 11. It is the only interpretive session with a fee. Cost is $25 per person and youth are allowed.
Participants on the six-hour adventure will not only have the chance to paddle seven to nine miles down the Pike River Flowage, but also spend time conducting water quality monitoring experiments and learning natural history. There will be opportunities to look for critters, from otters to eagles, Pointer said.
“River canoeing is a little bit different with the rapids of the river,” and some experience is required, although a refresher of basic safety will be provided.
Pointer will also hold several “Rediscover Lake Vermilion by Pontoon” programs — on June 14 and 25, July 13 and 23, and Aug. 9 and 20.
They will also get people out conducting water quality experiments and “monitoring around the lake for natural history features, like eagles’ nests and cultural significant areas,” he said.
People attending any of the interpretive programs are encouraged to dress appropriately and pack bug repellent and/or sunscreen, he noted.
The Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park sees about 80,000 visitors each year, Pointer said.
The mine tours alone bring in thousands. When the park stopped offering its physics lab tours, which brought people down to the 27th level underground to learn about the scientific experiments being conducted there, mine tour numbers dipped from 30,000-33,000 to about 27,000.
But with some additional tours being added, those figures are expected to increase, Pointer said.
Traditional tours taking visitors down to the 27th level — 2,341 feet underground — will run on the hour or half hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily from the weekends of Memorial Day to Labor Day, and then on weekends into October.
The “Walking Drift Tour,” piloted last year, builds on that tour. Participants have the chance to not only ride part-way into the Level 27 drift on the train, but to “get out and walk the entire drift … to get back to where the miners worked … to use geology” to see how miners knew where to begin the mining process, Pointer said.
Those tours will be held at 9 a.m. Wednesdays during the summer season, otherwise known as “Walking Wednesdays.” Participants must be 10 or older. It requires “walking three-quarters of a mile in dark, wet, uneven conditions,” Pointer said. “It’s not for everyone, but those who did it last year had a blast.”
And a new “Secrets of the Deep” science tour will take visitors at 10 a.m. daily to the area on Level 27 where large physics experiments — including research on subatomic particles — were conducted for many years.
Participants will learn about findings of those experiments and “where they are at since they left here,” Pointer said. Tour-takers will also learn about current research being conducted underground.
And that leads us back to the bats.
Scientists are “looking at the microbes in the water here” for uses that could virtually change the scientific world.
University of Minnesota researchers are studying the microbes found in the mine for new ways to produce energy, to clean minerals from water — and to find an antidote for white-nose syndrome.
There is a good possibility that a fungicide for white-nose could be born out of that research in a couple years, Pointer said. The very place where bats live year-round may not only help their own survival, but the survival of their fellow creatures throughout the northern part of the continent.
Visitors are also asked to walk over a treated carpet to remove spores from footwear to protect the bats.
While there may not be as many bats living in the underground mine, “Batty” programs are held after females have their pups — providing visitors with the chance to see many of “those that survive, plus the new bats,” Pointer said.
Pointer notes that “out East, where white-nose syndrome was first found in bats, the populations are starting to recover and go up now.”
That gives park officials hope that “we might be at our lowest point now” concerning the death rate of the mine’s beloved stars of “Batty About Bats.”