Teachers in Stevens County have brought hundreds of schoolkids to McDowell Lake for science field trips over the years.
That’s the first clue that a special 1.3-mile trail starting from the lake’s camping area on the Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge is worth a visit. Nature lovers will find this short trail packed with features, such as a ripe wild strawberry that is supercharged with more flavor than its larger cousins. In the course of a mile, hikers can see five distinct ecological habitats, from riparian to semi-arid on a self-guided tour.
Thanks to the Friends of the LPO Refuge, a boardwalk leads over a cattail marsh and a group observation blind puts visitors in touch with the wide range of birds and other wildlife.
The Friends group of 80-100 members worked seven years to develop, design and build the McDowell Marsh Environmental Education Trail, better known as the McMEET, said Rick Moore, one of the volunteers.
“It started off being a simple 60-foot boardwalk that eventually turned into a 300-footer with sophisticated design,” he said. Construction was done over three years by about 40 volunteers and funded by several sponsors.
“Mainly we wanted to create a first-class spot for our area’s grade-school environmental education programs,” Moore said. “This spot is ideal. In a very short walk, you pass through a lot of wildlife habitat types and you’re likely to see a lot of wildlife depending on your timing.”
Take a brochure from the trailhead and enjoy the interpretive stops along the way, including a chance to see rare marsh lupine, which blooms in late June or July.
The first half of the trail to the lake is wheelchair accessible as the boardwalk leads over and through the cattail marsh.
At the end of the boardwalk on the right is a shrub called nightshade with a small flower that resembles a shooting star, which turns into an orange berry.
Follow the boardwalk and then the dike road to a picnic area on the main lake and an observation blind facing north over the marsh.
Trout fishing is allowed in the main lake under special fly-fishing-only rules.
At the end of the dike road the trail narrows into a single track and heads north.
Invasive species such as St. John’s wort and knapweed are taking over in a few areas, but in August after many of the native wildflowers have gone to seed, these weeds are blooming, buzzing and bustling with the activity of bees and butterflies.
Look for moose and deer tracks, beaver activity, great blue herons, ducks, rising trout, plus dragonflies in the reeds along the dike.
Look carefully and you’ll see much more.