With the exception of the sky blue lakes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota, there just aren't many unpopulated lakes left in the state.  Most lakes are ringed with homes and are abuzz with human activity.  Yet, here in the northland, in the heart of a fishing paradise full of tourists, resorts, lakes, and rivers, there is actually a place where one can visit to appreciate nature in a peaceful and natural setting.  That place is the Neilson Spearhead Center.

     Located only eleven miles southwest of Bemidji, and less than a mile from Lake Plantagenet, the 450-plus acre Neilson Spearhead Center nestled alongside beautiful Spearhead Lake, is a jewel in the forest.  The entire shoreline of this tranquil lake is natural: from the lake's emergent vegetation to the forested uplands. 

Wildlife abounds throughout the sanctuary. White-tailed deer, black bear, fisher, otter, flying squirrels, and even an occasional wolf.  Bird life flourish year around.  In the summertime, birders are routinely treated with sightings of numerous species of woodland warblers, thrushes, nesting loons and osprey, as well as great blue herons, wood ducks, and other species of waterfowl.

     Plant life is just as diverse, if not more so.  Abundant fruit and nut-bearing trees, shrubs, and herbs provide wildlife with food and shelter.  Tall jack pine and Norway pine are prevalent, as are aspen, oak, and maple.  In the lowlands one can find tamarack and black spruce.

     It is, of course, a difficult task to paint a descriptive picture of the Neilson Spearhead Center with words alone.  But to stroll on a nature walk on its many trails, to sit under whispering pines overlooking the sparkling lake, to probe Revoir Creek for signs of rare plant and animal life, or to paddle a canoe around the lake to fish or just enjoy the sound of paddle hitting water as you glide your craft silently through the shallows, comes pretty close.  There is something for everyone, young and old alike, at the Neilson Spearhead Center. 

     In 1978 Katharine Neilson Cram deeded the entire property to The Nature Conservancy.  Thanks to her generosity, such a place exists for those seeking enjoyment in nature.  Presently, the Mississippi Headwaters Audubon Society (MHAS), a local chapter of the National Audubon Society, owns and operates the Neilson Spearhead Center as both a wildlife sanctuary and environmental learning center. 

     The rich history of the property is worth noting.  George Neilson originally purchased several lots along Spearhead Lake in 1922 from John Spicer.  Nearly all of the remaining property that makes up the present-day holdings was purchased by 1939.  And the last forty acres was given to Katharine Cram by her father in 1958.  Katherine spent nearly all of her summers at Spearhead Lake until 1942.  She lived there from 1958 to 1969. 

During those years several buildings existed where the Center's headquarters now stands.  Homes, a barn, sheds and garages, a boathouse, and an outhouse were constructed.  Some vestiges of the past can be viewed yet today, but gone are the original homes and barn.

Through her vision of preserving and conserving the extraordinary natural landscape of the Center for future generations, a living legacy of Katharine Neilson Cram exists for Audubon members and the general public to enjoy.  For the Mississippi Headwaters Audubon Society--its directors, committees, and members--a huge responsibility and commitment to the land, and its wildlife and floral diversity, is paramount. 

Well over 200 plants have been observed and recorded at Neilson Spearhead Center.  Some of which are rare, endangered, or species of special concern.  The lake and woodlands are alive with the songs and calls of birds.  And furry mammals of many kinds, as well as terrestrial and aquatic insect life, frogs and toads of several species, painted and snapping turtles, fishes like walleye, northern pike, and bluegill sunfish, and countless other species of wildlife inhabit the riches the Center provides. 

And just as importantly, it is also a place of discovery.  Every summer, children of all ages attend naturalist led programs that teach them about the outdoor world.  The education committee of MHAS' Neilson Spearhead Center board organizes and administers this successful and engaging program.  It’s also place where outdoor enthusiasts can cross-country ski, snowshoe, or ice fish on winter days.  And to help visitors become acquainted with the Center, caretakers live on-site and are always there to help. 

The Neilson Spearhead Center is a diamond in the rough.  There's something for everyone; something to discover; and something to appreciate, cherish, and preserve.  Getting out to enjoy the great outdoors has never been made easier.   

by Blane Klemek, published in The Source, 2003