By John Lauritsen

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Parents can struggle to pull their kids away from technology, especially video games and smart phones. It’s even harder during the summer months when they’re home from school.

But the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge is trying to help with that. In Carver County, a new smart phone app combines mobile technology with Mother Nature.

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The Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge stretches along 70 miles of scenic river way. And this time of year it seems to come alive for visitors close to home and far away.

“It was very beautiful. Very lush compared to Colorado. So it was a really nice change of scenery,” said Catherine Chu, who was visiting from Fort Collins, Colorado.

There’s a fear too many are missing out. Instead of discovering virtual reality, they want people to discover a visual reality.

Putting aside old field maps and guides, Sandi Kinzer is part of a team that invented the “Discover Nature App.” It’s like having a ranger in your back pocket even on a rainy day. And it’s the only wildlife refuge in the Midwest that has this.

“If Lewis and Clark had this app they probably could have shaved some time off of their trip,” Kinzer said. “People love it. Parents love it because it gets the kids involved. People who really like having their phones with them that like doing something on the trail.”

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What they’re doing is twofold — they can download the app and learn about animals, insects and history, or they can go on a scavenger hunt.

Walking through Rapids Lake near Carver, questions pop up and you get points if you answer correctly. Right or wrong, it takes you through a place where people are visitors but for wildlife of all shapes and sizes, it’s home.

“The question is: What kind of swallows live here? Because it’s not going to take just one kind of swallow,” Kinzer explained.

History is a big part as well. Often the clues lead you to places like the Gehl Mittelsted House. Built in the 1870s with Chaska bricks, it was abandoned nearly a century ago.

With nearly 300,000 visitors each year, there’s a belief that the app will turn a walk in the woods into something much more.

“I’m hoping people take some time to spend more time on the refuge, and use that as a gateway to discovering more about their wildlife refuge right here in the heart and suburbs of the Twin Cities,” Kinzer said.

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The Discover Nature App can be used at Rapids Lake, Louisville Swamp and at the Bloomington location. It can also be downloaded in 3 different languages from Google or Apple stores.

John Lauritsen