Karla Kinstler takes a gentle breath then releases, "who, who, who."
The sound is instantly recognizable as the hoot of an owl, but a sound far more complex than the owls our mothers mimicked in bedtime stories.
She waits a few seconds, then Karla hears her response. A near perfect copy of Karla's hoot can be faintly heard in the darkened distance.
This is why she stands along this Houston County road in the dark. She won't see an owl all night. The "hoot" is what she came for.
"Oh, usually you don't see an owl," says Karla, never lacking in expressiveness when the subject is owls. "You're lucky if you hear them like this. That's the goal, to hear them."
But then who needs to see an owl at night, when there's one sitting next to you in your car pool to work the next morning?
"If I pull into a gas station, somebody fueling up will come up to me and say, 'you've got an owl in your car!'" says Karla.
The owl, perching high between the seats in Karla's Geo Tracker, is named Alice, a great- horned owl. Alice is permanently grounded after breaking one of her wings as a baby. She moved in with Karla and her husband Ken nine years ago.
"And we will forever have feathers in our house," adds Karla, as Alice flaps her wings and hops across an upstairs banister, shedding feathers along the way.
It's our first indication we are in for something different down the back country roads that snake through the bluffs of Minnesota's Houston County - terrain unlike anyplace else in Minnesota.
Maybe it's all the curves folks here have been dealt that's helped this corner of the state get by in sometimes unexpected ways.
Who would have thought, for instance, that wood for the barrels that age bourbon in Kentucky and wine in Australia comes from a stave mill in Caledonia, Minnesota?
"We have good white oak in the hills and it's what the wine and bourbon people want," says Mike Staggemeyer who runs the Houston County mill his father started.
Today, Staggemeyer Stave Mill ships its barrel staves around the globe.
A few miles away Christian Gasset started something new.
"It's like being in France, almost, it's amazing," says the Frenchman, who met his Minnesota-born wife in Africa while she worked for the Peace Corps and he for a French corporation.
On a former dairy farm, Christian now raises 2000 ducks a year, whose livers he sells for $40 per pound as foie gras, a French delicacy, often featured on restaurant menus in this country as Pâté.
"There's three producers in the United States and in France there's about 30,000 producers," he says. "It's a big deal over there you know."
But ducks and barrel staves are hardly the most creative notion hatched in Houston County. That distinction belongs to the Houston School District, and its innovative superintendent of schools, Kim Ross.
The superintendent saw enrollment declining a few years back. Kim pitched the school board on his idea of creating an online school.
Today, 850 full-time students from across the state, and hundreds of others as part-time, are enrolled in Houston Public Schools' two online schools - The Minnesota Center of Online Learning and The Minnesota Virtual Academy.
In comparison, the rural district enrolls about 450 students in traditional classrooms.
"Economically it's kept our doors open," says Ross.
In a cubical at the high school, special education teacher Nancy Agrimson teaches math to a student in the Twin Cities, watching the progress of his work on her computer screen. But most of the district's online teachers do their teaching from their homes.
A block from the school, elementary school teacher Tammy Bartz is working with sixth grader Jeremy Birnbaum, who's working from his home too - in Apple Valley. She listens over headsets while she times his reading speed to make sure Jeremy is meeting sixth grade standards. He far exceeds them.
Jeremy's mother, Alison Birnbaum, says she sought an online alternative because Jeremy was bored with the pace of his traditional school.
"It has worked well for us," she says. "As Jeremy can zip through areas that he knows, and gets individual attention on the areas that he is weaker. He is usually done with his school day in 2 to 3 hours."
For other parents online classes augment their home schooling, or provide an option for children with behavioral or medical problems. Still other students pick up classes not offered in their districts.
"Online learning has been a godsend for Houston," says Ross, whose district has shored up its finances.
With state aid dollars following online students to Houston, the district has hired 70 new teachers and expanded its course offerings to its traditional students.
"Who would have thought I could have been a teacher and working from my home," says Bartz. "My commute is ten feet."
For Karla Kinstler and Alice the commute isn't quite that short. But the owl and her handler do their share of teaching.
Karla is director of the Houston Nature Center, which has made owls a primary emphasis of its educational efforts.
Six years ago Karla founded the International Festival of Owls, which now attracts hundreds of people to Houston County from across the globe.
This year's event is scheduled to run February 28th through March 2nd.
"In the United States there are eagle festivals, humming bird festivals, vulture festivals, swan festivals, you name it," says Karla. "But nobody is doing owls. So we kind of cornered the market on owls."
Bird watcher Fred Lesher frequently drives from La Crosse, Wisconsin to view owls and other species in Houston County. "This is just a great place," he says. "You got the bluffs and all the timber and then you got the marshlands, the wetlands. It's just a bird watcher's heaven."
Truth is you never want to stop watching. In a corner of the state where an owl can hitch a ride to work in an SUV, you never know what else you might see.
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