East Grand Forks, MN Monday August 17
Minnesota has 11,842 lakes greater than 10 acres in size. Sunday morning we left the land of lakes and forests and headed over to the prairie land where there are very few lakes. The transition does not happen immediately but by Sunday afternoon we were in flat, flat, flat land. But first, we had three stops scheduled before our planned arrival in East Grand Forks Minnesota.
We left behind an area where every second vehicle was a pick-up or SUV pulling a boat and trailer. The road Sunday was straight with varying fields of sugar beets, corn, wheat, sunflowers, potatoes, and soybeans. Trees were planted as wind breaks, not as part and parcel of a forest. Every small town had its huge stack of elevators storing crops. Trains were comprised of hopper cars of coal or grains along with tanker cars we presumed with North Dakota oil but possibly other liquid goods. Small white-painted churches dotted the countryside.
Rydell National Wildlife Refuge was our first stop. Here we are out in the rural, sparsely populated area and we run into three women with their children going for a Sunday morning walk. The refuge office was closed but the trails were open. This refuge is still in the transition zone, so there were wetlands, small forest areas, ponds and grasslands. This part of MN was primarily prairie until the European settlers arrived and plowed up the land for agriculture. One can see the rich, black dirt that produces such good crops.
The railroads were the major driver of settlement in this part of the US. The railroads were given land by the federal and/or state government which they used to sell land to European immigrants. Other immigrants used the Homestead Act to gain their 160 acres of land at low cost. Towns were built along the railroad tracks where the crops were raised and then the crops sent back east on the same railroads that brought the immigrants out here to settle. Wheat was the primary crop planted by the settlers. That wheat was ground into flour in Minneapolis which was the flour milling capital of the world from 1880 to 1930. Even today, wheat is heavily grown in the Red River Valley of the North.
The Rydell National Wildlife Refuge was formerly home to 19 farmsteads. Its 2200 acres is bordered by land still being farmed. In one field located just across from the refuge entrance, we observed, and listened to the calls of, two Sandhill Cranes in a field where the wheat had just been harvested. In the refuge itself, we could view numerous prairie grasses and flowers. Trumpeter swans were swimming in two of the ponds.
A second stop was the Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge. This one is so new that we drove past the small, off the road sign announcing it. Glacial Ridge is a partnership of over 30 agencies that hope to eventually make this the largest restored prairie in the U.S. Its goal is over 35,000 acres (Rydell is only 2,200 acres). There is only one short trail currently usable. We had hoped there would be more. We did drive past numerous signs indicating the refuge was located behind the fences, but only the one trail. One major goal for Glacial Ridge is the creation of sufficient habitat for prairie chickens which are dying out. The prairie chicken has a unique “booming” sound during its mating ritual.
The city of Crookston MN was our third stop. The city was holding its annual Ox-Cart Days festival this weekend. Most of the festival was over by Sunday but we managed to go on an air boat ride on the Red Lake River. The river flows out of Red Lake which we visited on Saturday. Two of our companions were Bob and Joyce from Crookston who filled us in on the flooding history of Crookston. When you read of the floods in Grand Forks, Crookston was usually hit also. The Crookston/Grand Forks area is one of the few parts of the U.S. where the rivers flow north. This exacerbates the spring snow melt floods since the snows melts and then it has to flow north where the river is usually still frozen.
Ox Cart Days are the town’s effort to remember its history. Way back when, even before the railroads, ox carts were the primary means of commercial traffic between Winnipeg and St. Paul. Ox carts, with large wheels to better handle the muddy roads, traveled in “trains” of several hundred at a time, and were pulled by one or two oxen. They moved at a slow pace of 20 miles per day. The train of carts had ungreased wheels which made a creaking sound that could be heard six miles away. It took hours for them to pass by a single location, leading to memories of “no other sound you ever heard in your life”. The ox carts were only able to make one or two round trips per year due to their slow speed and the short summer season. And I sometimes complain that Amtrak is an hour or two behind schedule!
One of the local churches was having a pizza and Celtic music picnic where we ended the day. The church had just built their own outdoor stove to make pizza. The wife of the stove builder explained to us that this was their public endeavor with it. We had three slices each. Good job folks.
The drive from Crookston to East Grand Forks was completely in the prairie area. Flat lands in every direction. I have not yet been able to differentiate between fields of potatoes, soybeans, and sugar beets. While Idaho and Washington produce over half of the U.S. crop of potatoes, this section of ND and MN rank sixth and seventh.
Sugar beets are a big deal up here; you may have read over the years of the impact the sugar beet lobby has in limiting imported sugar and in providing for strong sugar beets subsidies. We have seen two large sugar beet producing facilities, one in Crookston and one near our Fairfield hotel in East Grand Forks.
We had dinner Sunday night at the Blue Moose in East Grand Forks. It is located as close to the Red River of the North as a business can get nowadays. After the disastrous 1997 floods, much of the two downtowns (Grand Forks ND is on the west bank of the river) were destroyed. Instead of reconstruction, the properties were torn down and a park installed. On the MN side of the river, it is the Red River Recreation Area. The businesses were pushed back aways and dikes built to better protect the town.
We went walking through the river park. It has great bike and walking paths and some campgrounds. There are still plans to do more flood prevention work which is very controversial-and expensive. Since the land up here is so flat, any flooding back-up can impact miles of territory. Not sure how it will eventually be resolved.
Ed and Chris