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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 6, 2002 - Issue 58


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Big Dreams Take Shape Over Minnesota's Big Bog

by Dorreen Yellow Bird, Grand Forks Herald
credits: Photo of Big Bog of Minnesota
Photo of Big Bog of MinnesotaWith a bit of wind at my back and some snow on the roadside, I headed northeast Tuesday to Thief River Falls. I crossed the "Thieving River," as I was told it was once called, to the Northland Community and Technical College, where I talked with a group from the community.

Ah, this community was like a bunch of wild woodland flowers - a bouquet of friendly smiles. They were my excuse to get out into the woodlands.

The college sits across the road from the confluence of the Thief and Red Lake rivers. The rivers still are tight with ice and seem to be resisting any wake-up calls.

The last time I was in Thief River Falls, I interviewed a bear hunter. This time the community was a stopover on my way to the Big Bog, north of the Red Lakes.

The following day, I had an appointment with Jerry Stensing, forester and vice chairman of the citzens group for the new Big Bog State Recreation Area. I met him in Kelliher, Minn. Then, we drove some 50 miles into the Big Bog.

What a place!

Stensing will be a Sunday Herald "Prairie Voices" interview in a few weeks. In that interview, he'll talk about "ecotourism" and how the towns near the Big Bog are changing their dying economies into thriving communities. But there are other aspects of my five-hour visit there that I want to share.

The Big Bog, the largest area of unbroken peatland in the state, is a marsh where sphagnum moss is king. This moss is the driving force behind this ecosystem, Stensing told me.

Sphagnum is a light green fluffy growth that almost entirely covers the bottom of the peat bog, below the marsh grasses and other plants. It's more absorbant than any household sponge. It has a faint, dank smell, but not the sour smell of rotten vegetation. I tasted the moss, too; it tastes rather like greens or vegetables. During World War I, medics used the moss to cover wounds, Stensing said.

The bog sort of creeps up on you. You're driving along in a forest area, watching the stark white of birch and Tamarack trees alternate along the highway like piano keys. Suddenly, the trees are gone. They are replaced by 7-foot-tall reed grass, with stalks spaced so evenly that they look like a garden planted by a giant. Around the grass are other plants and bushes, and here and there is a dead tree poking up among the grass and reeds like some kind of a bad omen.

There is an ancient tree that grows there, too, called dwarf white cedar. It is 300 to 500 years old, Stensing said. It is inland on what they call the "voids," which are islands of land in the Big Bog.

Orchids, lady slippers and insect-eating plants love the place. These insect-eating plants are interesting. If they grew outrageously big, I wondered, would they develop an urge for a human snack?

I asked Stensing about mosquitoes. You need to know the habits of these insects, he said. They have a time of year and a time of day. If you know those things, you can visit the bog and be comfortable.

Stensing lives and works in the area. He came there by chance, loved it and stayed. He and his brother were driving an old pickup through the area from the West Coast when they had a flat tire on the bridge that crosses the Tamarack River, he said. They found the fishing and the area so wonderful that he returned and stayed.

There are many animals there, too. One time while cutting wood, Stensing heard his dog barking and whimpering. He knew something was wrong. He ran to the dog after yelling to his son to get his gun.

When he got there, a huge wolf was standing over the dog with its jaws around its throat. Luckily, the dog had a large collar which probably saved its life.

Stensing hit the wolf across the back with a big stick. The wolf ran off, then turned, crouching, and began snarling and moving toward him. Luckily, his son came running with his gun, and shot at it. The wolf ran off. It must have been a female with pups and desperate for food, Stensing said.

We saw a marsh hawk, Connecticut warbler and LeConte's sparrow, a native of the arctic tundra. As I turned toward home, I saw a golden eagle sitting on a telephone post next to the road. Farther on, as I passed the open water of the Red Lake River, I saw two bald eagles so close I could count their feathers and see their yellow beaks. They took flight after a few minutes. Their wing span was magnificent.

I always have loved the rolling plains, but this magical land in my back yard is breathtaking. I recommend the Big Bog to anyone who likes wild and beautiful land where there are few human footprints.

Thief River Falls, MN Map Maps by Travel

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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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