By Eric Freedman
This place doesn’t match your North Dakota stereotype of endless prairie stretching flat to the horizon in all directions, having been squashed flat by massive glaciers. Nor does it match your stereotype of marathon acres of wheat, flaxseed, barley and oats punctuated with International Harvester and John Deere mega-equipment. Nor that of the proliferating roads, dust and drilling rigs of the Oil Patch that’s bringing jobs and economic prosperity – and environmental worries – to the state.
This whole area was once submerged under Lake Agassiz, a massive glacial lake that was larger than today’s Great Lakes combined. It measured about 170,000 square miles an estimated 13,000 years.
This rainy afternoon we’re at the 784-acre Turtle River State Park in the Red River Valley about 20 miles west of Grand Forks. It’s a valued legacy of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps that built the park, pavilions and other structures that still stand.
The water-logged trails are empty except for me, University of North Dakota journalism Professor
Richard Shafer and his dog Pebbles. There are no other hikers, no campers in sight, nobody fishing, no mountain bikers.
The trees are lush, the land rolling. We spot a great blue heron taking to the air.
The Turtle River is a 75-mile tributary of the 545-mile Red River that separates Minnesota from North Dakota and stretches north into Manitoba before emptying into Lake Winnipeg. The Red River Valley drains more than 40,000 square miles sprawls eastward into northern Minnesota.
Today the Turtle is running muddy. At a small sandy patch along one riverbend, Richard retrieves two pieces of evidence of civilization – an abandoned towel and a screwdriver.
Why doesn’t this place fit the North Dakota stereotypes? This explanation comes from Rivers West Red River Corridor Inc.:
Before the waves of settlers came to the Prairies to work the land and feed the world, the plain was a sea of grass and wildflowers. Before settlers planted trees and shrubs for shelter, nothing but grassland stretched out before you. Before settlement, wildfires – called the red buffalo – raged across the land consuming grass, shrubs and trees.
The only place trees and shrubs managed a foothold were along the rivers and streams of the Prairies. These ribbons of trees are the riverbottom forests – the forgotten forests of the Prairies.”
Eric Freedman is director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism