September 15, 2010
Mile 1234 – 1390
Fosston, MN to Arvilla, ND
I woke up this morning in Fosston, MN. At first glance, there’s not much to the place: there are a rusty tank and helicopter memorializing veterans on the east end of town, and three gas stations along the half-mile “main drag.” There’s even a stoplight, along with a couple businesses named after it (Stoplight Video, Stoplight Corner Store). This indicates that there may be more to the town than meets the eye. Fosston (population 1575) is a Minnesota Star City. It is also an All-America City (1996), a member of the White House Millennium Council (“Honor the Past – Imagine the Future”), a winner of the “First in MN Beautiful Award” and “First in MN Community Improvement.” It is the recipient of some kind of recognition for Progressive Agricultural and Industrial Development (the seal portrays a horse, winged with poison ivy… no wait, maybe it’s a soybean plant superimposed on a cow). I’m sure that at least some of this is due to the foresight they had in town planning when they decided to devote the grassy area around their town shop to a fee-based campground.
I can’t really complain about the kids in the yard down the block having a bonfire ‘til the wee hours, about the grain elevator’s fans running through the night, or about the train whistling its way through town at 7 am. For a tent, it’s only five bucks a night. The smell of diesel and Fast Orange in the bathroom even made me a feel a little bit at home. There aren’t a whole lot of other options nearby, actually: somewhere around Lake Itasca I started noticing more pastures, fewer trees. Placid cows made me forget to look for moose around every corner. When I pulled up my tent stakes in the morning, they were black with dirt. With soil. A couple weeks of sand and stone thinly blanketing the bedrock beneath made me feel like I was in another world. Now, I’m back on the prairie. I crossed the tension zone again, and I think I’m finally on the Great Plains.
If I hadn’t picked up on any of those clues, and I hadn’t noticed that Fosston’s motto was “Where the prairie meets the pines,” I could hardly have helped being tipped off by the name of the next town I came to: Fertile. The scenery between Fosston and Fertile was nearly solidly ag fields – and those almost completely soybean, many already harvested, tilled, and replanted with winter wheat. Past Fertile, to the north and west, I found a lot of unplowed land, much of it owned or eased by the state, federal agencies, or the Nature Conservancy. It’s all some mixture of prairie and wetland (miniscule changes in elevation and soil causing the variation). I spent some time hiking around in the Glacial Ridge Preserve area, a cooperative program among the several agencies.
The Nature Conservancy owns and manages Agassiz Dunes, with help from the Minnesota DNR’s Scientific and Natural Areas. I hoped to see the star of that region in my hike – the Greater Prairie Chicken, but no dice. What I did see, after several days’ reprieve, was lots and lots of poison ivy. Also the last of the summer’s dry prairie blooms: heath aster, bottle gentian, gray goldenrod. I have to wonder if everything has gone dormant because I’ve been off in the boreal forest so long, or if its due to my northern latitude – I know it’s been consistently at least ten degrees warmer in Madison than up where I am. At any rate, I didn’t realize it at the time, but the sand blows at Agassiz may have been my last exposure to topography for many, many miles.
After chatting with the TNC crew at the Glacial Ridge Office between Fertile and Crookston, I went off to check out some of the area’s other nice features, including calcareous fen, marsh, wet mesic prairie, and mesic prairie along a former railroad grade. I had to get used to the directions they gave, though: “ridge” means “area in wetland where ground is a couple feet higher and brush can grow.” I also found myself wishing that I were better at bird identification, because this is a very popular birding area. I was able to identify a rough-legged hawk and white-throated sparrow today, although I’m sure a lot of way cooler species got away without me spying them.
After spending much of my day on the prairies, I headed west and north, through Crookston and East Grand Forks, across the Red River of the North, to… North Dakota! Yes, folks, I made it. What I have to report is: Grand Forks, ND is nothing to write home about. And that is being charitable. If you can’t say something nice… So I headed west a few more miles and came to Emerado, where I stopped for supper and a beer. There is an Air Force Base north of “town,” which I did not check out. I put it in quotes like that, because it is nothing but a looped road of trailer homes, with a bar/café and Dairy Queen at one end. I immediately impressed the bartender as being a “hard drinker,” when I sat down and ordered a Grain Belt. I assured her that I was from Wisconsin and could handle it. I won her favor even further when I downed an entire 10” frozen pizza all by myself. On my way out an hour or so later, when she and her friends urged me to come in again, I told them I was headed west, across the state. I explained my mission to check out North Dakota.
“Oh,” they assured me, “North Dakota’s really not that bad. It’s flat here, but it’s not that bad.”
“You poor SOB, you came in through Grand Forks – you should have come from the other direction!”
“Out in the western part of the state it gets nicer, more like badlands.”
And my personal favorite: “I come from Minnesota, where at least we have trees! We may not have rolling hills, either, but at least there were trees…”
This last led me to learn my first new term for this state: shelter belt. Tune in next time to find out what exactly it means…