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Photo of peatlands.

Into the Inhospitable Peatland

The Sand Lake peatlands harbor a community of bizarre plants -- but it's no place for people.

By Gustave Axelson

After bushwhacking through hazel brush for two hours behind Department of Natural Resources plant ecologist Bruce Carlson, my eyes are blinded by sweat on this boiling July day, my ears ring with the machinelike whirring of deerflies and whine of mosquitoes. We stop for a water break. Carlson studies his topo map, then gauges our surroundings. "This doesn't look right," he says coldly. My backpack suddenly, seemingly, weighs 50 pounds heavier.

It's easy to get lost back here, in a vast waterlogged 38,000-acre complex of peatlands and conifer forests that forms the headwaters of four rivers, including the St. Louis River. These peatlands lie -within the single largest U.S. watershed that contributes to Lake Superior. The remote region straddles St. Louis and Lake counties and is so ecologically prized that parts of it are protected in two preserves -- the DNR's Sand Lake Peatland Scientific and Natural Area and The Nature Conservancy's Sand Lake/Seven Beavers Preserve.

image of peatlands

Return to the Peatlands

Summer and fall visits to the Sand Lake Peatlands

Carlson is surveying state and federal forest land in the northwestern corner of the Sand Lake peatlands because the DNR Minnesota County Biological Survey has no plant records here. Our plan is to camp on federal land, since camping isn't allowed in the SNA. I wanted to tag along for the adventure of going where no botanist has gone before. But now, as my knees sink in muck and we bushwhack through alder brush, I appreciate why nobody goes here.

"This is good news!" Carlson chirps. I stop bushwhacking to stare at him in disbelief. "This is the alder moat that rings the peatlands. We're almost there."

After five more hours of meandering through the muck, it becomes clear that we will not reach the esker that Carlson promised me -- the breezy, bug-free ridge of glacially deposited gravel and sand where we'd camp on dry ground with a view of the sunset. So instead we make camp among the brushy understory of an upland red pine stand. Field biologists always have a Plan B, Carlson tells me.

Exhausted by the daylong slog, we forgo dinner for a prisoner's meal of bread and cheese. We sip water conservatively since only two of our six Nalgene bottles are still full and neither of us has the energy to strain and boil the brackish bog water, which resembles French onion soup.

Naturalist and author Paul Gruchow referred to peatlands as a "waterlogged desert" because everything is soggy but fresh water is scarce. He was right. This is no place for people. And like a desert, the Sand Lake peatlands are home to strange plants with ingenious adaptations -- Labrador tea shrubs with waxy leaves that minimize evapotranspiration (and preserve hydration) and sundew plants that eat insects instead of trying to eke their nutrition out of these highly acidic environs.

Carlson has hopes of finding plants even stranger or rarer, plants maybe never before found in Minnesota. I'm just hoping he finds a way out of the alder moat tomorrow.

Ants on a Rembrandt.

"Let's ditch the map today," Carlson says as he nudges out of the tent the next morning, soaks a white rag in bug dope, and tucks the rag under his baseball hat so it flows down over his neck and shoulders. "We'll navigate the water tracks instead."

He means to follow the flowing water through the peatlands to the plant communities he seeks in the fens. Peatlands are basically comprised of bogs and fens, two ecological communities differentiated by their source of water: bogs hold stagnant waters fed only by the sky (snow and rain), while fens are also fed by the upwelling and flow of mineral-rich ground water.

The Sand Lake peatlands feature ribbed fens. The distinction ribbed describes the patterns of vegetation (sedges, shrubs, and forbs), which sometimes form in the water tracks. The whole mosaic is called a patterned peatland, because aerial images depict an artistic composition of blue-green fens swirling through ribbons of stunted tamaracks and around dark bogs of black spruce on mounded peat. The striking patterns of this vast complex only become visible from an aerial view.

"You're like an ant walking on a Rembrandt," DNR plant ecologist Norm Aaseng once told me. Aaseng is one of the state's premier experts on peatlands (he is a co-author of the book The Patterned Peatlands of Minnesota). "From the ground, you simply can't comprehend the broad brush strokes of beauty you're trudging across."

As I tentatively follow Carlson out onto the bouncy trampoline terrain of a floating bog mat (out of the alder moat at last!), I perceive this peatland to be not so much a Rembrandt as the neo-impressionist variegations of painter Georges Seurat -- macrobeauty created by millions of tiny pinpoints of brilliance. I kneel to inspect what comprises this bog mat and discover an intricate design, woven by diminutive sundews, cranberry plants with miniature pink flowers, and spongy sphagnum moss. The sphagnum is the connective tissue holding this bog mat together.

Sphagnum can hold up to 20 times its weight in water, which accounts for the bog's sponginess. Scientists concerned about climate change and carbon loading in the atmosphere are heralding sphagnum's ability to soak up carbon as well. Carbon is continually fixed by the mosses and vascular plants and trees in sphagnum bogs. When those plants die, their sequestered carbon remains stored for hundreds of years in the bog because the cold, wet conditions inhibit decomposition.

In the Sand Lake peatlands, the buildup of dead organic matter has been measured as deep as 53 inches. The carbon sinks of sphagnum bogs explain why the world's boreal forests store twice as much carbon as tropical forests, even though tropical forests cover slightly more of the globe.

Old but Growing.

Peatlands are not rare in Minnesota; we have 6 million acres of peatlands, more than any other state except Alaska. But the Sand Lake peatlands are unique in a paradoxical way. At 8,000 years of age, these peatlands are older than peatlands elsewhere in the state, such as northwestern Minnesota's Red Lake peatlands, which are 2,000 to 4,000 years old. But the Red Lake peatlands are stabilized -- their sphagnum mats have run out of stagnant, cold, wet lowlands to colonize. The sphagnum mat in the Sand Lake peatlands, which squishes like a wet sponge with every step I take, is still expanding outward. The sphagnum will grow until it reaches the flowing water of a fen or an upland boundary, where it can grow no more.

How could it be that the Sand Lake peatlands, with a 4,000-year head start on their Red Lake counterparts, still haven't found equilibrium? Maybe because everything, including bogs, grows slower in the Arrowhead, where winters are long lasting. But nobody knows for sure, according to Aaseng.

I've reached the end of this particular bog mat, where I stand on the edge of Lake Culkin, one of several lakes that speckle these peatlands. It's obvious I've reached a fresh water oasis: There's a beaver dam on the lake. A loon with trailing chicks floats by. I spy the flash of a deer's white rump among an encampment of blue flag irises (Iris versicolor) by the water's edge. A breeze blows, and for the first time today, the mosquitoes are mercifully at bay. I want to stay here among my warm-blooded brethren. But the plants that grow here, by Carlson's standards, are pedestrian.

"Let's go this way," Carlson leads, following a water flowage away from the lake. I take a deep breath, zip up the mesh hood on my bug shirt, and walk back into the bog.

Plans for Peatland SNAs

In 1991 the Minnesota Legislature designated 18 ecologically significant peatlands as scientific and natural areas. The DNR recently received federal funds to develop management plans for some peatland SNAs. DNR regional nongame specialist Katie Haws has written the first two management plans.

"These management plans will allow us to assess the resources present within each SNA, including wildlife, native plant communities, rare plants, unique geomorphic features, and corridors of disturbance," says Haws.

The plans will extend beyond SNA boundaries to the surrounding watershed. They will benefit wildlife in wetlands and lowland conifer forests, two key habitats identified in the state wildlife action plan, Tomorrow's Habitat for the Wild and Rare. Peatlands harbor 45 species of greatest conservation need, including northern bog lemming, boreal owl, American bittern, and spruce grouse.

With proper protection, these peatlands can continue to store vast amounts of carbon within organic matter, an important function for reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

To learn more about peatland SNAs, contact Peter Buesseler at peter.buesseler@dnr.state.mn.us or 218-308-2641.

Alien Planet.

Our walking gets easier when we encounter an abandoned logging trail, probably a remnant from timber cutting in the 1930s and '40s. We enter a dwarf forest, populated by 4-foot-tall tamarack trees and black spruces that look like Charlie Brown Christmas trees -- spindly, scraggy, and wan. Carlson tells me I might be towering above an old-growth forest. He says black spruces in bogs like this one have been aged at 300 years. The loggers passed by these so-called "stagnant spruces" on their way to bigger trees on eskers and upland islands.

Next we pass into a standing dead forest of gray, weatherworn, brittle tree skeletons. It looks like the life was sucked out of these trees from the bog below. I feel like I'm on an alien planet. Anything familiar is dead. Everything living looks foreign, like the pitcher plants with flowers that rise out of the sphagnum moss like periscopes with cabbage heads. An old woodsman once warned me windigos, the devilish spirits of Ojibwe lore, take the form of pitcher plants, so I shouldn't turn my back on them in the bog.

They are indeed mysterious plants, with folded leaves that appear to cradle a puddle of dew (only too late does the insect victim realize it's bathing in digestive juices). Nine of the 10 species of pitcher plants found in the United States grow in the South. The northern pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) ranges from Minnesota all the way up to Canada's Northwest Territories. As a boreal adaptation, the northern pitcher plant's seeds only germinate if exposed to cold temperatures.

Carlson spies a yellow flower floating in the murky bog water; the flower is attached to a plant that looks like a strand of seaweed. He plucks the plant from the water and introduces me to another of the peatlands' carnivorous plants -- one that eats like a whale. This is intermediate bladderwort (Utricularia intermedia). Its stem is speckled with tiny sacs. The membrane sacs are its namesake bladders, which suck in ambient water and filter out zooplankton, like a great blue whale discharges seawater through its baleen to filter out krill.

For the next hour, Carlson slowly steps through the bog with his head craned downward, like a man searching for a lost wallet, until he exclaims, "Ah! Here's something interesting."

Poking up from the ankle-high sedges is a purple flash of color, a flower with two pointy petals sticking up like the ears of a German shepherd and a delicate protruding lip painted with splashes of deep indigo. It is a dragon's-mouth orchid (Arethusa bulbosa), a plant notable for its abundance in this spot. I can count 10 dragon's-mouth orchids within a few yards of where I'm standing. Carlson tells me the Sand Lake peatlands harbor one of our state's largest populations of this plant. This is good news because Minnesota is one of the few places west of the Canadian maritime provinces where dragon's-mouth orchids are holding their own, according to the book Orchids of Minnesota by DNR plant ecologist Welby Smith.

Other orchids such as the club-spur orchid (Platanthera clavellata) and northern bog-orchid (Platanthera obtusata) bloom in the peatlands in summer. The flashiest orchids like rose pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoidesi) and fairy slipper (Calypso bulbosa) try to be more brilliant than the others in the bog, like neon signs in Times Square, vying for the attention of passing bees or mosquitoes that might alight to get some sugar from the nectar. The mosquitoes suspended in a cloud around my head are intent on protein at the moment -- my blood.

"Let's get out of here," Carlson says, after jotting notes on his clipboard. I'm only too happy to comply.

More Than Pretty.

After hastily packing up our camp, we begin the slog out of the Sand Lake peatlands, again climbing out of the alder moat to tangle with hazel brush. We leave knowing the fruits of our two days in the bog will be represented on a native plant community survey map with a few dots indicating an unusually high concentration of dragon's-mouth orchids. Carlson had hoped for more, perhaps the elusive linear-leaved sundew (Drosera linearis) or a cloudberry plant (Rubus chamaemorus), or the rare moose dung moss (Splachnum spp.).

But the only guarantees in this kind of botanical survey are hours of bushwhacking, hordes of bloodthirsty bugs, and the treachery of going into bogs where a misstep could mean self-extrication from hip-deep, peaty muck. As he scrapes through the thicket, Carlson pauses and looks back at me, his cheek striped bloody red from the claw marks of hazel brush.

"You know, sometimes folks look at these native plant inventories, and they say all I do is wander around looking for pretty flowers," he says.

Then we press on into the brush, still hours away from Carlson's truck.

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