By Adam Regn Arvidson
It's a rare experience for me to see a lake from above. Normally, I am down in the lake, swimming, fishing, or basking along the shore. Today I am up on a former railroad trestle bridge, astride a bike, looking down on Nest Lake near Spicer in west-central Minnesota.
The bridge crosses a narrow spot in the lake, where the water seems to bulge out on either side, like a balloon squeezed in the middle. The water's edge winds around points studded with oaks and bays stippled with reeds and arrowheads. Just downstream is Green Lake. Together Nest and Green lakes are among the marquee recreational water bodies in the region, a boater's playground.
Down the Trail
But boats aren't the only way to enjoy these lakes. I'm here on a two-day bike ride along the Glacial Lakes State Trail, with an overnight at nearby Sibley State Park. The trail runs 22 miles along an old railroad grade from Willmar northeast to the Kandiyohi County line. Open for walking, roller-blading, and biking, the nonmotorized trail offers an alternative way to experience the freedom and contentment of lake country—on land.
Sinclair Lewis, a Nobel Prize–winning writer who grew up in nearby Sauk Centre, used lakes as potent symbols in his book Main Street, published in 1920. The lakes were escapes—from the rigid social mores of town, from the heat of the city, and from a way of life in which the main character feels eternally trapped. Lewis also gave a nod to the region's scenic grasslands. After a brutal winter the heroine sets out to explore the landscape around Gopher Prairie:
She had walked northward toward the upper shore of Plover Lake, taking to the railroad track, whose directness and dryness make it the natural highway for pedestrians on the plains. ... The thick grass beside the track, coarse and prickly with many burnings, hid canary-yellow buttercups and the mauve petals and woolly sage-green coats of the pasque flowers. . . . She came out on the prairie, spacious under an arch of boldly cut clouds. Small pools glittered. Above a marsh red-winged blackbirds chased a crow in a swift melodrama of the air.
My two-wheeled trip through this country of prairie and lakes begins on an August morning at the trail's southern terminus, a gravel lot just northeast of downtown Willmar. There I meet Jeff Brown, a DNR Parks and Trails manager responsible for maintaining this trail. He had agreed to ride with me to New London, the trail's halfway mark.
Almost immediately after leaving the trailhead, we cruise on the flat railroad grade through a rolling landscape of corn and bean fields and scattered woods of oak and ash. As the trail's name suggests, this is land sculpted by glaciers. A massive ice sheet called the Wadena Lobe came down from almost due north about 24,000 years ago. When that ice melted, it left behind hills of gravel and boulders, now known as the Alexandria moraine. About 14,000 years ago, another glacier, the Des Moines Lobe, churned up this landscape even more. Today the evidence of these two glaciers appears on the Minnesota map as a band of lakes (where giant chunks of ice broke off and melted) that runs roughly from Spicer northwest through Alexandria to Detroit Lakes.
The railroads built in the 19th century had to cross this hilly, prairie landscape. But the track had to be laid flat, so workers with pickaxes and horses cut through small hills and filled in valleys with glacial gravel and rock. When this railroad land came up for sale in the 1990s, the DNR purchased it and created a paved, multipurpose state trail.
The Glacial Lakes State Trail runs through prairie remnants and shady ravines. The pavement is generally straight, so it becomes the only constant: a regular line flanked by the random rises and falls of the landscape.
Brown and I stop on one of those valley-crossing causeways to take in the view. Below us is a slough, nearly filled in with bur-reed, arrowhead, and other emergent aquatic plants. A few mallards dabble at the edges of open water. Beyond the slough and undulating cornfields, I see farms, thick stands of trees, wooded knobs, and depressions with bottoms hidden from view.
Brown points out grasses and flowers at the edge of the trail. This is native prairie, he says, left undisturbed since the late 1800s. Railroads typically got rights of way about 100 to 150 feet wide in which to lay their tracks. The land on either side of the tracks was left alone, and the surrounding prairie plants recolonized the disturbed soil. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the grassland all around was converted into farmland, but these prairie corridors were, in essence, preserved. Brown and his DNR Parks and Trails coworkers manage these trailside prairies, doing periodic prescribed burns to eliminate nonnative plants and reinvigorate native species.
Gazing at the trailside, I see delicate yellow coneflower, wands of bright fuchsia liatris, and rough-textured leadplant hunkered down among the grasses. It's a color swatch that helps me envision what this scene must have looked like 200 years ago, the prairie extending out across the hillsides to the horizon.
Sinclair Lewis left on a train to attend college in the East, where he started his writing career. He came back late in life and wrote an article in 1942 for the Minneapolis Morning Tribune about his favorite spots in Minnesota. He called attention to "New London, in Kandiyohi County, sitting among its ponds like a Cape Cod Village." New London is just off the Glacial Lakes State Trail at mile 11.5. It grew up around the mills on the Middle Fork of the Crow River. The mills dammed the river, creating a series of slack-water sloughs that locals call, collectively, the Mill Pond.
After saying good-bye to Brown, I ride a connecting paved trail along Highway 9 into New London, past the high school, an ice cream shop, and a few churches. Suddenly, I am over a body of water again. The highway slides over the Mill Pond, then becomes Main Street as it runs among the quaint buildings of downtown. The dam is to my left, and I can hear water rushing down into the boulder-studded stream below.
New London does feel like a town transported from New England. It rises abruptly out of the landscape. Its streets are arranged in a strict grid, but there are missing blocks and dead ends at the Mill Pond. Few towns in Minnesota hug their waters so close.
I pause at a public boat landing and watch a kayaker glide across the water, duck under the bridge, and make a lap of the pond. He raises a hand to me, and I wave back.
I grab a caffeine boost at a downtown coffee shop and head out to Sibley State Park to set up a campsite for the night. It's a tough four-mile ride along the shoulder of a county road to get there. New London and the DNR are hoping to create a new trail connection to the park. They have lined up landowner support and designated a proposed corridor but await funding from a future state bonding bill.
Sibley State Park includes or touches five lakes and at least 18 other smaller ponds and sloughs. One of its two campgrounds is aptly called the Lakeview, alongside Lake Andrew. But I choose Oak Ridge Campground, which has more space between sites. Hip-high grass—not prairie really, more like fallow pasture—grows between mown patches for tents, tables, and fire rings. Behind my site, the land slopes up and the oaks take over. This rise pushes its way upward to Mount Tom, a local high point that had spiritual significance to the Dakota Indian people and strategic significance to the early settlers and U.S. military.
Later that evening my wife and 13-month-old son join me. We pitch our tent, light a fire, and roast marshmallows. The sun drops down over the hills long before the sky goes dark, giving us an hour of that one-dimensional gray light of late summer. Here, the open sky is our ceiling, and as the long day finally ends, the stars awaken. The occasional spark from our fire seems intent on joining them. We're content, even the little one, up way past his bedtime, marshmallow ear to ear.
People go to the lakes to escape, as Sinclair Lewis wrote nearly 100 years ago. Perhaps we push out onto the water in our canoes, kayaks, bass boats, speedboats, and inner tubes to be free of the routine that binds us. Perhaps our desire to literally float reflects a need to float free from the 9 to 5, the mortgage or rent, the scheduled activities.
I had hoped to find the same kind of freedom riding my bike through this lake country. And I did.