A Sense of Place: Going With the FlowA river bears a canoeist on the currents of his own past.
By Jim dale Huot-Vickery. Photography by David Lipp
Somewhere along the Red River of the North, on the Minnesota-North Dakota border, perhaps just shy of Manitoba, I realized I had to keep going north with the flow. I had to keep canoeing the river's 550 miles, keep freighting mayoral mail and a U.S. flag, and keep my eyes open to the beauty of a little-known river.
I was, after all, on a mission.
It had become my challenge and honor, in May-June 2000, to canoe from one end of the Red River of the North to the other, from Breckenridge, Minn., (and adjacent Wahpeton, N.D.) to Selkirk, Manitoba, north of Winnipeg. The trip had been organized by Bob Backman and Christine Holland of River Keepers in Fargo-Moorhead, and although there would be almost a hundred paddlers participating in the 34-day Red River Millennium Tour, people coming and going, I was the only one committed to paddling all the way. Hence my personal pack held the folded and packaged U.S. flag given to me by the Veterans of Foreign Wars to bring to Mayor R.S. "Bud" Oliver in Selkirk. Ditto for the "mail" -- a batch of Red River of the North proclamations plus various letters and history books -- given to me by mayors along the river. In other words, I had unusual cargo on an unusual canoe journey, and I was determined to do all I could to stay the course.
The media, meanwhile, were watching.
There was TV coverage of the tour, press coverage (particularly Brad Dokken's series in the Grand Forks Herald), and, because I was the long-distance guy, a lot of attention came my way. There were questions about the tour's purpose -- to emphasize the Red's historical, environmental, and recreational values -- and, inevitably, questions about my particular presence on the river.
What came out of my mouth matched my heart.
I've always had an abiding love for rivers. They are the living blood of all landscapes, the veins and arteries, the flowages and corridors of the vibrant earth. All life seeks their shelter, their quenching nourishment, their beauty. By getting to know a river, one gets to know its wildlife, seasons, rhythms, and human history. This became clear to me at an early age, for I was born along northwestern Minnesota's Red Lake River, the largest U.S. tributary of the Red River of the North. As one boyhood year led to the next, I couldn't look at a river without wondering about its flow, its connections.
This wonder was true of the Little Black River, which flowed through my grandfather's farm en route to the Red Lake River near the village of Huot. This was true for the Clearwater River, which flowed into the Red Lake River in Red Lake Falls, my boyhood home. And where did the Red Lake River flow? To the Red River of the North, of course, the Rivière Rouge du Nord of the early French-Canadian explorers. And so, as I aged, moved away, and became a roamer of rivers, I knew I must someday return and canoe the great Red River, certainly its northern half with its countless bends through the Red River Valley, the prairie, the old bison country, until my mind and senses were saturated with the river's cottonwoods and mourning doves, its far sky, the mud and bones and murky waters, the snappers and catfish and starlit reflections, the kingfishers and blackbirds and morning dew, whatever I'd find: all flowing, funneled, into one single waterway, draining, essentially, my native home.
Here, in the Red's watershed, my great-great-grandfather, Joachim Huot, is buried. So too my great-grandfather, and grandfather, grandmothers, and mother, and uncounted cousins. The blood, the water, the connections are interwoven like branches of elm, oak, and swaying willow on the dawning riverbank of my days.
More than this, however, resonated for me when the millennium tour departed on its grand journey down the serpentine Red. There was the geological lure of the place. Always, whether paddling north, east, west, or, sometimes, even south, I was conscious of moving through a vast, flat land created -- like much of Minnesota -- by glacial ice and water. Yet, in the Red River Valley, the geology, hydrology, and exposed land are relatively recent. The last stage of glaciation ended about 11,000 years ago. As the ice retreated northward, it created a large lake behind it: Glacial Lake Agassiz.
But Lake Agassiz wasn't a lake as we think of a lake in the fishing skiff -- or, for that matter, canoe -- sense of the word. Agassiz was big. Geologists, such as George Schwartz and George Thiel in Minnesota's Rocks and Waters, claim Agassiz once stretched more than 700 miles south to north, reached a depth of 700 feet, and covered about 110,000 square miles (larger than the combined area of today's Great Lakes). Like an amoeba, the lake changed shape and size, covering northwestern Minnesota, northeastern North Dakota, western Ontario, much of Manitoba, and part of Saskatchewan, making Lake Agassiz -- according to Thomas Waters in The Streams and Rivers of Minnesota -- "the most extensive body of fresh water ever to have existed on the North American continent."
My point, however, is that when Lake Agassiz drained -- at first southeast via Glacial River Warren and then northward via Lake Winnipeg and the Nelson River to Hudson Bay -- it left behind a vast, fertile landscape, the Red River Valley, not really a valley at all, but essentially the bed of a lake, rich in sedimentary silts and lacustrine clay, and flat, flat, flat. Flat as a calm, dirt sea.
Through the heart of this country, twisting this way and that, still draining the rain and melting snow of seasons, flows the Red. It is a young river, perhaps only 8,500 to 9,000 years old; and on its surface a paddler, a voyageur, glides through a ghostly memory of big water and glacial ice.
Red River water is a sight to behold. As the Red meanders through the old, muddy bottom of Lake Agassiz, the river becomes increasingly turbid as the water gathers fine particles of silt and clay into minute, mottled swirls that blend together. Time and again, I glanced at my paddle blade as it sliced into the water to see if I could visually measure clarity. Five inches of visibility? Three inches? The farther north we paddled, the murkier the river became. Runoff from torrential storms near Larimore and Fargo increased siltation until there seemed to be no visibility at all.
Greenish-brown in the Red's upper reaches. Grayish-brown lower down, or, as tour section leader Tom Tolman put it, "the color of wet cement." At times I noticed plain gray or blue of reflected sky, but never -- in 550 miles of travel -- did I see the Red River red.
Perhaps the river's name, as some historians suggest, is rooted in the reflected red sunsets over Upper and Lower Red lakes at the head of the Red Lake River; or, possibly, the name comes from the blood spilled by warring Dakota and Cree clashing in contested territory.
I found the river, notorious for its floods, more beautiful than expected. For most of the Red's length, up past Fargo-Moorhead, Grand Forks-East Grand Forks, Oslo, Drayton, Pembina, and on into Manitoba, the banks are dense with woods: oak, elm, cottonwood, and willow. Brush, in June, is lush. Grass: waist high. Patches of nettle mingle with pink blossoms of wild roses.
Stray scents of moist dirt and plants, sometimes minty, eddied in the air as we glided by. Always the river felt like a liquid ribbon unfurling in forest, an undulating corridor through walls of woods rich with the dark green of ripe spring.
Yet at our country camps, or when stopping for a break, we sometimes walked up through the narrow belt of woods to view the open farmland, once prairie. Fields of black dirt, with small islettes de bois (islands of woods), stretched as far as we could see. No hills. No lakes. A few swales. Tiny cars and trucks on distant highways, along with scattered farmhouses and, occasionally, a town's water tower, reminded us we were not far from civilization, that we were, in fact, voyaging down the natural heart -- so sequestered and ripe with fecund life -- of a settled, populated land.
Flocks of geese, honking, took off from shoals to curve against big sky and circle around. White-tailed deer browsed along the banks, bounded away, or stood their ground and watched us pass. Bald eagles perched on dead trees or took to the air, soaring. Orioles. Swallows. Scarlet tanagers. Magpies. Mourning doves. Great blue herons. Small brown owls, name unknown, flew off downstream or back into the woods. Snapping turtles, sensing a canoe's strange motion, scuttled from shoreline sun into swallowing waters at river's edge. Fish -- carp, sucker, catfish, walleye, bass, perhaps sturgeon -- startled us when they whipped into motion with a sudden splash, or leapt into the air, next to our canoes.
Adding to this mosaic of life, and carrying us to Selkirk right on schedule, was the swelling river itself. We had passed Red River tributaries almost every day.
There was the Wild Rice River south of Fargo, and the Red Lake (which enters at Grand Forks, hence the city's name), Buffalo, Sheyenne, and Goose rivers. There was the Park River, the Turtle, Pembina, and, in Manitoba, the Roseau, Morris, Seine, La Salle, and the great Assiniboine River, among others, all gathering their waters, their blood of the land, into the main stem of the Red. This quickened the current, and although the Red's gradient is low, averaging a half-foot per mile, we sometimes rode current speeds of 3 to 5 miles an hour.
Overall elevation drop? From the 943 feet (mean sea level) of Breckenridge-Wahpeton to Lake Winnipeg's 714 feet.
Watershed size? About 45,000 square miles (excluding the Assiniboine River basin, which drains into the Red at downtown Winnipeg), or an area Gene Krenz and Jay Leitch -- in A River Runs North -- compare to the states of Mississippi or Pennsylvania.
River width? A stone's throw at the start, ker-plunk, to several hundred feet or more, narrowing and widening according to the contours of the land.
No sand beaches, until river's end. No waterfalls.
None on the Red. Unless you call Goose Rapids -- between Nielsville and Climax, Minn. -- a rapids, which the old-timers did. Steamboats couldn't get past the Goose's stony shoals, the subtle S-curving drop, and the few pretty islands with intervening riffles barring commerce's deep-drafted way. So those old-timers gave the place a name, called it a rapids, and, under some circumstances, I suppose it might be so.
Jim dale Huot-Vickery lives near Ely and is the author of Wilderness Visionaries, Open Spaces (recipient of the 1992 Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award) and Winter Sign.