Field Notes: Bog Walk
Strings. Flarks. For residents of tiny Waskish in northern Minnesota, these words are part of a vocabulary that took root after designation of the Big Bog State Recreation Area. Strings and flarks are among the unusual landscape features in the patterned peatlands known as the Big Bog. About 10 miles north of Waskish, tourists can stop to see other bog features from a new boardwalk that affords a low-impact opportunity to explore one of the world's largest peatland complexes.
As I step into the 9,080-acre northern unit of the Big Bog, I can't help but sense that I'm about to experience the extraordinary. A winding trail leads to the nearly mile-long boardwalk and a panorama like no other in Minnesota: Big blue sky looms above a flat landscape dotted with scraggly black spruces and tamaracks. The air carries the faintest scent of bog rosemary.
At first, only the rhythmic thumping of visitors' feet on the boardwalk pierces the solace of this place. Great care was taken to construct the boardwalk in this environment. The walk's polymer surface allows more than 60 percent of the ambient light to penetrate to plants below. To avoid trampling on the bog's deep layers of spongy peat and moss, workers added each section of the walkway to the end of a previously laid section. The delicate substrate still shows the trails of caribou, which ranged here until the 1930s.
When I stop at one of the benches along the boardwalk, the awesome harshness of this wild land sinks in. Century-old black spruces have only managed to achieve a height of about 30 feet—puny compared with 60-foot-tall jack pines down the road.
Distinct vegetation patterns emerge from miniscule differences in water and soil acidity. Some of Minnesota's most fascinating plant species—dragon's-mouth orchids, sundews, and pitcher plants—grow here. They survive in waterlogged, nutrient-poor soils through adaptations, such as catching and consuming insects.
A DNR land study in 2000 identified a need to preserve rare landforms and vegetation in the region. Open sphagnum bogs, black spruce bogs, tamarack swamps, beach ridges, and sedge fens are all found within the boundaries of the Big Bog. DNR regional resource specialist Bryce Anderson credits the people of Waskish for advocating designation of the recreation area and the Legislature for providing funds. Anderson helped design the boardwalk to provide "an opportunity for people to learn about the natural wonders of this place firsthand."
Chattering visitors are hushed by the serenity that envelops them at the catch-your-breath terminus. The view is acres upon acres of undisturbed peat bog—sage-and-rose-colored pillows of sphagnum moss amid sedges and egg-shaped islands of tamarack and black spruce. Visitors sometimes hear or see Connecticut warblers, yellow rails, and gray jays.
For information, call 218-647-8592. Or see www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/big_bog.
Erika R.L. Rivers
DNR information officer