By Gustave Axelson.
Photography by Layne Kennedy
The tallgrass aspen parkland is a land for tromping.
It's a land for sticking your watch in a pocket and fixing a gaze across vast glades of tall prairie grasses—dappled by willow hummocks and bordered by aspen groves—to pick out an interesting feature in the distance that will orient your day's activities. You might hike there and reach your mark. You also might be distracted by the sighting of a striking wild flower, or an encounter with a large wild animal.
It's one of those places that can fill your soul with wildness, adventure, and the excitement of new discoveries—if you let it.
Few people do. I've come to Kittson County for a few days of unbridled wandering on 71,000 acres of wildlife management areas—all of which are contained within the expansive, transnational tallgrass aspen parkland eco-region. When I arrive at a designated campsite in the Caribou WMA, local DNR wildlife manager Donovan Pietruszewski meets me there. "We get some hunters here in fall," he says, "but you're the first person I know who's come here specifically to appreciate nature."
Hunters come to the parkland to stalk deer and sharp-tailed grouse in a remote setting. But the area doesn't draw many tourists; there are no resorts or lodges. The roads in and around the WMAs are rough and rutted gravel lanes; some traversable only by 4X4 truck. There are no hiking trails or interpretive signs.
The campsites are drive-in sites, a turnoff to backpackers. Yet the sites are isolated and offer little more than a patch of mowed grass with a circle of rocks for a fire pit, so they're not likely to attract weekend car campers.
For trailless amblers like me, the tallgrass aspen parkland has only one thing to offer: raw land. The opportunity to bound across an untamed landscape, with only whims and curiosity to guide me. The chance to drift asleep at night to the calls of bugling elk and awaken in the morning to trumpets of sandhill cranes.
The tallgrass aspen parkland as an ecosystem encompasses about 1.2 million acres, most of it in Manitoba. About 120,000 acres of parkland in Minnesota's Kittson County—which borders Canada to the north and North Dakota to the west—represent the largest tracts of tallgrass aspen parkland anywhere in the United States.
It is a landscape named by ecologists, not marketers. Interpreting the name requires dissection.
Tallgrass refers to the tallgrass prairie; the bluestems, Indiangrass and prairie cord-grasses that stretch into the northern reaches of their realm here. Less than 1 percent of the original tallgrass prairie, which ranged from Texas to Manitoba, remains today. Here you'll find it at its wildest.
Aspen refers to the aspen woodlands that occur here at the southern portion of their boreal range. Oak savannas, much like the kind you'd expect to see farther south and east in southern Minnesota or Wisconsin, also occur here, though they don't figure into the name.
Parkland refers to the aesthetic effect of this mosaic: of prairie and sedge fens accented by groves of aspens or scattered bur oaks.
This is a complex ecosystem that confounded European settlers. Early attempts at farming in the late 19th Century failed in Kittson County because the land is rocky, wet, and poorly drained. Today the land still in agriculture is mostly used for grazing cattle, but the landscape lacks an identity. Minnesotans revere the North Woods, the Big Woods, the prairie. But not much mention has been made of the tallgrass aspen parkland.
The area's main claim of historical significance is the Pembina Trail—a fur-trading route for ox carts headed from the Red River Valley to the Twin Cities. Today it's regarded by tourists much the same way; a place you drive through to reach Winnipeg. But John Loegering, a wildlife ecology professor at the University of Minnesota-Crookston and director of the Nature Northwest project to stimulate tourism in northwestern Minnesota, sees more.
"Wildlife watching is one of the top tourism draws around," he says. "We've got elk, moose, and bear. And the land is so open that if you spend much time up here, you're going to see them."
He's right. Within five minutes of setting up camp on the Caribou WMA, I wander down the road a bit and happen upon a moose cow and calf. As I stand there watching them trot into an aspen stand, a bittern flushes from the ditch behind me.
Later that evening, Pietruszewski escorts me to a food plot planted near the Caribou WMA to keep the local elk herd from meddling in the neighboring crop fields. This herd, and another one farther south near Grygla, are the only wild elk populations remaining in Minnesota. (See "A Tale of Two Herds," November-December 2002.)
I spend the last half-hour of my first day on the parkland observing two dozen elk. Roaming among them is the dominant bull, a massive, brawny specimen with six points on each antler. Pietruszewski says that in all his elk hunting trips out West, he's never seen an elk so big.
This being September, the elk are in rut. And in the fading gray hues of expiring light, the big bull stands at attention and lifts his head to bugle a piercing, whinnying note that washes over our hiding spot among aspen and chills our skin with the aura of wilderness.
I've been in the tallgrass aspen parkland for only a few hours, and I've already seen as much wildlife as I saw in my last week-long canoe trip in the Boundary Waters.
Wild plants also abound in the parkland, including more than 25 species of willows and other shrubs; four species of lady's slippers—the small white, small yellow, large yellow and the showy; bottle and fringed gentian; and the western prairie fringed orchid, a federally threatened species that could soon be added to the endangered species list.
For my second day in the parkland, Pietruszewski sends me west to hike in Skull Lake WMA. My first stop is a patch of bluestem grass he pointed out on a map. When I get there, I am awed. It's not a patch—it's a sea of big bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, the grizzly bear of prairie grasses.
Before me stretches a good hour's worth of hiking through bluish-reddish stalks of giant grass, with seedheads that look me right in the eye. I stand 6 feet 4 inches. Some of this bluestem is over my head. And amazingly, it may be even taller underground. Bluestem grasses are a bit like icebergs—as impressively big as they are, there's much more of them below the surface. These bluestem roots may dive as far as nine feet below my feet.
According to Dan Svedarsky, professor of natural resources at the University of Minnesota-Crookston, the stands of big bluestem grass here are among the most impressive to be found anywhere. In southwestern Minnesota the big bluestem is taller, he says, because it grows higher in warmer climates. But those stretches of bluestem are fragmented amidst an agriculturally dominated countryside. Here one can encounter large, contiguous tracts of big bluestem that look much like they did to pioneers.
As I step forward into the big bluestem, I notice the walking is easy, not like the sedges that tangled and caught my ankles yesterday. Bluestem seemingly parts before my feet. The seedheads are like magnets to my hands, which I instinctively drag behind me, faced down, allowing the grass to massage my palms.
A bit deeper into Skull Lake WMA, Pietruszewski's directions lead me through some woods and into an oak savanna—a sensation like stepping into a secret garden.
Ringed by aspen, the savanna is a plaza of knee-high grasses. A few gently rolling hills are capped with bur oak. The scene is serene and peaceful, a perfect spot to nestle under a tree, eat a sandwich, and while away an afternoon.
Here it's easy to see how the parkland gets its name. This spot looks like it's been meticulously manicured—and it has: by fire.
According to Pietruszewski, this savanna is a prime example of how fire restores the land. As tranquil as the tallgrass aspen parkland appears, it is a battleground between trees and grass. Aspen seek to advance across grasslands and convert the entire land into forest. Fires beat the aspen back and open up spaces for prairie grasses to flourish.
Wide-ranging wildfires are rare today; humans won't allow them. So as a substitute, the DNR conducts prescribed burns on its WMAs. Ideally, Pietruszewski says land in the tallgrass aspen parkland should burn every three to five years, about how often it burned historically. But he's still playing catch-up after a century of wildfire suppression, and recent rainier springs and falls have shortened his window for prescribed burns.
"We are way behind on burning, due to the wet conditions Mother Nature has thrown at us the past 10 to 12 years," he says.
Fortunately, the DNR has added capacity to conduct burns when conditions are good with help from another major landowner in Kittson County: The Nature Conservancy. The local TNC office coordinates prescribed burns on DNR and private lands, as well as its own Wallace C. Dayton Conservation and Wildlife Area—a network of 13,500 acres purchased by Mary Lee Dayton and her daughters in honor of their family patriarch.
Over the last 20 years, TNC has also purchased and donated more than 11,000 acres in Kittson County to the DNR, land that became important additions to Skull Lake, Caribou, and other nearby WMAs. TNC's interest in the tallgrass aspen parkland seems puzzling, given its low profile offers little value for public relations and fundraising. According to state director Ron Nargang, TNC's mission here is driven by something bigger.
"This is the only place in Minnesota where we can work at a true landscape level. We're conserving tens of thousands of acres at a time," he says. "The ecosystem's still mostly intact, and the biological diversity is amazing. The only two large animals missing are bison and grizzly bears.
"When you find land this wild, it needs to be preserved."
On my last day in the parkland, I vow to walk from my camp to the Canadian border, simply to see what's there.
The gravel road that leads into Caribou WMA peters out about a mile north of camp and dumps me off into an expanse of sedge. The land swallows me, it's so immense: the big bowl of a sky overhead, the waves of wind rippling across grasses, the distant bunches of aspen resembling islands floating amid a prairie ocean.
Overhead, the rattling calls of migrating sandhill cranes remind me of another time I hiked across a boundless landscape to the tune of crane music—the tundra in Alaska's 6 million-acre Denali National Park. Caribou WMA is a mere 13,500 acres; yet to me, at this moment, this place seems every bit as big.
Continuing north, I enter aspen and then follow a corridor of hazel brush. Glancing down, I spy a bluish-purple flower peeking through the sedges. Later, I'll look it up in a book and identify it as a fringed gentian. For now, I just enjoy the delicate serration of its petals.
When I look up, I spot a bear's head. It's poking above the hazel brush, gnawing nuts off the top branches. Without looking at me directly, the bear returns to all four feet and saunters into aspen.
Another two miles or so of hiking, and I reach a barbed wire fence and ditch. On the other side lies Manitoba; specifically, the Gardenton community cow pasture. Nearby there's a pile of rocks where I can eat a sandwich and stare into another country.
A few yards away, I spot what looks like a silver, mini-replica of the Washington Monument. The border marker reads "Canada" on its north side, "United States" to the south, "Convention of 1818" on the east side, and "Treaty of 1908" to the west. It's a benchmark set here to commemorate the 1908 treaty between the United States and Great Britain, which formally endorsed the U.S.-Canadian border established in 1818 as the northern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase. Judging from the lack of footprints in the area, I may be the first person to see it in several years, maybe this century, which begs the question: why is it here and not at an official border crossing?
I stalk east along a marshy slough, flushing ducks into Canada, until the ground gets too wet and I head back to camp. That evening, I spot a bull moose munching on willows near my camp. I sleep to the reports of distant bugling elk—their echo reverberates in my dreams like loon calls in canoe country. In the morning before my drive home, I wander up the road a bit and see the moose cow and her calf again. Again, they retreat into aspen.
Later in the car, headed back to the Twin Cities, I think about something Donovan Pietruszewski said to me. Donovan was born and raised on a farm in the parkland, a native son.
"Some people like the mountains or the Boundary Waters," he said. "But this here, this is what's in my heart, and in my bones."
I think it's seeping into my bones, too—the beginnings of fealty to the parkland.
It's the optimism of wading into open spaces, and the intrigue of exploring wooded thickets. It's a longing to see elk, and moose, and bears. It's an experience more Minnesotans should know; for those willing to explore a new landscape, an entirely new kind of wilderness awaits.
On October 23 and 24, the University of Minnesota Crookston campus will host a conference on the Aspen Parkland featuring naturalists, biologists, and ecotourism specialists each telling the Aspen Parkland story from their point of view. The conference will also honor Ron Nargang, recently retired state director of the Minnesota chapter of The Nature Conservancy and architect of key acquisitions in the Aspen Parkland region. Noted National Geographic photographer, author, and filmmaker Jim Brandenburg will also give keynote presentation on the evening of 23 October.
This conference is open to the public. For more information email Judy Baatz at email@example.com or call 218-281-8128.