In the Lost Lake swamp, land and water are locked in a constant struggle for supremacy, frequently testing our definitions of solid ground. Some people I've led into the swamp over the years grew "seasick" after walking across the quaking ground. Others have found the foreignness of the place upsetting. Clouds of mosquitoes and deerflies in early summer can cause something bordering on terror.
Near Lake Vermilion, just west of Tower, these vast expanses of bog and fen are rarely visited by humans. While locals call it "the swamp," these uninhabited 10,000 acres are more appropriately termed peatland, a title that better fits the diversity of this stunning landscape. In the Lost Lake peatland, the battle between land and water determines everything. Where springs well up and water flows, you'll find fens, home to sedges and low-growing heaths, such as bog rosemary and leatherleaf. Where the land is winning the battle, thanks to centuries of accumulating peat, you'll find slightly higher ground, populated by black spruce, Labrador tea, and boreal chickadees. Peat accumulates where cold temperatures, high acidity, and lack of oxygen essentially halt the process of decomposition. The conditions are the same ones that make pickles last forever in the refrigerator.
Along the swamp's edges, summer runoff from the uplands adds warmth and oxygen, preventing the accumulation of peat. Instead, you get muck and a nearly impenetrable tangle of alder, willow, and dwarf birch. I call it the "moat" because it is every bit as effective a barrier as those that once protected kings' castles from invaders.
Just as tales of dragons and ogres once kept many medieval adventurers from traveling too far into the woods, people tell grisly stories about misfortune in the Lost Lake swamp. Local lore recounts a horse-drawn logging sleigh that was returning across a winter road after cutting a huge white pine from an upland island. The heavily laden sleigh passed over a poorly frozen section of quaking bog and broke through. While the driver was able to jump to safety, he could do nothing but watch as the sleigh, its two shrieking horses still attached, disappeared forever into the dark watery depths.
I ponder this story sometimes as I sit overlooking the peatland from the high granite ridge where my wife, Jodi, and I built our hand-hewn log cabin back in 1984. At an elevation of 1,450 feet, the glacier-scarred ridge offers a sweeping view across miles of black spruce, sedge meadows, and remote uplands. From here I can watch the seasons ebb and flow, and I often let my mind drift to the north and west, like waters flowing from this peatland into the Little Fork River and eventually to Hudson Bay.
We sit at the Height of Land—the divide between the Little Fork and the Vermilion river watersheds. For me, it marks the beginning of truly wild country, contiguous with nearly unbroken forest that stretches to the tree line in northern Canada. The power lines don't make it this far, which is why we've lived off the grid for 32 years, getting our electricity from solar panels. To the west, across the swamp, it's at least 8 miles to our nearest neighbor.
Annual Pilgrimage. This is country where few ever venture, yet it fuels my imagination. In winter when the snow lies deep amid stunted black spruce, I imagine myself trekking at the tree line in the high subarctic. In summer, as knee-high sedges carpet mile-wide stretches of featureless water track (a type of fen), I imagine I'm on a North Dakota prairie, a notion reinforced by the persistent singing of savannah sparrows and the cackling of sharp-tailed grouse.
In June, just before clouds of deerflies emerge, I make my annual pilgrimage to my secret orchid spot, where dragon's mouth and rose pogonia often grow so thickly amid sedges that I can't avoid stepping on some. In late September, Jodi and I don our rubber boots on crisp fall days and visit our secret cranberry patches. In a good year, we can pick gallons of wild cranberries, which sparkle like multicolored jewels atop hummocks of sphagnum moss.
Like any sanctuary worthy of the title, this one has its holy places. For me, they are found on upland islands. While a few were logged a century ago, others were too small or inaccessible to interest anyone. They are home to ancient trees and the spirits that I imagine must still reside in such long-forgotten places. You can find giant, centuries-old white cedar. Or huge yellow birches—with crowns like mighty oaks—that have been growing nearly as long. There are a few astonishingly large white pine and white spruce. Out here, in splendid isolation, these enduring trees are not part of the world so increasingly shaped by humans. They are like old Druids, living in slow time, rooted deeply in the earth.
Such places don't speak to everyone, but to some they border on the profound. Nearly 20 years ago in October, I led a group of 19 people on a daylong trek into the peatland, in part to visit some of the old trees. Most had come from the Twin Cities, but one elderly gentleman, named Jerry, lived on the Iron Range and had a weekend cabin about 10 miles west of us on the far side of the swamp. He was a big guy, with a full crop of white hair and an almost childlike enthusiasm for the outdoors. He told me he had always wanted to venture into the swamp but had been afraid he'd fall into a hole and drown or get lost and never be found.
We got a little lost ourselves that day, which meant a longer trudge than most folks had bargained for. By the time we got back, there was grumbling among the ranks. But the day had also held remarkable moments that left their mark with many.
The next spring, Jerry stopped by our house with a gift—a white trillium that he had dug from his property, in thanks for our day in the swamp and the visit to the old trees. "I know some people weren't real happy," he said, "but I want you to know it was one of the best days of my life."
I planted the trillium in our yard shortly after he left that day. Jerry died of a heart attack at his cabin that summer. I took consolation that he had been at the cabin, where he was happiest.
Jerry's trillium still blooms every spring. Its large, showy, white blossoms always remind me of him and our day together in the Lost Lake swamp. Ours were kindred spirits, and at times I imagine his quiet spirit, lying back against the trunk of an old yellow birch, lost in thought and awe, eyes turned to the sky. Someday, I'll be back out there with him.
Editor's note: About 2,700 acres of the 10,000-acre Lost Lake Peatland are designated as a scientific and natural area. Learn more about visiting and exploring the Lost Lake Peatland SNA.