Waskish, Minn. - With the excitement of birders spotting a rare warbler, my daughter and I sink to our knees at the edge of the Big Bog boardwalk the second we see them: insect-eating pitcher plants.
They carried enough of the creepy-crawly "eew" factor to convince my 10-year-old daughter, Kylie, that it was worth a road trip an hour north of Bemidji to see what Minnesota's Big Bog is all about. The sprawling 500-square-mile peatland, thick with spongy moss and dotted with skinny spires of spruce and tamarack, was a natural world we'd never seen before.
Few Minnesotans have, but a mile-long boardwalk built eight years ago makes it possible to access what some call Minnesota's last true wilderness. Technically named the Red Lake Peatlands (and aptly located north of Red Lake), it ranks as the biggest bog in the Lower 48.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a bog differs from other wetlands — swamps, fens and marshes — because it usually forms in the ancient glacial lake beds of northern climates. Bogs are also dominated by sphagnum peat, usually high in acid and low in oxygen. Peat piles up over thousands of years, forming a spongy island 2 to 20 feet deep atop the water table.
Sphagnum moss covers the peat and is considered antiseptic and three times more absorbent than cotton. It was once used to dress wounds and was even a component of primitive diapers. Big Bog State Recreational Area Superintendent Doug Easthouse says it can hold water up to 27 times its dry weight.
Put another way, he says, "If the bog were drained, it could cover the state in water."
With his quiet, calming voice, Easthouse hunches over an aerial photograph of the Big Bog, displayed on the floor of the visitor center, to point out the bog's geological patterns, formed over the past 5,000 years. Once covered by Glacial Lake Agassiz, the bog ripples with glacial ridges and depressions (also called strings and flarks) and ovoid islands (elevated stands of black spruce like sandbars in a river).
Globally, the peatland's unique patterns make this bog stand out, as well as the fact it remains mostly pristine. Early pioneers failed to successfully drain and farm the land. And the United States hasn't seen the extensive peat harvesting that depleted bogs in other countries such as Ireland.
Easthouse points to just a few human scars left on the bog: one remote lake and a few ponds created by practice bombing in the 1950s and '60s by U.S. Navy pilots, but those scars are hard to spot in this vast wilderness of 1,728 acres.
"It's almost like it's frozen in time," Easthouse says.
Land of walleye and wild rice
My daughter and I climb 138 steps to the top of the fire tower located just outside the visitor center. We were expecting to see the bog, not realizing it's 9 miles away in the recreational area's northern unit.
Reaching the top first, my daughter calls down, "It's amazing." This hurries me up the stairs for my own look at expansive Red Lake.
At 444 square miles, it's Minnesota's largest lake wholly contained within state boundaries. Sunlight glints off the water. Sparks of silver flash from the boats carrying anglers who eagerly fish for Upper Red Lake's famed walleye. A yellow biplane arcs across the sky, bound for the commercial wild rice fields in Waskish.
Google estimates it's only 30-some miles to Baudette and the Canadian border. But we don't realize how far north we've come until we're in the visitor center, taking in an exhibit on the herd of 13 caribou that roamed the bog in 1928.
The herd was gone less than 20 years later, but skilled naturalists can still spot their old migration routes through the muskeg (an Algonquin name for the bog).
Today's visitors can spot an occasional moose, black bear or wolf making its way through the bog or surrounding uplands, along with river otters, pine martens and fishers, lemmings or a jumping mouse.
At the fire tower, we chat with John Devins, a Waconia resident and longtime Red Lake visitor with a cabin nearby. He tells us his extended family makes the long walk to see the bog several times a year. They like to catch the bog in every season. But fall is everyone's favorite, when the tamarack turn a bright gold to contrast with the season's sharp blue skies.
"It's probably one of the best-kept secrets in northern Minnesota," he says.
Exploring the bog
On the day we visit, a man has journeyed from Pittsburgh to seek a rare Connecticut warbler. He finds it, along with a LeConte's sparrow and more. The birder wound up staying three nights in the park, Easthouse says.
More than 110 of Minnesota's 304 bird species live in the peatland, including the great gray owl. Keen wildlife observers might also catch turtles, frogs and sandhill cranes.
When we arrive at the bog walk parking lot, horseflies swarm the minivan and hurry us past a pond where wild roses sweeten the breeze and clusters of white-striped admiral butterflies flit across the gravel path. Then we duck into a thick arch of foliage where the aluminum boardwalk begins.
It feels cool and dense, reminding us of mangrove walks in Florida. Then the landscape opens into thick stands of bog birch, dogwood and willow before thinning into a spare cover of spruce and tamarack. The drone of flies grows quieter the farther we walk.
Along the way, blueberry shrubs and cranberries intertwine with bog laurel. Fuzzy cotton grasses sway and cluster together like miniature versions of Dr. Seuss's truffula trees. We finally reach the interpretive panels and the first signs of carnivorous plants, which adapted to eating insects to get the same nutrients other plants get from soil.
An unusual maroon flower nods above the pitcher plants, flagging their locations as we gaze across the bog. The pitcher plants have cupped leaves that discreetly emerge from mounds of moss with vivid greens and streaks of red and yellow. The cupped leaves shimmer with rainwater that lures flies and other bugs with its musty scent and then traps them with tiny hairs on the leaves.
We fail to find the wild orchids or carnivorous sundew plants on our own, but the pretty lavender rose pogonia orchids should be in bloom through International Bog Day on Saturday, when naturalists will help visitors spot the bog's hidden treasures.
St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick, www.10000Likes.com, writes travel features and guidebooks.