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.