Big Bog with My Brother
I promised my brother “it would be the Disneyland of bogs.” In my mind, the Big Bog State Recreation Area was a big deal. It had been on my bucket list for a few years and a July visit with my father in Bemidji provided the perfect opportunity to make the journey. So, I coaxed my brother into abandoning his family and coming along. As a spoiler, it was not “the Disneyland of bogs,” that I had promised. This has happened before. As a teen, I visited the amethyst mines by Thunder Bay, ON. I imagined fantastic caverns of sparkling lavender hued crystals. Instead, it was a giant open pit mine of dusty brown rocks. Last summer, I visited the Forestville Mystery Cave, which was epic in my imagination with twisting caverns of fossil embossed walls. It was a large cave, but the standard tour visited only a small portion, and it was much more mundane than the cave I had imagined. Big Bog State Recreation Area was indeed a very large bog. It had all of the impressive qualities of a very large bog, but it was not the orchid bejeweled paradise with towering mounds of moss and giant, carnivorous plants. Big Bog was big in my imagination and big in real life, but it is best appreciated for exactly what it is…a large bog with an impressive, mile long bog walk.
To begin, bogs are a type of wetland or water saturated environment. They are furthermore a type of peatland, which is an environment wherein organic material has built up over time because cool (usually) low oxygen conditions have inhibited the decay of these materials. Among peatlands, bogs are characterized by peat or partially decayed vegetation that has built up over time. According to basic definitions of bogs, this built up peat landscape is not nourished by groundwater, and instead derives its nutrients from precipitation. This results in water with low nutrient content and high acidity. This means that bogs host uniquely adapted plants such as carnivorous plants, orchids, and stunted, slow growing trees.
Minnesota has 6 million acres of peatlands, which make up 10% of the state. It is second only to Alaska in peatlands. According to the Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota’s peatlands began forming 5,000-6,000 years ago during a climate cooling period that saw increased precipitation. Big Bog State Recreational Area, which is also known as The Red Lake Peatland, was formed in the part of the basin of Glacial Lake Agassiz. Nearby Upper Red Lake and Lower Red Lake are remnants of the lake. Richard Ojakanga’s Roadside Geology of Minnesota states that Big Bog itself formed about 3,000 years ago as vegetation began to overtake low lying areas of Glacial Lake Agassiz. The average thickness of peat is ten feet. Big Bog is 50 miles long east to west and 12 miles wide. It is the largest bog in the lower 48 states. The Red Lake Peatland is also unique in that it is located only 50 miles from prairie.
Big Bog State Recreation Area was added to the Minnesota State Park system in 2000. It was established through a local effort to boost the economy after the collapse of walleye fishing on Red Lake. Fishing was the main tourist attraction for the nearby town of Waskish, which saw resorts close in the late 1990s. When I told my brother this, he was skeptical that a large bog would attract tourists. After all, there is a difference between the type of tourist who wants to stroll through a bog and those who want to go walleye fishing. In other words, people who like bogs might be a bit more on the nerdy side. I had read that several years after opening, there were 75,000 visitors to Big Bog, a number that was expected to grow (but cannot find the source). Since walleye fishing resumed in 2006 after efforts to restock the fish and a moratorium on fishing them, the two types of tourism actually coexist at the moment.
Big Bog State Recreational Area attracted me for a number of reasons. One, I want to visit all of Minnesota’s State Parks (and Big Bog is part of the state park system). Two, I like big bogs and I can not lie. Really, I like bogs of all sizes. Bogs are interesting. They are full of interesting berries, carnivorous plants, orchids, and unique trees. In Europe, they have preserved corpses. There are also opportunities to see unique birds. Three, it is the biggest bog in the lower 48 states! Four, it has a great board walk. Speaking of which, the boardwalk really is amazing. The mile-long boardwalk was completed in 2005. The DNR states that it is the longest boardwalk in the U.S. The Bemidji Pioneer reported that the boardwalk was constructed in a way which allowed for 60% of sunlight to reach the plants under the walkway (Wikipedia reports 38%). Sixteen foot sections of boardwalk were installed without machinery, as to avoid damage to the fragile ecosystem. Work was done in the winter to minimize damage and the boardwalk itself stands 18 inches above the bog on anchors drilled fifteen feet into the peat. The boardwalk itself is worth the visit.
As I mentioned in my introduction, the Big Bog Recreation Area didn’t quite live up to the hype in my head. One reason for this is that we wanted to see orchids. My brother and I had visited Lake Bemidji State Park the previous day and saw two species of orchids. The Showy Lady’s Slipper was past its prime and wilted. I was hoping that by going an hour north to Big Bog, we might catch some fresher specimens. We didn’t see any. Also, we were attacked by deer flies. This made it difficult to stop and enjoy the nature around us. We saw many different species of butterflies, but I was unable to stop and identify them because I would be immediately assaulted by flies once I stopped moving. The most comical example was when a Mourning Cloak butterfly landed on my butt, but I couldn’t stop to photograph it because of the flies. I also didn’t see many birds that morning. The boardwalk was impressive and certainly a feat to build. It was also pretty astonishing to see what seemed like endless bog in all directions. But, my brother pointed out that we grew up in a boggy area and it really didn’t look that different. Perhaps it is hard to take in all of the small details of such a large area, especially while attacked by flies.
The interpretive signs were full of useful facts. For instance, I learned about efforts in the early 1900s to drain the bog for farmland. Millions of dollars were spent to dig 1,500 miles of ditches in the Red Lake Peatlands. This project failed as farms were abandoned during the Great Depression, but the bog is still scarred in some areas due to the drainage ditches that were constructed earlier in the last century. I also learned that Big Bog was home to remnant woodland caribou into the 1930s. The population was cut off from its Canadian calving grounds and ultimately failed to thrive. The boardwalk might be better appreciated in the spring and fall when the bugs are less bad. It might also be better enjoyed on a guided hike, where a naturalist can point out the plants, butterflies, and birds. Due to Covid-19, Minnesota State Parks have not been offering naturalist programs. I think this would be a great way to get to know the bog.
Another interesting fact about the Big Bog State Recreational Area was that it was used during the Cold War as a bombing/ammunition test site. Between 1947 and 1951, the U.S. army used Big Bog as Upper Red Lake Firing Range for gunnery and bombing training. Later, the Naval Reserve dropped over 50 bombs to create wallowing holes for moose. From 1948-1953, the National Guard set up targets in the bog for aerial bombing based on the Cold War fear that Duluth was a strategic target for the Soviet Union. Some of the bombs that were dropped in the bog were inert bombs or non-nuclear parts of bombs otherwise developed as nuclear weapons. One of these non-nuclear bombs weighed 11,000 pounds, was detonated 3000 feet above the bog, and seen 60 miles away in Bemidji. This history was uncovered when researchers in the 1970s began to suspect that a meteor may have created Hillman Lake and a bomb casing was later found in the bog by a naturalist. Despite the fact that the bog was abused for military and agricultural purposes for most of the century, in 1975 it was designated a National Natural Landmark. Of course, the bog was a source of food, tools and housing supplies, and medicine to prehistoric Native Americans to Ojibwe. For instance, many Native American tribes have made medicinal beverages from Bog Labrador Tea. Yellow eyed grass is also one of the 150 medicinal bog plants utilized by the Ojibwe.
While the bog is not a magical wonderland, it is scientifically, ecologically, and culturally important. Had we visited a few weeks earlier, we may have seen orchids. Even without orchids, the simple vastness of the bog and engineering feat of the bog walk are worth the visit. The bog walk begins at Ludlow Pond and a wet mixed forest. This slowly transforms into the open expanse of tamaracks, spruce, and mounds of sphagnum moss. We were the only visitors on the bog walk during our short hike. The walkway is a unique opportunity to delve deeper into a bog than what is typical. The morning was noticeably quiet of people, cars, and the sounds of society. As a whole, it was a good experience. At the same time, there are many short bog walkways where it is easier to get a more condensed, but detailed experience. Because of the length of the bog walk and size of the bog, it was hard to focus on the tiny details around us. After a while, everything becomes moss. Perhaps that is the shortfall of “big things” as they are harder to comprehend and take in. A highlight of the experience was catching a glimpse of a bog lemming and stalking a park ranger for my collectable state park patch. Maybe I will revisit the bog one day when programs resume. Really, not matter how great the bog was, I was just happy to have a fun morning outdoors with my brother.