WASKISH, Minn. — Take a trip about an hour north of Bemidji, Minn., and you’ll encounter a world both rugged and serene, a contradictory fusion of nature called the Big Bog.
It’s a spongy moss-covered land of carnivorous plants, rare species of birds and dazzling orchids that spans more than 500 square miles, boasting a vast landscape that has been in the making for 5,000 years.
The relatively undisturbed Big Bog — technically known as the Red Lake Peatlands — has been dubbed Minnesota's last true wilderness. Yet in a far grander sense, the geological and ecological gem ranks as the largest peat bog in the Lower 48.
It’s found in Big Bog State Recreation Area, a designated area of about 9,000 acres along the eastern shore of Upper Red Lake near the small town of Waskish, Minn.
Although the bog is typically inaccessible — a no-man’s land of sorts — a mile-long boardwalk was installed in 2005, permitting curious visitors to get a first-hand glimpse of a natural resource brimming with one-of-a-kind plant and animal life.
While inhospitable to most creatures, the bog (in an ironic twist) is home to a variety of uncommon and endangered ones, including bird species such as the Northern hawk-owl and Connecticut warbler. For years, this element of the bog has attracted birders from around the country.
Intrigued by the prospect of meat-eating plants, uncommon animal sightings and a “belching” landscape (the bog is said to sometimes fall 6 to 10 inches after expelling methane gas), I set out to discover this wildly complex treasure in northern Minnesota.
An intricate history
Thousands of years ago, an enormous body of water called Glacial Lake Agassiz once covered the land that is now the Big Bog State Recreation Area. As the lake receded and the climate changed, the soil was left with more moisture than it could absorb.
As a result, sphagnum moss began to form and cover the area, growing atop itself and forming peat as it decayed.
For centuries, the Big Bog played a role in the Red Lake Ojibwe community. Early peoples hunted the bog’s wild game and harvested its plants for food and medicine.
But in 1892, U.S. government land surveyors declared the bog “practically unfit for any purpose.” Settlers then attempted to drain the bog for farmland in the early 1900s, but their efforts were in vain as it was unsuccessful, according to a report from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The notion that the bog was a wasteland continued into World War II when it was used for military aircraft training and as a bomb testing site.
Yet when the walleye population crashed in Upper Red Lake in the 1990s — devastating the Waskish economy — the community banded together to create a sustainable tourist attraction, and the Big Bog State Recreation Area was the result.
Visiting the bog
When traveling to the Big Bog Boardwalk, chances are your GPS will take you to the southern section of the two-part Big Bog State Recreation Area. This unit includes a campground with 31 campsites, winterized camper cabins, a sandy beach and picnic grounds.
However, this isn’t where the boardwalk is located; the peat bog is found in the northern unit, which is a few miles past the southern one.
Surprisingly, there are few mosquitoes along the boardwalk as the sphagnum moss absorbs water and provides limited spots for mosquitoes to breed.
Along the way, interpretive signs introduce the bog’s plant and animal life as well as its geological and human history.
In Minnesota, 42 orchid species have been documented, and some — such as the small purple-fringed orchid, dragon’s mouth orchid, rose pogonia — make their home in Big Bog.
The area is also home to moose, white-tailed deer, black bears, gray wolves, foxes and bobcats, among other mammals. It provides a habitat for a diversity of birds not commonly found in other parts of the state, and at least 289 species are found in this area, according to a report from the National Audubon Society.
There is an abundance of greenery along the boardwalk, but in a sense, it is just a facade. The bog’s water is only slightly less acidic than a cola beverage, and coupled with nutrient-poor soil, the environment makes for a challenging place for plants to thrive.
As a result, some meat-eating plants, such as bladderworts, sundews and pitcher plants, can be found in the bog: they lure, trap and digest insects for the extra nutrients they contain. If you look closely at some plants when visiting, you may even see black specks on their tiny leaves — those are insect skeletons.
Further along the boardwalk, a bounty of tamarack and black spruce make an appearance; yet these are “scrappy, stunted-looking” bog trees, a sign read.
Much older than they appear, they have evolved to survive the peatland’s poor conditions, and a lack of nutrients makes them grow slowly.
While the boardwalk is only 1 mile long, the trip can easily become an all-day affair, depending on one’s observation of things.
Toward the end, the landscape of the bog suddenly widens, and visitors are greeted by the boardwalk’s terminus. It consists of a viewing platform, benches and a binocular viewer, which allows one to take in the Big Bog’s otherworldly expanse.
Interested in visiting Big Bog?
Here are some things to know before you go:
Bring your walking shoes. Big Bog Boardwalk is a two-mile round trip experience, so be sure to wear comfortable footwear.
Leash your pet. Pets are allowed on the Big Bog Boardwalk, but they must be leashed. Also, small dogs can get their feet caught in boardwalk grates, so owners may prefer to carry them.
Bring water and sunscreen. There’s not too much shade in the bog, so be sure to bring essential supplies, especially when visiting on a hot day.
No smoking. Peat fires are some of the most serious wildfires, so smoking is not allowed in the bog.
The boardwalk is wheelchair-accessible. It is also relatively level and visitors are encouraged to proceed into the bog at their own pace. Multiple benches can be found along the boardwalk as well.
Stay on the boardwalk. Don’t try to walk in the bog. Reportedly, your footprint could last a year and you could fall into a flark, which is a depression or hollow within a bog.
Bria Barton is a Travel and Tourism reporter for Forum Communications Co. She can be reached at (218) 333-9798.