In a stressful world, the Big Bog offers tranquility.
The Big Bog State Recreation Area isn’t just off the beaten path; the beaten path isn’t even quite sure where it is. But when you arrive, there’s a lot to see and not to hear.
Big Bog, on the eastern shore of Upper Red Lake in far northern Minnesota, is one of the largest undeveloped wilderness areas in the United States. The entire bog is 70 by 30 miles, or over a million acres. Along with Upper and Lower Red Lake, the bog is a remnant of Lake Agassiz, the giant body of water formed over 10,000 years ago by melting glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age.
It is a calm and subtle landscape with a sky that seems to go on forever. Big Bog is home to a huge array of fascinating plants and animals, some you won’t find many other places in Minnesota.
There are medicinal plants such as marsh rosemary, dwarf cranberry and Labrador tea. Wildflowers include showy slipper (Minnesota state flower), pink pogonia, and several varieties of orchids.
If you’re lucky, you might spot a swamp lemming, short-eared owl, snowshoe hare or pine marten. Even gray wolves are sometimes seen.
Big Bog was the home of the last Lower 48 woodland caribou, and some of their trails can still be seen. Alas, the caribou disappeared in the 1940s and have not been seen since, although there are sporadic reports of sightings around 70 or 80 miles along the Minnesota-Canada border.
Walk to another world
Access to the north and south units of the park is via State Hwy. 72, halfway between Blackduck and Baudette. At the north end, stroll around Ludlow Pond and climb the metal boardwalk for a one-mile journey through another world.
It is forbidden to walk on the bog itself, so the walk imposes limits on the visitor. It makes a lot of noise, which may scare off some of the creatures you hope to see.
But as they make their way through the grounds, the visitor becomes immersed in the serene environment. Cut off from the rest of the world, there’s only what’s in front of you to see, and there are plenty of interpretive panels offering fascinating information about the muskeg ecosystem (from the Anishinaabe word “mashkiig”) .
At the end of the line, the boardwalk opens out into a wide clearing, where you can rest on a bench and gaze at a view that is much like what natives would have seen countless generations ago.
Big Bog has fought civilization forever. Settlers tried to drain it over 100 years ago and failed miserably, using giant steam shovels to dig over 1,500 miles of ditches. The bog simply laughed and continued to spit methane gas, which can lift its surface almost a foot until it is expelled.
About nine miles up the road in the south unit is the Big Bog Fire Tower. Climb its 138 steep steps to admire the bog and Lac Rouge. It’s an amazing view of water and trees, mostly black spruce and tamarack; you may spot fishermen on the lake or along the Tamarac River, which springs from the Pine Island State Forest about 20 miles to the east and empties into Upper Red Lake.
For those wishing to visit for more than one afternoon, there are six rustic camping cabins in the south unit of Big Bog – no indoor plumbing and bring your own bedding. A shower and bathrooms are located at the Visitor Center, where you can also purchase park memorabilia and souvenirs.
Big Bog lacks the drama of the North Shore or Mississippi River cliffs, but offers its own alluring charms. Think of it as an independent film rather than a Hollywood blockbuster, an endeavor that inspires and rewards quiet contemplation.
Big Bog State Recreation Area
Where: Waskish, Minn.