Two Old Guys

“Our doctors would be having nightmares if they could see us now. Two old guys with questionable balance climbing over these precarious rocks!” came the soothing words of encouragement from dear friend and musical artist Lee Kanten in the midst one of our occasional saunters. Our climbing and balancing acts were on the ruggedly beautiful virgin outcrop terrain rising from the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. True, neither of us are wholly well-balanced, and Lee has more bionic joints than I can remember. Me? I’m just old.  

But, who cares? Those unnamed physicians were busy elsewhere, and arguments could be made about the just rewards of job security.

When we made our plans for our most recent saunter the sun was shining and blue skies with dotting clouds covered most of the earthen canopy. By the time we reached the Refuge a strong wind from the west had blown in an umbrella of grayness stretching to the edges of our horizons. We were not to be denied, especially after being told by a previous hiker that an unexpected waterfall was to be witnessed at the end of the paved trail off the central parking lot. So, off we went, each of us with a hint of a limp which we kindly pointed out to one another.

This bur oak catches my attention every time.

We had debated on whether to hike the Refuge or the lake trail at Bonanza, and opted for the hike on the trail through the outcrops, bedrock exposed by the ancient Lake Agassiz flood. At the apex of one of the more distant outcrops is a broad horseshoe-shaped bend of the Minnesota River that courses through the Refuge. That was my goal, at least, although I anticipated a reflection of blue skies glistening off a mirrored surface paired with colorful budding of riverine tree life. Perhaps another day.

Finding the waterfall wasn’t much of a challenge, for the paved walk took us directly to the bench next to the river (a perfectly rather secluded spot for self reflection). The falls was visible through thick woods off in the distance, and Lee surmised that it might be melt water being pumped from the gravel mine nestled next to the Refuge.

We weren’t long at the end of the paved path, and decided to climb up the craggy face of the adjacent outcrop to the walking trail we knew existed once we scaled the face. Up above the wind had a more wintry bite. The trail is one of our favorite for it winds through the picturesque outcrops and an oak savanna, and at various points offers great vistas of the Refuge prairie off to the southeast along with that vast flooded waterway that attracts migrating geese, ducks, wading birds, white pelicans, coots and other birds en route to their eventual summer environs. On our adventure the waters were basically barren of migrating birds save for a few coots coursing through the flooded grasses. 

The waterfall viewed through the timber.

Eventually we meandered through to the top of the next outcrop where Lee suddenly stopped to verbally wonder about the power of the Glacial River Warren, the name of the breakthrough river of Lake Agassiz some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Geologists surmise that when the ice dam fractured waters sped through the glacial till like a cleaving sword at speeds of more than a million cubic feet per second. Till was tossed aside and scoured away down to the caprice, leaving behind a washed out valley of bedrock that varies in width at points of more than three miles wide, and is a gneiss and granite wonderland from the headwaters of the Minnesota River, that now courses through that trough of the old glacial river some 213 plus river miles from here to Mankato. 

That scouring began just a few miles upriver from where we two old guys were climbing, and all these outcrops were laid bare by the flood. What’s fun is finding little holes in the gneiss where pebbles were spun by the raging waters leaving behind pockmarks in the stone you can easily still see thousands of years later. I’ve seen similar pitholes in outcrops as far southeast as Morton. These continuing outcrops give the Minnesota River Valley a special natural landscape not unlike the Boundary Waters … were it not for the polluting of the river waters themselves.

We played tag … until I caught it in the grasses.

To crawl, walk and climb through such events of our natural history is daunting. Lake Agassiz covered what is now most of central Canada including all of Saskatchewan, North Dakota and northern Minnesota and was in it’s day larger than any existing lake in the world including the Caspian Sea. Remnant waters include Lake Winnipeg, Lake of the Woods, Red Lake and Rainy Lake, among others, as well as the Great Lakes. 

The breakthrough drainage with River Warren was so disrupting and of such magnitude that it significantly impacted climate, sea level and human civilization. The huge freshwater release into the Arctic Ocean near Hudson Bay was believed to have disrupted oceanic circulation and caused a temporary global cooling. Yet these outcrops, here in the Refuge, was where it all began, and we two old guys were traipsing through what Lee called “an eye blink in time.”

Before Euro immigration this valley was home to various Native tribes, and local historian, Don Felton, often known as Babou, points out areas within the refuge where campsites were set up by the wandering tribes in  search of bison and other game. He can also point out bison rubs where a fine sheen glistens off the granite and gneiss in the sunlight some 150 years after the last bison were believed to have grazed prairie grasses in the valley. There is even evidence of Petroglyphs hidden within the outcrops, but Babou and others are reluctant to show them for fear of vandalism.

The horseshoe bend of the Minnesota River from the top of the outcrop.

We didn’t see much bird life on our saunter. A few robins and a Downy Woodpecker. It was a bit early for the warblers and Cedar Waxwings, which love to tantalize a man with a lens on such saunters later in the year. A small brownish bird flirted with the photographer by hiding in the dormant grasses and blitzing behind oak branches along the trail. I did capture an image yet have no clue of its identification. 

When we finally reached the more distant outcrop where the horseshoe bend of the Minnesota River beckoned, the wind was fraught with a pelting of occasional raindrops. Some felt like sleet against the cheek, and we hurriedly began making our way back through the rocky maze toward the car. Although it might require a vivid imagination to suggest we two old guys made a sprint for our safety and comfort, we did make it back mere seconds before the rain actually hit.

Meandering through this landscape left naked by glacial waters rushing at speeds we can barely imagine is humbling, offering much in similarity to viewing of the Milky Way on a moonless night when you can grasp the insignificance of both human life collectively on what appears to be a most unique planet in a limitless universe, along with your own life within it. That “insignificance” pales, though, when you can also vividly view and hear the destruction of what remains of this unique planet in ways far more morbid and everlasting than that caused by the Glacial River Warren. We two old guys will long be gone by the time earth will become uninhabitable if current trends continue, as earth becomes a wasteland planet that global greed has forever failed to yield.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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