Little remains of the tallgrass prairies that blanketed millions of acres of America's heartland just 170 years ago. These prairies were the lush expressions of a vast grassland complex that ranged from the Gulf of Mexico north into Canada. Here were seas of grass sometimes taller than a horse and rider, carpets of wildflowers, and black loamy soil that seemed endless.
The grasslands of the Great Plains once covered one-third of Minnesota, nearly equal to the extent of coniferous forest. Today, Minnesota's prairies are still some of the most diverse on the continent. Taking a week's vacation in mid-July, my husband Richard and I had one objective: to photograph tallgrass prairie wildflowers throughout the Western part of the state of Minnesota.
Spread out between small towns up and down the Western part of the state, the prairie seemed like a perfect trip to take the Honda. We strapped the saddlebags on, (along with a utility box on the back to protect the cameras and equipment) and headed north on Minnesota Hwy. 371, a straight shot through small northern towns like Pine River, Backus, and Hackensack, but Walker is our destination, where we catch Minnesota Hwy. 200. Before reaching the "big sky" country of the Northwestern part of the state, Hwy 200. moves through some of the finest woods and lakes Minnesota has to offer. Like Leech Lake at Walker. The highway circles part of this huge body of water, and I watch the waves pommel the rocky shoreline. Leech Lake is rarely calm. It seems turbulent - almost always on guard.
Beautiful stands of white and red pine greet us as we leave Leech Lake and follow Hwy. 200 toward Itasca State Park. Itasca is the oldest park in Minnesota. The headwaters of the Mississippi are found here - just a babbling brook tumbling in the summer sun.
We continue on as the highway narrows and the population dwindles. Flanked on either side by towering pines, the highway dips and rises as we glide past woodland and lake. Then a sign up ahead says we've just entered the White Earth Indian Reservation. Gradually, as we head West, the trees diminish and we find ourselves in the middle of farm country. Everywhere the land is flat and pastoral. It's a pleasant sight, but I wonder where they've hidden all the Indians.
Ada, Minnesota, is our first-day destination. As we ride into town, we see that the county fair is in full swing. Our motel parking lot is full of trucks and empty livestock trailers. After a quick lunch at the local drive-in (always a fun stop when traveling through small towns), we head for our first scientific and natural area: Prairie Smoke Dunes.
It's a dry sand community with aspen and bur oak growing among the various grasses. Richard unloads his camera equipment and sets up shop at the first bloom he sees - a deep purple spiderwort. He then becomes occupied with a little wood satyr butterfly attrtacted to his camera bag. Meanwhile, I'm off exploring the dunes, though soaring temperatures keeps my stride slow. Above, the sky is sprouting thunder heads. In the middle of the prairie I find a red helium balloon...a remnant of the county fair? Locusts hum like high voltage wires as I reach the dunes and climb to the top. The nature area ends here, disappearing into thickets of basswood and green ash.
That evening we turn in early as the alarm is set for four am. When I close my eyes I can hear the roar of cars at the Demolition Derby across the road, a highlight of the Norman County Fair.
It's a cold ride before sun-up the next morning as we take Minnesota Hwy. 9 toward Bluestem Prairie. Snuckered down into my jacket, I watch first light widen above a large pasture. Fog is a fragile spiderweb hanging in all directions. I motion for Richard to stop. We climb off the bike and watch as the sky seems to crack open with red light. Slowly, the upper half of the ball of sun lays on the eastern horizon. For a moment it looks like a flaming prairie fire.
The Bluestem Prairie is an extensive remnant of "a vast sea of natural grassland" that at one time covered the entire Red River valley. That it is also one of the highest quality prairie sites in the United States becomes quite evident as we ride up. Bluestem's diversity of wildflowers hides just under the lifting fog. It will become our favorite spot. The rising sun makes jewels out of every plant on the prairie. I wander through dew-soaked prairie roses and purple harebells and large patches of black-eyed susans. As I make my way toward a large rock in the middle of the grassland, brilliant orange prairie lilies nod everywhere. Richard is having a photographic orgy.
Yet even paradise has its shortcomings. My boots and socks are soaking wet from all the dew-walking. But it's getting warm and I know they'll dry off soon. I'm also getting sleepy. I stretch out on the large white boulder and think about the heaping plate of pancakes I plan on having later in the day. Bees buzz above my head, and in the distance I hear the bleating of sheep, a rooster crow, a dog bark. Looking up, I find a stretch of bucolic farms bordering the east section of the prairie. I hear, then see a John Deere tractor mowing hay. The scent of sweet alfalfa wafts across the prairie. It is one of the most idyllic places I have ever seen, and also the most deceiving.
Most prairie has been obliterated. Millions of acres have been destroyed through conversion to agriculture and intensive grazing. What were once extensive tallgrass prairie with regular dormant-season fires, large numbers of bison, elk, and deer, and intact water cycles are now largely reduced to small, isolated fragments.
Richard signals for me to bring the field guide. He's found a forb and he hasn't a clue as to what it's called. I spend the rest of the morning researching wildflowers and grasses.
At high noon the Honda shimmers under the July sun. We stay on Hwy. 9 and head toward Morris. The land is as flat as a book. I turn now and see deer in a pasture grazing like small bands of horses. In Morris we run into our first detour. We had planned on taking Hwy. 59 to Montevideo (the faster route) but they closed this area of highway. We're dusty and hot and make a detour of our own into the first fast-food place we find. It's a Dairy Queen. Sitting inside the air conditioned building, we eat ice cream and plan our strategy. Not that there's much to plan. Hwy. 9 is the only way south.
It's big sky country all the way to Montevideo. We're getting closer to the South Dakota border, and there are cattle ranches from horizon to horizon. As we approach Montevideo, it's crowded and hot, and we make a quick decision to bunk down in the smaller nearby town of Granite Falls. The Minnesota River runs through Granite Falls. We buy some chow at a convenience store and point the Honda in the direction of the city park. A breeze is coming off the water as we find a bench in the shade of an old oak tree. The river is lined with them - old oaks, old ash, old basswoods, and just down from us is the dam with a large falls. This is a lovely old park with manicured grass and wooden benches. As we eat our sandwiches, a gaggle of geese are nearby preening their feathers. Then I notice there's a group of pelicans swimming in and out of the rushing falls. Because I've never seen pelicans in the wild before, I get up to have a closer look. The pelicans are white as fresh paint, and huge.
After this refreshing stop and dinner, we check out Blue Devil Valley, less than half a mile southwest of Granite Falls. This turns out to be a bit of a disappointment. We were hoping for more prairie but found instead only a few acres of rock bluffs and a lot of woods. A bright spot was at the top of the bluff. A couple groupings of brittle cactus were growing there, an unusual sight for the Canadian-border state of Minnesota.
The next morning we head for Pipestone, located just eight miles from the South Dakota border. It's rather a blustery day with storm clouds far out on the horizon. We arrive in town mid-morning and spend a couple hours sightseeing. Pipestone is not a very big town, but has several big attractions, including Pipestone National Monument. The monument preserves the pipestone quarries. Only Native Americans are allowed to quarry the pipestone. For over 300 years, the red stone ceremonial pipe has been prized above all others by the American Indian. In fact, the first pipe was considered a gift from the gods.
We walk the circle tour around the quarry, visit the flooded waters of Winnewissa Falls, and buy a beautiful, native-made red stone turtle. While in the quarries, we watch a couple Native Americans digging for the precious stone. It is a laborious task, involving uncovering the vein of pipestone within the Sioux quartzite.
By afternoon, the wind is quite forceful, and the storm clouds have moved closer. But it's wild and invigorating, and we seem to fly over Hwy. 23 on our way to Prairie Coteau. Prairie Coteau is one of the most important and stunning prairies in Minnesota. As we approach, the elevation abruptly rises, and we are suddenly looking at these huge grassy knolls. George Catlin called this area the Couteaus des Prairies, or highland of the prairies. They are the second highest hills in the state, bested only by the rocky shoreline along Lake Superior in the north.
It is overcast now, windy, and warm, and I can't wait to climb to the top of that first hill. I stand at the summit and look out at the remaining hills and the flat grazing lands in the distance. It looks like Montana. As the wind rips at my hair, I see below me the problems Richard is having as he tries photographing a group of purple coneflowers. I try to make a wind block for him with my guide book, my leather jacket, my body, but it's practically impossible. Then I spy the most perfect prairie thistle I've ever seen, and we're off to try to capture that perfect shot.
Meanwhile, the thunder heads have turned black, and soon we're forced to make a hasty retreat. Rain hits us on the way back. It's pretty light, but we pull over and put on the ugly yellow raingear anyway. Heavy rain strands us in our motel room that night with an old Charles Bronson movie.
Day four finds us chasing the Cottonwood River. We're traveling along U.S. Hwy. 14, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway. It could use some work. At times I feel like I'm bronc riding. But that's okay. It softens up my backside that gets like a brick on long bike trips. The highway takes us through Walnut Grove, the home of Pa and Ma Ingalls. We pass another couple riding a Gold Wing and pulling a trailer. We wave to each other before continuing on.
The Cottonwood River Prairie is a delightful array of grasslands and rolling hills. There are flowers everywhere, and above them the sky is blue with high puffs of clouds. The hills are lofty here, like at Prairie Coteau, and of course I have to climb the highest one. The grass is waist high in places on the way up, and the lower grass is so thick I can't see the ground. I've learned the hard way to watch for badger holes carefully hidden beneath.
There's a nice surprise at the top...a profusion of wildflowers nodding in the soft breeze. The view is nice too. Farmland in every direction like a perfect patchwork quilt. Richard is photographing purple cone flowers, and when he's finished, we walk in the direction of the Cottonwood River. The river is hidden behind a flank of cottonwood trees and thick brush. As we get closer, we pass some grazing dairy cows and find there's a barbed wire fence and a strip of pasture blocking our way. Since we only want to look a bit, we jump the fence and keep going. Fifty feet away, the river is really just a twisting creek, where huge old trees lean out over the water. It is a Thoreau-like place with trilling birds and babbling brook. Maybe it's these small, stumbled-upon places that are the real quest in a long journey.
We leave the Cottonwood River Prairie and head west, continuing on Hwy. 14 and MN Hwy. 99 toward St. Peter, nestled in the beautiful Minnesota River Valley. After securing a motel, we have dinner at Ruttles, a 50's grill and bar. Here the burgers are great and the malts even better.
It's after seven pm and it's still 85 degrees with killer humidity. We head out for the tiny town of Kasota and the Kasota Prairie. Located two miles south of St. Peter, Kasota is an enchanting place, a little like discovering the "lost valley." One mile off the main highway and you've entered another world. A narrow gravel road takes you on a trip through hills and vales encompassing goat farms for front lawns, beautiful horses, Irish Wolfhounds, tress hanging over the road, bluffs, and huge golden limestones standing like monoliths in the middle of fields. I feel like Alice after eating the wrong mushroom. The monoliths are really "Kasota stone" known throughout the world and unique to the area. Quarries pop out at you like a jack-in-the-box. And so do rabbits - scores of young "bunnies" in the middle of the road. We can't find the prairie, but I don't mind another spin around the township. It has to be seen to be believed.
When we finally find the prairie, it's just before dusk. While Richard photographs some black-eyed susans, I walk toward the horizon, where the land seems to simply drop off. I presume the river is just beyond, but don't feel like walking that far to see. It's too hot, and I'm more drawn to a lone tree keeping watch over the prairie. When I finally reach it, I'm delighted to find it's a cherry tree. I touch it's leaves and examine the berries as though it's the last tree on earth.
This is our final stop. Tomorrow we will begin the long journey home.
Values are forged from experience and understanding. The prairies of Minnesota invite explorers to learn about this vanishing environment through direct experience. It helps people to understand what they see - thereby to value more highly what might otherwise have been taken for granted.
A Guide to Minnesota's Scientific and Natural Areas. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 1995.
Ladd, Doug and Oberle, Frank. Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers: A Falcon Field Guide. Falcon Press Publishing Co., Inc. (Helena, 1995).
More Prairie Wildflowers
Copyright ©1996 Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller
October 25, 1996