In a stressful world, the Big Bog offers tranquillity.
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 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 measures 70 by 30 miles — more than a million acres. Along with Upper and Lower Red Lake, the peat bog is a remnant of Lake Agassiz, the giant body of water formed more than 10,000 years ago by melting glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age.
It's a quiet, subtle landscape with a sky that seems to go on forever. Big Bog hosts a vast array of fascinating plants and animals, some that you won't find many other places in Minnesota.
There are medicinal plants such as bog rosemary, lowbush cranberry and Labrador tea. Wildflowers include showy lady slipper (Minnesota's state flower), rose pogonia and several varieties of orchids.
If you're lucky, you might spot a bog lemming, a short-eared owl, a snowshoe hare or a pine marten. Even gray wolves are occasionally seen.
Big Bog was the home of the Lower 48's last woodland caribou, and some of their trails are still visible. Alas, the caribou vanished in the 1940s and haven't been seen since, although there are sporadic reports of sightings some 70 or 80 miles away along the Minnesota-Canada border.
Boardwalk to another world
Access to the park's northern and southern units is off state Hwy. 72, about midway between Blackduck and Baudette. At the northern end, stroll around Ludlow Pond and step onto the metal boardwalk for a milelong journey through another world.
Walking on the bog itself is prohibited, so the boardwalk does put limits on a visitor. It makes a fair amount of noise, which may scare away some of the critters one would hope to see.
But as it wends its way through the terrain, the visitor becomes immersed in the serene surroundings. Cut off from the rest of the world, there's only what's in front of you to see, and there's plenty of interpretive signage offering fascinating information on the muskeg ecosystem (from the Anishinaabe word "mashkiig").
At the end of the line, the boardwalk opens onto a vast clearing, where you can rest on a bench and ponder a view that's much as native people would have seen it countless generations ago.
Big Bog has fought off civilization forever. Settlers tried to drain it more than 100 years ago and failed miserably, using giant steam shovels to dig more than 1,500 miles of ditches. The bog merely laughed and continued to belch methane gas, which can raise its surface nearly a foot until expelled.
About nine miles down the road, in the southern unit, is the Big Bog Fire Tower. Climb its 138 steeply pitched steps for views of the bog and Red Lake. It's a tremendous vista of water and trees, mostly black spruce and tamarack; you may catch a glimpse of anglers on the lake or along the Tamarac River, which bubbles out of the Pine Island State Forest about 20 miles to the east and feeds into Upper Red Lake.
For those who seek more than an afternoon's visit, there are six rustic camper cabins in the Big Bog southern unit — no indoor plumbing, and bring your own bedding. A shower and bathrooms are located at the visitor center, where you can also buy park memorabilia and souvenirs.
Big Bog lacks the drama of the North Shore or the Mississippi River bluffs, but offers its own seductive charms. Think of it as an indie film rather than a Hollywood blockbuster, an enterprise that inspires and rewards quiet contemplation.
Big Bog State Recreation Area
Where: Waskish, Minn.