Forged from Adversity

Day Six: Destination Old Mill State Park & Red River State Recreation Area

Little did I know I was about to spend a day taking in two parks, one dating to the homesteading of 1882 and one more recently developed. Both shaped by adverse forces. One by the challenges of the Great Depression, one by the forces of nature. Both turned the adversity into special places for people to enjoy nature.

Old Mill State Park

#32hike of my 52 Hike Challenge

As I arrived at the entrance to Old Mill State Park, I knew this would be a place of unexpected surprises. Originally homesteaded in 1882 by the Larson family the park still has the homestead house, a small wooden structure with a sleeping loft and the steam powered mill building that served the area. Both buildings are now managed by the local county historical society. Those were the last place I visited before departing the park.

When I arrived, I stopped at the office building which is now “closed” with no regular staff. Interpretive signage provides basic park details, including that this park was also shaped by the Works Project Administration (WPA). I proceeded to the parking area which was empty and meant that I’d likely have the park to myself to explore.

As I walked to find the trailhead of the Agassiz Trail, I noticed that there was a lower area park which had the Middle River and several WPA era buildings as well as what appeared to be a small lake. I decided to tackle the hiking trail first, returning later to explore the lower part of the park. The trailhead, located just off the south end of the parking area starts along a small prairie area eventually turning into the woods. Along the way, I learned that the mounds of dirt, some nearly covering the trail, were the work of pocket gophers. They push the dirt up as they are tunneling just below the surface.

Further along there is an overlook on the Middle River. The view is lovely and there is a nice bench to rest. I took a few pictures and pressed on, learning about the various parts of the forest. A portion is a gallery forest which is forested corridor along a river near sparsely treed areas like savannas or, in this case, prairies. Circling around the 2 mile trail, I arrived back at the parking lot and headed toward the largest of the buildings, an observation tower much like the one I’d seen at Lake Bronson State Park.

The tower, one of many constructed as part of Works Project Administration efforts, is closed now, home to barn swallows who took flight as I approached. Despite the fact that sparrows and some rather large hornet nests were taking over, the building has much of its original stone and ironwork.

I turned from the tower, looking for the park’s suspension bridge. This is one of two parks in Minnesota that are home to WPA era suspension bridges. I’d crossed the other, much larger one last fall on a different hike. (Bonus points if you know where that much larger one is located!) On the way there I walked through a park building that would have been used as a dining hall and was open. It was cool and dark inside. The stone fireplace and heavy beams still solidly intact.

Outside an interpretive panel shed light that the small lake is a swimming pool formed by rerouting water from the adjacent river underground to create it. It flows back out to the river at one end over beautiful stonework. Just beyond that, I found the suspension bridge. While short, it’s gorgeous, serving its purpose even now nearly 100 years later. Nearby there is the remaining stonework from a larger river bridge, the changing house with women’s and men’s sides and bathrooms. All of them constructed in the distinctive WPA style. I’m a bit of a geek about WPA structures. This park is one of my favorites for it.

To add to my love for this park, as left, I saw a kestrel (my favorite bird of prey) hunting along the fields adjacent to the park. Added this park to the “Yes, I’d come back” list.

Red River State Recreation Area

#33hike of my 52 Hike Challenge

My next stop was two hours drive to the western border. Red River State Recreation Area sits squarely in East Grand Forks on the Red River. I didn’t know much about the park before I arrived other than I wasn’t sure about sleeping in a park in the middle of a city. I know people think that a woman camping in the middle of the woods by herself is questionable from a safety stand point, but in the city? Even I have limits. But I’m also game to try. I knew that I could sleep in my car if I wasn’t comfortable. Or even find a room at a local hotel.

The entrance to the park is on a street that is home to restaurants and bars overlooking the river and just a few blocks from the bridge that crosses into Grand Forks, North Dakota. The park building is a sweet little wooden structure that was staffed by two wonderful ladies. I’d decided after my walk-in experience the night before that I would rather stay in the main campground versus the walk-in site I’d booked. They got me moved to a drive-in site, helped me with how to find and follow the Hiking Club Trail and provided recommendations for places to eat.

As I drove around the levy into the park, I still wasn’t entirely sure about camping in the open here. There were plenty of other campers around so I knew I’d have that in my favor. I set up my tent and headed out to hike. Starting at the large interpretive panel just inside the park entrance I learned that this, the Sherlock Campground, was the site of the Sherlock Park neighborhood up until the flood of 1997. Following that flood, the Army Corps of Engineers declared it part of the Red River flood plain.

As the city tried to determine a way forward for the use of the land, the levy’s were built beyond the neighborhood’s eastern boundary. There are now 1,200 acres of parkland that stretch along the river’s banks including the park. The campground is interesting in that the roads and alleys were left intact. Carriage walks lead to sidewalks. The interpretive panels also include the names of the families that were bought out to create the green space. I discovered I was camping where a garage had sat about 20 years ago. It’s weird and wonderful.

From the neighborhood, the trail goes along the area where the walk-in sites are so I explored and decided I’d made the right choice to change my camping spot. There were many others doing the same exploration so wouldn’t have had the solitude I’d have wanted and the idea of peeing in clear view of the other side of the river wasn’t appealing in the least as their aren’t bathrooms nearby to the walk-in sites.

I kept going, noticing that the levy was set well back from the river and marveled that so much space would be needed to handle the river’s flooding. I contemplated the idea of a community making the heart wrenching decisions about what houses would be saved and who would have to move. And now the levy system that allows the people beyond it stay in their homes. About the incredible green space that’s been created with playgrounds, biking and hiking trails and picnic areas. That a community would make undertake such a herculean effort to stay solidly in place and create something beautiful from nature’s unpredictability.

As I hiked, the trail crosses the levy into the neighborhood it protects giving contrast and a reminder of what was lost and gained. Thankfully for the guidance of the park staff I kept a close eye out for the tunnel to cross back under the highway and continue to the start of my loop. It’s not well marked and could easily be passed. But I found it and was delighted with the positive graffiti that adorns its walls. As I made my way back to the campground and dinner that followed at Mamma Maria’s I had so much to reflect on. Another day filled with pleasant surprises in the places I’d lest expected to find them.

GEAR: Columbia Women’s Arcadia II Rain Jacket, Vasque Talus Mid UltraDry Hiking Boots, Granite Gear Blaze 60 Backpack,  Marmot Kompressor Pack, ENO Double Nest Hammock/Guardian Bug Net/Profly Rainfly, Paria Thermodown 30 Down Quilt, MSR Pocket Rocket, MSR Dualist Cookware, Slumberjack Trial Tent, REI Co-op Flash Insulated Air Sleeping Pad, Dueter Dirtbag, Kula Cloth, Leki Lhasa Lite AS trekking poles. Want to know more about my gear selections? Head on over to Gear & Gadgets.

Next Post Preview: Fueled up and ready to tackle the last parks on my road trip adventure.

*To find out more about Leave No Trace (LNT) principles,
check out the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics
or on the Stewardship Resources page.

Copyright Ruth Wikoff-Jones, | No Use Permitted Without Prior Permission

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