Did you know there are more prairie chickens near Crookston, Minnesota, than on the Canadian prairies? And that catfish are the best fighters of the freshwater fish species?

Did you know that Thief River Falls is a hockey town? Or that East Grand Forks was once almost entirely submerged under water?

Such are some of the interesting things I learned about Minnesota on a recent media tour of the Red Lake River and its host communities.

The tour started on a sunny Thursday morning in East Grand Forks. Located at the confluence of the Red River and Red Lake River, East Grand Forks is a mere two-and-a-half hours drive south of Winnipeg. Or longer, depending on how easily you get across the Canada/United States border.

Our group came together over lunch at the Blue Moose Bar & Grill on the waterfront in East Grand Forks. It consisted of Cynthya Porter from the Winona Post in Winona, Minnesota; Elisa Rineheart from the Grand Forks Herald in Grand Forks, North Dakota; and myself, the lone Canadian (eh?) representing the Winnipeg Free Press.

A red-head, a brunette, and a blonde. Three different women from three different places, sharing one mission – to discover Minnesota. We felt like Charlie’s Angels.

The trip began with a tour of East Grand Forks. A frontier trading outpost in the 1800’s, the city has historical links to Winnipeg as the resting place for teamsters who drove Red River Valley oxcarts between Red River Colony (present-day Winnipeg) and Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Today, East Grand Forks is a community of 8,000, and has spent several years developing its rivers, parks and tourist attractions. These efforts began in earnest after the flood of 1997, when the city turned disaster into opportunity.

The worst flood in the city’s history, the waters of the Red and Red Lake Rivers crested at a record high of nearly 17 metres. More than 56,000 people were evacuated from Grand Forks and East Grand Forks – marking the largest evacuation in the United States.

The flood dramatically altered East Grand Forks, with 95 per cent of the landscape under water. To ensure that flooding would never devastate the area again, East Grand Forks and Grand Forks embraced an ambitious plan. An extensive flood protection system was proposed, which included relocating entire residential areas, building floodwalls, and developing a $20 million US Greenway project.

Encompassing 2,200 acres of natural open space, the Greenway provides a unique opportunity for outdoor recreational activities in an urban setting, hosting parks, campgrounds, golf courses, recreational trails, and restored wildlife habitats along the Red and Red Lake Rivers.

Our mission was to involve two days canoeing the Red Lake River, starting just south of Thief River Falls. Located at the junction of Thief River and Red Lake River, there are many legends about how the town got its name. The most likely told of a Sioux warrior who robbed those passing through, and the Sioux and Chippewa tribes referring to the junction as “Robber River.”

In honour of the town’s unique river heritage, a 12 kilometre historic river walk was developed, taking visitors through nine parks and along two forest trails. Pictographs depict 15 historic sites, offering glimpses into life at the turn of the Century.

Another Thief River Falls’ must-see is the Peder Engelstad Pioneer Village, a replica town consisting of 19 buildings, vintage gardens, and thousands of historical artifacts. This is a very fascinating place to visit, despite the creepy dummy propped up in one of the desks in the Little Oak Schoolhouse, and the even creepier dummy lying in bed in the historic Hamre House. Not the kind of place you’d want to (ahem) get locked in.

Switching from yesteryear to modern day, the Ralph Engelstad Arena confirms why Thief River Falls prides itself on being a “hockey town.” Opened in November 2003, this amateur hockey arena boasts eight locker rooms, weight room, media facilities, and regular seating for 2,800. The world witnessed this impressive facility when Thief River Falls and Grand Forks co-hosted the 2005 World Junior Hockey Championships.

On Friday morning we were finally introduced to the Red Lake River. Accompanied by river guides from the Department of Natural Resources, we climbed into three canoes and departed from St.Hilaire City Park.

It’s been a while since I’ve been in a canoe, and was immediately reminded of why I enjoy the activity so much. It feels great to propel yourself by paddle, taking you to places you can’t reach by foot. There’s truly nothing like it.

In no time at all, the beauty and solitude of the Red Lake River became evident. Steep river banks and vertical clay cliffs provided sheltered seclusion. The heavily wooded shoreline offered forests of elm, oak, willow, and cottonwood, broken only by the occasional farmhouse.

Being on the river gave us a feeling of isolation from the rest of the world. It was peaceful and quiet except for singing birds and the rushing of water. From St. Hilaire to Red Lake Falls the river drops more than 33 metres, creating an exhilarating run of Class I to III rapids. This summer, however, the water level is so high that most rapids are merely swifts. Still, it was tremendously fun navigating through the bumps and grinds of what would be spectacular whitewater, and a good test of my skills in the stern.

After 37 kilometres of paddling, we stopped for the night in Red Lake Falls, a town with a traditional feel, old brick buildings, and wide streets. There are no traffic lights, and locals joke that people stop there because they want to, not because they have to. I’m glad we did.

The town also has an interesting history and direct connections to Winnipeg, as the site of a 1798 Northwest Company trading post. Voyageurs moved supplies down the Red Lake River to the Red River, eventually reaching the Red River Colony.

Today, commercial activity still exists between Red Lake Falls and Winnipeg, with one of the most obvious connections being recreational. Voyageur’s View in Red Lake Falls offers camping and tubing – leisurely floating down the river in an inner tube with a beverage of choice, traveling either as a solitary tuber, or with multiple tubes tied together in a massive flotilla.

Tubing is a long-standing Minnesota tradition pursued by Manitobans, and owners Richard and Diane Brumwell estimate that at least 80 per cent of their business comes from Winnipeg. Back in the day, my circle of friends used to travel down to Minnesota to partake in the long weekend tubing ritual. Being on the river again felt nostalgic, and reminded me just how fun tubing can be. Note to self – must revive the tubing tradition…

On Saturday morning we departed Red Lake Falls in our canoes, for a second and final day of paddling. The wilderness experience on the Red Lake River was enhanced by an abundance of wildlife. We witnessed the presence of bald eagles, deer, raccoons, otters, beavers, and snapping turtles. Perhaps most impressive was the fact that we saw no other human beings our entire time on the river, even though civilization was always close by.

After paddling 22 kilometres, our final stop was Crookston. Here, we toured Glacial Ridge and the largest prairie restoration project in US history – 24,270 acres of native prairie flora and fauna. A treasure for birdwatchers, rare species include the prairie chicken and marbled godwit. Not so much a treasure for Angels in sandals – footwear which sinks into boggy ground, gets stuck, and never wants to resurface.

Fishing is another pursuit with commercial connections between Minnesota and Manitoba. Wiskers Guiding Service in Crookston offers guided fishing aboard a 2004 River Pro – an amazing jet boat that can travel though 10 centimeters of water, over logs, and up rapids. Owner Rusty Miller specializes in channel catfish, often taking clients to fish in Lockport, Manitoba – what he calls one of the best catfish locations in the world.

We caught three catfish on our hour-long outing – and boy, do they fight hard! Mine were only two or three pounds, but still took great effort to reel in. Once you’ve landed the catch, Miller makes you hold it (carefully, because apparently they can sting you), and kiss it (quickly, because they are yucky slimy) and take a picture before throwing it back in.

It was pretty neat to see a catfish close up, something which I’ve never done before. They are actually kind of cute, and their whiskers feel like silk. It also made a nice purring sound while I was holding it, like a cat makes when it’s content. Awwww, it likes me!

For a moment, I almost wanted to kiss it again. Then Miller informed me they make this sound when they are really mad. Ummm, okay. Can we throw this one back now? I hear they can sting you.

Our tour wrapped with a presentation about the Red Lake River Corridor Enhancement Project, which involves a number of groups working together to develop the recreational and tourism potential of the river and its communities.

In the meantime, the Red Lake River remains a true gem for outdoor enthusiasts, with little traffic, limited development, and a genuine wilderness feel. Best of all, it can also be enjoyed by those who prefer a more “civilized” holiday. Since travelers are always within a day’s paddle of amenities, “roughing it” is not required.

As for our crew, we enjoyed our Minnesota tour, and all the great people we met along the way. There is so much to see and do in Minnesota, and you need much more than a few days in order to take it all in.

Well Angels, mission accomplished.

Minnesota Office of Tourism
The Greenway Project
Ralph Engelstad Arena
City of Red Lake Falls
Voyageur’s View Tubing
Crookston Convention & Visitors Bureau
Wiskers Guiding Service
Red Lake River Corridor Enhancement Project