Trekking the North Country Trail: North Dakota- the Prairie Component

August 5, 2022

Trekking the North Country Trail: North Dakota- the Prairie Component

By Joan Young, MCP Contributing Writer.

On Dec. 1, 2021 Amber Township resident Joan Young began her journey to hike the entire North Country Trail continuously. She began her year-long trek at the Manistee National Forest’s Timber Creek Campground on US 10 in Lake County. The first half of the hike will take her to Middlebury, Vermont. She will then drive to Sakakawea State Park in central North Dakota to begin the hike back to Michigan. Young, 74, was the first woman to completely hike the NCT, completing 20 years of segmented hikes in 2010.

The strength of the North Country National Scenic Trail is the diversity of experiences one can enjoy along its length. Of the eight states it crosses, North Dakota stands out as the most different from the other seven.

Big sky, thousands of acres of grass rippling in the wind, 200 miles of the Sheyenne River shining in the relentless sun, curious cattle to keep a hiker company, unfamiliar plants, the occasional broken wagon wheel or abandoned homestead—these features spin a tale, convincingly suggesting I was walking through a Western movie.

Indeed, this was very much the old West following the Civil War. A series of forts was constructed, Fort Abercrombie on the Red River of the North being the first, to protect the builders of the Pacific Northwest Railroad. Very few people have heard of Fort Abercrombie, but in the late 1860s, if you wanted to travel here, it was the Ellis Island of the Dakotas. You came through this portal, or you didn’t come.

Geologically, the prairies begin (if you are traveling west) in western Minnesota when the land suddenly becomes so flat you’d think a giant GPS-guided grader had scoured the landscape. This is the ancient bed of glacial Lake Agassiz, cut through by the Red River which flows north to Hudson Bay. Continuing west into the Sheyenne National Grasslands, low sand hills bubble from the plain. These were blown into existence during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. West of there, the North Country Trail begins to follow the Sheyenne River. The broad valley of the Sheyenne was cut in a geological heartbeat about 13,000 years ago. Another glacial lake, Lake Souris, broke through its banks, and the water swept southward. It drained quickly into Lake Agassiz leaving a valley that is generally 100 feet deep, but occasionally deeper. The lazy Sheyenne that now meanders its way to eventually join the Red River is but a memento of the flood that birthed it.

At the western end of the NCT, humans have tinkered with the geology. The Garrison Dam, built in the 1950s, spans the Missouri River. When it was constructed, it was the largest packed-earth dam in the world. It creates Lake Sakakawea, with over 300,000 square feet of surface area. It is one of the largest Sman-made lakes in the United States. 

The first time I hiked in North Dakota, I was shocked at the number of lakes, ponds, wetlands, and generally watery landscape, which includes irrigation canals. This is part of the prairie pothole region, where it is estimated that a third of the waterfowl population of the U.S. is bred.

And why does the NCT terminate on Lake Sakakawea, in the middle of the state? The Missouri River was the route taken by the Lewis and Clark expedition. Where the North Country Trail ends, it joins the Lewis and Clark Trail. However, these two trails are in different categories. The NCT is a national scenic trail, planned for foot travel. The LCT is a national historic trail, designed to encourage people to visit historic locations, usually by vehicle. 

I’ve now reached Minnesota as I’ve walked east. I won’t miss the lack of shade and sometimes unmowed grass as high as my head, but the prairie component of the NCT is a unique experience filling my memory with sights, sounds and scents of white pelicans, sage, bison, grouse, prairie clover and so much more.


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This story is copyrighted © 2022, all rights reserved by Joan Young, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.

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