Leaving New England for the upper Midwest took us from a place where they call lakes "ponds" to one where they call a lakes "lakes." By the time we got to Aberdeen, South Dakota, the same things were being called "potholes." To folks in this country, a lake is usually a large reservoir created by damming a river valley with a dam.
Leaving Lake Country
Cousin John lives on the south shore of a large conglomeration of lakes that had been connected when a dam was raised to create a flowage.
Lakefront at cousin John's house in Richmond, Minnesota.
The main inlet stream to the system was the Sauk River, which we noted the day before had been seriously polluted upstream. Hence, the lake is “eutrophic.” In local parlance, this means it’s full of algae and weedy. Scientifically, it means a lake with elevated biological productivity which, in turn, is caused by excess nutrient, either phosphorous or nitrogen, whichever is limiting. Eutrophic lakes usually have a greenish brown tinge caused by a mixture of the plant pigment, Chlorophyll-a and suspended clay. Their fish fauna is catfish and carp in extreme cases, or bass, pinfish, and pike in normal cases.
John prefers trout. Though he lives on a lake and has a nice boat, he goes fishing in Watab Lake about ten miles to the north. Trout can survive there because the lake lies in a kettle moraine, a bumpy, sandy, woodsy place where grain agriculture is difficult, and where the inlet streams are tiny, meaning the lake is mostly spring fed. It’s also a deep lake, largely because the ice block that melted to produce it was thick. This means that it is colder than normal, which means that fishermen who prefer trout will drive miles to get there.
Another thing that makes John’s lake eutrophic is it’s archaic drainage system. When driving away for South Dakota, we noticed a decades-old road drain that funneled water from the farm above us directly into the lake between two cottages.
Drain above Horseshoe Lake, Richmond Township, Minnesota.
A Touch of Scandinavia
From Richmond, our route took us west along Route 9, then north along Route 55 to Lake Minnewaska, then west on Route 18. Along part of the way there were dozens of nice lakes because we had been following the Glacial Lakes State Trail, which traces the crest of a kettle moraine through west central Minnesota. Heading west into the semi-prairie, I followed the route taken by thousands of late-arriving Scandinavian immigrants, who, having found the Minneapolis area filled up, headed west toward South Dakota.
Part of the Glacial Lakes State Trail on Route 18, headed for Morris, Minnesota.
Defeated by a muddy gravel road, we jugged north for the town of Starbuck, located on the shore of Lake Minnewaska. When driving in, we noticed a sign on the beach warning ice fishermen to have their shacks off the ice by March 1. No doubt they will have to replace the sign in the future, as the long-term trend is toward thinner ice forming later and melting off earlier. In fact, the boundary of those lakes that break up on a specific date (such as March 1) is moving north at the rate of 6-12 miles per year.
This rate is broadly parallel to migration of dates for other phonological phenomenon such as the flowering of plants and the arrival of migrating birds, which are well described in the literature.
Another thing we saw at the town beach in Starbuck were more than a hundred piles of weeds, probably milfoil, raked up on the beach but not yet removed. We saw no swimmers at all, but were not sure why. This we found out at Tom’s Food Pride, the local grocery store. There the Pope County newspaper carried a front-page story about swimmer’s itch. Our cashier, whose name I forgot to get, said that locally, it was really bad. She had seen customers that had it “really bad, like poison ivy.” Continuing, she remarked, “nothing clears a beach faster than swimmer’s itch.” People still swim, but to do so they have to head out for deeper water and jump in from their boat.
Here, the kids were blond, the churches were Lutheran, and the elderly housing was managed by Lutherans. I don’t recall seeing any other denominations represented.
Historic railroad station in Starbuck, Minnesota, with sign for world’s largest lefse.
The claim to fame for Starbuck was the world’s largest Lefse, created on July 1, 1983. Not quite perfectly circular, it measured 9 feet 8 inches by 7 feet 1 inch in diameter. This is huge for a lefse because it takes great skill to roll it out. My largest – I make lefse every year for Christmas -- never exceeded about 15 inches across because I make it in my biggest cast iron skillet. In effect, lefse is a Norwegian tortilla, made out of potatoes that are mashed, mixed with just enough white flour to hold it together, and with some butter, salt, and cream.
Lefse in grocery store case at Tom’s Food Pride, a “pretty good” grocery in Starbuck, Minnesota.
Move over tortillas! If you find lefse in the grocery store case, then you know you haven't quite reached the west. We wondered if we could get lefse for lunch at Vincent’s Starbuck Café just down the street. The waitress was reading a newspaper at the counter, because there were hardly any customers. A group of four was having coffee near the front. John and Irene, an elderly couple, a retired farmer and his wife, were having coffee and splitting a large chocolate chip cookie at a nearby table.
Morning coffee in the Vincent Starbuck Café, Starbuck, Minnesota. Clockwise from left, Irene, Janet, Ray, and John.
I asked them if they would be willing to answer my questions. They invited me to sit down. John said the best thing about freshwater is his own well, which is “soft as rainwater,” meaning it doesn’t have a high concentration of dissolved solids. They had to go down 319 feet through “two levels of granite” to get enough good water. On the down side, John said that there is “no such thing as freshwater anymore. It’s all those fertilizers, he said, and the other stuff farmers put on their crops.” John admitted that he had spent nearly a lifetime putting that “crap” on the fields, knowing that it was tainting the water. Now, I believe, he wishes that there had been a better way.
They were meeting another couple for their morning coffee, apparently a daily ritual. Ray, who retired after being in the grain business for 36 years (someone has to operate those grain elevators), came in first. As he settled, John told me a story about a flowing well to the north that, when first tested, had enough “gas coming up light a blue flame.” This is the natural gas, generally methane, which “is down there somewhere.”
Ray’s downside of freshwater were the flowing wells to the south that had nothing but rusty water, which ran brown out of the ground, and which were no good for drinking. Irene, John’s wife, was miffed at the new water tower in town. When they switched over from the old one, she said, the “water wasn’t as good as before. It’s just yucky.” Janet offered that the water from Russell Springs was just “awful.”
These were folks from a very settled farm culture. All four had separate stories about water from wells. Here they were on the shore of the largest lake in this southwestern Minnesota kettle moraine, one that resembles a fat version of the Finger Lakes of New York state, and not one mentioned the lake. That is a different culture, a recreational lake culture. How different was their worldview from that of the Fjelstas who we had left scarcely an hour before.
Working our way westward, we entered the small farm town of Cyrus, Minnesota, with a population of 303 souls. There, we found the first purely western icon on the trip, at the Lariat Bar and Grill.
The Lariat Bar and Grill in Cyrus, Minnesota.
A lariat, for those of you who don’t know, is a rope made out of braided leather and used for managing livestock.
Genes, Chemicals, and Ethanol
The large print on the billboard between Chokio and Morris, Minnesota advertised 300-bushel corn, an astonishing yield per acre.
Billboard between Chokio and Morris Minnesota advertising farm products sold by Monsanto, Corporation.
The fine print carried the name of Monsanto Corporation LLC, a giant chemical corporation that sells fertilizers, death chemicals, and genetically engineered seeds to large commercial farms. It’s also the target for many environmental groups who see it as one of the greatest contributors to the degradation of our water quality, a point with which I thoroughly agree.
I don’t know what the theoretical limit is for the corn genome is in terms of yield. But I do know one thing. That limit will be set by the amount of fertilizer sprayed or spread on the fields.
Tanks for liquid fertilizer in Chokio, Minnesota.
Around here, the nitrogen is applied in the form of anhydrous ammonia. By-products of this application are nitrates and nitrite contaminants in drinking water and bacterial toxins like botulism and salmonella caused by eutrophication. The combination of this billboard and the nearby tanks illustrates clearly that big business is in the business of pressuring farmers to get more and more out of their privately owned land. But at what cost to the public streams and aquifers?
And the purpose of that corn? To create livestock feed for our meat habit and ethanol for use as a liquid fuel in our automobiles. And the purpose of ethanol? To achieve energy independence on the supply side of our economy, rather than on the demand side. Though I don’t have the specifics on hand, I understand that economists have demonstrated that there is a net loss when the energy costs of producing ethanol are subtracted from the energy it releases. Regardless of the energy economy, the political economy favors home-grown fuels, regardless of the environmental damage.
Ethanol is big business here. We saw at least two new ethanol refineries, no doubt propped up by federal tax incentives. When we filled up a few miles down the road near Langford, South Dakota, the fuel pumps offered three different concentrations of ethanol, the normal E-10, which is ten percent, E-55, and E-85. The farmer there, who produced corn for ethanol, was filling up with E-10. That only makes sense because producing ethanol costs more in terms of energy than it produces.
Driving across this “Big Sky Country” in the afternoon was very interesting. Our county road was arrow-straight and laid out perfectly west by the compass. Rapidly moving thunderstorms are common in midsummer, given the high humidity, the flat landscape and the constant wind.
A developing thunderstorm near Morris, Minnesota.
We’d skirt the edge of one, plough through another, go below a high one, and watch the majority race away. For a full hour this was our visual entertainment. Here, the sky was the dominant aspect of earth. In the mountains, it may be the rock, in the wet tropics the multi-tiered forest, and in lake country the lakes. But here it was, without question, the sky.
Directly opposite each other were two windmills. To the south, probably on the campus of the University of Minnesota Morris, was a wind turbine from the 21st century.
Wind turbine in Morris, Minnesota on a muggy afternoon.
How lonely it was, I thought, in a place where there was room for a wind farm of 100,000 just like it. All day, the wind had been blowing. How much energy had moved by untapped? On the other side of the road was the more traditional windmill, now derelict.
Old windmill, no longer being used, Morris, Minnesota.
A century ago it pumped water up from the aquifer, probably to supply the house, livestock tank, and garden irrigation. Now, with it’s tail full of buckshot holes, it stood derelict. If windmills could talk, I wondered, what would the old one say to the new?
There is a place where South Dakota is both north and south of Minnesota. I refer to a triangular patch of the Gopher State that indents the Mount Rushmore State. This cartography reflects a spectacular geological event in the history of North America that has to do with the continental divide.
Browns Valley, Minnesota is a small town in North America’s biggest coulee, one of dozens of many broadly notched valleys present throughout the high plains and the upper Midwest.
Big Stone Lake, at the Minnesota-South Dakota Border west of Morris, Minnesota, occupies the largest coulee in the United States.
Coulee is a French word meaning “to flow.” Each was cut by the north-to-south overflow of glacial meltwater lakes from the area presently draining to Hudson Bay to the area presently draining to the Missouri-Mississippi-Ohio system. When they formed, a large, but shrinking ice sheet covered most of Canada, blocking flow to the St. Lawrence, and forcing flow to the south.
The most spectacular of these coulees carried Glacial River Warren, which carried the flow of Glacial Lake Agassiz, nether of which currently exist. Today, the big river is silent, instead occupied by two ribbon shaped lakes impounded as water supply reservoirs. Big Stone Lake drains south to the Gulf of Mexico via Mississippi River. Lake Traverse drains north to Hudson Bay via the Red River. We stood at a continental divide far more important in terms of U.S. History than the one crossed by Lewis & Clark out west.
Lake Traverse, at the Minnesota-South Dakota Border just northwest of Browns Valley, Minnesota.
Between them is the town of Browns Valley, a fertile, but wet, alluvial lowland now traversed by a lazy stream notched several hundred feet below the generally flat but undulating topography on either side. This boundary between Minnesota and South Dakota is the cultural boundary between east and west. Very few folks, especially back east, consider the Land of 10,000 lakes as a western state. Yet those same folks likely consider the Mount Rushmore state, with its endless prairie and enormous Indian Reservations to be a thoroughly western state.
During the first decade of family television in the 1950s and early 1960s, Hamm's Beer had one of the most successful television commercials I remember. The commercial featured a happy black bear as the star, and a catchy, Native American-themed lyric that said with a pow-wow beat: “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters.”
Tavern sign in Brown's Valley, Minnesota.
This, of course, referred to Minnesota. Now the sign says, “born in the land of sky blue waters,” probably because, in our age of globalization, it’s no longer from the state.
I've always had an issue with that phrase because the sky is never nearly as dark blue or as azure colored as fresh clean water. Why? Because it is only a coincidence that the nitrogen and oxygen in the air scatter the some of the same blue wavelengths as the hydrogen and oxygen in the water. The phrase "from the land of water-blue skies." Both would be equally incorrect.
The “couteau” was clearly visible from the west side of the coulee at Big Stone Lake. A couteau is a ridge, in this case an east- and north-east facing escarpment several hundred feet high, underlain by sedimentary rocks of the high plains. We climbed it steadily, stopping for a backwards view toward Minnesota at an observation tower. Beneath the tower were three Native Americans of the Lake Traverse tribe, on whose reservation we were now driving.
The top of the couteau was very different country. Pure prairie, with just a few patches of trees in protected sites. Angus beef were grazing in every which direction.
First treeless prairie of the trip on the Couteau des Prairie above Lake Traverse, South Dakota.
The most astonishing thing we saw in the next twenty miles were hundreds of blue potholes, each a small kettle lake or pond. When the Laurentide Ice Sheet ran into the couteau, it was forced to compress. This forced gigatons of sediment per square mile up onto stagnant masses of ice. When the sediment-buried ice melted, it left a chaotic landscape of hills and hollows called ice stagnation terrain.
Depressions that intersected the water table or were lined with clay became potholes, forming a population of small lakes numbering in the tens of thousands between here and Montana. Others formed when the glaciers tore up a patch of earth; still others are simply low spots on impermeable soil. They are uncounted. Most are unnamed.
The larger bodies of water, perhaps above ten acres, are considered lakes.
Prairie pothole in the Overberg Wildlife Protection Area, east of Buffalo Lakes, South Dakota.
Potholes do not occur everywhere, but in bands from about ten miles wide to more than a hundred. They are critical habitat for the flyway of migrating waterfowl that pass overhead.
The dominant resident waterfowl are the pelicans. We saw no gulls or herons. It must also be good habitat for turtles, because we saw nearly a dozen crossing the road within our last fifty miles.
The trees returned as we reached the depression of Buffalo Lakes, east of Eden, South Dakota. They are too large to remain unnamed.
South Buffalo Lake, South Dakota.
The road curved back and forth through the Buffalo Lakes, which were too large for bridges or causeways. This was not the case to the west, where the ultra-straight road called 122nd Street, cut through nearly a dozen small potholes on causeways.
Pothole filled with crushed rock to allow the road to continue in a straight line.
Apparently a curve around the lake was not a consideration when the road was built, probably before wetland protection laws became common in the mid 1970s. Every pothole we saw, regardless of size, had some white water on its surface, the work of waves. I can only imagine how much moisture is being evaporated today, and whether the potholes could last the summer.
Our final stop in pothole country was at Fort Sisseton, built soon after the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862 in southern Minnesota. It would be a bulkhead in the Indian wars to come, which culminated with the genocide at Wounded Knee in 1890.
The high ridge on which the fort was built is part of a moraine, which held sufficient boulders and timber for construction. More important was nearby Kettle Lake, which held a strategically reliable supply of potable water.
One of many stone barracks completed in 1864 at Fort Sisseton, South Dakota.
Road to Aberdeen
We stopped for gas at Langford, a small town northeast of Aberdeen, and our destination for the night. While pumping, I talked with Ron, a sixty-something local farmer covered with soil from head to foot. His positive comment about freshwater was that you “don’t really have to worry much about the stuff they put on the fields. It’s not as near as ad as that the ‘big city folks’ put in” waterways and on the soil out east. Clearly he was a westerner. Clearly, he preferred to overlook the damage being caused the farm chemicals he was applying
His concern was that a pipeline was coming and that the industry might compromise water in some way. Then he talked about NIMBY, short for “not in my backyard.” Everyone wants fuel, he said, but nobody wants a facility where they live.
I’ve worked on jobs involving pipeline is before. When in college, I was a maintenance employee for Great Lakes Gas Transmission Supply out of Bay City Michigan. As a geologist in Alaska, I worked out of the pipeline camps studying the natural hazards of the route through the Brooks Range. In Saugus, Massachusetts, I helped inventory the historic archaeology through the suburbs of north Boston. Compared to these three settings, a pipeline trough the immense flatlands of South Dakota would be a piece of cake in terms of its historic and environmental impact.
Apparently, a major pipeline is being constructed to bring oil from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, probably the tar sands of Alberta and the newly developed oil from the Williston Basin in North Dakota. Some of the residents of South Dakota are up in arms over the environmental damage that would be caused by the pipeline. Ron wasn’t worried at all, since things were so much simpler here than in Alaska, where the oil pipeline faced much more challenging engineering conditions. However, just because a pipeline here is easier, doesn’t mean that it has minimal impact.
Soon, we were crossing unglaciated country of black prairie soil. Here the problem is not soil fertility, as is the case of the hay country on kettle moraines, but water. This is a land where the balance between too much and too little is razor thin. Apparently, they had had plenty of rain, because shallow flooding killed vast areas of planted crops. On the other hand, the wind was dry and blowing steadily. I got to thinking about how much evaporation there must be under such conditions.
Areas of mud caused by sediment washing from plowed fields and by standing water. Photo to the north of 130th Street west of Pierpoint, South Dakota.
Our second to the last stop of the day was doubly sad. Just before turning south on County Road 37, we drove by an enormous feedlot full of grimy dark brown sheep that should have been white.
Mutton feed lot on 130th Street east of Aberdeen, South Dakota.
All were mired in manure and what soil scientists call a mollisol, the formal name for the black earth soil so common in this country. Hundreds of sheep were standing, eating, and milling about in a place without a single blade of grass. Down slope in two directions were bodies of standing water filled with feedlot runoff, destined to ruin some downstream river.
The saddest part was the looks of resignation on the face of the sheep. They bleated weakly. The could hardly move. This was a factory farm of the worst kind. Inhumane would be a nice word to describe this travesty of arrogance over the feelings of animals. I have nothing against eating mutton or any other kind of meat, provided that the animals are respected before slaughter. Not so in this case.
Our final stop was the James River in flood. A turtle was crossing the road, one of dozens we had seen along the route through pothole country.
James River near flood stage near Aberdeen, South Dakota. Dark spots are swallows upset by my presence on “their” bridge.
This James River is significant for two reasons. Though it appears fairly small and only slightly lower than the rest of the landscape, in this country it was big enough to guide a glacial lobe far to the south. Secondly, it is on the banks of the James River, the same stream that cuts through the homestead settled in 1892 by my grandfather hundreds of miles to the north.
In Aberdeen we had trouble finding a place to stay. The Super 8 offered free beer, so we decided to find a quieter spot. Most of the other franchise motels were full, and have been for more than a month, owing to pipeline construction. Clearly, there’s still big money to be found in fossil energy these days. One would never guess that the carbon age is nearly over.