All-North Dakota adventure has all-American end

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Posted 7/10/18 (Tue)

Passing Dreams
By Steve Andrist

By the time we had finished granddaughter Nora’s fourth-grade adventure, we had traversed about 1,800 miles through 26 North Dakota counties.
There were some regrets. Like missing out on White Butte in Slope County, the highest point in the state; Garrison Dam in McLean County; the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site in Griggs County; and Fort Ransom State Park in Ransom County.
But the list of places we visited is considerably longer and includes such notable places as the room where Sitting Bull surrendered to the U.S. Cavalry and the “home town” of Lewis and Clark guide Sakakawea. Then there’s also a North Dakota delicacy – wild juneberries.
After leaving the Carl Ben Eielson Museum in Hatton we headed north for Icelandic State Park at Cavalier and the Pembina Gorge.
Both are places that make you stop and say: “Wait. This is North Dakota?”
Based on the Gunlogson homestead and other historic buildings that populate the area, it’s clear the Icelanders who settled in the northeast were similar to the Scandinavians of the northwest.
Their home was small and utilitarian, just enough to provide a modicum of shelter.
They allowed some fancier design to the Hallson Church, a reminder of a lifestyle left behind back home, and the Cranley School is testament to the importance they placed on education.
But what’s most captivating about this park is what, by North Dakota standards, are rare natural features along the Tongue River – bottomland with heavy hardwood forests and lowland marsh. This area, it is said, contains the greatest number of plants, birds and wildlife as can be found in any other single location in the state.
Just a few miles to the northwest is the Gorge, an area as stunning in its beauty as the more famous Badlands. The glacial melt carved out the Gorge eons ago, leaving the Pembina River at the bottom of one of the state’s deepest and steepest river valleys.
The vistas are breathtaking, and the overlook of Tetrault State Forest (a ranger says it’s pronounced Ta’-tro) is flush with trees and bushes. If your wife asks you whether the bushes along the trail are juneberries, you would have to answer “yes.”
If your 10-year-old granddaughter asks if we can eat them, the answer is, “Definitely.” If you do, the 10-year-old is likely to respond, “These are addicting!”
The Gorge also includes the Frost Fire Ski/Snowboard Area, where the newest run is for all-terrain bicycles. The area also is home to a summer theater troupe. We whizzed past Frost Fire without stopping, eager to make our way back down to Devils Lake.
Along the way we stopped to get a picture of an ominous pyramid structure that looks like it could have been part of a close encounter of the third kind.
Tiny Nekoma, population 50, is home to a rare and noteworthy bit of North Dakota history. The pyramid was built in the 1970s as part of a $6 billion complex of radar systems and missile silos equipped to launch thermonuclear warheads at incoming Russian missiles. The government built and operated it for three days before Congress decommissioned it as an overly expensive and dangerous defense system.
The next day, we headed out across the big lake that keeps getting bigger -- Devils Lake. On its south side there’s a big forested hill that is Sully’s Hill National Game Preserve. With a bit of lucky timing, you might be able to see a buffalo calf less than 20-minutes old.
Down the shoreline, there’s historic Fort Totten, a military outpost on the Spirit Lake Reservation that is more famous as an icon of a dark chapter in our history. Its military purpose complete, the fort was turned into a boarding school for young Indian children who were removed from their families and frequently mistreated in an attempt to assimilate them – make them look and act like whites.
The next stop, short but important, was at a monument marking the Geographic Center of North America in Rugby. Then it was on to the International Peace Gardens, where Nora reveled in standing one foot in each of two different countries, looking at expansive floral gardens and reading inscriptions by world leaders about the importance of peace.
We took the long way around to an overnight in Crosby, taking in the vista and petroglyphs at Writing Rock Park, then headed to Fort Union southwest of Williston to learn about the fur trade industry that introduced North Dakota natives to commercial ventures.
At nearby Fort Buford, an interpreter conscripted Nora to play the part of Sitting Bull as he re-enacted the story of the great Sioux chief’s surrender, then it was off for pizza and a musical in Medora.
Our final day started with a drive though coal country, and a stop at the Knife River Indian Village near Stanton, where Sakakawea was born and raised and gave birth to Pomp. We were back to Bismarck for Fourth of July fireworks, an all-American end to an all-North Dakota adventure.