Good day for a ride on Red River
By Mark Wineka
Editor’s note: Because of rain delays Sunday causing changes in the Legion schedule, Post staffers Mark Wineka, Jon Lakey and Bret Strelow had time to visit the Red River and file this report before Rowan County’s game in the 2009 American Legion World Series.
FARGO, N.D. ó The Red River meanders and winds back on itself so much that sometimes north is south and east is west.
“We’re going straight south to Canada,” Tara Ritter announced once during a particularly sharp turn Sunday afternoon.
An intern with Riverkeeper Inc., Ritter sometimes serves as a tour guide for the S.S. Ruby, Gem of the North.
It’s a highfalutin name for the river organization’s pontoon boat, which offers a leisurely 45-minute tour of the Red River, beginning and ending under the highway bridge adjacent to Viking Park.
The bridge joins Fargo to Moorhead, or put another way, the Red River serves as dividing line between North Dakota and Minnesota.
In Red River miles, it’s 450 miles to Canada from here. By highway, you could get to Canada in, say, 160. It might explain why the riverboat industry didn’t last particularly long.
Gary Prosser served as skipper Sunday for the S.S. Ruby, and both he and Ritter pointed out several times under the bottom of bridges how high the water rises during floods.
This spring, the river was 25 feet higher than it was Sunday. And when the Red River floods, it spreads dramatically across both cities because the land is so flat, Ritter explained.
The area around Fargo, part of the Red River Valley at the eastern edge of the Great Plains, is among the world’s flattest landscapes.
In a geological sense, it really isn’t a valley but a remnant of a glacier.
Most of Fargo and Moorhead’s stormwater runoff ends up in the Red River, contributing to the flooding. For every 1.5 hours of rain, Ritter said, the river rises a foot, and she complained that all the gunk washing off the city streets becomes the Red River’s biggest source of pollution.
Otherwise, it’s a clean river, one of the top 25 percent in North America, according to Ritter.
It’s unusual, but the Red River flows north, from Breckenridge, Minn., to Lake Winnipeg, Canada.
The “Red” in Red River comes from a clay silt making it a bit reddish-brown. But it’s hardly as red as what North Carolinians see in their rivers, such as the Yadkin.
The depth of the river averages about 13 feet to 15 feet.
When it’s not in flood stages, which come quickly with spring thaws and summer storms, the Red River strikes a lazy pose.
Canoes and kayaks find it easy to navigate, and sportsmen go after some 70 species of fish in the river.
Ritter and Prosser said the Red River is known for its catfish and walleye. Lake sturgeon are being reintroduced. The sturgeon can live as long as 150 years, but the trouble with sturgeon is they don’t reproduce until they’re in their 20s, Ritter said.
“To reach that age is kind of an issue,” she added.
People figured out quickly that it wasn’t a good idea to build houses along the Red River. An urban renewal project in 1971 claimed a lot of former residential slum areas along the river as park land.
After the 1997 flood, only three houses remained where owners refused to sell. They are on the North Dakota side.
Viking Park provides observation decks along its bike and walking trails to give recreation enthusiasts good views of the river.
The pontoon boat came close to a pedestrian bridge across the river that joins Fargo and Moorhead.
The slow-moving journey of the boat gave Ritter and Prosser time to tell a few stories.
Will Rogers once called Fargo “the wickedest city in the West,” Prosser said of the frontier days when the city’s population was around 3,000 and it had about 45 saloons and a notorious redlight district.
The tour guides mentioned that Fargo also was once tabbed the divorce capital of the world. North Dakota law made it easy for men to come to the state and obtain a divorce, even without their wives. Fargo flourished in the divorce trade because it was the first town off the train for many men from Minnesota.
Ritter also told a turn-of the-century tale about town fathers who knew a disastrous flood was coming and worried that the raging waters would cause the collapse of a grain elevator, sending it down river where it would take out an important bridge.
So to save the bridge, the officials decided to burn down the grain elevator first. They set it on fire but miscalculated how fast the waters were rising.
The flood pushed over the burning grain elevator and carried it down the river, where it caught the bridge on fire and destroyed it, too.