Adventures in Northern North Dakota (Yes, Really)
Living in Minneapolis, I’m very aware of the popular past time that is Lakes Houses. If there’s one must-have for a Minnesotan, it’s that water-view vacation home—or a friend who has one!
But it’s about more than just the physical home or lake view. More so, the feeling of escaping to the country for a dip in uncrowded waters, a quiet respite to be with loved ones, or even just a walk down Main Street while eating an ice cream and all the cars stop for you…no matter where you cross.
As you read, your mind might be conjuring images of the Land Of 10,000 Lakes, but have you considered North Dakota?
For years people have laughed every time I say I’m excited to visit this state. Since so many people make North Dakota the last state they visit of the 50.
But that’s exactly what makes North Dakota so adventurous!
In a world where we can see any corner of the globe on our smartphones, North Dakota still feels like it can be discovered.
A true adventure.
Because even if you’ve seen the movie "Fargo" or heard of their national championship football team, not many people have a North Dakota experience to share.
So that’s what I went to explore, at the invitation of North Dakota Tourism, what Northern North Dakota has to offer, by visiting three areas near this Geographical Center of North America.
1. Rugby, ND
When it comes to being the Geographical Center of North America, Rugby, North Dakota lays claim with its 15-foot obelisk erected in 1931 to mark the spot.
However, there is debate, primarily brought-up in the past ten years, as to whether this truly is the geographic center. New mapping techniques, or perhaps more likely the seeking of quick fame, caused the town of Robinson (90 miles west) to claim the title. Doing so exactly in the spot of a bar they say is, in summary, "Way cooler than the Mexican restaurant parking lot the Rugby statue is in.”
And yet still, another town, 145 miles southwest of Rugby claims THEY are the true Geographical Center, in their town named…wait for it…Center, North Dakota.
Amongst this battle, I have some questions of my own:
- Why are there only three flags by the obelisk (USA, Canada, Mexico), when my years of playing the board game RISK clearly indicate North America goes through Central America all the way to Panama.
- The Prairie Village Museum in Rugby, which offers a number of small, Midwestern town buildings that fascinated my photographer who lives in Boston and has only ever visited “Three states that don’t touch the ocean,” also had an exhibit that showed North America as going beyond the above three countries. Why the inconsistency?
- What is the TRUE mapping technique to determine the Geographical Center, and will it change as ice continues to melt in the North Pole, exposing more land in North America (unless that land is disputed by other countries and not counted as Canada)
As you see, much controversy remains—adding to the wild west feeling of North Dakota.
2. Bottineau, ND and Lake Metagoshe
“Can I kayak to Canada?”
It’s a question I’ve wondered my past two years of living in Minneapolis, knowing full well there are tons of lakes in the Boundary Waters that are partially in the United States and partly in Canada.
“What does the Border Patrol do there?” I wonder. “Will they descend in helicopters or zoom over in a speed boat if I paddle into Canada?”
So imagine my interest while traveling to the border during COVID travel restrictions!
The world’s longest undefended border has been closed for over a year due to COVID, and yet, on my itinerary was Lake Metagoshe, a body of water 90% in North Dakota and 10% in Canada.
COULD I FINALLY TEST MY QUERY?
Not wanting to be banned from Canada (very bad for a travel writer!), I called ahead to the nearest U.S. Customs (Dunseith Port of Entry) along with Canada Customs in nearby Bossevain.
“Is there a line of bobbers marking the border? Will an alarm go off if I paddle over the line? Could I go to jail if the waves of a passing speedboat push me over?”
The U.S. said as long as I don’t make landfall in Canada, and Canada said if I don’t moor with any other boats, tie-up to land, or hand off anything, it’s allowable to recreate across the border line.
No alarms. No agents. Not even a stick in the water indicating the line.
After watching lots of pontoons, jet skis, and kids being dragged on floaties crisscross the border completely unencumbered, I hiked my kayak to the closest trail, dropped in the lake, then kayaked a little over a mile across the international line—waving to the residents of the country I lived in during grad school.
Perhaps a little TOO into my own nerdery of what I’d just done, I paddled around Canada a little more before returning to shore in Lake Metagoshe State Park.
During lunch in Bottineau, North Dakota the following day, I confirmed with locals that what I’d done was pretty “everyday” for North Dakotans in the area, and also that the reason this lake is so popular is not just its unique geographic feature, but that it’s only 24 feet at its deepest, so it’s pleasantly warm for a lake this far north (I can confirm!).
After a walk around Main Street Bottineau, admiring their many turtle statues and murals (the town is located in the Turtle Mountains region--yes, there are mountains in North Dakota--rising 300-400 feet over 800 square miles), I ate a scoop of the local Juneberry ice cream from proud local favorite Pride Dairy and climbed The Butte Saint Paul Trail in Butte Saint Paul State Recreation Area, to get an overview of Bottineau and the Turtle Mountains for myself.
3. The International Peace Garden
The final stop on my itinerary blew my “I kayaked to Canada” out of the water!
Because it exists in both countries and can be freely traveled about no matter which country you enter from.
If you’re like me and have heard of the International Peace Garden but not visited, you will likely have seen this view of the Formal Gardens that symmetrically separate the U.S./Canada border with over 80,000 flowers.
But what doesn’t get shown as often are the remaining sections of the park. More than just a walk through flower designs, this park offers a number of recreational activities (plus a national parks Passport stamp that is coveted by collectors from afar), including: - Nature Trails - Lakes to kayak/swim - Campground facilities - Wedding venues (popular for bi-national couples) -The Game Warden Museum
Founded in 1932 as a way to celebrate and promote peace among the two countries, the location was chosen to be close to the geographical center of North America (see above!). Today, visitors get a rare chance to recreate casually between borders, with small reminders like fountains that follow the international border, markers that indicate the line in the middle of fields, and the clear-cut border line of trees in the distance that can be seen from the Garden grounds.
Visitors need a passport to enter this sovereign nation-feeling 3.65 square miles, but once in, it’s a beautiful mix of employees/products from each country (Americans have been buying out the Canadian Mackintosh’s toffee during the pandemic since they can’t cross into Canada), an intentional blend of cultures, and acceptance of currency from either nation at the same sale price. A fun imagination of what a world without borders could be.
So if any of the above locations pique your interest, make sure when you make your trip to North Dakota (whether it be your second or last state) you consider going beyond just the border towns of the surrounding states, and spend time in the area next to North Dakota’s international border.
An added dose of wild west, mystery adventure to your trip…