KENMARE - There may not be a prettier piece of property in all of North Dakota. It has a beauty all its own. Like many other scenic areas of the state, it contrasts sharply with the nearby landscape.
The Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge is a relatively narrow and lengthy stretch of riverbottom land covering 19,500 acres from the Canadian border to 8 miles south of Kenmare. Narrow as it is, the Des Lacs River long ago cut a path in the earth. The river created a scenic valley that is accented by numerous wooded coulees leading to the river below and a series of lakes that early French trappers named Riviere des Lacs, or "River of the Lakes."
"These are three naturally occurring lakes that have always been here," said Chad Zorn, Des Lacs NWR manager and former Minot resident. "I don't think people realize the beauty we have in this little valley. A lot of people, from my perspective, don't take the time to enjoy things in our own backyards."
Photos by Kim Fundingsland/MDN
The Munch’s Coulee Hiking Trail at Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge is a very scenic walk for visitors. The upper portion of the trail offers a grand view of Des Lacs NWR. The Scenic Backway at Des Lacs NWR offers a unique view of the refuge from a vehicle. The backway runs for 19 miles. Des Lacs NWR was established during the drought years of the 1930s to create nesting habitat for waterfowl. Ducks Unlimited partnered in some of the early projects on the refuge.
River valleys are known for their lush appearance, and the Des Lacs valley is an excellent example. Rainfall this year has been particularly beneficial to an area that is abundant in scenery, hidden from those who may be unaware of the valley's existence or who have never explored the Des Lacs NWR region by foot or by vehicle. There's extensive history there, too.
"We're working on some new interpretive panels for the southern end of the refuge," said Zorn. "There will actually be an interpretive overlook of the Tasker's Coulee area."
Tasker's Coulee is a well-known area of the refuge. It is often a destination for hikers or cross-country skiers. Hunter's sometime refer to the area as "Brickyard Hill," so named because a brickyard flourished there for nearly 20 years. Photographs taken in 1904 show two large kilns, an extensive brick making operation and homes used to house workers.
Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge
Beaver, muskrat, mink and other fur bearing animals lured French trappers to this valley. They found it so flat that the river spread out in a chain of marshes and lakes. They called the area Riviere des Lacs, French for "River of the Lakes."
These trappers were not the first humans to discover the treasures of the Des Lacs Valley. Plains Indians sought shelter from harsh winter storms in the wooded draws, or coulees. They left stone tipi rings and ceremonial effigies, some shaped like turtles, that survive to this day. Some are up to 30 feet across.
Herds of bison, pronghorn and elk grazed on the prairies surrounding the Des Lacs Valley. Ducks flew overhead from the many small wetlands. The Des Lacs valley was formed as meltwater flowed out of glacial Lake Regina thousands of years ago.
Settlement in the late 1800s brought intensive farming, ranching and coal mining. The face of the land changed and some wildlife species declined. Drought during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s caused waterfowl numbers to plummet to record low levels. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established many National Wildlife Refuges, including Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge in 1935.
Source: Des Lacs NWR
"They actually mined clay from the hillsides and made bricks for the local area," explained Zorn.
Some of the bricks still exist today, bearing the name "Kenmare" baked into them.
Another well known section of Des Lacs NWR is Munch's Coulee. Again, it is abundant in scenery and offers a spectacular view of the Lower Des Lacs Lake from a high vantage point. A hiking trail, complete with resting benches, is open for public use. It leads visitors up Munch's Coulee through native grasses, bushes and tree cover.
"A quarter mile of that trail is paved," said Zorn. "For the more adventurous there is a mowed path that continues to the top of the hill. There are benches to sit and enjoy the day."
The hiking areas at Des Lacs NWR offer an excellent way to appreciate the beauty, natural habitat and wildlife of the refuge. Migratory waterfowl and shorebirds are often seen in abundance. There are deer and fox and songbirds, too. Over 250 different species of birds have been sighted at Des Lacs NWR, making it an excellent destination for bird watchers.
For those looking to admire the beauty of the refuge from the comfort of their vehicle, the refuge boasts 19 miles of roadway designated as Scenic Backway. Complete with interpretive panels, the Backway offers a truly unique view of the Des Lacs valley.
"Obviously there's a lot of opportunity to see the unique and unusual. This is a beautiful little place. When you are on the Backway, especially along the Boat Dock road area along the trees, you won't really think you are in North Dakota. I can tell you that," stated Zorn.
The Scenic Backway begins south of Kenmare just off U.S. Highway 52. The route takes visitors along the east side of Des Lacs NWR until entering the southern edge of Kenmare. Motorists then cross the refuge on paved roadway and continue the auto tour route on the west side of the refuge. It is there, known as Boat Dock road, where recent improvements were made.
"In 2011, that was totally rebuilt," said Zorn. "We didn't intend on rebuilding that road but the railroad had some track issues there and did the work. That road is in very good shape with more turnouts than ever before."
Boat Dock road runs adjacent to Middle Des Lacs Lake, which contains the deepest water to be found within the refuge, approximately 12 feet. Most other water on the refuge is 4 to 6 feet deep. The name of the road comes from an old dock and boat landing area that is still in place at the refuge.
Motorized watercraft are not allowed at Des Lacs NWR, but Middle Des Lacs Lake is open for canoeing. The surrounding scenery makes it an excellent choice for those wishing to paddle through a National Wildlife Refuge.
Zorn has his favorite areas on the refuge, one being the Tasker's Coulee area.
"Some of those bigger valleys are wide open and untouched now," remarked Zorn.
Des Lacs NWR was formed in 1935 with the stroke of a pen by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was the Dust Bowl time of the "Dirty '30s." Water was in short supply and waterfowl populations were in decline. The primary mission of Des Lacs NWR was to provide a refuge and breeding grounds for migratory birds and other wildlife, a mission the refuge continues to serve today.
Thousands of snow and blue geese often gather at the refuge in the fall. The nearby city of Kenmare has long hosted "Goosefest" in celebration of the annual buildup of waterfowl during the fall migration. Several years ago, Ducks Unlimited partnered with the refuge to help create a marsh area for nesting waterfall.
Des Lacs NWR has a modern Visitor's Center, a perfect compliment to informative displays located conveniently throughout the refuge. Further improvements, including the interpretive development of the Tasker's Coulee area, are planned. The Tasker's Coulee project is expected to get under way late this month. It will include a bridge and half mile of roadway. Additional improvements to the southern section of the Scenic Backway are in the planning and development stages.
Des Lacs NWR is believed to be the only National Wildlife Refuge with a fenceline directly on the border that separates the U.S. from Canada. The refuge's headquarters is located immediately west of Kenmare.