Nature's Path: Those otherworldly bogs


May 14, 2021

I haven't been to the far corners of the earth, but I have visited exotic landscapes right here in the northeast corner of Minnesota. Peat bogs abound in our region and they provide an unusual and intriguing adventure for the curious.

The recipe for a peat bog starts with a glacier moving slowly across the land. Our quadrant of the state has been glaciated many times, with the last glacier retreating about 11,000 years ago. As the final huge ice mass inched its way across the land, it scoured out holes both large and small. Water from the melting ice sheet filled the holes with water, creating ponds and lakes. Some of the water bodies were connected to rivers or chains of lakes that had water flowing through them. The isolated holes sat stagnant, slowly losing their oxygen through the years.

We live in the land of seasons and each fall, as plants died and leaves fell from trees, the plant mass piled up in the stagnant ponds and lakes. The combination of cold water and low oxygen prevented the fungi and bacteria from decomposing the plant material.

The material accumulated and created peat. The dense mass of dead plant material formed slowly, at just a meter of depth every 1,000 years. As centuries passed, the isolated ponds and lakes filled, creating a cold, acidic environment where the most interesting plants grow.

Sphagnum moss is a soft spongy layer of emerald-green that turns to a beautiful deep red in the fall. This water-absorbent moss provides a blanket-like cover as it grows on top of the peat-filled water holes. The moss has many practical uses, and Native Americans learned early that dried moss wrapped around a baby's bottom made the perfect disposable diaper.

Tamarac and black spruce trees are the biggest plants that grow in Minnesota bogs. The former is our only coniferous, deciduous tree, turning golden in the fall before shedding its needles en masse, giving it a lifeless look for the winter.

Adding intrigue to the already mysterious bogs are its carnivorous plants. Sundews, bladderworts, butterworts and pitcher plants are all found in bogs. Not to worry, they do not feed on dogs or small children, their only meat source is tiny, unsuspecting insects. These plants use similar methods involving tiny hairs and sticky liquid to capture their prey.

The purple pitcher plant is my favorite, with its exotic looks making it easy to spot. As a naturalist I enjoyed showing eager fifth-graders this plant on our walks at Long Lake Conservation Center in Aitkin County. Its tubular leaves collect water resulting in its name, pitcher. The unsuspecting insects land on the hairs inside the tubes and struggle to climb out against the downward pointing hairs. In their struggle, they often fall into the water, which is blended with an enzyme emitted from the plant to slowly dissolve the tiny intruders.

My favorite trick involved pretending to dip a finger into a pitcher tube, then quickly pulling my hand up with my finger bent creating the illusion that it was dissolved. The enzyme is not strong enough to quickly dissolve anything, let alone a human finger.

There are dozens of plants in the bog ecosystem, too numerous to mention. I would like to give a quick shout out to the many wild orchids, including the showy lady's slipper, our state flower.

No bog ecosystem is complete without insects, birds, amphibians and mammals, all of which create the fascinating, magical, exotic world that we can visit close to home.

Read up before you go

Before you venture into the bog, I recommend an online search or contacting your local bookstore or public library to find a guidebook on the many plants you will discover in Minnesota's bogs. A bird guide would also be useful. Find a public bog with a boardwalk to safely explore while keeping yourself from sinking knee-deep. Staying on boardwalks also helps protect the bog plants, several of which are rare species and illegal to disturb or pick.

Everything in a bog grows slowly, and many species are protected, so take only photos. During the mosquito and fly season, a head net can keep the biting insects at bay along with long sleeves and pants.

There are many public peat bogs in Minnesota, including Big Bog State Recreation Area near Upper Red Lake. In the Sax Zim bog area about 40 miles northwest of Cloquet, are the Warren Woessner boardwalk (pictured above), Auggie's boardwalk and the Bob Russell Memorial boardwalk. Long Lake Conservation Center is a county owned facility about 30 miles west of Cloquet with a boardwalk for visitors. Other boardwalks are scattered around the area. Check online for public bog areas near you. Add peat bog to your bucket list of places to visit in northern Minnesota. You will not be disappointed.

Entering a state park requires an annual pass or day pass. Never enter private land without permission.

Ruth Reeves, a former journalist, naturalist and community ed director, lives in rural Carlton County and enjoys outdoor adventures in all seasons with her husband, Keith. She finds that one good adventure leads to another. Email Ruth via the Pine Knot: [email protected]


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