In 2000, following the collapse of the Red Lake walleye fishery, Minnesota went out on a limb and created a state recreation area nearby in the bog. Many say the effort is paying off, with thousands of new visitors to the region.
Jerry Stensing of Waskish says the raised walkway allows for what he calls "civilized swamp stomping." It gets people to a place they otherwise would never see.
Stensing has been in love with the massive bog since he quit his suit-and-tie job in the Twin Cities and moved here in the 1980s.
"It's just the solitude and the unspoiled wilderness that really, really attracts me to this area, and has kept me here for the better part of my life," Stensing said.
This rugged wilderness north of Waskish has always been kind of a no-man's land. The bog formed thousands of years ago when the global climate cooled, changing what was once prairie into a soft carpet of sphagnum moss.
As the moss decayed, it formed deep layers of ancient peat below the surface. Stensing says that combination means the ground holds massive amounts of water.
“If you were to squeeze it like a giant sponge, you could cover the entire state of Minnesota with a foot of water.”Jerry Stensing
"The sphagnum moss will hold 28 times its volume in water, so it's like a huge sponge," he said. "It's been said that if you were to squeeze it like a giant sponge, you could cover the entire state of Minnesota with a foot of water."
As you walk deeper into the bog, the stunted black spruce and tamarack trees begin to thin and the landscape widens. And surprisingly, there are fewer mosquitoes out here, too.
There's a fresh trail off to the side of the boardwalk that Stensing figures was probably made by a moose. Clusters of bog laurel, labrador tea, leather leaf and orchids line the path. Not much is blooming now, but in early summer the bog is vivid with color.
Stensing leans down and spots a pitcher plant, one of several carnivorous species that are unique to the bog.
"Look down in there and you can see this one's got a fly in it," said Stensing. "Most of what they eat are the flesh-eating flies, which doesn't hurt my feelings a bit."
Stensing then points to another plant next to it.
"Here's a round leaf sundew. You see the little starburst with the -- almost like tentacles with beads on the end? A small insect will become attracted by this scent and get stuck. See how sticky that is?"
In the 1900s, this natural beauty was seen as nothing more than a wasteland. From about 1910 to 1916, local counties built hundreds of miles of ditches. They tried to drain the bog and turn it into farmland.
At one point on the boardwalk, a faint, straight-line scar crosses the bog. It's all that remains of one of the ditches.
"As you can see, the ditch is all overgrown with rushes and grasses," Stensing said. "They ceased to function right away, and so it was really quite the inspired folly. It was a pipe dream that just didn't work."
Stensing says people saw some more recent dreams dry up, too. He and other Waskish residents watched in the late 1990s as the Upper Red Lake walleye population collapsed, destroying the mainstay of the town's economy. Stensing's friends lost businesses. Resorts shut down. People began looking at the bog in a new way.
By 2000, the DNR established Minnesota's newest parkland, the Big Bog State Recreation Area. It covers about 9,000 acres and includes the boardwalk and a campground, a few cabins and other amenities along the Tamarack River.
Red Lake's walleye fishery has since recovered, and Jerry Stensing says now the Big Bog offers something else for visitors to see. Stensing has even started his own guide service for eco-tourists.
"People are interested in more than just fishing and hunting," said Stensing. "There's a lot of people that do like to come out and see the neo-tropical migratory songbirds, or to photograph those rare orchids or plants. Or just to be out walking like this."
A few local business owners are skeptical about the impact the recreation area has on the community. But park officials say attendance is growing. Last year, about 72,000 people visited the park. They expect that number will eventually double.
This year the Legislature approved $1.6 million for new improvements to the Big Bog State Recreation Area. Construction on a visitors and interpretive center will likely begin this spring. It's expected to open in spring 2010.