John Eerkes, land steward for the Nature Conservancy in Kittson County, stands by the sign at the entrace to the Norway Dunes.
By Linda Andersen
Jon Eerkes, Land Steward for the Nature Conservancy in Kittson County, recently offered to show me “the most beautiful place in Kittson County.”
“It’s one of those special places that nobody knows about,” he added.
On a hot, dry day at the end of July, I took him up on the offer. The day turned out to be an educational one of learning about the Conservancy and nature. And, it even included a bit of a surprise.
Eerkes, who has worked for the Nature Conservancy in the county for almost fourteen years, manages just over 15,000 acres of land in Kittson County plus a small amount in Marshall and Pennington Counties. He and his staff share an office in Karlstad with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “They’re government; we’re non-profit,” he explained, adding that the Nature Conservancy and DNR have some of the same goals and cooperate a lot.
The Nature Conservancy was started by a group of scientists in the 1950’s who worried that some places they were researching would get developed and disappear. The Conservancy is supported by individuals, corporations, and grants. Its national headquarters are in Arlington, Virginia.
The Norway Dunes, so named because they are sand dunes in Norway Township, was the first property that the Conservancy bought in Kittson County – back in 1982.
To reach this “jewel of a place,” as Jon also referred to it, we drove east from Halma on County Highway 7 approximately one mile, then went two miles north on 400th Avenue, and finally traveled one-half mile east on an unnamed, rough two track until we arrived at a small parking area with a Nature Conservancy sign on one side and a mailbox on the other. That last half-mile stretch was definitely bumpy. “Nothing with low clearance will make it,” Jon said on the subject of the type of vehicle one should take to the Norway Dunes. He said vehicle requirements could change with the season, though a mini van would work most of the time.
We walked away from the pickup truck into tall grass and could view trees in the distance, especially a lot of small oak trees. Eerkes used words like “prairie” and “savanna” to describe the area.
The word “wilderness” came to my mind and I made a statement – part observation and part question, “We don’t have any weapon along, apparently we don’t plan to see anything dangerous?”
Jon seemed unconcerned and said something like, “Whenever you go there’s something different to see.”
He commented that the Conservancy had burned the area this spring and he had expected it to be pink with flowers. He suspected the drought was delaying blossoming. Two weeks ago, he said, wood lilies would have been blooming and he predicted that pink flowers, called blazing stars, would be more evident in a couple of weeks.
It’s definitely best to go on an excursion to a place such as this one with someone who knows something about plants as it makes it much more interesting. Jon pointed out various plants, calling them by name – “lead plant, hair bell, blazing star, silky bush clover.” He said three hundred different flowers exist at Norway Dunes.
He pointed out bergamot, which he said flavors Earl Grey Tea. He crushed the leaves of purple prairie clover which gave off a citrus smell. He pointed out needle grass of which he said the seed is “sharp as a needle.”
He also pointed out poison ivy, something which might deter a highly allergic individual from wanting to wander in the area. He also suggested not coming in June “if you don’t like bugs.”
I took a photo of one of the small oak trees; Jon’s estimation was that it was about three hundred years old.
We looked toward a small hill with woods behind it. “Shall we run?” I half asked, half suggested as we spotted a black bear about one hundred yards from us.
“That bear is not going to bother us,” Jon calmly stated, though he did suggest that we sit down. “Black bear attacks are so rare in America,” Jon explained, adding that such bears only get dangerous if a human comes between a mother and her cubs or if they get really used to a human environment and become dependent on its garbage.
Jon snapped a few photos of the animal as it wandered off, barely paying attention to us. (I think Jon may have been more surprised by the bear than I as he later commented, “I’ve never seen a bear in Norway Dunes – I’ve seen signs…They usually don’t want to be seen.”)
He suspected that this bear had been “working the wood edge for berries.” According to Jon, berry picking opportunities (for wild strawberries, sand cherries, Juneberries, and chokecherries) exist at Norway Dunes, though there are “good years and bad years.”
Undaunted by the bear, we headed toward the hill, finding hazel nut bushes along the way. John said that the hill is the biggest one in Kittson County. “This is where I’d like to take my kids for sledding,” he said, while acknowledging that it would require a three-fourths of a mile hike in winter.
The view of the trees from the top of the hill made a very pretty site. Jon explained his belief that this hill and the smaller dunes around it are remains of the eastern shore of Glacial Lake Agassiz, though he noted that a “local belief” says the dunes formed in the 1930’s. To support his belief, he told of having to cut down a large oak tree that had blown down at the top of the hill. He counted at least 258 rings in the trunk which would indicate that the tree had been that old.
A return hike to the Norway Dunes entrance revealed not only more nature finds, but more information about the Conservancy. Eerkes stated that the Nature Conservancy has changed over the years and has now “found a balance between work and keep.” Though he noted that hunting is still not allowed at the Norway Dunes, he said much Conservancy land is now open to hunting, grazing, and haying.
He also noted that the Norway Dunes is for “foot traffic only.” Snowmobiles and other recreational vehicles are not allowed. “This is an area that will not stand a lot of human use,” he said.
Eerkes stated that the Norway Dunes gives an indication of “what Kittson County looked like before the Europeans.” Not only will nature lovers find much to appreciate about the place, but visitors of European descent might imagine what parts of the area looked like when their forefathers first arrived.
And, who knows what surprises, furry or otherwise, one might encounter at the Norway Dunes?
Above Left – Small, stunted oak trees, such as this one, are common at the Norway Dunes. Jon Eerkes, land steward for the Nature Conservancy in Kittson County, estimated this one to be 300 years old. Above Right – Silky Prairie Clover (Dalea villosa) at Norway Dunes. Norway Dunes is the only known place this plant grows in Kittson, Roseau, Marshall, Pennington and Red Lake counties.
THIS BLACK BEAR was an unexpected guest during the interview with Jon Eerkes at the Norway Dunes. Eerkes stated he had not seen a bear before at the Dunes. (Photo by Jon Eerkes)