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BOB BACKMAN and CHRISTINE LANEY: Landings can increase recreational use of the Red River

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FARGO — Early European settlers used the Red River of the North in many ways, including fish for food, ice for refrigeration, recreation such as swimming and canoeing, transportation of goods and people via steamboats and as a source of water. The river also was used for garbage and sewage disposal.

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But times change. In the past 50 years, the development of swimming pools and the warnings about “dangerous undertows” had all but eliminated recreation on the Red. Higher incomes and more grocery stores meant we didn’t have to fish or hunt for food. Electricity and refrigeration made the use of river ice obsolete.

Trains and trucks replaced steamboats. Sewage treatment and municipal garbage services now are common.

Eric Sevareid’s 1935 book, “Canoeing With The Cree,” tells the story of Sevareid and another young man, who paddled an 18-foot canvas canoe from Stillwater, Minn., to York Factory on Hudson Bay, a journey of 2,250 miles — 550 of those miles on the Red.

The original forward to the book was written by George Adams, the editor of the Minneapolis Star. He wrote that “the spirit of personal adventure is not yet dead, that opportunities for adventurous living have not yet disappeared.”

Some things don’t have to change. The opportunities for adventurous living still exist in 2014 on the Red, as they did for Eric. And not just for young men, but for women, men and children.

Except at Drayton, N.D., all of the low-head dams on the Red have been retrofitted, eliminating those “dangerous undertows.” Today we have accurate maps, cellphones, weather and flood forecasts and modern vessels to substantially reduce the risk — but the adventure is still there.

Eric Sevareid had to wait until he and his friend had paddled into Canada to see his first deer. Today, the Red abounds in wildlife. On a paddle south of Fargo, we counted more than 30 whitetail deer. Eagles, buzzards, turkey, beaver and wood ducks are commonly observed.

A trip on the Red during spring migration will provide Herald readers with a cacophony of bird sounds. Fish are easily caught. It’s a great adventure, even if it’s an afternoon paddle.

One thing that hasn’t changed since Sevareid’s trip is mud, and lots of it. But it’s just mud. It all adds to the adventure.

Long distance or multi-day trips on the Red are uncommon, primarily because of a lack of access, campgrounds and outfitters. In 2000, River Keepers organized a 34-day Millennium Tour on the Red River. It started in Breckenridge, Minn., and ended in Selkirk, north of Winnipeg.

More than 100 participants canoed at least a half day while Jim Dale Huot Vickery, a wilderness author, canoed the entire route. There are not enough boat ramps or canoe/kayak accesses, so we used rights of way next to bridges and sought permission from private landowners — which was a daunting, time-consuming task.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, as part of its process to designate the Red as an official State Water Trail, created a Red River Master Recreational Plan. That plan recognizes the shortage of access and campgrounds, as does the North Dakota State Comprehensive Outdoor Recreational Plan.

Since 2000, Minnesota has added or upgraded several Red River boat ramps — but many more access sites are needed.

North Dakota now has a chance through sources such as the Outdoor Heritage Fund to provide for the development of additional access sites on the Red. These sites could be boat ramps, which can be used by boats, canoes, kayaks or even stand-up paddle boards. But they could also be less expensive and easier-to-maintain canoe/kayak access sites. Also needed are facilities such as docks and campgrounds.

We recognize it is more complicated than throwing money at the problem. Finding local sponsors and providing for maintenance are issues that need to be addressed.

Perhaps a local fishing/sporting club or nonprofit would take on maintenance with appropriate funding. Snowmobile trails often are developed and maintained using this model. There also may be communities next to the Red that understand the economic and recreational potential of the Red but need funding to make it happen.

The Red can be a regional sustainable recreational resource. Let’s use it!

Backman is executive director and Laney is project manager of River Keepers. River Keepers is a non-profit organization established in 1990 to protect and preserve the integrity and natural environment of the Red River of the North in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

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