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ANDY MAGNESS: Unlock Grand Forks’s world-class recreational resource

GRAND FORKS — I just returned from the mountains of Belize in Central America. I was there to participate in a four-day adventure race. During the 76 hours my team was racing, we hiked through miles of jungle, saw a dozen or more spectacular waterfalls (up to 800 feet high), endured stinging plants and insects, watched the sunrise from atop Mayan ruins, trudged through soul-sucking mud and, to finish it all off, canoed downriver through the rain forest, listening to howler monkeys.

It was, to say the least, an incredible experience.

But to be honest, minus the ruins, waterfalls and howler monkeys, it felt remarkably similar to adventures I’ve had right here in North Dakota. A trip through the bush of the Pembina Gorge feels pretty “junglelike.” We’ve got more than our share of cows and insects and stinging plants. Our mud beats that of Belize in the “soul sucking” competition, no contest.

And the Macal River in Belize?

Believe it or not, it reminded me an awful lot of the river that runs through the center of Grand Forks, less than a mile from my door: the Red River of the North.

There were two important differences, though:

First, the Macal is home to crocodiles.

And second, despite that first difference, the Macal is well-used recreationally.

We paddled past one remote jungle lodge after another and encountered both tourists and locals enjoying the waterway. The river also hosts a well-attended canoe race each year, and we were “raced” by pairs of young people training for the event, who thought it would be fun to see if they could outpaddle the “tough Americans” (they could).

The number of river users increased as we neared the town of San Ignacio and the end of the race. As I disembarked from the canoe, I felt revitalized by the users’ energy and the river itself.

Rivers are magical places that — whether in central America or the Upper Midwest — offer great opportunities. Here in Grand Forks, we simply aren’t taking advantage of these opportunities. I think that should change.

And to do that, we first have to settle our unique Catch 22 situation, which is this:

The infrastructure that would support more substantial river use is lacking. Improving it would require significant community support.

But that support also is lacking, in part because there is a culture of fear surrounding the idea of heavier river use.

The culture of fear can be overcome, probably by getting more people to boat, canoe and kayak on the river.

But that, of course, requires improved infrastructure.

This is a difficult cycle to break.

Difficult, but not impossible. We are now in a position where we might be able to do it.

I am convinced that we can make inroads into the “fear” problem one paddler at a time. Maybe today’s columns will serve that purpose, and it is with that hope that I offer the following statement: The Red River of the North does not present significant or unmanageable risk to recreational boaters.

By pursuing strategies that actively promote river use, we are not endangering our children’s lives; we are enriching them. We are not putting our people at risk; we are teaching them appropriate risk management.

Also, we North Dakotans now find ourselves uniquely able to capitalize on our state’s economic boom. Outdoor Heritage Fund money is earmarked for improving access to recreational areas, and it could not be put to better use than along the Red River, where it could build canoe landings and other vital supports for using the river more effectively.

Let’s develop the tremendous resource of our own river, using the opportunities available to us through the Outdoor Heritage Fund.

You don’t have to travel half-way around the globe to discover the splendor, solace and transforming power that a paddle down the river can provide.

Of course, if you want to hear howler monkeys, that’s another story.

Magness is chairman of Ground UP Adventures, a Grand Forks-based group that promotes river-based recreation as well as rock climbing, orienteering and other adventure sports.