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Winnipeg man and his ox retrace pioneer Red River Ox Cart Trail in Minnesota

The Red River Ox Cart trails carved and snaked their way across northwestern Minnesota. In the mid-1800s, those dirt trails became a lifeline for settlers.

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Terry Doerksen, of Winnipeg, travels near Fertile, Minnesota, with his ox Zik. Doerksen is retracing the steps of the pioneers who traveled the Red River Ox Cart Trail in the 1800's.
Ryan Longnecker / WDAY News
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FERTILE, Minn. — Long before Interstate 94 or U.S. Highway 10, pioneer settlers in the Upper Midwest depended upon the Red River Ox Cart Trail for survival.

It was a path between Winnipeg and St. Paul that went through the heart of our region. On Tuesday, June 21, Winnipeg resident Terry Doerksen and his ox, Zik, were retracing those steps.

"Giddyup. Come on, giddyup," Doerksen said to Zik.

After a stormy night, they hit the trail early, Doerksen humming hymns as they went.

For the last month, the two have been retracing the steps of the early pioneers in northwest Minnesota.

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"We start early because that is when it is coolest," Doerksen said.

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Starting early to avoid the heat, Doerksen and Zik average around 10 miles per day.
Ryan Longnecker / WDAY News

In the 1800s, families and traders took the Red River trail from Canada to what is now the Twin Cities.

"Furs, a lot of furs of course, and then what came back (from St. Paul) were all the supplies that (were) needed for the new settlement (near Pembina and Winnipeg)," Doerksen said.

The Red River Ox Cart trails carved and snaked their way across northwestern Minnesota. In the mid 1800s, these dirt trails became a lifeline of trade for the area.

Doerksen and old Zik plod along, making time like an ox should. That being around 10 miles a day.

The Red River Trail, more commonly known in Minnesota as the Pembina Trail, was used in the mid-1800s. Ox carts, often driven by the Métis — Indigenous people who lived and traded along Canadian fur trade routes — traveled in trains sometimes hundreds of oxen and carts long that took hours to pass by a home or small town.

"He's got different speeds, varying from slow to stop," Doerksen said. "He can sometime get in the zone where he just tunes (everything) out and just goes."

He says the great part of this is he gets to hit a lot of Minnesota's small towns and gets to know the people.

"Other people have invited us up for meals and allowed us stay on their places and brought us food. It's just been one blessing after another," Doerksen said.

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Zik, while not very speedy, seems to be a reliable and loyal friend. Doerksen's hope of reaching St. Paul by mid-July might be a wee bit optimistic, but he's content during this 400-mile journey.

"The deeper purpose is that we are on a prayer journey and honoring the creator, and pray blessing on the land as we go through it," he said.

To follow Doerksen and Zik, visit their travel journal on Facebook .

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