A Cultural Crossroads in North Dakota's Pembina Gorge
In North Dakota, Pembina Gorge’s patchwork of state-protected lands marks a cultural crossroads (and looks lovely dressed in fall finery).
When I stand up, my phone says I'm in Canada. I'm not. But I'm close enough to see it from here. Boundaries aren't always as clear as they look on a map.
I'm perched 1,155 feet above sea level at an overlook near Walhalla, North Dakota, 5 miles south of the border. My head swivels as a precise formation of geese zooms in from the north, ignoring the arbitrary lines humans have drawn on the landscape. They sweep south over Tetrault Woods State Forest, a stop on the Rendezvous Region Scenic Backway.
Hikers and bird-watchers clamber down cliffs to the Pembina River, which begins in Manitoba, Canada. Its banks erupt in a riot of rust, persimmon and sienna, the treetops brushed with gold. The valley cradles North Dakota's largest uninterrupted stretch of oak woods, a blend of boreal and deciduous forest and lush wetland thickets. Stubborn pockets of prairie persist too. Fragrant sage grows defiantly on the hilltops, and wild grasses sway in the wind. Down in the valley, freshly shorn fields undulate like a vast buttery sea. Blackened autumn sunflowers bow their withered heads to the sun, penitent and still.
In the Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area, another stop on the Rendezvous route, the sumac blazes scarlet along 25 miles of nonmotorized, equestrian and off-road vehicle trails. The byway's French name hints at the area's fur-trading roots and the meeting of cultures that shaped one of the state's oldest settlements.
Other names provide more insights. Pembina refers to both a wild berry and a band of Plains Ojibwe, just one of the Indigenous nations that traded in the region. This is the land of the Métis, speakers of Michif, a blend of Ojibwe, Cree, French and English. Scandinavian immigrants renamed the settlement near the Métis trading post Walhalla, after the hall of fallen warriors in Norse mythology.
As I drive, radio reception along the gravel roads waxes and wanes, bringing snippets of farm reports, National Native News updates and the melodic burble of French language newscasts spilling over the border. Haze blown in from wildfires far out west paints the sunset here in watery gray-orange. We divide ourselves by state and region, country and culture. But nature reminds us that borders are ideas—and we're not separated by much at all.