In truth, I was looking for something else.
Google Earth zoomed nearly to street level, I was scrolling north, following the course of the Red River, looking at bridges, looking for something to photograph.
I knew about the truss bridge on Route 36, just north of where the Buffalo River joins the Red. The beams and girders above the roadway there, the shape of the riverbank, make an interesting image. And I knew about the similar bridge on Route 25, west of Hendrum. But most bridges across the Red are beam bridges, flat and visually uninteresting. I was looking for something fresh.
I didn’t get very far.
On the north side of Fargo, just across the river from Moorhead’s MB Johnson Park, I saw something I did not expect. There was an island in the Red River.
A real island. Water on all sides. No homes. No buildings of any sort. No roads, either. Just what looked like a small dam on the northwest side.
Harrison Island, the Google label said. A small green icon said the property was a park.
“Did you know there was an island in the Red?” I asked a colleague who has lived in town since birth.
“No,” she said. Then her eyebrows went up. “There is?”
“Actually,” I said, looking at the image, “there are two.” I pointed at land just east of where the Cardinal Muench Seminary used to be (and still is on Google Earth), at the east end of 32nd Ave. NE. Peterson Island is the name, but on my screen the westside channel was dry. An island in name or history only, I thought, like Island Park. But Harrison Island showed water all around.
It was time to go exploring.
“It’s not one of ours,” said Becky Bjornson, administrative assistant at the Fargo Park District, “but that’s really interesting!”
She put me in touch with Dave Bietz, Fargo Parks Director.
“I didn’t know about this,” he said. I showed him the Google Earth image, and then he looked it up on the Fargo GIS map.
“Well,” he said. “that strikes a bell.”
According to the city of Fargo GIS, the property is owned by a company called Jamison Capex Fund LLC. I called their phone number several times over the course of a week. No one ever answered. The message said the voice mailbox was full and could not accept any more messages. I emailed the contact person listed on their website repeatedly. No one replied.
“I remember some conversation a while back,” Bietz said. “I think they approached the city of Fargo and wanted to sell the land. We were interested in expanding our bike trails, but the conversation faded. I don’t remember why.”
Because Google Earth shows a dam, I called Melanie Peterson, public affairs specialist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District. She had never heard of it, either.
“The dam is not on the National Inventory of Dams database,” she said. A few minutes later, I found a Facebook thread from October 2019 where people were talking about the island.
“Born and raised here and never knew there was an island up north,” said John Grimestad.
“Never knew it was there,” said Kathi Halvorson.
“I never knew anything about this,” said Brian Moe.
“All new to me,” said Debra Pollack.
Then again, Mike Holen said, “We used the dam for a snowmobile jump.”
“Many stories of that island…” said Dane Grant Casewell.
I stared at the image on my screen and began to plot a hiking path.
Given the current water level, Harrison Island is two, maybe three paddle strokes across the Red from the boat launch at MB Johnson Park. The bank is steep but not unmanageable.
On the day I visited, a bright and warm Saturday afternoon, the colors in the green ash, boxelder, hackberry, elm and oak trees were breathtaking. My plan was to hike once around the perimeter of the entire island, but my plan quickly failed. The brush was thick, filled with stickers, and I was not sure where each footfall was leading. I headed inland from the river.
There is a particular way sounds change inside a forest. The world transforms, becomes closer and more intimate. I was surrounded by trees, all of them in full color, the canopy thick enough to put the interior in shade. I could hear wind in the leaves as it passed the island, the same way you can watch distant rain move across a lake, though the air where I stood was still.
To be alone in a forest on a bright autumn day is a deep, core joy. I was certainly not the first person here. But on this day, I was the only person. I discovered to be alone on an island is a way to step outside of time.
Harrison Island is not a natural formation.
In the May/June 1994 newsletter of the Clay County Historical Society, there is a description of the island’s birth. In a section titled “History along the Red” I read: “CHIMNEY BEND FLOOD CONTROL PROJECT: In addition to the downtown dike and dam construction, 1959 also saw a flood control project on Fargo's north side. To hurry flood waters out of the city, engineers cut channels across the necks of three oxbow bends. The channels are stabilized by concrete weirs which allow high water to rush through the artificial channels but keep the river in its natural bed during normal flows. The area was named 'Chimney Bend' by 19th century steamboat pilots.”
This same description is in a report dated April 9, 2013, prepared by the Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan Council of Governments and the city of Moorhead.
That report also says, “In 1990, Gary Goodrich and Mark Peihl developed a self-guided tour of historic sites along the Red River for canoeists, bicyclists and pedestrians. This was further updated by Metro COG in cooperation with Clay County Historical Society (CCHS) as part of developing the Moorhead River Corridor Study. Based on information provided by CCHS, Metro COG outlined existing historic/cultural sites along the Red River.”
I did not know about a self-guided tour, if the plan ever came into being. Perhaps this is a good thing. Walking deeper into the interior of the island I came upon endless wood nettles, looking exactly like a movie-maker’s version of a fairy forest, and I was glad for long pants and good boots.
Hiking the island is not easy, nor is it particularly difficult. There are no trails. Other than a completely incongruous plastic gallon milk jug and a child’s sandbox bucket, there was no evidence of anyone having ever been there before. Sitting under a tree for a few moments, I found myself thinking about Rip Van Winkle.
I walked the island, south to north and then back. Every step had that feeling of discovery and beauty. The westside channel, I saw, was nearly dry. The small dam was easy to cross. At the north end, I watched a red-tailed hawk glide over the banks.
I was amazed this forest was unknown. In North Dakota, the law says all land is considered open to entry for any purpose unless it has been properly posted for No Trespassing. There are no fences along the banks. Even in high water, it would be easy to get here.
On the way back, though, a bit of color caught my eye, and my heart sank. The trunk of a tree in the center of the island is probably not the most effective place to hang a sign, but there it was. No Trespassing.
OK, I thought. Part of the allure is the fact that the island is unknown, a mystery in the middle of a river we think we know. I’d solved that mystery. But places like this are important because they mean so much more on a personal level. Simply looking at the trees, listening to the wind, watching the river flow, alone on a small island on a bright autumn day, reset something deep inside my heart. I am glad I went.