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Group, ox walk trek as traders

LAKE PARK, Minn. - Walking down the dusty road with his ox and a two-wheeled wooden cart stacked high with furs, Orlin Ostby could almost pass for one of the original fur traders who traveled the old Pembina trail 200 years ago.

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LAKE PARK, Minn. - Walking down the dusty road with his ox and a two-wheeled wooden cart stacked high with furs, Orlin Ostby could almost pass for one of the original fur traders who traveled the old Pembina trail 200 years ago.

Almost.

Ostby is making the 420-mile trek from Pembina, N.D., to St. Paul on foot with six other people to re-enact the trail life traders endured in Minnesota during the mid-1800s.

There are a few differences, however, between the 67-year-old who farms near Gatzke, Minn., and the Metis traders of French and Cree lineage that traversed the Pembina trail.

He and his family - who were traveling Thursday north of Lake Park - have a few luxuries that the Metis did not, including a cell phone for emergencies, their own water tank and a laptop to log his trip. Not to mention the two pickup trucks that follow him and his two kids and wife, who is also part Cree Indian.

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And, of course, Ostby is not French but Norwegian, a fact he is rather proud of and quick to point out.

Although parts of the trail remain, highways have replaced much of it. That doesn't stop Ostby or his massive black-and-white ox, Pum, who steadily trudges on next to semi-trucks and cars whizzing past.

Pum's top speed is about two miles per hour, Ostby said affectionately, patting the ox on its flank. They travel about 10 miles a day.

Ostby's venture comes 50 years after a Minnesota farmer, Delmar Hagen, completed the same feat to kick off the state's centennial celebration. Now, it's Ostby's turn, just in time to celebrate the state's sesquicentennial anniversary at the Minnesota State Fair next month.

Ostby, a 17-year-old farmhand at the time, went with Hagen to Pembina to start the journey. It was there that his boss put an idea in his head that would remain for the next 50 years.

"He said, 'Maybe you can make this trip in 50 years,' " Ostby said.

Five years ago, Ostby became serious about fulfilling his promise. He bought two oxen from a family in New Hampshire, one named Pum and the other Kin. This spring, he began building the cart, a replica of the same one he helped Hagen build 50 years ago, that would carry the furs.

He then had to ask for the month and a half off of work at Polaris, where he told his boss he was going whether he liked it or not.

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"I'm almost 68 years old," he said. "I'm entitled to have some luxuries in my life."

Burnice Everson, who met Hagen 50 years ago on his trek to St. Paul, said she never thought she would see someone attempt the same trip in her lifetime.

"It's really a thrill," she said.

Her son-in-law, Gerry Swedberg, visited Ostby on Thursday near Lake Park with his wife, Elaine. Elaine was 6 when she met Hagen, and had to come out to see Ostby do the same thing.

"This is really something he's doing," Swedberg said.

Ostby's wife made traditional clothing for the travelers that would have been worn by traders. Orlin Ostby and his 15-year-old son, Christopher, wear cotton-collared shirts with billowing sleeves that help protect against mosquitoes.

Tied around Ostby's waist is a brightly colored sash, an authentic Metis artifact that was given to him by a Metis friend.

The caravan of travelers causes quite a stir along the country highways they travel. Several cars pulled over Thursday morning to see what was going on and to listen to Ostby's tale.

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Over the past two and a half weeks, Ostby has met hundreds of travelers, many of whom invite him to supper and into their homes. They've only had to cook supper for themselves four times, he said, and when they stop at a home, they often end up staying until midnight or later. Then it's back to the trail at 5:30 a.m., he said.

For an adventure like this, you've got to like people, Ostby said.

"It wouldn't work if you didn't," he said.

His family is supportive of his adventure, although he says "they all think I'm nuts."

He hopes his son will continue the tradition in 50 years. Christopher says he recognizes the historic significance, but isn't sure if he's ready to commit another month of his life to it.

After he leaves to tend to the ox, Ostby leans in and says, "I think he will."

"I've already told him if I'm alive I'll go."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Rydell at (701) 235-7311

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