Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Mighty Red

With the recent flood still firmly in everyone's memory (and for some, it's still a very current situation, in the northern end of the valley...), I thought I would share some interesting articles about the Red River of the North...
1825 had been a very good year at Red River. The community was growing and upgrading itself. Forty-two new homes were built in six months. The severe mouse infestation had been the only discouraging event.

The problems had begun during the winter. There had been a giant snow during December 1825. The Metis and Indians wintering in Pembina were near starvation. [Alexander] Ross visited Pembina in February and saw it first hand. A relief effort by individuals and the HBC sent many dog teams south with food and supplies. But many perished, especially in the harsh winter that year. Those that were found alive had devoured their horses, dogs, raw hides, leather and their shoes. The winter continued to bring much snow and temperatures reaching -45. The ice was five feet seven inches thick.

On May 2, 1826, the water rose 9 feet in 24 hours. On May 4 the river overflowed its banks. On the 5th all the settlers abandoned the colony seeking higher ground. The river would rise for 20 days and in places the settlement had a depth of water estimated at 16 feet. What did they save? First came the cattle then the grain, furniture and utensils. The water reached so high people had to break through the roofs of their houses to salvage what they could. Meanwhile ice flows cut everything in their path.

From The 1826 Flood, by George Siamandas [Winnipeg Time Machine]
A few unique facts about the Red River of the North:
- The Red River Valley is the youngest major land surface in the contiguous United States...it was exposed when glacial Lake Agassiz finished draining about 9,200 years ago, whereas most U.S. rivers are millions of years old.

- A normal river occupies a channel with a floodplain on the sides and valley walls immediately adjacent to the floodplain; the Red occupies a channel in a flat lakebed and the nearest valley walls are miles away, allowing its floodwaters to move "as shallow sheets that meet with other shallow sheets..."

- Unlike most U.S. rivers, the Red flows north - spring thaw starts in the southern valley before the northern valley, causing ice jams, backwater flow, and floods.

- The river slopes like a bowling lane, so gradual it's almost imperceptible to the naked eye. That gives the river a tendency to pool, spilling out as a shallow lake 50-60 miles wide at times.

From Have We Seen a Big Flood? (Fargo Forum, April 12, 2009)