Monday, September 20, 2010

Caribou Pilgrimage

St. Nicholas was built in 1905

This past weekend, my partner Bill and I went on a Minnesota safari of sorts. We packed up a lunch, put the hiking boots on, and hit the road for Caribou Township in Northeastern Kittson County, a land of myth for me.

I know some people reading that will be amused by my description, or even perplexed. Why 'myth', you ask? Well, it's because I had heard about Caribou all my growing up, spoken of in such mysterious ways by adults that would not or could not explain to me where it was or what it meant. So I have had it in the back of my mind for years, half-forgotten and not much thought of. But once I began throwing myself more fully into local history research, it popped up in my mind's eye again and would not go away.

Yesterday's trip was part nostalgia1, but mostly discovery. I remembered the countryside, but mostly like a memory from a dream. There were few people or vehicles to be seen once we headed north of Lake Bronson towards Caribou. 
One of the trails we explored; some
were far less visible than this...
Once in the heart of the township, it became even more sparce. Trees, rocks, and cattle along with several hawks and falcons gliding in the currents overhead, was all to be seen. We weren't dead sure where we were going, only having a rough idea from emails from a reader of this blog who had grown up in the area. It wasn't that his directions were bad or wrong, just very organic. In an area that has incomplete (at best) signage, being sure of where you are is an art, not a science. By the time the day was done, we understood things much better than when we started. That said, we still got lost in much of our searches, including one for a settler's log cabin (the reader's ancestor), and another for a former old schoolhouse no longer used, but supposedly well-preserved. The former resident and native told us if we found it, not to reveal it's location. Well, he can rest assured of it's location, wherever that is, because we were unable to find it, and trust me, we tried hard, tromping through woods, pastures, along the Roseau River's banks, and driving down marginal 'roads' worthy of any 4-wheeler. We weren't shy. We tried, but failed.

We were able to locate and take in the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Church.2. The church's cemetery, located just south of the Church itself, was full of Ukrainian-style crosses. Pure White, they topped tombstones with what looked like hand-carved inscriptions highlighed with black paint. Most of the burials were from long ago, but a few were more recent. Someone is maintaining the grounds and cemetery, and there was a guestbook in a covered mailbox-like container attached to the back of the church, which we signed. The books in there had signatures from people from all over North America and overseas. The little church has touched many lives. One earlier visitor wrote that the place was so serene and peaceful, it was magical. I must agree. You sit there and may not hear anything but the wind for long periods of time.

I am thankful for one luxury that St. Nicolas' provided - a two-seater outhouse, which I availed myself of while visiting the area. It was a long ways to a public toilet otherwise!

1 - I remembered my Mom taking me out into Caribou on a work day one summer, when she was visiting residents in that area of the county in her capacity as a Homemaker for Kittson County Welfare. To my young eyes, used to the flat, open country of the valley close to the Red River of the North, it was eye-opening to see that my own county had much different topography with heavily wooded areas, rocky terrain, and abundant marshes. It was a whole other ball game in that part of the county - not much farming, but a lot of subsistence living, including running cattle, grazing them on marginal land.

2 - From my research, it appears that many Ukrainian Orthodox churches were built in the region, in what is now known as southern Manitoba, and also in northwestern Minnesota. One of them was St. Michael's in the Arbakka District on the Manitoba side of the border, and another was the St. Nicholas' in the Caribou area of Minnesota's Kittson County. For some reason, some people have misidentified St. Nicholas (aka the Caribou Church) as St. Michael, and that is incorrect. If you're reading this and know the area, please tell me if my conclusions are wrong, but I don't think so.

Another resource that confirms my conclusions is a book called They Chose Minnesota, published by the Minnesota Historical Society.