The ancient beaches of Lake Agassiz are subtle features in the landscape, generally unnoticed except by persons specifically looking for them. I recognize some of the beaches when I cross them, but am too geologically ignorant to discern most of them.
I do claim to know something about books, however. So I am embarrassed to confess how undiscerning I was on first reading Bill Redekop’s new book, Lake Agassiz: The Rise and Demise of the World’s Greatest Lake. I’ll resume my confession in a minute, but first to explain what I’m talking about.
Bill Redekop is a fine journalist in Winnipeg who takes particular delight in exploring the prairie landscape and drawing our attention to its wonders. He has published this book on Lake Agassiz with Heartland, a publishing house in the Peg. The work is, of course, of considerable interest here in the southern reaches of the valley, and its implications stretch far across the state of North Dakota, but it’s sort of an outlaw book, here, because it comes from a Canadian publisher.
It’s such a wonderful book that you may want to make inquiries with your favorite (wink, wink) independent bookstore and see if it might have a speakeasy copy for you.
Bill’s subject, Lake Agassiz, is the geological basis for the Red River Valley. It was a glacial lake, formed when the frozen masses of the Ice Ace began to retreat and melt, producing unfathomable quantities of melt water, but remained in the north to block the water’s outlet to Hudson Bay. Thus this great inland lake, the largest known to history, which existed in its various permutations from about 13,000 years before present to about 8500 YBP.
My embarrassment is this. I was captivated by Chapter 14, entitled “Campbell Beach: Far Away in Time,” in which Bill traverses the ancient shoreline through Arden, the Crocus Capital of Manitoba, and other serene prairie towns, and through sublimely pastoral landscapes. I thought, this is Bill being Bill, unfolding the terrain for our wonderment.
My wife, who was driving at the time, noted my appreciative mutterings and, glancing across, pointed out to me that Chapter 14 had a blue graphic spanning the page-folds that is not used for the rest of the book. Then she asked, does the chapter have color photographs? Do the other chapters have color photographs. Answer yes, and then no.
As a publisher and editor, she delighted to observe how Bill and his publisher and his designer had taken me in. They knew this chapter was the the most compelling one in the book, and they maximized its impact on me, without me realizing why.
For which I am not resentful, but grateful. Bill, you see, does pretty well as a historian. He informs us about Louis Agassiz, for whom the lake is named, and about Warren Upham, who explored and named it. We can learn a lot from the whole book–but it truly comes to life when Bill is in and on the landscape, himself delighting in it. “I tried blending a study of geology with local knowledge,” Bill writes. “I found following beach ridges proved to be a unique brand of tourism. . . . It’s scenic in a way that we’re not used to thinking about scenery.”
Exploration and imagination, in the admixture proposed by Bill Redekop–this is how we may bring the landscape alive for sleepy travelers of the Red River Valley.