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Red River of the North

Most North Dakotans know that the Red River forms the border between North Dakota and Minnesota. But other aspects, such as knowledge of the source of the river, and where it goes after flowing into Manitoba are perhaps less well known.

The Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota is, of course, a bit of a misnomer. It is more accurately the lakebed of glacial Lake Agassiz. And the subject of that old cowboy tune about the Red River Valley is probably about the Red River in Texas, although the debate continues.

The source of the Red River of the North is the confluence of the Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail rivers near Wahpeton-Breckenridge. From there the river meanders northward through Fargo-Moorhead and Grand Forks-East Grand Forks before reaching the Manitoba border near Pembina, North Dakota and Emerson, Manitoba.

Northward from the Manitoba border, the Red River continues flowing northward to Winnipeg, where, at “The Forks,” the Assiniboine River merges with the Red. Then about thirty miles north of Winnipeg the Red River flows into Lake Winnipeg. The total length of the Red River has been estimated to be about 400 miles.

Lake Winnipeg is one big lake. It trends north northwest for about 250 miles and covers over 9,000 square miles. For comparison, I checked the North Dakota Game and Fish’s map of Devils Lake. They list the surface area for Devils Lake as a little over 110,000 acres, or roughly 173 square miles. So, Lake Winnipeg is around 52 times larger than Devils Lake.

But that is not the end of the travels of Red River water. With input from the Red River and Winnipeg River drainage systems and the Saskatchewan River system, the Nelson River flows out of Lake Winnipeg northward then northeast until it flows into Hudson Bay near York Factory.

On a related note, some of you may recall that as a young man Velva native (and to become CBS news correspondent) Eric Sevareid canoed from Minneapolis, up the Minnesota River, then the Red River, Lake Winnipeg, and the Nelson River to York Factory in the summer of 1930. If you are looking for some interesting winter reading, his book Canoeing with the Cree, first published in 1935, is still widely available.

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