So what divides us here in Minnesota? Is it the red/blue or conservative/liberal of the political arena? Sure. The rural/urban of our landscape? Certainly. These, of course, among others, but I was thinking of the incredible geology of our beautiful state. On that we can all agree.
A few years ago while I was headed north on Hwy. 53 just past Virginia, I noticed a sign “Laurentian Divide.” Though I didn’t know anything about the Laurentian Divide, I loved the sound of the word “Laurentian” as it rolled off my tongue. At some point, I told myself, I would so some research; this seemed to be a good time.
The Laurentian Divide is Minnesota’s major continental divide and is a part of a vast, flat and rocky platform of land extending from west central Minnesota through central Canada. It was the first part of the North American continent to be elevated above sea level. About 16,000 years ago, most of Minnesota was covered by a large sheet of ice called the Wisconsin Glacier. At that time there was once a great mountain range that was eroded when the glacier melted, leaving behind the curving range of hills called the Laurentian Divide.
The Laurentian Divide, also called the Northern Divide, is a continental divide in central North America that separates the watershed of streams that flow north to the Arctic Ocean from the watershed of streams that flow south through the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. Streams on the north slope of the divide flow through Canada to the Hudson Bay. Streams on the south slope flow into Lake Superior and the Atlantic, or into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.
The Ojibwe referred to the stretch of the Laurentian Divide as the sleeping giant, or “Mesabi,” referring to the seemingly endless ridge along old white pine forests. It extends from Triple Divide Peak in northwestern Montana to the tip of the Labrador Peninsula at the 60th parallel north. The divide not only dictates whether water flows south to Lake Superior or north to Hudson Bay, its geological origin story is part of the reason iron was exposed, changing the course of humans and the nature of this region.
The Laurentian Divide is the geographical rock of the Iron Range. It was formed by a prominent array of hills known as the Giants Ridge. This ridge has been a high land for over two billion years. The name “Laurentian” is used because the granites forming the ridge are similar to, and were once thought to be related to, granites of the Laurentian Mountains in Quebec.
While the Laurentian Divide twists unevenly across Minnesota, the most scenic portions are located to the east of Bemidji, running to and through the Mesabi Iron Range and then north and east before disappearing into Canada near Lake Superior.
About five miles north of Virginia on Hwy. 53, you will find the Laurentian Divide marker. Nearby the Laurentian Divide Recreation Area serves as a trail head for Lookout Mountain hiking and ski trails. The recreation area has an information kiosk, picnic tables, grill and restrooms. Groomed cross-country ski trails wind through and around the area. The Laurentian snowmobile trail provides entry onto the Taconite Trail system and more than 2,000 miles of snowmobile trails. It also has 15 miles of hiking and ski trails and five miles of mountain bike trails.
There are many places where hikers can access the Laurentian. In the lakes area near the Mesabi range, trail systems along and over the divide include: Laurentian Divide Recreation Area near Virginia, Continental Divide Trail at Savanna Portage State Park, Cut Foot Sioux Trail near Deer River, and Giants Ridge near Biwabik.
Fall with its spectacular foliage is suggested as the perfect time to explore the Laurentian in Minnesota’s geological heritage. Perhaps I’ll see you on a trail.
Linda Hommes lives on a small farm on Camp Lake in Kimberly Township. An outdoor enthusiast, she writes nature essays, memoir and poetry.