A Canadian couple loaded their ox and cart and retraced the Red River Oxcart trail
They traveled from Winnipeg, Canada to the Crow Wing River near Staples before trailering the ox and cart the rest of the way to St. Paul.
WADENA — Some 150 years ago the squeaking sound of wooden wheels spinning on a wooden axle would have been a common sound across the open prairies and woodlands between Winnipeg, Canada and St. Paul, Minn.
The sound could be heard once again in the streets of Wadena on Tuesday, July 12.
Those traveling the Red River Oxcart Trail in the 1800s left ruts behind that in some places are still visible or in many cases marked for their historical significance in establishing those communities. Terry Doerksen read about those oxcarts in a book where the author, Pierre Bottineau, noted that no one will ever hear that squeaking sound again. Terry’s wife Patty Doerksen said her husband couldn’t stand for that.
“He said ‘no, that’s not right,’” Patty recalls. There was a historical motivation to do this as these two cities, and many in between, were established largely because of this important trail between them that allowed for the transport of goods across the expanses in North Dakota, Minnesota and Canada.
So after reading up on history and getting enough courage, a friend built an ox cart, the couple bought an ox and they set out on a journey no one has likely done in some 150 years — as far as they know. Patty agreed to come along though she drives a camper on down the road while Terry and Zik, the oxen, make their way about 10 miles down the road each day. Terry walks a great deal of that amount as well thanks to a successful double knee replacement surgery in recent years. Patty rides about an hour a day on the journey then hops off when she likes. This modern ox cart has the luxury option of an electric scooter stowed away so she can zip back and forth from the camper as needed.
The voyageurs left Winnipeg on May 17 and about a month later and some 280 miles, arrived in Perham, then on to Wadena, where they performed their first fjording of a river in Whiskey Creek. This was the first river crossing as Terry had been on the lookout over those hundreds of miles for a river that would have an easy sloping in and out.
It may not have looked just like it used to, but they used a drawing from the old days to do it as close as they could. One of the men assisting with fjording the river was Wadena resident Sam Foust, who happens to be blind and lashed the wagon wheels together swiftly with direction from Terry. The wheels were first removed, set end to end and lashed together on top of a tarp. The big difference here is that the tarp would have been buffalo hides back in the day. While there were three bison watching the process in the nearby Wadena City Zoo, no bison were involved in the fjording of the river.
With wheels secure, the group pushed the raft into the water and tipped the cart on top. It was a moment of triumph for the group in what’s been an otherwise difficult journey.
“We’ve had many times when we thought this was it, maybe we can’t go any farther,” Patty said. “I would say everyday something came up.”
The couple had issues with keeping metal shoes on Zik as the journey was difficult on his feet. The cart had some difficulties along the way and took more than a few screws to keep holding it together.
“There were a few psychological crises,” Patty said with a laugh. “I remember saying, ‘we could quit.’”
But this was important to Terry. He’s been known to take on adventures like paddling, snowshoeing or long walks, all while praying for the city, country and world. He also loves history. This journey would be bigger than anything else he'd taken on. And it would require missing out on some niceties they were used.
Patty admits she was grumpy about going, but she’s found the journey to be filled with joys brought on by strangers along the way. They had some plans about key checkpoints, such as the Canadian Border, but other stops along the way were totally unknown to them. They truly relied on the kindness of strangers to allow them to set up camp on their property.
“There’s just been tons of great things about the trip, No. 1 is the people,” Patty said. “People after people helped.”
Like the Woods and Foust families from Wadena who just so happen to love history and be involved in fur trader and civil war reenacting. What are the odds that a guy on an oxcart should roll into their town?
After Wadena, the group rode on to Old Wadena County Park to visit the Crow Wing River, near Staples, another one of the important crossing points for those involved in trade in the area back in the 1800s. Terry wanted to at least make it that far before the ox and cart and the Doerksen’s load up and are trailered down to St. Paul for the final leg of the journey down to the Mississippi River. They plan to complete that leg the weekend of July 16 and 17.
That would be the end of the road for the ox cart portion of the journey. The couple planned to continue on to St. Louis by paddle boat.
It’s unclear if the couple will have a book of their own coming out of this journey.
“We certainly have the material,” Patty said.
Follow the couple's journey from the beginning on their Facebook page at “ Oxcart down the Red River Trail .”