u n c o v e r I r a q . c o m

[First published in the Minnepaolis StarTribune on April 25, 2005]

Red Lake, the Pope, and the Drifting Queen
by Drew Hamre

Death haunts the news this spring, whether from Rome, from Florida, or from Red Lake. We throw nuggets of history at these stories, without leaving a dent, and politicians drape banners over the deathbeds, but not everyone salutes. The impermanent passes, while spring rains bring new life to the northern marsh.

Upper and Lower Red Lake are living remnants of Glacial Lake Agassiz. Ten thousand years ago, Agassiz was the largest lake on Earth, stretching from the border between the Dakotas up to near Hudson Bay. At peak, Agassiz held more water than all the world's lakes today.

The Red Lake River flows down Agassiz's ancient lakebed. The river leaves Red Lake Nation amid water lilies and cattails, and drops through wooded banks, cliffs and farmland. It's one of the state's premier canoe routes, its waters merging with the Red River at Grand Forks to pulse up through Winnipeg and, many miles later, more circuitously, into Hudson Bay.

They say a 15-year-old girl drowned near Agassiz's shores about 10,000 years ago. Her skeleton was uncovered by highway crews near Pelican Rapids in 1931, beneath a layer of ancient clam shells with an elk's-horn dagger nearby. She may have eaten mammoth; she may have hidden from the great cats in the shadow of glaciers. "Minnesota Woman" rewrote history, and pushed back the date for humans in North America by several thousand years. The native peoples claimed her, and in 1999 she was reinterred in South Dakota.

Who can resist the water's lure? A child of Red Lake could throw sumac leaves on the Red Lake River and imagine they swirl to the Arctic.

The future Pope John Paul II visited the Agassiz basin in 1969 (when the young Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was awarded Manitoba's "Order of the Buffalo Hunt"), and then again as pontiff in 1984.

During his second visit, the pope led a mass for 300,000 people amid the glacial eskers of Winnipeg's Birds Hill Park. Near the pope's pulpit, geologists say, Agassiz's surf once pounded the coast. Turn back the clock 8,000 years, and the pope would feel the spray on his face.

When Agassiz finally burst its banks it changed the world, returning our hemisphere to ice for 400 years. One spill added a half-meter to the world's oceans, possibly flooding the tabletop plains of the Persian Gulf to be noted in Genesis and Gilgamesh. The same water circulates today. Rain falls out of the past and onto our foreheads.

The Red River is Lake Agassiz's vestigial spine. Queen Elizabeth ceremoniously crossed this river in a Winnipeg water taxi in October 2002 while celebrating her 50 years as monarch.

The queen's boat ride would have been unremarkable, except that in the middle of the river the boat's engine died. The queen, Prince Philip and the boat's pilot were left to float aimlessly on the Red River for some time.

We can imagine the crowd growing silent as the queen drifted downstream, an elderly woman whom fates robbed of a normal life, who did not ask to be born an empire's figurehead, who didn't wish to bear its taint of pox and gunpowder, of Kenya and Suez. The queen retains the throne that hastened her father's death, friends say, to spare the strain on her eldest child.

That afternoon we can imagine, because it is possible, that the queen looked upriver to see a flash of maroon: sumac from Red Lake Nation, brilliant against Winnipeg's oak and ash.

In a death-haunted spring, we crave these improbable connections that weave humanity's loose threads into a bow, the unlikely encounters that remind us of the links among our human family. Though forgive us, because we should not need reminding.

There was infinite time before Minnesota Woman lived, and there will be infinite time after. Agassiz changed the Earth's climate for a spell, but is now muskeg and marsh. The waters from Red Lake Nation have flowed north beneath the drifting queen and have merged with the ocean. It's springtime, and it's raining.


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