Spirit River Nature Area 


You are invited to enjoy the exceptional variety of environments in the Spirit River Nature Area, appreciate the natural wonders that surround us, learn about the history of the land and walk for health and well-being. This is a cooperative effort of the city of Cambridge, the Cambridge Campus of Anoka-Ramsey Community College and Isanti County Active Living.

The Rum River was known to the native Dakota people as “Watpa Wakan” or the Great Spirit River.

History of the land

As you walk about the Spirit River Nature Area, you are stepping on sands laid down by the outwash of rivers and lakes left from the melting of the last glacier to cover most of Isanti County about 11,000 years ago. Below these exposed sands are glacial tills from previous glaciations and below that is bedrock of Cambrian sandstone and shale.

The Isanti Indians used this river basin for at least a thousand years as a traMN biomes-final copyvel corridor to access bison hunting grounds, wild ricing areas, sacred sites ( such as St. Anthony Falls), villages of friends, relatives and allies from their major villages by their sacred lake: Mille Lacs. The trails are identified by the names of the 4 tribes of the Eastern Dakota (Isanti).

Daniel Greysolon Sieur Dulhut was the first European to visit the Isanti at their main villages in 1679 and was the first to record the name Isanti and later used the spelling Izatys. Father Louis Hennepin was taken unwillingly by a war party of 33 canoes of Isanti somewhere around Dubuque and taken to Mille Lacs in 1680. He published his adventures along with a map where the name is spelled “Issati.” Isanti refers to the principal villages by Mille Lacs – now called Kathiio – and also to the four tribes of the Eastern Dakota. Dulhut or Duluth returned to Minnesota in 1680- and negotiated the release of Hennepin and two companions. They all traveled on the Rum River.

The Ojibwa drove the Dakota out of their villages on and around Mille Lacs in 1745. the Rum River thereafter became a disputed area between the Indian Tribes.

In 1820, logs were taken from the Rum River Basin for the construction of Fort Snelling. Extensive logging took place after 1848. Daniel Stanchfield wrote in 1847 “The pine reaches as far as the eye can see from the top of the highest tree.” The logging along the Rum River lasted for about 40 years.

Swedish settlers began arriving along the Rum River in 1860. The land of the Spirit River Nature Area has been used as farm fields and pasturelands. The Green family had pastureland south of Highway 95 and lived north of the highway so a cattle pass under the road was constructed – the old highway is now the paved trail to the college. The open area along the river south of the oxbow was a farm field of the state hospital. Hospital patients using horses, under the direction of the state hospital farmer, Oscar Lee, planted oats and corn there.

Ecosystems of the land

An ecosystem is composed of a community of living organisms interacting with its living and nonliving environment. Some are aquatic ecosystems, such as rivers, ponds or lakes, and some are terrestrial ecosystems. The locations of the large terrestrial ecosystems, referred to as biomes, are primarily determined by temperature and precipitation. Minnesota contains portions of the following three major biomes: northern coniferous forest, deciduous forest and prairie. As you walk along the trails of the Spirit River Nature Area you will see signs with information relating to these biomes as well as to a wetland, a floodplain forest, the Rum River basin, an oxbow lake and kame.

The prairie includes a variety of grasses and forbs, which are herbs not in the grass family. Watch throughout the growing season as the colors change. In early summer Black Eyed Susan will be blooming along with Common Ox Eye, followed by Purple Prairie Clover, several species of Blazing Star, and in later fall Goldenrod and Aster.

The prairie area near the college campus is being carefully managed by periodic prescribed burning. Fires are necessary to stop the encroachment of trees and many exotic grasses and herbs into the prairie. As you walk up the hill on the Sisseton Trail, south of the kiosk by the campus, you will notice grassland that is not being managed with prescribed burns. Look for a variety of young trees, such as Eastern Redcedar and Paper Birch, growing with the grasses. Off to the left you will see a clump of Trembling (Quaking) Aspen, another sun-loving tree. It is considered a pioneer species; one that typically is replaced over time by shade tolerant trees through the process of ecological succession.

To the south of the grassland you will see a sign entitled Deciduous Forest. This site is being managed to represent a climax community of shade tolerant trees, such as Sugar Maple and American Basswood.

When you walk down the next hill be sure to read the sign entitled Rum River Basin before you head back to the east, dropping into the floodplain forest. Notice the change in the composition of the plant community. Up on the bluff there are many Box Elder and Pin Oak, but down in the floodplain the dominant species is Silver Maple, a tree that has a broad range of tolerance for moisture.

Continuing to the right you move around a crescent shaped body of water, an oxbow lake. Sometime in the past the eroding action of the rushing water broke through one of the bends in the meandering river. This oxbow lake is the home for many species of plants and animals, as described on the oxbow sign. Read, also, about the interesting little hill that can be seen from the sign.

The coniferous forest contains a variety of cone bearing evergreen trees, including several different species of pine, spruce, and cedar. A clump of Tamarack, a cone bearing tree that loses its needles every fall, can also be seen.

Wetlands function as natural filters for water on its way into the aquifer, an underground reservoir, as well as habitat for many wildlife species. Listen for various songs of croaking frogs that inhabit the wetland.

by Phil Anderson, Bill Carlson, Mary Januschka, Kim Lynch, and Brad Wold

The signage, maps, brochures and interpretive materials are made possible by a grant from the Blandin Foundation.


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