Hitting the Trails in Thief River Falls

Jun 6, 2023Bike Trails, Biking, Kayaking, Mountain Bike Trails, Trails, Water Trails

On our last trip to Thief River Falls my wife Jen and I rode our bikes around town, but we missed the off-road and water trails. We just had to come back and we packed in a lot of sightseeing.

It felt good to stretch the legs after the road trip and we pedaled our way from the hotel to Red Robe Park, where members of the Bike Thief River Falls group were having a drop-in bike repair clinic. Glen Kajewski and Andy Mueller were gathered around the new Dero bike repair stand, helping a young father repair several children’s bikes. In absence of a bike shop in town, Kajewski said the group will hold these no-appointment repair sessions on a regular basis. These activities and the fact that Thief River Falls is relatively easy to navigate by bike, has earned the town a bronze level Bicycle Friendly Community award from the League of American Bicyclists in late 2022. We can attest that our bike trip from the hotel to the park took us on paved trails or marked bike lanes.

Before we tucked in for the night we had dinner at The Hive Bar and Grill. The inside was decorated with all kinds of items related to bees and honey and our waitress told us the owners used to keep bees commercially and their retirement gig was the restaurant. We couldn’t resist the Quacktons appetizer, that is Wontons filled with duck bacon. If you didn’t know duck bacon existed, you’re not alone. It really is sliced, cured and smoked duck breast in the bacon style. I didn’t need another reason to like bacon, but there it was, folded into a creamy sauce and served in a deep-fried wonton. To stick with the theme, I should have had the BeeLT, but the Holy Guacamole burger didn’t disappoint. Do pickle chips, bacon, cheese and guacamole make a good burger? Yes, decidedly so. Jen had the Gouda Mac Daddy with bacon and mac & cheese. I think she liked it because all I could hear between bites were words like piping hot…gooey…crispy.
We hopped back on the bikes and rode back to the hotel for the night.

A woman rides her fat tire bike on a deserted street early in the morning

The streets of Thief River Falls were deserted early the next morning and we turned our wheels toward the river again, destination breakfast. As soon as we entered the River Walk, a paved bike and pedestrian route through town, we found out where everyone was. It was the Minnesota Fishing Opener and every available spot along the banks of the Red Lake River was taken up by someone holding a fishing pole.

Jen and I firmly believe that in order to really get to know a town, you need to go to a very local establishment. In this case it was the VFW Post 2793. They serve breakfast here every day except Sunday and it’s the place to be on a Saturday morning. We sat down at a table in the square, open, well-lit room and looked around. The far corner of the breakfast hall housed a bingo board suspended from the ceiling and the rest of the available walls were adorned with flags, awards, plaques, membership lists and photos going back in time from color to black and white. The lone server was as busy as you can imagine in a room full of hungry people and the food kept appearing at the cafeteria window with a steady beat. Our breakfast came and it was good. Bacon, eggs, hash browns, coffee, OJ. No fuss, no muss.

Back in the saddle, we made our way to the Northland College Trails and got off the pavement for a little while. These woods adjacent to the school house a couple of miles of dirt trails, some of which follow the banks of the Thief River. It was early in the season and there were no signs of any spring flowers. We made our rounds at the Northland Trails following the sun (trail markers) and worked off some of our breakfast. 

Next, we rode the paved River Walk down to the Greenwood Rec Area, another area with soft trails and hard walking paths. Again, we got off the pavement and took on some more dirt through woods along the river where we watched some very brave kids jump into what had to have been very chilly water.

Most Thief River Fallsians identify as Norwegian American and every year the Snorre Lodge of the Sons of Norway takes one week to celebrate this fact during Nordic Fest. The event to kick it all off, Uff Da Day, was held at the Peder Engelstad Pioneer Village. It was across the street from the Greenwood Trails and we were headed there next.

Four helmeted Viking re-enactors pose for the crowd with spears, shields and axes

Part of the festivities was a Viking reenactment group and we were just in time for the chainmail-clad and helmeted warriors to assemble and the show to start. Luke Borsvold, leader of the Storm Wolves group, aka Norwegian Viking chieftain Bjørn Thorgrimson, introduced his gang of fighters and explained their dress and weapons. The average Viking, he said, didn’t have much for armor. In a time when metal was obtained by burning peat bogs and sifting through the ashes for useable chunks, protective metal gear was reserved for those high in status. “Who wants to see a sword fight?” he asked next and the crowd cheered. 

 They went to work with swords, spears knives, axes and shields to explain different combat techniques and the crowd applauded every new “kill”. Unlike in the 8th century, there was a post-battle photo op with the warriors. Jen jumped on the chance to have her picture taken with her weapon of choice, the long axe. “I’ll pretend to chop your head off,” she said. Love comes in so many different forms.

Inside the Historical Society building there were samples of Norwegian butter cookies, lefse and Rømmegrøt, a porridge made from sour cream, milk and flour, drizzled with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. If you’ve never had Rømmegrøt I recommend you stay away, because it’s all you want to eat from then on. It will haunt you.

We pedaled back to the hotel where we got ready for part two of our day, a kayak fishing trip. It was the Minnesota Fishing Opener, after all. Before that was lunch, however.
At Biff’s Kitchen we stopped for a quick sandwich. It had a hometown diner vibe with a dining room and an old-fashioned lunch counter. It was an hour before closing and the place was still hopping. We plopped down on the swivel stools, bolted to the floor, and waited for our sandwiches to come. My club had ham, turkey and bacon piled so high the toothpicks were struggling to keep it all together. Jen’s Frisco (think patty melt plus ham) came out hot and fast and melty,  just what she was looking for. We wasted no time and got on the water right after lunch.

A woman paddles a kayak on a river in the spring

The path of the Red Lake river through town is a sort of squiggly, upside-down V and it’s joined by the Thief River from the north. Near that intersection, at Lafave Park, a newly installed kayak launch made getting in the water easy. The kayak is supported by a cradle, and when you sit down you pull yourself toward the water gripping a railing on each side, then effortlessly glide in on rollers. We paddled up the Thief River on calm waters, just like a few other people we saw along the way. It was sunny with just a light breeze, perfect conditions for floating and casting. As we moved north up the river, past stands of trees and reed-lined banks, it was easy to forget we were just a couple of miles away from town. We spent a couple of hours casting and reeling again and again, changing lures, paddling, drifting and watching bales of turtles plop into the water when we went by a snag in the river. It was very relaxing, except the fish weren’t aware that it was fishing opener. I tried one more thing, a jig head with a white Mister Twisty tail and caught a small Northern right off the bat. Again, we lived up to our fishing motto “At least we didn’t get skunked.”

It was back to the hotel to freshen up and get a little bit of rest before our evening program. We were soon back on the bikes heading toward Southtown Lanes, Pizza and Pub. Their pizza came highly recommended and we just had to try it. We snagged a table in the bowling alley during their Glow and Bowl hours we watched the goings on in the eerie shimmer of the black light and the pulsing LEDs between the lanes while Bon Jovi gave it his all over the sound system. At the lane closest to us, Landon, who looked to be about eight, was celebrating his birthday with his parents and grandparents. He struggled with the heavy neon bowling ball, but sent it down the lane for a strike. With arms raised high and fists clenched tight he watched the sweeper clear the pin deck and the X appear on the scoreboard. He let out a roar “Best birthday ever!”
The four-meat pizza we ordered was crispy, cheesy, delicious and gone in a flash.

There was one last stop to make. After all of this action the unusually quiet patio of Rivers and Rails Brewing was just what we needed. It overlooks the Thief River at a railroad bridge, hence the brewery’s name. Mesmerized by the water, Jen sipped her No Name Blonde and soon collapsed into a heap. I was nursing my Unintentional Streamliner and felt the effects of our non-stop action that started at 7am. We were alone on the patio; the sun began to set and the reflections of the street lights on the First Street bridge shimmered in the rippling waters as a gaggle of kayaks floated by. We had front row seats to a show called night in Thief River Falls and we had the only tickets.

Sunday was set aside for a visit to Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, but we had to have breakfast first. We had never been to a Mexican restaurant that early in the morning, but here we were, ordering breakfast burritos at a booth at Las Ranitas. All the trimmings were there: Brightly colored walls, Chunky, carved furniture depicting charros on horses, flowers and mariachi violin players. The main dining room was made to resemble a plaza with colorful garlands and a wall fountain. Part of me wanted a margarita, but I ordered coffee instead. We enjoyed our breakfast while the Banda music played in the background. Jen’s sausage and egg burrito hit the spot and my chorizo burrito was not Minnesota hot, it was actually hot.

61,000-acre Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge stands out from the map as a green patch within the checkerboard of roads and farm fields that is northwestern Minnesota. The contrast is amazing. We drove through agricultural scenery for 25 miles, took one turn down a dirt road and entered into a wildlife haven. The refuge protects a huge amount of wetland and a 9,000-acre tamarack bog wilderness and is home to countless birds and mammals, including moose and wolves. There are a couple of spots with designated walking trails, but for the most part it’s a drive-through situation. We stopped at the Parker Pool observation platform to take a look at the expanse and maybe spot some birds. The sign mentioned redhead, ringneck and ruddy ducks as well as buffleheads and when we looked through the scope, all of these birds were in a nearby pond, neatly lined up they were expecting us. That was too easy. 

We moved on and got out for a short interpretive walk at the Headquarters building and then turned onto the Habitat Drive, a one-way road with a low speed limit. The narrow trail followed the shore of a larger body of water and here we saw dozens of yellow-headed blackbirds clinging to the swaying reeds, sitting on tree branches and pecking at the dusty ground in front of us. This bird is not usually around where we live, so this was a treat. I leaned out the window and let the camera click away. The 18-200 mm lens worked just fine.

As much as we would have liked to hang around and find more birds, the road was calling and it was time to go. The roads inside the refuge would make for a wonderful gravel ride, but we’ll have to do that next time.

Plan your own trip on the Visit Thief River Falls website

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About me

I’m Jan, the publisher of Minnesota Trails Magazine. I’m looking for that one trail, the next ride, a new discovery and other reasons never to sit still in Minnesota.

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