Serendipity is the best part of travel, and the International Peace Garden is a destination that provides an unexpected juxtaposition of elements that both surprise and delight.
My visit to the Peace Garden was the result of serendipity. Korrie Wenzel, publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, asked for half a dozen North Dakota-centered travel pieces during the summer months. He liked the idea of a Peace Garden piece, since the Garden is mentioned on the state license plates. Tim Chapman, the director of the Garden, wanted advice about birding there. Here, I realized, was a chance to kill two birds, as the saying goes, (though that’s not an expression appropriate to the Peace Garden).
I am acquainted with the Garden. I served on its board of directors for nearly a decade, but like many volunteer board members, I’d never spent an extended time in the Garden, and many of my visits were “official,” not the more relaxed kind that tourists would make. This would be my longest ever stay in the Garden, with time enough to explore and to know it more fully.
The Garden, it turned out, is tailor-made for serendipity.
The International Peace Garden straddles the border between the United States and Canada. It is the only place where people can cross freely without reporting to any checkpoint. That doesn’t mean the boundary is invisible – far from it. In fact, the boundary defines the International Peace Garden. Nor does the Garden provide an easy way to sneak into either country. There’s only one way out. Turn left toward Canada and you’re confronted with a border barrier. Same thing when you turn right into the United States.
Still, as a guide to North Dakota buildings suggests, “The Peace Garden is a kind of stateless area.” More about this later.
In other ways as well, the Garden is an interstice — a gap or an opening space in another solid mass.
It is a formal garden in a natural setting. Planners have made use of the landscape to create sweeping views across formal gardens to distant lakes and forested hills, interrupting these with structures meant to punctuate the Garden’s commitment to peace.
The Garden is located in a particularly difficult spot; the growing season is a couple of weeks shorter than areas surrounding the Turtle Mountains, where the Garden is located. There are significant ponding problems. White-tailed deer damage the plantings and forced the Garden to erect a fence, which diminishes the openness of the Garden but enormously improved the survival of its plants — as well as extending the “show” from a month in the fall to the entire summer season.
The Garden also contains an extraordinary cactus collection — only a few steps from a sunken garden.
The Garden is both inspirational and memorial, so it creates a kind of open space between hope and regret. The Peace Chapel, built on the border itself, includes inspirational quotes about peace — between individuals and nations — while a carillon tolls the hours in memory of war dead from these two long-standing allies.
Quotes from world leaders are inscribed on its limestone walls; these are inspiring, but they aren’t inclusive. There are few women’s voices — I found only one — and no quotations from Muslim leaders. And none from indigenous people.
That oversight will be corrected at a ceremony later in the summer, when the people of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa will be invited to display their tribal flag and offer a quote to be chiseled on the chapel’s limestone walls. It’s a gesture of reconciliation similar to Gov. Doug Burgum’s decision to display tribal flags in the Memorial Hall of the state capitol.
Opposite the carillon, across an expansive open space, is a memorial to those killed in the 9/11 attacks on New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pa., Although the memorial is on the U.S. side of the border, it acknowledges the role Canadians played on that awful day — displaying exemplary humanity and friendship, when the town of Gander took in American travelers turned back by the event.
The monument exists in that space between regret and gratitude, loss and hope.
This was meaningful for me for another reason. I’m a Rotarian, and Rotary clubs in Brandon, Manitoba, and Minot, N.D., provided funds for the memorial.
Throughout the Garden buildings, benches and flower beds are credited to various organizations that have taken an interest in this unique Garden. These contribute to a sense of otherworldliness at the Garden, a feeling that you’ve stumbled into an area beyond your own experience.
As an American, I’m always struck by references to “The Imperial Order of the Daughters of the British Empire in the United States.” Among other organizations credited are the Masons, Order of Eastern Star and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which with many others have been supportive of the Garden.
The collection of buildings at the Garden itself opens a window on a critical moment in the shared history of these two countries. Many of the buildings at the Garden were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s relief projects. The CCC employed young men at $1 a day. They stayed at camp at nearby Kelvin, N.D. — now an open spot in the road with a restaurant, bar and a couple of gas pumps.
Among the CCC undertakings were “hand dug lakes,” now integral parts of the landscape, as well as fieldstone buildings and monuments. The largest of these is the “Henry J. Moore American Lodge,” built by American “boys” on American soil but named for the Canadian landscape architect who imagined the Peace Garden.
CCC crew also built picnic shelters, water control structures and the like — enough to provide near constant reminders of the Depression years and the nation’s response. My personal favorite of these is the Overlook Picnic Area sponsored by North Dakota Order of the Eastern Star. It stands above Lake Udall, which was hand dug by CCC crew. The shelter itself contains a fireplace with a hand wrought metal hook that not only would hold a pot above a fire in the stone fireplace, but also allowed the pot to be moved away from the fire — keeping the coffee warm after the pot had boiled. Curiously, the andirons seem to be missing. These were meant to meant to hold firewood.
Alas, the shelter appeared not to have been used so far this year.
The surrounding trees and the lake below turned out to be the “birdiest” area in the Garden, producing more species than any other spot.
The shelter stands near the soccer pitch maintained by the Royal Canadian Legion Athletic Camp, which draws several hundred young athletes yearly, sometimes including Canadian Olympians. This is one of two youth camps in the Garden; the other, the International Music Camp, draws more than 2,000 young people each year. Their performances are features of the Garden’s summer schedule.
The shelter is near the North American Game Warden Museum. It’s worth a visit.
Children may enjoy the mounts of wild creatures — many with their mouths open displaying their fangs. The museum has a somber purpose, too. It memorializes game that management officials killed in the line of duty. Their names are engraved on marble panels on a plaza overlooking Lake Udall. There are two names on the panel devoted to North Dakota; those devoted to the National Park Service have the most names, and probably the youngest average age.
Also new is the Interpretive Center and Conservatory with its cactus and succulent collection, accumulated by Don Vitko. The variety of species is incredible; the collection includes about 6,000 plants of 4,500 species. Vitko, who grew up at Tolley, N.D., began collecting cacti as a child; by his retirement, the collection moved to a commercial greenhouse in Minot. When that was damaged by the Souris River Flood of 2011, he sought a more secure place. His plants were moved to the Peace Garden, providing another of those surprising juxtapositions that characterize the place. A collection built by Ernie Brown of Winnipeg, known as Dr. Cacti, will be moved to the Garden this year.
This kind of cooperation began with the birth of the Garden. Each nation donated land, the U.S. about 800 acres and Canada about 1,500 acres. About 10% is included in the formal garden itself. The Canadian side of the Garden — the larger area — remains wilder; the camps, much of the administrative structure, the conservatory and the CCC buildings are on the American side of the border. The memorial carillon is on the Canadian side — by a few yards — while the Peace Chapel and the entrance plaza straddle the 49th parallel.
Until 2016, a Peace Tower interrupted the view along the border. This was removed because it had become unstable. Now, the eye moves to the low-slung Peace Chapel, especially impressive at night, when the light glowing through its clerestory windows makes it visible at the western end of the open field along the border.
The 2019 North Dakota Legislature made $6 million available for deferred maintenance at the Garden. The government of Manitoba has pledged an equivalent amount — following long established precedent. Although decision-making is sometimes difficult, the two countries have shared responsibility for the Garden.
My own experience on the board made me much more aware of the opportunities democratic government makes available — and the diplomatic courtesy required to make things happen in a stateless area.
Just inside the entrance, the Garden’s mission statement is mounted on a stone cairn and framed with stone hammers picked from the prairie — left behind by indigenous people pursuing their own aspirations at the center of the continent.
To God and His Glory,
we two nations
dedicate this Garden
and pledge ourselves
That as long as men
shall live, we will
not take up arms
against one another.
Coming up at the Garden
July 5: Ice Cream Social and Old-Fashioned Band Concert, 8 p.m.
July 6-7: Triathlon Weekend (mixed relay, spring, duathlon, kids’ race)
July 12: Concert. Those Guys. 8 p.m.
July 14: 87th Anniversary of the Garden
July 19: International Music Camp Jazz Faculty Big Band Concert, 8 p.m.
July 26-27: National Youth Orchestra of Luxembourg, 8 p.m.
August 10: Smokey the Bear’s Birthday party, 1 p.m.
August 23: Gala in the Garden fundraising event
More information about the International Peace Garden
If you go
Visiting the Garden involves a border crossing. The Peace Garden advises in its publicity, “Because you will depart through customs you will need a passport or government-issued ID with copy of birth certificate.” Minors should have a birth certificate.
If you want to extend your trip to other destinations in the area, stop at one of the highway rest stops along U.S. Highway 2 and pick up a copy of Turtle MTN Guide. You’ll recognize it by the photo of a kayaker on the cover.
Lodging is available in Bottineau, Dunseith, Rugby and Rolla. Best make reservations; the area can be crowded on summer weekends. The Garden itself has camping, but no motels.
Boissevain, Manitoba, about 10 miles north of the Garden, also has lodging. It’s a town well worth visiting. Information about Canadian destinations is available at the Garden.
Food is available at the Garden Interpretive Center from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Try the poutine, a Quebec specialty perhaps best described as “gravy fries.”