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Lake Traverse straddles the border of Minnesota's Central tourism region and South Dakota's northeastern Great Lakes and Prairie region. Covering more than 11,000 acres, this geologically unique lake is the southernmost body of water in the Hudson Bay watershed of North America. In pre-history, the south end of Lake Traverse was the southern outlet of glacial Lake Agassiz across the Traverse Gap into Glacial River Warren - the river that carved the valley now occupied by the present-day Minnesota River. Lake Traverse is drained at its north end by the northward-flowing Bois de Sioux River, a tributary of the Red River of the North. A low continental divide separates the land at the southern shore of Lake Traverse from the Little Minnesota River - a part of the Mississippi River System. The narrow lake is joined by two other nearby similar lakes within the Little Minnesota River basin: Big Stone Lake and Lac Qui Parle. These two lakes lie northwest to southeast, where Lake Traverse lies southwest to northeast. For this reason, Native Americans in the area reported to early French explorers that the lake was named Mdehdakinyan, meaning "lake lying crosswise". The French explorers translated that as Lac Travers and it became Lake Traverse.
For nearly 200 years, the only European visitors to the Lake Traverse area were fir trappers and traders. Records show a trading post located on the lakefront as early as 1786. The Hudson Bay Company established a post here in 1792. The land was gradually settled by settlers after the Homestead Act was passed in 1862. Many were Swedish farm families who lived in sod houses until they could build homes. Land around the lake proved fertile for growing wheat, but winter wheat didn't fare well in the harsh winters. After a better method of milling spring wheat was made available, the Lake Traverse area became prime wheat farming lands. A stern-wheel tug boat soon was nudging barges filled with wheat down the lake to the rail head. In winter, specially-constructed grain wagons were pulled across the ice by teams of horses. And, of course, the lake was a welcome spot for fishing, swimming and picnicking during church outings and on holidays. Early settlers often augmented the family diet with waterfowl and fish obtained from the lake.
Over the years, several small settlements were born and then faded away along the Lake Traverse shore. None now exist except for Wheaton, about four miles east of the lake and Brown's Valley a short distance from the south end of the lake. In 1936, construction was begun by the Army Corps of Engineers on the Lake Traverse Flood Control Project. Completed in 1941, the project consisted of building a dike along the continental divide to assure separation between Lake Traverse and Big Stone Lake in times of high water. A dam was constructed across the outlet at the north end of the lake and another at the outlet of smaller Mud Lake just downstream. This benefited flood control along the Bois de Sioux River and lower Red River valley, as well as water conservation for frequent periods of drought. Recreation facilities are provided at White Rock Dam (on Mud Lake), Reservation Control Dam (Lake Traverse) and the Browns Valley Dike. All include picnic areas, shoreline fishing areas and privies. Several boat access sites are provided around the lake. No camping is provided at the Corps sites but campsites are available at Traverse County Park and at other locations around the lake.
Although there are no towns along the shore, there are several scattered areas of development. Several resorts have existed here for many years to serve fishing and hunting tourism. Development is a mixture of year-round homes and summer cottages and hunting cabins. Vacation rentals are often available in the area, many on the lakefront or with lake views. Once in a while, the lucky visitor may even secure one of the cottages on Jackson Island. Although not the Jackson Island of Huck Finn fame, this Jackson Island is likely an even better place for fishing and isolation. Several other small islands are mostly uninhabited. Other lodgings are available in Wheaton and Browns Valley and real estate can often be found available in the surrounding area.
In summer, there are fishing, boating, water-skiing, picnicking and nature watching at both Lake Traverse and adjacent Mud Lake. All sorts of water sports are enjoyed, including sailing, power boating, jet skiing, tubing, pontooning, canoeing, kayaking and swimming. There are many aquatic birds such as herons, egrets, grebes, pelicans and cormorants who visit the lake. As part of the migratory flyway, spring and fall often provide opportunities to view visiting ducks in wide variety as they stop at the shallow lake. The primary fish species caught in Lake Traverse are walleye, northern pike, bullheads, crappies, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, bluegill, white bass, channel catfish, freshwater drum and perch. Minnesota DNR maintains a stocking program to assure abundant fishing year round.
Winter ice fishing is a popular activity as fishermen, bundled against the elements, engage in a deadly duel with the wily walleye, pike and perch. The shallow lake is an ideal spot to spear from a 'dark house', or unlit shanty to make the fish easier to see under a large spearing hole. Recommended fish consumption guidelines are available at the DNR website. For the shore-bound, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling can be engaged in on the quiet county roads and at the Wildlife Management Areas maintained by the Corps and the DNR around the two lakes. The 1,512 acres of wildlife management areas are open to public hunting in appropriate season. Check with the DNR for specific hunting regulations.
Wheaton and Browns Valley will provide groceries, ice and sundries for the visitor. Wheaton also has a golf course, movie theater, supermarket and shopping. Several festivals and community activities throughout the year are geared toward making visitors feel welcome. As the lake is 95 miles from Fargo, ND and 200 miles from Minneapolis, the area is somewhat remote and guaranteed to be a quiet, enjoyable vacation spot. So, leave the big city and the 'rat race' behind and come to enjoy the solitude on Lake Traverse. You'll wonder why you took so long to get here!
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