Our Wahpeton Adventure: Chahinka-what?

What a busy week it’s been! I can’t believe a week has already passed since we got lost in Wahpeton, and I am so glad to finally be able to sit down and write about it. This morning we’re on our way to Jamestown for two days, and we can’t wait to get lost in the Buffalo City. Please feel free to send us your recommendations – we have had some great experiences already thanks to your feedback! You can email us to dine@sarellos.com, send us a Tweet, post on our Facebook page, or make a comment right here on the blog.

With a major fundraising event happening at Sarello’s this past Monday, we were only able to take a day drip last Sunday, so we focused on staying local and made Wahpeton our destination. (The event was the 7th Annual Sarello’s Dinner for the Opera, and this year we raised a record $62,200 year to benefit the Fargo-Moorhead Opera.)

Side note: I have to say how impressed I am with Tony’s commitment to getting Lost on the Prairie with us this summer. You see, this same day, Italy was playing Spain in the first-round game of the EuroCup Soccer Tournament, but Tony had declined an invitation to watch the game with his friend Dante, who is from the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Italy and now teaches at NDSU. For Tony to forego Italian Soccer AND a chance to socialize with an authentic Italian is a really big deal. But, this just goes to show how much fun we’ve been having on the prairie this summer. Forza Azzurri!

After doing a little pre-trip research, we all decided that the majority of our time would be spent at Chahinkapa Park, which is home to the terrific Chahinkapa Zoo, a public water slide park, beautiful park grounds with great wild bird life, and of course, the famous Prairie Rose Carousel. We had fun laughing at each other’s interpretations of how to say “Chahinkapa,” and Tony kept it going by saying “Chahinka-what?”

GIovanni and I stayed inside at home on Saturday evening, packing up our feast for Sunday’s picnic in the park. It was 95 degrees in Fargo, and we were happy to have a project that required us to be indoors. Sunday’s forecast was to be much milder – temps reaching the low 80s, with a scattered thundershower here and there. We sliced bread, ate pickles, washed fruit, packed up our Italian cold cuts and tucked it away in the refrigerator for the night.

Sunday morning came and we were out the door by 9:45 am, en route to a great breakfast in Wahpeton, thanks to social media. Just prior to leaving, I’d sent out a quick tweet on Twitter, asking for a good breakfast place recommendation. ND Tourism re-tweeted my tweet, and within minutes someone who followed ND Tourism tweeted that we should go to the Hills 210 Cafe. (Whew – that’s a mouthful of tweets!)

We put some new “Lost on the Prairie” signs on our Honda CR-V, hopped onto I-29 and headed south for Wahpeton. About 15 minutes outside of Fargo one of our signs began flapping in the wind, so we pulled off onto a *gravel* road just four miles east of Pleasant.

While Tony and I fixed the sign, Giovanni took this opportunity to get out his binoculars and look for some cool prairie birds. He was walking up and down the grassy shoulder as a pick-up truck began to approach us. Tony, still not quite comfortable on a gravel road, called out to Gio to get back in the car, which Gio promptly ignored. As the truck came closer, Tony’s agitation was evident as he howled to Gio, “Get back in the car!” I shot Tony a look, to which he replied, “What? There’s a truck coming, and I just want to make sure he’s off the road.” (Note: Gio was nowhere near the road during this time…)

And here comes the good part. As we’re standing next to our car on this quiet gravel road just off of I-29, the pick-up truck slowed down until it stopped right in front of us. As Tony protectively gripped my arm while hissing to Giovanni to “Get back in the car, now!”,  the driver of the truck rolled his window down and said,

“Tony? What the heck are you doing out here? Has your car broken down? Do you need some help?”

Once again, there were no zombie-serial killer-swamp creatures on this gravel road – just two friendly fellow North Dakotans. In fact, the driver of the truck and his wife, Paul and Deb Olson of Pleasant, ND, are good customers at our restaurant, Sarello’s. Tony introduced me to them, and we explained the reason for our stop, and then told them about how we’re getting Lost on the Prairie this summer. The Olsons wished us a good trip, and we got back into our car and onto the highway.

As we drove farther south, we noticed an increase in the amount of bird life along the highway, and Tony mentioned that the Sheyenne National Grasslands were just to our west. I was impressed that he knew this, and made a mental note to try to include the Grasslands in our day if at all possible.

In just under an hour we were at the Hills 210 Cafe, and we could tell that it was the place to be on a Sunday morning. The parking lot was full, which is a good sign because it means that this is where the locals eat. We walked inside, and were lucky to get a table right away, because this place was hopping.

Brightly lit with simple, country decor, the large room was abuzz with people of all ages, enjoying large portions of their favorite breakfast foods while table-hopping to visit others. Everyone seemed to know each other, and when I asked Tony for a few words to describe the Hills 210 Cafe, the first word he said was “Community.”

We had terrific service from the staff – they seemed to work fluidly as a team, with several servers tending to our table – and the breakfast did not disappoint. The portions were generous, and Tony and Gio both enjoyed two giant pancakes with sausage, while I managed to eat almost all of my sausage and cheese omelette, toast and hash browns. Before leaving, I took a picture of Gio and Tony by the cafe’s sign outside, and sent out a quick tweet to let our Twitter friend know how much we enjoyed his recommendation.

Wahpeton is not a large town, so we decided to take in the downtown area before going to the zoo. As expected, nearly everything was closed this Sunday, so we stopped by the Wahpeton sign on Main St. to take the necessary tourist photos and then it was time for the Chahinkapa Zoo.

There was great signage around Wahpeton, so the zoo was easy to find. We bought our tickets, and the man working the ticket booth, J.P.,  noticed Tony and Gio in their Team Italia soccer jerseys and gave us an update on the game. Turns out he used to live in Germany, where he became a huge soccer fan, and he was also following the EuroCup. This small gesture went a long way in shoring up Tony’s love for Wahpeton!

Upon entering the zoo, we were greeted almost immediately by the main attraction: Bam! There are the tigers. I love it when destinations do this – this is one of my favorite things about the Academie museum in Florence, Italy. They could make you walk all the way through it before you’re able to catch a glimpse of Michelangelo’s amazing statue of David, but they don’t. They know why you’re there, and they make it easy for you to see what you came to see.

The Bengal tigers were amazing. There are two of them, a yellow one, the male, Hobbes, and a white one, the female, They live in a large, pit about 4 feet lower than ground level, and are separated from visitors by a cage, and about 3 feet. Hobbes was in great form when we arrived, and began pacing back and forth below us in the pit. Suddenly, Tony said his name, “Hobbes,” and he responded by leaping at the cage in front of us. It was an unbelievable moment.

I feel the need to explain that, while we appreciated how close-up we were able to view the animals, it did bother us to see so many animals confined to living in the small environment of their cages. The Chahinkapa Zoo staff conducts several training sessions with various animals throughout the day, and one of the zookeepers actually addressed this issue. He explained that zoos are often the only safe place remaining for some of these animals, and that they serve to create a greater awareness of the plight of many animals in today’s world. I can say that we definitely left with a deeper appreciation for wildlife after being able to see so many animals up close and personal.

The Chahinkapa Zoo is home to over 200 animals from six continents, and is located in the idyllic setting of Chahinkapa Park. Lush surroundings and diverse paths throughout the zoo made our exploration easy to navigate and full of a sense of nature. We enjoyed watching the Zookeepers work with Tal, the orangutan, as they performed basic hygiene tasks for him, and were amazed by the communication we witnessed between man and animal.

There was an impressive variety of animals to view, and we spent over two hours working our way through all the exhibits. We paid a visit to the zoo’s gift shop, and Giovanni bought a stuffed bison, which he named “Bisey,” and promptly declared that Bisey would be taBy this time we were hungry again, the wind was picking up, and the cloudy sky was becoming more overcast by the minute. We decided to find a spot in the park near the lagoon for our picnic lunch and hope for the best.

We picked a spot near the gazebo, close to the water. The big attraction here was the wild bird life – ducks and geese of all kinds were more than happy to snatch up the breadcrumbs our little bird-feeder was scattering throughout the area. As we unpacked our picnic lunch, the wind really picked up and the temperature was hovering around a cool 62 degrees – a 30+ degree drop in temperature from the 95 degree heat that nearly melted Gio and me less than 24 hours ago. Only in North Dakota!

Side note: This past winter, Fargo received the distinction of being named “America’s Toughest Weather CIty” in a contest conducted by The Weather Channel, so these extremes are just part of the North Dakota experience. We are oddly proud of this award.

I’d packed layers for both Gio and me, but Tony was ill-equipped for the unexpected cool temps, and retreated to our car half-way through the picnic. I couldn’t blame him, as the wind was definitely making this picnic a challenge. Gio, however, was having a blast with the ducks and geese, and was disappointed when it was time to leave.

Tony and I were last in Wahpeton in 2008, when he was invited to speak at an American Heart Association event at the North Dakota State School of Science. We detoured to the college to take a quick driving tour of the campus, which has some really great old buildings and is quite lovely.

After this, we decided to pay a visit to some special friends we know in Wahpeton: Dave and Muriel Hedrick, whose son, Daniel, worked for us as a (legendary) server at Sarello’s for many years before becoming an excellent realtor with Fargo’s Park Company. Tony called Dave, who told us to come on over, and we were at their house in about 3 minutes from the campus.

Shortly after Dave greeted us, Muriel arrived with three of their grandchildren in tow. We were delighted to see Daniel’s two sons, Owen and Sam, and happy to also meet Ethan, another grandson. Giovanni enjoyed playing with the kids as we sat and visited with Dave and Muriel for about an hour. As native North Dakotans, they had a ton of great suggestions for our summer adventures, and the time flew by too quickly.

We were so glad with our decision to throw etiquette out the window and just “drop in” on the Hedricks. Dave told us he would have been upset if we hadn’t stopped to say hello, and reminded us that we are like family to them. We had a lovely time with them, and will make sure to stop again whenever we’re in Wahpeton.

We returned to Chahinkapa Park for a ride on the famous Prairie Rose Carousel, and learned of its history from the friendly attendant on duty, whose name I cannot recall at this moment, nor can I find it in my notes – I am so sorry! However, for some reason we mentioned that we’d just come from the Hedricks, and he laughed, saying that Dave was a friend of his. This gentleman has worked at the carousel for 12 years, and it was evident that he enjoyed his work.

The weather was starting to improve, and as it was still early evening we decided to head out and discover what we could of the Sheyenne National Grasslands. We consulted our map and decided to drive over to Wyndmere, a town about 26 miles west of Wahpeton. From there we figured we’d go up County Road 18 and then head west on Hwy 27. We didn’t really know what we’d find, but we’d never been to any kind of grasslands before so we were up for the adventure.

As we drove along Hwy 27, we were unclear as to how/where to access the grasslands. Suddenly, I spotted a road sign that had a large pair of binoculars, and decided to turn onto the *gravel* road to see where it led us.

We were the only car on this road, and there was tall prairie grass to the west, and open fields to the east. The sun was out in force by now, and the birdlife was prolific. With my window down, the sound of nature was so inviting: tall grasses rustling in the breeze, and a cacophony of bird sounds singing through the air. We drove for about 10 minutes when we spotted something on the road up ahead of us. I slowed the car way down, and as we approached we could see that it was a large, colorful bird. I was grateful that I’d taken some time to study the pheasants at the zoo, because I knew that this was indeed a pheasant. Our very first pheasant, in fact. Ever.

He was beautiful, and just kept on walking ahead of us as if he didn’t have a care in the world. We enjoyed the view for a few minutes until he disappeared into the rushes alongside the road, and we continued on for about 5 minutes until we came to a new *gravel* road with a sign that said “Sheyenne National Grasslands.” I turned onto it, hoping that we’d find an entrance or trail so that we could park and enjoy a quick evening hike.

I was so taken with the natural beauty of our surroundings that I didn’t notice how quiet the car had become. Giovanni had fallen asleep a while ago, and Tony was down to giving me one word responses whenever I commented on something. I realized that we’d been on gravel roads for about 25 minutes now, and guessed that this was the reason for the change in my sweet husband’s behavior.

I wanted to park along the shoulder and get out for a walk up the road, but this was just not Tony’s idea of fun. I need to remind myself just how foreign this terrain is for him – we have had some really funny conversations about his gravel-road-syndrome. I take comfort in the knowledge that he’s aware of his affliction, and is working to overcome it. Because, let’s face it – North Dakota is full of gravel roads, and we’re going to keep encountering them. I have faith that he’ll get there – even if it takes baby steps to do it.

The road came to a dead-end next to a field (this seems to be a common result for us), so I turned around and we wound our way back to Hwy 27. Our pheasant friend came out again for another appearance, and Giovanni was delighted because he’d been asleep  during the first sighting.

We made our way back to Wyndmere, and drove around for a little tour. There wasn’t too much happening in the tiny downtown, so we cruised the residential area and found a sweet little park, surrounded by a stone wall. Dave Hedrick had mentioned this to Tony, and told him that it was built during the Great Depression. The neighborhoods were very well maintained, and there was a sense of prosperity to the area.

We left Wyndmere and drove over to Mooreton, which is home to Paula’s Place, as well as another cafe and one or two bars. We’d heard good things about Paula’s, and seen many billboards on this trip for Paula’s, so we’ve added it to our list for another adventure this summer.

We drove on and decided to take the scenic route back along Hwy 75, and make a quick stop at Fort Abercrombie. The sun was just beginning to set as we approached the fort, so our visit was brief, but what a cool area to find so close to home. Giovanni is our little history buff, and loves learning about forts, battles, wars, etc., so he really enjoyed the structures that are still standing. We will come back again when the Visitor Center is open and take some proper time to explore this area.

As I drove the remaining 20+ minutes home, we fell into a comfortable silence. My mind turned to the day’s events, and the adventures we have had so far in our summer of getting Lost on the Prairie. The whole point of this experience is to gain a better understanding of our state and its people by visiting as much as we can of North Dakota in one season. I grew up my whole life in this state, but I have been embarrassed by how little I actually know about it. I suddenly realized that this was no longer my reality, nor would it ever be my son’s. I have to tell you, this kind of took my breath away. And that is really the point of getting Lost on the Prairie.


8 thoughts on “Our Wahpeton Adventure: Chahinka-what?

  1. Thanks for sharing your trip. So fun to ride along though I miss out on the food. Hope to see you soon. Glad you’re enjoying summer. Naomi

    • Thanks, Naomi! We’re glad to know you’re enjoying the blog. Hope to see you soon, too!

  2. I enjoyed your blog entry on your visit to wahpeton and surrounding areas. Im from southern california, and have lived in wahpeton for 2 1/2 years. It’s nice to hear you enjoyed your visit! I love it here, and hope to explore more of ND soon.

    • Thank you, Carrie! So glad you’re enjoying our blog. We are quickly learning that there is way more to ND than just Fargo – and we are loving this adventure. Hope you enjoy your own exploration!

  3. Thank you for not only sharing your adventure,but painting a picture of your travels so we could visualize each step of the way. Your family should definitely be the spokesperson for North Dakota Tourism. Blessings to you all!

    • Thank you for your kind comments, Jayne! We’re so glad you are enjoying our blog – we are having a great time discovering North Dakota. So good to hear from you!

  4. Definitely get back to Fort Abercrombie’s visitor’s center. Some of my best childhood memories are of family visits there. Giovanni will love it!

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