Devils Lake, N.D. — It is unique in that it occupies a good chunk of an island in North Dakota.
But the story of Grahams Island State Park isn’t so much about that island.
No, it’s about the lake that surrounds it. Actually, the lake that has, over the past 20 years or so, ravaged it, and most everything around it. And how the people and places here have endured Devils Lake’s relentless natural growth and, in turn, been able to tap into this amazing resource and thrive along with it.
As a destination, Grahams Island State Park has epitomized this love-hate relationship with the big lake. Located about 15 miles southwest of the city of Devils Lake in northeastern North Dakota, it once was part of a park system that included three other neighboring unit
s. But the smaller Black Tiger Bay Recreation Area was closed due to inaccessibility, and in the last 20 years, rising water also led to the closing of the Narrows and Shelvers state recreation areas.
Even though it has grown into a world-class fishery, the big lake’s expansion — from somewhere around 45,000 acres before the waters started to rise and spread to reportedly three times that size today — has challenged Grahams Island State Park, too.
“The bait station is in its third location. We’ve been retreating from high water for years,” said Henry Duray, the park’s manager. “There used to be four parks on the lake, now there’s just one. The road that leads into here has been raised three times, and the last time it cost $14 million. It (Grahams Island State Park) was close to not existing.”
But, according to Duray, that shouldn’t happen again; the boat ramp at the park (and most everything else of note) has been built up to an elevation level of 1,460 feet.
The lake reportedly reached an unofficial historical high elevation of 1,455 feet in 2011 and currently is at 1,450 feet, Duray said. And the lake can reach 1,458 feet before naturally flowing into the Sheyenne River, he added.
So with that sort of flooding supposedly a thing of the past, like the growth of the lake before it — and, in part, likely because of it — Grahams Island is attracting an unprecedented number of visitors.
In this case, location doesn’t hurt.
Surrounded by water (with the exception of the five-mile-long entrance road) and not far from U.S. Highway 2, the 1,122-acre park on the approximately 4,000-acre island offers a four-lane boat ramp for anglers and boaters. And, for two-and-a-half miles of that entrance road, and on both sides of it, there are shore fishing opportunities, too.
Throw in 180-plus campsites, four camper cabins, a bait shop, fishing cleaning station, playground, hiking trails and a thriving activities center, and you’ve got the makings of a small “outdoorsy” city.
“We had 120,000 visitors last year, and also 12,500 nights of camping, which was first among state parks in the state,” Duray said of the growing popularity of the park. “It was a record year two years ago and we beat that (last year). We had a 100-percent reservations rate in the campsites. And we have four small cabins. You have to reserve them a year in advance. They’re booked.”
Not surprisingly, most visitors to the park in 2015 came from North Dakota and the Midwest. Minnesota was second in park visits behind the host state, followed by Wisconsin. The province of Manitoba, Canada, was next in visitors to lead on the international side.
“Two years ago, we had visitors from 49 states,” Duray said. “And we’re always at 45-plus, and from a number of different countries, too.”
And with a huge project on tap this year that will continue to build up the park, don’t expect Grahams Island’s popularity to crest anytime soon.
“There will be a combination of a new visitors center, office and bait shop and concessions. Construction will probably start once the frost is out of the ground, late April or so,” Duray said, adding that the massive project likely will be completed in late fall. “The state is (funding) one major project per park, and ours will be this facility.
“Basically, we will run the same facilities we have now throughout next season. We will probably move into the new building by the end of the year. It should be fully operational in 2017. It will be unique to North Dakota state parks in that the entrance facility, visitor center, concessions and administrative center will all be located in one building in the park’s interior.”
Not surprisingly, activity peaks in the summer at the park, but as fishing “seasons” don’t close in North Dakota, Grahams Island remains active year-round, with the big push starting in the spring.
“In the spring, we don’t open the bait shop until May 1, and camping usually starts in April,” Duray said. “And there’s fishing early spring, late ice; April 17 was when the ice went out last year. But some years it’s closer to the first of May. Some people were fishing on the ice within 10 days of ice-out (last year).”
Yes, fishing is king on Devils Lake and, in turn, at Grahams Island — last year the park also hosted three major fishing tournaments. But with its huge camping presence — it features the only public campgrounds on the lake, Duray said — and endless possibilities for other outdoors enthusiasts, there’s more to the park than walleye, northern pike, perch, crappies and a burgeoning population of white bass (the five prominent fish species in the lake system).
The park also is open to deer hunting, both with bow and rifles, as well as waterfowl and turkey hunting, according to Ryan Nelson, assistant park manager, who added that the new amphitheater and its educational programs have been a big draw, too.
A small trail system also meanders through the park, providing opportunities for hikers, cross-country skiers, birders and nature-watchers and photographers, with a bounty of wildlife and, reportedly, 130 plant species.
“Water-based recreation (is the top draw),” Duray said. “And waterfowl is big in the fall, and there are family reunions. The campground is open year-round. And in the winter, you can drive on the boat ramp to get access to the lake. We get a lot of people launching out of here.
“We have hiking trails, ski trails. And there are days when we have 200 boats launched out of here (during open-water “season”). We have a four-lane ramp with parking, so we can handle it. It’s a fishing destination, with a place to launch, bait and tackle, bathrooms, a fish-cleaning station. You’ve got to have all of that. And beside that, it’s a nice place to camp — we have three modern campgrounds (and a primitive campground) and 180-plus campsites.
“We allow parking along the road (into the park) for two-and-a-half miles, with water on both sides. And there are a couple docks people can fish from. There have been many limits of walleyes caught off those docks.”
And then there’s the “Golden Highway” — a county road that once ran from Grahams Island to the nearby town of Minnewaukan. The road is under water, but the structure created by the former roadway has proven to be a good one for fish and, in turn, for anglers. Golden, indeed.
Yes, in the middle of a veritable ocean, all roads lead to Grahams Island.