I didn't have much on my Labor Day weekend agenda beyond visiting Sullys Hill National Game Preserve and two or three small towns in the Devils Lake region.
But Saturday afternoon had me gassed up in the Jeep Patriot with my buddy Herder and his dog Tipper, both up for some exploration in rural Devils Lake. I had on the list an old church that appeared surrounded by water on Google Maps, and we took off from town to see if we could see it.
Getting there was easier than expected. Big Coulee Lutheran Church was built in 1934 after its parish was founded in 1915. In summer 2011, Devils Lake reached its highest level in recorded history (over 1,451 feet, if I'm correct), making Big Coulee Lutheran and other lakeside locations into islands if the water didn't submerge them, like Old Highway 281 (we'll get to that later).
In short, we could have driven right into the yard of Big Coulee Lutheran as grassy and gravel roads twisted around the structure's location until the road came to the church's dilapidated, arched sign, which was missing letters and numbers spelling out "Big Coulee 1915."
The church was extremely weathered, shuttered up and buggy. Mosquitoes swarmed a kicked-in basement door. In contrast, the cemetery and grounds were maintained. Graves dated from 1902 to 2009.
The spot was pretty far off the beaten track, so anyone looking for Big Coulee Lutheran needs directions. The same goes for Antiochia Lutheran Church, just to the northwest.
We drove a stretch of Old 281 to get to this church. Parts of the old road had been underwater as recent as June 2015, though it's hard to say if the stretch we drove to the church had been submerged. Antiochia was built in 1897 and renovated in 1950.
The church was unlocked for visitors with a guestbook to sign and freedom to look around. Pigeon droppings covered the wooden floor and pews. The Bible stood open on the pulpit to a lesson from the Book of Jeremiah.
Antiochia was in a little better shape than Big Coulee, and after visiting, we hit Old 281 to drive the old road. We saw people out fishing and hunters resting after a day in the goose blind. Reeds and tumbleweed-like plants grew out of the cracked, blanched road, and some "Road Closed" signs stood ignored as the path darted around them.
U.S. Highway 281 was rerouted three miles west of Old 281 due to the Devils Lake flooding after 1993 from heavy spring rains. By 2011, the lake had grown seven times in volume.
Herder, Tipper and I ended our day at a bar and grill in Devils Lake (well, we dropped Tipper off). The drive around rural Devils Lake showed the fury and power of floodwater, from sunken headstones at Antiochia to the cracks in Old 281 to a sunken bridge with just its rails visible.
Devils Lake has proven its flooding abilities. One day, perhaps these places will be gone like the others that went before them.