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Dave Roepke, Published April 09 2011

Roepke: Spectator’s guide to flood

FARGO - Standing on the Main Avenue bridge Friday, near the joint on the west end that makes that whump-whump noise when you drive over it, I was the only guy looking at the cars instead of the river.

A few minutes of peering into passing vehicles confirmed what the puttering pace of traffic on the bridge suggests: When the Red River is as big as it is right now, it’s hard not to stare.

Of the 50 eastbound travelers I tallied, the drivers in all but seven vehicles had their heads turned to the right – some severely craning their necks for an improved, if fleeting, glance.

Hopefully, curiosity will never do to the commuter what it did to the cat.

There’s a better way, people. The weekend has arrived, and the crest isn’t far behind. Come downtown, park the car, and size up that vast expanse of brown without the mental demands of trying not to hit the equally distracted driver in front of you.

Why? Because a glimpse of the engorged river up close stirs emotions, draws your mind to places it may not tend to wander, to thoughts of human significance or lack thereof, the power of what’s beyond our control, to what came before us and what will endure after. It’s a blank page for the big picture.

And if that strikes you as quackery, fair enough. To be more succinct: Whoa.

“ ‘Impressive’ might not be the right word. Maybe ‘awesome?’ ” suggested Bob Backman, executive director of River Keepers, a Red River advocacy group. “It’s the same thing as seeing a mountain. It’s just a bunch of water, but there’s something about it when it’s so big.”

As Backman points out, Fargo-Moorhead’s downtown is the region’s top spot for river gawking. It has the most parking, with lots in Fargo east of City Hall and in the Main Avenue strip mall where Fryn’ Pan is located. On the other side of the banks, there’s Moorhead Center Mall: Another Great Place to Park.

Also, the bridges to the immediate north and south of downtown are closed for high water, and any neighborhood where you could catch a gander of the river is a place you shouldn’t be until it’s not worth seeing.

Below is a quick primer on three types of viewing points in walking distance of downtown parking. And, of course, don’t jump barricades or climb on dikes.

Bird’s eye

The best public spot to get a top-down look at the river is the parking ramp at the Moorhead Center Mall. From that perch, you can quickly grasp what the floodwaters temporarily gobbled up. What must be the most-photographed stop sign in the metro is just below the southwest corner of the ramp, but with only 6 inches of it showing midafternoon on Friday, it should be well out of sight by now.

(I wouldn’t be much of a company man if I didn’t note you can also get a lofty vantage from three different locations from the flood webcams streaming here.)

Wide angle

The most popular place for flood-viewing is the Main Avenue bridge. I bet it will host more pedestrians this weekend than at any time all year, other than the Fargo Marathon. A funnel cake vendor could do steady business.

It’s popular for good reason. To get a sense of the Red’s momentary massiveness, it’s hard to beat the bridge with the least-obstructed sight lines. You can see from dike to dike in both cities yet feel you’re hovering right above a powerful force – a comprehensive view.

Close up

Enough of the sidewalk just south of the Fargo High Rise is open that you can gaze down the point at which the water hits the permanent dike looming across Fourth Street South from Island Park. It’s hard not to think of the sheer volume of water being held back when seeing what is more often a sledding hill performing its real role.

In Moorhead, both the little park with the horseshoe pit just north of Usher’s House and the paved bike path on top of the levee on Woodlawn Park’s southern edge – at Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue South – allow for the same intimate understanding of the river’s magnitude.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535