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Focus on Rural Health

Searching for Bigfoot in Traill County

Traill District Health Unit finds success with new outdoor wellness program.

By Jessica Rosencrans on

America's national parks offer some of the most breathtaking, remote, and sometimes alien landscapes in the world. Yellowstone National Park is famous for its geysers and geothermal attractions. Perhaps a little closer to home, Theodore Roosevelt National Park presents picturesque views of the state's Badlands.

But one doesn't have to travel across the country to explore nature's unique offerings – rural communities are often house troves of natural beauty that are easily overlooked. In an effort to highlight such hidden gems throughout Traill County, the Traill District Health Unit (TDHU) endeavored recently to motivate residents to explore local parks.

On the Bigfoot Traill 2023 The TDHU's “On the Bigfoot Traill 2023” challenge ran throughout the summer and fall months. Via this challenge, residents were encouraged to visit at least 10 of the 12 parks scattered around Traill County to find the answer to a riddle or clue provided by the public health unit. Those who returned a completed worksheet were awarded a prize packet containing a t-shirt and other goodies. Participants were also encouraged to take photos and share them on social media throughout the challenge.

On the Traill

We're always looking for new ways to promote physical and mental well-being and going outdoors, and this idea checked all the boxes.

The idea for the challenge came from a Mayville State University nursing student completing his clinicals at TDHU. “He happened to mention that his mom had been involved in a similar challenge where she lived,” said Brenda Stallman, director of TDHU. “We're always looking for new ways to promote physical and mental well-being and going outdoors, and this idea checked all the boxes.”

With health promotion in mind, TDHU got to work. Stallman's team realized that Traill County hosted several parks in that people might be unfamiliar with. So they decided to take advantage of an opportunity to introduce the parks to those who didn't live right next door.

When preparing for the challenge, TDHU employees visited all 12 parks and looked for unique features to highlight. “Our goal was to make it so that people actually had to get out of their vehicles and explore the area. We wanted more engagement than people just driving up to a sign and leaving,” Stallman said.

TDHU also wanted to highlight the individuality of each park. Some parks are city-owned while others are owned by the County. One in particular, Portland Park, houses the Portland Equine Park and is managed by the MayPort Arena Association, a local equestrian club. Each “Bigfoot” clue reflected the unique aspects of the respective location and added variety to the stops along the challenge.

Despite the name, no official Bigfoot sightings took place during the challenge. Rather, TDHU hoped that the title would instill a feeling of adventure in community members. “We tried to come up with something that would be enticing and landed on the topic of Bigfoot,” shared Stallman. “It adds an element that both kids and adults can get excited about.”

Improving Mood with the Outdoors

Rebecca Gunderson is one of many local residents who decided to take on the challenge. With a passion for healthy living, Gunderson is a self-proclaimed nature enthusiast who worked at Mayville State University for 29 years. Before retiring in 2016, she held positions such as campus center pool manager, coordinator for the Children's Summer Swim Program, campus worksite wellness coordinator, and instructor for health, physical education, and recreation.

It's wonderful that our community has access to creative activities like this one to get people moving and promote better health.

Gunderson has also been a part of the Traill County Health Board for over 12 years. “The entire challenge was a very positive experience,” Gunderson said happily. “It's wonderful that our community has access to creative activities like this one to get people moving and promote better health.”

Programs like “On the Bigfoot Traill” wouldn't be possible without community support. “Our North Dakota State University Extension Office helped create the logo and aided in promotional activities,” shared Stallman. “We also want to show our support for the park boards around Traill County. These are hardworking volunteers who often don't get recognized, and probably get more complaints than compliments. We want to thank them for all they do to keep these green spaces so nice throughout the county.”

Bigfoot Traill participants at the Hatton
Community Orchard, one of the 12 parks
in the challenge.

Stallman also highlighted how going outdoors can be instrumental to improving someone's mood. “I had an opportunity to visit a park as part of a leadership program, and a park ranger shared with us that he wished people would come out and enjoy the parks more. It's pretty much a guarantee that you'll feel better when you leave than you did when you arrived. You just can't not enjoy the outdoors once you get out there.”

Gunderson agreed: “There are many documented sources that speak to the benefit of being out in a natural setting to improve a person's mood,” she recalled. “The Norwegian's have a term for it – ‘friluftsliv’ meaning to live in the fresh air. Since many of us are of Norwegian heritage, we promote this concept.”

Sharing Nature's Offerings

Stallman emphasized her enthusiasm for other public health units or health organizations that might be considering a similar event.

There were no negatives to it, and everybody is looking for reasons and ways to get outdoors.

“I would absolutely recommend other public health units consider hosting a challenge like this one. There were no negatives to it, and everybody is looking for reasons and ways to get outdoors,” she said. “Kids are getting bored in the summer and spending too much time looking at screens. It can be hard for parents to continually come up with ideas, so we were excited to offer a family-friendly activity that they could enjoy.”

The biggest piece of advice Stallman had for other organizations thinking of adopting a similar program is to be aware of obstacles that could discourage engagement.

“We tried to be mindful of deadlines, like school starting in the fall,” she said, “as well as the unknowns with the weather. Being in North Dakota, it can be difficult to anticipate what will happen, but we wanted to give people plenty of time to complete the challenge.”

TDHU is already thinking about how it can establish this program as a staple in the community. With 40 people having completed the challenge in its inaugural year, the public health unit is hoping to grow it into something that is recognizable and anticipated each summer.

“Many people asked about 2024 and shared their ideas and difficulties with us. We received feedback on some hiccups people encountered and are planning to take what we learned and do it again in an improved way,” Stallman said. “People positively responded to an out-of-the-ordinary event, so we'd like to make it unique from year-to-year. Our main goal is to continue to encourage interaction around our county, but maybe we'll highlight a different feature in the future.”

Rebecca Gunderson hiking in snow.

Ideas for promoting the outdoors are not difficult to find in North Dakota. The North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department runs a popular program that promotes 12 hikes in 12 months in North Dakota State Parks. Both Stallman and Gunderson have participated in this program in the past, and Gunderson is looking forward to the 2024 season.

“My husband and I have been campers our long-married life – almost 52 years,” said Gunderson. “We began with tent camping, then tried trailer camping, and now use a small pickup camper so we can go to the back areas where we used to tent camp. The North Dakota park system is a great way to enjoy the great outdoors.”

No matter how ambitious the idea, Stallman concluded, the most important thing is to get started. “It's all about trying new things, improvising, correcting, and improving,” she said. “You have to start somewhere, so that's what we did with this challenge.

Jessica Rosencrans Jessica Rosencrans is the communication specialist with the Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences in Grand Forks.