Don’t Bluff When Defining What They Are

We live in bluff country. But you knew that, right?

So, how would you explain what a bluff is to those who didn’t know there was a use for the word bluff other than something you do to fool someone. If you mentioned Bob’s Bluff, they might think you’re talking about a card shark named Bob.

This could actually become important if the Driftless Area, the part of the world we live in, gets promoted more. Much of the scenic area, untouched by the past four glaciers, is divided by the Mississippi River, which carved our bluffs from the melt water of the last glacier.

The area is so unique that, earlier this year, a proposal was made to make part of it into a national park. Even though it was withdrawn after residents throughout the area expressed outrage and fear of losing their homes, it has stirred up conversations about how the area, with its many rare and fragile ecosystems, could be better promoted and preserved.

Red Wing is part of the northwest gateway to the Driftless Area. Because of its location and proximity to the Twin Cities we are in a tourist area, plain and simple, and we rely on that more than you might think. The total economic impact of trout fishing alone in the Driftless Area was estimated at $1.6 billion in 2015. On a recent bike ride by the parking lot at He Mni Can-Barn Bluff, I noticed a number of cars from out-of-state.

What is a bluff, anyhow?

So, we ought to know what a bluff is. If you live here, you likely see bluffs every day. You may even live on one. In Red Wing, He Mni Can-Barn Bluff is our most visible example. We also have Sorin’s Bluff right across from it. The name of this column is a tribute to those two bluffs.

Even if you’re just passing through the area, you can’t help but see references to “bluff” such as Twin Bluff Middle School, Twin Bluff Road, Bluff Street, Bluff Country Concrete, The Bluffs restaurant and Rattlesnake Bluff.

I have a cousin with a hunting business in Buffalo County called Bluff Country Outfitters. There’s also Bluff Siding, Wisconsin across from Winona, named for a place next to a bluff for trains to pull over. A Google map of the Red Wing/Hager City area shows 17 locations with “bluff” in each name. The Winona area shows 13 locations.

A simple definition of a bluff is a hill with a broad, steep face. More specifically a bluff borders a river, beach or other coastal area. It must be made of sedimentary material, not bedrock. Its steep face doesn’t necessarily need to be a cliff but steep enough to be difficult to climb. He Mni Can-Barn Bluff certainly meets these definitions.

But a bluff doesn’t need to currently border water. Sorin’s Bluff (Memorial Park) no doubt was surrounded by water about 10,000 years ago. Bluffs are created by water erosion from the bottom, weakening the rock and soil above until it collapses, often leaving a sheer rock cliff or a very steep slope to the top. That’s why He Mni Can-Barn Bluff has been popular for climbing and rappelling on the upper part of its north side.

How high can you climb?

We’re on part of the Mississippi River valley which is bordered on each side almost continuously by bluffs. Around here, bluffs are more than 300 feet higher than the river. Their tops are the same height as the rest of the land away from the river valley. LaCrosse, Wisconsin has Grandad Bluff which soars to 590 feet above the city. Because it has a large flat area on top which is higher than other surrounding land, it’s also a mesa.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has strict rules about building on bluffs because there is potential for a lot of erosion. Clear cutting trees on a bluff slope for a better view, for example, is frowned upon.

I thought bluffs were fairly unique to our part of the country. But I was wrong. I found the word bluff in streets and businesses in nearly every city I searched around the U.S. That doesn’t mean they have bluffs, though. At least not as we define them. Names don’t always tie to the local environment. That’s partly because the definition of what a bluff is varies. Some examples of bluffs in Maine looked like small hills not much higher than a house. Obviously, the definition of a bluff varies a lot depending on location.

Since bluffs are more common than I thought, I wondered if Google could find a “Top 10 Bluffs in America” list. None were found which implies that the definition of a bluff would make such a list impractical. The search did yield “The Five Most Breathtaking Cliffs Around the United States.” But bluffs are decidedly not cliffs although they often have cliffs.

My search also found a number of links to things like “Top 10 Biggest Bluffs in the History of Mankind.” Wrong kind of bluff. 

So, we need to know what the term bluff means, even if it’s our own local definition. In keeping with the way things are promoted these days, we should call them “the Real Bluffs of America.”

I’m not bluffing.