Balta Dam offers opportunities for ‘a little getaway’
BALTA — After an early spring thaw, the water at Balta Dam quietly disappeared under a new layer of snow from a late April blizzard, but the geese and ducks didn’t seem to mind.
Locked up for winter, the buildings around the dam stood ready to open to campers in a few weeks. The lakes separating the dam would soon hold more swimming humans than waterfowl, but birds would still find places to nest nearby.
Most of the time, Balta Dam is as quiet as the sleepy town of Balta, located just to the northeast.
Balta sits 16 miles to the southwest of Rugby. Most visitors take North Dakota Highway 3 and turn west on 52nd Street Northeast to get there.
The Pierce County recreation spot is a favorite of locals who want a quick, casual getaway on a hot summer day.
The Balta Dam offers a section for swimming, ramps for small boats and watercraft, and campsites. Visitors in RVs will find a few places for electrical hookups and sewer service for a suggested fee of $15 per night.
The Balta Wildlife Club members who maintain and oversee the site say visitors should drop their money in a collection box. The club trusts the campground users to pay for their stay.
A statement from the club said visitors sometimes pay more than $15; sometimes, they don’t pay at all. But the club’s board members say they hope most campers pay to use their campsites.
The campground holds even more sites for primitive camping. The usage fee for those sites is $10 per night.
Campers can find indoor restrooms and an outdoor shower available at the dam.
Members say the Balta Wildlife Club began in the mid- to late-1950s.
The dam was built to prevent flooding in the area in the 1930s, according to Jim Zacher, who sits on the Balta Wildlife Club’s board. The dam now separates two small lakes, known as East Lake and West Lake.
Zacher said the original dam broke in 1935. After federal and state workers began work to replace the dam later that year, townspeople and government agencies made dam maintenance a priority. Improvements and other dam-related work became one responsibility for the Balta Wildlife Club after it was formed.
The club began with a large membership, which dwindled to just three members in 1997.
Members say the club has always been volunteer-based.
“No one in the club takes even a penny in pay,” a statement from the club said.
In 1997, club membership built up again. Members and other volunteers raised funds for several improvements at the Balta Dam to make it more accessible for recreation and fishing. The Pierce County Park Board paid for the majority of the improvements.
The club built restrooms, new boat docks, and boat ramps. The club put in a road, boat ramp, and parking lot near the undeveloped East Lake. Zacher said the club continues to add new conveniences for campers. He noted that in 2021, the club added electricity hookups for RVs.
In summer 2006, the tiny town of Balta suffered damage in a major windstorm. Balta Wildlife Club members say the majority of buildings near the dam were damaged. With funds from sources such as the state Garrison Diversion Project, which raises money for recreation on North Dakota waterways, the club paid to rebuild restrooms, picnic shelters, and a main building near the dam.
Funds also paid for a concession stand and grandstand near the dam. Those buildings see most of its use during the Balta Demolition Derby, which usually happens the first weekend in August, the same day as St. Therese the Little Flower Catholic Parish Corn Feed.
In addition to its support from the Pierce County Park Board, The Balta Wildlife Club also raises funds for its own operation through a fall supper and fundraising activities through the Rugby Eagles Club.
Another event attracting campers in early August is the Balta Street Dance, an event sponsored by the Balta Bar and Grill. Visitors to the campground travel just half a mile to the tiny town, then return to their campsites after an evening of live music and fun.
“It seems with the dam, someone’s camping there off and on all summer long,” said Kathy Halvorson, whose daughter, Stephanie, owns the Balta Bar and Grill.
“On Memorial Day Weekend, Labor Day Weekend, some people have family reunions out there and it gets to be a full house over the weekend,” Halvorson said. “Of course, when we have the street dance, or the corn feed and demo derby, the campsites fill up.
“People like it for recreation,” Halvorson said of the dam. “People are out there in their SkiDoos and watercraft. They have picnics and there’s a little bit of fishing sometimes.
“For anyone who has campers and doesn’t want to travel too far, it’s a little getaway,” Halvorson said, noting most people come to Balta from neighboring Rugby or Anamoose.
Other visitors come from farther away. Some come from cities such as Minot for family reunions.
Some people even come to Balta from out-of-state, because they grew up in Balta, according to Halvorson. Many families time their visit to coincide with the Balta Street Dance, Halvorson noted.
Halvorson said the visitors seemed to miss the atmosphere a small town offers “and they like to see that it’s still thriving, maybe, or there are still a few things going on.”
According to information from the North Dakota Department of Game and Fish, the small dam’s surface area spans 105 acres. The water’s maximum depth is about 15 feet. After a large winterkill in 2018, the department restocked the lake with Northern Pike.
In addition to water recreation, the dam provides a home for a variety of waterfowl to interest birdwatchers during the area’s mostly quieter times between holidays.
“Because it’s small, you’re not going to have the big state park feel, where the campground’s really full and you have to wait for the showers and things like that,” Halvorson said of Balta Dam.
And even in the off-season, locals find plenty to do around the dam and small town.
“We’ve got snowmobilers today,” Halvorson said, looking out the window as a group parked their snowmobiles in front of the bar to grab a bite to eat after riding around the countryside.