Bizarre, Broken, Bewitching ~ Theodore Roosevelt National Park (Part 2)

“The Badlands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.”  ~ Theodore Roosevelt

Storm clouds build over the Little Missouri

Storm clouds build over the Little Missouri

The Badlands story, of which Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a part, began over 65 million years ago.  While the Rocky Mountains were rising from the earth, bucking and writhing to claim their place in the landscape, massive amounts of sediments were being carried east on the wind and in the water, creating this desolate mural.  Savagely erupting volcanoes in surrounding states were belching ash to combine with the Rocky Mountain sediments.  The badlands are the result of layers of sandstone, mudstone, siltstone, and bentonite clay air-brushed into unusual rock formations and vivid striated buttes.

This national park was once on the eastern edge of a swamp and over time these sediments compressed and broke down, causing chemical changes that resulted in the formation of lignite, a soft coal that Teddy Roosevelt shoveled into his stove to heat his home.  In these striated buttes, lignite can still be seen.  Lightning strikes and fires cause the lignite to smolder, which in many cases can continue underground for years. The hardened red-brick caps, known as “scoria”, seen on many rock formations, come from the oxidation of iron released from the burning of this coal.  The artistry of time, wind, and erosion have created the landscape we see today, which is constantly being transformed.

The 110 square miles of Theodore Roosevelt National Park cover three distinct areas of Badlands in western North Dakota and the Little Missouri River snakes through all of them.

  • The larger South Unit within the town of Medora, where we are camped
  • The smaller North Unit, ~80 miles north of the South Unit, off Hwy. 85
  • Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch located between the two.  Only cornerstones remain there today.

Both the North and South Units have similar topography and many of the same wildlife, deer, bison, prairie dogs.  The North claims the longhorn steer and bighorn sheep, while the South boasts elk, pronghorn, and feral horses.  I had also read about a phenomenon in the North Unit that Nina had introduced us to while on the coast of Oregon that has enchanted me ever since – concretions.  I knew a trip up north was in my future.

On a rare sunny, rain-free day I pointed the car north on the hunt for longhorn steer and cannonball concretions.  While the steer remained elusive, I found the concretions hiding in the shadows.

I could have gone back south and been happy but I had the day so a couple of hikes and a visit to a prairie dog town seemed in order.  I chose the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail and the Buckhorn Trail, taking me through open prairie, aromatic sagebrush, canyons with unusual rock formations, and a town where only prairie dogs are welcome, as they will let you know if you get too close.

Our visit has been more rain than sun and locals say this part of ND has had a very wet summer.   On one of those cloud-filled mornings I headed out bright and early, hoping to get a hike in before the rains came.  My goal was to tackle part of the Maah Daah Hey, a trail that stretches 97 miles across the National Grassland, connecting all three units of the park.  Over 7 miles of it runs through the South Unit, just a couple of miles from our campground and it’s a great trail for hiking and mountain biking.  Plans were thwarted when I got to the Little Missouri, a necessary water crossing I thought would be easy.  Given the recent rains we have had, no way was the river allowing me passage. :(

On a rare rain-free evening I ventured into the park hoping to catch a memorable sunset on top of Buck Hill, noted for its dramatic evening views. Although the sunset didn’t wow me, what I spotted around a curve in the road did…the feral horses!

And although the sunset wasn’t spectacular, it was a nice ending to my stay at Theodore Roosevelt NP.

 

 

Rugged, Desolate Beauty ~ Theodore Roosevelt National Park (Part 1)

“There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm.”  ~  Theodore Roosevelt

Clouds dance across the Painted Canyon, first stop in the park off Hwy. 94

Clouds dance across the Painted Canyon, first stop in the park off Hwy. 94

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, named after our 26th President of the same name, lies in western North Dakota.  Part of Teddy’s spirit may still roam here, given his love for this land, for it was his time spent here that played an instrumental role in his development of conservation policies that remain in place today.

The Lakota people were the first to call this territory the “badlands” due to lack of water, extreme temperatures, and the rugged terrain.  Teddy Roosevelt first came to the North Dakota Badlands in September 1883 to hunt bison and was enchanted by its desolate, melancholy beauty.  It was the death of his beloved wife Alice Lee, due to complications from childbirth, and mother Mittie, who succumbed to typhoid fever, both in the same house, on the same day, February 14, 1884, hours apart, that brought Roosevelt back to these lands, heartbroken and seeking nature’s healing powers.

Bison freely roam these plains.

Bison freely roam these plains.

We entered the gateway town of Medora on a hot, muggy day so we chose the 36-mile scenic drive of the South Unit over hiking that first afternoon.  After spending much time in similar parks, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, this park (imho) paled in comparison.  But the expression “don’t judge a book by its cover” applies here, as in digging a little deeper I have found some hidden gems.  But before I get to the good stuff, I’ll share a bit of a saga that’s been going on behind the scenes here.

Terry taking in the views.

Terry taking in the views.

Unfortunately the day of our arrival we learned just how much Terry’s father’s health had deteriorated over the past few days.  We both felt it imperative that Terry head to Ohio now instead of wait until the 25th of this month as he had planned.  What to do about an airport and flight was the next question, as we are in the middle of nowhere. The closest “big” town to us is Dickinson, 40 miles away, but surprisingly learned they have an airport another 7 miles outside of town.  So with flight booked and bags packed, we headed for the airport the next day, a very rainy day at that.

With Terry safely at the airport, I headed back to the park.  As I approached Dickinson a message scrolled across my dashboard stating STOP SAFELY NOW, and within seconds the truck decided to stop me.  There I sat in the driving rain blocking traffic, which never makes for happy drivers. With Terry at the airport contacting Ford and a tow service, I directed traffic while drivers scowled at me through rain-streaked windows.

Fast forward and an easy fix soon became anything but as the sensor broke while being removed so now we are awaiting parts and dealing with a warranty company that has been less than cooperative.

Many hours later, in a rental car headed back to the park, the skies opened and I found myself wishing for an ark.  Suffice to say the drive back at 40 mph was the longest 1.5 hours I have spent in some time.  I later learned that we had received 6-8″ of rain in a matter of two hours, which is probably why I felt I floated home most of the way.  But Terry is where he needs to be and I arrived safely.

The silver lining in this ongoing saga was a visit from dear Colorado friends Stan and Marilyn.  For two days we enjoyed great conversation, lots of laughs, and a lovely hike. They agreed to a hike I really wanted to do in the remote northwest corner of the south unit, the Petrified Forest Loop Trail. I was determined to hike it solo or with friends but agreed that it is probably best done with others, especially if the solo woman is somewhat directionally challenged. ;)  The petrified forest, hard sandstone spires topped with caprocks, and dodging bison during their rut made for an interesting hike.

We rounded out our time together with a stroll through Medora and a lovely dinner at Theodore’s, which we all highly recommend.   The food was excellent and the company, of course, priceless.  I can’t thank them enough for brightening up my week.  We look forward to seeing them again soon in Colorado.

Next up:  More hiking, prairie dog towns and concretions, my favorite!

A Slow-Growing Monster ~ Devils Lake, ND

One of many ND "prairie potholes", with sprawling Devils Lake in the background

One of many ND “prairie potholes”, with sprawling Devils Lake in the background

When crossing over from Minnesota to North Dakota we envisioned wide-open plains but what greeted us instead was water, everywhere.  I’m certain parts of the state look more like the wheat fields we had passed, but in this northeastern section of North Dakota, shallow wetlands known as “prairie potholes” dotted the fields, and the slow-growing monster known as Devils Lake shimmered in the distance.

This was once Sioux territory and they called this lake mni wak’áη chant.  Broken down into separate words the translation of “Bad Spirit Lake” was converted to Devils Lake by early Europeans.  For the Sioux, the word ‘bad’ referred to the salinity of the water, making it unfit to drink and ‘spirit’ the mirages they often saw across the water.

Aerial view of Devils Lake - photo credit Google

Aerial view of Devils Lake – photo credit Google

Devils Lake is the largest “natural” body of water in North Dakota and is a closed lake, meaning it has no outlet to river systems.  It is completely dependent upon precipitation, evaporation, and seepage to contain its size and is much higher in salinity than other lakes due to its closed nature.  Over the past 20 years it has nearly quadrupled in size, swallowing up thousands of acres of land, millions of trees, hundreds of buildings, and at least two towns in its path.

We have read that Devils Lake is within four feet of flowing into the nearby Sheyenne River.  Due to its salinity, the potential environmental impact of water being diverted away from the lake has officials and surrounding communities in a quandary.  No other place in America has faced this kind of dilemma other than the Great Salt Lake, which I believe was resolved when Utah experienced a drought.

Nice big sites at Grahams Island

Nice big sites at Grahams Island

We recently spent a few days at Grahams Island State Park, surrounded by Devils Lake. The state park was lovely and reminded us of a well-manicured city park, with sites in our section well-spaced and filled with plenty of mature shade trees.  Don’t come to the park expecting lots of hiking or biking trails, although I did venture out on my bike across the causeway a time or two.  This park is better experienced sitting under an oak tree reading a good book or looking out over the lake.  Better yet, if you are a fisherman, Devils Lake is known as the perch capital of the world, although campers were catching their limit of walleye the few days we were there.

Another discovery made during our visit was that of vast fields of golden sunflowers bowing in homage to the sun.  I learned that sunflowers are primarily grown in the Dakotas, with 50% of the U.S. production in North Dakota.  These beauties are grown for oilseed, sunflower seeds for snacks and bird food, and the fields stretched on for miles.

The very best part of our stay at Grahams Island was having friends Pam and John join us and true to form, we found a couple of opportunities to enjoy a meal together, once at our place, once at theirs.  Pam’s seafood paella rocked!

Hmm, wonder what these two guys find so funny?

Hmm, wonder what these two guys find so funny?

Good food, good friends and lots of laughter – the simple pleasures of life.  We look forward to meeting up again with them this winter, which is just about the best part of this full-time lifestyle, finding like-minded folks on the road. :)

Meet the Pack ~ International Wolf Center, Ely, MN

Advice from a Wolf ~ Trust your instincts.  Be at home in nature.  Keep your den clean. Stand fur what you believe.  Howl with your friends.  Be a leader.  Pack life with good memories.  ~  Ilan Shamir

Wolves – a most controversial subject, across the ages and around the globe.  And why not, as we were raised to fear this highly intelligent creature, as far back as medieval times.  They have become associated with what we instinctively fear – the dark, light of a full moon in the deep, dark forest, lonely howls.

Image credit - Wikipedia

Image credit – Wikipedia

The tale of Little Red Riding Hood, a book many had read to them in their childhood, dates back to the 1700’s, originally published by French author Charles Perrault.  Although the storyline has changed over the years, passed from French, to German, to English hands, one thing has remained constant, the big bad wolf.  

The legend of the werewolf has swirled around since Ancient Greek times, 9th to 6th century BC.  Although each country has its own theory on how one shape-shifts from man to beast, folklore abounds.

Spanning the globe there have been many reports of wolf attacks on humans, with India seeming to have one of the largest problems with this issue today.  The fact remains, however, that the primary food source for this canine is ungulates – horses, cattle, deer, bison, elk.  Experts believe that wolf attacks against humans are the result of a diseased animal, human habituation, a defensive measure when provoked, or when a food supply is not readily available.  Otherwise, the wolf tends to fear man, particularly in North America.

Yellowstone wolf

Our love affair with wolves was born several years ago in Yellowstone National Park, where Terry had the good fortune to assist the wolf biologists in some of their public education seminars.  He was immediately enthralled with the various packs within the park and shared much of what he learned with me.  There was nothing more thrilling back then than to stand with the wolf watchers on a crisp, clear Yellowstone winter morn, watching this magnificent, resourceful wild animal.  Terry was blessed to see them interact as a family unit at the den and watch an entire pack celebrate a successful hunt, their yips and howls reverberating in the cold dawn.  Speak to a rancher surrounding Yellowstone lands and his perspective takes on a whole different light.  Loss of his livelihood, his livestock, is most likely foremost in mind, as well it would be.

The International Wolf Center was the reason for our side trip to Ely, MN.  Their mission is clear, to “educate the public by offering the most up-to-date, accurate wolf information possible”.  They envision a world where wolves co-exist peacefully with humans.  The programs presented at the center by their interns are informative and passionately presented.  The ambassadors at the wolf center are playful, mesmerizing, beautiful.  So without further adieu, let’s meet the pack!

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Six year old Aidan, 136 pounds, is the “alpha male”.  Much more elusive than his mates, he seemed to carry an air about him that clearly spoke of his status in the pack.

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Denali, also six years old, 134 pounds, loved to ham it up for the photographers, often coming to the window for photo ops.   His and Aidan’s lineage goes back to that of the Yellowstone wolves.

Two-year old Boltz, weighing in at 112 pounds, was relaxed when his older siblings weren’t present, but clearly knew his place in the pack when they arrived on the scene.

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Little Luna, two years old and the only female in the pack, is a slim 91 pounds, but we were told she can hold her own when food is presented, often times taking more than her share.  She and Boltz are of the Great Plains sub-species.

If you find yourself near Ely, regardless of your opinion on this beautiful creature, the International Wolf Center is a fascinating place to visit.  Yes, the wolf’s place among humans is a very controversial topic, but I wonder, if we humans cannot embrace tolerance, will we ultimately lose a piece of the wild places?   And speaking of wild places, throw a kayak into the Boundary Waters while you are there.  We did, and loved it!

Impending storm over the boundary waters

Impending storm over the boundary waters

On the Wilderness Threshold ~ Isle Royale National Park

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Grand Portage RV Park

The final stop on our North Shore adventure was Grand Portage Lodge and Casino (and RV Park), seven miles south of the Canadian border.  This quiet little campground, carpeted in golden wildflowers, was our gateway to a wilderness archipelago, Isle Royale National Park.  The forecast was for cloudy skies and chance of rain when we headed out across Lake Superior for the 1.5 hour boat ride to the park.  Thankfully the waters were calm.

Isle Royale National Park, the largest island in the largest Great Lake and the least visited national park (only 17,000 annual visitors), comprises the island we visitors see and another 400 smaller islands, some submerged.  This wilderness archipelago covers just shy of 900 square miles, with only 200 miles of this being above ground, a full 80% of this park exists below the frigid waters of Lake Superior…pretty interesting. ;)

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There are two visitors centers on the island and for day-trippers like ourselves, versus backpackers or those with more sophisticated tastes who stay at the lodge, Windigo Visitor Center at the west end of the island is the drop-off point.  With only four hours on the island, we opted for a short hike to give us a feel for the backcountry.

As we walked along the rocky trail, through forests of maple, birch, and fir, on this cool cloudy day, listening to the frigid Minnesota_140725-6191waters of Lake Superior lap the shore, I visualized rounding the bend to find an imposing bull moose munching on a balsam fir.  The rangers believe there are about 1000 on the island and one was not too much to wish for, was it?  Unfortunately our paths did not cross, which was not surprising, given that we lived in Yellowstone National Park for two years and I never saw one in the park until we took a trip to the Grand Tetons.

In the bone-chilling winter of 1948-49 an ice bridge formed between Canada and Isle Royale and a small pack of Eastern timber wolves crossed over.  Today only nine exist on the island, the numbers down from an average of 20-25 due to disease and inbreeding.  Trophic cascade, a term we learned years ago in Yellowstone, is reflected here in the relationship between wolf and moose.  But with the wolf population at an all-time low, the moose population is much larger than is healthy for the island.  The result is devastation of the balsam firs, a tasty moose treat.  The conundrum for the park is whether to intercede and introduce another lineage of wolf to bring down the number of moose or not interfere with the rhythm of the island.  It will be interesting to see what unfolds.

The best way to see this wild island, imho, is backpacking.  With only 4 hours to visit, there is not much to be done besides explore the small visitor center, get your passport stamped and take in a short hike.

On our trip back the rains came and the fog rolled in, just as we approached a lone sentinel emerging through the mist.

Rock of Ages Lighthouse emerges through the mist.

Rock of Ages Lighthouse emerges through the mist.

Rock of Ages Lighthouse, one of the most remote on the continent, sitting two miles off the south end of Isle Royale, was built in 1908.  It would seem that even a sea-hardened sailor could be brought to his knees in despair over the assignment to care for this station, given the acute isolation.  Manned until 1977 and automated in 1985, the original 2nd-order Fresnel lens now sits in the Windigo Visitor Center.

One final sight I wanted to see before we left the North Shore was the High Falls on the Pigeon River, Minnesota’s highest waterfall at 120 feet.  Located in the Grand Portage State Park, one-half mile walk from the visitor center, she did not disappoint, but then few waterfalls ever do for me if there is water flowing over them. :)

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Grand Portage has a rich history dating back to the 1700’s in what was the beginning of the international fur trade.  For those interested in learning more about “The Great Carrying Place”, you can read about it here.  We did visit the Grand Portage National Monument and found the background most educational.