Sacred Space or Climbing Mecca ~ Devils Tower National Monument, WY

Legend of Devils Tower ~ photo credit Google

Legend of Devils Tower ~ photo credit Google

According to the Lakota tribe, while at play, a group of young girls were chased by giant bears. Their escape was to climb atop a rock and pray to the Great Spirit to save them.The Great Spirit heard their pleas and the rock rose to the heavens, keeping the young girls safe from attack.  Deep claw marks in the sides of the rock evidence the ursine’s attempts to reach the girls. These are the marks which appear today on the sides of Devils Tower.  When the girls reached the sky, they were turned into the star constellation Pleiades.

There are things in the natural world that induce a stillness of spirit, a sense of wonder. For me, Devils Tower is one of those things.  President Theodore Roosevelt must have felt this same sense of awe as he gazed upwards at this rocky sentinel rising 1267 feet above the surrounding landscape, as this was to be his choice for the first national monument on September 24, 1906.  With a one-mile circumference, it is a sight to behold.

The name “Bear’s Lodge” given to this stately tower by Native Americans became woefully mistranslated by a U.S. Army interpreter to that of “Bad Man’s Tower”, which then became Devils Tower.  Northern Plains Indians have objected to this name and wish to see it changed to Bear Lodge National Historic Landmark but they have been met by local opposition, fearing a name change would affect tourism.

There is an ongoing debate about how this massive tower was formed.  Most geologists agree that Devils Tower was formed by the forceful passage of molten material between other rock formations but they can’t agree whether this magma reached the earth’s surface or how that process took place.  What is known is that this material cooled and crystallized, forming hexagonal (4 to 7-sided) columns separated by vertical fissures, compatible to columns found at Devil’s Postpile National Monument in California, but those at Devils Tower are much larger.  These are the tallest and widest columns in the world, some more than 600 feet tall and 10-20 feet wide.

Many ask, “should this be a sacred tower, a climbing mecca, or is there room for both?” It has long been held as sacred ground by over 20 Native American tribes but has also been sought as an international climbing destination since its first ascent on July 4, 1893.  Out of respect for Native American beliefs, the National Park Service has asked climbers to refrain from climbing the tower during the month of June, when many tribes gather here for prayer, sun dance, sweat lodge ceremonies, and vision quests.

With wind blowing through the pines, the sun's final light sets the tower aglow.

With wind blowing through the pines, the sun’s final light sets the tower aglow.

Records of the tower climbs have been kept since that first ascent by William Rogers and Willard Ripley in 1893, using a wooden ladder to climb the first 350 feet.  Two years later Mrs. Rogers used that same ladder to become the first woman to summit. Remnants of that ladder can still be seen today on the side of Devils Tower.  Annually 5000+ climbers world-wide come to tackle this technically difficult tower and over 220 climbing routes have been established.  Five deaths have resulted from attempting this climb, the most recent being in 2003.  We watched in awe as one climber worked his way up the tower barefoot.

We were content to extol her beauty with our feet planted terra firma. :)

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