What’s the Bakken? Did you know these things?

Oil production can be a controversial topic. Nevertheless, it’s a present North Dakota industry tipping the balance of world energy politics. The world knows about North Dakota and the Bakken oil play. 

A rig works in McKenzie County, west of Watford City.

A rig works in McKenzie County, west of Watford City.

Where is it?first-nd-oil-well-map-aoghs

It’s not hard to imagine a Saudi oil prince who had never heard of North Dakota, now knows about the state and the Bakken,  with its primary counties: McKenzie, Mountrail, Dunn, Ward, and Williams Counties.  The heart of the Bakken extends roughly from Watford City east to Mandaree, up to New Town back south to Killdeer It is a region that put OPEC on notice that the U.S. was cutting its dependency on Middle Eastern oil.

Take a drive through the region to see the “dipping donkeys.”

two oil pumps

Dipping donkeys or oil pumps are placed a few yards apart so their footprint is minuscule compared to the wells of 30 years ago.

They won’t be there for long. For every active well that you pass, you also drive past hundreds of capped wells no longer apparent. You may get to spot an oil rig. There are about 40 working in the beginning of 2017.  Four years ago, there were about 200.  A well is not permanent.  Technology is so advanced that the wells’ greatest production is in the first five years.

Did you know?

When a well costs more to operate than it produces it is cut off three or four feet below the surface. The pipe below ground is encased in at least three layers of concrete.

The same topsoil and subsoil that was removed for the well pad is replaced and the terrain is reshaped.  Vegetation is restored.  Nearly 9,000 wells in the region have been capped and are invisible to everyone except petroleum engineers.

Nearly 9,000 wells in the region have been capped and are invisible to everyone except petroleum engineers.

The Bakken is a geological layer a couple miles or 10,000 feet below the surface.  The target area at that 2-mile depth is a layer about 5-feet wide . Its name has been applied to the surface region where drilling activity is most apparent. It is 200,000 square miles of the subsurface of the Williston Basin, covering parts of Montana, North Dakota, and Saskatchewan.  It’s estimated up to 500 billion barrels of oil are in the Bakken.  About one-million barrels a day are produced.

Multiple wells are on one pad. Current oil production uses less than 10% of space compared to oil production 30 years ago.

Multiple wells are on one pad. Current oil production uses less than 10% of space compared to oil production 30 years ago.

The world-class oil play could last up to 50 years at some level, but probably not as busy as it was 2011 to 2014.  Thousands of jobs have been created.  One form of taxes on the wells, extraction taxes produce as much as $3-billion a year. Billions more are collected in income, sales and corporate taxes.

History of North Dakota Oil Production

 North Dakota has provided oil to the nation for more than 65 years.  The earliest permit issued for oil exploration in North Dakota came from the state geologist in 1923. The spark that ignited North Dakota’s oil boom of 1951 was discovery of oil by Hess Petroleum Corporation on the Clarence Iverson farm, 8 miles south of Tioga. The oil field which grew up around this original site is a small part of the oil-bearing region called the Williston Basin, which extends from South Dakota to western Canada, and from central North Dakota to central Montana. The Bakken is within the Williston Basin.

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How to get there


The drilling rigs associated with oil activity are in place for only a few weeks. Then, the “dipping donkeys” or pumps are installed. Even the pumps are temporary because when the oil has been removed from the tiny area two miles down, the pumps are shut down and removed.

 From Watford City, head east on Highway 23 toward New Town.  15 miles down the road, at Johnson Corner continue straight on Highway 73 toward Mandaree. Another 15 miles and you’ll stop at the intersection with Highway 22. Head north about 17 miles and you’ll once again connect with Highway 23.  Here, you can turn east toward New Town or turn west back to Watford City.  (Technology has improved the process so much that a well today occupies only about 10% of the ground that a similar well occupied in 1980.)

 A late-day drive through the region will help you spot oil drills as the sun sets. Floodlights shine on the skyscraper structures and the little village at the base of each drill. That’s where workers stay as they service the 24/7 drilling operation. Each well will drill down about 2 miles, and curve horizontally to tap a five-foot wide section of geology called the Middle Bakken. Once drilled, wells are installed to lift oil from 2-miles below the surface.  An onsite system of tanks and separators hold the oil until it can be delivered to a refinery.

Cattle are king. Wells being drilled nearby do not upset grazing beef cattle.

Cattle are king. Wells being drilled nearby do not upset grazing beef cattle.

The vehicle you are driving could be burning fuel that was once two miles below the road on which you are driving.

Late in the day, you’ll also see large flames from tall pipes on the well pad.  When oil comes up, natural gas comes with it. At current market prices of 3-cents a million cubic feet, it costs far more to collect, move and distribute than the current price. So, it is burned off, or “flared.”

Excess natural gas is burned off in a process called "flaring." North Dakota's rate of flaring is far below national standards.

Excess natural gas is burned off in a process called “flaring.” North Dakota’s rate of flaring is far below national standards.

The Bakken leads the world in capturing natural gas and reducing the amount of natural gas that is flared.  North Dakota’s flaring rate is well below national regulations and world standards.


This is history unfolding around us.  If you haven’t driven through the region in the last few years, you missed the excitement of “The Boom.”  That historic moment is gone.

You can still see just what it is that the world is talking about. The boom of several years ago has passed, but oil production continues.  At the time of this writing, there is an uptick in oil production and a national call for workers, but it is nothing compared to 2012-2014.  Infrastructure, roads, services have caught up to demand which makes now a good time to drive through the region to see for yourself what it is that people are talking about.

Though the boom of several years ago has passed, but oil production continues.  At the time of this writing, there is an uptick in oil production and a national call for workers, but it is nothing compared to 2012-2014.  

  • Infrastructure, roads, services have caught up to demand in many places. and the work to catch up continues. That makes now a good time to drive through the region to see for yourself what it is that people are talking about.  
  • Truck bypasses have taken the load off city streets and provided fast routes around towns such as Killdeer,
  • Watford City and New Town.  Nearly all of the city Main Streets have been reworked to accommodate visitors.  
  • Familes are filling homes for long-term if not permanent work.



The Short Cut is the Long Cut Part 1 — Long X Trail westward

The Long X hiking trail follows the Little Missouri River Valley

The Long X hiking trail follows the Little Missouri River Valley

Hiking the Long X trail, you will wander over more than a mile of trail but only gets you one mile further in to the Badlands.  It’s the most primitive part of what is elsewhere a full access gravel road.  The gravel road may seem to be a short cut, but it’s actually the long cut through the Badlands wilderness between civilized areas.

It starts as a wandering path as though some critter aimlessly wandered about.  It’s old folk lore — the calf’s trail. I found the calf’s trail, or the Long X trail along the Little Missouri River, and sure enough, it wanders on a path so crooked it’d break a snake’s back.  Folk lore says that’s how highways start. Sam Foss wrote the words:

One day through the primeval wood
A calf walked home as good calves should;
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail as all calves do.
Since then three hundred years have fled,
And I infer the calf is dead.

The calf’s trail I follow every year is a primitive extension of the Long X road. It zigzags through wilderness following the Little Missouri River which flows north from Wyoming and Montana in to North Dakota to the Missouri River. The Long X hiking trail never quite evolved to highway status, but it’s well-marked.

Each day a hundred thousand rout Followed the zigzag calf about.
And o’er his crooked journey went The traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led, By one calf near three centuries dead.


Charlois and Long X Bridge wtrmrkThe name, “Long X,” is branded on a bridge, a trail and a road. It is from a famous cattle ranch on the Little Missouri River that pre-dates North Dakota’s statehood.  It was the north end of a cattle trail that dangled southward to Texas.  It’s gone now, but the name remains.

For decades, I’ve explored the valley where the Long X Hiking Trail threads. I always took with me my Austrailian Shepherd. Often other companions joined the dog and me — my daughter or son, or a friend. We relied on our sense of direction to get where we wanted to go — and get back again.  We’d keep one eye on the easy-to-follow Long X Trail, but we struck out on our own, running a parallel course between the Long X Hiking Trail and the Little Missouri River.

To get to the trail head, start at the Long X Bridge, south of Watford City. It’s south across the river from where the Long X Ranch once stood, 150 years ago. Drive a short one mile road to the CCC Campground named for the Civilian Conservation Corps, built in the 1930’s.

To get the Long X trail head, you'll drive through grazing or resting Charolais bulls.

To get the Long X trail head, you’ll drive through grazing or resting Charolais bulls.

Leave your vehicle; that’s as far as it will go. Now travel like the wandering calf on the Long X Hiking Trail, a well-marked adventure for those on foot, on bike or on horse.   (I’ve actually cross-country skied it in younger days.)   It’s marked by sign posts and directional markers such as these three that tell you where you stand and where you can go, if you want to follow the trail.

Long X trail head markers point the way down the trail, or to the Maah Dah Hey trail.

Long X trail head markers point the way down the trail, or to the Maah Dah Hey trail.

If you’re comfortable and can read nature’s signs, you can strike out on your own.  First-timers can safely follow the trail.

The Australian Shepherd is gone and so I don’t hike as much as I did when he was around. Still, I strike out a few times a year.  This spring, my hiking partner and I followed the general direction of the Long X Hiking Trail.  It was still early in the hiking season and the hills had not yet turned green, but at least they weren’t white with snow.

We stuck to deer trails because the marked hiking trail went up a valley where didn’t want to go. We spent most of an afternoon exploring the challenges of hills and bluffs that bank the valley carved by the Little Missouri River. After a few miles of flatland hiking on the valley floor, we picked a butte to climb to the top of the world. The view is restricted from the bottom of the valley, and we wanted to discover how far we could see from the top.

Long X Trail head with butte in background

About a mile away, the hill we ultimately chose to climb.

It took two-and-a-half hours to climb the butte. Little switch-backs made the hike longer, but less steep.  Our spring legs, out of shape from a confining winter were not strong enough to tackle the butte straight up. Back and forth we threaded our way up the butte on a path like Singer Sewing Machine zigzag stitch. We stopped every 20 minutes to rest our legs and scope out the encouraging view of how far we had come.  It was more encouraging to look at what we’d accomplished, rather than to estimate the climb ahead. The labor was worth it.Long X view of T Rsvlt Park and Little Mo wtrmrk

From on top we could see where the wandering calf trail called the Long X accompanied the Little Missouri River. “Magnificient” is the best word I can use to describe the view. “Endless” is another good word.  The bluffs and buttes extend a greater distance than I could estimate.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park corral across the river from us.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park corral across the river from us.

Not far off, we could see horses grazing peacefully.  Ranches and tourist points marked the view upstream along the river. . We scanned the distance with our cameras’ telephoto lenses, looking for herds of elk, big horn sheep or even a coyote.  In previous years, I’ve spotted all of them. What is spooky, though, is to know that this is also mountain lion country. The state estimates some 300 roam this region.  I wonder how many have lay hidden watching me in the same way that I sat on top of this butte watching the world below.

Long X view of buffalo wtrmrk

What caught our attention and entertained us for much of our rest break, was a sober reminder this ain’t the days of the wild west. A mere splinter of what was once lumbering herds of millions of buffalo grazed below us. A dozen head is all that are left in this valley to graze where 200 years ago, the land was literally covered with buffalo. Lewis and Clark, then a few years later, George Catlin painted and wrote of buffalo herds that could not be numbered — probably in the millions.  The Bismarck Tribune in 1880 reported that 2 hunters shot nearly 100 deer and antelope and 15 elk. Elk were so plentiful, the Tribune wrote that the two men shot 11 of the elk in about 15 minutes.  From our perch on the top of the butte, on the grassy mesa, we could watch across the river where a few head of buffalo grazed at the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but no elk.

With a bit of imagination, we could picture what it must have been like to ride across the grasslands to this great gorge and then to spy big black beasts — too many to number. Only a few head of the massive herd would be needed to feed, clothe and house the tribe or clan of Mandan or Hidatsa that lived in this area hundreds of years ago.  The tribes considered the buffalo to be their spiritual kin.  They thanked their gods for the provisions that the buffalo supplied, hides, meat, tallow, bones — all of which they used to live hundreds of years ago.  Today, buffalo are just a tourist spectacle.

The view from the mesa above the valley stretches for miles

The view from the mesa above the valley stretches for miles

We rested for nearly an hour at the top of the world. We talked and gazed across the region. The high-energy food from our backpack refueled our exhausted legs.  We drank the cold water we brought. We snapped several photos from our perch above the wandering calf trail.

When we left, we let gravity do it’s work. Two and a half hours up, but 45 minutes to get down.  We slid, fell, jumped until we were back at the bottom of the valley ready to parallel the river to get back to our truck. In all, we’d gone only about five miles west.  The round trip took five hours. The marked trail is about 12 miles long; a savvy outdoorsman could follow it all the way across the state in to Montana and Wyoming.Mary down the hill

Our day hike gave us enough of a taste of what life used to be like. Intent on following all we could of the Long X trail and road, we looked forward to following the longest part of the trail. It reached eastward — and that part we could handle by pickup truck another day. Our next leg of the journey would take us from the 1880 Long X Trail to the 1935 Long X Road.

I’ll tell you about that next — it’s a route you may want to sample — by vehicle if you’re not up to extreme hiking.  Start at the Long X Bridge and  head east. Next time I’ll show you what that looks like.

Click through a slide show to see more images of the beauty of the Badlands at http://www.mykuhls.com/Beautiful-Bakken

Or on Facebook you can find more North Dakota Badlands at


Street signs and Ranches

North Dakota's ranch country

You don’t have to go far outside of the North Dakota Capitol City to find a different kind of busy intersection.  A local gang hanging out under the street sign, looking for trouble doesn’t have the same meaning in North Dakota as in other places.

Street signs are abundant any where people are moving — they have to know where they’re going.  And that’s true out in Morton County, just west of Bismarck. If you take some of the local roads you’ll find you are directed down the road to households within the same extended family — all building their legacy on the prairie — with the help of mother cow and her calves.  At least I think they were there to help.  I didn’t bother them. That cold icy stare was enough to keep me in my truck.

In this July jaunt through the hills of west river (Missouri River) North Dakota I had no idea where I was going, or where I was and frankly the street signs didn’t help much, so eventually I turned around, but not until I brushed by a bit of isolated civilization in the wide open pasture and grazing of western North Dakota.   It’s a good part of my portfolio, shooting this model I love to photograph — North Dakota. Mykuhls Photography

September 28


red bulls


They’re not exactly an energy drink these red bulls, but if they were running toward me, I’m sure I’d find enough energy to stay ahead of them.

Two of North Dakota’s largest economic sources are in this image — food and fuel; beef and electricity.  The Northern Plains has long been known as an essential part of the breadbasket of the world producing small grains and beef for the world.  Now in recent years, the Northern Plains has also become an increasingly essential part of America’s energy source.  The coal, gas and oil production of this region is legendary.  One of the largest oil plays in the nation is under ground west of here, the Bakken oil formation.  Now, add to that the hundreds of wind turbines dotting the prairies and the region’s importance to the lives of other Americans continues to grow.

July 9

Baling the ditch

The state would have to mow the ditches before winter if it were not for the needs of local ranchers to feed their cattle in the winter. That’s how a cooperative effort is formed between the state and local land owners. The state doesn’t have to mow the snow-catching drift-forming grasses in the ditch, and the rancher can harvest the ditch for his cattle.  It’s a win win and typical of the cooperative culture of North Dakotans who work together, especially to defeat the common enemy of winter.

Across the way, another cooperative effort is underway. The local electric coop is building a wind farm, renting the land from the local farmers to generate electricity from the wind.  The electricity is shipped to eastern states who don’t give a thought about who supplied the electricity or where it came from.  It came from here.  And obviously more is about to come to homes in the east because more turbines are about to be built.  They’re mammoth towers on the prairie as is evidenced by the pickup truck below one of them, driving past the soon-to-be erected tower stems.

July 7

Soft green wheat field

North Dakota’s evening beauty is nothing if it is not soft, even after a passing storm.  What starts as a rugged black field sprouts green in the spring and then as the small grains develop their head, the field softens.

Cows graze storm passes

In this case, the soft small grain field is marked by the tire tracks of a sprayer that had gone through the field a few days earlier.  Off in the distance the evening glow of cumulus clouds signify that someone is about to get some rain.

Meanwhile several miles south of the wheat field, cows graze as another storm passes.  The softness of the pastoral hillside and the cotton ball clouds create a sense of peace that is typical of North Dakota: calmness even as the storms pass.  The calm pastoral beauty of North Dakota is best seen in the evening, the “golden hour” when the harsh light of the mid-day sun has passed and now the indirect light of the western setting sun adds contrast to the countryside.

June 27

As further testimony to what I wrote a couple of days ago, North Dakota’s beauty is captured easily if you look for it.

I returned a mile or two from where I was two days ago to once again capture North Dakota’s beauty, but this time instead of landscape, I sought out life on the prairie.  This herd of  horses caught my eye, especially the colts laying in the grass, guarded by their mothers.  It’s a pastoral ranch scene if I ever saw one.

The weather conditions were perfect for such peaceful imagery.  Skies were mostly blue with a few white puffy cumulus clouds.  The winds were light and the herd of horses was at peace.

There aren’t very many herds like this here, where mares and colts are in abundance. Most farms and ranches have one or two horses, of a small herd, but none quite with this number.  It’s a rather large remuda, or ramada as it may have been called if it were on a Texas cattle drive.

Not far from the horse herd was a good size herd of Angus grazing on the hillside.  I’m not sure if they were part of the same operation, but either way, the hills and herds produced a romantic kind of imagery for an early summer afternoon.  This was one of my favorite shoots so far this year, and it was just 20 miles or so east of where I live.  How far do you have to travel to find life in the landscapes near you?

June 4

Red Bull Energy drink anyone?  I dare ya. I dadgum dare ya to try your hand at this kind of energy drink. I don’t think you’d make it.

This red bull was not my intent nor my purpose for stopping where I did to photograph late afternoon images.  And neither  was this red fox.  I first spotted the fox trotting past the sleeping bulls on the ranch on the west side of the Missouri River west of Washburn.  I watched the fox for a while until it disappeared in the trees.  They’re not nearly as pretty as in the cartoons, but they do cut a striking image in the right natural setting.

A few minutes later when I was getting set to take the shots I had come for, I spied the fox again — well, I assume it was the same fox.  I don’t know.  This time it was on the other side of me.  I caught it just before it disappeared in the unmown grass along the edge of  Highway 200.

At about the same time, I caught the images I came for.  I shoot for a website called Kickstands Up.  It’s a biker information site for those who are riding in North Dakota.  One of the features of the website as it’s being developed is to show what various popular highways are like for bikers. 

Highway 200 is a popular highway, especially west river, as it begins or ends at the Missouri River in Washburn.  It’s a good highway and close enough to populated towns that it attracts a lot of riders. This pair coming from the west high Highway 83 at Washburn and then turned south, apparently to Bismarck.  

Other riders came from the opposite direction, headed west. That’s usually the direction I take 200, to Hazen, Beulah and Killdeer.

It’s a pleasant and very scenic highway.  I recommend it.  If you’ve ridden Highway 200 west river, how does it compare to other roads you know about?  Got tips?

May 25

Calves on the alert

They’re getting old enough to almost take care of themselves. These calves east of Wilton are part of the spring crop of calves.  They’re still pretty defenseless, but they’re smart enough to pay attention to a photographer lurking in a nearby ditch.

The USDA says that the value of North Dakota’s cattle herds is $705,903,000. That’s a lotta bucks in those calves!  There are a lotta cattle out there and the good news is, according to the USDA, cattle prices are on track to be as high or higher than they were in 2008 and 2007 which were record years.

That means these little guys are worth a lot of money to their owner/producer.  To make the good news better is the weather has been good enough to provide good feed, too.  I’m happy that livestock producers are seeing a good turn around in their business.  If you’re a cattle producer this year, how are things for you?

May 8

No sooner does a blast from winter sweep through the region, than farmers are back at it, this one doing a little spring cleaning of a nearby hay field.   The cattle are still feeding on hay because pastures are not quite fully nutritional, so bringing in a few more bales of hay will help carry the herd through until spring.

The trailer the farmer here is pulling out to the field will carry a few big round bales of hay back to the feedlot.  It will also remove the last of the bales in the field in preparation for the coming hay crop this spring.