You can see why this is a popular easy rugged trip: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

A bison sleeps at the entrance of the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

I love taking visitors, even young children to the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP). It’s on the very south edge of McKenzie County, and is one of those features that makes McKenzie County a world class destination.  In classic North Dakota style, the TRNP under promises and over delivers.  You’ll be amazed when you put on your hiking shoes and explore the park.

It’s a rugged wilderness with a variety of trails through the park to suit all types of hikers. That’s why, when we visit the park, we don’t stay in the car, we get out of the car and in to nature.  When my three kids were in their energetic elementary and preschool days, they could be loose, free and safe to run, explore and challenge one another.

Sure, some people just drive through the park, a 14-mile Scenic Drive that leads from the entrance station to Oxbow Overlook, with turnouts and interpretive signs along the way. Drive-by tourists look for bison, park at the top loop and the lookout post, then drive away.

You can see the Little Missouri River from the far end of the park, near the Overlook Shelter

The park is there for you to experience, not merely view. So, along the 14-mile drive, you will pass a number of hiking trails. Some are self-guiding nature trails that have interpretive brochures to help you learn more about the park.

The Caprock Coulee nature trail is an easy jaunt with good photo opportunities. It does not have the rugged climbs and overlooks that the Achenbach trail has.

 

 

History

The idea for a park was evolutionary.  It started to be just an idea for a memorial to President Theodore Roosevelt in about 1919 shortly after he died.  Eventually, in addition to a connection with a president, the land was recognized for its diverse cultural and natural resources. On November 10, 1978, the area was given national park status when President Carter signed the bill that changed the memorial park to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

 

Here’s the history of the park

When Theodore Roosevelt came to Dakota Territory to hunt bison in 1885, he was a skinny, young, spectacled dude from New York. He could not have imagined how his adventure in this remote and unfamiliar place would forever alter the course of the nation. The rugged landscape and strenuous life that TR experienced here would help shape a conservation policy that we still benefit from today.  –from the the National Park System publication about TRNP

Our recommendation

The North Unit is eons younger than it’s twin in the southern part of the state, the South Unit near Medora. The North Unit is more rugged and challenging. It also has less tourist traffic since it is more remote than the South Unit. The South Unit is on Interstate 94 and easily attracts people to pull off the Interstate.

Our personal favorite is to hike all or part of the Achenbach Trial. It is 18 miles long and you can extend it in to a two-day hike. If you intend to camp in the backcountry must obtain a free backcountry permit prior to their trip. Permits are issued at the South Unit and North Unit visitor centers. The full trail provides steep climbs and descents and two river crossings await you on a trail that leads deep into the heart of the Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness. 

It’s tough to do in one day, so we recommend just taking the west end of the trail down the hill from the Oxbow overlook.  The map will shows where to get on and off. 

Family Tip

If you have children, try the Caprock Coulee or Cannonball Concretions for a couple hours.  If you keep it short, you won’t get as worn out, and the kids will look forward to returning.

See what we saw

Last fall, we hiked the west portion of the Achenbach. We parked our Jeep near the bottom of the hill, and hiked up over a ridge to the south to intersect with the trail. Once on the trail, we headed westerly.  It’s an upward grade, but we were fresh, so it was an easy hike up. 

We’d stop every so often to look over the hills, or look back to see how far we’d come. 

At one of the highest points on the Achenbach Trail, near the west terminus, a look back at where the trail started.

It doesn’t seem like much until you look back to see where you started.  There are attractive/amazing/impressive spots along the trail where we got and exercise climbing over, around or through rock formations.

The Oxbow Overlook is one of the most photographed buildings in the state.

How to get there

The North Unit is a 50-mile drive north from Interstate 94.  Or a 15 mile drive south of Watford City in McKenzie County.  It’s a good highway in to the park from either direction.  The highway in the park is well-maintained.  Motorcyclists often make it a day ride to and through the park.

The 14-mile loop in the park attracts motorcyclists and others who ride through the canyon floor up to the overlook at the end. The highway is below some of the higher points on the trail.

Stop in the visitor center when you pay the entrance fee to get maps. There are three easy trails, each shorter than one mile and can be hiked in less than a half hour.

 It’s right on Highway 85, a modern two-lane highway 50 miles north from Belfield and Interstate 94.  Or you can come down from the north, about 14 miles south of Watford City on Highway 85.

Can you recommend a hike in the North Unit?

What to read more?  Here’s a link to read more about the Achenbach Trail  

Here’s the link to get the Park Hiking Guide

Subscribe to get more vacation and exploration ideas from Western North Dakota.

Enter the word “McKenzie” in the subject line to get a free 22-page eGuide to places to go in McKenzie County.

 

 

 

 

Iconic architecture for you to tour in McKenzie County — FREE!

Bridging cultures, counties and communities – the Four Bears Bridge

Each arched span directs the weight of the bridge in to the piers

Each arched span directs the weight of the bridge into the piers

This mile-long bridge is the latest effort to overcome the continental division of the Missouri River. The Missouri River has been a transportation corridor and a barrier since before Thomas Jefferson.  That’s why he commissioned the Corps of Discovery to learn more about the river.

History

From the North Dakota State Historical Society, the first Four Bears Bridge built near the now flooded town of Elbowoods.

From the North Dakota State Historical Society, the first Four Bears Bridge built near the now-flooded town of Elbowoods.

From the U.S. Geological Survey

1940 Four Bears Bridge at Elbowoods, 13 years before the Army Corps of Engineers flooded the valley and moved the bridge. (From the U.S. Geological Survey)

Until about 1925 there was no way to cross the river in this part of the United States.

America had fought a World War and had become a powerhouse in world politics, but travelers still couldn’t cross the Missouri River, except by unreliable and unsafe ferries.

A national lobbying effort prompted Washington to pay for a bridge across the Missouri River on Highway 8 south of Stanley in Mountrail County and north of Halliday in Dunn County.

In 1950, after the Second World War, the Army Corps of Engineers built a series of dams on the Missouri including one in Garrison, North Dakota. The water would have covered the original Four Bears Bridge on old Highway 8.

So, the government paid to have the original bridge dismantled and moved about 70 miles upstream.

Dismatntled at it's first site, the Four Bears Bridge was rebuilt at McKenzie County to reach the opposite side of Lake Sakakawea and Mountrail County.

Dismantled at its first site, the Four Bears Bridge was rebuilt at McKenzie County to reach the opposite side of Lake Sakakawea and Mountrail County.

The bridge was built to 1925 standards – two eight foot driving lanes, no shoulders, no walkways. By modern standards, it was functionally obsolete.  It was too narrow and too low of clearance  Two large farm trucks could not meet on the bridge.

A construction barge under the old Four Bears Bridge while the new bridge was built.

Two construction barges under the old Four Bears Bridge move two precast concrete bridge segments in to place to be lifted and attached to the growing structure.

During four construction seasons, 2003-2007, a new $54 million dollar bridge was built using context sensitive design.  It has won several international design contests and been recognized as a model for designing a modern structure that seamlessly fits in to the cultural, natural, social and economic environment of the area.

The arches between piers mimic the hills along the river.

The arches between piers mimic the hills along the river.

The sweeping curves of the bridge are designed to visually replicate the curves of the nearby hills in the Badlands.

 

 

Our Recommendations

Tribal symbols on the bridge wall.

Tribal symbols on the bridge wall.

Walk the bridge to see the history in artwork of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, the MHA Nation.  The stories of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations are on storyboards on both ends of the bridge with tributes to their ancestors along the railing of the walkway. The pedestrian walkway includes medallions of the cultural history of the Three Affiliated Tribes and tributes to leaders, sacred animals, and historical events. The railing also includes silhouettes of sacred animals.

There are benches on which you can sit and absorb the sights and sounds. The concrete trail at the park will lead you down the riverbank to observation points below and alongside the bridge.  From here you can clearly see the medicine wheel on the opposite hillside. This ancient sacred place accurately points the four cardinal directions.

Looking over McKenzie County from Crow Flies High, on the east end of the bridge, it's apparent Highway 23 wanders and snakes across the hills toward the Four Bears Casino and Lodge

Looking over McKenzie County from Crow Flies High, on the east end of the bridge, it’s apparent Highway 23 wanders and snakes across the hills toward the Four  Bears Bridge.

 

On the east side of the bridge, the Mountrail County side, drive to the maintained historical site on the south side of the road above the medicine wheel. The point is called Crows High or Crow Flies High and includes storyboards of Native American history.  Over the edge of the parking area to the north, straight down is what remains of the flooded town of Sanish.  When the lake level is low, many of the foundations are visible.

Click here to read how the new bridge was built

Click here to read John Weeks excellent description of the bridge and the parks

How to get therearrows-from-wc-to-four-bears-bridge

 From Watford City drive east on Highway 23 about 40 miles to the far eastern border of McKenzie County.  There can be a fair amount of truck traffic on the road, but don’t get in a hurry.  Many passing lanes are built into the route between Watford City and New Town.

The Four Bears Bridge is one of McKenzie County’s 5 affordable (low cost or free) landmarks visitors and travelers tour year-round. For a free 20-page ebook on all five of the McKenzie County landmarks, enter the word “McKenzie” in the subject line of this email form.

If you want regular tips on quality opportunities in Western North Dakota, be sure to subscribe to this blog.

 

5 amazing free or low cost world class points in McKenzie County

The county is larger than Washington DC, Rhode Island and Delaware. When settlers moved to the area, McKenzie County was known as an island and called the Island Empire. You cannot get to it without crossing water.stylized-map-of-mckenzie-county-map

The Missouri River, Yellowstone River and Little Missouri River set the boundaries of the county. They also contribute to the world-class recognition of McKenzie County.he largest county in the state, McKenzie County has always been fascinating, going back to the Dakota Territory days.

I was first intrigued by the county thanks to the historic McKenzie County Grazing Association, a rancher group intent on maintaining the industry and the environment that supports ranching. From there, my interest and my involvement in the county’s heritage grew.

There are five world-class points in the county:

  1. Four Bears Bridge
  2. Lake Sakakawea
  3. Theodore Roosevelt National Park
  4. Maah Daah Hey trail
  5. Rough Rider Event Center

Sure, you can take a day trip to buzz through all six locations, but why would you? We put this together so you can take advantage of vacation days, weekends or holidays through the year to explore the adventures, get insight and history of America. It’s  yours to enjoy.  Each site is free or very low cost.

Four Bears Bridge

The mile-long Four Bears Bridge spans the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea

The mile-long Four Bears Bridge spans the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea

This mile-long bridge is the latest effort to overcome the continental division of the Missouri River. During four construction seasons, 2003-2007, a new $55 million dollar bridge was built using context sensitive design.  It won several international design contests and is recognized as a model for designing a modern structure that seamlessly fits in the cultural, natural, social and economic environment of the area.

Each sweeping arch is designed to transfer the load in to the piers and the rock bed 90 feet below the water. The chopped off cones at the base of the piers are designed to stand up to ice floes coming downstream.

Each arched span directs the weight of the bridge in to the piers

Each arched span directs the weight of the bridge in to the piers

Walk the bridge to see artwork detailing the history of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, the MHA Nation.  The stories of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations are on storyboards on both ends of the bridge.

Here’s what you can do here next to an internationally recognized engineering feat (and it’s free!):

  • Walk across,
  • Walk under
  • Follow the recreation trail,
  • Learn history
  • Have a picnic.

Lake Sakakawea

Lake Sakakawea is 180 miles long, providing public shoreline access from which sunrises and sunsets can be viewed.

Lake Sakakawea is 180 miles long, providing public shoreline access from which sunrises and sunsets can be viewed.

Damming the Missouri River at Garrison with Garrison Dam, created a magnificent 180-mile long lake with 1,530 miles of PUBLIC shoreline.  The Army Corps of Engineers says the lake covers 382,000 surface acres making it the largest manmade lake in North America where the entire shoreline is open to the public.

Pontoons, and other boats take full access of the 300,000 acre lake.

Pontoons and other boats take full access of the 300,000-acre lake.

It is world famous for its recreation, walleye fishing and its paddlefish snagging.

Here’s what you can do here next to this world-famous lake:

  • Hike the shoreline
  • Watch sunset/sunrise
  • Visit the parks
  • Learn history
  • Have a picnic
  • Fish
  • Boat (fishing, sail, jet ski)
  • Scuba Dive
  • Camp
  • Swim

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Bison roam freely at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. They are not domesticated, so give them plenty of space.

Bison roam freely at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. They are not domesticated, so give them plenty of space.

Undersold and over delivering as a National Park, the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TNRP) is on the south edge of McKenzie County.  It is a rugged wilderness with a variety of trails through the park to suit all types of hikers.  The roadway through the park takes visitors to the Riverbend Overlook cabin above the Little Missouri River.  Along the drive, it’s likely you will see a collection of bison or other species such as mule deer.

When Theodore Roosevelt came to Dakota Territory to hunt bison in 1885, he was a skinny, young, spectacled dude from New York. He could not have imagined how his adventure in this remote and unfamiliar place would forever alter the course of the nation. The rugged landscape and strenuous life that TR experienced here would help shape a conservation policy that we still benefit from today.

–National Park System publication on the TRNP

On the Achenbach Trail, the views of the Little Missouri River Valley are outstanding.

On the Achenbach Trail, the views of the Little Missouri River Valley are outstanding.

It would seem a great number of visitors view the park through their windshield. They’re missing out. There are several trails in the park to accommodate all levels of fitness. One of the most challenging is the Achenbach Trail. It is 18 miles long and you can extend it into a two-day hike. (Anyone intending to camp in the backcountry must obtain a free backcountry permit prior to their trip. Permits are issued at the South Unit and North Unit visitor centers.)

Here’s what you can do here next to this National Park:

  • Hike
  • Picnic
  • Photograph
  • scout wildlife
  • access the river
  • research, browse books
  • drive

Maah Daah Hey trail (Otherwise knowns as the “lasting a long time” trail)

The world-class 125-mile long Maah Daah Hey trail attracts riders from all over the United States and many European nations.

The world-class 125-mile long Maah Daah Hey trail attracts riders from all over the United States and many European nations.

Imagine a 125-mile trek through Badlands wilderness on a mountain bike, horse or on foot. Mule and whitetail deer, antelope, wild turkeys, beaver, prairie dogs, and coyotes are often sighted, while an occasional golden eagle, red-tail hawk, or prairie falcon may be spotted soaring above. Bighorn sheep and elk have been reintroduced into the area and can be spotted by keen observers.

On rare occasions, you can catch a glimpse of the Big Horn sheep.

On rare occasions, you can catch a glimpse of the Big Horn sheep.

Wildflowers such as this crocus adorn the trail.

Wildflowers such as this crocus adorn the trail.

The single-track mountain bike trail has attracted world riders to visit with their $4,000 bikes. You can rent mountain bikes on the south end of the Maah Daah Hey trail at Medora.

The dream was to connect the two units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The actual planning and building took about 14 years. It’s a difficult trail to maintain through the erosive and wild Badlands. In recent years, your tax dollars have not been spent to keep it up. Locals including the Save the Maah Daah Hey trail group sculpt and mow the trail. The group hosts the annual Maah Daah Hey 100 mountain bike ride: 100-miles in one day. The winning time is just minutes under 10 hours.

There is no time of year that is a bad time to strike out on the trail. Of course, North Dakota’s legendary afternoon and evening thunderstorms can make the trail very challenging even for the most experienced adventurer.  dead-tree-in-the-brush-color-sig

Don’t be scared off by the massive challenge the Maah Daah Hey can present.  There are plenty of short-access hikes, here’s where you can get on the trail to get in to the Badlands:

  • CCC Campground
  • Summit Campground
  • Bennet Creek
  • Beicegel Creek
  • Highway 50 West of Grassy Butte

Rough Rider Event Center

img_3287Imagine a $100-million indoor swimming pool with a few extra features.  That’s a silly way to describe the Rough Rider Event Center.  It is an auditorium, arena, gymnasium, and indoor water park, swimming pool, walking track, two ice hockey rinks, convention center, coffee shop and restaurant. Concerts, conventions, hockey and basketball tournaments draw thousands of people to the Rough Rider Event Center.

Architect’s specs:

  • 22,000-square-foot multi-use field house
  • Three basketball courts
  • Removable artificial turf
  • 1,000-seat hockey arena
  • Separate practice hockey rink
  • 3,000-seat arena for sporting events and concerts
  • Eight executive suites
  • 12,000-square-foot gymnastics club
  • 10,000 square feet of convention space
  • Continuous elevated running track.

img_3279

Watford City visitors can use the facility for a surprisingly low fee. For $7.00 visitors can enjoy daily use of any open activities, including swimming.

Just because these are the six world-class sites in McKenzie does not mean there are no more incredible places such as the Long X Museum and Visitor Center, art galleries and coffee houses in Watford City,  Fairview Lift Bridge, the Cartwright Tunnel,  Grassy Butte and its post office, the Frontier Village, the museum at Alexander.

There’s a lot more to these five world-class sites. Type the word McKenzie in the subject line of the contact form to know:
  • more about each one
  • how to get to each one
  • recommendations activities at each site
  • the history of each site
It’s free!
We’ll send you a 20-page travelogue for free just because we think McKenzie County is worth bragging about and you will too.  So, have a good time.
 
Oh, and click to subscribe to this blog to learn more of events, locations, activities each week. Pictures, information, and helps each week are posted here.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 Click here to read more

How to get there

three-oil-derricks

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.

Recommendation

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.

 

 

Enjoy the cold that keeps out riff raff — healthy people do

It’s not easy keeping up your spirits when winter and polar vortexes catapult the thermometer in to a region well below zero.  What do you do to keep out the invading winter blues?  Some people fall prey to the knighthood of long dark nights when the kingdom of cold invades.

It is possible not to fall to the avenging onslaught of relentless waves of killer cold fronts, but you have to work at it. You have to look for it.  You have to venture out to see the beauty of the season.  That may mean adjusting your schedule a bit. The Golden Hour is mid-afternoon, that last hour when the landscape turns gold.  On a holiday, such as New Years Day, the first sunset of the year is mid-afternoon, about 4:30.  That is when I forced myself to break free from the clutches of the cold to get out with my camera to capture the day.

The first sunset of 2014

The first sunset of 2014

One of the things I’ve come to discover about North Dakotans is they accept the things they cannot change and change the things they can.  So, when record-breaking cold weather sets in, they know they can do nothing about the weather, but they can do something about their own comfort or their own activity.  Of course it’s easier to do nothing and fall prey to the demons of darkness.  Taking a step to fight back is what many healthy people of the cold north such as North Dakotans do every winter.

965859_719882948021983_1441034643_oskis point to the clearing other side of woods wtrmrk     Some will go cross-country skiing.  Cross Ranch, a quiet state park where groomed cross-country ski trails weave through a cottonwood forest that stood here when Lewis and Clark tugged their boats up the Missouri River.

For some of us, it means layering up.  I’ve spent the coldest days of the winter working in my anti-starvation work. Outside.  Attempting to stay warm while keeping the bills paid.I wear as many as 7 layers of clothing when I know I’ll be working outside. I caught this image of myself in the mirror of the tractor I was driving.

The John Deere way to view the winter.

The John Deere way to view the winter.

  • Short underwear
  • Long underwear
  • Jeans
  • sleeveless T-shirt
  • Long Sleeve T-shirt
  • Flannel shirt
  • Bib overalls
  • Hooded sweatshirt
  • Coveralls
  • Parka and
  • Hoodie face and neck protection

Camera and me in tractor cab

Not everyone has to work outside. And not everyone can resign themselves to the fact there are some things (like cold weather) that you just can’t do much about.  Sure, North Dakotans could sit at home and complain, and wait for spring, or they could get out and do something about it.  The North Dakotans I know choose to enjoy it.  For some, that means racing up a hill in to town.02-24-10 snowmobiles

Or for some who know they can’t change the weather, but they can change their activities, it means diving in to those winter hobbies.  I’m fortunate to have a wood shop where I teach myself how to build wood frames for my prints.

open door to wood burning stove logs inside

Wood burning stove keeps things warm and friendly on a cold winter night.

wood and the table saw  The wood stove sits quiet, unused and neglected much of the year.  However, this time of the year, it’s actually a rewarding way to get out of the cold.  I love burning wood to stay warm.

It’s all about attitude, isn’t it.  I think that’s one of the healthiest things about North Dakotans.  They work at keeping up their spirits when the cold keeps out the riff raff.  What’s a good way to enjoy winter and beat the winter blues?

The tale of a doggone rescue

Ever get to a place that wasn’t what you expected and you can’t get out? You can’t go forward? You can’t go back?

That happened to my dog Gunnar on our last hike of the year.

Blue sky over the autumn landscape of the Badlands

Looking up at a distant hill, we start plotting our course. The public lands of the Badlands provide good hiking territory for dogs and their owners — with a few dangers such as porcupines, skunks rattlesnakes and coyotes

Thanksgiving is generally my last day-hike of the year. This year, the destination was the Little Missouri River Valley near where it empties in to Lake Sakakawea between Killdeer and Mandaree.  The bluffs, buttes and hills are fairly rugged, so we picked our route carefully through the valley.

Badlands riparian ridges provide good viewing of the landscape

Typically, we follow hogbacks, or ridges along the tops of valleys to see the landscape and pick our course. Since hunting season was underway, Gunnar wears a hunter’s blaze orange vest.

We found fascinating rock formations, including a wall of rivulet erosions down the hillside.

rivulets, erosion, rocks, hillside make for difficult hiking

Looking down the steep hillside, we pick a course to follow to the bottom

 

That’s when the dog decided he’d find his own way down.

The dog stops on a ledge looking down

Gunnar picked his own route to the bottom, but discovered it didn’t get him where he wanted to go.

Happily he scampered down…part way. Only part way.  He stopped.

 

With only a dozen feet to go, he came to an “Oops” moment.

 

Now what do I do?

 

He looked left, right, down and above.  He decided to just sit until the photographers did their things. He looked perplexed. He waited for the rescue squad to come in and help.

Dog sits in the rocks.

Recognizing his route to the bottom did not work, and that he could not climb back up, Gunnar stopped to look around

 

So, I did.

 

It really didn’t take much. I grabbed his shoulders, firmly, securely so he knew I had him.

 

The dog sits in his perch waiting for me to climb up and get him.

I climbed up to give him the physical security and guidance he needed to climb down from his perch.

I lowered him a bit down and he was saved!

Once he was coaxed off the rock ledge, he continued to make his own way down

Once he was coaxed off the rock ledge, he continued to make his own way down

 

You know, I think there’s a sermon illustration in there somewhere.

When Gunnar got to the bottom of the rock wall, he decided he'd had enough exercise and just wanted to rest.

When Gunnar got to the bottom of the rock wall, he decided he’d had enough exercise and just wanted to rest.

How to silence the noise of the day.

I’m tired of the noise. Aren’t you? The noise of the election. The noise of culture clashes. The noise in my own head.

So, when an assignment to shoot landscape out west, came along, I jumped at it immediately.

hay field, grasslands and in the distance, the Badlands

The Badlands in the distance interrupt the hay fields of the National Grasslands

The assignment was to photograph 20,000 acres of land along the ND/MT border that hadn’t changed much since Theodore Roosevelt ranched and hunted there in the late 1800s.  20,000 acres is about 30 square miles of rugged ranch land; the Beaver Creek Ranch. It was a warmer than normal November day, and weather conditions promised good light and good temperatures for exploring.

The further west we went, the more noise I left behind.

On the North Dakota/Montana border we turned north off of Interstate 94 on to a state highway, (we = Mary, Gunnar the foster dog and me).  Instantly, traffic disappeared; as far as we could see, the two-lane highway was ours.  Our mission was to find the rancher who owned the land designated as PLOTS land – Private Land Open To Sportsmen.

Triangle PLOTS signs mark areas where hunters and others can enter even though it is privately owned.

The sign marks land set aside under a cooperative agreement with the rancher. It is Private Land Open To Sportsmen, or PLOTS.

We saw the triangle signs marking PLOTS land, but it wasn’t what we were looking for.

Oh-oh! The noise in my head started coming back as I searched fruitlessly for the region I was assigned to photography.  I was frustrated, and so was the dog.  He wanted to get out to explore, so did Mary and I.  We kept driving. The old saying about finding your destination in North Dakota is true: If you think you’ve gone too far, you’re halfway there.

We checked out one gravel road to the east.  A herd of antelope grazed in a hay field.  That’s not what we were looking for, but it was a promise of things to come. Things were getting quieter.

Antelope or prarie goats were often spotted by Lewis and Clark when they came through here.

Antelope – or prairie goats as some people call them are wary critters who keep a long distance from people.

 

Back on the highway, a bit farther north and we found it. The Beaver Creek Ranch.  And wouldn’t ya know it, there it was, right on Beaver Creek.

Beaver Creek Ranch sign, PLOTS sign and map

The Beaver Creek Ranch PLOTS acreage is well-marked and includes a map that designates three parking areas. The area is for foot traffic only.

Earlier, I had called the rancher a couple of times and left voice mails, but got no reply.  I did get hold of one of the sponsors of the PLOTS program who told me to go on in.  He said I’d find at least three parking areas and recommended the one further in, back by the corrals.

The road starts out like a gravel road, and later it becomes a two-track trail. We rumbled and rocked across the basin where Beaver Creek meandered.

The beginning of the road in to the Beaver Creek Ranch is an easy gravel road until it turns in to a two-track trail that leads to a parking area.

The beginning of the road in to the Beaver Creek Ranch is an easy gravel road until it turns in to a two-track trail that leads to a parking area.

The bottom ground is the bottom of a basin that is sliced by Beaver Creek.  The rancher has one bridge but most of the time, he has to cross the creek by fords.

The bridge over Beaver Creek.

The bridge over Beaver Creek.

 

By the time we got to the corrals, the day was ending, the sun was setting and the moon was rising.  Now that may sound like a bad time to arrive, but it was a good time. It’s called The Golden Hour when shadows show contrast and the landscape is golden. There was no noise, not in my head, not in the surroundings.

While the sun was still illuminating the golden rocks, a nearly-full moon rose.

While the sun was still illuminating the golden rocks, a nearly-full moon rose.

As Mary explored the hills and ridges to the south, I went north.

A two-track trail gives the rancher access to the southern part of his ranch, but it's foot-traffic only at this point. A parking area is at the start of this trail.

A two-track trail gives the rancher access to the southern part of his ranch, but it’s foot-traffic only at this point. A parking area is at the start of this trail.

It wasn’t exactly silent, there is always a bit of a breeze rustling the grass and sweeping around the rocks.  But that’s not noise.  That’s a lullaby.  It’s soothing enough to make a fella breathe easy.   When I got to the top of the ridge and looked below me, the entire basin of Beaver Creek Ranch wandered northward from my perch.  The longer I gazed, the more I could see.  And none of it was noisy.

To the north, the rancher's access road snakes through the hills.

To the north, the rancher’s access road snakes through the hills.

I sat down and traced the distant trails where deer and cattle crossed the basin.  I scouted the hills to the north to trace where water flowed down to the creek, and where the rancher could access further pastures and hills to the north.

The sun was setting, the colors were turning gold and the contrast of shadows on the bluffs slowly covered the landscape.  And there was no noise.corral-rising-moon-sig-small

Once the sun disappeared, wildlife appeared.  Mule deer abound in the region.  mule-deer-pauses-inlight-sig-small young-mule-deer-on-ridge-toward-sun-sig-small mule-deer-doe-with-burrs-sig-smallThe area also includes turkeys, coyotes and elk.  There is evidence that an occasional mountain lion crosses the region.

It’s the absolute contrast to the noise of civilization, a part of North Dakota that many people don’t know about. Does that sound like something you could use in your world? Glad to give you directions if you want.

 

 

Wanna ride a grasshopper?

Yes, you can saddle up on an enormous green thing.

You can feel very very small at the enchanting stops along a highway in Western North Dakota. Gargantuan sculptures give travelers and tourists a reason to pull off I-94 at Exit 72 and head south on a gentle rolling blacktop highway called the Enchanted Highway.geese-in-flight-sig-small

I have. More than once. Over several years.

For me, the first enticement came from that eye-catching structure on the north, Geese in Fight.

It’s considered Sculpture #1. Structurally as well artistically, artist Gary Greff’s design is impressive and deceptive.  It’s larger than you think, over 100 feet tall.  Geese that are 5 or 6 feet big pass in front of sun rays, hillsides and a great “eye.”

Like most people, I buzz by it more than I stop.  It’s a good place to stop on my way to or from Dickinson.  There’s a parking lot and room to get out and stretch your legs, so I do — sometimes when the dog is with me to let him get out of the pickup for a while. Or on a summer motorcycle cruise we’ll stop with fellow riders.

Sidehack Mary's rig is dwarfed by the giant sculpture

Sidehack Mary’s rig is dwarfed by the giant sculpture

tommn-blog-photo-of-the-deer

This is how most drivers cross North Dakota see deer, running across the highway, jumping the fence. TomMN’s blog includes this pic. You can see his blog at http://www.tommn.com/

And those grasshoppers…the scourge of the prairie.  Bikers from the old days will tell you how they rode across North Dakota in August and at the end of the day, their shins were bruised from the biggest devils…but they weren’t this big.

mike-mary-grasshoppers-2Still, the rascals look to me like they need a little wrangling and riding.  So, on occasion, that’s what I will do, just to keep them in line, you understand.  I don’t win any buckles or anything.  I make sure they don’t get away and I use my best bronco riding techniques to stay on.

They look fearsome, but a calm head and a steady hand is all it takes to bring one under control and ride it to the sunset.

Ride. Ride the tiger...er um, grasshopper

Ride. Ride the tiger…er um, grasshopper

Down the road a ways, things get a little fishy.  I couldn’t begin to design something so realistic, but I can sure admire it. I’d hate to be the fisherman in the boat above all these monsters, but he’s up there.  I’m glad it’s him and not me.enchanted-highway-fish

After you've slid out of the boat wreck watch out you'r not swallowed by a walleye -- bikers need not worry.

After you’ve slid out of the boat wreck watch out you’re not swallowed by a walleye — bikers need not worry.

mike-fish-enchanted-highway

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Don’t stand under the back end…the “plop” may be more than you expect

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 32 mile stretch has a stop near the north end at the quaint, protected, sheltered little village of Gladstone, or you can keep going all the way to Regent, at the end of the line. It’s where Gary Greff makes his sculptures and is working on his next one, a knight in not-so-shiny armor.

The last time I visited the Enchanted Highway, fall of 2016, I got to the south end in time for one of North Dakota’s legendary sunsets.  In my mind, I removed the highways, the ranches, the signs of civilization and could imagine how rough it must have been to cross this region in a real stagecoach, not a plywood replica.  In fact, the Mandan to Deadwood stage did pass near here. What a ride!enchanted-highway-stagecoach-sunset-sig-small

At the end of my late-day drive down the highway, Teddy was there to welcome me, the moon at his hand, his gregarious outgoing nature larger-than-life.  And wouldn’t ya know it — as a president, you could say he was “transparent!”tr-on-enchanted-highway-with-moon-sig

The North Dakota Tourism Department does a great job of promoting this loop off of the beaten path. Read about the Enchanted Highway here .  Do you have photos of your enchanted visit?  I bet you have photos of Paul Bunyan, or New Salem Sue, or some other monster replica, right?

 

7 wild reasons to see North Dakota in the fall — A photo safari (Part 2)

You’ve been busy all summer, and now winter is closing in. We’ve been blessed with a mild October..only a few snowflakes when some Octobers we’ve already had two blizzards.  So, here’s motivation to get out and see North Dakota wild before it get’s unbearable — check the wild open spaces of North Dakota.

Later in the day, especially along the river, you can see some of the state’s largest wildlife — mule deer and white tail deer. They’re not easy to see because they blend in so well. Deer in the brush, down in a slough will only pause a moment before they take off.

two-deer-crop-vig-sig

Deer in the brush, down in a slough will only pause a moment before they take off.

Pheasants are more easily spotted if you’re in central or southwestern North Dakota. They like the cover provided by wetland grasses, tall pastures and stubble fields. Often they’re along the side of the road and can get up just as you pass by, which can mean a broken grill.geese-pheasant-doesnt-fit-in-sig-smallIf you have a dog with you,  he can help you see them because they’ll huddle down in the tall grass until the last moment.bird-gets-up-2-sig-desat

Hungry hawks will be lingering on perches such as fence posts, telephone poles and trees. Click here to get the ND Game and Fish guide to identifying ND Hawks.

hawk-sig-small

A group of blackbirds is most correctly called either a cloud, a cluster, murmeration or a merle of blackbirds.  blackbirds-cu-vigDid you know a similar group of larger birds, such as crows is called “a murder?”

blackbird-flock-in-tree-top-sig-small

Central North Dakota, through the prairie pothole region east of the Missouri River, is under the Central or Midway flyway where waterfowl migrate across the region. That’s why through much of October, depending on weather, Great Canadian Geese are in fields and waterholes.   A stroll along an unused road with my dog kicks up geese from their hiding places.

two-geese-take-off-from-gunnar-sig-small

As long as you’re in the wetlands region of North America, stick around until about 6:00 p.m. — sunset.  The hour before, the golden hour with long shadows and a golden filter on the sun is great photo time.  Immediately after sunset, sunsets in the sky are repeated in waterholes where geese and ducks are floating.

sunset-on-waterhole-with-ducks-sig-small

Finally, the most rewarding and hardest to spot wildlife is south of Watford City along the Little Missouri River. Big Horn Sheep populate the area.  I’ve never worked too hard at trying to spot them, which may be why I’ve only seen them once or twice.  If you’re careful not to spook them, they’ll pose for you.

two-big-horn-sheep-on-a-hill-nearby-sig-small

Other rare-to-spot animals in the state that run free are moose and mountain lions.  Moose sometimes wander in to towns or farmsteads.  Have you seen one in town?  Or mountain lions — have you spotted one?  What is the predominant wildlife you spot in the fall where you live?

Reasons to see North Dakota in the fall, photo safari — Evening gold Pt 1.

sunflower-gravel-road-and-golden-hour-sig-small

Domesticated sunflowers never rotate with the sun unlike their natural cousins that follow the sun. That’s why this mature field of sunflowers face east with the sun at their back. (One reason I like this photo, besides the leading lines is the hot/cold contrast of ground color and sky color.)

This fall, I’ve taken to exploring the last hour of the day with camera and dog.  That’s  easy to do because the golden hour is actually pretty early these autumn days; the colors are warm and the contrasting light is illuminating.  The golden hour, the golden sunset and the golden colors are striking.

mike-gunnar-sunset-prairie

Gunnar the foster dog leaps through tall prairie grasses on our walks. The golden grass, yellow skies and his yellow fur compliment each other

About 4:00 or so, the dog gets pretty alert and by 5:00, he’s ready to go.   He’ll pace back and forth or stand by the back door until I am ready.  Then he gets to the truck to wait for me, and off we go to find an abandoned section line road to explore.

eight-wind-turbines

Even just eight wind turbines disrupt the horizon. Imagine what 105 turbines do to the landscape.

Up until about 8 years ago, there were more opportunities, but more than 100 wind turbines were set up south and east of me.  There’s not much enjoyment in shooting miles and miles of wind turbines.  I find them to be intrusive. So to avoid the wind turbines, now I explore west and north of Wilton, mostly north.  There are not too many golden hour opportunities to the west. The Missouri River is about 8 miles from me, the hills and valleys separate section line roads. I stick to roads and section line paths, staying off private property, so there are not many chances to get out and photograph the area without trespassing on a farmer’s property.  I’ve been heading north of Wilton where there are more gravel roads and abandoned section line roads.golden-sunset-north-of-wilton-corn-and-gravel-road-sig-small

Our routine is similar each night. We drive until we find a good place to stop, then walk, looking for patterns, images to capture. Well, I look for them. The dog, he’s just off running.  It’s his free time.

abandond-house-in-the-middle-of-he-prairie-golden-hills-dark-sky-sig

I couldn’t see any approach roads. It’s just a house in the middle of the stubble field.

Sometimes we come across a surprising revelation. In this case (photo below),  we parked the truck, hiked up over the hill and caught the lower valley beyond the hill. An abandoned house with no noticeable roads or lanes nearby, just sitting in the middle of a small grain stubble field.

mature-sunflower-head-with-bokeh-sig

No longer yellow and green, but still attractive with the nubbly texture of a raw sunflower head.

Other times we walk along a yet-to-be harvested field. As I noted above, sunflowers are some of the last to come off, weeks after small grains and beans.

john-deer-pulling-grain-cart-sig

Hauling roughly a half-semi trailer of grain, a powerful John Deere on tracks not wheels heads to the working combine to unload the combine hopper as it keeps moving down the rows.

Sometimes we’ll be headed down a trail, and can hear the sound of million-dollars of machinery working.  Fields are so large that farmers need a grain cart pulled by a high-powered tractor to collect the grain from the working combine out in the field, and then haul it to the end of the field and a waiting truck.

Drive or walk to the other end of the section and you’ll come up on the combine doing it’s season-ending work. .

combining-corn-john-deer-sunset-sig-small

Sunset behind, the farmer keeps working to finish his cornfield.

It’s not too profound of a statement to say that this is an agricultural area, but that does not mean there are not opportunities to get in to wildlife regions.  I’ll see what I can do to show you that, next time.  Do you have fall hiking areas in North Dakota that you can recommend?  What are section line roads like in your area?

 

Between the rancher's fence lines is what used to be an active road, a section line road laid out on every section on one-mile grids. Most are no longer accessible or visible.

Between the rancher’s fence lines is what used to be an active road, a section line road laid out on every section on one-mile grids. Most are no longer accessible or visible.