5 FREE things to do in North Dakota’s Badlands

Quick! Now that school is on break!

You’ve got a bit of time to gather the tribe of kids, family and friends to get out west and see a part of North Dakota that’s easily missed.  The best part is, the biggest cost will be your gasoline because there’s plenty to do in Western North Dakota that will build memories.  Here are five free things to finish out your summer memories.

#5 Fort Union Trading Post

Fort Union Trading post -- an authentic reproduction. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Fort Union Trading post — an authentic reproduction. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If you and your family like regional history or Lewis and Clark experiences, then head to the northwestern part of the state, and get right up to the Montana border.  About halfway between Sidney, Montana and Williston, North Dakota is the Fort Union Trading Post.  Late summer, it’s a fairly quiet place for you to explore.  In June the rendezvous brings the era  of the early 1800’s to life.  Decades before the Civil War, settlers, trappers, soldiers and tribes from the Northern Plains met here peacefully to trade goods.

This free stop on your late-summer tour of western North Dakota is best enjoyed by older children and adults. (But don’t worry, there are several other nearby sites such as Fort Buford and the Confluence Center that will keep the younger ones entertained. Or the best for all family members is nearby. It’s #1 in this list.)

Approaching from Sidney, take a gravel road north to the river to see how the trading post must have looked to trappers and tribes from across the river -- minus the wheat fields.

Approaching from Sidney, take a gravel road north to the river to see how the trading post must have looked to trappers and tribes from across the river — minus the wheat fields.

From inside the Fort, looking back to the other side of the river, in the trees where the shot above was taken.

From inside the Fort, looking back to the other side of the river, in the trees where the shot above was taken.

  To keep the youngest members of your group entertained, you probably won’t stay here long, but there are two more stops nearby.  Head around the bend to Fort Buford where you can camp (for a fee) or explore the Confluence Visitor Center and get three views of early Plains life.

#4 Wander Medora (but is this really free? Ice cream has a cost.)

It doesn’t cost anything to wander the streets of Medora.  There are several good places to eat.  If you’re an ice cream lover you’ll get surprisingly large servings.  Ice Cream at Medora is actually a summer goal for many families.  It’s easy to get to Medora, right off of I-94, about 25 miles from the Montana border.

If you and your family want to take advantage of the exercise opportunity, take your bicycles.  It’s free to pedal the streets and trails nearby. Many families do. There’s no cost to bicycle the town, take the East River Road south of town,  or take the recreation trail across the Little Missouri River to the west of Medora.

An option that is not free is to rent bicycles in town. Or bicycle in to the south unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you’ll have to pay the entrance fee.  Its entrance is on the edge of Medora.

A family takes advantage of the paved bicycle trails around Medora and out in the country.

A family takes advantage of the paved bicycle trails around Medora and out in the country.

Pay the entrance fee and take a bicycle ride in to the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Take supplies, though. You will need to carry plenty of water.

Pay the entrance fee and take a bicycle ride in to the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Take supplies, though. You will need to carry plenty of water.

North Dakota’s legendary Maah Daah Hey trail is a mountain biker’s dream. Families can get access to as much or as little of it as they want — free.  You don’t need a bicycle. Your feet go with you, right? Take them and use them.

Maps of the trail are available on-line, or buy the most comprehensive map from the U.S. Forst Service.

The U.S. Forest Service map costs about $13 and is the most valuable tool (other than your camera) that you can take.

The U.S. Forest Service map costs about $13 and is the most valuable tool (other than your camera) that you can take.

#3 Hike the Maah Daah Hey — head to the Ice Caves

Even short little hikes will keep the youngest in your family entertained if they know the destination is right down the path.  For a short hike with a rewarding destination, park at the Ice Caves Maah Daah Hey parking lot and take a half-mile hike to a cooling spot.   The Ice Caves is part of the Maah Daah Hey trail. It’s about 10 miles south of Grassy Butte on Highway 85 and then 10 miles west on a gravel road #713.  In the spring, snow run off melts in to the cave and freezes on the floor.  This time of year, there’s no ice, but it’s a great place to climb inside to cool off.

Inside the Ice Cave

Inside one of the Ice Caves

Hike around to the north of the Ice Caves to get a spectacular view of the North Dakota Badlands.

Hike around to the north of the Ice Caves to get a spectacular view of the North Dakota Badlands.  The caves are directly below where I’m sitting on the edge.

The Maah Daah Hey trail is marked with the turtle-branded sign posts, so it’s easy to follow the route.  Markers along the way give you information of different trails you can take

Hike the Maah Daah Hey to the Ice Caves. It's a short jaunt, less than a mile from the Ice Caves Parking lot. From the Magpie Campround it's about 3 miles, a full afternoon hike.

Hike the Maah Daah Hey to the Ice Caves. It’s a short jaunt, less than a mile from the Ice Caves Parking lot. From the Magpie Campround it’s about 3 miles, a full afternoon hike.

#2 North Dakota grasslands

A short hike in to the Long X Trail south of Watford City will open the valley to your family’s challenge. You can stay on the trail at the bottom of the valley, or pick a point and climb to the top.

Some of the best trails for a family are the Long X Trail south of Watford City on the southern edge of the Little Missouri River.  Near Grassy Butte are the Beicegel Trail and the Bennett Creek Trail.  Signs on Highway 85 direct you to both trails. They are easy trails, both give you a flat starting out point and provide hill-top challenges that reward you with a spectacular view.  Tall wooden markers along the trail are easy to follow.

The best views are from up on high.

The best views are from up on high.

Climbing seems is a favorite passion of children, so pick a high point that matches their skills.  Even the shortest of the tall bluffs and buttes gives kids a chance to build their muscles and their confidence.

A rest break is called for on the climb up a bluff off the trail.

A rest break is called for on the climb up a bluff off the trail.

Oliver, my grandson likes the challenge of a good climb

Oliver, my 6-year old grandson likes the challenge of a good climb

Click here to Read more about the Maah Daah Hey south of Medora

#1 Fairview Lift Bridge and the Cartwright Tunnel

North Dakota's only lift bridge was retired from service before it ever lifted for a steamboat.

An autumn shot of North Dakota’s only lift bridge was retired from service before it ever lifted for a steamboat.

This free exploration will entertain the entire family.  It’s on highway 200 at the North Dakota-Montana state line.  To the west of the Fairview lift bridge, or on the right side of this above photo is the parking log and entrance to the fenced-off walkway across the bridge.

The safety fence gives families a safe place to walk the Fairview Lift Bridge. Children love the view from high above the water.

The safety fence gives families a safe place to walk the Fairview Lift Bridge. Children love the view from high above the water.

Once you start the walk across the bridge, you’ll get a great view of the well-maintained park below where you can enjoy a picnic in the shade of the trees.

Below the Fairview Lift Bridge is a park where you can fish.

Below the Fairview Lift Bridge is a park where you can fish.

The final reward of the Fairview Lift Bridge is the Cartwright Tunnel.

Built by hand, trains passed trough this tunnel until about 1986.

Built by hand, trains passed trough this tunnel until about 1986.

Until the mid-1980’s trains passed through the tunnel across the bridge.  It’s a quarter-mile long pass through the hill and provides children with a memorable experience — but take a flashlight. It gets dark in there until you get close to the opposite end.

The Cartwright Tunnel has a slight bend in it. Flashlights illuminate the way.

The Cartwright Tunnel has a slight bend in it. Flashlights illuminate the way.

Exploring the tunnel thrills youngsters, but oldsters will be impressed with the knowledge the tunnel was built by hand by local ranchers and farmers using picks, shovels, ox or donkey carts.  It’s guaranteed that you will at some point utter one word: “wowl!”  It’s more impressive than you would think of a bridge and tunnel.

Click here to see the Facebook Page called “Beautiful Bakken” for more on the bridge and tunnel

The nearby Snowden Lift bridge is still in use. It’s downstream about 12 miles.  You can see more about it here.

Downstream (north) of the Fairview Lift Bridge is the Snowden Lift bridge. Though it no longer lifts, trains still cross the river on the Snowden bridge.

Downstream (north) of the Fairview Lift Bridge is the Snowden Lift bridge. Though it no longer lifts, trains still cross the river on the Snowden bridge.

Click here to see more about the Snowden Lift Bridge

Admittedly, these free family features are on the sparsely settled region of North Dakota. So, if you’re planning a visit, pack a picnic, or plan to stop in Sidney, Mt, Williston, ND, Medora, ND,  or Dickinson, ND for a bite to eat and a break from your day of discovery.  It’s all free, if you take a lunch, pack your bicycles if you want, and explore legendary North Dakota.

Five tips to get your best photos from the North Dakota Badlands.

Your camera -- never leave home without it. It's easier than you may think to get your stellar images of the North Dakota Badlandds

Your camera — never leave home without it. It’s easier than you may think to get your stellar images of the North Dakota Badlands

Want pretty pictures of the Badlands? Go buy a post card.

Want to capture your own one-of-a-kind keepsake memory of the Badlands?  Go get it. It’s easier than you think – if you are willing to slow down, get out of your car and look for it.

Just about suppertime, from any high point, venus' belt makes a good backdrop for your landscape photo.

Just about suppertime, from any high point, venus’ belt makes a good backdrop for your landscape photo.

There are thousands of square miles of unsullied beauty in the Badlands of North Dakota. In those endless horizons are millions of your own scenes to capture, frame and display back home.  Here’s how in five easy tips: Timing, Temperament, Tools, Tenacity, and Technique.

Timing – it’s all about light.  North Dakota is blessed with clean clear air.  Smog?  Nope.  Hazy humidity? Gone.   You’ve got unfettered access to the sun, almost.  You’re still 95,000,000 miles from it, but that’s close enough to get the shots you will want to display.

Avoid mid-day when the sun is high and bright. As you know, the Badlands are endless contours of bluffs, buttes, slopes, hills, canyons and valleys.  It takes shadows to show them and those shadows are strongest early in the morning or late in the day.

Contrasts and contours are hidden most of the day. Once the sun begins to lower the shadows present a great view of the bluffs and buttes.

Contrasts and contours are hidden most of the day. Once the sun begins to lower the shadows present a great view of the bluffs and buttes.

Shooting at the ends of the day means you also get the advantage of the Golden Hour when the solar Rapunzel lets down her golden locks and the landscape takes on a golden or yellow cast.   Generally, that’s the first hour and the last hour of daylight. Depending on where you are in the Badlands, you could be out at sunrise which is about 5:45 a.m. in June, or out at sunset which is about 9:45 p.m.

And if you like to take sunset photos – turn around.  Put your back to the sun and shoot Venus’ Belt as it appears in the east at sunset.

Tip: Late-day landscapes are better than noon-day landscapes

Temperament – take it easy, but keep moving.  If you want to jump out of your car, run to the edge of an overlook and shoot the scene, you are better off performing that activity at a gas station where you can run in and buy a postcard.    Sadly that’s what many people do, drive through one of the Theodore Roosevelt National Parks, pull over to the side of the road, snap a shot and head home.

Park your car, (you don’t want it to roll away down a bluff or butte) and walk.  If you’re stopped at a ridge or hilltop, you’ll have a relatively easy time finding a vantage point.  If you are down below, be prepared to hike. You don’t have to hike to the tallest point, but the higher up you go, the more you will see.  The trails that have been cut in the parks, or the Maah Daah Hey trail make it easy to walk to the top.  You can make your own trail as long as you are on public land.  Make a zig-zag “Z” pattern of switchbacks up the hill, stopping at each point on the repeated “Z” pattern.  It’s encouraging to see how far you’ve climbed and at each point, you get a new view.

Tip: Don’t get in a hurry. 

Don't get in a hurry. Take time to look -- and feel. You'll feel the shot more than you see the shot.

Don’t get in a hurry. Take time to look — and feel. You’ll feel the shot more than you see the shot.

Absorb – that’s the key activity. Absorb and feel what you see.  It takes a quiet and still temperament to absorb what you are about to see.  It’s in that moment of absorption that you can see the details, the shading, the colors the contrasts that will give you the image you want to capture.

Tools – we’re not talking camera gear here.  An expensive camera doesn’t take any better photos than an expensive computer writes a better document.  The tools we’re talking about here are an accurate weather report and a good map. If you have a GPS system on your phone, that can be handy, but a paper map is preferred. All of western North Dakota is covered by the US Forest Service maps.  The maps are matchless for showing you what you need to know:

  • Public groomed trails such as the Maah Daah Hey or other marked trails.
  • Gravel roads and two-track trails to show you where to get off the highways.
  • Points of Interest – historical, geographical and topographical.
  • Topography – the closer the lines, the more steep the terrain.
  • Water – most of which is not drinkable.

The U.S. Forest Service Maps are updated regularly. You can get the latest map from the visitor centers at the Theodore Roosevelt Parks, or at the US Forest Service Office in Bismarck, Watford City or Dickinson.  They cost about $13. They’re worth it!

The U.S. Forest Service map costs about $13 and is the most valuable tool (other than your camera) that you can take.

The U.S. Forest Service map costs about $13 and is the most valuable tool (other than your camera) that you can buy.

A GPS on your phone will give you the precise location at any moment. With that information, you can coordinate on the Forest Service map to see not only where you are, but where you are going.

A critical element is a weather forecast.  North Dakota’s weather is notorious for frequent and sudden changes.  It lies in the middle of the continent and several different weather systems from different direction influence conditions. So, one thing you can do is monitor trends before you set out on your photo safari.  About three to five days before your photo safari, look up the weather forecast for where you expect to go.

Forecasts are updated several times a day, so check twice a day, such as 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. every day.  Notice the changes or trends in the anticipated temperatures, rain chances or cloud cover.  That practice will give you more of a motion picture sense of what to expect.  Checking just once as you head out the door will give you only a snapshot of what to expect.  It’s better to see the weather pattern than the weather snapshot.

Beyond those specific tools, good shoes and proper clothing will allow you to not only get to the place where you can get a good shot, but will also provide you the comfort you need to be patient.   Warm enough when temps are cool, protective enough when mosquitoes are out.  Discomfort will prompt you to hurry your exploration for a shot, so get comfortable.

Tip: Prepare yourself with comfort and knowledge.

Tenacity – don’t stop, don’t give up.  The shot you’re looking for is over the next hill. Drive, walk or ride over the next hill and you’ll see something new.  If it’s not as spectacular as that scene two hills back, turn around and go back.  Or shoot as you go, it keeps getting better and when you get home you can decide which one is the best shot – but keep moving.

From time to time,  turn around.  It’s easy to get so focused on what is in front of you, that you may miss the beauty behind you. So, from time to time, turn around to see the scene you just came through.

Remember that point about absorbing the scene, the moment?  One of the greatest mindsets you can embrace to get the stellar shot you seek is to keep yourself prodded with this question: “What if?”  “What if I climbed that butte, what would I see?”  “What if I followed this deer trail, where would it lead?”

I wonder where that goes...is where great visual discoveries begin.

I wonder where that goes…is where great visual discoveries begin.

Parallel to that question is this postulate: “I wonder where that goes.” As you see a road heading over the hill don’t be afraid to check it out—with caution.

Take a short hike, or if you’re still driving and haven’t got out of your vehicle yet, take that two-track trail, but remember: it’s  good to be in a reliable vehicle. There are no corner service stations out here.  You need something to get over ruts and ridges and up and down the hills.

The point is this.  Just because where you are standing at the moment doesn’t yield the shot you are looking for, don’t give up.  Investigate the next curve, the next hill, the next trail.  Be tenacious in your search for the shot you want.

Tip: Be curious.

Technique – do what you do best. 

What is it in the scene that you want to shoot?  Is it the buffalo on the trail, the Little Missouri River down below, the abandoned jalopy?  Decide what is it in the scene that caught your eye, and crop out anything else that is distracting. Avoid visual distractions, zoom in on the subject.

Not all the intriguing shots are found on the trail. The next farm, the next small town may have a great shot. Zero in on what catches your eye, remove the background distractions.

Not all the intriguing shots are found on the trail. The next farm, the next small town may have a great shot. Zero in on what catches your eye, remove the background distractions.

It shouldn’t take a viewer of your photo more than an instant to determine what the photo is about.

Once you know what your photo is about, and are cropping out the distractions by zooming in on the subject, align the photo but don’t put it smack dab in the center of the photo. If you are shooting a landscape photo, don’t put the horizon right across the middle of the image.  In fact,  some time when you are out and about anywhere outside, notice how much of your view is sky.  It’s often the majority if your view, it’s one way you can capture what you see — include the sky.

On the vertical line of a tic-tac-toe board, the prairie dog!

On the vertical line of a tic-tac-toe board, the prairie dog!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whether it’s landscape you’re shooting, or anything else that catches your eye in the Badlands, remember the rule of thirds, and place your subject at or near one of the crosshairs of a tic-tac-toe board.  Even if it’s a close-up of an image like the face of a horse, put the eyes on the third.

Tip: Don’t abandoned basic photo techniques

 

The abandoned rail car in this shot is on the lower horizontal line of a tic-tac-toe board. (rule of thirds.)

The abandoned rail car in this shot is on the lower horizontal line of a tic-tac-toe board. The horizon is on the top horizontal line.  (rule of thirds.)

Like we said at the start of this article, the best times of the day to shoot the Badlands of Western North Dakota do not include mid-day.  At all times, when shooting outside, adjust the sun in relation to your subject. The sun should be at your shoulder.  Don’t shoot in to it, nor have it directly behind you.  If you put it at your shoulder, you’ll get the contrast you need to show texture and variety in your subject.

In all cases, the best advice is to borrow from Nike’s saying, “just do it, just shoot it.”

Tip: Just shoot it.

There’s more to capturing the image than merely taking the photo. The bragging rights come from the adventure you took to get that shot.  It bears repeating to your friends and family repeating the details of the work it took to get you to where you found that stellar shot. There are millions of vantage points in the North Dakota Badlands, got get on one and get your shot.

 

The “new” Maah Daah Hey Deuce opens new explorations

Get out of your vehicle to explore the Badlands, the Bakken Oil region of North Dakota.

Get out of your vehicle to explore the Badlands, the Bakken Oil region of North Dakota.

Near the Ice Caves along the Maah Daah Hey trail, two bicyclists navigate the easy part of the ride, through the grass before hitting the trail

Near the Ice Caves along the Maah Daah Hey trail, two bicyclists navigate the easy part of the ride, through the grass before hitting the trail

Exploring western North Dakota outside the comfort of your vehicle is possible for nearly everyone. You can pick a comfort level on the Maah Daah Hey Trail and enjoy the region that matches your physicality.  Portions of the trail are wide, easy and flat through the grasslands.

The turtle markers of the Maah Daah Hey trail guide travelers along the prepared route, but you don't have to stick to the trail, you are free to wander on public lands.

The turtle markers of the Maah Daah Hey trail guide travelers along the prepared route, but you don’t have to stick to the trail, you are free to wander on public lands.

Other portions are challenging. The Deuce is a bit of both. It’s not even a year old yet, but it’s getting a fair amount of attention.

Next to the Deuce trail, an outcropping of rocks, a shelf, invite hikers to walk along the side of a butte.

Next to the Deuce trail, an outcropping of rocks, a shelf, invite hikers to walk along the side of a butte.

Custer Trail, the route of the 7th Cavalry passes by the Deuce

Custer Trail, the route of the 7th Cavalry passes by the Deuce

It starts south of Medora near the Custer Trail and is about 40 miles long, and extension to the south of the original 100 miles to the north. Its real name is Maah Daah Hey II, the second reach of the world-famous cross-country trail. It snakes across hills and valleys until it reaches near Amidon and the Burning Coal Vein.  At the south end, the trail, as we explored it last winter is fairly easy. Like the 100 miles to the north, the trail is great for hiking, biking and horseback riding. With a series of camp grounds on the route, a multi-day hike, bike or horseback ride will now take a person 140 miles from near Amidon in the southwest to near Watford City in the northwest. Previously it was about 100 miles from Medora north to near Watford City. Easter Sunday, we looked for an early-season hike to celebrate Resurrection Sunday in God’s creation.

The road to where Custer and the 7th Cavalry crossed the Little Missouri River

The road to where Custer and the 7th Cavalry crossed the Little Missouri River

Out of curiosity we  first took a bit of a detour before heading out on the Deuce.  We drove toward the Little Missouri River, following map markers to check the Custer Trail.  If the Forest Service map is correct we drove a quarter-mile or so on the actual trail, then got out and walked where Custer and the 7th Cavalry crossed  the Little Missouri River.  On the other side, we could identify the pass on the west side of the river where the 7th Cavalry undoubtedly marched to Little Big Horn. Then we doubled back to catch a good start place on The Deuce, parked the truck, packed our day-packs and camera gear and started out on an easy grassy stretch—for a while.   Deuce crocus 1deuce crocus 3   Along the way we saw several signs that spring is here, that there is new life after a long cold winter. Like some people celebrate the first robins, ranchers and prairie folk celebrate the first crocuses of spring.

The Deuce starts out gently as grasslands before getting in to rougher terrain.

The Deuce starts out gently as grasslands before getting in to rougher terrain.

We used the Forest Service map of the National Grasslands, checked the topography of the region and found a place where narrow lines on the map indicated steep terrain. At first it didn’t seem accurate because the start was so easy and flat. Then the valley opened up to some of the greatest hiking in the southern part of the Maah Daah Hey. (Generally speaking the southern sections of the Badlands are smoother, less rugged, and “older” than the northern end.)

The valley along the Deuce to the west.  The red hills are scoria.

The valley along the Deuce to the west. The red hills are scoria.

We didn’t go too far, just a couple miles, but in that space we came to the kind of terrain we were looking for. The narrow, hill-hugging trail wrapped around a butte, along a ridge and over a crest to give us a view of miles of The Badlands, the Bakken region of North Dakota.

The Deuce wraps around a bluff and follows a narrow ridge.

The Deuce wraps around a bluff and follows a narrow ridge.

Our Easter Sunday ham (sandwich) dinner and communion were in a sheltered area high on the ridge and out of the wind.

Easter Sunday's ham dinner resting spot next to a petrified log.

Easter Sunday’s ham dinner resting spot next to a petrified log.

From there we could look back to the pass where we had been earlier that afternoon, where the Custer and the 7th Cavalry crossed the Little Missouri and headed west through a pass.

In the distance, the low cut of the hills is likely where Custer and the 7th Cavalry marched 140 years ago.

In the distance, the low cut of the hills is likely where Custer and the 7th Cavalry marched nearly 140 years ago.

We could look the other direction and saw a reminder that it is not 1876; a Burlington Northern train pulled its way from Fryburg to Medora before heading west to Montana.

A Burlington Northern train heads north from Fryburg to Medora and west to Montana

A Burlington Northern train heads north from Fryburg to Medora and west to Montana

It’s our intention to go back to The Deuce to follow it closer to the Burning Coal Veins.  It’s a worthy addition to the Maah Daah Hey trail.  What would it take for you to explore The Deuce? Get more tips to visiting the North Dakota Badlands. Follow me here on Facebook at Beautiful Bakken https://www.facebook.com/beautifulbakken Or check out the website featuring western North Dakota and Badlands http://www.beautifulbakken.com

North Dakota is made for bicycles in the spring

An old Burlington-Northern rail bed opens up in the spring for a ride

An old Burlington-Northern rail bed opens up in the spring for a ride

Spring in North Dakota opens new horizons: the next landmark, the next vantage point, the next hill (everywhere except the Red River Valley). An advantage to being a sparsely-settled state is the open roads for bicycling.

Bicycles freely cross the DeMers bridge at Grand Forks.

Bicycles freely cross the DeMers bridge at Grand Forks.

In the eastern part of the state, with the flat-as-glass terrain, bicyclists cruise along and over the Red River on gentle paved paths.

Communities such as Grand Forks, Mayville and Fargo offer well-used paved recreation trails.

On the western end is the grueling challenge of the Maah Daah Hey trail. It’s more than 130 miles long through the Badlands and Grasslands of North Dakota.  Every year, mountain bikers attempt the Maah Daah Hey 100 — and last year, the winning time for the 100 mile ride was just under 10 hours.

Near the Ice Caves along the Maah Daah Hey trail, two bicyclists navigate the easy part of the ride, through the grass before hitting the trail

Near the Ice Caves along the Maah Daah Hey trail, two bicyclists navigate the easy part of the ride, through the grass before hitting the trail

A few places are easy challenges, but the greatest share of the Maah Daah Hey trail is a world-class mountain bike route. It is a tougher pedal than I’ll ever do.  For those families who want to enjoy the scenic Badlands, they can take an easy ride through Medora and the recreation trail, or can venture on to other nearby easy routes.

In the middle of the state, here in the Missouri Slope region, open gravel roads allow a mix of level and sloped rides.

Late in the day,  a power plant on the horizon burns coal to make electricity to power homes in Midwest states.

Late in the day, a power plant on the horizon burns coal to make electricity to power homes in Midwest states.

Take northern Burleigh County, for example.

On the nights I ride the gravel roads, I find an evening pedal out to the hills gives a chance for a good strong exercise in not only physical, but a visual exercise. On high-traffic evenings, I may see as many as three vehicles sharing the gravel roads in one or two hours.  Most evenings, there are none.couple walk their dogs at bottom of hill

Sometimes a farm family may stroll the gravel roads with their dogs.

A farm couple walk the gravel road with their dogs.

A farm couple walk the gravel road with their dogs.

 

Farm kids put their ATVs to work riding around the country.

Farm kids put their ATVs to work riding around the country.

Other times, kids will use the family’s ATV to spread dust.  Most of the time, it’s just the lone bicyclist (me) out to capture evening atmosphere.

 

Overhead, geese follow the Central Flyway across the North American Continent.  They’re always talking to themselves so you will hear the flocks before you see them.  Some evenings there will be as many as four or five large flocks with hundreds of geese talking among themselves and heading north.

Canadian geese head north following the Missouri River.

Canadian geese head north following the Missouri River.

As long as I’m out in the country in the evening, I try to time my rides to capture sunset. The golden hour and the long contrasting shadow give much greater evidence to the uneven terrain when shadows roll over the hills and valleys. golden hour hill top with bicycle The environment picks up that warm golden glow. Across the river the sun drops behind Oliver and Mercer Counties.

The sun sets behind a tree row on a late afternoon North Dakota spring day

The sun sets behind a tree row on a late afternoon North Dakota spring day

An endless variety of weather conditions create an infinite variety of sunsets – the reward of an evening pedal on the back roads of North Dakota.OIL_2809

That’s my recommendation. Where do you recommend bicycling in your country?

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Beauty is where you find it — if you’re looking for it.

An abandoned truck from decades ago in the Badlands.

An abandoned truck from decades ago in the Badlands.

Have you ever noticed that negative critical people find negative things to criticize? Conversely, a person who goes looking for good, for beauty will find it – often in the same area where black-hearted people see decay and destruction.

That’s the case here in the Badlands, the Bakken Shale Play region of North America. People who do not live here are sending film crews, photographers and others here to document the destruction of the Badlands caused by the oil boom. With a predetermined point of view, a prejudice, they look for and find what is in their heart.  People with a good heart see good, see beauty.  What is in the heart of the Bakken haters?

magpie creek

One of the many oxbow bends in the Magpie Creek that feeds in to the Little Missouri River

I see the same beauty out here that I’ve always seen in my 33 years of exploring and hiking the North Dakota Badlands and Grasslands.  It’s one of the most popular galleries on my website www.mykuhls.com

Little Mo ice jam

Ice goes out on the Little Missouri River as it winds through the Badlands toward the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea.

On this day, March 11 I drove one of my favorite roads for only about 10 miles. The Long X road extends from south of Watford City to north of Killdeer, about 30 miles of gravel – much of it “unimproved” gravel.   The ice was going out and rain was moving north of the region.  Sure signs of the exciting time called “spring.”

A month later, I found the other end of the road near Killdeer.  The road follows the Little Missouri River that flows through the epicenter of the Bakken Oil Play where there are literally thousands of oil wells extracting oil to build up America’s energy independence.   It’s even more spring-like and even more exciting.  It is beautiful, open country.

Destruction? Pollution? Damage? I don’t see it. Do you?

Muddy water from snow melt up in the hills finds its way to the Little Missouri River

North of Killdeer, muddy water from snow melt up in the hills finds its way to the Little Missouri River

You can see more of not only mine, but my hiking partner’s views at www.mykuhls.com

Bakken Boom Birth Pangs Abated

(note: I wrote this article for the news site called Bakken.com where it appeared Christmas week.  Check Bakken.com for more news and information from the Bakken region.)

Early morning steam rises from an oil rig site near New Town

Early morning steam rises from an oil rig site near New Town

The Bakken Boom is not what it used to be – it appears the region is moving past the pressure of Bakken birth pangs, the extreme pain caused by  the birth of the region’s latest oil boom.

Blue Buttes near Mandaree, ND

Blue Buttes near Mandaree, ND

After a three-day business tour of the Bakken region for Bakken.com, it’s apparent that Western North Dakota is not the peaceful wilderness ranch country of legend.  It has a buzz, it is busy, but it is business and business is great.  We found several categories in which reality falls short of the fearsome fantasies foisted on folks farther east.

Andrew

Andrew Lutz, Business Development Manager for Bakken.com

Andrew Lutz, the Bakken.com Business Development Manager and I met up in the heart of the oil country – downtown Watford City.  It’s a region I’m familiar with having lived and worked here a few years ago. Now I make regular, even monthly visits to Western North Dakota.

Dakota West Credit Union's 3-story building on the north end of Watford City's Main Street

Dakota West Credit Union’s 3-story building on the north end of Watford City’s Main Street

The center of the region’s most productive oil county is McKenzie County.  Combined with Mountrail County it represents one of the largest oil-producing regions in the world.

McKenzie County courthouse work

Workers are adding a large addition to the front of the McKenzie County Courthouse.

 Changes continue to alter Watford City. Even the Courthouse is a construction zone.

The county’s skillful and wise business leadership is steering the city in to the next era. Bakken.com will tell you about those changes in a story with Economic Development Director Gene Veeder.

On this trip, I rode with Andrew, and that gave me a rare opportunity to see the sights instead of the pilot. Though we had spoken by phone and by email, our first face-to-face meeting was at one of the most outstanding steakhouses outside of a major city, Outlaws Bar and Grille.

Outlaws Bar and Grill, Watford City is a family-oriented eatery.

Outlaws Bar and Grill, Watford City is a family oriented eatery.

It’s clean, comfortable and the cost is reasonable, just what you would expect to pay in Fargo or Bismarck.  Our first meal there was good enough the first night to bring us back the second night.  The wait staff was busy with a full dining room. By the time Andrew and I left, a line of customers waited for our table, ready to add even more urgency to the scurrying troop of table-servers.  Our young waitress the second night, appeared inexperienced and uncertain; she stumbled her way through the serving, but no fouls and no strikes.

Breakfast both days was at the long-time local landmark the Little Missouri Grille on Highway 85 on the western edge of Watford City.  Its customers for years has been area ranchers, families, travelers and tourists. These days, according to the manager, the restaurant floods with hungry men beginning the moment the doors open at 6 a.m.

One of the reasons it’s popular is its serving portions. I like a restaurant that uses the entire plate  instead of little separated and compartmentalized servings.  The Little Missouri’s portions are man-sized, and that’s what other customers we talked to said they liked about the restaurant.  Plates are full and stacked. Work crews who eat at the Little Missouri get their days started on a full stomach – and messages from home via smart phones.

A second reason for popularity is its wait staff.  Our servers on both days were busy, fast and efficient, but very personable and took time for a little small talk while taking our order, filling our coffee cups and clearing our plates.Brittany moves like a blur

Our waitress the second morning told us she moved to Watford City from Idaho to be a waitress because she heard the pay was good.

“Is it that good?” I asked her.

“Oh yes,” she smiled as she refilled my coffee.  “Much better.”

Brittany, the waitress from Idaho at the Little Missouri Grille in Watford City.

Brittany, the waitress from Idaho at the Little Missouri Grille in Watford City.

On this trip, we did not find the rudeness, lazy workers, sub-standard service or high prices we were warned about. From the Cash Wise Grocery Store to the Kum-and-Go gas station, we found service was professional and efficient.

Business owners we talked to in Watford City and New Town said their employees are keeping up with the flood of new business, but not easily.  At United Prairie in New Town, General Manager John Reese said the staff has grown in the last 10 years and that makes it tough to find adequate housing. That’s why his company is building housing for company families.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of stopping for a meal in town is getting back on the highway.  Outside of town traffic flows orderly, but in town, be prepared for an infrequent moment to enter traffic. Left turns are especially difficult.

Looking south from Watford City. Highway 85 used to be a quiet drive.  Not any more.

Looking south from Watford City. Highway 85 used to be lonely drive, but not any more.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation is widening highways, adding passing lanes and turning lanes to help alleviate traffic tie ups and make the highways safer.  Additional work is ready to begin in 2014.

With grace and common sense, it is no challenge to navigate traffic in towns such as Watford City, New Town or Williston.  Like red cells in a blood stream, an endless stream of 18-wheelers, pickup trucks and cars flow through the heart of the Bakken.  Stop lights and stop signs are the valves that slow down traffic for safety, but they add to the time required to get through the main arteries of the cities.  So, if you’re planning to drive highway 85, 200 or 2 through the Bakken, be ready for backups in town.

The North Dakota DOT is coming to the rescue of many of these smaller towns with by-pass surgery, building routes around the cities – a sign that the Bakken birth pains are abating.

Highway 85 construction halted for the winter, but will resume in 2014.

Highway 85 construction halted for the winter, but will resume in 2014.

When Andrew and I left Watford City to head to New Town, we followed a convoy of oil service trucks. The good news is the road surface is good, again a testimony to the attention the North Dakota DOT has given its highways.  Traffic moves safely, drivers are attentive and courteous.  Passing is limited on the hilly Highway 23.  Be prepared to drive trucker-speed which may mean a bit under the speed limit on up-grades.  Also, just as in town, left turns can cause a traffic tie up.  We saw no road rage evidenced by one-finger salutes or horn blasts.  Drivers kept a safe distance from the vehicle ahead of them.  Functioning brakes lights are life savers – make sure you have them and watch for them in front of you when driving in the Bakken.

Driving across McKenzie County to New Town, there is no place where you do not see at least one, if not many drilling rigs and pump jacks.  Next to the road, or off on the horizon, you can see why the Bakken is a major world player in oil production and extraction.

oil site with flaring on horizon

South and west of the Three Affiliated Tribes business office, one of the oil sites on the reservation is clearly visible, flaring natural gas in a large flame.

Our first stop on the way in to New Town was the business office of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, the Three Affiliated Tribes.  Our mission was to visit with Chairman Tex Hall.

Father Roger Syneck and Tribal ChairmanTex Hall pause during the blessing of the meal at the Elder's Christmas Party.

Father Roger Syneck and Tribal ChairmanTex Hall pause during the blessing of the meal at the Elder’s Christmas Party.

We arrived at the start of the annual Three Affiliated Tribes Elders Christmas Party.  Our timing was perfect. Chairman Hall was on the riser with the local Roman Catholic Priest giving the blessing. Elders are treated to a full meal at the Four Bears Casino Events Center, presented with gift bags and Christmas checks and serenaded by the children of the Head Start program.

Head Start children sing at the Elder's Christmas Party.

Head Start children sing at the Elder’s Christmas Party.

Members of the Three Affiliated Tribes benefit from oil activity and Chairman Hall’s pro-business philosophy.  Oil production is expanding.

New Town Transload wide shot

Railroad spur leading in to the transload facility on the east end of New Town.

new town transload

Construction continues on the transload facility on the east end of New Town.

Transload facilities in New Town and Van Hook are adding permanent income to the local economy.

News and events from the Bakken are incomplete without solid representation from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and the Three Affiliated Tribes. That’s why Bakken.com is working with Chairman Hall and others on Fort Berthold to tell the stories of the region.  Chairman Hall told us he is working on several issues to help his people gain even more benefit from oil production and avoid some of the challenges of the expanding industry.  Those issues including flaring and an oil refinery are issues Bakken.com follow.

The hospitality of the region is legendary and after meeting with Chairman Hall, we were warmly greeted by the Chairman and CEO of Lakeside State Bank of New Town.  Gary Peterson’s bank has grown along with the Bakken economy.  He showed us figures that Lakeside State Bank’s business is several times greater now than just a few months ago.  Larger numbers of customers and their transactions such as wire transfers means more work for his staff, but the swelling customer base is evidence the staff handles the extra work load.

After New Town, we drove to Stanley, Ray, Tioga and Williston.

Long before the current Bakken boom, the Enbridge Storage Site south of Stanley has helped move petroleum to market.

Long before the current Bakken boom, the Enbridge Storage Site south of Stanley has helped move petroleum to market.

Yes, the towns are challenged by the instant impact on infrastructure.  They’re now getting in to the pace, working with developers to meet one of the greatest needs – housing.  It’s not just the structures that must be built, but also streets, sewers, water, lights and law enforcement.  New condominiums, apartment complexes, single-family homes and RV parks seem to have popped out of the ground like toadstools on an over-watered golf green.  The housing shortage is not over, but at this stage, developers and city fathers we spoke to are watching trends to help make sure the housing shortage does not become a housing glut.  They’ve become skittish after watching the last oil bust 30 years ago.

During our drive through the Bakken region, we scanned the horizon checking out rigs, pump jacks, storage facilities and support services.  Our roadside survey found gave visual proof to recent maps and stats that indicate most of the oil activity spreads from McKenzie County east.two oil wells

As we drove west in to Sidney, Montana fewer drilling rigs and pump jacks were spotted. Sidney is home to many of the oil field services that Bakken.com works with.  Compared to Watford City and Williston, life in Sidney is more peaceful and orderly.  Though activity is further east, westward expansion is predicted.

Traffic in Sidney, MT is comparatively light compared to other cities in the Bakken region.

Traffic in Sidney, MT is comparatively light compared to other cities in the Bakken region.

Some oil field services, landmen and engineers working in the Bakken may have local offices in other cities, but they are headquartered in Sidney.  Most work from the home offices in Sidney can be done by phone or Internet– away from the intensity. It provides staff a quick access of about an hour to most of the oil activity east of Sidney while at the same time being a step removed from the congestion.  Either Highway 200 or 68 carry most of the traffic. With Andrew at the helm, we drove 68 to Sidney and Highway 200 on the return trip.  (Incidentally, Highway 200 across the Yellowstone gives travelers a look at the region’s only lift bridge – used only once.)

Lift Bridge along Highway 200 east of Sidney.

Lift Bridge along Highway 200 east of Sidney.

We found Highway 68 to be the quickest with the least traffic. Highway 200 requires drivers to negotiate hilly terrain with more truck traffic.

Finally, to those who cry the beauty of the Badlands is marred by oil exploration, I must argue.  For 20 years I’ve backpacked, camped, cross country skied and rode horses in the region.  It’s still beautiful.

Long X Bridge south of Watford City where big horn sheep roam.

Long X Bridge south of Watford City where big horn sheep roam.

Oil companies meet environmental regulations, and go even further to try to do their work without disturbing the natural habitat of elk, deer, mountain lions, and big horn sheep (which were eliminated from the region in the 1920’s but have been brought back along with the oil field activity).

As Andrew and I discovered, the beauty is still there to behold, even from the heated protection of a car.  Early morning jaunts in to the area can produce amazing images that incorporate the wells, pumps and roads of oil activity.Oil well and moon wtrmrkoil pumps and moon

The birth pangs of the Bakken Boom are giving way to a more settled way of life.    It’s not as bad as you heard out here in western North Dakota. Embellished and enhanced stories repeated by those outside the region do a dis-service to the reality of the dynamic benefits of oil.  Once again, as with power plants, coal mines and farmland, this part of America is serving the needs of the United States and the world.  North Dakota’s cultural landscape has changed much over the years. That’s why there are so many abandoned homesteads and buildings across the landscape.  The current oil activity may bring a change in culture, but what hasn’t changed in America in the last 200 years?

Sure it’s cold, but….

December's subzero temps and snow

December’s subzero temps and snow

Yeah, there’s a lotta snow out there. Yeah, there’s a minus sign in front of the temperature. That means the annual self-imposed illness called “cabin-fever” is about to set in, but only if you choose to let it.  I choose not to let it set in. That’s why I look for ways to get out of the cabin, and the annual Blue Collar Cafe art shows are one way to do it.  The first one is Thursday, December 5.

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I started getting ready for the show back in October.  I’ve found a photographic niche, nostalgic romantic images of North Dakota history.  That includes a farmstead long abandoned with an unused Ford pickup parked in the front yard.

Oliver County Farm in barn board frame I made

Oliver County Farm in barn board frame I made

Or a farmstead on the edge of a growing pothole, water lapping at the doorstep.

Sheridan County abandoned farmstead about to be overtaken by growing pothole.

Sheridan County abandoned farmstead about to be overtaken by growing pothole.

I’ve found antique cars such as this 1941 Ford Tudor Deluxe parked in a pasture in northern Burleigh County.Old Fordt wtrmrk Mike shoots old Ford

They’re part of my collection of images headed to the Blue Collar Art Show and Soiree.  The Blue Collar Cafe on Airport Road across the tracks from Krolls Kitchen hosts monthly art shows beginning in December, and I’ve been pleased and honored to be a part of the shows.  The owner, Jerod Hawk advised me to come in with larger pieces than what someone at home could print out from their computer.  So, I have. These are as large as 2’x3′ framed images.

A few images for blue collar show

Late at night I’ve worked in my wood shop, turning old barn siding in to frames for my images. The wood is from a 105 year old barn between Anamoose and Goodrich that blew down about 5 years ago.  I maintain all its color and character.  The texture, the warp and the bends in the wood makes it a challenge to create a straight and square build, but it gives each frame its unique style and color.

Selecting the right piece of wood for a frame

Selecting the right piece of wood for a frame

On many snowy winter nights, you’ll find me in my wood shop sorting and selecting the wood, matching its dimension, color and grain for both the inner frame and outer border (making it two frames, one inner and one outer)  to create as uniform appearance for each frame, yet different from every other one.1201131859

A few of the images I’m taking back to this show were quite popular at last year’s Blue Collar art shows, that includes this one of the Pettibone Brain Company. (No that’s not a typo. The private owner climbed up there after he bought the structure and turned the “g” in to a “b” to make the word “brain.”)

Pettibone "Brain" Elevator

Pettibone “Brain” Elevator

This year’s Blue Collar art shows are bigger than last year’s first shows.  The floor space is more than double from the original space and there will be twice as many artists. I’m blessed to be one of them.

Collecting North Dakota’s beauty

mykuhls tree storm

ND Tree and Storm for art show display

  I love displaying North Dakota in ways others have not seen the state.  That’s why I relish opportunities such as the Blue Collar Cafe Open House and Art Show this week.  If you attend, you’ll see North Dakota displayed several ways.  Most obviously will be the images you will see such as the tree and storm clouds pictured above.  The image of course is a prairie vista ahead of a storm, typical of a spring day in the state.  That’s North Dakota.

Surrounding the image is more North Dakota — the barn board frame. I was fortunate enough to get good solid siding from a barn that was torn down. The siding is in good shape and I use it to make frames.  It’s North Dakota.

That barn also supplied wood for the image below of a farm house in a stubble field.  I shot this near Rugby and again, North Dakotans will see something that reminds them of their state: stubble field, horizon, storm clouds and huge house sitting empty.  That’s North Dakota.

mykuhls farm house wtrmrk

Then there are a select few people who will recognize the bottom image as also being North Dakota.  Those select people are bikes.  They know the state for its  smooth roads, little traffic, wide open vistas make for great rides in the state.  It’s North Dakota.

mykuhls print bikers on hwy and skyThese three images are part of the collection of North Dakota that I’ll be displaying at the Blue Collar Cafe Art Show.  It’s a little North Dakota Internet Coffeehouse run by North Dakotans, in North Dakota’s capital city, across the street from the big North Dakota Department of Transportation district offices.

North Dakota images. North Dakota barn board. Assembled by a North Dakotan.  Shown in a North Dakota venue. Even the images themselves were produced and processed by a North Dakota lab.  The Blue Collar Cafe Open House and Art Show is Tuesday, February 12.

That’s North Dakota.

Blue Collar Black Friday Art Show

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Late nights meant burning the midnight oil — and wood — to get frames ready for the show.

What a surprising opportunity!

It’s crunch time producing exclusive handmade frames to go with matted photos for the Blue Collar Black Friday Art Show.  North Dakota barn board, North Dakota images, North Dakota art — I’m fortunate to be one-quarter of the show at the little coffee shop and cafe on the east side of Bismarck.

It’s a win-win-win.  The Blue Collar Cafe gets more traffic, four artists get more exposure and Black Friday shoppers get original handmade art at ridiculously low prices.  If the same products were in Macy’s or Daytons, they’d be hundreds of dollars.  But here, only tens of dollars.

I visited with Jerod Hawk earlier this week when the idea was kicked about.  Within an hour Hawk had lined up four artists to set up on Friday at his little coffee shop and cafe. That was Tuesday. Now here it is Thursday and we’re almost ready to throw open the doors to throngs of people who want a piece of North Dakota.

Since the idea first took hold,  I’ve been keeping the wood fires burning in my wood shop making frames.  .  As it is, I have mass-produced hand-made frames for an inventory, but not as many as I would have liked for this little show.

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The abandoned Pettibone Elevator at Lake Williams is one of my favorite pieces that will be on display at the Blue Collar Cafe art show on Friday.

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From near Rugby, this abandoned farmstead is wrapped in a barn board frame from a barn near Good Rich.

Tuesday and Wednesday I started the work of matching photos I had on hand to the frames I thought would work.  I think I went about it backwards. I first should have selected the prints, then built the frames to fit.

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Color looks good in the barn board frame from a 100-year old barn near Goodrich on the left, and in a frame from a 100-year old barn that once stood near Almont

Either way, it was crunch time. I turned my kitchen in to a matting and framing shop.  I brought in all the frames I thought would work from my wood shop.  Then I started matching prints to frames.

A couple of quick trips to Bismarck and I bought a few pieces of glass and some mat board.  I would have liked more, but time was running out.    Wednesday I put in some 12 hours framing and matting. Sadly I got in to so much of a rush I ended up damaging three prints and throwing them in to the trash.  A couple of my larger print were damaged and so will only be on display as examples, but not for sale. They’re not “perfect.”  Mats were crooked, images warped.  *groan*

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Wilton’s Soo Line Depot, also 100 years old (1910) is framed in 100-year-old wood from a barn near Goodrich.

So, here it is Thanksgiving days.  Just as the other three artists and Hawk are doing, we’re dedicating a portion of the day to getting ready for the Blue Collar Black Friday Art Show.  It’s a first, so we don’t know what to expect, how much room we have or how many people show up.

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Grain bins from near Regan in barn board from a 100-year old barn near Almont will be at the Blue Collar Black Friday Art Show.

Here’s your invitation to joins us. 135 Airport Road, Bismarck, just across the RR tracks from Krolls Diner, one block south of Main Street in East Bismarck.

Come on down!

Father’sDay Hill climb

A dusty race up the hill

A traditional event — competition much like the Wing Rodeo I wrote about last week — only different.

Dakota Riders

The annual Father’s Day Hill climb by the Dakota Riders at Valley City pits local riders against each other and nature — in this case, a hill.  The goal for the smaller bikes is to see how far up the hill they can get.  The larger more powerful bikes challenge each other to get to the hill the fastest.  In all cases, it’s man and machine against nature — this hill.

It’s a subculture of note, these North Dakotans who gather at the base of the hill to socialize and to watch the events.  They share a commonality of a love of motorcycles and the motorcycle lifestyle.  But that’s about where it ends because they come in all sizes and shapes.

Magi

Cheetah Chopper

Still, a warm Sunday afternoon, good people good entertainment and good competition make the Fathers Day Hill Climb one of my annual events.  I used to shoot the competition and that only.

Now I see there’s a whole lot more to the event, and that’s the people, and in some cases the motorcycles.  It’s not a drunk fest like some motorcycle events, it’s much more family oriented so there are plenty of good photo ops.

Sometimes I think as a photographer I forget to look at the whole picture. I get so focused I miss the best stories to be told by photo — the people and the crowds.

You can check out more images of the Hill Climb in the photo garage at www.kickstandsupnd.com

Have you been there to the Hill climb?