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.



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

The Long X hiking trail follows the Little Missouri River Valley

The Long X hiking trail follows the Little Missouri River Valley

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long X Trail head with butte in background

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

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

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

Theodore Roosevelt National Park corral across the river from us.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park corral across the river from us.

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

Long X view of buffalo wtrmrk

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

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

The view from the mesa above the valley stretches for miles

The view from the mesa above the valley stretches for miles

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

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

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

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

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Street signs and Ranches

North Dakota's ranch country

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

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

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

June 27

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

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

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

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

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