With water threatening to break over the hood, we drove down the river searching for a ford and a way back to dry land. We had come to North Dakota following the trail of the Lewis and Clark expedition. But theirs had been a "boat" expedition-and we were driving our Land Rover.
We'd launched to cross the river on a very muddy public trail. But when we reached the far bank, we were confronted by a "no trespassing" sign. Unable to drive up the muddy trail, we had descended into the river channel, heading towards another ford we had spotted on our map, about a quarter of a mile downriver. Not very far at all, but as we gingerly made our way down the river, it seemed every foot took a minute, every winch-rope length an hour. Pictures of Camel Trophy Land Rovers with water over their hoods kept popping in my head.
As we made our way around a bend, making sure to stay to the outside-the inside of the bend would have collected all the soft sediments-we spotted the ford. The exit ramp was steep, rutted, and very muddy, but huge trees lined the banks. With innumerable winch anchors to choose from, we knew that one way or another we would make it to dry land. With a sigh of relief, I throttled up and got a running start at the muddy bank. We bounced across a couple of ruts, and came to rest about two-thirds of the way up the bank. A couple minutes' work and our Ramsey winch had us on dry trail, and a sign proclaimed that we were now in the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, our long-sought destination.
Before becoming our 26th president in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt spent time in the Badlands of North Dakota. It was here, on the banks of the Little Missouri River, that TR sought solitude and solace after losing his wife and mother on the same day in 1884. All fall and early winter, his ranch managers felled cottonwoods, and by the following spring, a handsome ranch house stood along the gently flowing river. Roosevelt felt at peace in the Badlands. He noted that although the land looked just like Lewis and Clark had described it over 80 years earlier, things were changing. The buffalo herds that "stretched from horizon to horizon" were disappearing, as were the grizzly bear, mountain lion, mountain sheep, antelope, and beaver. He saw firsthand how a bountiful land could become "a mere barren waste ... [that] looked as if it had been shaved with a razor" by overgrazing. TR's experiences in the Badlands deeply influenced his views on conservation, leading him to become America's first and perhaps greatest conservation president.
Foundation stones are all that remain of the ranch house. But standing in the cool shade of the cottonwoods, listening to the gentle rustling of their leaves, and looking across the Little Missouri at the lush grass-covered hills, we too could understand the magic of this place. As we bid farewell to the Ranch, we gave TR our thanks for his vision of preserving the land and its inhabitants. After all, we spend most of our time exploring the public lands he helped create and preserve for all people.
"... the wilderness, selected portions of it have been kept here and there in a state of nature, not merely for the sake of preserving the forests and the water, but for the sake of preserving all its beauties and wonders unspoiled by greedy and short-sighted vandalism."
We spent the next few days exploring the North and South units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Although the two units are separated only by 70 miles, they are worlds apart. Because the south unit sits astride Interstate 94, it receives the bulk of the visitors; over 90 percent of visitors never venture to the north unit. We indeed enjoyed the solitude of the northern unit and felt spoiled at having entire buffalo herds, antelope and deer families, and prairie dog towns all to ourselves. Short and medium-length hiking trails allow the visitor to leisurely explore the park. Because considerable portions of both units are designated as wilderness areas, there are few roads in the park. However, the park is surrounded by National Grassland.