Our current adventure on the 200th anniversary of the epic cross-country voyage of Lewis and Clark. Lewis and Clark set off from St. Louis in 1804 and for the next two years traveled, mostly by boat, all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back. Could we follow their journey by land? Out came the maps, and after a bit of research, we knew we could. We decided to break the journey into a number of separate trips. We would follow Lewis and Clark's route across the country, but would have the freedom to venture off their track to explore each region separately.
We hadn't even reached the Missouri River and the Lewis and Clark Trail when we took our first exploratory detour. A lonely two-track headed across the undulating landscape disappearing on the distant horizon. We followed it, entering the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. We were in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, one of the largest grass-stabilized dune fields in the world. The "sea of grass," as early pioneers and travelers on the Oregon and Mormon Trail called them, are true windblown sand dunes that were deposited some 5,000 years ago and cover over 20,000 square miles (more than twice the size of Rhode Island and Massachusetts combined!). Some of the dunes would give even Lawrence of Arabia pause; they are over 400 feet high and over 20 miles long.
Dunes might make one think of a desert, but south-central Nebraska is far from barren. Technically, the area is a "dry upland plateau." The lushness of the hills is in part due to the Ogallala Aquifer. This large source of underground water lies close to the surface, and in fact reaches the ground in numerous locations creating springs, marshes, lakes, and sustaining the scenic Niobrara River. In the midst of the Sand Hills is the 70,000-acre Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, home to herds of bison and elk as well as mule deer, whitetail deer, grouse, prairie chicken, turkey, coyote, rabbits, small rodents, over 150 different bird species, and-with 36 lakes-ducks, geese, and 45 different kinds of fish. We spent the day roaming over sandy two-track trails among the sand dunes and exploring numerous lakes.
We drove north, crossing into South Dakota and soon found ourselves on a high bluff overlooking the Missouri River, the Lewis and Clark "highway." We drove along the Native American Scenic Byway, following the river upstream. Oversized, undulating hills covered in lush grasses bordered the river. For miles we drove up and down the landscape with the wide, almost lake-like Missouri always in view. Climbing one of these mounds, William Clark wrote: "We beheld a most beautiful landscape. Numerous herds of buffalo were seen feeding in various directions." Further upstream, Meriwether Lewis commented that although it was hard to believe, he could see 3,000 buffalo at one view. In addition to buffalo, Lewis and Clark saw herds of elk, mule deer, and antelope. During our passage, large herds of horses watched us with interest.
We set up camp on the banks of the river, not far from where Lewis and Clark themselves had spent a couple of nights in the fall of 1804. We had planned to sit by the campfire and read the Lewis and Clark journals, but we were forced to retreat into our Coleman dome tent because, as Lewis noted 200 years ago, "Mosquitoes very troublesome!"
Early the next afternoon we entered Ft. Abraham Lincoln State Park. For more than 200 years, the site was home to the Mandan Indians, who built their village on the hilltop overlooking the river. The Mandan were an agricultural tribe that grew corn, beans, and squash along the river bottom and hunted buffalo on the plains. In 1781, tragedy struck. Smallpox, introduced to Native Americans by European and American fur traders and explorers, decimated the village, and the few who did not die of the disease fled the area. By the time Lewis and Clark reached the site, the village had been abandoned. Exploring the reconstructed village, we were surprised at the coziness and simple beauty of the earthlodges. They were spacious, roomy structures that reminded us of 1960s-style family dens.
Seventy years after Lewis and Clark sailed by the abandoned village, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry arrived and built a fort to protect the Northern Pacific Railroad as it pushed across the plains. Today you can visit Mr. and Mrs. Custer's Victorian house, the barracks and a number of other fort buildings which have been reconstructed in recent years.
The April 14, 1805, entry in Lewis' diary piqued our interest. He wrote that he "ascended to the high country about nine miles distant from the Missouri" and that "the upland is extremely broken, consisting of high bare knobs as far as the eye can reach." It sounded to us like Lewis had encountered the badlands of the Little Missouri River. Intrigued, we turned west and soon were looking at "burnt hills of lava and pumice," as Lewis had described them. Best of all, we had entered the Little Missouri National Grassland, where we knew there were hundreds of miles of dirt roads and rougher "high clearance" 4x4 trails.
The Little Missouri National Grassland encompasses over half a million acres of rugged, unspoiled Badlands topography. The grassland is also home to North Dakota's only bighorn sheep as well as thousands of elk, antelope, whitetail and mule deer, eagles, falcons, and prairie dogs. We spread open the Grassland map on the Discovery's hood and looked for a trail that would take us into the grassland and among the hilltops. We chose one that climbed high above the Little Missouri River and followed the crest of the hills for 20 or 25 miles.
As soon as we turned off the gravel road and onto the two tracks that were the trail, our tires sank in the mud. The Dunlop Mud Rovers found a solid bottom about 6 inches below the watery top and with the center differential locked, we followed the trail across green grassy pastures. Wherever the cattle had congregated, the trail had been trampled into a "buffalo wallow" or large mudhole. With a bit of momentum, and with the ARBs locked, we churned our way across them. The sunny morning gave way to an overcast sky, which made the landscape even more impressive. When a light drizzle turned to rain, we shrugged our shoulders and resigned ourselves to setting up a damp camp. When the trail began to descend, we thought it would be nice to set up camp in the shelter of the trees and not on the windswept ridge. And that's when we found ourselves sliding down the trail sideways!
Somehow we needed to get the front tires to bite and pull the truck back in line. Simultaneously, I stabbed the brake pedal hard with my left foot (thus throwing the vehicle's weight to the front tires) pushed down on the gas pedal with my right foot and began sawing the steering wheel. It worked; the Dunlops' shoulder lugs gained traction and turned us down the fall line. I happily steered right into the ruts, eased off the throttle, and engine-braked down to the saddle.
After a sigh or two of relief, we looked around. Our saddle dropped steeply to the south, rose gently to the north for a couple hundred feet and then dropped cliff-like towards the river, some 400 feet below us. Ahead of us, the trail climbed steeply back to the ridge. Having no illusions that we could drive out of the saddle, we decided that when the rain stopped we would set up camp. We made ourselves comfortable in the Discovery seats and talked about the day's events. Still it rained. At times like this, there's nothing like a good book, and we just happened to be traveling with the annotated journals of Lewis and Clark. We began to read. We were reading a particularly gripping account of a near-fatal mishap when we felt the truck move. I opened the door and looked at the trail. The ruts had become raging torrents, and our tires were being undermined by the flowing water. We were about to get stuck standing still! Out came the rain jackets and we surveyed the situation. While we were reading, the tires had sunk enough to high-center the truck! Time to move. Driving out of our predicament would probably not work, and if it did we would do quite a bit of damage to the trail. Times like these are made for winching. We ran the winch cable at a 45-degree angle and secured it to our trusty Pull Pal. Our Ramsey winch easily pulled the Discovery off the trail. Since we were already wet, and it was still raining as hard as ever, we decided to set up camp.
When the rain finally ended on the second day, we went to investigate the trail. As soon as we left the grass, our boots sank a couple of inches and were nearly stuck fast. Retreating to the grass, our boots looked like they were encased in heavy wet concrete. The light gray clay turned out to be "bentonite," a heavy, very clingy and very slippery type of clay. With plenty of water and food, and in a rather nice grassy meadow, we opted for a few more days of camping while the trail dried out. After three days of sunshine, the trail had become solid enough that we decided to drive on. Halfway up the saddle, we hit a patch of still-wet clay and began spinning our tires. Walking up the trail with Pull Pal and winch cable, we were amazed at how the consistency of the bentonite changed depending on how wet it was: Hard as concrete when dry, a heavy bottomless goo when fully saturated, and slippery as black ice when in between. Nasty stuff! We winched and drove and winched some more that morning, reaching the gravel road by mid-afternoon. We looked back at the trail and realized that thanks to all the winching, we had indeed "trod lightly." Besides, the winching had been fun.
We drove to an established Grassland campground where after a refreshing hot shower, thanks to our "Unlimited Hot Water Camping Shower," we retired to our tent. In the morning we packed up, filled our drinking water jerrys and headed southwest towards the "Elkhorn Ranch." Although the "ranch" can be accessed via gravel road, we choose the "scenic" route, a number of faint lines on our maps.
At the first sign of mud we stopped to investigate; we had learned our lesson. Discovering plain old-fashioned mud and not bentonite, we pushed on. We drove through a number of cattle grazing areas, being careful to leave all the gates as we found them, and forded a number of narrow, muddy creeks.
Navigating became tricky as we encountered numerous trail intersections. We drove by choosing the trail that headed in the general direction of the ranch. With the "distance to waypoint" display on our Garmin GPS getting smaller, we knew we were on the right track.
As we dropped into the river's floodplain, the trail became wetter and muddier. We engaged our rear ARB Air Locker and forged on; the ranch lay just on the other side of the river. We hadn't thought much about the river crossing, as we had already crossed that same river a number of times and it had always had a sandy bottom and gentle entry and exit ramps. As we approached the river we realized this time it was going to be different. The entry ramp into the channel was steep, heavily rutted, and very muddy. With gravity's help, we thought we could get down into the channel, and were glad we didn't have to come back this way, as we didn't think we would be able to climb the bank. The river itself was wider than when we had crossed it before, and we could not see the bottom. We could, however, see the trail exiting the river on the far side, so obviously this was an established ford. We engaged the front Air Locker and got a bit of momentum to navigate the rutted entry ramp. We felt the truck slide on its skidplates into the water, and after a bit of tire spin, the Mud Rovers bit into the bottom and pushed across the river. With water rising to below the headlights, we accelerated to create a bow wave. The exit ramp looked a little better than the entry ramp had. It was heavily rutted and very muddy, but not as steep and had reassuring large trees directly ahead in case we needed to winch ourselves out of the stream. I was about to gun the engine for a bit of bank-climbing power when we saw it. Nailed to a post right in the middle of the trail on the top of the bank a big "No Trespassing" sign.
We could not go forward, nor could we go back. I had no illusions that we would be able to drive up the ramp and there were no trees to use as winch anchors. One thing was sure: if we stopped moving, the water current would quickly dig under our tires and we would find ourselves "aground" on the river bottom. While I drove in a wide circle in the middle of the river, my co-driver studied the topo maps searching for a way out. She found another ford about a quarter mile downstream, and as I turned the Discovery downstream, I wondered what other surprises the river held.