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.
The Little Missouri National Grassland encompasses over one million acres and has hundreds of miles of gravel and dirt trails. There are, however, few if any road signs, so map, compass, and GPS use are essential, as is patience; many dirt roads fade into cattle trails or abruptly end at the edge of an eroded gully. The roads-trails, really-are used by the ranchers to check on their cattle so generally are not technically difficult. Nonetheless, we encountered deep mudholes where cattle had milled about, as well as trees that blocked the trail. Our Ramsey winch and Pull Pal made quick work of these obstacles. For nearly a week, we explored hundreds of square miles never seeing another person. Cattle, deer, antelope, and the nightly coyote chorus kept us company.
Although at first the landscape looks similar throughout the Grassland, a closer, and slower, look reveals marked differences. There are grass-covered rounded hills, lush riverine forests, tree-lined ponds, sheer rock cliffs, and barren loose-rock, hummocky hills. It was while driving in the latter landscapes that we enjoyed some fine four-wheeling. The trail would innocently enough begin climbing one of these short hills, a 50-foot climb, when suddenly the dirt trail would give way to loose shale, and if we were not careful we would find ourselves going not forward but sideways or just spinning our wheels. Because these mounds were small, it was very easy to find that the truck had become dangerously angled across the slope as a result of a little rear-wheel skid. Because the "summits" of these hills were not even one car-length wide, and because we were never sure what was on the far side of the summit-a smooth downhill or an eroded sheer gully-we could not use momentum to climb the hill (we couldn't risk not being able to stop on the postage stamp-sized hilltop). Delicate throttle control proved the key to a successful climb. On a number of occasions, we had to reverse down a hill because there was no way down the far side. Back down in the mini-valleys, we would invariably discover a faint trail that led around the hill, bypassing the newly formed gully. We later learned that the Grassland produces a significant amount of oil and gas and that many of the trails we had explored, and presumably all the ones in the barren hills, were either pipeline service or exploration trails.
One day we were exploring an area of large plateaus and steep ravines when we spotted a bighorn sheep herd above us near the edge of the plateau. We quickly coasted to a stop. After a few minutes of intense scrutiny, the sheep must have concluded we were no threat, for they went back to browsing. The herd had a number of juvenile sheep, which in the fashion of most juveniles, regardless of species, soon began to cavort and roughhouse. It was amazing to see them jump, run, and mock charge each other on what was a nearly vertical cliff. Although Audubon bighorn sheep were a common species in the badlands of North Dakota when Lewis and Clark explored the area, indiscriminate hunting in the late 1800s decimated the herds, and the last Audubon bighorn was killed in 1905. In 1956, eighteen California bighorn sheep were introduced to the badlands. Today over 200 of them live on the steep breaks along the Little Missouri River.
We left the bighorn and headed down a dirt road towards Initial Rock. On May 28, 1876, General Custer and a detachment of troopers from the 7th Cavalry camped on the banks of a small creek, where two troopers carved their names on a large sandstone boulder, Initial Rock. Inside of a month, on June 26, Custer and his men would perish in the battle of the Little Big Horn. The only member of Custer's 7th to survive the battle, although severely wounded, was Comanche, a 15-hand bay gelding, part mustang and part Morgan, that had been ridden into battle by Captain Keogh. Comanche recovered from his wounds and was retired. He was named "Second Commanding Officer of the 7th Cavalry" and, by military order, was never ridden again.
Our time in North Dakota was coming to an end. But this amazing state had one more surprise for us. As we made our way towards the Interstate we glanced up, and underneath a slab of protruding rock on the cliff we saw a large nest. We pulled to the side of the gravel road and took out our binoculars. Not only was it a large nest, but it had chicks. Soon we saw a large bird effortlessly glide into the nest-it was a golden eagle! We watched enthralled as the parent fed the eaglets.
As we drove the interstate out of North Dakota, we knew we would be back. We had been held hostage by treacherous clay trails, amused by prairie dogs, challenged by stream and river crossings, awed by countless buffalo encounters, invigorated by cool nights and sunny days, and amazed by bighorn sheep. Oh yes, we would be back ... How would it all look under a blanket of snow?
When folks learn that we often camp and travel for weeks at a time, they often ask: "How can you live out of the truck and in a tent for that long?" Preparation and gear is our answer. Here is a partial list of some of the gear we used during our North Dakota sojourn and liked.
Coleman Sundome tent. Easy to set up, roomy, and strong (it survived a wind storm unscathed). Info: www.coleman.com.
Roll-a-cot. Very comfortable, packs small, and is cool on warm nights. Info: www.camptime.com.
Roll-a-table. Packs small and provides a solid table for eating, spreading maps, or using the laptop. Info: www.camptime.com
Hot Water Camping Shower. A must for multiweek trips! Info: R&M Specialty Products, 707/838-3869, www.hotwatercampingshowers.com
Super Siphon. Thanks to this gadget we no longer have to lift and tip the 40-pound jerrycans every time we want water. Info: www.pangea-expeditions.com
Volcano Kettle: A hot drink is a minute away! Info: www.pangea-expeditions.com
Stainless steel "water" bottle. Water can be thawed and warmed on the stove or fire. Info: www.wiggys.com
Trailblazer Sawvivor Saw. Compact and tough. Can tackle trail clearing as well as firewood cutting. Info: www.campmor.com.
Coleman rechargeable fluorescent lanterns. Plenty of light and safe for use inside the tent. Info: www.coleman.com