Driving west on I-94, it’s fast and flat through Minnesota and most of North Dakota. I pass crowded fields of sunflowers, their dry seed heads fixed toward the sky, flat terrain pockmarked by small lakes and rolling fallow crop fields. Until suddenly, the land falls away. A few miles outside Medora, North Dakota, the gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP), the landscape abruptly transforms. It’s the inverse of the drive on I-70 across the Colorado plains, where the mountains push up from the plains to the sky. You can see them from incredibly far away. This, however, is an ancient inland wetland, the earth carved deeply by eons of water. You don’t see it until you’re at the precipice. Steep, deep canyons expose ancient layers of loose rock and mud. Theodore Roosevelt said, “The badlands do not seem to belong on this earth.” I’d have to agree.
How Can This Be?
Bear with me for a brief dip into geology. Sixty-five million years ago, this was flat, swampy land. Volcanic ash, and sediment from erosion of the Rocky Mountains, began to fill in the wetlands. Time compressed these layers into sedimentary rock. One million years ago, in our last Ice Age, the Little Missouri River carved into the soft sedimentary rock as it flowed north and then was pushed eastward at the foot of a glacier following the path of least resistance.
What is left today is a twisting, curving, beautifully meandering river bounded by floodplains beyond which flat-topped buttes, plateaus, and hoodoos give way to the prairie. This vast, diverse landscape supports so much life!
Exploring the Park
The first morning, I rose in the dark of night to be in the park by dawn. As the first rays of light began to chase back the blackness, soft, warm hues of salmon, peach, and yellow layered along the flat plateau horizon. Bison own the flood plains near the river. One lopes contentedly along the side of the road catching up to the herd – an astonishingly fast pace for such an awkward-looking, lumbering behemoth. I have a new respect for their athleticism (not a word I would’ve ever used to describe a bison before). Days later, I would watch a bison herd scale a near-vertical butte on the far side of a river to reach the prairie above.
The river bottoms are also home to white-tailed deer who graze with the bison over prairie dog towns and among the cottonwoods.
In the early morning hours before the sun hits the ground on the prairie dog towns, flocks of turkeys browse the landscape. They are foraging as they walk, frequently breaking into a run to keep up with the leader. They move fluidly and chaotically at the same time, like a river washing over rocks and boulders.
The first sunlight that touches the earth in the prairie dog town serves as their wake-up call. Instantly, adorable, sociable, plump prairie dogs peek out of their underground burrows. They’ll spend their days foraging, socializing, and sounding alarms that send all of them scurrying into their bunkers only to reappear and repeat. They are a chatty bunch. “Barks” announce danger (which is how they got their name), and their classic jump-yip declares “All Clear.”
They also make a soft cooing purr sort of noise that is adorable. Prairie dog communities consist of individual family groups living within their own burrow with just two openings to the surface. Above ground, living is social and keeps them safer, but below ground, they go their separate ways.
More than twenty prairie dog towns in the park create rich biodiversity over the more than 1000 acres they’ve colonized. They provide habitat for raptors, rabbits, coyotes, horses, bison, deer, badgers, and more.
Scenic Drive Loop
A thirty-six-mile scenic drive loop winds up from the river through all of the park’s ecosystems before returning to the Little Missouri River. Well, when the sedimentary rock isn’t washing out from underneath the road, it’s a loop. The last four miles have been closed indefinitely since May 2019. These days the “loop” is a 60mi round trip out and back. Geology stops for no one.
Whereas the white-tailed deer are down by the river, the buttes and plateaus are the mule deer’s habitat. They are commonly grazing along the roadsides alone and in groups. Wild mustangs are found throughout the park, and I saw some on most trips along this road. There are about 170 horses in 22 bands here. They deserved a whole blog to themselves; read it here.
At the easternmost bend in the drive, I stand at the edge of an empty inland sea. I lean into the wind that pushes up through the ravine to keep my balance. Behind me is rolling prairie, and in front of me, the earth drops precipitously away in endless layers of hoodoos and buttes interweaving all the way to the horizon.
Dance of the Eagles
Back down at the river bluffs, a pair of golden eagles interact in what can only be bonding or courtship. They dance along thermals, coming together, talons outstretched, brushing past one another to soar again. They continued their aerial display until vanishing into specks in the distant sky. Being far away and fast-moving made them difficult to photograph. Still, I’d never seen golden eagles before, so I’m happy to share the pictures just the same.
Big Plateau Trail
Starting at the Peaceful Valley Ranch, I waded across the ankle-deep Little Missouri River on the Big Plateau Trail to a canyon that brought me up to a plateau. I was greeted by the barks and then, in quick succession, the jump-yips of another prairie dog town. I’m flattered that they quickly assess me as no threat. Looking west across the expansive prairie, I feel like I can see forever. Northward, the ground drops away again into the painted canyons of the badlands.
On the way back along the Ekblom Trail, a herd of bison is resting near the trail in the floodplain. I’m not comfortable with the amount of space between the herd and the steep wall of the butte to skirt around them. They probably wouldn’t give me a second look. But, still. I’m reminded of a sign in Yellowstone National Park that I regret not photographing because I think of it so often. It advised, “When wildlife exists between you and your destination, chose another route.” I detoured into the woodlands toward the river, following a maze of wildlife trails that I know will lead me back to the river. A few yards off the path lies the remains of a bison. The sunlight on the arching ribs caught my attention: ribs, full spine, bits of hide, a leg. Further away is a beautiful full skull and jaw bone. The limb tells the story; the attached hoof is overgrown, suggesting a lameness in life that a predator exploited.
Early the next morning, this same herd is gathered in the river. Snorting, bellowing, mooing – it’s like a morning coffee chat. The sounds of nature, when all else is quiet, resonate in one’s soul. I linger in the moment. As I turn and take a few steps to leave, I stop dead in my tracks. There is a porcupine – a big porcupine – on the ground chewing on a medium-sized bush. I’ve been looking for a porcupine for years! He paused, aware of my presence without looking at me, and then began to waddle up a short rise from the floodplain to a sagebrush prairie. Partway up the hill, he paused, rose up on his haunches, and looked back at me.
Everything he does is in slow motion as if he doesn’t have a care in the world – or as if he has a butt full of quills. It was still dark enough that my camera had a hard time seeing. I had to slow the shutter speed a lot to let in enough light at this distance. His movements would cause blur. I don’t have any other options. I took three pictures, and they turned out decent enough to share here. And they certainly capture the memory for me. I’m thrilled! He continued ambling up over the rise into the sage, stopping a couple of more times to look back to me again before he settled under a sage bush. He is perfectly camouflaged there. If I hadn’t seen him curl up, I would easily have walked right past him and never known. I wonder how often I’ve passed by animals in a similar scenario when I’m out exploring. I suspect it happens all the time. I didn’t follow him into the sage flat. It was time to let him be.
Wild horses, golden eagles, and a porcupine! What more could you want?! Stay tuned for a blog about my exploration of the rugged North Unit.
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