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Bison in the Badlands

Thursday, 15 July 2004
written by Teresa

Travelling west across North Dakota, the tame cultivated prairie with its gently undulating expanse gives way quite suddenly to what the Sioux called Mako Shika or Land of No Good; to the white settlers it became The Badlands.

Badlands Vista Buttes, coulees and canyons dominate in an apparently endless and intricate interlocking pattern, cut from the prairie by rivers creating a landscape that is desolate and rugged, a maze continually weathered by the actions of wind and water. There is an impression of paleness, colour seemingly leached by the forces of erosion and the short-lived heat of the summer sun. Look north and the south facing slopes seem bare, their aspect creating a dry hot environment of sparse desert-like vegetation. Beneath the plants, differently coloured strata line the rock face, marking out the passage of time in a horizontal design. The cooler north-facing slopes, retaining more moisture, support Junipers within the tight confines of their microclimates, patches of dark green against the washed-out backdrop. Remnants of prairie survive on top of the buttes, grasses rippling in the passing wind while down in the Little Missouri valley, the Cottonwoods follow the course of the sediment-heavy waters.

Fifty miles of the Little Missouri National Grassland separate the two units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park within the Badlands. The grasslands are remote, accessed by gravel roads and almost deserted. The newly completed Maah Daah Hey Trail winds it's path across this terrain, a few backcountry campgrounds strung along the way.

For three nights, we were the only people at Waanagan camp, set amongst the bare bluffs and cliffs of the eroded buttes, in our case reached by a road "not maintained for public travel". Small Horned lizards are numerous on the trail, their rounded bodies preventing the fast movement usually associated with their species, producing instead a lateral waddle. Close to the ground a Northern Harrier glides along the contours looking for food, moving on when mocked by grackles. Lark Sparrows feed their young with an endless supply of insects, voracious appetites not easily satisfied, and a couple of young mule deer visit early one morning, clearing the fence with a vertical leap from a standing start. Petrified Log In places, large pieces of petrified wood mark the landscape, remnants of trees that grew here over fifty million years ago, covered by sediment before they decayed and now revealed through the action of erosion. The trail in both directions is varied, crossing open stretches of grassland and wending it's way back and forth up and through the bare faces of the eroded rock. The views are expansive, the silence complete.

Bennett Camp Further north, Bennett Camp sits down by a creek looking onto the northern facing slopes where the trees and grass give a greener appearance altogether. No one joined us in the four nights we were there except a rabbit that took a liking to the shade under the truck. Heavy rain thwarted our attempts to walk by filling the creek with delightfully brown water and a fine-grained slippery mud and so we contented ourselves with meandering across the drier ground for a short while. In spite of this the two spots have been some of the best camping we've done in a long while; the isolation, the peaceful quietness, the beautiful views and trails from the doorstep are everything we want from a campground.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park preserves not only some of the most dramatic parts of the badlands and their adjacent prairie but also the largest land animal in North America, the bison. At this time of year, the bulls are back in the herds and mating season is underway; bloodied horns and raw gashes tell their own story. The ongoing low frequency rumble of the group is supplemented with the grunts and snorts of the bulls as they signal their intentions. They have the muscle bound upper body appearance of the committed weight lifter along with the resultant swagger. Their long haired front legs look clothed in the latest fashion, their heads swathed in wooly scarves, their impressive beards swaying while their heads move from side to side as they amble along. They are enormous; the males up to twelve feet in length and two thousand pounds in weight. Bison Calf For all this they are surprisingly agile, running up and down the steep sides of buttes with seemingly little effort, creating an extensive system of trails across the park. This years calves, at the most a couple of months old, still wear their rusty brown coats not yet darkened to the deep brown of the adolescents and adults; they look disproportionately small next to their parents but already have the start of horns appearing on their heads. The herds meander wherever the mood takes them, impervious to vehicles and people, the roads and campgrounds as likely a spot as anywhere to find them.

In the north unit, one evening, a herd moved into the outskirts of the campground disrupting the evening's program; the excitement mounted as park staff delivered a weather warning of winds to seventy miles an hour, severe thunderstorms and two inch hail along with the passing observation that the bison were fighting. Storm Clouds We got the screen house down in record time and as the weather closed in and the winds became more determined, we checked the web for details of what was coming our way. The radar image did not look pretty but it was the advice from the National Weather Service that was particularly concerning; take shelter in a sturdy building and stay away from windows. A little concerning when you're sitting in a camper. Repeated lightning illuminated the sky, an eerie glow flashing briefly over the land, the cottonwoods momentarily revealed as silhouettes. Thunder boomed all around, the raindrops began their incessant cacophony on the roof building to a crescendo as the hail started and the wind howled in full force, bringing tree limbs down and managing to rock the camper. It was incredibly exciting and invigorating but I recognize that for those in tents it may not have been much fun. By midnight it was finally quiet enough to go to sleep and just as we were dozing off, the tell tale rumbling of the bison began. Bison Closeup We were surrounded, the sound of the herd just outside the window, the noise of mouthfuls of grass being ripped up and chewed the soundtrack that put us to sleep.

They have been around the campground on and off over the last week but yesterday evening they got a little too near. We were sitting in the screen house enjoying the late sunshine and the falling temperatures, reading our books and looking up from time to time to take in the scene. A herd appeared from nowhere, two cows suddenly behind us, munching away as they slowly moved forward right through our campsite, inches away from the screen. Directly in front of us, just feet away, a huge bull appeared; he stood and stared, watching their progress, we sat perfectly still, hoping he wouldn't think we were trying to separate him from part of his harem and praying that one of them wouldn't trip on a guy rope bringing the whole thing down. They moved on without incident and our heart rates slowly returned to normal. Although we've seen herds of bison before, even up close, we've never experienced them as intimately and extensively as we have during the eleven days that we've been in the park. It has been inordinately pleasing, sometimes unnerving but definitely one of the highlights of our stay.

Beaver On Bank Beavers have also provided entertainment with their nightly displays of ingenuity and building. As with the bison, we have never had such an opportunity to watch them going about their business. Over a number of evenings we saw them reinforcing one of their dams and trying to block up a culvert taking a stream under the road. They are remarkably successful at this later endeavour and the park service needs to clear the drain every few days in order to prevent the road flooding. Beavers are very focused animals; disappearing into the vegetation around the creek to emerge with small branches that they then carry in their mouths as they swim back to put them in position. They are sleek and fast in the water apparently unhindered by their load but will occasionally help each other carry a particularly large piece. This process is repeated with steady dedication, the purpose to create a deep pool around their lodge thus keeping it safe from predators. As we lost ourselves in quiet observation one evening, Sterling urgently drew my attention away from them to look at something else. At first I could see nothing but he persisted until I noticed two bison making steady progress towards us. That got my attention and we moved just in time.

Orange Prickly Pear flower Our experience of hiking here has been mixed. We returned from one venture covered in a liberal coating of mud, the bentonite clay a slippery customer beneath the apparently dry top crust. The bill of Sterling's cap was nicely encrusted but sturdy enough to have saved his nose from a similar experience. Other days we managed to return looking almost as pristine as when we had set out. Our favourite trail, although short was Caprock Coulee. In just four miles, it allows wide-open views across the Badlands, layer upon layer of striped rounded rock formations disappearing off into the distance, it travels through a coulee, up and over bare south facing aspects, through dense vegetation on northern slopes and out across the prairie skirting the edges of the eroded areas. We were so impressed, we walked it again a few days later and in many ways that somehow epitomizes our experience here. We didn't want it to end, we wanted to hold on to it in some way, absorb more of it before we had to leave. Our first attempt at moving on was an utter failure; we made it a few miles down the road before deciding that we had to go back. Four days later we managed to drag ourselves away but we'll definitely return, especially to the less visited north unit where the bison kept us on our toes.

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