Great, Plains!

Days 18-25

September 16-18; 21-23, 2010

Mile 1390 – 2641

Arvila, ND to Billings, MT

The plains of North Dakota are nothing to write home about… but I’m going to try to do just that!  It turns out that the ladies in Emerado’s bar were right, though: it’s pretty darn flat in eastern ND.  The “shelter belts” that they referred to are the groves of trees that have been planted along fields and property lines.  These tree-lines have grown into tall poplars or pines over the years, but never filled in with more brush on their own; the relentless wind of the plains seems to prevent anything from the hardiest, low-lying plants from growing.  I only saw natural trees growing around lakes and rivers, which inhabited natural depressions in the plains and provided the only “topography” around.

The agriculture of the region didn’t enhance the scenery much, either: soybeans and hay seemed to be the only crops, and this time of year it had already been harvested.  I yearned to see a corn field that would provide an additional eight feet of elevation and temporarily block my endless view.  In fact, it took me a while to get used to the distances out on those plains: rather than fields taking up “forties” or even quarter-sections, a lot of them seemed to be a full section.  I just happened to be able to see dozens of miles… even under the gloomy skies.

It’s true that the weather can color one’s experience of a place.   Not only did it rain for at least part of every day I was crossing it, but the wind rarely let up.  There were ostensibly thousands, if not millions, of birds to be seen, from the eastern prairie-potholes, through the Missouri River to the west.  However, with winds sometimes exceeding 20 mph, the only ones flying were a few intrepid hawks!  I did get a little better at identifying the ones that weren’t themselves flying at 20mph, though, and I got to see some white pelicans taking a breather next to a hay field!

In that western part of the state, the fields are often interrupted by “potholes” of wetland, which on my nondescript route were mostly filled with cattails, bent by the wind.  Some of the biggest potholes were the lakes near Devil’s Lake, ND: a huge lake system with no real inlet or outlet.  I found this out after driving through miles and miles of road construction, as the berms between the lakes were being rip-rapped and expanded,

Devil's Lake flood mitigation

and I could see the evidence of raised water levels in the dead trees throughout the lakes.  Turns out they’re working on stabilizing water flow by creating an outlet and fortifying some dikes.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t spend more than a few hours in Devil’s Lake, in the cold and mist-spitting wind, but I can’t really understand how it is worth the millions of dollars in restructuring the lakes just for that community…  and most of the rest of North Dakota did not impress me any more.  Perhaps it was just the weather, but everyone I encountered seemed

Old and new grain elevators in Glen Ullin, ND: "The skyscrapers of the prairie," every town has an elevator as its central feature.

gloomy and hardened, as though the effort of simply surviving on those plains left little time for enjoyment of life.  I’m betting that if we hadn’t been going through an unseasonably cold snap, it would have been different.  As it was, coming through in early fall, the only breaks from the monotony of the landscape were the spots of bright color lent by the sunflower fields – perhaps they are useful for more than just oil!

Coming up on the Missouri River valley

As I approached the Missouri, the terrain became more rolling, as the river bluffs came to dominate the landscape.  The river valley is also, as one might imagine, more populous, and is filled with centuries (if not millennia) of history.  The river bottoms were mostly filled with cottonwood, with prairie remaining on the uplands in places.  Cross Ranch State Park, and The Nature Conservancy’s adjacent Cross Ranch Preserve attempt to give a good picture of what the land might have looked like as Lewis and Clark came through, complete with reintroduced bison.  The state park had a great little museum on the ecology and cultural history of the area, as well as a good-sized library on those subjects, with friendly staff completing the picture.

Fall colors in a wooded draw on the prairie of TNC's Cross Ranch Preserve

It’s not their fault that it snowed while I was there, and I would highly recommend its campsites on the Missouri’s bank to anyone!  As myriad interpretive displays at various sites informed me, however, the Garrison Dam on the Missouri forever changed the character of that river, though, as it virtually eliminated seasonal flooding and shifting in the river’s course.  The cottonwoods are gradually dying out, as they no longer have those annual changes to provide fresh ground for colonization.

The dam does provide quite a bit of electricity, however – it is one of the highest-producing dams in the world, capable of producing 515 MW of power.  The dam alone could probably make North Dakota energy-independent, but combined with one of the world’s largest deposits of lignite coal and significant oil fields in the western portion of the state, it’s a powerhouse!  Of course, even if all the fossil fuels get used up and the river runs dry, they could still harness the wind to supply enough

Looking down the Missouri River from atop Garrison Dam

power for their half-million residents!

Windmills on the Missouri bluffs

If after my great descriptions, you think that North Dakota is treeless, you should try eastern Montana!  Endless unbroken fields as far as the eye can see… but at least the

Eastern Montana

territory is more rolling.  It also seems to be true that Montanans are friendlier than their Dakota counterparts.  I received welcome receptions everywhere I stopped in those plains –  a big shout-out goes to the nice folks in Circle, ND, as represented by Stockman’s Lanes!  That said, forty miles between settlements is not uncommon, and going many, many miles without passing another vehicle was not uncommon.  The advantage to that desolate country, though, was that my journey was frequently accompanied by mule deer and antelope grazing among the cattle.  Somewhere in central Montana, though the terrain and vegetation begin to change a little.  Upon hitting the Musselshell River, I saw some pines lining those hills… among the first trees I’d seen in a day!  Traveling south, the rolling hills became more rocky, and the plains covered with sage were dotted with small pines.  Getting out of my car to stretch somewhere in that uninhabited area, I was surprised by the intense spicy and sweet smell that pervaded the air from those species: mmmm.

Pines on the bluffs near the Musselshell River

Sage and pines lining Montana's backroads in Yellowstone County

Rocky bluffs on the Yellowstone River near Pompey's Pillar, MT

The Yellowstone River’s high bluffs were a welcome sight to see, and the churning rapidity of its flow implied that I was getting into wilder country.  Indeed, it wasn’t long before I began to get into the foothills of the mountains.  I’m not sorry to be leaving the plains behind, but I came to enjoy them.  My days spent following the footsteps of Lewis and Clark and hiking around the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park (posts to come!!) had refreshed me, and I’m glad I had a chance to “Discover the Spirit” of North Dakota… just wish it hadn’t been so cold!

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