Saturday, August 20, 2016

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - South Unit

Aug. 10 - 12

We again traveled through miles of grassland before reaching the south unit of the park. This section has some of the same layered, colorful geology as the north, but the colors aren't as dramatic, and there seems to be more wildlife.

We'd just gotten things set up and Watch and I headed out to take our payment to the drop box when I noticed something moving in the trees behind our space, on the road. A buffalo looked up at me, and kept munching, but I turned around and went back to the trailer until he left. No point taking chances, and Watch always wants to shake hands with everything so we avoid those opportunities with wildlife!

I finally got the payment envelope dropped off, and we were back inside the trailer, getting dinner together, when Steve said "Look outside!"


Our space, and the one next to us, was full of buffalo! We'd heard they like to hang out in the campground and it does seem they're quite at home here, RV's and tents don't bother them in the least.

'Best advice to campers is "stay in your tent", we overheard a ranger say to another camper. "But what if they don't go away?" asked the camper. "Just stay in your tent" was the response. So, we did, so to speak.

The dogs sat inside and watched them through the screen door, and eventually they all wandered off. Talk about wildlife close up! We have noticed the buffalo walk slowly as they graze, so they seldom stay in one place for very long, that tent camper needn't have worried about them taking up residence in his site.

We took the 36 mile scenic drive, and thoroughly enjoyed the views, and the wildlife. The geologic formations are colorful, and as the shadows shift with the moving sun the colors change. Fascinating.


There are prairie dogs all over the place here, and they're FAT!
Excuse me! Who did you say is fat?

There are wide pull-outs at frequent intervals where the prairie dog villages are, so the little critters are accustomed to cars, people, and cameras.

They sit up and chatter and bark, and watch the people who are watching them. I suppose they think we are there to entertain them.

We heard coyotes singing during the night, so there are probably  a couple fewer of those prairie dogs now. Judging by the numbers they they aren't endangered by any means, and they are probably the reason the coyotes and other meat eaters thrive here.

There are cottontail rabbits too, but they are seldom seen, the presence of our dogs probably has something to do with that.

The Little Missouri River runs by the campground, but there's not much water in it. The area has had frequent light rains all summer though, which accounts for all the green grass and the wildflowers still blooming. I'm sure the buffalo are enjoying the pasture grass they wouldn't normally have this time of year.

South unit visitor center - This is the main visitor information center, where TR's Maltese Cross cabin has been relocated.

This cabin was built near where it is situated now, but the park service did move it in order to protect it. It was TR's home when he was here for the first few visits, but he found that so many people wanted to come and visit that he could not have the solitude he wanted, so he built another cabin, north of Medora by several miles. That cabin is completely gone now except for a few foundation stones, the rest of it carted off by collectors.

The visitor center museum has a lot of very nice artifacts and does a nice job of presenting the history in their displays. They also have very clever way of displaying Theodore's vest and other personal clothing items.

After touring the visitor center we took a tour of the Chateau De Mores State Historic Site, where the town of Medora began. A wealth French Marquis bought up much acreage in the area and built a beef processing and shipping business.

He convinced the Northern Pacific Railroad to build a station here, and once the settlement began to take shape he named the town after his wife Medora.

The Marquis' biggest contribution, I think, was the invention of a refrigerated shipping car. The cars were built with double walls which were filled with an ice/salt mixture, much like an old fashioned ice cream freezer. This device allowed for the local processing of beef, and subsequent shipment of it to eastern cities. Previously, cattle had been driven, on the hoof, to the slaughter plants closer to the east. In the process they often lost so much weight that the profit was lost. . . not to mention, the meat was tougher!

The Chateau, with red roof, in the distance
The marquis and his wife entertained many european and American visitors, and did so quite lavishly by local standards. Their home was so large the local residents dubbed it The Chateau.

The chateau isn't much by European standards, but the 27 room house (10 bedrooms) was pretty grand by local standards when it was built in 1884. It was built high on the cliffs overlooking the town. It is now maintained by the state as a historic site. All that remains of the once extensive meat processing plant is the tall brick chimney that is now at the center of a city park. (on the left in the photo) (Photos from inside the Chateau are in this album)

After the touring we went back to camp to give the dogs a bit of an outing and to have some lunch. A brief thunderstorm cooled things off, then we went back into Medora for a performance that had been recommended to us by another traveler.

Theodore Roosevelt Salute to the National Parks was "Absolutely delightful!" as Theodore Roosevelt might have said.
Joe Wiegand portrays Theodore Roosevelt in a one hour performance that is both entertaining and educational. He's obviously well versed in the history, and much of his dialog comes directly from Roosevelt's own writings. I'm currently reading Theodore Roosevelt's Letters to His Children, and have found many of the passages were used in developing the performance. Wiegand does a wonderful job of portraying Roosevelt's exuberance and it's infectious. As we all filed out after the performance you could tell by the big smiles and the tears in a few eyes how much everyone in the audience had been inspired.

Time to pack up, we're heading south. We made a brief stop at the third Theodore Roosevelt NP visitor center, Painted Canyon, for one last look at the beautiful mountains on the way out. The geology here is amazing and it's too bad we don't have more time to explore the surrounding areas.

The South Unit album is here

Friday, August 19, 2016

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - North Unit

Aug. 9

We'd been rolling over hwy. 85 for about 70 miles, through the edge of the Little Missouri National Grasslands, contemplating all the petroleum wells and storage tanks, intermixed with golden fields of wheat. We were commenting on how the tanks added variety to the seemingly constant rolling and otherwise flat green of the prairie when suddenly . . . Wow! what a view. This was our first glimpse of The Badlands, in the north unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

After all that flat, velvety green  grassland the deeply cut valley and colored hills were quite a surprise.

As an aside, relative to the recent bevy of activity in the oil fields here, North Dakota has done an exceptional job of keeping their roads in good shape in spite of all the oil field trucks. . . unlike Texas. We talked to a resident who said when all the activity heated up the state set aside a fund just to keep the infrastructure maintained. Smart politicians.

Arriving early made it easy to locate a campsite, so we dropped the trailer, had lunch, then headed out to the visitor center. It's housed in temporary buildings at the moment, but it looks like they'll soon be moving into a nice new log structure.

The scenic drive through the park is amazing. From lush prairie to fantastically eroded sandstone forms, views of the Little Missouri River at the bottom of the canyon, and BUFFALO!

We captured a couple of solitary fellows who were grazing fairly close to the road, and a small herd that was lower down in the canyon.

The vastness of the canyons, the depth of color and the amazing intricacy of the eroded cliffs are difficult to capture in photographs.

Even with a panorama photo, there is still that bit missing on the side that impacts the rest of the view. If you are a lover of wide vistas, this park's for you!

The contrast of blue sagebrush, golden and ruddy prairie grasses, and the jewel tones of the eroded mudstone layers would inspire any artist.

Not to mention the strange geologic formations that go beyond interesting erosion. This group of "bowling balls" is right at the entrance to our campground. On our drive through the park we saw mushroom shapes, tall spires, and layer cakes. Fascinating!



These Badlands are one of Mother Nature's finest accomplishments.

  (Click on any photo and it will take you into the photo album, where there are more photos of the area)

One can easily understand how Theodore Roosevelt became so enamoured with this area. The scenery is fantastic, the wildlife abundant (even more so in his day) and ranching here would certainly have provided the challenge he was looking for at that a time in his life.

For those who don't know TR's life story, the tragedy that drove him to seek hard work and solitude occurred when he was only 23, when his young wife died after giving birth to their first child. His mother died only a few hours later, in the same house. He was so distraught he left the baby with his sister to care for until he returned, and headed west. (A brief biography of Theodore Roosevelt can be found here)

We took a brief siesta in the afternoon, and when we awoke the beautiful sunny skies had been exchanged for Payne's gray - and some fantastic cloud forms. If I'd painted clouds like that no one would believe it.

A thunderstorm soon followed, so after enjoying the sounds and lightening show for awhile under the awning (fortunately Texas dogs are used to this sort of thing) we, and the dogs, all moved inside.
The North Unit album is here
We'll move on to the south unit of the park tomorrow.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

More Forts

Aug. 6 - Saturday
Wow - rough day of travel . . . 75 miles to our next stop!
From Malta we went east on highway 2 to Glascoe, then to nearby Fort Peck Lake.

The actual "fort" had quite a history. It was one of those forts that was originally a trading post. It served as an Indian agency from 1873- 1878, and then the agency was  moved to Poplar. The current, new, town of Fort Peck is about 2 miles from the original one. The new town has a very interesting theater, built many years ago, and several small businesses.

The visitor's center explains the history of the unique dam - an earth filled structure that was the largest project undertaken under the New Deal program.

Several men died during the construction phase, a sad story, and unfortunately not unique. Heavy construction is dangerous. There is a collection of memorials in a large parking area beside the road,  honoring those who died during construction of the dam.
There were approximately 60 deaths in all. This monument is remembering those who perished in an early phase when a huge mudslide buried several men and their equipment.

The lake is huge. This is the fifth largest "artificial lake" in the U.S.! and there are a variety of camping choices around the perimeter. We stayed at the West End campground, where electric is available but no water hook-ups. Electric but no water seems to be the standard in this land of harsh winters.

The visitor center is amazing. Though it explains a lot about the dam, the major emphasis seems to be on dinosaurs.

This whole area is rich with ancient fossil beds - and that includes dinosaurs. They have wonderful dioramas of dinosaurs skeletons, as well as more modern animals like buffalo and coyotes, set in natural surroundings. It's a great place to take the kids, and they have activity ideas and worksheets available to take home too.

We had fun watching the fish in the two demonstration tanks as well. It's the best visitor center we've seen so far this summer!

Aug 7-8
After driving for miles through flat land and wheat fields we arrived at Fort Buford, North Dakota, in the afternoon.

Steve's extensive Internet research had indicated there was a campground around here somewhere, but there weren't any signs that seemed to indicate such, so he inquired at a local office and we followed the directions, just past the fort buildings to what looked like a picnic area. No services, and no charge!
The camping area

Tables and trash barrels, fairly level parking places, and a beautiful view. The campground is bordered by the fort buildings, the cemetery (that's the white line to the right, in back of Steve), and the historic Masonic lodge site, so all are within walking distance. Who could ask for more?

We got set up, had supper and were enjoying the (constant) North Dakota breeze when a couple of other campers pulled in and got set up themselves.

We got to chatting later. One couple was from Buffalo, New York, (he a pediatrician and she a tour guide)   and the other outfit was two guys from "central North Dakota" (an electrician and an antique dealer) who had a goal of staying only on gravel roads to do their exploring. They got tired of being pounded though, so had finally settled for sticking to the more minor backroads and byways.  We had a lively time discussing everything under the sun, and then discovered everyone had similar taste in beer, and so a sampling session broke out. Travel stories, beer comparisons, tips for places to visit, and we all finally went to bed around midnight.

We took our tour of Fort Buford early Monday morning,
Fort Buford barracks
and our tour guide was a lively individual - he's also an actor who portrays several historic characters in local productions.  His knowledge of the history of the area, and the era was very helpful. The other docent took us around several of the outer buildings and her knowledge was  impressive too.

The fort has several restored buildings, most furnished with original or of-the-time period artifacts, and the perimeter of the original fort is fairly well defined.  Kitchen artifacts, cast iron stoves, lamps, china and tableware, even small oil lamps made of bent spoon are in the fort inventory. The items are displayed in the rooms just as they would have been in place when in use. There's a barracks with several cast iron heating stoves, the mess hall and kitchen, and outside, a powder magazine and officer of the guard building mark the far wall.  Much of the historic information is displayed in the officer's home, covering the residence of the Buffalo Soldiers, battles in the area, and much more.
One of the most famous historic events at this post was Sitting Bull's surrender of his rifle in  1881, after returning from Canada. The point was made that he surrendered his rifle, HE did not surrender, and he never signed a treaty.

The markers in the cemetery have been restored, and they tell fascinating, though brief, stories of those buried below. Actually, the military personnel who were buried here have been moved to a military cemetery, but the markers remain to tell the story. Children who died of disease, Indian scouts, Native Americans, all were buried here, side by side.

The fort's location, at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers was strategically important for the purposes of defending settlements, during the civil war Civil War, as the cash flow from these gold fields was important to the Union government at that time.

Off to one side there's a new building, with a sculpture of a horse, and several flags. It's a Masonic Lodge, and it has an interesting history. The lodge now combines #88, which was the first Masonic Lodge in the area, with #135, which was brought with the Buffalo Soldiers from Fort Apache, Arizona.

Today the masons take a continuing interest in this historic site, and here is an interesting footnote. . . . . 
 When the North Dakota masons held a rededication ceremony for the Yellowstone Lodge monument in 2010, descendants of the buffalo soldiers were invited and attended, too-uniting brothers who in historic times there had been segregated. From this website.

From Fort Buford it's only a few miles to Fort Union, which is right on the Montana/North Dakota border. This fort was a commercial enterprise, not a military post. In fact, a docent there told us they were there for "an entirely different purpose" and they know the fort sold clothing and ammunition to Sitting Bull in the years before he surrendered at Fort Benton.

They have "living history" docents, who are pretty good at staying in character.

This young man was sitting by a fragrant, smoking fireplace when we stepped into the room and he gave us a very interesting rundown on the inventory of the trading post and how the procedures worked.

The visitor center has a nice display of artifacts along with a well stocked bookstore.


On the way back to our campsite we stopped at the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center. The displays here tie together the military and economic importance of the two rivers, and connect to the work that the Lewis and Clark Expedition did as they moved across the Missouri to the west coast.

One of the things we've been impressed with is the importance of riverboats. Though river travel is always mentioned in the history of the era, the importance of these special, shallow draft boats isn't highlighted, as it should be. This is a model of the river boat that carried the wounded from Custer's ill-fated battle at Little Big Horn.

As we were leaving the interpretive center we decided to explore a gravel drive off to the side and discovered another campground. This one, right on the bank of the Missouri River, within sight of the confluence with the Yellowstone, has electric service available for $15/night. Non-electric sites are $10. Signage around here is pretty bad, and even when you ask directions, you get vague or incomplete information.

A few more photos in the album