Captain’s Log: April 22nd, 2013 – The first day of 100 Miles of Wild

23 Apr


We wanted adventure, and we got it: ten miles through canyon country and 1,600 feet of elevation gain and loss over thawing snow and the region’s infamous gumbo made for tough (literal) sledding as our day of observation and data collection turned into one of urgency. Richard Rothaus and I were dropped at the boundary of the Little Missouri National Grasslands by Basecamp Manager Aaron Barth after asking a rancher for permission to drive in to our insertion point. The man looked at us as if we were crazy, and after the day of struggling to keep upright, we understood why.


Each day, Adventure Science teams walk part of the North Dakota Badlands Transect on routes prepared by Rothaus. Every hour, teams stop to record their surroundings, shooting one minute of video, panoramic photos, and to record ambient noise for one minute. Each team carries a notebook with pre-printed sheets to record time and location, plus a description of flora and fauna encountered in the past hour, natural features (geology, water, etc.), fossil or cultural resources, evidence of civilization, and a narrative of the wilderness experience.


In reviewing the notes from Day 1 of 100 Miles of Wild, Richard and I encountered a diversity of wildlife (and evidence of wildlife) and geology while learning quickly that even one mile in to the Badlands, there is definitely the sense that we were on our own. The day’s walk led us down a livestock path that winded around buttes and through a forest of cedar, snow gently falling in fat flakes. The farther in we got, the more the earth dropped away from us until we began navigating ridge lines as the canyons became complex, rugged, and steep. 


Whenever we stopped, the wind was the largest source of noise, but when it stopped, we could hear the faint sounds of truck traffic on U.S. 85, even though at no point could we see the highway until the very end of the day. The only elements of civilization we saw were water tanks for livestock and pack stock and the very beginning and very end of the walk. We also passed through one cattle gate next to Dry Creek about halfway through the day. We saw two propeller planes and heard at least two others, and one jet. The sky was mostly clear, and the air clean and often smelling of cedar and sage.


Everywhere we walked showed signs of use by animals. Deer and elk scat were frequent, and we saw their tracks, and those of rabbits. We did find fresh tracks of a mountain lion and her cub and photographed these, wary of being stalked, but no contact was made. Birds were rare, but once we got to Dry Creek we heard and saw a nuthatch. Later we saw (and heard) a golden eagle. As the afternoon grew late, we saw two mule deer foraging. The cold has kept the insects away; there were no mosquitos or other bugs to be seen.


We followed the first half of the planned route from canyon rim to creek bed, but by then the sun had thawed the snow and the gumbo underneath, making vertical travel to another ridge and plateau impossible. Gumbo is silt, and the Badlands are seemingly made of mountains of it that, when wet, turns into perilous mud-pits and sloughing slopes. There are no real rocks here for footing in our attempts to climb; the sage bushes do provide some anchoring, but do not making footing safe. 


Relegated to walking the creek bed, we constantly consulted maps and GPS to decide what creek forks to take, finding our way onto grassy benches or foot-thick ice atop sandstone ledges. Being limited to the bottoms, we were able to see distinct veins of coal as well as orange and tan layers in the cliff faces of the canyons. We stumbled upon head-sized nuggets of what looked to be hematite perched on weather-made pedestals of clay. The creek was brown with silt and mud, and we crossed it several times without getting wet. As the snow melts, the crossings will become more challenging. 


Throughout the first day, we felt as if we were the only people on Earth, alone, save the occasional aircraft and noise from trucks unseen. Navigating the canyons was the most challenging experience I’ve had in the backcountry since exploring Canyonlands in Utah over 20 years ago. The wilderness demanded our attention. It will be interesting to see if the feeling of isolation changes the farther south we get. 


We were relieved to see Aaron at the end of the day, the moon rising, and the sun a recent memory. It took ten hours to walk ten miles in that country. We now have 90 Miles of Wild to go.



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