Hiker’s Paradise

Harsh country, yet incredibly beautiful. These are the badlands of the North Dakota’s Little Missouri National Grassland; my first visit to America’s largest National Grassland.

Wandering across the grassy slope in the photo below, I spied three rocky peaks poking above the ridgeline. I decided to hike to the summit on the left…

Like so many other slices of North American wilderness that I’ve been fortunate enough to explore, roaming through this area is a sublime experience. Nothing is more rewarding to me than the opportunity to revel in the silence and solitude of the natural world.

You can follow this Vimeo link to watch a slow rotation atop the butte and enjoy the sweeping view of this amazing landscape. (Video duration is 40 seconds.)

Over one million acres of wild beauty…hiking opportunities to last a lifetime. I’m sure that I’ll return to LMNG again and again.

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The One on the Left

After a visit to the top of the butte featured in last week’s post, I continued to roam the dusty roads of Grand River National Grassland. About nine miles to the northwest, I found these scenic buttes in a quieter, more natural section of the grassland where there are no fences, no visible signs of farming or ranching. The butte on the left looked to be the tallest of the bunch, so I decided to visit that summit. Starting out from the Pontiac, I walked past the remains of a cottonwood tree that struggled for many years to survive in this arid land…

Gaining elevation quickly, climbing through the shade of the steep eastern slope…

Just about out of the butte’s shadow as I near the top…

View from the rocky summit. Some nice flat stone there, though I didn’t stand on it as it seemed rather unstable; note that you can look through that hollow area beneath the slab and see the grass down the slope…

You can follow this link to Vimeo and enjoy the scenery from two locations—the first part of the video was taken at road level and the second part shows the view from the top of the butte. (Video duration is 62 seconds.)

I imagine the darkness here is incredible. I definitely want to return to this desolate area and stay through the night, listening to the coyotes and enjoying the blazing stars.

Next week…a butte in North Dakota.

Road

I was delighted when my friend Olya invited me to participate in a project which features photographs taken by drivers and passengers as they explore the open road. She has completed work on the project and made it available for public viewing. I hope you will enjoy the images that were contributed by Cam, Victor, Anna, Ivan, Olya and me.

You can find Road online via this link. Be sure to view the PDF in full-screen mode for maximum enjoyment.

My thanks go out to Olya for all of her hard work, and to all of the other photographers. It’s nice to see road photos from other parts of the globe…places where my Pontiac will never take me.

Time to Climb

Perhaps having lived in flat farm country for so many decades is the reason I’m driven to climb every hill that I see. During October’s tour of nine National Grasslands, I’m happy to report that I ascended more buttes than on any previous fall excursion.

Despite numerous journeys through South Dakota over the years, there is one grassland that somehow escaped my notice until 2018—Grand River National Grassland in the northwestern corner of the state. Rolling northward through this grassland on a sunny autumn day, I came upon a nice hill very close to the road. I’m always happy to add another summit to my list, even if it’s an unnamed peak and an easy climb. So I turned left, parked on the shoulder and began my march to the top of this butte…

Butte? That’s what I call the many hills of this size and shape that are scattered across the Great Plains. True, they don’t resemble the classic vision of a butte—those towering red-rock formations with vertical sides and a flat top. Perhaps these buttes of the prairie are made of softer material and have eroded more quickly. Call them hills, call them peaks…I’m not looking for a debate on the topic. I’ll just say that many of these hills are labeled as buttes on maps, such as the Dog Ear Buttes, which I climbed in 2017, and White Butte, seen in the photo below, which lies just to the southwest of this summit. I’ll pay a visit to the top of White Butte on my next trip to the area…

As a special bonus to this ascent, I enjoyed a little western flavor while I hiked, watching a small cattle drive as it approached from the east. In this photo, the lead cowboy is well out front, just approaching my parked car. Behind him are twenty or so head of cattle, with the other two cowboys bringing up the rear. It was fun to watch them glide slowly and rather silently down the dusty road. No one stopped to sniff the Pontiac…

Near the butte’s summit, I was intrigued by this collection of large boulders; oddly round, rather brittle in nature and spotted with bright orange lichen. Have to wonder how these rocks got here…

You can follow this link to Vimeo and watch a slow 360° rotation atop the summit. (Video duration is 55 seconds.) This was only the first climb of the day; I’ll have more butte stories for you in the weeks ahead.

Ride

The windows open and the little girl dreams
The sky’s her playground as she mounts her steed
Across the heavens to the other side
On wings of magic does the little girl ride

Neil Young
“War of Man”

The Curious Owl

This is a story about those gifts that just fall into your lap every now and then. As I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t had nearly enough owl encounters for my taste. Since these sightings are so rare, I treasure each one and I recall the experiences quite clearly. Back in October, I was lucky enough to add two more to the list.

The first occurred on a hot and sunny day in a tiny prairie town in southwestern Kansas. I had stopped beneath a big shady tree in the town’s park just to give myself and the car a short rest. While reaching for my water bottle, my eye caught a sudden movement in the rearview mirror. A very large bird had leapt from a tree branch and was heading my way. I turned my face toward the sky as it zoomed directly above the Pontiac at low altitude and landed in another tree up ahead. One of the most impressive things about owls is how deadly silent they are in flight, even when they are skimming just above your head. This was a big beast…probably a great horned owl. Sorry, no photos of this event.

Jump ahead about two weeks to another sunny day in South Dakota’s Buffalo Gap National Grassland. I had dedicated the entire day to exploring some dusty roads east of the Black Hills. After parking at a remote intersection to enjoy a snack and the view and the silence, I heard a high-pitched barking noise directly behind me. Prairie dog? I turned to look past the trunk and spotted an adorable bird standing near the cattle guard, bobbing its head down and up with each squawk. A burrowing owl! My first such sighting, and a nice surprise.

Having never met Athene cunicularia before, I had no idea how bold or shy these birds could be. I certainly wanted to get some photos of this meeting, but I didn’t want to lose valuable seconds assembling the camera. So, I used the phone first to get some video; would’ve been disappointed had I missed the chance to record that voice. I slid out of the car carefully and was encouraged when the owl held its ground. After a few more barks, it jumped up and flew a tight circle around the Pontiac, just to return to the starting point and resume its barking and dancing.

You can watch that lap via this link to my Vimeo account. (Video duration is 58 seconds. You may want to boost your speaker volume to hear the owl’s call.)

As this owl evidently had no plans to leave soon, I then grabbed the DSLR and the big lens. The owl took another lap around the car, this time landing on an assortment of fence posts along the way. Certainly not a camera-shy creature; it seemed to be deliberately perching in great spots and posing like a pro. I’ve never had a more cooperative wild subject.

Perhaps this owl was curious about the Pontiac. Perhaps it wanted to be immortalized on the internet. More than likely, it was just annoyed; I think it wanted me to leave its nesting area. So I did. Thanks for the photos, little bird.