Under the torture
Of 47 degrees below
The air of McKenzie County
As the soul
The North Dakota poet Paul Southworth Bliss stopped his car beside the Little Missouri River on a cold January day in 1935 and wrote those words as the first verse of a poem called “Blue Heaven.”
It was considerably warmer on December 23, 2016, when we stopped our car beside the river, not far from where Bliss wrote that marvelous verse, and settled on
a campsite for our annual winter campout in the North Dakota Badlands. There are plenty of places to sleep beside the Little Missouri River—if you don’t mind sleeping on the ground. The Little Missouri is 560 miles long, from its start near Devils Tower in Wyoming (just west of the Missouri Buttes) to where it flows—well, most of the year, it just trickles—into Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota.
We’ve driven the length of the river and hiked a good bit of it, partly out of fascination with the fact that the river rises in Crook County, Wyoming, and passes through
the village of Camp Crook, South Dakota, both named for General George Crook of the famed American Indian Wars. The general may or may not be a distant relative of Lillian’s—we’re still seeking that out.
In all that distance, there are just a handful of places with mattresses to rent for an overnight stay. But to really get to know the Little Missouri River valley and the magnificent Badlands it has carved over millions of years, you have to float it in a canoe or a kayak, or roll up your pant legs and hike it. And then, at the end of a long day, you need to find a place to lay your head.
We’ve spent a lot of nights sleeping within spitting distance of the Little Missouri River. Some nights (and some months) were better than others. We’ve slept there by ourselves, and together, and with hiking or canoeing friends. We’ve slept there with kids, with dogs, with a herd of bison trampling through our campsite, with coyotes howling, with a full moon and a new moon.
We’ve slept on bare ground with nothing above us but stars, and we’ve slept in a tent, in a camper, on top of our sleeping bag on hot summer nights, and buried under layers of blankets on cold winter nights. We’ve slept there in howling winds, and on nights when just the slightest breeze rustled the cottonwood leaves above us. We’ve slept there sober and not so sober, with aching legs exhausted from bushwhacking through the Badlands all day, and with arms so tired from paddling into the wind we can hardly raise ourselves in the middle of the night to answer nature’s call. We’ve slept on the west bank, the east bank, and on islands in the middle of the river.
And every one of those nights was better than any night sleeping indoors.
Most of the river valley is still the wild, wild West; primitive, with the only signs of civilization being second, third, and fourth generation ranches and rough gravel crossings their owners use during low water to make hay in summer and feed it to their cows in winter.
On that December night in 2016, we slept about twenty-five feet from the frozen Little Missouri River snuggled under layers of down sleeping bags, with warnings of the “blizzard of the year approaching” ringing in our ears. Turns out it was one of the best nights of our lives.
We were on the tail end of a three-day, pre-Christmas Badlands getaway, something we try to do every year but don’t always achieve. The day before, we had explored the “Grand Canyon of the Little Missouri River” in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where the ranger told us, when we stopped at the visitor center, we were Visitors Number 6 and 7 to the park that day. Except for the small herd of bison that created a temporary traffic jam on the park’s scenic drive (luckily for us, we were able to make it all the way to the Oxbow Overlook, above the deepest canyon on the river), we pretty much had that stretch of the Badlands to ourselves. After watching the sun set over the snow-covered river valley, we headed for, appropriately, the Roosevelt Inn in Watford City, about fifteen miles north of the river, for the night. The Inn’s owners have turned the place into more than just a comfortable motel—it is a great Theodore Roosevelt museum unto itself, with hundreds of photos, documents, and artifacts lining the walls. We spent more than an hour looking at the display before supper at Outlaws’ Bar and Grill in downtown Watford City, a great small-town restaurant whose menu includes a fifty-four-ounce “long-bone ribeye steak” (“allow 45 minutes for cooking,” the menu says).
We awoke early the next morning and wandered back roads to Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, now a small island unit of a national park in a vast sea of grasslands, some thirty miles south of Watford City. We spent the daylight hours setting up camp, hiking, reading, gathering firewood, snacking, taking pictures, and just absorbing the Badlands and letting them absorb us, the sky as blue as blue can get, the ground covered with a blindingly white blanket of snow, about six inches deep, decorated by meandering tracks of river-bottom deer and the uneven pattern of jackrabbit tracks heading toward the tasty bark of creekside willows.
In all the hours we were there, about the only sounds we heard were a rancher feeding cattle with his loader late in the afternoon, the crunch of snow and ice underfoot, a few black-capped chickadees, and a lone Townsend’s solitaire. Winter birds were scarce, perhaps already hunkering down as the barometer dropped in advance of the storm.
We had hoped to see a shrike, a bird Lillian, the birding expert, pointed out on our first winter visit there together almost fifteen years ago. The shrike that flew by us that day, Lillian explained, was probably looking for a field mouse that it would impale on a barbed-wire fence or a sharp twig in one of the ancient junipers as a sort of “cache,” to which it could return again and again for small bits of flesh to sustain it on cold winter nights.
No such luck on this trip. We had to settle for spotting some crows (a distant shrike relative), a few flocks of sharptails, and two golden eagles floating high above us on thermals, looking for their own food source, perhaps one of those jackrabbits leaving tracks in the snow.
After setting up camp on the frozen Little Missouri riverbank, we enjoyed a short sliding hike on the snow-covered river before parting company—Jim to gather firewood, and Lillian to clear her mind and sink deep into the soul-refreshing place she’s called the “center of her universe” since her childhood days on the family ranch on Deep Creek, a Little Missouri tributary a hundred or so miles south of our campsite. She had her ski poles and a fierce determination to trust her instincts in a landscape she knows well. She reconnoitered a well-known river crossing where we could make our exit the next morning, all the while “reading the secret language of snow” (as described in the children’s book by our friend Terry Tempest Williams) and staying on the move to keep warm on a cold and short North Dakota winter solstice day.
Firewood gathered (not enough, as it turned out later, leading to an early bedtime as the fire ebbed), Jim sat down with a small glass of wine and his book of choice for the trip, Bernd Heinrich’s Ravens in Winter. The temperature hovered just below freezing with no wind, making it wonderfully comfortable for an hour of reading as the sun sank slowly toward the Badlands skyline, and lengthening shadows danced on the snow-dusted buttes across the river.
Heinrich’s book is a delight, even though you’ll seldom see one of his ravens in western North Dakota—their first cousins, the crows, will have to do—and any Dakotan with Scandinavian roots will love how he reminds us Norsemen in his introduction that, according to Nordic legend, Odin, the lord of the gods, kept a pair of ravens perched on his shoulders. “ They were Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory),” Heinrich wrote, “and he sent them out at dawn to reconnoiter the ends of the earth. At night they returned and whispered into his ear the secrets they had learned . . . Odin, with his universal knowledge, then advised the other Norse gods.”
Just as the sun was about to slip below the Badlands horizon, Lillian returned with her own secrets, including a tale of a chance encounter with the rancher and his hired hands out feeding cows, who must have wondered what on God’s green (now white) earth would a woman be doing out walking alone in the Badlands in the middle of no damn place, in the dead of winter. To make sure she was okay, the rancher stopped by our campsite on his four-wheeler just before dark, a nice, friendly North Dakota gesture.
Supper was some second-time-around thick soup, enough when reheated on our Coleman stove for two bowls each, with breadsticks for dipping, and wine for washing it down. There was no finer meal served nor appreciated anywhere in North Dakota that night.
The bed Lillian had made for us consisted of four self-inflating air mattresses, two atop two more, covered by a heavy cloth summer sleeping bag for a bottom bedsheet, and for our covers, two winter sleeping bags providing about six inches of down cover against the cold of the night, which turned out to be only in the low teens.
We slept like babies, but at 5 a.m., Lillian decided she simply could not lie there any longer, wanting to get up and see what the day in the Badlands—indeed, Christmas Eve Day—was to bring us. It first brought us hot coffee, which should have cleared both our heads and the sky above us, but it turned out a heavy ice-fog—precursor to the coming storm—had moved into the valley of the Little Missouri River, and it followed us all the way to town, where we had a hot breakfast.
We hesitate to end the story of this great trip on a sour note, but we’d be remiss if we left you thinking all was rosy in the Badlands that day. There are many threats to our Badlands, and on Christmas Eve Day 2016 the sky just north of Theodore Roosevelt National Park was blackened by a huge plume of thick, dark smoke, coming from the site where the Belle Fourche Pipeline Company had recently spilled nearly 200,000 gallons of crude oil into Ash Coulee Creek, a tributary of the Little Missouri. We drove toward it and found the smoke was from the cleanup of the spill—they had set the land and the creek afire, as their way of removing the oil that had not already sunk into the ground or been trapped beneath the ice.
It was an ignominious end to what had been an otherwise marvelous pre-Christmas adventure, and as we sat atop the hill above burning Ash Coulee Creek, watching the most unlikely, almost unearthly, of all possible scenes spread out before us, we were reminded of the words of the great Roosevelt himself, who delivered these words at the 1908 Governors’ Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources:
We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources, and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.
What would Roosevelt think, we wondered, if he were here to witness this scene? What would he think of us, as Americans, for letting it come to this? We have not done as he instructed. It was evident, watching the black smoke of this massive environmental blunder rise before us, that we had not “inquired seriously.”
And it’s not just the Belle Fourche Pipeline Company’s spill into the Little Missouri’s tributary. It’s a gravel mine across the river from Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch. It’s the proposed bridge bringing clouds of dust from a thousand trucks a day, just downstream and within earshot of that ranch. It’s the proposed oil refinery just a couple miles from the boundary of the national park dedicated to him because of his conservation efforts.
In the glow of a long-ago sunset, on the porch of that Elkhorn Ranch cabin on the Little Missouri River’s bank, the young man who would one day become our greatest conservation president wrote in his notebook, “We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.”
Well, we’ve got some work to do, each of us, to do our part, to show that we are indeed worthy of our good fortune. Maybe, if we start right now, it’s not too late.
JIM FUGLIE and LILLIAN CROOK both grew up in southwest North Dakota. Fuglie is a former North Dakota Tourism Division director and Crook a retired academic librarian at Dickinson State University. They are retired and live in Bismarck. More about their work is available at redoakhouse.com.