I'd never been to North Dakota, but I'm always looking to travel to new places. Sometimes you just need a reason to get in your car and make a road trip to some random new place.
My friends in Banff love to mountain bike and also love to explore random strange places. My buddy Dave had been not once, but twice to ride the Maah-Daah-Hey Trail and it sounded awesome. Just knowing that Dave had enjoyed this trail enough to come back for a 3rd time, said a lot. He described it as "100 Miles of prime single track in Prairie Badlands". When Dave said he was planning another trip, I just had to say, "Yes Please!" We committed to this trip way back in January.
Our friends took care of everything, and all we had to do was show up. As well as Dave and Brenda, Keith was keen to ride this trail and we recruited Jill, Angela and Michelle to come along for the fun. Rounding up the group, was photographer Ryan Creary and busband and wife Sharon and Percy Woods who were taking their first vacation together in 7 years without the kids. Needless to say, they were full of joy and good energy.
The Maah-Daah-Hey trail is a point-to-point with 3 campgrounds perfectly positioned along the 100 Miles of trail. The good folks at Medora Cyclery offer a shuttle service, where they magically transfer all of your car camping gear, food and water from location to location. All you have to do is ride - or run, in my case.
Upon arriving in North Dakota, we couldn't help but notice the standing water in all of the fields. All of the creeks and rivers we saw while driving, were raging and we had heard reports of flooding. We knew that there was a chance that our trip might be a bust - and we might not even be able start. In the Badlands, severe weather and rains can cause flash floods and turn the bentonite soil into un-rideable cement. Or sticky clay. The owner of the Dakota Cyclery had reported a major weather event that had just happened 2 days prior. She described it as "the biggest deluge I've ever seen". Only 2 weeks earlier, a spring blizzard had dropped 14 inches of snow in the area, with windgusts knocking down power poles like match sticks. The normally dry earth of the North Dakota Badlands was clearly saturated. This was going to be an adventure.
Fortunately, everyone decided that we were up for the adventure and were flexible with the logistics of where and what we were going to ride/run. In the end, we had to completely rearrange our trip plan, starting from town rather than the north end of the trail, and set up an extra shuttle to ferry everyone around the reportedly uncrossable (10 feet deep and rising) Little Missouri River.
The Little Missouri
On our first day, Angela and I were stoked to be running across Theodore Roosevelt National Park while the cyclists had to take another trail around the Park. Before heading off down the trail - we consulted with the National Parks Office for some advice. Unfortunately, it was abundantly clear that nobody had actually been out on the trail since the deluge or had any idea of what kind of shape the trail might be in. The only advice that was offered up was "Watch out for Buffalo!" Whaaat?!? Buffalo?!
With that, we started down the trail on a cool, overcast day - under an immense prairie sky. As we started along what remained of the shoreline trail of the Little Missouri, it became clear that there had indeed been a major weather event. The shoe-sucking-mud had rendered this portion of the trail slippery slide-y and largely un-runnable. As well, there had been casualties in this storm and maybe from the harsh winter, but we happened upon 5 different dead things, in various stages of decay. Yuck! When we eventually climbed out of the river valley, the trail started to firm up - sort of. One moment it would be runnable and the next, treacherously slippery.
Further along the trail, there were more signs of the Earth Moving. Giant sinkholes appeared in the earth, swallowing huge sections of trail. Along the cliff sides, it was erosion in action: there were landslides of wet cement-like clay and shoe sucking mud. This storm had done some major damage - the earth was moving in new and wondrous ways throughout the badlands of North Dakota.
Only a few miles in to our adventure, Angela stops dead in her tracks and I almost run into her. "It's a furry rock" she says, in a quiet voice. And sure enough, there's a big rock next to the trail and behind it, is a silhouette of brown fur. And then, this giant Buffalo raised its head and looks at us. I'm not sure I would have even noticed myself, but the Buffalo was snoozing behind this rock - not 10 feet from where we were about to run by. Hearts pounding, we quietly retreated to the protection of some rocks and then scrambled across a newly eroded landslide to avoid him.
Just Call Me Mr. Buffalo
Below, you can see the ribbon of trail coming in from the right, passing right by Mr. Buffalo. I'm so glad Angela was paying attention. That encounter got us right fired up and flying down the trail!
We had only been running and hour and change when we hit this flooding creek and promptly lost the trail. Up until that point, the trail had been really well marked - but maybe the storm and the creek had washed away the marker. The creek was a slimy abyss of clay and brown sludge, that threatened to suck off my Hoka's. My gators were awesome to keep most of the sludge out of my shoes. The water was running thigh deep and the mud was thick, black and slippery.
In the end, we probably spent close to 2 hours wallowing through mud and creeks looking for the trail. Angela spotted our first snake - coiled in a pile of Buffalo shit. During all of this, we got cold, frustrated and grouchy. I fell on my ass a couple of times in the mud, while Angela somehow miraculously remained upright. It was pretty funny. My ass actually slapped when I hit the mud and I left a huge Ass-Print in the earth.
Cold and Muddy
On our trip up the Lone Pine trail, we also came across 2 huge and beautiful horses. Only later did I realize that they were wild - I belatedly read about there being wild horses in the national parks brochure after the fact.
When we finally found the trail, an un-marked ribbon winding it's way up the hillside - we were keen to get Going, Moving, In motion! Plus, I was c-c-cold. We motored up and out of the badlands, walking and running with purpose. In the process, we scared a few deers out of the bushes. They gazed down at us, alert, before disappearing into the skyline. The North Dakota Badlands are also home to a healthy population of coyotes, cougars and antelope.
When we reached the top, we were greeted by a big, wide, empty, flat Prairie. Last years prairie grasses swayed in the wind and the fields were beginning to come alive with green foliage exploding from the earth. The prairie flowers weren't out in all of their glory just yet - we saw only a few small clusters of Prairie Crocus and Buffalo Berry. Mostly, there were large clusters of white Moss Phlox and Dandelions in bloom.
From the flats of the prairies, the landscape cut sharply down the the Badlands. It was like a mini Grand Canyon. It was also immense, and beautiful and rugged and wild. I felt a sense of wonder at the size, scope and vastness of this place. I get a similar feeling when I'm in the mountains here in Banff. The feeling of being just a speck on the landscape of a big wild wonderful world.
As well as the amazing landscape, the Prairie sky was incredible. The Cirrus clouds were thin and wispy and being blown by high winds into long streamers. Although our day started out with a dark foreboding sky, eventually it evolved into a beautiful day. There's just something about a prairie sky.
After finally finding our stride on the flats of the Prairies, we chewed through some miles. While we were cruising along the flats, I spotted a whole herd of Buffalo grazing off in the distance of the badlands.
At least, I thought they were off in the distance when we spotted this guy - clearly a Rebel - right in the middle of the trail. He was easy to avoid, but as you can see - we were highly vulnerable with no place to hide on the flat Prairies. Eventually, he deemed us insignificant - and returned to his grazing.
Where Buffalo Roam
When we finally arrived at camp, everyone was already relaxing - albeit bundled up in their puffy down jackets with toques on. We were covered in mud, filthy beyond words and happy to be done our first day. We had enjoyed quite the day of Adventure. It was only Day 1 and we were covered in grime with no creek to bathe in. Plus, it was cold. I decided that the best way to "recover" was to dive in to the appetizers that were rapidly appearing on the picnic table. There would be no stretching of warm muscles, no soak in a clear cold creek and most definitely, no bathing. However, there would be lots and LOTS of good tasty food, great company and an amazing prairie sunset to conclude our first day on the trail.
I think this mountain girl is in love with the prairies.
Photo stolen from Jills blog.