Saturday, August 16, 2014

North Country Redux: Wind Canyon and smoking ground

July 24 2014

The van is tucked into the campsite there on the left. Overnight rains have cooled things down for a while.
Those clouds hanging around last night did finally sweep through as thunderstorms around 2 this morning. Wanting to take advantage of the temporary cool (Forecast for the day doesn't sound good on the temperature side.) I was up and moving early.

The Roosevelt National Forest South unit has a 25 mile road looping through the rugged valleys and meadows that is suitable for just about anything you might be driving. Normally it's paved but this season large stretches of it are dirt and you have to dodge construction equipment as the road is being upgraded/replaced. And I do mean dirt! Add last night's rains and you have a royal mess that's going to take more than a casual run through the car wash to clean up!

I was out on the loop early, headed for my first hike of the day at Wind Canyon, but first I had to contend with some very confused poults, turkey chicks; as in the baby kind of chick, not the bodaciously babalicous kind of chick. Mom and dad knew to trot on into the ditch, but the little ones kind of milled around, then half panicked, ran one way, then another, neither of which was going to get them off the road, before one of the adults put themselves back in harms way and herded the clueless brood into the weeds.

The land around here was used for free-range cattle grazing

until the depression when it was turned over to the National Park service.

Interspersed among the rugged hills are lush meadows.

I wonder if the rain might explain why the prairie dogs were staying in this morning?? After all, they do lack oposable thumbs with which to hold the umbrella. . .

Wind Canyon is small but rugged.

Apparently it has been carved more by winds than by water, hence the name,

and is perched on the bank above the Little Missouri River

Back in the cattle days ranchers would drive cattle to meadows near the river such as this where they could camp while going about the business of sorting who owned what and branding the calves.

 "I grow fond of this place, and it certainly has a desolate, grim beauty of its own, that has a curious fascination for me."  Theodore Roosevelt

In order to protect the soft sandstones of the canyon itself, the trail doesn't actually enter the canyon but is a fairly easy loop that passes near the rim and along the riverbank with multiple opportunities for great views, though there are some steep but short ups and downs to negotiate.

As I continued around the loop, blissfully traffic free at this hour, I kept seeing solitary bison stuck into little corners here and there as they grazed. (And I had to dodge a few of their speed-bump sized deposits left right in the middle of the road !) I don't know if that's normal around here for these animals that usually present herding instincts or if I was seeing solitary bulls. I supposed I could have gotten out and asked this one who apparently plopped down mid-graze within a few feet of the road for a nap, but I decided that probably wasn't a good idea.

The South Unit is cross-crossed with longish trails and dotted with short ones. After partaking of several of these; like pacing myself at a potluck dinner, just a little of each; including driving up a 1 mile dirt track, the last quarter mile of which was a serious scramble uphill on something that could barely be called a road at the best of times and wasn't improved at all by last night's rains, to get to the Buck Hill trail head for a short hike to the highest point in the park,

I eventually ended up here at the Coal Vein Trail.

That's the van sitting there in the center on the horizon, in between me and there is a large depression that didn't exist until after the 1950's. In 1951 a lightning strike set a coal vein on fire and it burned for 26 years, during which some of the now unsupported land above it slumped.

Things like that have been going on around here for nearly 10,000 years with some of the fires burning for centuries. That thin, dark, dotted line just below the vegetation on the hill up there is a vein of coal.

Oil comes from deposits of sea creatures and coal comes from deposits left behind by swamps, mostly the remains of plants. Peat is the first stage of coal formation, then lignite, bituminous and finally anthracite. At each stage more and more impurities have been squeezed and cooked out, eventually leaving behind almost pure carbon. That's why peat smokes a lot and anthracite not very much. This is lignite coal here so when the vein was burning it produced a fair amount of smoke that seeped up out of the ground over wide areas.

But before there were swamp-lands around here distant volcanoes were coating the land with ash. Some of the ash eventually transformed under pressure and heat into a type of clay called bentonite. Some of which has washed down and collected here. Bentonite is very fine grained and when wet is extremely slippery stuff. (Just what you need right there in the middle of the trail!!) Apparently this slipperiness is pretty useful and bentonite can be found in over 1000 products, including candy bars and toothpaste!

Hey! don't blame me, I'm just repeating what the trail-guide says!!

You can't tell from this photo, but these Junipers are clustered on the north slopes of the hills.

Apparently they do that because the north slopes provide protection from the all-to-common 100+ degree summer days!! Crap!! I really didn't need to hear something like that just as I'm starting to sweat in earnest out here under the sun. . .

That's right, sometimes life's a bitch and you get your panties all in a twist!

As these coal veins burn, the stuff deposited over them gets cooked,

and just like firing clay in a kiln, sometimes you get a pottery-like stuff commonly called scoria.

Sometimes you get a lot of scoria! Which, being hard, weathers slowly and contributes greatly to the overall ruggedness of the land, hence the term badlands.

By the time I finished the Coal Vein Trail someone had clearly opened the gates and I had to wait for a string of cars and two tour buses, to get out of the way before I could turn off the side road and back onto the main loop. But my timing was good. I had pretty much covered what I intended and it was time to move on.

But moving on was a chore. The drive down US85 towards the Black Hills in South Dakota was grueling.

Part of that was the wind, a 30 or 40 mile per hour wind out of the east according to the weather guy. And out here you can see east all the way to Minnesota so there's nothing to stop that wind! This meant that the endless line of dump trucks heading north (Remember, there's an oil boom going on with lots of construction around.) were passing at a closing speed of about 120 miles per hour just a couple feet upwind of me, and very few of them had properly secured loads. Every time one went by it was like getting sand-blasted. I even passed one that hadn't bothered to fully close the dump doors in the bottom of the trailer and was charging up the road spewing a blinding cloud of dust and rock!

I kept hoping to get south of whatever pit they were getting their loads from, after all, it's not very economical to haul gravel any farther than you have to and there are certainly plenty of places out here to get the stuff out of the ground, but by the time that finally happened I was hitting the first of three separate major road resurfacing projects.

When some new city-person moves in around where we live and pitches a fit, if they pitch loud enough, the county will come along and seal-coat a perfectly good gravel road. (Basically seal coating is simply mixing gravel into a vat of tar and dumping it on the road.) That's not too bad because slowing to a crawl so you don't kick the sticky tared gravel up at passing vehicles on very lightly traveled roads like ours is no big deal, and eventually the tar stiffens and isn't sticky anymore.

But apparently out here in the Dakota's they think it's perfectly acceptable to seal coat major, highly traveled roads. As I approached the second of these projects and prepared to stop and wait in line for the one-lane road to eventually be going my way, a guy came down the line handing out leaflets informing everyone that seal coating can often cause damage to vehicles and consideration of an alternate route might be in order. Every time I hear that part in Harry Chapin's song 'Mr. Tanner' where the music critics tell Mr. Tanner that 'full time consideration of another endeavor might be in order' my heart sinks for him. And it briefly sank when I read those words on the leaflet being passed out, but only briefly.

This had to be a joke! It took me half the day to get to where I was and the only alternative route was to go back to where I started, then go all the way back east of Bismark or west to Billings and try again. Yeah right!! Like that's going to happen!

You see, there's a lot of open land out here, not very many people, and a limited number of roads. And most of those roads are the kind you have to zoom way in on your Garmin before they even show up on the screen. And of course the construction outfit knew all that and was just covering their butts by passing out their little bits of future litter.

Which brings up something else. (I'm referring back to that 'lots of land, not very many people' comment. Come on! try to keep up!!) All through the Dakota's I've been looking at hay bales. Not the those puny little square bales, I'm talking about the big round bales. They even bale the sides of the freeway out here. For two days now, at any given point I could look around and see a hundred or more bales just sitting out there on the hillsides. Drive for a while and you've seen thousands of these things. Thing is, in all that time I never once saw any baling actually being done. No cutting, no raking, no baling. It's as if those bales just sprout up out of the ground on their own!

During that long drive south, between construction zones 2 & 3, I went through Amidon. Until unseated (You'll get the pun there in a moment.) by some 'town' in Nebraska during the 2010 census, Amidon claimed to be the smallest incorporated county seat in the US with a population of 17!

There was a wide spot in the road that used to be the parking lot of a small business of some sort (The building seems to have fallen down now but there was a new building being built right across the road so the town isn't dead yet!) so I just had to pull over and check it out!

From where I stopped, with no more effort than a little neck swiveling, I could see the whole town, including the county sheriff parked off in the weeds just in front of me. But instead of watching for drivers breaking the 25 MPH speed limit which interrupts the 65 MPH speed limit for a whole couple hundred yards, I think he was actually sleeping! Either that or there was something very interesting up there on the headliner that he was looking at.

 The Supreme Court says that I'm perfectly within my rights to photograph or record public officials going about their public duties, but after exercising Supreme Court sanctioned activity that got me 'detained' for two hours once at one of those so-called internal border control check stations plopped down right on top of our constitutional rights miles from any border, I'm a little gun shy and left the camera alone.

Tonight I'm sitting here in Spearfish South Dakota on the northern edge of the Black Hills. As I was pulling into town the thermometer was reading 105 and there was no way I was going another night without power to run the air conditioner, so me and the van, now slightly battle scared with a cracked windshield, (Remember that truck with the partially closed dump door?? It wasn't him, it was the car following him.) are in the Spearfish City Campground for the night.

This is a gem of a campground within a few blocks of shopping, laundry and eateries (And a few drinkeries) in the heart of town.

Spearfish Creek is bubbling by just out in front of my site. In fact, if you aren't careful how you roll out the door at some of the tent sites you risk going for a swim! And I'm not talking abut a sluggish little muddy ditch. This is a rocky bottomed, fast moving, bubbly creek that would take two good jumps to get across.

The far bank is 20 or 30 feet high with houses perched up there on top and a walking, jogging, riding path weaves back and forth from one side to the other of the creek with nice fancy bridges where it crosses.


The sun is down and the temperatures are going to start dropping soon, so now I'm going to kick back with a book and try to recover from the trauma of a cracked windshield. (The van is taking it very well; me - not so much. . .)


  1. I didn't see any other way to send an email, so I'll comment on this latest post. I just found your blog(s) tonight, did some spot reading. Very good blogs...enjoyable to read. I've add you to my list and look forward to reading about your travels.

    1. Ah, so you're my follower!! I knew I'd get one eventually, maybe. . .

      Thanks for the kind words.

      Good luck on your search for the right RV. I imagine traveling with three dogs is a challenge. (But then my Mom & Dad traveled with three kids and a dog!! and much of that in an old canvas tent that weighed more than two of us kids combined and took up half the trunk. Oh man! better them than me!!!)

      As a relatively new unemployed layabout I too have to push back from the laptop and kick myself into gear once in a while, but then I figure if I did it every day it wouldn't feel so good when I did eventually get up off my butt.