When we last wrote, we were on our way to North Dakota. We spent one night each in the first two campgrounds, hopping across the state to get to Lewis & Clark country in the western half of the state. North Dakota is our first big, wild, western state. It is almost big enough to incorporate the landmass of all of New England, including Maine. And it is certainly wild, but I will get to many understandings of that later.
For all the openness of its plains and averaging just 14 inches of rain a year, North Dakota’s rivers offer remarkable contrasts. We camped in a cottonwood “forest” in the valley of the Turtle River on the eastern side of the state. The Civilian Conservation Corp built many of the stone structures there between 1934 and 1940. The hiking trails traversed bridges over intermittent streams, passed hillsides of wildflowers, crossed near marshes with rushes reaching for the open sky. It has been a wet spring so the ranger told us it was unusually green for this time of year. Just for us New Englanders, no doubt!
The master of all rivers in North Dakota is the Missouri, which has carved and influenced the shape of the land for millions of years and of the inhabitants for thousands of years. Our exploration of the Missouri was largely from the point of the Corps of Discovery. For them, it presented the major transportation route into the interior of the country that Lewis & Clark were engaged to explore. Records show that the Corps entered North Dakota via the Missouri, on October 14, 1804. They wintered along its banks at a place they built, called Fort Mandan, in honor of the native inhabitants of Knife River who provided invaluable assistance during the long winter. In April 1805, they camped at a place about a mile south of where we spent three days (Lewis and Clark State Park). Today, the river sits under the waters of the Lake Sakakawea but the buttes that the Corps noted in journals still stand and allow one to encounter the land from a similar perspective.
One late afternoon we journeyed to one of those places, Cliff Overlook. Below us, wide swatches of wetlands that wander near the reservoir of Lake Sakakawea now fill what had been the Missouri’s path. Because it is a “young” river, the river shifts widely based on snowfall, rain events, and ice jams so its location has changed in the past two hundred year since the Corps’ mappings were done. But we could still imagine what Lewis saw as he wrote about the herds of elk, deer, the birds, the abundance of life along the river. The next day we visited the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center, a state park located at the site, which the Corps first saw on April 26, 1805. These two major rivers meet at what was then a turbulent intersection of currents. Today, the intersection of the rivers is more placid and the Missouri has receded from its previous banks. We are told that the overlook of this entire area retains much of the same feel of what the Corps would have seen. It was a powerful place to visit for me.
The other formative influence of the Missouri had to do with his value as a conduit for trade. For a couple of centuries before the arrival of Lewis & Clark, French trappers and traders had navigated the rivers. Eventually, the natural resources of the upper Missouri became more widely known and attracted investors. We visited a reconstructed version of one of these posts, Fort Union, built as a trading post about two dozen years after the Corps came through. In 1828, John Jacob Astor and his American Fur Company established Fort Union in order to control the fur trade on the upper Missouri. He later sold his interests to the French trader, Pierre Chouteau, Jr. who came up to Fort Union in 1832 on the first steamboat to complete the 1,800-mile trip from St. Louis.
Fort Union represented a brief, 40-year snapshot in time where there was roughly a balance between the native peoples and the European fur traders. Each side realized the other had items to trade that could be of benefit. The natives traded their buffalo robes, beaver pelts, and other furs for the guns, pots, beads, knives, blankets, woven cloth they considered to be of value. The trading sessions at the Fort were ceremonial in nature. They consisted of sharing gifts, smoking together, making speeches, providing updates, and sharing a meal before the business part of the meeting began.
It was not unusual for this ceremonial time to take upwards of six hours and it was all done through interpreters fluent in the language of the chief who was visiting that day. One interesting detail we learned is that the economic exchanges soon became social as the men at Fort Union intermarried with the daughters of some of the local chiefs thereby enriching the trade ties and building trust. Fort Union was a very busy place. In 1851, the American Fur Company received over 100,000 buffalo robes and when nine buffalo robes equaled one gun, one can anticipate the way this economic engine was about to irrevocably shift the dynamic on the upper Missouri.
The Fort, which was dismantled in 1867, has been rebuilt by the National Park Service using the well-preserved construction documents from the 1830s and sits as an accurate reminder of this important period. It is only one of two reconstructed forts in the Park system that actually sits on its original site.
We also explored one of North Dakota’s other wild treasures, the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Last year we visited the South Unit and heard of the wonders of the North: a more quiet park; expanses of North Dakota Badlands; a healthy bison herd; a small herd of bighorn sheep; and Texas longhorns. The drive was about 1.5 hours from our campground straight south, running parallel to the Montana border. The major dynamics that carved out the Badlands were wind, erosion and the Little Missouri River, which meanders through this broad open valley with the easy motion of a metronome.
We followed the scenic park road to the Oxbow Overlook and ate our picnic lunch with only two other cars of visitors showing up. Wow. On our way back out, we came across one part of the bison herd, very close to the road, munching tall grass under cottonwoods. They appeared to us to be leaner and darker in color from their Yellowstone and Grand Teton cousins, but still commanding of respect.
About five miles later, we spotted the Texas longhorns wandering with the lazy amble of big guys out for a stroll on a hot day. We stopped to take photos. As I turned to get back in the truck, I looked straight across the road at the nearby bluff and there on the bluff, lined up like a well-organized scout troop, was the small herd of bighorn sheep. The trifecta of wild animal sightings complete, we headed back north to our little campground.
And the final example of the wild that is North Dakota is the latest oil boom and what it looks like to a visitor. First, the town of Williston is filled with new buildings – new stores, new houses, new temporary housing, new schools, a new hospital, new company headquarters – all tied to the most recent boom in oil drilling which began here in 2008. Peter learned the following details from talking to a few of the locals at one of the AA meetings he attended in town.
Up until 2007 (for about 50 years or so) there had been oil drilling going on. The geological indicators were all there (huge expanses of a formerly tropical climate which sat under an ocean floor for millions of years and which prospectors knew held rich oil fields). And then, with the development of new drilling technology around 2007, (horizontal drilling and fracking) one company started experimental drilling in the area. The rich deposits of the Bakken formation (which is estimated to cover 200,000 square miles and with oil resting about 10,000 feet below the surface of parts of North Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) became widely accessible. It changed the community completely.
Farmers who had retained the mineral rights to their lands found themselves making tens of thousands of dollars a month. Descendants of the homesteaders who had come here in the late 1890s now reaped incredible profits from the oil that lay below the surface of their homesteader holdings. By 2014 North Dakota had jumped to #2 after Texas in production.
The new well drilling activity has recently slowed down because of the drop in the price of oil and has had a stabilizing effect on the economy. The capacity of the Bakken formation continues to hold promise and when the price of oil rises again, it is anticipated that this area will again inflate, like a balloon filled with air, with the influx of people tied to the extraction of oil.
What does it feel like to be in a community like this? It feels fast, young, tough, opportunistic, hopeful, full-of-possibility, and above all, temporary. Years ago, we visited friends who lived in Wright, Wyoming where a coal mine called Black Thunder had taken over the area. There was immense prosperity and the young 30-something workers lived in new company housing. They had new Harley-Davidsons, powerboats, jet skis, big screen-TVs, and big trucks. We spent one day visiting with a couple whose kids went to the state-of-the-art school where teachers were paid a very good salary to come out there to teach. They miners knew how fortunate they were and they were living completely in the now. I often wonder what their lives are like now, twenty years later. And I wonder what this part of North Dakota will look like, going forward. We don’t get to see that, nor do we get to have the answer. The crystal ball is not an option for us. So we observe and we pay attention and we try to listen. And the pilgrimage and the inquiry and the wonder continues here along the shore of the wide Missouri.
Peter and Liz head north to Canada now for the next two weeks as their pilgrimage to here takes them to Saskatchewan and Alberta (where they visit the National Parks of Jasper and Banff) in their Airstream.