by Clell Gannon
Land of a thousand voices
WildDakotaWoman will be on hiatus until sometime in 2023.
|Front page. Note the INSANE FARM MAN CAUSES EXCITEMENT just below the pig story.|
When I was a kid in Slope County, the rattlesnakes on our place were abundant. The snakes slithered their way from the den on the rocky hills surrounding our place to Deep Creek, back and forth, on a route that frequently took them through our yard. My late mother could kill rattlesnakes with the best of them. Mother kept a hoe in the trunk of her car and on the ready near the doors of the farmhouse. I have many memories of her slicing rattlesnakes into bits. I also watched her sister, Junette, kill a few rattlers with particular fury. My father and his brother, who was visiting from Mississippi sometime in the early 1950s, got the bright idea of catching rattlesnakes, dumping them into gunny snakes, putting them into the car, and driving to Reptile Gardens in the Black Hills to sell them for extra cash. My uncle and my mother told many true stories about the racket those snakes would make in the car. My mother was terrified that her children and grandchildren would be bitten by the rattlesnakes as we roamed about the Slope County place. We certainly encountered many, but, by some miracle, none of us were bitten. Mother also kept geese for a time, because she knew that the geese would fight off the snakes. Once, Mother looked out to see her grandson on the swing in the yard and below him was a snake. She went out there and scooped him up and all was well. My mother was a nurse at the Bowman Hospital and one fall a man was brought in who had reached into his combine to clear out a clog and been bitten by a rattler. He almost lost his arm. When we baled hay, my father would dump the loose hay with the farmhand into the trailer where his kids waited to stomp the hay down and we would watch with a weather eye because now and then the tines of the farmhand would pick up a rattler that my father wouldn't see. We bailed out a time or two as the rattler came down with the hay. My brother, Thomas, would go up on the hill directly to the south of the place, which we called The Little White Hill, where there was a den. He would hold a pipe of some kind at the opening of the den and the sound of the rattlers would come right up to where we stood. Or rather -- jumped out of our skin. I also remember many times when rattlers were encountered on Bullion Butte, including at the spring on the south slope. I've roamed the badlands countless hours, and have many times encountered rattlers. But I know how to be watchful. Once, late in the fall, on the Killdeer Mountains, there was an enormous rattler out in the sun. Once, I saved my husband from a bite on the Petrified Forest Trail in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Once, when I was a summer camp counselor at Badlands Lutheran Bible Camp, on a hike in the buttes, there was a little boy sitting on the sandstone rocks, dangling his feet. I looked over and saw a rattler just under his feet and I scooped him up and moved him away to safety. A few years ago, my two sisters and I were hiking in the badlands and came upon a rattler. One of us screamed, one jumped, and the other fell down on the trail. The next day when we hiked up Bullion Butte, my younger sister stayed closely behind me. Unlike my mother, I have never killed a rattler. But I do always carry a walking stick and I do watch ahead on the trail and I do take care where I put my hands and I do listen.
But, today, the best thing I read was about rattlers. In The Hillsboro Banner, July 3, 1925.
Rattlers cause terror.
"The last of three rattlesnakes that escaped from a circus at Courtney was killed last week by L.O. Larson and Louis Randolph. It marked the end of a reign of terror which had gripped the town for nearly a week. One snake was found dead the day following the reptile's escape and another was found dying."
Theodore Roosevelt's Birthday Shenanigans: I Wander the Northern Bad Lands of North Dakota 27 October 2022
I don't even need a map. Just point me west. It wasn't until the next day, after I was home again, that I realized that -- serendipitously -- my retreat had taken place on President Theodore Roosevelt's birthday.
What I knew was that I needed to go. Go. Go. Go. Away to the Badlands. So I went. To the northern Badlands. To Dunn and McKenzie counties.
Where I saw snow. Snow on the Killdeer Mountains.
The Killdeer Mountains which at one time were part of a proposal for a huge Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It's true. If you don't believe me, read it for yourself in the book At the Open Margin.
The Killdeer Mountains where the last grizzly bear in North Dakota was shot long long ago.
Highway 200 where long long ago I saw a Snowy Owl. Not the first Snowy Owl I had seen, because we saw them on the Slope County farm where I grew up, but the first in a long while. This would have been sometime in the late 1990s when my children were young.
Then, because I can and I do not need a map, I drove on back roads, gravel roads, dirt roads, mud roads, until I found Highway 85 and again headed due north. I wanted to ground-truth what I had been reading about and hearing about Highway 85. I wanted to see for myself the new bridge and I wanted to see for myself what the traffic is like these days in "the Bakken" through the northern Badlands. I wanted to know. I wanted to see. I wanted to hear. Or, more the truth: I wanted to not hear. I wanted to not see. I wanted to not know.
And I can say this about Highway 85: It does seem a little safer now for drivers. It does seem like the now industrialized landscape has calmed just a bit. There are more roads than ever before. There are more signs on ranch roads reading: "No trespassing, no oil traffic." There are still flares in the night sky. It does seem a little safer now for wildlife. It does seem a little more like there is an acknowledgment that Highway 85 cuts through Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Unit. It does seem a little safer for travelers to take the turn into the park and get off the damn highway.
And so, there I was. In the North Unit. With almost no one else, just as I expected in late October. Just bison. And birds. And quiet. So, I drove to the campground. I wanted to know if the campground was as quiet as I remembered. Despite Highway 85. Despite the Bakken. Despite the new bridge. It was a fairly still day. And it was quiet, perhaps quieter than when the old metal bridge was there. Just me and the Little Missouri River.
And when I arrived at the Oxbow Overlook, just as I had told myself, if I would just keep going and not stop for every bird, every deer, every bison, every view, every memory, there would be no one else there. But the bighorn sheep. The bighorns where I have come upon them countless times.
"North Dakota is fairly privately owned, but there are a lot of gems across the landscape when you get out and start looking around at our public lands [emphasis mine]...." Jacob Lardy, land management specialist with the ND Department of Trust Lands (North Dakota Outdoors, October 2022, pg. 23)
"In summer, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department documented for the first time bighorn sheep ewes leading their young through a wildlife crossing that runs under U.S. Highway 85 in western North Dakota. The trail camera photograph is significant because wildlife literatures suggests ewes are less likely to use an underpass because they don't feel comfortable, fearing predators might be hiding in the passage. Yet, the photograph shows adults leading young safely through the crossing and instilling in the latter that the underpass is indeed safe. Plus, it keeps them off the busy highway, where a number of vehicle-bighorn accidents have been documented in the past." (North Dakota Outdoors, October 2022)
My day's partial birding checklist:
What I know I have learned from my elders. I have learned from dozens of field guides still on my shelves. I have taught myself. I have learned from more people than I can list. I have taught my partners. I have learned from my siblings. I have learned from scholars and I have learned from idiots. I have taught my children. I have learned from friends. I have learned from being on the ground. I have listened. I have dreamed.