Sunday, June 13, 2021

Silent Scorched Spring

Silent Scorched Spring



    Scorched

Dead perennials, spring 2021

Hosta:

    Autumn Glow

    Teenie Weenie

    Cracker Crumbs

    Hacksaw

    Judy Blue Eyes, most (healthy and spreading for ten years prior)

    Prairie Angel (one of two)

    Tokudama

    Sitting Pretty

    Peanut

    Praying Hands, most

    Cherry Berry

    True Blue (a huge and beautiful plant) 

The miniatures, however established, took the biggest hit. 

Here's Green Mouse Ears hosta this year


and here it is in the same area, the same plant, in 2012. 



Daylilies:

    Bertie Ferris

    Best for Last

    Blue-eye Butterfly (probably)

    Bodacious Mrs. Billadeau

    Broadway Raves

    Evening Enchantment

    Gavin Petit

    Going Bananas

    Instant Celebration

    Lady Cynthia

    Little Light of Mine

    Ruby Spider

 And this one hurts perhaps the most as it was a gift last summer in tribute to my departed Dad: Master Sargeant. 

Above is what an otherwise healthy daylily looks like when scorched at 100+ for days on end. Most of the hundreds I have look like this. Some I had to cut back as if I had divided the plants so that the roots would not be supporting so much dead foliage. 

Other assorted dead perennials:

    Cherry Cola Heuchera

    Cranesbill

    American Goldrush Rudbeckia

    Adriatic Waves Iris (all of the iris look pitiful and produced few blooms)

    Chocolate Fountain Stonecrop, 2 of 3

    Hollyhock (the ravenous rabbits are eating)

    Yonique Carmine Astilbe

    Cardonna Salvia (2 of 3)

    Dwarf barberry (and replacements)

    Orange Rocket barberries look rough

    Probably a new Dogwood in front

    Blue Muffin Viburnum (a very healthy 10-year-old shrub the birds loved)

I label most perennials and this picture captures all of the labels I had to pull the other day when I conceded the level of death in the beds.

Then on a rare cool day, I set about digging spreading aspen roots out of beds. Now that was perhaps the biggest gardening mistake I've ever made, but the shade on the patio is welcome.

I fear there are more to come on the above list, although many of the driest areas of the gardens I xeriscaped from the beginning. Having a sprinkler system in an urban yard where the Missouri River is abundant lured me into getting perennials established, but the sprinkler system was designed for a big lawn. Thus, as the plants have grown, many spots aren't getting hit. And -- exceptional drought. Dry last year and the gardens went into the winter dry despite our best efforts. Almost no snow in the winter of 20-21 and now, even with rains all around us, very little rain in Bismarck, and only .60" in the recent rainstorms. Then, last weekend, records were smashed here with 106 on Friday, 100+ on Saturday and Sunday. Hence, the tender shoots, already struggling, were scorched, even the established and tough raspberry plants which I fight as they spread into the perennial beds. 

    Silent

The already declining songbird numbers were well known to me, yet I continued to hope that the House Wren would return -- if not to our nest box, at least to the yard. As the days ticked by, I began to worry and checked our garden notes, finding that one year the wrens arrived as late as June 10th. I had been reading that the spring bird arrivals were late here on the plains and the speculation was that the storms in Texas this past winter might have impacted the arrival dates. Last weekend we camped and birded with friends, who grimly reported that the storms in Texas didn't just delay the birds, but probably killed scores. We sure have birds in our yard, mostly flocking to the water stations, but I think there will be no House Wren. 

In other tasks I set my mind to in the cooler basement, I've been sorting through the hundreds of nuts and bolts and screws and such I inherited from my Dad, since I just could not take it anymore when I needed something for a fix-it project and couldn't locate the right part. It's been a busy couple of years and it is easy to just throw the stuff on the shelf in the furnace room and move on to something else. Thus it is that my Dad has been on my mind. He, a child of the Great Depression, to his credit saved everything potentially useful. The bent nail I came across gave me a chuckle. He used blue painter's tape as an inexpensive way to hold packages together after he had been to the hardware store and opened the package for his day's project. Thus it is that every time I see blue painters tape, whether on the containers of nails and such or in my storage drawer of painting supplies, I will always think of him. I've also made frequent use of the jumbo pruning tool he gave me as I've had to cut back so much dead or dying foliage. 






The hole where the mature Blue Muffin Viburnum used to be





I didn't know there was such a thing! Thanks, Dad 


Guess I'll just go camping and play daily pinochle games with my Mom. Red Oak House Garden Notes may just be more mourning than I can take right now. 





 

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Red Oak House Garden Notes No. 65

I know, I know. It has been many months since I've written Red Oak House Garden Notes. How many times can one write about an exceptional drought? How many times can one whine about the long dry winter? I've also been busy with rewrites of a manuscript Jim and I have devoted much of the past years crafting. That, and we spent quite some time purchasing and outfitting our first camper, a travel trailer, at long last (I've been lobbying for 15 years!), and, now that we are vaccinated, scheming our new adventures. First, we plan to re-explore North Dakota places before we take to the road further afield. Our inaugural camp was nearby Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, close enough to home and my sister's and brother-in-law's "emergency camper service." We learned from our mistakes which were fortunately minor.





We finally had .20" of rain the night before last, and we've already had to run the sprinklers many times, braced for high water bills and thankful for the bountiful Missouri River. 

We've been out working in the gardens for some weeks now and it can be discouraging to assess the number of dead perennials and shrubs due to the harsh conditions. We even have a blue spruce tree looking distressed. Last year's endless diet of city water is not ideal for plants. Yet gardeners are optimists so I purchased some new perennials and filled the patio pots with longed-for color. Following his customary practice, Jim started peppers and broccoli and heirloom tomatoes by seed in the basement--now he has planted forty tomatoes (yup, 40) and given away dozens.  


And I've been dividing and moving perennials, mostly hosta, filled with contentment and satisfaction in that chore. The Little Free Library we placed in April is the newest feature in the shade garden, and we've added a fountain and more birdbaths to the backyard--many critters are stopping by in the drought for sustenance. 


The leaves popped out on the Red Oak Tree this week and we are grateful it is healthy. After all, what would our home be without the Red Oak? 
















Monday, April 5, 2021

Solastalgia: The Drought of 2021 in North Dakota

Smoke from the Horse Creek/North Unit Fire, Easter 2021, as seen above the Killdeer Mountains from Lake Ilo National Wildlife Refuge (by Lillian Crook)


Here in North Dakota in the spring of 2021, the headlines about the pandemic are being pushed aside by the daily news of the extreme drought and prairie fires. All of us search the forecast in hopes of rain, knowing the damage this is causing to the people, the critters, and the landscape we love. All of us search for any hint of green in the brown and dusty expanse. All of us are weary of the wind blowing nearly every day and the dust storms. 

I have vivid memories of past droughts including the Drought of 1988. I also spend time each day with my mother who was born and raised on a Slope County ranch during the Dirty Thirties. She tells me of the tumbleweeds, of the grasshoppers scratching on the window screens in the night, and of the cattle that had to be shot. Mother also tells how my Grandma would instruct her that if they were separated due to a prairie fire, they should meet at the Yellowstone Trail sign west of our place. Last summer, when we were locked out of her nursing home, I would relish the mornings when I could call her and say, “Mother, it rained last night” and hear the relief in her voice. Sadly, those mornings were few and far between. 

My husband, Jim, loves to tell the story about Gov. Art Link and the Drought of 1976. There was a big fire in Slope County that autumn, near Davis Dam, north of our Slope County ranch. I remember being on the school bus driving home from a basketball game, turning the corner east of Amidon, and seeing the smoke. We boisterous teenagers packing the bus went silent. Back at home, it was all hands on deck, and, in our farmhouse kitchen, we prepared hundreds of sandwiches which I delivered to the Davis Ranch, the fire operation headquarters (a teenager, I was thrilled to get any chance to drive on my own – to not mention the opportunity to be in the center of the action). During a tight campaign for his re-election, Link was forced to announce that the hunting season would be closed that year because of the extreme fire conditions and the Slope County fire. Then, just a few days before the election, the sky opened up and it rained! The downpour put out the Davis Dam fire, Link announced that the deer season would open on schedule – and he was re-elected. 

Now we will forever remember the 2021 Good Friday and April Fool’s Day fire that burned thousands of acres of parched grasslands southwest of Medora, forced the evacuation of the village, threatened the national park, and scorched right up to the concrete portions of the Burning Hills Amphitheater, giving new meaning to “burning hills.” We bore witness to the fire as we drove through the TRNP South Unit, viewing the still-burning junipers (explosive torches in these conditions) from the park’s vistas. From our Easter weekend’s lodging near the Elkhorn Ranch, we stayed up late for star-gazing and followed updates on the fire closely. 

We awoke Saturday morning to meadowlark song and found joy in the knowledge that the migrants had arrived in the night. Fording the low Little Missouri River, we hiked to TR’s Elkhorn Ranch site, where the buffalo-grass crunched underfoot. Our eyes were eager to spot any hint of green and we searched in vain for crocuses. A pop of cobalt revealed the arrival of mountain bluebirds. 

The interpretive sign at the trailhead best captures something so true to my life. 

"While my interest in natural history has added very little to the sum of my achievement, it has added immeasurably to the sum of my enjoyment in life." Theodore Roosevelt 

Lillian, Jim, Christine Hogan and Larry Dopson, Elkhorn Ranch hike, Easter 2021 (by Lillian Crook)


By Saturday evening, the Medora fire was mostly contained, but a new one had sprung up in the Little Missouri National Grassland’s area north of TRNP’s North Unit known as Horse Pasture, threatening the park’s Visitor Center and housing. On our trip home, we visited Lake Ilo National Wildlife Refuge, near Dunn Center and from there we could see the smoke to the west billowing above the Killdeer Mountains. This is rugged country and the responders must be very weary, faced with a long fire season to come. 

This past winter, the driest in North Dakota in recorded history, I’ve been pondering the word solastalgia, a neologism that describes a form of emotional or existential distress caused by environmental change, the lived experience of negatively perceived environmental change. The word is formed by the combination of the Latin word sōlācium for comfort and the Greek root -algia for pain. 

The writer Robert Macfarlane first brought my attention to solastalgia. He writes, in his book Underland, it is a “term coined by Glenn Albrecht in 2003 to mean a ‘form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change’. Albrecht was studying the effects of long-term drought and large-scale mining activity on communities in New South Wales when he realized that no word existed to describe the unhappiness of people whose landscapes were being transformed about them by forces beyond their control. He proposed his new term to describe this distinctive kind of homesickness. Where the pain of nostalgia arises from moving away, the pain of solastalgia arises from staying put. Where the pain of nostalgia can be mitigated by return, the pain of solastalgia tends to be irreversible. Solastalgia is not a malady specific to the Anthropocene—we might consider John Clare a solastalgic poet, witnessing his native Northamptonshire countryside disrupted by enclosure in the 1810S—but it has certainly flourished recently. ‘Worldwide, there is an increase in ecosystem distress syndromes,’ wrote Albrecht in an early paper on the subject, ‘matched by a corresponding increase in human distress syndromes.’ Solastalgia speaks of a modern uncanny, in which a familiar place is rendered unrecognizable by climate change or corporate action: the home become unhomely around its inhabitants.” 
Robert Macfarlane, Underland, pg. 317


Drought triggers solastalgia – may this epic drought end soon.


Recommended reading:


Saturday, March 20, 2021

Sun Halo & the Vernal Equinox

Sun Halo on the Vernal Equinox 2021
Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge, photo by Lillian Crook

Spring weather came to North Dakota early this year, the fifth driest winter here on record. The sky has been filled with migrating Canada Geese and some crazy fishermen have already had their boats on the nearby Missouri River, even though there is still ice on the banks. 

My first birding excursion of the year took place earlier this week with my daughter, Chelsea. We spotted FOY (birder-speak for first of the year) American Kestrels and a few other birds, but the highlight of the day was a huge flock of Red-winged Blackbirds, east of Bismarck, close to a thousand on the ground in one small area of a stubble field. Hundreds of the birds would rise in the flight pattern called a murmuration, just a few feet above the ground, then fly over to the opposite edge of the flock, and land, and thus the constant churning, with the birds on the outside edge ever-changing. Chelsea shot video you can watch here. .)

In observation of the Vernal Equinox and our wedding anniversary, today found Jim and I birding the wetlands and lakes east of Bismarck, in the hopes of spotting the enormous flocks of Snow Geese reported overhead, and perhaps a Western Meadowlark or Sandhill Cranes. Along the way, we spied many early spring arrivals, brought in by strong south winds, and eleven Bald Eagles, on the ice hunting stray gulls and wounded geese. It is worrisome how dry the wetlands are -- the shorebirds are going to find slim pickings if we don't get a deluge soon. 

At Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge -- Success! A couple thousand Snow Geese flew over, first in one flock, then scattering into smaller flocks. And then I noticed the sun halo, or what Jim called a "winter rainbow." Because the temperature was about 60 degrees, it was unexpected, but, of course, the temperature is much colder thousands of feet up in the atmosphere. Then the geese skirted across the sun halo and I managed to capture another photo in which one flock can be seen. 

Snow Geese over Sun Halo, Vernal Equinox 2021
Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge, photo by Lillian Crook
  

Halos can be seen around the sun and the moon and are called "22-degree halos" by scientists because the ring's radius is 22 degrees around the orb. These are caused by ice crystals in thin, high cirrus clouds. And here is perhaps the most enchanting piece, as described by Earth & Sky, my go-to website: Everyone sees their own particular halo, made by their own particular ice crystals, which are different from the ice crystals making the halo of the person standing next to you. I've seen a few really lovely moon halos, but today's sighting of the sun halo will be a memory I cherish (sadly, we saw no meadowlarks). 

You can read more about this phenomena at Earth & Sky (which includes a lovely photo of a moon halo taken near Mandan, ND) and learn more about the equinox as well.  

Halos are different from "sun dogs", as described on the weather.gov website and shown below:

Halos:

A halo is a ring or light that forms around the sun or moon as the sun or moon light refracts off ice crystals present in a thin veil of cirrus clouds. The halo is usually seen as a bright, white ring although sometimes it can have color.

Halo
Sundogs:

Sundogs are colored spots of light that develop due to the refraction of light through ice crystals. They are located approximately 22 degrees either left, right, or both, from the sun, depending on where the ice crystals are present. The colors usually go from red closest to the sun, out to blue on the outside of the sundog. Sundogs are also known as mock suns or parhelia, which means "with the sun".

Sundog
Sun Pillars:

Sun Pillars appear as a shaft of light extending vertically above the sun, most often at sunrise or sundown. They develop as a result of ice crystals slowly falling through the air, reflecting the sun’s rays off of them. Look for sun pillars when the sun is low on the horizon, and cirrus clouds are present.

sun pillar

 

The reason that Jim said, when I pointed the sun halo out to him, "winter rainbox" is that the poet Paul Southworth Bliss, whose biography we are writing, wrote a poem about these when he was living in North Dakota in the 1930s, another time of historic drought. The poem is published in Bliss's book, Cirrus from the West, published in 1935.

                Winter Rainbox

                by Paul Southworth Bliss

    Out of the oakland,

    Out of the pineland,

    Near the time of sunset,

    I came to the un-treed plains.


     On the frost-struck air

    There lay two segments

    Of a mighty wheel,

    Sunk to the sun-hub

    In the glistening prairie.


    The inner ring was rose,

    The middle maize,

    The outer

    Power-puff green.

    And the two segments

    Were awesome arches

    Between the snow-clad earth

    And the blue zenith!


    I have lived through war,

    I have lived through floods,

    And storms and droughts . . . 

    No matter;

    I have seen at last

    That miracle of miracles,

    The winter rainbow. 

                                    December 28, 1934

                                                Fargo, N. D. 

The phenomenon of the sundogs is relatively common; but until today I had never seen them expanded into sections of a winter rainbow. This marvel of the plaines appeared at about 3:50 P.M., today, and continued for nearly fifteen minutes. I had emerged from the gloom of the oak and pine lands of Minnesota and burst onto the prairie in air that, due to the low temperatures (at least zero), glittered with billions of frost particles.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

The Crooked Little Missouri River and its Headwaters

Little Missouri River, Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit (photo by Lillian Crook)

The crooked Little Missouri River is in my bloodstream, deeply embedded in my psyche. I grew up working and playing on its banks in Slope County, North Dakota, and have canoed and kayaked almost every ND mile of the river countless times, and frequently written about my explorations on WildDakotaWoman. My favorite stretches of the river are in the Deep Creek area, my home country, and through the North Unit wilderness of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The river flows into the Missouri River north of Bismarck (now Lake Sakakawea), where I now live, and thus in some way, I drink its waters each and every day. In my file cabinet are many maps of the Little Missouri River including a thick folder filled with Wyoming maps, accumulated in my quest to learn more about the place from which the river begins. Today I've taken out that folder and am thus transported in my mind for many hours to these wild places, my spirit landscape. 


 

The Little Missouri River originates west of Devils Tower National Monument in Crook County, Wyoming, due west of where I was born when my parents were stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base. How much more synchronicity can there be? It was destined that this sweet little river would burrow into my brain.

With a surname of Crook, I have some fascination with anything to do with Crook County and Camp Crook. These place-names "Crook" originate from the Civil War Union general, George Crook, a distant relative, who campaigned in the area in the 1870s and whose grave in Arlington Cemetery I've visited. There are several excellent books about Gen. Crook readily available for anyone interested in learning more. When I was a child, we took frequent Sunday excursions to places of interest, the Logging Camp Ranch and nearby Burning Coal Vein, Pretty and Bullion buttes, the Limber Pines, the Powder River area, Medicine Rocks, and, naturally, Camp Crook, South Dakota.

Crook Walk at Arlington Cemetery, Lillian with her daughter, Chelsea (photo by Jim Fuglie)

"As a surname [Crook] first appeared as Crok, Cruke, Crokes and Crekes, which should indicate the name was once associated with a creek....It is found in very old records in England, Ireland and Scotland....One who dwelt near a bend in the river or road might be called Bend or Crook." Crook, an American Family, 1698-1955, pg. 11. Crook is a historic market town in County Durham in the northeast of England and hosts an annual Crook Carnival every July as well as Crookfest, a music festival. Sadly, I did not visit Crook when I traveled to England in 2019 -- yet another reason to return. 




The Camp Crook Centennial t-shirt was purchased when my sisters and I visited Camp Crook on a backroads expedition from Medora to Spearfish. The cookbook was a gift from my mother. The photo right was taken in 2017 when my friend Valerie and I visited Crooks Tower, one of the highest and most remote summits in the Black Hills of SD. The tower is long gone. 





Back to the little river of my heart. 

Located in four states (Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, and North Dakota), the Little Missouri River Basin includes 6,632,160 acres with most of the acreage in North Dakota at 3,608,800 acres, a good portion of which is public lands. (Source for my data: Little Missouri River Basin: Land Planning and Classification Report, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, May 1959 - a personally auspicious date for me). At the time the report was published, there were 1,818,429 acres in federal acres within the basin, a figure that is probably close to today's acreage, although due to land swaps since then has changed slightly. More than half of this federal land is the Little Missouri National Grassland, the largest grassland in the US.
 
Little Missouri River Basin, 1959

The river is "a sediment laden muddy stream," and, according to an early 1930s Bureau of Reclamation study "a very heavy sediment carrier for its size" (now those are monumental understatements!). It arises southwest of the Little Missouri Buttes, four summits arising from an eroded mesa and prominent in the Devils Tower landscape, the tallest of which is 5,374 feet. 
"A butte is a mesa's orphan, the freestanding remnant of a larger landform. Protected from the erosional brunt of rain, frost, and wind by its overlay of hard caprock, the butte's mass stands flat-topped and steep-sided, always taller than it is wide. The parent escarpment may be but a gap of space away: imagine this gap filled with rock and you can picture the entire landform's sweeping, high-crowned continuity." Ellen Meloy, Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez, 2006.

The Little Missouri River's headwaters are nearest to Flag Butte and Oshoto, WY, and it is "the only major tributary stream that flows north into the Missouri." Said to be the longest undammed tributary, this isn't quite true as the Oshoto Reservoir, an earth dam constructed in 1954, is situated a few miles from the headwaters, however, other proposed dams were never built due to the sediment load." In 1914 construction work started on a dam near Alzada, MT, "as a Carey Act Project but "a freshet in Cottonwood Creek damaged the dam...and no further work was ever done on the project." It was estimated that the Alzada dam would fill within 41 years so someone came to their senses thanks to the "freshet." "Estimated duration of the [proposed] Bullion Butte Reservoir was 58 to 61 years until filling with sediment would be complete." Again, wisdom prevailed and the Oshoto Dam is the one and only on the river. 

From its source to its mouth, as the crow flies, as one can see from the first map above, the river covers about 300 miles, but its crooked twists and turns nearly doubles the river's length to 560 miles. As a canoeist, I can attest that these bends can be tortuous especially if the current is slow and the headwind fierce, a regular occurrence. One is frequently tempted to portage over these corkscrew landscapes, but the tall buttes along the canyon render this foolhardy. Once, while perched atop the Teepee Buttes near the Logging Camp Ranch, I asked my friend, Clay Jenkinson, who has famously hiked the length of the river (the North Dakota stretch twice) if he "cheated" and just plunged across these bends, a fair question, I thought. He said he most certainly did not, however tempted on a scorching summer day. 

"The basin formerly consisted of broad rolling upland surfaces that since have been extensively eroded into breaks and badlands. This is particularly true in the lower reaches from the southwest corner of North Dakota to its confluence with the Missouri River....a well-cut channel...spectacular, fantastic, colorful and intriguing." (Little Missouri River Basin, 1959)

The report continues: "Elevations vary from 4,600 feet on Flag Butte at the source of the river in Wyoming to 1,900 feet at the mouth of the stream in North Dakota where it enters Garrison Reservoir." An ignominious end, I might add, and the reservoir's backwaters have flooded an area of the canyon that was once quite beautiful. A wonderful account of a river journey from a time before the Garrison Dam was written by Clell G. Gannon and published in vol. 1, no. 1, the October 1926 issue of the North Dakota Historical Quarterly. Gannon, with his pals, George Will and Russell Reid, all of Bismarck, floated in their 18-foot rowboat, christened the "Hugh Glass," from Medora to Bismarck in June 1925, using 1894 Missouri River Commission maps. Gannon writes, 
"There was no particular motive for the trip. It was a vacation and done for the mere joy of it, although back of it all was a passionate love for the Bad Lands and the Missouri River, and an intense interest in ornithology, geology, archeology, and the historic associations with which the region is especially rich." 

Kindred spirits! 

The Little Missouri river drains a semi-arid region with seemingly endless bottoms of cottonwood and green ash and is abounding in short-grass forbs and prairie wildlife. "Slope County has 63 percent of its surface within the basin" (Little Missouri River Basin, 1959) -- again, the serendipity that Slope County, ND, was my childhood home, settled by my maternal ancestors, along the west fork of Deep Creek, a tributary that enters the Little Missouri River at the Logging Camp Ranch north of our place.

Lillian (photo by Jim Fuglie)

When I close my eyes and return to these wondrous places in my mind, I hear the harsh call of the Red-headed Woodpeckers in the cottonwoods, and remember watching a female coyote swimming across just ahead of our approaching canoe somewhere north of Marmarth, ND, the water dripping from her heavy tits as she emerged on the eastern bank, unperturbed by our silent arrival. Often, as our watercraft slips near the muddy bank, a beaver will splash into the river from their hole, startling us, and once when I was kayaking near Bullion Butte, I inadvertently trapped a baby beaver between my craft and the bank for a minute or two. It nearly fell into my kayak. Once, when Jim and I canoed the river at historic high water, the banks sailed by and we nearly slammed into the canyon wall where it takes a sharp bend at Wind Canyon in Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP).

Jim Fuglie (photo by Lillian Crook)

These river memories are made by keeping a sharp-eye on the four Little Missouri river gauges maintained by the US Geological Survey, at Camp Crook, Marmarth, Medora, and Watford City (actually at TRNP's North Unit). The sweet little river in this arid country is more often a trickling stream and one must seize the moment when it is navigable, usually in the early spring, often when there are still chunks of ice on the banks. When we lived in Medora, Jim would dump me and my kayak in the river and at the end of his workday pick me up at a pre-determined takeout, and listen to my stories of close encounters with bison.

Jim and Lillian (photo by the camera)

Lillian, the late Lizzie, and our yellow canoe


Aforementioned is my long fascination with the headwaters of the Little Missouri River and my quest to learn more about it, hence my collection of historical maps. In 2002, I corresponded with the US Geological Survey attempting to pinpoint the official location of the river's source. I received a reply from Roger L. Payne, the Executive Secretary of the US Board on Geographic Names, and retained that letter in my files, from which I will quote extensively. He wrote:

"The earliest USGS topographic map on which the name Little Missouri River appears is the 1:125,000-scale Devils Tower, Wyoming map, published in 1905. Unfortunately, the exact source of the stream is not made clear, although it would appear to originate upstream of the present-day location of Oshoto Reservoir."

"Presumably, because of the imprecision of the 1905 map, the BGN decided in 1930 to establish the official source of the stream. The October 7, 1931 decision read "...rising in Sec.14, T53N, R68W of 6th P.M. Wyoming, Cook Co. [sic]....". Following this decision, the USGS Devils Tower topographic map was reprinted in 1939, although with no change in the placement of the type for Little Missouri River, but this name placement did not alter the official source as established in 1931."
 
The 1905 USGS map from my collection

"In 1957, the first larger-scale map, entitled Oshoto and produced at a scale of 1:62,500, was published. This is the map...on which Oshoto Reservoir first appears. The name Little Missouri River continued to appear upstream of the reservoir, yet the name was placed on the more "southerly" tributary, in conflict with the application decreed by the BGN in 1931. The exact source of the stream is not apparent on the 1957 map, because the feature extends beyond the edge of the map, but it is clearly, and incorrectly not the aforementioned tributary, 'rising in Sec. 14, T53N,R68W....". 

The 1957 map from my collection

He continues: "In 1962, the Army Map Service (AMS) in cooperation with the USGS, published its 1:250,000-scale Gillette topographic map. Despite the small scale of this map, the name Little Missouri River was clearly applied to the more "westerly" tributary (that is, present-day Deadman Creek). Although this corresponded to the location established by the BGN in 1931, the BGN was informed in 1974 by a representative of the USGS Mapping Center that the application was incorrect. Based on field investigation conducted by the Mapping Center, local authorities recommended that the source be depicted in accordance with the 1957/59 map, not the 1962 AMS map or the 1931 BGN decision. This investigation further revealed that the more westerly tributary was indeed Deadman Creek. Upon review of this evidence, the BGN voted on December 10, 1974 to change officially the application of the name Little Missouri River to the more southerly tributary and apply officially the name Deadman Creek to the more westerly stream. This application is still official for Federal use today, although...the name Little Missouri River appears only downstream of Oshoto Reservoir on the 1984 Oshoto topographic map." 

1957 Oshoto quad from my collection 

1972 Flag Butte map from my collection

1955 Army Service Map Wyoming

1984 Oshoto quad from my collection (what started it all)


Armed with all of this tantalizing detail and given the perfect opportunity during a driving vacation to Wyoming and Utah, Jim and I found our way to the landscape west of Devils Tower, Wyoming, almost twenty years ago now. 

I can't help but wonder why all states can't produce
such a map with rich topographic detail as Wyoming's


On the return leg, we left the freeway at Moorcroft, Wyoming, just when one can begin to glimpse Devils Tower to the north, and thus began a two-day gravel-road adventure, one that included the loss of the Jeep's muffler. It took some wrong turns, but we found the headwaters and climbed to take in view of the grassy and gently rolling landscape, so different from the rugged Bad Lands of the North Dakota reach of the Little Missouri River we know so well. 

The headwaters of the Little Missouri River, Crook County, Wyoming, the Little Missouri Buttes on the right horizon

Lillian Crook, overlooking the Little Missouri River headwaters in Crook County, Wyoming

Confirming that indeed there was a reservoir, albeit small, near the tiny village of Oshoto, we knew the myth of the undammed river arose from the confusion in the maps described above, stemming from the 1984 version of the map that did not name the river above the dam. Nonetheless, about 555 miles of the river's 560 miles run freely through the wild landscape. We headed north, staying as close to the banks of the river as the roads allowed, the perfect exploration of the Little Missouri River country. Throughout its Wyoming and Montana reach, it is really more a prairie stream, dotted with place names signifying the river's name. It isn't until Camp Crook, SD, that a bridge of any significance crosses the river, and after that, there are just seven more bridges of any substance, at Marmarth, Medora (interstate, highway, and railroad), near Watford City, and the illegal bridge, all in ND, and a whole lot of "Texas crossings" built by the local ranchers, wide places filled with rocks (some naturally occurring, some hauled in) rendering it easier to cross except in the rare instances of high water. 




Our destination that last night of the road trip was the US Forest Service campground southwest of Camp Crook in the West Short Pines, one of the many "pine islands" scattered about this west river country, rolling hills covered with ponderosa pine, uprising from the prairie expanse, thus different from the more commonly occurring buttes. Short Pines was once a Forest Reserve in its own right, established in 1905, but is now part of the Gallatin National Forest. Sadly, there had been a recent fire in the area. We had the entire campground to ourselves and a splendid, star-filled sky.


Here in the West Short Pines, we found a whimsical USFS sign that merited a stop and we've laughed about it ever after. Seems if one was headed to Camp Crook, there was no wrong turn, a parable for my life and this epic entry.