October 28, 2014

Native American Scenic Byway

Deciding which route to follow after leaving Bismarck on October 8 was quite easy.  We still wanted to follow the Missouri River, but we noticed an intriguing scenic byway when we looked at the South Dakota map.  This byway mostly follows the river, as well as much of the Lewis and Clark Trail, so this seemed like the perfect route for us.

Tim and I love to drive scenic byways.  The traffic is usually light, the countryside is easier to appreciate, and the drive is often more peaceful and relaxing.   Tim and I also like to tour as we drive, which we can easily do with our smaller RV.  We can stop almost anywhere we want, including narrow driveways that would be off-limits to RVs much larger than ours.

The Native American Scenic Byway was a wonderful and thought-provoking drive.  We passed through the reservations of four tribes of Lakota Sioux:  Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Lower Brule and Crow Creek and stopped at most of the memorial markers, monuments, museums and sacred sites along the way.  These sites, which commemorate the heritage of the Sioux Nation, helped us experience the history and culture of the four tribes.

The Native American Scenic Byway Extends for 350 Miles in North and South Dakota

The northern section of the byway travels through the Standing Rock Reservation and is the most developed in terms of interpretation.  Visitor centers, printed guides and an extensive marker system make this section the most rewarding in terms of helping us to gain an understanding of the Sioux.

One of our favorite stops was the tribal visitor center at Fort Yates, North Dakota, on the campus of Sitting Bull College.  Here we enjoyed talking with Jennifer, the visitor coordinator, and listening to her perspective about life on and off the reservation.  She provided a special insight into the history we would be encountering along the byway.

We made our way into the town of Fort Yates, which was established as a military post in 1874.  Here we visited the Standing Rock Monument from which the Standing Rock agency derived its name.  According to the legend inscribed on the monument, the stone is the petrified form of a woman and her child.

Standing Rock Monument

In Fort Yates we also stopped at the original burial site of Sitting Bull, the spiritual leader of the Lakota.  Sitting Bull was killed by Indian agency police on the Standing Rock Reservation on December 15, 1890, during an attempt to arrest him.  His grave was subsequently relocated, and we planned to visit that site the next morning.

Burial Site of Sitting Bull in Fort Yates

We stopped for the evening near Mobridge, South Dakota, at The Bay at Grand River Casino, a great campground operated by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.  The campground, which we almost had to ourselves, is nothing like most casino campgrounds.  This one overlooks the Missouri River and provides large spaces underneath mature trees.  Kitty loved it, and so did we.  We were honored to receive the “elder” campsite rate.  It was tempting to stay for several days, but we needed to move on. 

What a Great Campground!

The following morning we visited the second burial site to memorialize Sitting Bull.  The setting here was beautiful, with its view overlooking the Missouri River, but, sadly, the site itself was not well cared for.  This site is marked by a stone bust carved by the famed sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who designed the Crazy Horse memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  Also on the site is a monument erected as a tribute to Sacagawea, who died not too far from here.

Memorial to Sitting Bull near Mobridge

The Bluffs Along the Missouri River Provide a Wonderful Setting for the Monument

Monument to Sacagawea

The byway soon turned inland from the Missouri River and into the land of the Cheyenne River Sioux.  Here we encountered a diverse landscape, and not one we were expecting.  Vast prairies and rolling agricultural fields gave way to the high escarpment overlooking the Cheyenne River valley.  This time of year the river appears as a ribbon of green in a sea of gold.  It was a beautiful drive. 

We arrived in Pierre, South Dakota, in the afternoon and settled into a city campground in the middle of town.  Although the campground was not much more than a paved parking lot, it backed up to a lovely park along the Missouri River.  The location was perfect for exploring our own state capital (remember, we are South Dakota residents now).

Kitty Liked the Campground in Pierre

We toured the lovely State Capitol building, which had been restored for the centennial celebration of the State of South Dakota in 1989 and stepped into the Governor’s Reception Room where we learned about the history of the building.  We often fail to make the time to visit the interiors of state capitol buildings, but this visit has reminded us to put these buildings on our must-see list.  We always appreciate the architectural grandeur of these spaces when we do make it a point to open their doors.

South Dakota State Capitol

A Magnificent Interior

Pierre was also our first opportunity to stop at a Walgreens to pick up prescriptions and get our flu shots.  There are no Walgreens in North Dakota, except one in the far eastern corner of the state, so we were happy to find one here.

Our favorite venue in Pierre was the Cultural Heritage Center, which provided an excellent overview of the history of South Dakota.  It was a bit difficult to get to the building, however, since there was no place to park even our small RV.  It seemed a bit odd to us that a state that is so friendly to full-time RVers would not have a place for these residents to park.  Once we finally shuttled to the Cultural Center in the car, we were impressed with what the museum has to offer.

The exhibits begin with the stories of the Native Americans who inhabited South Dakota before it became a state.  Various artifacts helped us understand the Sioux way of life, but we were disappointed that the singular piece of the museum’s collection, the Sioux Horse Effigy, which is a masterpiece of Lakota sculpture, was on tour and not available to view.  The exhibits continued with displays that chronicle the experiences of the homesteaders, military men, miners and statesmen who called South Dakota home.

The People of the Plains

After leaving Pierre, we picked up the Native American Scenic Byway once more and traveled through the Lower Brule Indian Reservation.  Again, we followed the Missouri River, where high bluffs along the river give way to rolling hills and then the vast grasslands of the Great Plains. We kept our eyes peeled for evidence of the bison that live here, but they were nowhere to be seen.

A Diverse Landscape Along the Missouri River

When we crossed the Missouri River, our plan was to stop at an Army Corps of Engineers campground.  We pulled into the campground and were so disappointed to find it closed for the season.  What a shame, since it really looked like a great campground.  OK, now let’s come up with a Plan B.  Luckily, we had internet reception and found a private campground in Chamberlain, just 18 miles away.

"Closed for Season"

We drove through the Crow Creek Indian Reservation, which occupies the east side of the Missouri River, on the way to Chamberlain and pulled into the American Creek Campground and a site directly on the Missouri River.  What a gorgeous location!  I’ll tell you more about it in the next post.

Not Bad for a Plan B

October 21, 2014

Not So Busy in Bismarck

After three cold and rainy nights with no, or minimal, hookups, I decided that I was ready for a full-service campground.  I’m somewhat schizophrenic when it comes to selecting campgrounds.  My usual preference is parks in beautiful, natural settings, not private campgrounds with closely-spaced RV sites.  However, those private parks are sometimes exactly where I want to be.  Particularly when it’s rainy and cold, I want full hookups and nice showers.  Also, if we’re going to stay somewhere for three nights or longer, full hookups are nice so we don’t have to drive somewhere to dump and refill the fresh water tank.  Full hookups can be worth the extra money just for the convenience.

We had read about the Bismarck KOA, which looked nice, and it was.  The park has lots of mature trees, and it’s close to everything we wanted to visit in Bismarck.  When we arrived on October 1, we asked for a full hookup site and paid for three nights.  The other advantage of many private parks is the availability of a laundry.  When it’s time to do laundry, I look for a private park so I won’t have to find a laundromat.  That’s an important convenience factor for me.

We really enjoyed our stay at the KOA.  Our site contained several apple trees, and we could pick all we wanted.  Robins and squirrels were feasting on the apples on the ground, providing quite the entertainment for Kitty.  After just one day, we decided to extend our stay to five nights.  Bismarck would be a perfect place to catch up on errands, do a little touring and relax a bit.  Besides, we had great Wi-Fi here, as well as multiple TV stations for Tim.
An Apple a Day . . . 

So Many Critters to Entertain Me

What Are Those Birds Eating?

Although the weather wasn’t the greatest – it was still rainy, cold and windy – we did venture out.  We stopped at a Subaru dealer to replace one of the headlights and then continued to Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, since the park’s main claim-to-fame seemed to be the Custer House.  General George Armstrong Custer was living at the fort when he left for the ill-fated Battle of the Little Bighorn.  I’m not a fan of Custer and really had no interest in visiting his house.  However, the fort was much more than Custer’s house.

The most fascinating part for us was the On-A-Slant Village, a 400-year-old Mandan village that thrived for 200 years.  The Civilian Conservation Corps reconstructed six of the original earthlodges, which reminded us of the one at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic site.  We were able to visit the interior of the ceremonial lodge, and Tim was particularly impressed with the quality of the ongoing upkeep of the floor and walls.  It appears that the village remains a sacred site to the Mandan.

On-A-Slant Village

Earthlodges Reconstructed by the CCC

Interior of the Ceremonial Earthlodge

View from the Entrance of the Earthlodge

I even enjoyed exploring the remains of Fort Abraham Lincoln and walking by the reconstructed Custer House.  I wasn’t too upset, however, that the house was closed.  The foundations of the houses on Officers’ Row, as well as several other buildings, were also visible, reminding us of the layout of several other forts we had visited.

Fort Abraham Lincoln

Custer House

On Sunday we spent the afternoon at the North Dakota Heritage Center.  The museum is completing a major expansion, but two of the new galleries were already open.  The Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time traces the story of early North Dakota life and geology, featuring life-sized skeleton casts of several dinosaurs, including the ancestor of today's bison.  The Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples focuses on the arrival of the first people to inhabit North Dakota and features artifacts that tell the story of early life on the Northern Plains.

That Was a Mighty Large Bison

Tipi in the Early Peoples Gallery

Tim and I were impressed with both galleries and their exhibits.  I especially enjoyed making connections between the exhibits and several of the historic sites that we had visited during the last few weeks.  

The center is located next to the North Dakota State Capitol, a 19-story Art Deco tower often called the Skyscraper of the Prairies.  Unfortunately, the interior was not open, but we were able to walk around the grounds.

Skyscraper of the Prairies

When our Monday departure date arrived, we decided over breakfast that we really weren’t ready to leave.  Maybe we were being lazy, or maybe it was the weather, but we really didn’t care.  How nice it was to have the flexibility to change our minds.  We had the same reaction the following morning.  Just one more day seemed the way to go.  Our original three-night stay morphed into seven nights.

Just what did we do with our extra two days?  I worked on updating the blog, which was woefully behind (and still is – but, I’m almost caught up!).  It felt very satisfying to add several more posts and reflect back on our journey so far.

We also searched for a copy of Ken Burns’ “Lewis and Clark” DVD.  Ever since we decided to follow the Missouri River and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, I had been looking for the DVD.  I had so enjoyed Burns’ recent series “The Roosevelts” and wanted to see his perspective on the Corps of Discovery.  The DVD, however, was nowhere to be found.  The gift shop at Fort Union Trading Post sold its last copy before I made the decision to purchase a copy, and the North Dakota Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center had also sold out of their copies.  We looked for a copy in Bismarck to no avail.

So, as an alternative, I asked Tim to download the audio book for “Undaunted Courage,” the classic volume on Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery.  This would be my first audio book, and I thought it would be a great option for our driving days.  Besides, I’m not sure I would have taken the time to read the book’s 521 pages.

We enjoyed our month-long stay in North Dakota, but it was time to move in a southerly direction.  Up next would be our home state of South Dakota.  Stay tuned.

October 18, 2014

On the Trail with Lewis and Clark

I’ve always been interested in Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery.  I remember the flurry of programs and exhibits that flourished during the bicentennial commemoration of 2003-2006 and even participated in several of them.  When Tim suggested that we follow the Missouri River on our way to warmer weather, I jumped at the idea.

Following at least a portion of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, which has been established by the National Park Service, seemed to provide a theme, or loose framework, for our journey southward.  I’m not a Lewis and Clark fanatic who has to stop at every site; however, I did look forward to learning more about the expedition, the various Indian tribes encountered and the Missouri River itself.

When Tim and I left the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we followed the Sakakawea Trail, a North Dakota scenic byway, east toward the Missouri River.  Just a note – in North Dakota, the name of the Shoshone woman who traveled with Lewis and Clark is spelled Sakakawea, while elsewhere the spelling is typically Sacagawea.  The western part of the drive passes through rolling farmlands. Unfortunately, it was difficult to appreciate the scenery due to the heavy rain and fog.

The weather was so disagreeable that Tim and I decided to stop early. We found a small, city-owned campground in Hazen, where we stopped shortly after noon.  Alas, there was no room at the inn.  The lack of an open campsite, however, did not deter the wonderful camp host from finding a place for us to stay.  She knew there were few campground options in the area and went out of her way to accommodate us.  She directed us to pull into the parking area in front of the community center and ran a couple of extension cords to the RV.  It wasn’t 30 amps, but we could turn on our lights and, more importantly, plug in our little space heater.  We were warm and toasty, and very grateful to be off the road.  The clean showers and laundry were an added bonus.  There are definitely advantages to having a small RV.  We can fit almost anywhere.

A Port in the Storm

We drove into town for lunch and discovered a regional dish called a Fleishkuekla, a type of meat pie wrapped in dough and deep fried.  The dish was brought to the Dakotas by German-from-Russia immigrants. We ordered two to-go and tried them at dinner.  Let’s just say that we likely won’t order them again.

The weather was better the next morning, and we headed out to encounter Lewis and Clark.  In 1804 Lewis and Clark arrived at what is now Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site and encountered the Hidatsa who lived here.  It was also near here that the expedition met Sacagawea.

The Hidatsa, a Northern Plains Indian tribe, were primarily farmers who lived in earthlodge villages along the Missouri River and its tributaries.  Highlights of the park include a reconstructed earthlodge, as well as a trail that passes the archeological remains of two village sites.  Circles in the earth, or depressions, left by approximately 50 to 75 earthodges, are visible in the landscape.

Reconstructed Earthlodge at Knife River Indian Village National Historic Site

Interior of the Earthlodge

Interior of the Earthlodge

Depressions in the Ground

We crossed the Missouri River to visit the North Dakota Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, which provides an outstanding overview of the expedition.  The interactive displays focus on the preparation for the journey, as well as the journey itself.  One exhibit made me think that the journals kept by Lewis and Clark were forerunners of today’s blogs.  I know, however, that my blog will never even come close to the extensive notes recorded in those journals.

A New Member of the Corps of Discovery?

The Interpretive Center also maintains Fort Mandan, the encampment built by the Lewis and Clark expedition as their quarters for the winter of 1804-1805.  We toured the reconstructed fort with a very informative guide and learned how the explorers spent their days.  It was interesting to find out how much they relied on the Hidatsa and Mandan for corn, beans and squash, and for information about the upper reaches of the Missouri River.

Reconstructed Fort Mandan

Quarters of the Corps of Discovery

Quarters of Sacagawea
We don’t usually visit three different historic sites or museums in one day, but it seemed to make sense because of their proximity to one another, as well as their related themes.  With a bit of information-overload, we drove south on the scenic Lewis and Clark trail that runs along the Missouri River.  Our destination was Bismarck, North Dakota’s state capital.

October 16, 2014

Rain Again at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

When we left Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site on Sunday, September 28, we drove directly to the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  The north unit of the park is located approximately 70 miles north of the south unit, which we had visited two weeks ago, but we did not stop on our way to Fort Union.  Now we would have time to explore this section of the park.

I think we must be cursed when it comes to rain in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  It was cold, and rain was in the forecast when we arrived at the park, and we checked into Juniper Campground.  The campground has no hookups, not an ideal situation for this type of weather, but we thought we could tough it out.  Besides, the location along the Little Missouri River was great, and we had few neighbors.

The Little Missouri River Directly Behind Our Campsite

One of the main features of the park is a 14-mile scenic drive that ends at the Oxbow Overlook of the Little Missouri River.  Although it was late afternoon when we arrived and the sky was a bit gloomy, I decided to make the drive and check out a few of the pullouts and overlooks.

The north unit of the park showcases the badlands of North Dakota and the unique geological forces at work.  One of my favorites was the cannonball concretions.  Concretions are large spherical boulders that are formed within rocks by the deposition of mineral around a core.  I just thought they were very cool looking.   

Cannonball Concretions

The weather was rapidly deteriorating when I stopped at the River Bend Overlook on my way back to the campground.  I loved this view, perhaps because of the addition of a stone shelter constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

River Bend Overlook

Tim and I made it through the night and ventured out the next morning to try for a few hikes before the rains came.  We checked out the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail, but had to turn back after about twenty minutes when a very unfriendly-looking bison appeared a little too close to the trail.  The close-up view of the rock formations and local geology was the highlight of this hike.  Tim disagrees.  He thinks the highlight was the bison!

Rock Layers in the Badlands

What Are You Doing Here?

We drove to the end of the road, where we were able to take a look at the Oxbow Overlook.  We debated about hiking to Sperati Point, which leads to an even more spectacular view of the oxbow.  Tim said, “Let’s go,” and off we went, grateful for our warm hoods and gloves.  The view at the end was worth it.

Oxbow of the Little Missouri River from Sperati Point

A Chilly, But Rewarding Hike

Because of the weather and lack of electrical hookups, we had planned to spend only one night in the park.  But we were tired and lazy when we returned to the campground and extended our stay for another night.  We turned on our propane furnace, fired up the generator as needed and watched the rain from inside our cozy home.  Being able to change our minds and go with the flow is one of the best perks of the full-time lifestyle.

It was still raining when we left the next morning.  Perhaps we should consider ourselves lucky that we were able to experience some of the 15 inches of precipitation the park averages per year.  On second thought, I must admit that I would have preferred sun.

Bison Have the Right-of-Way

October 15, 2014

Working at Fort Union

We arrived at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site the afternoon of September 11 and met with the staff we would be working with for the next two weeks.  The park has a very small staff, which is nice, and we will be able to get to know everyone.  We spent the rest of the afternoon settling into our RV site, which is located next to maintenance building.  The site has full hookups and is located just a few minutes away from where we’ll be working.  It may not be the most scenic site, but it’s perfect for us.  We are so grateful that we didn’t have to look for a hard-to-find campsite at one of the campgrounds that caters mostly to oil field workers.
Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site

Tim’s contract at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site involves organizing, rehousing and cataloging the park’s herbarium sheets.  These sheets comprise Fort Union’s collection of dried plant specimens, which are mounted and labeled for reference.  The original plan was for me to help Tim with some of the organizing and photographing.  I would spend the rest of my time as a volunteer.  I had planned to edit the park’s web site and other printed materials.

Helping Tim, however, became more of a priority, and I soon began working exclusively on sorting and alphabetizing the herbarium sheets by family, genus and species; labeling folders with genus names (thank goodness I learned how to print nicely in first grade); labeling each sheet with the catalog number; filing the sheets into the appropriate folders; photographing each sheet; labeling the divider sheets and placing the folders into the herbarium cabinet boxes.  What did Tim do, you might ask?  He spent his time wrestling with computer programs and entering all of the data about each sheet into the catalog database.  I think I preferred my job.  I thoroughly enjoyed learning something new, working with Tim and being involved in his project.  We were very proud of what we accomplished.  The best part, however, was working with the wonderful staff.  Everyone was so welcoming and made us feel like a part of the team.
Lots of Herbarium Sheets to Organize, Rehouse and Catalog

Cataloging Herbarium Sheets

Organizing and Rehousing Herbarium Sheets

Lisa and Tim with the Finished Product

Even though we worked six days a week, we also had time to learn about the fort and to visit a few of the nearby sites.  Fort Union was the most important fur trading post on the upper Missouri River and operated from 1828 to 1867.  Built by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company, Fort Union is located at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.  The fort was never a military post, but instead a center of peaceful trade between the Plains Indian and white cultures.  

Bourgeois House, Home of the Field Agent and Chief Clerk

Southwest Bastion and Palisade Walls

Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site is a partial reconstruction of the original fort, based upon extensive archeological excavations and historical documentation.  I was especially interested and amazed at the number of artists and other people who visited Fort Union during the nineteenth century.  George Catlin, Karl Bodmer and John James Audubon were just a few of the famous guests who passed through Fort Union.  The paintings, sketches and descriptions of the fort these individuals produced left an invaluable record that assisted in the reconstruction.

I was able to take the time to hike the Bodmer Overlook trail, which leads to the point where Karl Bodmer made his sketches of Fort Union in 1833. This vantage point provided an expansive view of the fort and the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers in the background. The oil boom, however, intruded into my view when a train carrying a line of oil cars passed in front of the fort.  Past and present – will they be able to coexist?

Fort Union from the Bodmer Overlook Trail

"Fort Union on the Missouri" by Karl Bodmer (NPS Photo)

Fort Union in the Bakken Oil Field

Tim and I also visited nearby Fort Buford State Historic Site, a military post established in 1866, and the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center, which had exhibits on the history, geography and geology of the area.

Fort Buford State Historic Site

With a bit of trepidation, we also ventured into Williston, the closest large town to the park, for groceries. Surprisingly, it was not as crazy as we expected, probably since we went on Sunday.  We had lunch at a surprisingly good Thai restaurant, completed our errands and quickly returned to our little sanctuary.

The weather was crazy the entire time we were at Fort Union.  There was frost in the mornings during our first week and a heat wave with temperatures in the 90s the second week.  Grasshoppers and crickets were everywhere, as well as swarms of mosquitoes, making sitting outside virtually impossible.  Who would have thought there would be mosquitoes in North Dakota in September?

The only real drawback to our location was the virtual lack of any internet or cell phone signal.  We were really cut off from the world for two weeks.  Tim was able to find four PBS stations and occasionally one or two network stations.  Our evening highlight was watching Ken Burns’ documentary, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” which happened to run during our stay.  I had been hoping we would be able to watch the series and was grateful that we could see it.  I enjoyed the series even more than expected because of our recent visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

During our stay at Fort Union, we had a major decision to make.  Where should we go next?  Our original plan was to cross North Dakota and head to the Great Lakes to enjoy fall colors.  However, we soon discovered that the long-term weather forecast, which called for an early winter, was not the best for RV travel.  We ultimately decided that we wouldn’t have enough time to enjoy the area before the cold set in.  What then was Plan B?

Tim came up with a great idea to follow the Missouri River south, just like Lewis and Clark on their return trip.  We weren’t sure what there might be to see, but had no doubt that we’d find something interesting.