Where the dinosaurs roam

Awoke before dawn to the sound of a large fish jumping out of the water. Might be one a them Chinooks I hear they put in this river. I mean, lake.

Confluence of the Heart and Missouri at sunrise

The small point in the center left of the picture divides the Heart River in the foreground from the Missouri in the background. The Abraham Lincoln Campground’s waterfront is very well maintained and pleasant, with a walkway and plenty of park benches.

The Expedition saw a herd of 300 buffalo, killed 10 deer, and caught several beaver every day during the week before they arrived at the Heart River. I went out at sunrise to hunt buffalo, but did not see any buffalo, so I returned to camp to have my usual breakfast.

Made some coffee (with my now-venerable press) and enjoyed the waterside. A few sounds carried across from the east–they’d been even more audible the previous night. There were only 10 or so occupied campsites, and only one other tent. It’s occupant was a dead ringer for Canadian rocker Geddy Lee of Rush, and his voice would not be out of place coming out of Geddy’s mouth. Sorry, no picture. He was a birdwatcher from Edmonton, AB, and had been out on the road in his Corolla since Sep. 8. He’d gone as far south as the Platte River in Nebraska, and was on his way to Yellowstone Park. He said he was disappointed in the number of birds along the Missouri. Curiously, he hadn’t seen any Canada geese. (I’d seen many flocks in the hour or so between my arrival and sunset the previous night.)

I got up to start some oatmeal when another couple strolled up with a dog and asked if I’d been cold last night. (Temps had been in the low 40s, so I was plenty warm in my tent and bag.)

Larry and Nancy were also headed from Oregon to the upper midwest, between the Twin Cities and Duluth, MN. But they are both originally from Chanute, KS. They live in Oregon between Corvallis and Eugene. They said traffic on the three roads along the ND/MT border was lousy with oil trucks, roughnecks, and crazy drivers. This was repeated to me by another camper in Mandan.

The area along the state line is known as the Bakken formation, an oil-rich shale and dolomite formation of about 200,000 square miles in ND, MT, and Saskatchewan, Canada.  In the last 5 years, the frackers have been going crazy up there. Hotels, shanty towns and apartment multiplexes are springing up in the middle of nowhere, rural schools are suddenly overcrowded, and the traffic is apparently a serious problem. There are only three roads linking the two states north of I-94, and all of them are in the middle of the new oil boom. One of the reasons I’d decided to avoid interstates is to avoid traffic, so I wasn’t about to intentionally throw myself into any.

Map from wikipedia

But here was a problem: I’d planned on visiting the North Dakota river town of Washburn, where I’ve heard there is an excellent interpretive center. Washburn is just downstream of the Knife River settlements where Lewis and Clark overwintered in 1804-5. My dilemma: should I head west like any sane person who realizes his vulnerabililty in the face of entropic motor traffic like that near the fracking fields by taking the interstate and bypassing almost certain mayhem; or should I live out my dream and just harden up, cheat death and brave the chaos for the sake of a museum?

To the interstate, then.

But first, I lounged in camp for a while, writing and taking pictures, had a shower in their excellent comfort station, then went to the park commissary and used their wi-fi for a post. Then, I went back to my campsite and packed up before lounging by the water for a while longer. By then it was almost 11:00, so I rousted myself from the banks of the lovely Heart River and grabbed a sandwich in Bismarck, where a fellow customer saw my moto and asked where I was headed. “Montana,” I replied. “Well, stay away from Williston and Sidney,” he said. “People are just getting killed up there!”

Okaaay. I decided to take the extra 100 miles and move farther into Montana, and following Tom and Annette’s advice I headed up to Fort Peck Lake near Glasgow, MT. This would mean about 150 miles of I-94 to Glendive, MT, where I’d cross the Yellowstone River.

It turned out to be a good choice, as a 15-20 mph south wind was sweeping the plains, which is not too bad on the Beemer, whose swoopy aerodynamic body cuts through the wind pretty well. But there were a few extensive lane closures which had traffic sharing the eastbound lanes, and the combination of wind and oncoming truck traffic in the adjacent lane made the trip a little more interesting, as the interruptions of the wind, alternating with the blast from the trucks just 10 feet away, created strong impacts as the trucks passed.  300 miles of truck-jammed two-lane state or US highway in these conditions would have been brutal. But on the open 4-lane, I made good time.

I was not driving when I took this pic. I was in the back seat, with my feet up, enjoying a chocolate milk. Unfortunately, my cruise control seems to have lost its frictive force (it’s a Throttlemeister–a throttle lock, not a true cruise control), so I have to actually control the speed by holding onto the twistgrip like an animal. It’s barbaric, but at least I don’t have to carry my boats around the Great Falls. Or eat my horses.

On the way, I-94 passes Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which includes the North Dakota Badlands and the Painted Canyons of the Little Missouri, which has carved these hills on the journey to its confluence with the Missouri 60 miles to the northeast.  There is a bison in this picture.

There is a bison in this picture, too.

Yeah, some people still need to be told this.

I crossed into Montana and took the first exit, crossed the Yellowstone River and headed toward the remote Montana dinosaur fields of Garfield and McCone counties. The trip across Hwy 200 was a series of immense landscapes and lonely highway.

I turned north on 24 toward the lake. This stretch is 60 miles of empty road leading into the Hell Creek formation, which is one of the richest veins of dinosaur fossils known. Half of all the T-Rex skeletons on display around the world are from this area, which was covered by a shallow sea 65 million years ago. The local geology is a fossil hunter’s fantasyland.

I saw three vehicles on this stretch of road. Two of them were together.

Northern harriers launched from the roadside as I skirted the east side of the Dry Arm of Fort Peck Lake. Lewis and Clark reached the Dry Arm on May 9, 1805. Lewis described it as the “most extraordinary river that I ever beheld,” because it was as wide as the Missouri (1/2 mile at this point), but had not a drop of water, save a few puddles. Today, it’s covered in 200 feet of water in the deep end of the lake.

I headed to the downstream campground, having covered only 326 miles. The Expedition took 35 days to get from the Knife River settlements of their Mandan hosts to the Dry Arm. I needed about 6 hours.


2 thoughts on “Where the dinosaurs roam

  1. I’m reading this at Jeanne’s house and she doesn’t have an atlas. I’m looking forward to reading this again with my atlas when I get home on Wednesday. I’ll be stopping at the hospital in Festus where Bob will be waiting while Larry has surgery.

  2. I think that maybe my last post didn’t post. I’m enjoying the heck out of reading this. Feel like I’m right there with you. Great adventure!

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