Sunday, January 13, 2013

Cross-Country Road Trip: Forest Fire in Lame Deer, Montana

Wildfire in Lame Deer, Montana
Photo by Brad Sylvester. Copyright 2011.
One of the notable events of our cross country road trip in 2011, was our passage through the small town of Lame Deer, Montana. Lame Deer is a Cheyenne Tribe community and the tribal headquarters of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. it is located in what I would call the high country of Montana.

The approach from the east is uphill for a long way. It is around this area where the climb into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains begins. We took Route 212 which passes through cattle land, scrub and forests that are much more predominantly pine and other evergreen than anything I'm used to in New England. The landscape was interesting all by itself.

The sky grew overcast and grey as we drove. We hadn't seen a weather report, so we didn't think anything of it.

Flames crest the ridge.
Photo by Brad Sylvester, copyright 2011.
As we continued to drive up the long incline, I began to smell something odd, as if, perhaps the car were overheating. I pulled over to the side of the road to check it out and give the engine a rest. As I opened the car door and stepped out, however, I noticed that the air was noticeably hazy, as if we were passing through a light fog. The familiar smell of woodsmoke, however, revealed the source of the "fog."

It was clear that somewhere in the area was a very large forest fire. We had seen no other evidence of it on our way thus far, so it must be ahead of us. The question was, was it off to the side or would it be close to the road and present a danger to us.

The area where we had stopped was well-forested on either side. If flames were to sweep through the pine here, it would be quite unpleasant and potentially quite dangerous for us. The car seemed fine so we decided to push ahead and try to put the fire behind us if we could.

Forest fire at Lame Deer, Montana
Flames racing downhill at Lame Deer, Montana
The sky was completely grey with smoke, but we couldn't see any evidence of the smoke's origin until, after some miles, we finally crested the ridge. It seemed to come from ahead and off to our right. Ahead to the left, we could see a bit of blue sky.

As we approached Lame Deer, we could see thick dark smoke rising from over a hill to our right. It was still ahead of us so we kept driving, until it was directly beside us. The hill from which it came was about a half mile to our right and we pulled off the side of the road to snap a few pictures.

Within a minute, we saw not only smoke pouring over the hill, but flames as well. The flames climbed each pine tree and lept from tree to tree. It seemed almost to flow down the hill toward us with a light north wind at its back. Between us and the hill was flat farmland, dry grass and scrub that would burn quickly.

As the flames drew closer, we drove away to safety.
There were scattered houses and horse corrals along the edges of the field as well. I wondered if the fire would wipe out this little community. I didn't see any noticeable exodus of residents fleeing the fire, so they either felt safe or figured they still had plenty of time if they needed to leave the area.

As the flames ran closer to the flat of the valley, we drove out to be out of harm's way. We watched the smoke roll across Route 212 behind us, although I don't know how much of the flame, if any, made it across the open scrub land.

The volume of smoke we had seen earlier might very well have come from another larger fire elsewhere in the mountains of Montana. There were several fires reported across the area that day. We did see the smoke from another of those wildfires in the distance not long after we passed through Lame Deer.
Smoke from a distant fire
While the countryside of Montana has much to recommend it, I'm not sure I'd be comfortable living in a place where there are regular wildfires that might threaten my home or catch me unawares while hiking or camping. We saw the evidence of wildfires from prior years in many places along this stretch of our cross country road trip (as shown in the photo below).

Pines trees killed by a wildfire in Montana

When you fly across the country, you'll never encounter events like this on the way. I really think driving across the country helps add a greater depth to one's understanding of the different regions of the country. On the outskirts of Lame Deer, for instance, many of the homes were very modest and seemed as if the owners lacked the funds to undertake basic maintenance and repairs. Almost every home, though, had one or more horses in the yard. I think, perhaps, this hints at how the Cheyenne community here values its cultural heritage.

One day, I'd like to spend more time exploring this region of Montana, getting to know the land, the history and the people who live here. So much to see, so little time...

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Nature Improves Creativity

Just in case you were looking for another reason to get out and enjoy the great outdoors, a new study shows that leaving al the demands of modern day society behind and spending some time away from technology out in the country can make a huge improvement in your creativity. In the study, two groups of backpackers were given a standardized test that measures executive attention (creativity). One group was tested before going on a trip and another was tested after four days on the trail without any electronic devices. The results showed a very large difference in the performance of the two groups.

Sightseeing in the USA doesn't have to take place at distant national parks, there are thousands of hiking trails all around the country where one can get away and enjoy the natural beauty that this country has to offer. Hiking is not only good for your physical well-being, but as this new study shows, it's good for your mental well-being as well.

Read more about the study here

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Devils Tower, Wyoming

Devils Tower, Wyoming
Photo by Brad Sylvester, copyright 2012
OK, I have to admit that my impression of Devils Tower is a bit colored by watching the movie A Close Encounter of the Third Kind in which Richard Dreyfuss sculpted the iconic monument from mashed potatoes in an alien-inspired OCD trance. Well... I guess you had to be there in the theater for the original release or, perhaps 11 years old as I was when I saw the film back in 1977, but I do have to say that I half expected military roadblocks and dead cattle to be lining the road during the approach. Of course, there was none of that though the roads and fields were quite recognizable  from Spielberg's movie.
Seeing Devils Tower in person in September of 2011, however, was actually more impressive than I expected. It was especially breath-taking, up close. It's easy to see why the Lakota Indians and a number of other tribes of the region consider it to be a sacred site. Among the Native American names for Devils Tower are Bear's Tipi (Arapaho & Cheyenne); Bear's Lodge, Bear's House, and Bear Peak (Cheyenne); Bear's Lair (Crow); Tree Rock and Aloft on a Rock (Kiowa); and perhaps the most imaginative come from the Lakota Sioux - Bear Lodge, Bear Lodge Butte, Ghost Mountain, Grey Horn Butte, Mythic Owl Mountain, Penis Mountain, and Grizzly Bear's Lodge.

As a side note, as we traveled through the great plains and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, I was very aware that once this land belonged to other peoples, and that our ancestors made it a part of the United States through bloodshed and government sanctioned genocide. The guilty are long dead, and we cannot hold ourselves forever accountable for the sins of our fathers, but we can recognize those sins and make sure we never allow ourselves to again walk the path that they walked.

My mother, my wife, and myself posing for
a picture at a large turn-off on the approach to
Devils Tower.
Photo by Brad Sylvester, copyright 2012.
Devils Tower is a columnar basaltic formation rising out of the ground about fifty miles southwest of Belle Fourche, South Dakota off Route 24 in Wyoming. There are a number of photo opportunities along Routes 24 and 110 as you get close where you can take photos with Devils Tower in the background.

There's a small information center at the parking area and loop trail entrance. Inside are, souvenirs as one would expect, but also a number of exhibits detailing the cultural importance and legends of the origin of Devils Tower from the Plains Indian tribes, as well as its history as the first of our country's National Monuments, designated as such in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt.

This fawn and its mother grazed quite near
the path as we circled Devils Tower.
Photo by Brad Sylvester, copyright 2012
The loop trail is paved and though it is worn and uneven in spots, it is a, short, easy, fairly level walk that circles Devils Tower. As the trail loops around it offers a view of the river valley and then passes into forest. Surprisingly to me, the forest and the foot of the Lakota's sacred rock offered us not only views of the literally monolithic structure, but also of wildlife, including the fawn pictured above, its mother, a couple species of squirrels, and a rabbit, in addition to the Turkey Vultures and pigeons that circled around the summit.
Vultures and pigeons, just discernible with
a zoom lens, circle the summit of Devils Tower.
Photo by Brad Sylvester, copyright 2012.
Devils Tower, itself, though, was certainly the star performer of the day. It was formed as an underground magma vault that cooled and hardened in place, to be revealed as the softer ground around it melted away over the millenia. As the basalt cooled, it formed naturally hexagonal columns. Over the centuries, some of those on the outside have fallen away and lay piled around the base of the tower where they offer themselves for closer inspection.

Devils Tower is comprised of hexagonal
columns of basalt.
Photo by Brad Sylvester, copyright 2012
The nature of the columnar basalt, at once geometrically precise and yet flowing along the paths of least resistance gives it an truly artistic presence that could not have been sculpted any more perfectly than nature has made it (even in mashed potatoes). If you are traveling through the plains anywhere near Devils Tower or Yellowstone Park, I highly recommend detouring to visit the tower. It is truly remarkable.

Unless you're planning to climb the tower, which is permitted once you register your intent inside the visitor center, expect to spend a relatively short time here. The walk and tour of the visitor center takes perhaps 90 minutes. Bear Country USA is nearby, though, and between the two of them, you can make a good day trip of it from the vicinity of Yellowstone.
The back side of Devils Tower shows the
frozen movement of flowing lava.
Photo by Brad Sylvester, copyright 2012


Monday, October 17, 2011

Badlands National Park

While it is interesting to see the wildlife of Badlands National Park, the real star here is the geology. The soils that can be seen in the exposed cliffs were laid down for tens of millions of years or more. Both the colors and shapes of the badlands are evidence of the geological history of this part of South Dakota.

At the bottom of the deep ravines, a dark grey material is the oldest of the visible strata. This rock, says signs in the park, is known as Pierre Shale (described by the U.S. Geological Survey as "dark-gray clay shale with calcareous and ferruginous concretions and sandy members") and is the result of sedimentary mud that once lay at the bottom of a sea that covered what is now Badlands National Park. Because of its origin, this layer contains fossils of sea life such as ammonites, early clams, and baculites.

The Pierre Shale was deposited over the Upper Cretaceous period, also known as the Late Cretaceous period which lasted from about 98 million years ago to about 65 million years ago. At the end of that time, the vast sea that covered this part of North America receded mainly due to the rising elevation of the area caused by tectonic activity (the shifting of the Earth's plates). The sea floor mud formed fertile ground and not long after the waters retreated, geologically speaking, it was covered by a thick jungle.

Yellow Mounds Paleosol and Interior Paleosol

Decaying plant material mixed with the top layers of the Pierre Shale over the next 28 million years or so, resulting in a layer of yellowish soil. This layer is called the Yellow Mounds Paleosol. At some point around 37 million years ago, the jungle was covered by new sediments carried from the west. The minerals contained in this layer of soil were different than those of the Pierre Shale, so when the jungle grew up again in this new layer, the action of the plants and the organic material they mixed with it resulted in a soil with a strong reddish tint. This layer is called the Interior Paleosol.
The Colors of the Yellow Mounds Paleosol and the
reddish purple Interior Paleosol are visible on the steep sides
of deep ravines in Badlands National Park.
Photo by Brad Sylvester. Copyright 2011, all rights reserved.

Both the Yellow Mounds and Interior Paleosols were later covered again, becoming packed and fossilized by the weight of later sediments. Their distinctive coloration, however, can be seen in the cliff-sides exposed by erosion over the millenia.

Popcorn Rock or Bentonite Clay

More hints about the geologic history of Badlands National Park can be found in the make-up of much of the top layers of soil within the park. Although the area gets little rainfall for most of the year, the soil through much of the roughest areas of the park looks like dried mud. Indeed, it is, but mud of a very interesting nature.

It is a clay called Bentonite by geologists, but known as ball clay or popcorn rock in the local vernacular because of its unique properties. When it does rain in this arid part of South Dakota, The South Dakota Badlands Bentonite, because it contains sodium instead of calcium as it does in some other regions, says John P. Bluemle, absorbs the water and expands to many times its original size. The repeated expansion and contraction as it dries again causes it to break up so instead of a smooth surface, you end up with rough balls of hard packed clay that are an inch or two in diameter.

Bentonite or Popcorn Rock covers many of the steep hillsides
in Badlands National Park.
Photo by Brad Sylvester. Copyright 2011. Do not copy.
These clay balls will often break away from the hillside and roll down the into the ravine when they get wet. When this happens, their soft outer surface will often pick up pebbles as it rolls. If you look carefully at the bottoms of the gullies, you might find some of these clay balls that look like someone took hours to stud them with a variety of small rocks.

Bentonite is formed from the breakdown of volcanic rock and ash. With the super-sized volcanic caldera of Yellowstone National Park lying not too far to the northwest of Badlands National Park, it's pretty easy to determine the origin of the badlands bentonite.

Clastic Dikes

Clastic dikes run down the center of many of the clay hills
of Badlands National Park.
Photo by Brad Sylvester. Copyright 2011. Do not copy.
Another interesting geologic feature helps to give the badlands its rugged appearance. Clastic dikes are vertical wall-like structures of harder rock that erodes more slowly than the surrounding bentonite and paleosols. The result is that it often looks like the spine of the mountains, sticking up with vertical sides from the surrounding rock and soil. Clastic dikes are interesting formations that also tell us something about the history of this land.

According to Harman D. Maher Jr. of the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Department of Geology and Geography, it is believed that clastic dikes are formed when tectonic activity causes the ground to move in such as way as to open up deep crevices. These open crevices are quickly filled in either from above or possibly from liquefied material being forced up from below. This filling material solidifies almost like cement leaving a vertical wall of harder rock encased in softer surrounding soils.

Because of the way it is formed, the material of the clastic dikes may be of a different geological age than much of the material surrounding it. Furthermore, sometimes these crevices open and fill more than once. So if a clastic dike already existed and the same crevice opens again, but wider, the original clastic dike may be encased in a another layer of material, showing several vertical layers of different types of rock when the clastic dike is eventually exposed by erosion.

Source note: Much of the geologic history of the Badlands is told by signage within the park itself or was related to me by park rangers, and it is these that serve as the primary resource for the geological history that I relate here. Where other sources are used, they are referenced within the text.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Road Trip Day 4: Badlands National Park

View from an overlook along the Sage Creek Rim Road in
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
The fourth day of our road trip across the country was really the first day where we didn't need to worry about putting lots of miles behind us. This was a planned day of "rest" sightseeing at Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Badlands is a big place and I'm going to break it up into several parts. One of the things we hoped to do when we came out west was to see wildlife that simply isn't present back east.

One of the smaller of these is the prairie dog. Although small, prairie dogs serve a vital role in the prairie eco-system as a food source for a variety of mid-sized predators, like foxes, badgers, raptors, bobcats, and the endangered black-footed ferret. They also help churn and aerate the soil with their prolific burrowing. But, this is a blog about sightseeing and not about wildlife management, so I'll skip the details about prairie dogs (which, in Badlands National Park, by the way, are of the black-tailed variety,  specifically of the species Cynomys ludovicianus).

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Prairie dogs are visible in several spots around the Badlands Loop Road, but the best place to view them is near the Pinnacles Entrance along the Sage Creek Rim Road. Shortly after entering the park, there will be a right hand turn-off marked Sage Creek Rim Road. It's a dirt road, but it is well-groomed and easily passable by any car during the dry season at least. There are several scenic overlooks in the first few miles along this road, and you should definitely take the time to stop and look out over the landscape here. At the five mile mark, however, is Roberts Prairie Dog Town.

Here, on flat level ground, far enough away from any ledges to let the kids walk around without worrying, there is a parking area and a little walkway into the prairie dog town. The town consists of many, many prairie dog burrows. You'll see prairie dogs sitting as sentinels near one of the two entrances to each burrow around the field and others grazing on the grasses seemingly without a care in the world.

At this location within Badlands National Park, the prairie dogs seem accustomed to people and didn't startle as easily as those in other locations I visited. Even so, never feed wild animals even when they seem tame. Prairie dogs don't drink water at all, so they need to get the right mixture of water and food through the grasses they eat. Adding dry crackers or other artificial foods to their diets can throw off their balance, especially if they contain salt. Additionally, once they start to expect food from humans they seek out people and may spend more time in and around the road near the parking area exposing them to additional risk.

A Prairie Dog crouching in the entrance to its burrow at
Roberts Prairie Dog Town in Badlands National Park, SD
Feel free to wander into the prairie dog town, watch them go about their activities, and take all the pictures you want, just watch out for the holes in the ground and the occasional wandering bison. While we were there, one lone bull bison was grazing a couple hundred yards away from the parking area. We kept a wary eye on his position lest it approached closer than the 100 yard minimum distance recommended by the park rangers. It never did.

Money-saving Tip

If anyone in your group is 62 years of age or older, they can buy a lifetime senior pass for just $10. This pass let's them and anyone else in the car into any National Park for FREE-- just another reason to travel with the in-laws.  At some national monuments and other sites, it offers a discount on admission as well. (Mount Rushmore is the exception - no discount for senior passes there.) Otherwise, Badlands National Park admission is $15 per car load, but that admission is good for seven days.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Road Trip Day 3 - Wall, South Dakota

My wife and I by Dam #7 on the Mississippi River
Photo by Barbara Gammon, Copyright 2011. Do not copy.
We drove through hundreds of miles of corn fields on day three of our cross country road trip. We crossed the Mississippi River which was bigger than I expected it to be this far north. We stopped and took a few pictures at the crossing in Minnesota near Lock and Dam #7. I hadn't realized that the Mississippi had locks installed to make it navigable as far north as St. Paul. It makes sense though, as the information sign at the rest stop points out that the from source to mouth, the Mississippi has a vertical drop of 1488 feet, of that, 857 feet of drop occurs between the Mississippi's source at Lake Itasca and the northern border of Iowa.

After the Mississippi, I-90 climbs up onto the plains. More corn fields. Interestingly, though, the corn fields here are doing double duty as wind farms. Rows of modern windmills stretch as far as the eye can see. I couldn't tell which manufacturer produced these windmills, but the website Wind Energy, The Facts says that the most popular models produce 1500-3000 kW of power.The U.S. Energy Information website says that the average U.S. home consumes just under 11,000 kW hours per year. For comparison, the average coal-fired power plant in the U.S. produces roughly 220,000 kW of power though this type of plants vary widely in size and output.

Windmills ended abruptly once we reached South Dakota, despite the fact that there were just as many corn fields along the highway. They seemed to be replaced with billboards which lined the highway. As a native Vermonter, where billboards are prohibited by law, I ordinarily prefer landscapes uncluttered by advertising. In South Dakota, however, they only serve to break up the endless corn fields.

I'm beginning to suspect, however, that the quality of the attraction is inversely proportional to the number of billboards on the route to it. Wall, South Dakota and, specifically, Wall Drug have the highest billboard count along I-90. We did not expect much from Wall and our expectations were met. We arrived in the early evening and checked into the first place we saw, the Sunshine Inn. We asked for a non-smoking room and got one that smelled of smoke. Continental breakfast consisted of prepackaged cinnamon rolls, coffee and orange juice. It was cheap in every possible meaning of the word.

Wall Drug itself is essentially a small mall full of tourist shops. Several gift stores, a cowboy boot shop, leather goods, camping equipment, knives, books, jewelry, and similar offerings are peddled from individual stores inside the Wall Drug complex. There is  T-Rex robot that comes to life every 12 minutes or so and a small outdoor area with some static displays. For me the most interesting thing was the photo wall in the very back building. While it mostly chronicles frontier life, there is one photo that more accurately reveals "how the west was won." It shows a number of U.S. Cavalry Soldiers posing proudly on horseback in and around a mass pit grave filled with native American bodies at Wounded Knee. Read Lorie Liggett's introduction to Wounded Knee here.

Don't feel compelled to make a stop at Wall Drug, its reputation and billboards notwithstanding, there's not much to see here. The best thing about Wall, South Dakota, is that it is located at the entrance to the Badlands National Park. We ate dinner across the street from Wall Drug at the Cactus Cafe & Lounge. Not recommended. They offered an all-you-can-eat dinner buffet for $10.95 which featured a soup and salad bar, spaghetti, fried chicken, baked beans, and pizza. It was not particularly good, but it was close and easy after a long day of driving.

Me posing with the Green Giant.
Photo by Linda Sylvester, copyright 2011.
Do not copy.
I should also mention that we had a celebrity encounter in Blue Earth, Minnesota. We actually had the opportunity to get our pictures taken with the famous Green Giant. There's a sign next to him which gives some statistics such as the fact that it cost $43,000 to build him out of fiberglass and that he stands 55 feet six inches tall. You'll have to go to Blue Earth and read the sign for yourself to see which of the Green Giant's body parts measures 48 inches...

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Road Trip Day 2: Chicago Traffic and Wisconsin Dells

The second day of our journey from New Hampshire to Montana was spent entirely on traveling. We ended up in Mauston, Wisconsin. We had originally intended to stop in a place called Wisconsin Dells, but when we got off the exit, we discovered that Wisconsin Dells is apparently the Las Vegas of Wisconsin. There were waterparks, an amusement park, themed resort hotels, and more people than we had seen since we left Chicago behind earlier in the day.

We stopped in to a couple of hotels, but the only one that had a double room left for the night was about twice the price we had planned to pay-- although it was a suite with a jacuzzi in the room and offered a free shuttle to the nearby casino. We decided to get back on the highway and look for a room in the next town. Mauston had a hotel right off the exit for the price we wanted.

In all we covered 617 miles on Saturday. We would have gotten further, but traffic in Chicago slowed us down considerably. It was stop and go for about an hour. We also got a late start, getting on the road about 9:00 am and stopping at a grocery store for supplies. By the way, sandwich meats and cheese cost about twice the price we are used to at the Giant Eagle grocery store in Ashtabula... On the other hand, in much of Pennsylvania and Ohio, gasoline was only about $3.43 per gallon, about 25 cents less than we are used to. In Illinois, it was back up in the $3.65 range and it dropped to $3.45 in Wisconsin. Be warned though, the very first gas station off I-90 in Wisconsin, Love's, was priced 10 cents/ gallon higher than the next one just a few miles down the highway.

Chicago as seen from I-90
Photo by Brad Sylvester, copyright 2011. Do not copy.

We stopped for dinner at "The World's Largest Culver's," home of the famous Butter Burger. Well, the butter burger consists of an ordinary hamburger on a bun that has been lightly buttered before it was dropped on the grill for a light toasting. The hamburger patties themselves were even thinner than those found on a regular McDonald's hamburger. My son, despite our warnings, ordered the cod. Being from New England, he was disappointed. Culver's does not get a recommendation despite its prolific signage along I-90.

I'll also mention that as we waited out the traffic in Chicago, there was an air-show going on. We were able to watch the jets flying in formation and performing high-speed acrobatic maneuvers over the city, which helped to pass the time.

Our goal for day three of the trip is to reach Wall, South Dakota which will be about 645 miles and leave us only 8-9 hours away from Bozeman, Montana. With an earlier start and no major cities in the way, that should be no problem.