The North Dakota Badlands Traverse
Until May 2013, North Dakota had always been a fly-over state for me. North Dakota has the 4th lowest population density in the U.S., and is known more for ranching and its runaway oil boom than adventure. Consequently, it never made its way onto my expedition radar. That was until my good friend, archaeologist Dr. Richard Rothaus, suggested that the time was ripe to conduct an Adventure Science project in the North Dakota Badlands to explore the drilling debate surrounding the oil boom.
This rush for oil is currently enriching state coffers, and has created a healthy amount of controversy which is primarily focused on the state’s ability to keep pace with the socioeconomic demands required to support the rapidly growing workforce. However, there is significant public outcry about the encroachment of drilling rigs and infrastructure on fragile Badlands wilderness. It didn’t take much convincing for me to see the need to conduct a non-partisan walking transect of this natural refuge in order to make scientific observations on the impact of human development. This is, after all, the same wilderness that inspired President Theodore Roosevelt to create the National Parks system over 100 years ago, after spending a soulful year north of Medora.
The Badlands stretch from Alberta to Nebraska, and include Saskatchewan, Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, and exist as dendritic, often denuded, colorfully etched valleys slicing through the gently rolling prairies of the Midwest. In many places, they are invisible from a distance, but as you approach the edge of the grass-covered plains, the earth drops away, often precipitously. If you can find a way down, you will enter a world where forests grow, rivers run, and incredible hoodoos and fossils remind us of ancient times. In North Dakota, they cut through Quaternary- to Cretaceous-aged sediment, and yield everything from palaeobison bone beds (common along creeks), to dinosaur fossils in some of the canyons (not encountered during our expedition).
Rather than take the established 100-mile Maah Daah Hey Trail, three two-person teams navigated primarily off-trail through areas of interest. To tie itself to the history of the region, the trek started at Killdeer Mountain—a sacred location and site of a large battle between U.S. and Sioux Forces in 1864—traveled through Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, and finished near Medora at the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The goal was to travel on foot to seldom-visited, isolated places within the Badlands. The terrain of the Badlands (once referred to as “Hell with the fires gone out”), while demanding, made for enjoyable hiking, although when wet, the frictionless bentonitic mud became a nightmare to negotiate. The main challenge became navigating the confusing labyrinth of rough terrain, while traveling light enough to cover over 20 miles per day between our camps. Managing resupply with limited road access proved a legitimate logistical hurdle for our support crew so we had to carry all necessary supplies for each day. In the past, these challenges, combined with terrain unsuitable for horseback travel, restrictions on motorized vehicle travel over Federal land, and the sparse occupation of the area generally kept people out. The inhospitable remoteness of the Badlands has left the wilderness largely undocumented and unexplored, although the creation of oil roads is beginning to allow vehicular access to previously inaccessible terrain.
To say the team was impressed and surprised by the terrain they covered is an understatement. Each day was filled with discovery and challenge. Cold mornings typically gave way to hot afternoons, although snow and rain also paid our group a visit. Navigating a growing network of newly created, red-clinker oil-roads, cattle pastures, and isolated valleys full of wild game, we covered 270 miles during the 2-week expedition. Along the way, teams encountered golden eagles, bighorn sheep, deer, bison, wild horses, and elk, as well as finding evidence for wolves, coyotes, and bears in the area. The Little Missouri River was also low enough to be forded on several occasions, allowing for the team to expand its coverage despite the absence of bridges. Numerous sites of historical, archaeological, and paleontological importance were discovered. Of particular interest were the bone beds weathering out of the numerous stream banks that bisect the region. Bison and horse remains were identified in these bone beds, placing their age at over 100 years, but potentially much older in the deeper deposits, which seem to correlate with end of the Ice Age nearly 10,000 years ago.
Finally, the team recorded a number of oil wells in the region, observing the condition of the pads, and recording evidence of leaks or spills (either liquid or gas; teams carried hydrogen sulfide (H2S) monitors), or litter/waste. Overall, the teams were satisfied with the condition of the well pads, and general lack of spills. Litter was present, but typically at the entrances to the oil pads and in the ditches on either side of the road leading up to them. Aside from the red scoria roads, which are visible from a distance, the taupe-colored pump jacks and storage tanks are camouflaged against the landscape.
Traveling through the badlands of North Dakota proved to be a rewarding and inspiring experience. There is still a natural feel to the area, and currently, the number and placement of well pads has not (from our perspective) negatively impacted the most wild and remote areas. This is still a region that doesn’t get many visitors (aside from the occasional well service vehicle), and the likelihood of human encounters drops the further you are from the main roads. This sense of isolation definitely fueled my opinion that the Badlands are still wild, and ripe for exploration and adventure. However, the encroachment of the oil industry is real, and the government needs to work closely with industry to ensure that development doesn’t come at the expense of this natural gem. It is my hope that a balance will be achieved so that the badlands continue to remain wild, harsh, and inspiring.