Chocolate Lake

A whole lake? Made out of chocolate??? Yes! At least that’s what it looked like … Good, clean mud never kept Molly from going swim-swim!

P.S. It’s two for one this week! I was invited to guest post on Karen R. Sanderson’s Blog as part of a series of posts about our great state of North Dakota. The irony? The video above features a scoria beach. The post below is all about a scoria road. I guess it’s Scoria Week!


Scoria Road, a guest post on Karen R. Sanderson’s Blog

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Instead of getting me into trouble–like you’d think it would–my bent for aimless wandering keeps turning up new treasures I never would have found any other way.

My dog Molly and I were driving home on Highway 83 one day. The sky was blue and full of big summer clouds and the pastures were the vivid green you only see in North Dakota in spring, before the Indian summers scorch everything brown. …” Go read it!

Lost Lake

The results are in.

Lost Lake is indeed lost.

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I was exploring the North Dakota countryside via one of my favorite modes–Google Maps–when I spied a tiny splotch of green indicating some sort of recreation area. (Another reason green is my favorite color–green splotches on maps.) I zoomed in until the name appeared: Lost Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

The refuge was located squarely in the middle of nowhere and was small enough to lose on the head of a pin.

Exactly the kind of place Molly and I would love to see.

Satellite view on Google Maps didn’t tell me much. There did not appear to be any roads through he refuge. Or trails. Or even an entrance.

Most notably, there did not appear to be a lake.

Two creeks ran through the green splotch, and there were two or three small bodies of water, which may or may not be worthy of the name “lake”–depending, perhaps, on whether you had just arrived from Death Valley, and whether it had been raining in North Dakota recently.

The locale was both so remote and so mysterious, of course Molly and I had to check it out.

Google Maps offered two routes to get there. I started with one, penetrating deeper and deeper into the country, only to discover that there were no road signs. Meaning I couldn’t find my turn.

Now, let me define the word “lost,” according to me. “Lost” is when you have no idea how to get home again. By that definition, I don’t think I’ve ever been “lost.” I’m very good at following a trail backwards to my starting point.

However, I frequently have no idea where I’m going. In fact, I usually have no idea where I’m going. Hence why I’d rather just stuff the map in my back pocket and follow my nose. Maps stress me out. All too often, I find discrepancies between where I think I’m going and where I end up.

Google Maps is fun from an armchair perspective–but gets all complicated on me out in the field.

My search for Lost Lake was a classic example. I tried several roads–and saw plenty of pretty scenery–but didn’t find anything like what was drawn on the map.

I finally gave up on the first route Google Maps gave me and tried the second.

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This road proved more direct. I finally found a large brown sign proclaiming, “Lost Lake National Wildlife Refuge.”

Where one finds a sign, one would presume to find an entrance.

Not in this case. The barbed wire fence stretched endlessly to the horizon.

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So I followed it.

A couple of miles later, I almost missed the gap in the fence, the turn-off, and the cattle guard. No sign. No fanfare. Apparently Lost Lake intended to stay lost.

I followed the road into the park and drove from one end to the other, about two miles. Pleasant stretch of road, ending in another gap in the barbed wire, another cattle guard, and (oddly) a gravel pit.

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Something was missing.

I turned around and retraced my route.

Yep. No lake. Not one. Not so much as a damp, duck-infested ditch alongside the road. No turn-offs or trail heads, either, that I could see. Lost Lake was indeed lost.

This, then, was the Bermuda Triangle of North Dakota: where lakes disappear, never to be seen again.

To make the trip worth our while, Molly and I poked around the surrounding area, had a great walk, and came up with some nice photographs.

But Lost Lake is indeed Lost. Maybe we’ll try again another day.

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The Day I Drove an Ambulance

Well, my most popular post so far, The Day I Drove a Patrol Car, is almost up to 100 views. And I’m ashamed to say how long it took me to remember another driving opportunity I had with emergency services. Yep. The day I drove an ambulance.

Almost 140 years ago.

It was at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, and the year was 1875. Or so a number of people running around in blue wool uniforms and calico dresses seemed to think, and since several of these people were carrying firearms and others were in possession of a cannon, I recommend you agree with whatever they tell ya.

As I’ve mentioned, I do living history at Fort Lincoln State Park, and every summer, several frontier military re-enactment groups get together and bring the place to life with an encampment and demonstrations of all kinds. Cavalry …

7th Cavalry

7th Cavalry

Infantry …

17th Infantry

17th Infantry

Artillery. (I did mention the cannon, right?)

The Cannon

The Cannon

And lots of open-fire cooking and washboard laundry-doing. (And banjo playing. That would be me. Banjoist.)

Then there’s the ambulance. Did you ever stop to wonder what a nineteenth-century ambulance looks like? It looks like a wagon. (Sorry I don’t have a picture. Trust me, it looks just like a wagon. And no, it doesn’t have a light bar or a siren.)

But it does have the best suspension you’ll find anywhere. Which, on rough prairie sod, means you’ll get your backside bruised as bad as if that ambulance had no suspension at all. I’m always baffled when I remember that this was one of the most comfortable forms of transportation in the West.

The ambulance we use at Ft. Lincoln is mighty special. She saw service in the Civil War. That’s right. A real piece of history, bumping and swaying over our Parade Ground and giving rides to tourists. Heck, it’s an honor just to ride in it.

But I drove it.

Never mind I didn’t have a clue how to drive a team of horses. A pair of black and white Belgian/Percheron crosses named Muffin and Darby.

But Private Redding, the driver, had an annoying habit, and maybe he owed me. He always gave free rides to everyone–except me. As soon as I got in the wagon, he’d turn around in the driver’s seat and ask, “You gonna play that banjo?”

“If you want,” I’d say.

“The horses don’t start ’til the music starts,” he’d retort.

In effect, I was the sole individual who had to pay for the privilege of riding the ambulance wagon. Maybe I had a bug under my bonnet (literally).

We were sitting in the wagon, just Private Redding and me and another private, waiting for something to do. Private Redding had gotten off on another one of his long-winded tirades about something he couldn’t change (so he resorted to cussing it out, whatever it was).

I was bored.

And when my mind is bored, it comes up with stupid ideas.

And what the heck. Surely he owed me for all that banjo music.

“Hey,” I said, cutting in as soon as he took a breath. “Could you teach me how to drive the wagon?”

Silence. He stared skyward, chewing his thick black mustache. I envisioned his mouth on the verge of forming the word, “No.”

Finally he patted the wagon bench beside him. “Git up here.”


He showed me how and where to hold the reins and told me to plant my feet good and hard on the iron bar running in front of me. Despite the warning to hang on tight, the horses nearly dragged me right off the bench the moment they started. I thought the pulling action was supposed to go through the trace lines, not me!?

I did all right, so long as I drove in a straight line. For some reason, turning gave me grief. I’d go all wrong, and when I tried to correct it, I’d go even worse. Fortunately, we were in the middle of the wide-open Parade Grounds and not on a road. But I never knew it was possible to almost run over one of your own horses if you took a corner too tight.

Muffin looked over her shoulder, her expression as good as words: “WHO’S DRIVING THIS THING!!!”

Sorry, Muffin.

Private Redding finally took the reins back from me.

Sheepishly, I folded my hands in my lap. “What was I doing wrong?”

The private chewed his mustache again. Finally, he looked at me and replied with Old-West honesty. “I don’t know.”

First Sergeant Johnson caught up with us later. “Hey,” he said, beaming at me,” I saw you driving the wagon! How’d she do?” he asked Private Redding.

“A snake woulda broke its back tryin’ to follow her trail.”

More Old-West honesty.

To my surprise, the next day Private Redding asked if I was going to drive again.

“After how bad I did yesterday?”

He shook his head. “I never said you had to quit.”

I got in the driver’s seat.

This time, Private Redding studied me closely. “You ain’t turnin’ soon enough, that’s what it is. Turn when I say. … Now turn!”

I finally got it right.

That’s not to say I remembered any of his lessons the next summer. Or any summer after that. Don’t get me talking about the fancy black barouche.

The Black Barouche

The Black Barouche

Or the side saddle.

The Side Saddle

The Side Saddle

Different stories for different times. But I can say that I drove a genuine Civil War ambulance wagon.

What experience am I still missing? Hmm. Anybody know where I can find a fire engine?