8 Places I Really Want to See in North Dakota

Just because my camper broke down doesn’t mean all adventures are called off. Some people might call me “stuck in North Dakota.” I’m not one of them. In fact, I’m thrilled to still be in North Dakota. (So is Molly. She loves snow.) I wasn’t leaving my home state for lack of adventure, but because I didn’t think my campering skills were equal to winter camping in the frigid north.

But with the camper retired, and my top ten currently put on hold, I’m casting my eye closer to home. So here are eight destinations I want to see in North Dakota.

Audubon National Wildlife Refuge

Yes, THAT Audubon–the famous bird painter and naturalist. He spent the summer of 1843 right here in what’s now North Dakota, painting our native bird species. He now has a wildlife refuge on the banks of Lake Sakakawea named in his honor, complete with a stunning interpretive center, nature programs, and walking and driving trails.

The Garrison Dam

Garrison Dam, North DakotaShe ain’t no small fry. Two and a half miles long, she’s one of the largest dams in the country. The Garrison Dam controls the flow of the Missouri River and created massive Lake Sakakawea at her back, the third-largest man-made lake in the U.S. President Eisenhower himself dedicated the dam. However, this impressive engineering feat has a tragic history, as well. The creation of Lake Sakakawea flooded the former Fort Berthold Reservation belonging to the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Mandan, the Hidatsa, and the Arikara. These people had to evacuate their homes against their will, in a modern-day echo of the U.S. government breaking treaty with Native peoples.

Icelandic State Park

Yes, I’m still talking about North Dakota. Interestingly, in addition to all those Norwegians and Germans from Russia, North Dakota has a population of Icelandic immigrants as well. Icelandic State Park has an interpretive center all about the settlement of northeastern North Dakota–and features forested hiking trails, too. (Forests? Yes, this really is still North Dakota.) Plus it’s near the little town of Walhalla. Any town named after the Viking after world has gotta be worth visiting.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National ParkPresident Theodore Roosevelt established two ranches in this beautiful place. The landscapes are not to be missed! At the drop of a hat, the grassy rolling hills turn into an arid, painted rockscape. The area is famous for buffalo, prairie dogs, and wild horses–all of which ought to be added to Molly’s database of smells. I’ve never been to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in winter, and snow gives me an added advantage when introducing Molly to new wildlife species–I can see their prints in the snow before she smells them, and teach her how we respond to, say, buffalo. (AVOID.) Plus it would just be a real treat to see the Badlands under snow.

Lake Metigoshe State Park

Welcome to the land of French fur trappers. Up here by the Canadian border, you’ll find a lot of French influence. This park is another rare forested area of North Dakota, and with a packed winter activity list, it doesn’t know the meaning of “hibernation.” Of particular interest is Lake Metigoshe State Park‘s Becoming an Outdoors Woman workshops. Their winter activities include programs in cross country skiing, tracking, winter survival, and (get this) dog sledding. I am so tempted.

Cross Ranch State Park

Situated on the banks of the Missouri, this park has walking trails galore. (They also host a smash Bluegrass camp and music festival in the summer.) Like Theodore Roosevelt State Park, I’ve never explored Cross Ranch in winter. Why not scout out their summer camping opportunities while enjoying views of the frozen Missouri?

Gingras Trading Post

Before the pioneers, there were the fur trappers and Indian traders. As one of the oldest extant buildings in the state of North Dakota, the Gingras Trading Post is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built by Antoine Blanc Gingras in the 1840s as part of a string of trading posts across northern North Dakota and southern Manitoba.

Fort Clark

Yet another trading post, this one in central North Dakota. Not much here these days except some walking trails and dents in the ground that were once Mandan and Arikara earth lodges. Mainly I want to go there because I never knew the place existed until I saw a road sign. And I thought I was familiar with all the forts in North Dakota! My pride is hurt. Now I have to go see it.

Can’t Wait to Hit the Trail …

My brother and I have been involved in local history and tourism for many years, so I know first-hand how amazing North Dakota is. It’s the state that the tourist agencies forgot–and it’s their loss. North Dakota has some of the best history, wildlife, and outdoor attractions in the country, and it’s our little secret.

I’m not planning on hibernating this winter. I want to get out and explore! Specifically, I’m thinking about getting into a pair of cross country skis again …

Pawnotes from Molly

I don’t know what “Grand Canyon” is, and I don’t know what “Florida” and “California” are, but I know one thing: snow! I’ll follow my girl anywhere, but I’m so happy we’ll be in North Dakota during snow season. All that cold fluffy stuff is the best. Cross-country skiing? Take me with!

Epic Fail: Three-Mile Ski

Molly enjoying a winter adventure“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” ~Thomas Edison

My personal goal is to never give up until failure is definite. I’m proud to say that I didn’t let a mere nuisance ruin my RV plans. No, we went down in a blaze of glory and dragged our broken remains to the mechanics. If you’re going to fail, you should epic fail.

In that same spirit of epic fail, I recall another adventure that died a glorious death …

A few winters ago, the latest big idea to get in my head was cross country skiing. My mom loaned me an old pair of skis, and after much tripping over my own feet, I finally got into something of a cadence. One of the skis was unbalanced (or maybe it was just me that was unbalanced), and the shoes were slightly too small, but soon my dog Molly and I were each laying our distinctive tracks through the snow in our favorite park.

Nice. What next? Why, long-distance skiing, of course. We knew of a beautiful paved bike path running through the countryside, and I’d seen ski tracks along the shoulder. So we chose a goal about three and a half miles from our start point, which would make for a seven-mile round-trip, and one cloudy but pleasant afternoon we headed out.

About a mile into our ski, I was having trouble with my equipment–namely, the shoes. Just barely too small! They started rubbing the backs of my heels. But I wasn’t a quitter. What the heck, I could nurse blisters later. I wanted to finish my ski.

Then the weather shifted. Suddenly that pearly-gray sky started dropping snowflakes. Within minutes, the snow was so heavy that objects a few yards ahead of me looked like they were draped with a lace veil. When we stopped for a break, Molly’s black and tan coat turned white.

So? What was a little snow? (Okay, I was beginning to entertain visions of hot chocolate.) But we pressed on. Success would taste that much sweeter, knowing everything I’d overcome to finish this ski …

Then a hole appeared out of nowhere.

No, really. A hole. Right in the middle of my path. A giant, rectangular hole surrounded by yellow caution tape. Big enough to bury one of those little eco cars. I couldn’t get around it to the left because the bike trail was cleared of snow. I couldn’t get around it on the right because of a chain link fence. The far shoulder of the bike trail didn’t look any more promising–the snow was wind-blasted hard, offering my skis nothing to dig into.

So I took off my skis and walked around the hole on the hard-surface trail. Put my skis back on. Started again. Several yards later, another giant rectangular hole yawned in front of me. Took my skis off. Walked around it. Put my skis back on. Several yards later … Gee, you’d never believe what I found. Again.

At this point, I had a good vantage of the trail ahead, and the snow cleared enough for me to take in the view. You guessed it–giant rectangular holes all the way down the trail, as far as I could see.

The snow on the far shoulder still didn’t look too friendly, but it was the one option left. So I crossed to the other side. That lasted about two minutes. I skittered all over a sea of frozen waves.

So I gave up.

Mind you, I didn’t give up when my feet started to hurt. And I didn’t give up when it started to snow. And I didn’t give up when a dotted line of car-eating holes blocked my path.

I only gave up when failure was definite.

Oddly, working my way around those holes wasn’t any more fun on the return trip than it had been on the way out. It was slow and awkward, and now I was also grouchy and disappointed in myself.

Molly, on the other hand, was having the time of her life. She plowed through snowbanks muzzle-first and snorted the flakes out of her nose and ate big bites of snow, oblivious that things weren’t going as I’d planned. That’s one of the things I love about having adventures with my dog. It doesn’t matter how badly my plans may be going–she’s still having fun.

I found that inspiring. So once I’d conquered the last hole, I stuck my skis and poles in a snowbank and plopped down next to Molly. The snow turned our heads and backs and shoulders frosty white in a matter of seconds. The quarter-sized flakes swirling all around us were pretty and profoundly silent. A snowstorm is the best place in the world, if you want to be really alone.

It was another mile to the end of the trail, and I pretty much dragged myself over the finish line. I had bruises on my heels for months afterwards, well into summer–a memento of our little adventure, and a reminder that if you’re going to fail, at least you can epic fail. To this day, I have no idea what purpose those giant rectangular holes served, other than to make for a story I can look back on and laugh about–and remember fondly.

Yes, fondly. Just ask Molly. She’ll tell you that ski trip was some of the best fun we ever had.

Camping vs. Campering

IMAG0019 (640x480)Phase One of the great Camper Caper is complete: deep cleaning. It’s a joy to be able to walk into my camper and inhale deeply without bursting into fits of coughing.

But we aren’t out of the woods yet—or more specifically, out in the woods. The water systems are still full of antifreeze. I dare not start the furnace for fear of great clouds of dust blowing all over my freshly cleaned camper. And I don’t even know if I have any propane in the tank to light the stove.

So what the heck. I took it camping anyway.

My friend Mareike (say that mar-I-ka) from Germany was over, and she’d never stayed in an RV before. (Heck, neither had I.)

On the first night of our visit, we camped in the ol’ tent—and were nearly wiped off the face of the earth by a thunder storm. Despite a fresh coat of seam sealant, we shipped enough water to soak my dog and the foot of my sleeping bag. (Like a good dog parent, I shared the remaining dry portion with my soggy pooch.)

More storms were predicted for our second night … so all in all, it was clearly the perfect opportunity to try out the camper. With none of the systems functional, we treated it like a glorified tent … trips to the vault toilet and the whole bit.

For the record, I object to the use of the term “camping” applied to RVs. “Camping” implies a certain intimacy with nature, a lack of comforts and conveniences, and the ability to carry on your back everything you need to sustain life.

RVs establish distance between the inidividual and nature. You have weather-proof walls. You have running water. You have a deep, cushy bed. You have a refridgerator, an air conditioner, and a furnace. It’s nothing less than a small house with a great view.

Hence I’ve coined a new term: “Campering.”

But I’m not sure I was “campering” on this trip. The rain hit in the dead of the night, and it cleverly blew in through my broken vent cover, elbowed its way past the barricade I’d made of plastic sacks, dripped down from on high, and soaked my sleeping bag—worse than my night in the tent.

Intimacy with nature = camping. Therefore, I was camping … not “campering.” Even though I was in a camper. Yeah, I’m confused, too.

Whatever I was doing, my first time with the camper was lots of fun—made more enjoyable by sharing it with a friend … who doesn’t mind getting up at three in the morning to help me waterproof a broken vent cover.

Hot chocolate over an open fire

Hot chocolate over an open fire

Breakfast for Two

Breakfast for Two

View as seen from the roof of the camper—while working some more on the broken vent cover

View as seen from the roof of the camper—while working some more on the broken vent cover

Pawnote from Molly

IMAG0015 (640x480)I didn’t mind the broken vent cover at all. It meant my girl ended up sleeping on the floor with me! The bed over the cab looks cozy and all, but I’ve tried, and there’s no way to get up there, no matter how hard I wag my tail and give my girl that pleading look.

So when my girl parked a bucket under the leaking vent and rolled out her sleeping bag next to me, I laid my paw and my head on her arm to let her know I liked this arrangement so much better. I hope she decides to use the bed over the cab for storage.

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Meet the RV

The vehicle to new adventures! Um ... other way, Molly.

The vehicle to new adventures! Um … other way, Molly.

Molly's favorite "room"--the kitchen!

Molly’s favorite “room”–the kitchen

Molly's favorite part of her favorite room. What's for dinner?

Molly’s favorite part of her favorite room. What’s for dinner?