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.

Missouri River Nature Area – Video!

Molly and I took a trip to the Missouri a while ago to enjoy the fall colors. The Great Plains is a landscape dominated by grass and sky–until you reach the banks of the Missouri. Hundred-year-old cottonwoods still stand on the shores, remembering a day when the river was the highway of the west.

The first watercraft on her shores were bull boats–buffalo skins stretched over dome-shaped frames, crafted by the native Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. Later, early explorers like Lewis and Clark pushed northward in wooden keelboats that could haul their cargo. Finally came the steamboats, three-deck ships that harvested the cottonwoods for their hungry boilers and brought settlers, soldiers, and fortune-hunters into the Dakotas and Montana.

All these have passed away. But as Molly and I observed, the river and the cottonwoods are still there. This is a unique, surprising feature of the North Dakota landscape, and one I treasure for its beauty and serenity. We hope you catch a whiff of that in our video below!

Pawnotes from Molly

This is the BEST place to find chew sticks!




Fort Mandan – Lewis and Clark Legacy

IMAG0048 (640x480)At the turn of the 19th century, the good ol’ USA was still a young nation—and suddenly found itself doubled in size with the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France. President Thomas Jefferson decided it would be in everybody’s best interest to have a look at this huge stretch of land which, up to that point, was largely a blank page to the European newcomers.

Thus began the Lewis and Clark expedition. They set out from St. Louis in 1804, battling the Missouri upriver in their wooden keel boat, hopeful that the waterway would provide an unbroken highway to the Pacific. When winter closed in, the explorers erected a fort on the banks of the river in what is now North Dakota. They named their log home Fort Mandan, after the hospitable native people who had villages nearby.

The expedition left Fort Mandan that spring and spent their next winter at their hard-earned destination, the Pacific Ocean. They made the return journey in a single season, and on the way home discovered that their first winter quarters, Fort Mandan, had been mysteriously burned. Today, a replica stands in the vicinity of the old site and is open to tourists year-round.

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When Molly and I visited last weekend, the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation was celebrating the grand opening of its newly expanded interpretive center, including a brand new conference facility. (Can anyone say, “History symposium”? Oooo …)

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For such a large interpretive center, the fort it interprets is … surprisingly small. Inside the triangular palisade of cottonwood logs, a dozen or so rooms line the wall—of which some are for storage. Gary, the tour guide, informed me that 44 men from the Corps of Discovery spent the winter here. I’m thinking that was close quarters.

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Amongst the many events going on that weekend was a demonstration on how to achieve fire through flint and other early means. “Some of the nicest flint in the world,” Gary said, “comes from right here in North Dakota—Knife River flint.” Knife River flint was a highly valued trade item amongst the native peoples. Cool as this flint was, I was impressed to learn that petrified wood can also strike sparks. (I’m sure that knowledge will save my life someday.) Maybe once I get good at building fire with a grill lighter I’ll move on to the next challenge.

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Between the fort, two interpretive centers, nature trails, and demonstrations, my favorite part of the experience was actually this meager bit of metal:

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It’s a hasp off the journal of Merriweather Lewis. In the late 1800s, a careless 19th-century historian broke it off as a souvenir for a friend.

The two captains of the expedition were charged by President Jefferson to keep a detailed record of their explorations—from the landscape, to the plants and animals, to the native peoples and their customs. This hasp was part of a valuable document—in many ways, the journals were the essence of the expedition. They would have been diligently guarded from the hundreds of mishaps that could have destroyed them.

But more than a technical record, a journal becomes a human’s heart on paper. Yes, the Lewis and Clark journals contain long figures of latitude and longitude, supply lists and data. But they were also a place for the expedition members to express themselves on this incredible journey. Upon first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, William Clark penned in his journal, “Ocean in view! O! The joy!”

What a bit of history. This hasp traveled a continent at Merriweather Lewis’s side, survived the voyage, and eventually arrived in the hands of President Jefferson. And now it has returned to North Dakota, where it spent that first long, memorable winter in a tiny log fort in the middle of America.

Pawnotes from Molly

IMAG0001 (640x469)Let’s not forget the dog! THE most famous member of the expedition was Seaman, Captain Lewis’s Newfoundland. The humans credit Sakakawea with getting Lewis and Clark to the Pacific and back, but we dogs know they would have been lost without Seaman.

This canine is one of my personal heroes. Can you imagine, sniffing two thousand miles of virgin wilderness teeming with deer and bunnies, boldly peeing where no dog has peed before??? I get giddy just thinking about it.

Granted, I was also deeply impressed with the fort—particularly the buffalo skin blankets on the beds. I buried my muzzle in all that fur and filled my nose with the aroma. Animal skins are to a dog what coffee in the morning is to a human.

But my girl kept saying I was as much of an attraction as the fort itself. We kinda lost count how many people—kids and adults alike—asked to meet me. One little girl ran her hands down my coat and said, “She feels like the bear fur.” I consider that a compliment.

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