North Dakota: the wild frontier
North Dakota is a place where the buffalo and mustang run wild, mountain biking means navigating the Badlands, and the Indian history is as engrossing as the tales of the first white settlers determined to call the intimidating land their home. WORDS: Michelle Hespe PHOTOS: Shawn Connell
Wild open plains
The sun is midway through a spectacular setting in North Dakota and I have some cattle to round up – around 2,500 of them. I jump onto my mud-splattered army green quad bike and settle into a comfortably wide straddle. I turn the squat beast on, rev her up and take off with a lurch down the long, straight dirt road traversing the 10,000-hectare property. Cool wind rushes at my face, the speed and freshness of the air sending bursts of adrenalin through me. It’s 8pm, so I have about two hours up my sleeve – in these parts it doesn’t get dark until 10pm in the summer, so there are no excuses for not making the most of the great outdoors.
The plains I speed through are far-reaching and flat, the shining green grass blades wind-whipped into such a quivering smooth expanse that l want to lie down amongst them and stare into the sky that’s blushing a shade of rustic pink. But I keep upping the gears and roar further and further into a world where I feel like it’s just me and the land, at the top of America, so far away from everyone and everything I know.
It’s not just me out here though. Arriving at one of the paddocks on this working cattle farm, I turn the quad bike off and watch Jay Doan saddle up his horse to round up the cows in question. I’m there on my quad bike to get in on the experience, but really, he, his brother and his father could’ve done without me as they normally do. It’s all about getting the experience out here, and his family’s company, Rolling Plains Adventures, offers everything from hunting coyote, deer and pheasants to horse riding and everything in between to get you right into the thick of the country and North Dakota living.
Saddled up, Jay hits the plains at a canter and builds up into an impressive gallop, water flying up from around his horse’s hooves on the swampy areas, creating a thousand fans of cascading droplets that catch the sun and turn gold on their descent.
I follow on my quad bike and as Jay hits the open dry fields, the sun is almost at the horizon, and the cattle start moving in a noisy unison, a tremoring whirlwind of dust swirling around us all as Jay whoops at them.
I’d been told that North Dakota is as beautiful and enchanting in the summer as she is challenging and intimidating in the dead of winter, and from that moment onwards, on those wide open plains during the late summer months, I, like the many adventurers who lived and died before me on this land that is a part of America’s Great Plains, fell under her spell.
The Promised Land
One woman’s diary stood out to me the most after visiting the museum in the western town of Medora, central North Dakota. With an un-ladylike need for independence shaping her world and firmly setting her apart, and with no desire to start her own family nor stay under lock and key with the one she was born into, she set off in 1830 when she heard about the promise of living in a place where she would be given a plot of land on which to build a shack and plant a veggie patch. She wanted adventure and a new life for herself, and the great expanse of North Dakota was literally up for grabs. Even if you were an outlaw or a peasant.
She was one of many who had heard about a wild place at the top of the states, and so she joined the droves. These days the people still come for the adventure the land offers, but today they’re armed with tents, Swiss army knives, mountain and motorbikes, hiking boots and cameras.
The first white settlers in the government’s ‘promised land’ must have been shocked and at times scared for their lives – with no electricity, no one to cry out to for help, huddled beneath animal hides and sparse threadbare blankets in minus degree temperatures with Indians expertly navigating the land around them as though it was as friendly as a child’s playground.
It was called The Great Dakota Boom. The US government was giving away the land, or selling it off incredibly cheaply, to those who wanted to make a home for themselves and in doing so, tame small packages of a great land that seemed like an uncontrollable wild child spawned by Mother Nature.
Step back in time
I’m sitting on a buffalo hide blanket, in an Earth Lodge near the Knife River, just outside the city of Bizmarck in North Dakota. I’m looking into the embers of a freshly lit open fire, the smoke spiraling up into the hole in the top of the slanted roof that rises into a circular opening – I can see the deep blue sky of dusk and the first few stars starting to appear. There’s a Native American Indian man sitting on the other side of the fire. He’s carving out a spearhead with a knife, and his face, that is heavily painted with black stripes, is creased in concentration. Behind him hangs a buffalo hide covered in inked in illustrations that he has drawn to depict everything he knows about the heritage of his family. It’s a typical form or art for his people and the stories the hide holds present like an open book for all to see and for all to remember. It reminds him every day of the long line from where he came and the moments in history that shaped his life and family.
The sad thing is, there are no longer any Native American Indians in North Dakota living like this, as they still did only three hundred years ago. Their culture, their Earth Lodges and their head dresses are all but gone, almost immediately decimated when white man settled and the tide of miners, homesteaders, towns and railroads sprung up faster than mushrooms, destroying life as it had been for as long as the Indians there could recall. The native people lost their wild roaming livestock of buffalo that they’d managed to keep as a sustainable resource for centuries, their rituals, traditions, villages, family way of life and everything that made their society what it had been. Today you can’t meet a Native American Indian living off the land as they once did, because they are all but gone, but you might be lucky enough to see someone embracing their heritage at a Pow Wow – festivals where Native American Indian tribes, and non-natives come together to celebrate and honour American Indian culture. Or you could meet a man like Dakotah, who has come to join me at the place where once a Mandan tribe lived on the Knife River, to tell me a bit about his life.
Dakotah Wind Goodhouse is 36 years old and is from the Sioux Tribe, of Standing Rock, North Dakota. His tribal name is translated as The Scout That Came From Behind To Lead, or freely translated as The First Scout. To most people, he is known everyday as Dakotah.
Dakotah works as the Program Officer at the North Dakota Humanities Council working on educational papers and an updated record for those who will continue to learn about Native American Indians long after he has gone. He explains to me that much of the history that was written about him and his people was skewed or incorrect as it was based on papers put together by non-native explorers such as Meriwether Lewis and William Clarke – both veterans of Indian wars in the Ohio Valley and men who had two main things on their minds: to study the land and everything about it and on it, and to see how this vast space could benefit western society economically.
So Dakotah has spent much of his life working in education and research, and some 15 years with a Mandan advisory committee, which has changed the notion of what he thought of other tribes. “I thought the Mandans were a bit of a ‘sell-out,” he says with a laugh. “Because of their relations with anglos, and the fact that they learnt other languages and how to trade. But these things made them savvy – and helped them to understand what early explorers and traders wanted.”
The relationships that various Native American Indian tribes had with white settlers of course varied in many ways, as there are nearly five hundred ethically identifiable tribes or nations in the United States, so it is impossible to know how each one dealt with the changes that fell rapidly descended upon their way of life. But one thing is for sure – the way of life that these people had known for centuries irrevocably changed in the mid to late 1800s, never to be the same again.
I am lucky to meet Dakotah as he is someone who holds some of the secrets of his ancestors within him, and being around him, you can feel something of the old world. “When I was younger” he says, “there was a medicine man that came to our school, and I remembered him telling us that our responsibility was to bring our culture back.” He pauses as he thinks back on that moment. “I took that on as a personal commitment and a responsibility. I felt strongly that it was a weight on me.”
Sadly, as Dakotah explains, it is hard to keep culture alive. “For instance, I graduated ten years ago from university and I was the only one in my class with a traditional name.”
I spend the afternoon with Dakotah in the earth lodge village that has been reconstructed to show visitors what life for some Native American Indians was like, and watch him dance, sing and play haunting melodies on his pipe. It’s easy as I watch him, to slip back and time and imagine a place where people lived out their lives on the land, their rituals, ceremonies and storytelling defining everything on the Great Plains around them.
Jay Doan from Rolling Plains Adventures is from a family that kicked off life in McKenzie, North Dakota, as homesteaders during the Great Dakota Boom. They have stayed on, five generations later opening up their land to people who want to experience real adventure in their home country. “This is no dude ranch with five star meals’ explains Jay when I meet him. “It’s a working cattle farm where people can really experience what life out here is all about.”
Jay grew up on the farm and then headed off to study and give the corporate world in California a whirl, before heading to Texas in his mid twenties to work for Budweiser. But his thoughts kept returning to the ranch where his brother had set up the hunting arm of the business today, and one day after catching up with his sibling, he decided to head back home. “”Everyone needs to get away sometimes” he says. “And I did, but I appreciated what we have here so much more when I came back.”
So today, on the 10,000 acres that the family has built up from the humble 160 acres that their great great grandfather originally settled back in 1882, the family operates a business that attracts people all over the world.
Jay shows us around the house that was built by his grandfather and that he and his brother rebuilt to entertain and accommodate future guests. “He was born on the kitchen table over there” he says, pointing to one side of the room, “and he died there, a few metres away on the couch. I’m glad we can preserve this place for him. It meant a lot to him, this house.”
The same can be said for the land spanning around them in beautiful rolling green plains. “It’s a great feeling, to be able to preserve the history of the place for others. In my mind, there are very few places left in the US that are native, and we’re lucky to be living in one of those places and be able to share it with others.”
If shooting peasants, horse riding or rounding up cattle is not your thing, and you want to explore North Dakota at your own pace, then there is something you should know – the Badlands of North Dakota are made for mountain bike riding.
Dennis Kemmesatt is a local from North Dakota who knows this region like the back of his hand. In his early 40s, Dennis has been riding in the region for over 20 years and now his son, in his late teens, as been at for ten as well. Father and son regularly hits the hills and adventure always unfurls around every corner.
Dennis can be found at one or other of his businesses – Epic Sports in central Bizmarck, or his cool café next door, where the locals gather to socialise over a cuppa. Dennis is happy to chat to you about where you want to go and how extreme you want to be.
One of Dennis’s favourite places for riding is The Maaah de Hey Trail. It is a 97-mile biking trail that winds its way through the Badlands of North Dakota – a place that is a mesmerising natural movie set of mesas, rusty red plateaus, wild rugged hills and mountains, jaw-dropping valleys and gorges. It is made for hiking, biking and horse riding.
You can either base yourself in the beautiful historic wild-west looking town of Medora with a range of accommodation, or there is the Burning Coal Vein Campground if you’d like a cheaper option. In Medora you’ll also find a raft of cool bars, restaurants and taverns that all have a feeling of yesteryear, and chat to the locals about the best places to hit, and get the lowdown on what the weather has done to the land recently. The storms out here can have a real impact on the landscape.
The trail begins slightly south of Medora at Sully Creek State Park and heads north to another campground – the U.S. Forest Service CCC Campground in McKenzie County. There has been a recent addition of another 40 miles of trail running from Sully Creek State Park to Burning Coal Vein Campground.
Whether you’re on foot, bike or horse, there is a big chance you’ll run into something else that makes this wild part of the earth a nature-lovers dream. Former US Theodore Roosevelt, who lived for a stint in North Dakota and claims it helped him to make him the man he was, set up a national park to protect the local species. It has 29,920 acres of wilderness under the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Today, you can come face to face with wild buffalo, aka bison, and the sheer towering bulk of them, with their gigantic loping heads and massive hunchbacks, is truly astounding. You might also see and hear Prairie Dogs as they pop their squirrel-like heads out of their burrows and yelp, their high cries carrying far and wide across the plains. And if you’re in luck you’ll meet a herd of wild horses, beautiful sleek mustangs, with gangly colts in tow.
Looking into the big eyes of a prehistoric-looking bison, his bulk blocking the entire road my friend and I had driven as night fell in the hope of finding the likes of him, my head jolted back in shock. My friend and I looked at one another, eyes wide, both of our mouths hanging open, as he just stared calmly back at us. All I could manage, in a whisper, hoping that he wouldn’t move, was ‘Wow’.
Rolling Plains Adventures