From my vantage point on a high bluff overlooking the Little Missouri River, I can see the classic symbols of the American West. To my left a pair of massive, shaggy bison warily eye me and in a valley to my right a herd of wild mustang graze the low hills of North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
This area of the Great Plains grandly epitomizes the mythical Old West of cowboys and cattle, and for that reason it has attracted people to its picturesque but forbidding lands for centuries. One person who felt the pull of the area was a young Theodore Roosevelt. When Roosevelt decided he needed a break from the intrigues of eastern politics, he chose to escape to this land of carved canyons, richly hued rocks, and verdant plains to try his hand at ranching. He bought the Elkhorn Ranch on the banks of the Little Missouri and spent the better part of four years, from 1883 to 1887, tending cattle, riding the range, and generally immersing himself in the cowboy culture. Teddy attributed much of his later success to the time he spent there. The place “has a curious, fantastic beauty of its own”, Roosevelt wrote, “It looks like Poe’s tales and poems sound.” Others were less glowing in their descriptions. One writer described it as “Hell with the fires gone out.”
These disparate views pretty much sum up the dichotomy of the Badlands; breathtaking beauty combined with inhospitable weather and intimidating terrain. The eroded canyons and patterned rock formations sparkle with the rich golden hues of sandstone, the deep green grasslands contrast with the caramel-colored water of the Little Missouri. The sun reflects vivid saffron and vermilion from scoria, molten sand and clay rock formed by the natural burning of lignite in the earth. But there is a cost to this beauty. At the Badlands the gently rolling plains that welcomed early pioneers to the eastern Dakotas abruptly changed into steep gullies, river valleys, buttes, and mesas that stymied the westward migration of settlers. The deeply etched valleys proved all but impassable for the heavily loaded wagons of the western-bound settlers. Those few individuals who were foolhardy enough to attempt the passage were usually unsuccessful, their dreams destroyed in the unfriendly terrain. Consequently, the stream of pioneers wending their way west followed more southerly routes, bypassing the Badlands. This inaccessibility proved beneficial for some, however. The Badlands were one of the last redoubts of the Sioux Indians who were finally hounded from the area by General Alfred Sully and a contingent of 2,000 soldiers in 1864. Although some stragglers returned to the area after Sully’s withdrawal, by 1880 all of the plains Indians had given up, driven even from this wretched stronghold.
Despite this checkered history (or perhaps because of it), Teddy was drawn to the Badlands like a bear to honey. His legacy remains; Elkhorn Ranch now composes the middle parcel of the three-unit National Park named after him. The north unit of the park is sixty river miles north of the ranch, and the south unit sits forty miles south. Together these three units comprise 70,000 acres of North Dakota Badlands.
The Little Missouri River is the common thread tying the three units together. This ribbon of sparkling water flows from south to north, passing through or touching all three land parcels, and the 100-mile float from the south unit to the north unit cuts through the heart of the untrammeled Little Missouri National Grasslands. Out of the way and little visited, it is not uncommon to spend a week paddling this section of the river without encountering another human being. This sense of isolation adds to the mystique of the river.
The river today must appear much as it did to Teddy 100 years ago. The only signs of civilization we see from our canoe are distant and infrequent ranch houses. Wildlife is still abundant. Wild mustang, prairie dogs, golden eagles, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and coyote call the area home. But the once-most prevalent occupant of the Badlands exists now only within the confines of the national park. About 600 bison roam within park boundaries and they can be easily spotted grazing the lush grasslands.
We regularly spot mule deer coming to the water’s edge to drink as we paddle. As dusk approaches one day, I sense a presence and glance over my right shoulder to meet the gaze of a lone coyote pondering our presence from the edge of a bluff overlooking the river. I stare back as he ponders us with cocked ears. I look away for an instant to steer a minor course correction and when I look back to the bluff, he is gone. I have seen this eerie vanishing act before; the specialty of these wraithlike creatures, it explains why they are called ghost dogs. Spooked by his ethereal appearance, I feel eyes on us the rest of the day; or perhaps he is following us from the bluffline above.
Depending on the length of trip desired, canoeists can put in at the tiny town of Marmarth or the just-about-as-small town of Medora, near the park’s south unit. The run from Marmarth to the north unit is about 200 miles; from Medora the trip is about 100 miles. The river follows a gently meandering path, the banks alternating between cottonwood flats and low sandy cliffs. The river is Class I from Marmarth all the way to the north unit but water levels are extremely susceptible to the weather and can rise quickly, turning the river into an angry torrent with uprooted cottonwood trees and snags presenting dangerous obstacles. The weather is unpredictable and can change a leisurely float into a dicey run. We ran the river in late May and the spring runoff was a roiling brown torrent full of deadfalls and drift.
We want to check out the Elkhorn Ranch so we beach our canoe for lunch near a site where some of the ranch’s outbuildings once stood. This could have been the very spot where Teddy had a boat stolen by a trio of local desperadoes. Teddy and two hired hands pursued them downriver in a flat-bottomed boat, catching up with them and capturing them three days later. Photographs of Teddy holding the three forlorn thieves at gunpoint record his vigilante effort for posterity. I sit in a grove of cottonwood trees near the riverbank and can almost see Teddy relishing his adventure. We nose around among the cottonwoods and fields of the old ranch and spy a couple of wild tom turkeys strutting through a draw near the river’s edge.
When we reach the north unit of the park, we leave our canoe for a day to explore. Buffalo are everywhere, and we walk right through the middle of a sizeable prairie dog town, much to the displeasure of the inhabitants, who bark their disapproval at us until we are well past the town’s edge. We spend our last night in North Dakota camped on a bluff next to the Little Missouri. The high cliffs overlooking the river in front of our tents recede into gently rolling hills covered with sagebrush and cactus behind us. We kick buffalo dung out of the way to make a flat spot for our tents and check out the surroundings. The muddy ground around our camp is cratered with hundreds of buffalo hoofprints and I briefly worry about getting flattened into the ground by an errant herd. So I settle into my tent alert for the rumbling approach of buffalo but all I hear are the mournful howls of a pack of coyotes as I drift off to sleep.
(This article originally appeared in River magazine)