Visiting Fort Union on the Missouri River
For some reason, we awoke very, very early this morning and we were on the road by 0630 … so unlike us. If ever you could believe in a ‘flat Earth’, this would be the place. Power lines stretch for miles; wind turbines churn out power on the windy plains. A friend who grew up in this area once told me 'it's so flat, you can see the curve of the Earth'. Maybe so. Grain elevators and silos are placed strategically along railroad sidings in every little town waiting to be loaded. According to state brochures, 'North Dakota ranks first in the production of flaxseed, canola, durum wheat, all dry edible beans, all dry edible peas, spring wheat, honey, lentils, sunflowers, barley and oats." We've been looking for hoboes on the trains, but haven’t spotted any yet.
We arrived at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site by 0930. This park is one of those out of the way ones, not on the way to anything and you need to make a concerted effort to visit. Unlike most forts, this was not a military installation, but rather a commercial trading post set up by the American Fur Company to facilitate trade with the local native tribes … white man’s goods in trade for buffalo and other hides. The owner of the American Fur Company, by the way, was John J. Astor, America's first multi-millionaire.
According to the Fort Union NPS website, ‘Between 1828 and 1867, Fort Union was the most important fur trade post on the Upper Missouri River. Here, the Assiniboine and six other Northern Plains Indian Tribes exchanged buffalo robes and smaller furs for goods from around the world, including cloth, guns, blankets, and beads. A bastion of peaceful coexistence, the post annually traded over 25,000 buffalo robes and $100,000 in merchandise.’
We weren’t sure what to expect at the fort, but as always, we found things of interest and new pieces of information that we’d never known (or remembered we’d ever known) before. For instance, I’m not a gun enthusiast, but the flintlock demonstration was pretty impressive. I'd never seen an Indian buffalo hide bull boat before (complete with tail) and there it was. The docent, a local teacher who volunteers at the park for the summer, gave an excellent presentation. Later we discussed with him the importance of cultural sensitivity when trading and interacting with the different tribes. This was a peaceful, mutually lucrative co-existence and it worked well for both sides. What a novel approach!
The fort straddles the state border between Montana and North Dakota and, as such, we walked from one state to the other just getting from the parking lot to the fort and back.
We stopped briefly for a look-see and walk at the Confluence of the Missouri-Yellowstone Interpretive Center. This was on the Lewis & Clark Trail and though we’d like to learn more about these two explorers, we had places to go and other things to see. There always seems to be a compromise. Click on the thumbnails to enlarge them.
There was no real urgency to rush to Theodore Roosevelt National Park other than our own eagerness to get there and secure a campsite for the evening. This park located in the western North Dakota Badlands is divided into three separate units: North, South and Elkhorn Ranch. We arrived at the North Gate and after a very brief stop at the tiny trailer visitor center, immediately proceeded to the first come/first serve Juniper Campgrounds and secured a site.
We headed out on the 28-mile scenic drive to get a feel for the park. The Little Missouri River flows through the middle of the park and several short trails explore different geologic formations as well as providing outstanding views of the Badlands and its wild inhabitants.
Cannonball concretions ‘were formed when sand grains from from an ancient river deposit were cemented together by minerals dissolved in groundwater.’ They’re pretty odd looking for a naturally occurring formation.
At the River Bend Overlook, a short walk led to a stone shelter built in the 1930s by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and a great view of the river floodplain below.
The highlight of the day, however, was seeing the bison herd. So is it buffalo or bison? We’re told these critters are American bison and bison is the correct terminology. In fact, we were corrected a number of times when we slipped and used the term buffalo … kind of like calling a koala ... a koala bear. Wrong! Still, all the caution signs told us to watch out for buffalo, not bison.
Back to the bison herd … they were all grazing on a hillside. We watched a couple of bulls wallowing in the dirt ... trying to scratch an itch or get rid of nagging insects, I imagine.
It was hot and humid and too late in the day for a long hike. We settled on a nature trail that led to yet another prairie dog town. We had the opportunity to study the rock formations more closely and touch them ... a very different perspective than viewing them from the car. My imagination conjured up an enormous reptilian creature with dry, scaly skin.
The dog town was much larger than previous ones we’d seen recently and several young children were there, totally fascinated with these little critters.
We attended an evening Ranger talk ... Eat or Be Eaten ... a discussion of predators in the park. Prairie dogs, the ranger announced, are the 'Chicken McNuggets of the prairie' ... a keystone species. Good eating for coyotes, badgers, mountain lions, snakes, eagles, owls ... sucks to be a prairie dog.
I asked her specifically about 'buffalo safety'. What do you do when you're on a trail and you encounter a buffalo (or buffaloes)? Best thing to do is get out of the way ... way out of the way, behind brush or trees. They can run up to 40 mph, so outrunning them is not an option. A sign that a buffalo is going to charge is snorting and snuffling and his tail straight up in the air (also a sign that he's urinating or defecating).
We were a little disappointed in our campground site. There were charcoal grills, but no fire rings and campfires were not allowed. Generators were humming in concert until late. Our neighbors were loud, especially since they had two barking dogs and friends in a campsite across the road to whom they preferred yelling back and forth rather than actually visiting and chatting. Curmudgeons are we!