Aug 25, 2021 – Full of Grace

Caused by a sharp stone of all things. Safely along side the road, we had all we needed to change a flat, but could not remove the lug nuts! Since then, we invested in a breaker bar.
After two days at the campground, we hitched up and drove the RV to Gaylord’s Discount Tires where we were lucky enough to have four new (dated 2021) Goodyear Endurance tires waiting to replace the old ones.

The RV parked for six weeks in northern lower peninsula of Michigan was not normal for our home on wheels. August 8th, the day we drove to our 6-wk home was out of the ordinary as well, beginning with a flat RV tire 30 miles north of the Mackinac Bridge. That event, which could have been much worse, set the ball rolling. Or should I say, set the tire rolling and turned our 6-week stay into an opportunity to attend to many things that needed attending to. Tire life was running out, the RV was covered in 6000 miles of dirt, certain things needed replacing or repaired, and not the least of which, our hair was getting long and unruly.

Our view of Big Bradford Lake each morning at the Headwaters Camping and RV Park we called home for 6 weeks.

Consequently, our first week at the lake did not include kayak paddling, fishing, or photography; instead, it was to do the following:

Haircuts

Replace all four RV tires

Dental checkup and cleaning

Put mom under hospice care

Replace truck bed cover

Replace all four truck tires

Install new shocks on the truck

Wash and wax the RV

What our campground had in ambience it lacked in wifi (and laundromat!), so off to Otsego County Public Library we went. That’s not an actual person in the background, rather an art installation of some sort.

If you enjoy water and wilderness, there is much to do in Michigan’s north country. We were camped smack in the middle of the ‘Tip of the Mitt’, meaning Lake Michigan was as close to us to the west as Lake Huron was to the east, and the straits of Mackinac to the north. We were camped at the headwaters of the Ausable River surrounded by forested land where the deer and elk roam and where one can walk for miles. And there are way too many lakes to discover, all accessible within a day’s time. Adding to the north woods experience was having the RV parked next to a lake where Vivian could roll the inflatable kayak to the boat launch any time she wanted. (Enjoy this slide show of some images from our short time exploring the area).

My sister Cindy and I visited our Aunt Nancy who lives in Mackinaw City, walking distance from the great lake shoreline and a Mackinaw Pasty Shop. Pasties for lunch! I also decided from this photo I needed a second haircut during our stay.

Despite crossing each item off the list during the first week, we still had little time for exploring and enjoying Michigan’s north country during the remaining 5 weeks. Instead, we spent most of our time in Gaylord, my hometown located 10 miles north of the lake. Daily drives to The Brook where mom lived made Gaylord the focal point of our time in northern Michigan.

What use to be Mary’s Tavern, a popular hangout in downtown Gaylord, is now a German American restaurant.

I spent the first 23 years of my life in Gaylord where I was born. Gaylord, according to my niece who is the City Manager has a current population of 3200, give or take. The charming town is known as “The Alpine” town where Tyrolean architecture dominates its main street. I’ve always been proud of Gaylord – it is an attractive place, a place to come back to or never leave. I left Gaylord 40 years ago but come back to visit many times. This time, our visit was different. This time, I couldn’t get the memories out of my head, like a TBS movie that keeps playing over and over.

For my birthday, Vivian took me to Mary’s Stein Haus for a beer, the same place where I drank my first legal beer in a bar 44 years ago on my 18th birthday.
Downtown Gaylord doesn’t look much different from when I was growing up here. For one week in July each year, Main Street is closed for the Alpenfest, a 56-yr tradition of fun in Gaylord to celebrate its Alpine look.

Everything made me think of mom. I-75 bisects Michigan from Sault St Marie to Detroit and somewhere along the way, crosses Gaylord’s main street. Standing tall and new next to Exit 282 is a Tru by Hilton that sticks out like a sore thumb with its modern architecture so opposite of Gaylord’s Swiss motif. Each time I visit Gaylord, fewer memories are supported by iconic buildings as one by one they are replaced with something new. Where the Hilton now stands was for decades the Chalet Motor Lodge and Restaurant, a one-floor building with a suite above the lobby, A-framed by the typical Swiss Chalet sloping roof. Mom worked the reservation desk at the Chalet for years and she often allowed me to hang out there while she worked. I could watch color TV in the lobby, go swimming in the indoor pool, buy a Tab from the coke machine. None of these treats were available to me at home. Watching mom work in her spiffy blue uniform behind the desk where she greeted people from far-away places made me feel lucky and rich.

I couldn’t get myself to photograph the Tru by Hilton building, Instead, I’d rather remember it as the Chalet Motor Lodge and Restaurant.

Vivian and I walked Gaylord’s Main Street where businesses from the past have long ago been replaced. Historic plaques on buildings helped remind me of some of those businesses and many memories of time spent downtown. We passed a community art gallery where Bill’s Party Store once stood. It’s where I stole a 12-pack of beer on a dare. My friends and I got caught drinking that beer on a school bus and when mom found out, she marched me down to Bill’s, made me apologize and pay for the beer. I never stole anything again in my life.

Nelson’s Drug Store was on this street corner, a short walk from our house. Mom use to give me money to buy postage stamps when they were 5 cents. She always gave me extra money to buy a little candy.
On this corner was the Big Boy Restaurant, a popular hangout for teenagers including my two older sisters.
The Fifth Third Bank on the left use to be the first Gaylord State Savings Bank where I got my first loan to buy a stereo.
Otsego County Building still stands as I remember it back in the day. The library was through an entrance on the right side of the building. In the winter, the world’s largest ice tree stands in front of the building.

Across the street from Bill’s is the Fifth Third Bank which was once the Gaylord State Savings Bank. It’s where mom helped me get my first loan so I could establish credit at the age of 18 with $500 to buy a new stereo. On the next block over is the Otsego County Building where the county library was in the basement. I can remember mom taking me there to get my library card for the first time, a rite of passage that opened the world to me. I knew that if I checked out a book or two, she would be obliged to take me back in two weeks to return them.

As a sidenote, here are a few more tidbits of information about Gaylord & surrounding area.

You learn something new no matter where you travel, even back to your home town. This is a statue of Claude Elwood Shannon, father of information theory. He was born in Gaylord in 1916! The statue stands in a nice little park along main street.
Michigan voters made recreational marijuana legal in 2019. Currently, there are 20 permits for dispensary businesses pending in Gaylord alone. This dispensary is located in Frederic a couple miles from our campground.
The grow business is big business in Michigan. My brother works maintenance at Driven Grow, a cannabis cultivation and extraction company from where he took this shot. They are expanding their business and are looking to hire 60 more people.
I spent the first 13 years of life on Court Street near downtown Gaylord before mom and dad built a house 5 miles out of town on Hayestower Rd. In this photo, the house is located further up the road about 1/4 mile away from the sign. My brother bought the house several years ago and still lives there, a home base for family when visiting Gaylord.
Displayed in the Gaylord’s Visitor Center is a statue of Herr Gessler. Herr Gessler was an evil ruler in Switzerland in the 13th century and after being overtaken, escaped to Gaylord where he now tries to sabotage Gaylord’s Alpenfest each year.

Of all the memories I have of mom while growing up in Gaylord, the one that stands out the most involves St Mary’s Catholic Church. The church building itself is memorable, still standing as a reminder of the Sunday morning services my family and I attended for so many years.

St Mary’s church became the cathedral for the Diocese of Gaylord in 1972. In 1976, a new cathedral was built, closing the doors to St Mary’s church. In 1985, a local group fearing the building would be razed, bought it and turned it into a performing arts center names Mt Carmel Center.
The neo-gothic church has been a landmark in Gaylord for as long as I can remember.
Many memories of walking up these stairs with mom and dad. The church in some strange and symbolic way, still looms large in my conscious.
Across the street from the church is the St Mary’s high school building. I fondly remember this sign from when I was living in Gaylord, posted to keep students from parking in front of the garage.

Even more memorable were the nuns that ran the St Mary’s School, especially Sister Michaela, who still gives me nightmares. I spent the first four years of school at St Mary’s Elementary. By the time I entered fourth grade, I think my mom had soured on the Catholic Church somewhat. Not the religion, just the church itself. My mom has always been religious on the spiritual side of it, but never guided by the social constraints imposed by the church. This was poignantly clear to me from the story she told me of her visit to a faith healer. Heartbroken and devastated from losing her first baby and barely surviving childbirth herself, mom took an aunt’s recommendation to visit an old Polish farmer and his wife, spiritual healers from the old world. After many prayers, he placed his hand on her stomach and told her she would have babies. This after having been told by doctors she would never have children.

Where I spent four years of my young life, mostly in a drab gray uniform.

One day, mom received a phone call from Mrs. Bozwiak, the secretary at St Mary’s Elementary. That day was the last Friday of the month, or what we schoolgirls called “free day”. It meant I could wear my own dress and not the standard gray blue uniform. Mom had bought me a colorful dress with bright yellow and red designs to wear on Easter Sunday. I was so proud of that dress as I knew my dad would see me wear it shortly after leaving the hospital where he’d been recovering from his first heart attack. When Mrs Bozwiak told mom that Sister Michalea removed me from class and wanted mom to take me home and change my free-day dress to a more suitable one (i.e., longer so the legs above the knees were not showing), mom went ballistic on the nun. Everybody knows everybody’s business in Gaylord and for sure, that old nun knew my dad was in the hospital. That’s what did it for mom. After that, Sister Michaela never bothered me again. And after I finished that fourth year, mom put me in Gaylord’s public school. Common decency 1 – orthodoxy 0.

The room where it happened – the corner office of Principal Sister Michalea, and where mom gave the mean nun a piece of her mind.
My old house, as it stands now as a psychologist’s office, and from the past when I and my family lived there. That’s me on the tricycle, my sister Carla with the hoola hoop and my sister Cindy standing next to me. This was a typical spring day, warmish with lots of leftover snow yet to melt away.
After mom moved into The Brook, she would often tell me about the wild turkeys and deer she watched from her sliding glass door. One morning as I was driving to visit her, I saw this very large family of turkeys and took a shot to show mom that her turkeys were still alive and well.

During the first 3 weeks of our 6-week visit most of my time was spent at The Brook and Vivian was with me much of that time. Things were happening way too fast and conversations with attendants and nurses were getting more desperate as we watched mom’s independence dwindle down to nothing. She and dad traveled in an RV up to the day he passed away 30 years ago and even after that, she continued the RV lifestyle on her own until settling in Florida for the winters. Vivian always said mom was the trailblazer for us to get into RV life. Although mom told stories of strangers helping her with the RV while traveling, watching her now relying on strangers to do the simplest things like getting dressed and using the bathroom was more than I could bear.

While prayer is an influential part of my life, the Catholic church has not been since childhood. It did come back to me though, when I needed it most. I had to find these 2 prayers on my iphone to read them aloud during those final minutes.

Fortunately, sadness was interrupted often by our time spent with family and friends, happy hour with our campground neighbor, and by the healing powers of long walks in the woods. Having my brother and both my sisters around me was comforting, we were all in this together. During our final week on Big Bradford Lake, family matters were pretty much tied up and everyone was back to their normal routine. My two sisters had moved on. With the little time we had left, Vivian and I tried to make the most of our solitary time left in the north woods. It may be a long time before we get back here, but we will be back for sure. But for now, we have other places to see and things to do, we have our RV life to live. That’s what mom would do.

Rest in peace Belva M Mier, January 23, 1927 – August 25, 2021.

Aug 4, 2021 – The Lake They Call Gitche Gumee

Before crossing the Mississippi River near its headwaters in Minnesota, we stayed one night on the river in an Army Corp campground.

After spending months exploring the red rocks, white sand dunes, deep canyons, glacial mountains, plains prairies, and badlands, we were now in the Great Lakes region of the country – the great north woods – the badger and wolverine states. And central to our short time in Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was the greatest of great lakes – Superior.

After being surrounded by rocks and open prairies for three months, the green forests were a welcomed view.

On Sep 18 while researching ‘Lake Superior’ in preparation for this blog entry, the Google-search headline “One kayaker dead, and another reported missing at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore” appeared at the top of the results list. Six weeks prior, Vivian and I paddled a kayak along Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Along the peninsula shoreline, we paddled gently over sandy bottom shallow water that revealed a shipwreck and allowed us entry to small caves pock marking the vertical rock shoreline. The warm and calm waters were as far removed from Superior’s reputation as anything could be.

Our morning on Superior’s water brought back memories of our 2004-trip to its most famous island, Isle Royale, a National Park. A visit to the park requires one to fly in or ferry across Lake Superior. After three days hiking Isle Royale, our stay on the island was unexpectedly prolonged as our boat ride back to the mainland was cancelled due to inclement weather – waves reaching 10 feet or higher. At midnight, 12 hours past the normal schedule, we boarded the boat and ferried across “the lake that never gives up her dead” over glass flat water.

Point Iroquis, one of the many lighthouses on Lake Superior, this one near Brimley, MI.

Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, Ontario – The Great Lakes of North America are the largest collection of freshwater lakes in the world, by total area and the second largest by volume. Lake Superior, the most northern of the five is the largest freshwater lake in the world.

The Sault St Marie International Bridge on the day it reopened to non-commercial traffic from the U.S. into Canadian. The bridge is located over the St Marys River that connects Lakes Superior and Huron

The Ojibwe Tribe that once dominated the northern great lakes region for centuries named the lake “gichi-gami”, meaning “great sea”. Later, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow spelled it “Gitche Gumee” in his poem ‘The Song of Hiawatha’. In 1976, Gordon Lightfoot adopted Longfellow’s spelling for his song ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fiztgerald’. The name “Superior” originally came from the French explorers in the 17th century that referred to their discovery as ‘la lac supérieur’. The name was later anglicized by the British into its current name, ‘Superior’.

Highway 2 brought us here from Glacier National Park in Montana. Welcome to Michigan, my home state.
You know you are in Michigan’s upper peninsula when…
You also know you are in a popular Michigan tourist town when you can’t get more than 5 feet away from a fudge shop.

Following the Apostle Islands, we made a beeline across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to a town called Brimley. Our campground was 30 miles north of the Mackinac Bridge which we needed to cross sooner than later. But, before that, we had a couple more days left with Lake Superior. Not far from us was St Marys Falls, a non-navigable 21-ft drop that separates Lake Superior from Lake Huron. To bypass these falls, the Soo Locks were constructed.

The observation deck at the Soo Locks in Sault St Marie.
The Soo Locks tour ferry awaits the water to rise.
Several minutes later, the water levels are even with Lake Superior and the gates are open.
The little tour boat heads out of the first lock while a freighter comes in to the second lock. The two locks’ water levels rise and fall at the same time.

In 1855, the first locks were constructed, allowing passage between the two great lakes. Over time, commerce through the locks and canal had increased significantly and gained national importance. In 1881, the locks were turned over to the US Army Corp of Engineers that built two parallel locks that provide a gravity-powered 21-ft lift system. Freighters 1000 ft in length and holding 70,000 tons of cargo pass through the locks frequently.

90% Of The United State’s iron ore moves through the Soo Locks.

It is a wonderful thing to stand in the Soo Locks observation platform located in Sault (pronounced SOO) St Marie and watch a 1000-ft freighter enter a lock. From Superior coming in on an easterly direction, ships enter a lock filled with enough water to match the Superior’s level. Several minutes pass as water is released and levels decrease 21 feet. Once the water is level with Lake Huron, the eastside gates open, and the ship continues its course. The opposite occurs when ships go upstream from Huron to Superior. Approximately 7000 vessels pass through the Locks each year, despite it being closed between January and March.

It takes 584 Train cars or one 1,000-ft freighter to move 70,000 tons of cargo .
From Duluth, MN to the Atlantic Ocean via the St Lawrence Waterway is 2,332mi or 7 days.
A typical shipping route from Lake Superior to Lake Huron, to Lake Erie, and next to Lake Ontario.

From our campground, we drove about 30 miles or so along the scenic Lakeshore Dr north through the tiny town of Paradise and ending at Whitefish Point where the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is located. There’s a darn good reason why the museum is located at this cape outpost. Every vessel entering or leaving Lake Superior must pass Whitefish Point, the most dangerous shipping area in the Great Lakes.

Whitefish Point lighthouse, near the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

More vessels have been lost in the Whitefish Point area than any other part of Lake Superior. It is estimated by most sources that the Great Lakes holds 6,000 shipwrecks and a loss of life exceeding 30,000. One of those wrecks that came onto North America’s collective consciousness lies 530 feet below Lake Superior’s surface about 17 miles away from Whitefish Point.

With a crew of 29 men, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank during a storm on November 10, 1975. At 727 feet in length (considerably short than the more modern freighters), the Fitzgerald is the largest to have sunk in Lake Superior. A U.S. Navy aircraft equipped to detect magnetic anomalies associated with submarines, detected the wreck on November 14, 1975. An additional survey using a side scan sonar determined two large objects were lying close together on the lake floor, indicating that the Fitzgerald had been snapped in two.

On display at the Duluth Marine Museum is a model of the Edmund Fitzgerald as it was found at the bottom of Lake Superior.

The ship’s bell was recovered from the wreck on July 4, 1995. A replica with each of the 29 sailors’ names engraved on it was put in its place. The bell is on display in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa down

Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee

Superior, they said, never gives up her dead

When the gales of November come early

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot

Whitefish Point, 17 miles from the navigation marker for the Edmund Fitzgerald.
To photograph Lake Superior is why I came to Whitefish Point.

Check out my previous Blog about our visit to Michigan 3 years ago.

Jul 28, 2021 – North Dakota’s Biggest and Tallest

A sculpted version of North America’s largest land mammal, in front of North Dakota State Library.
Also in front of North Dakota State Library stands a statue of Sacagawea with her infant son, of the famed Lewis and Clark Corp of Discovery. The Missouri River played big in their expedition.

Among the many things you can see in North Dakota are the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world, the largest land mammal in North America, and the tallest habitable building in North Dakota. I have already devoted at least one blog to the largest land mammal, which is the American Bison, so this one will focus on the other two attractions located in North Dakota “where possibility is as endless as the horizon”. Ranked #1 for the hardest working state (what else are you going to do when it’s biting cold), North Dakota was worthy of the 10 days we spent within its borders.

Looking south on the Enchanted Highway, somewhere between sculptures.

Somewhere in the southwestern quadrant of North Dakota is a town called Regent, population 157. Saaalute! To Vivian and me, Regent seemed to be another example of the many boom-to-bust prairie towns we have seen on our travels through rural America. But interestingly, Regent, which is surrounded by miles of rolling farmland never experienced a boom. In fact, the greatest census number I could find for Regent was 405 in 1950.

“Once they come in, they step back in history, they step back in time. They become enchanted”. Gary Greff

But then came Regent resident Gary Greff. Greff is quoted as saying the following, “I came home one day and was looking at my town and said, ‘you know, this town has gone from 500 people to a hundred’. I thought if someone doesn’t do something, it’s only a matter of time before we’re gone. We don’t have a railroad, we don’t have the population, we don’t have the infrastructure. Why would a major corporation come to Regent? Rather than sit around waiting for someone from the outside to come in and save my town, I need to do something.” And do something he did.

“Geese in Flight” which is listed in the Guinness World Book of Records as the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world.

“Nobody’s going to drive 30 miles off the interstate for normal sculptures, but they might drive for the world’s largest”, was Greff’s logic behind his sculptures that are placed along side a 32-mile stretch of highway. Indeed, the most observed sculpture located on the northwest corner of exit 72 where I-94 and 102nd Ave SW meet is “Geese in Flight” which is listed in the Guinness World Book of Records as the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world. In 1991, Greff completed the first sculpture (The Tin Family) along the unnamed highway that became known as ‘The Enchanted Highway’. Enjoy the slideshow, pictures of Greff’s sculptures along the highway.

The 21-story ‘Skyscraper on the Prairie’, North Dakota’s Capitol.

In 1861, President James Buchanan signed into bill the creation of the Dakota Territory, which included both Dakotas. In 1883-84, the first capitol building of the territorial government was constructed in Bismarck located in the northern region of the territory. Attempts to admit the Dakota Territory into the Union over several years eventually resulted in the formation of two states in 1889, North Dakota and South Dakota. President Benjamin Harrison hid the order in which each state’s proclamation was signed, so the exact order remains unknown. But, because North comes before South in the alphabet, North Dakota became the 39th state, followed by South Dakota.

Statue of Judge John Burke, the 10th Governor of North Dakota stands in front of the capitol.

One of the many travel goals we have is to visit state capitols. Unfortunately, until recently in Salt Lake City, this has proven to be impossible in the era of COVID. At last, we visited our first capitol building in Utah where we were impressed by the magnificent neoclassical revival architectural style and exquisite artwork. It’s a hard act to follow, but follow we did to Bismarck, North Dakota. Despite North Dakota’s capitol being only one of two on our travel itinerary, we could not have chosen more dichotomous buildings to visit. If the 50 state capitols were placed on a spectrum according to the ornate qualities of the architectural design, then Utah and North Dakota are on the far opposite ends of the spectrum.

You learn something every day! The French Gratitude Train was given to the U.S. by the citizens of France in appreciation for the US military involvement in WWII. Trains cars were designated to each state and this one stands in the park next to North Dakota’s capitol.

On December 30, 1930, North Dakota’s capitol was destroyed by fire. During the fire, North Dakota Secretary of State Robert Byrne broke a window to get to the original copy of the state’s constitution. Suffering from cuts and burns on his hands, he saved the document. Other state employees also risked their lives to save documents. The Governor George F Shafer organized a team and directed the use of 40 state prison inmates to scour the still smoldering building and salvage the vaults and other items that remained.

Photos of the destruction of North Dakota’s first State Capitol and the second one that remains tall.

The disaster meant a new building would need to be constructed during the Great Depression. Designed by North Dakota architects, the rebuilt capitol became the tallest building in North Dakota and became known as the ‘Skyscraper on the Prairie’. Just under 250 feet and 21 stories, its Art Deco design is anything but ornate. The capitol campus expanded over time with the addition of a State Office Building, the North Dakota Heritage Center and the North Dakota Dept of Transportation, and a Judicial Wing was added to the base of the capitol tower. While the state capitol campus and park were expanding over the decades, North Dakota’s population was decreasing. Today, North Dakota’s state capitol is a popular tourist attraction with its garden-style park, museum and monuments. Enjoy this slideshow of North Dakota’s classy state capitol and following that, a slideshow from its impressive Heritage Center Museum where we learned some history of North Dakota.

One last tidbit about our visit to North Dakota. After leaving our campground in Dickinson, we came to Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park in Mandan, which is on the outskirts of Bismarck. Just a few days past the halfway point of our 216-day trip, we camped on the western bank of the Missouri River for a few days, thus marking the end of our tour of the American West. On July 31, we packed and hitched up and drove the RV east across the Missouri one last time. Soon, we would cross the Mississippi River near its headwaters and enter the great lake states for a totally different experience. Stayed tuned. Enjoy the slideshow below of the Ft Abraham Lincoln State Park.

I invite you to check out a few more of my blogs that relate to this one in some way or another.

About a quirky roadside attraction by a South Dakotan artist.

About our visit to Utah’s State Capitol and other things about Salt Lake City.

Jul 27, 2021 – All the Pretty Horses

Sunrise over North Dakota’s badlands. The thick haze followed us from Montana as smoke from Washington and Canadian wildfires raged.

The early morning silence was hypnotizing, as I quietly stalked the horses from a safe distance to find a clear view of the small herd. Standing still with camera in hand, the only sounds I heard were the rapid clicks of the camera’s shutter. This went on for a couple hours. That is, until I heard the deep and alarmingly close bellow of a bison.

“Horses make a landscape look beautiful.”– Alice Walker. Here you see the entire herd, six mares, one foal and one stallion (in middle foreground).
The largest land mammal in North America.

One hundred days into our travels and 4520 towing miles later, one week ago Vivian and I completed our west-by-northwest route from Chokoloskee, Florida to Glacier National Park, Montana. We left the Rocky Mountains after having visited nine national parks beginning in New Mexico. Now in North Dakota, we were several hundred miles into our east-by-southeast route. On the morning of July 27, I was photographing wildlife in the badlands within National Park #10.

Theodore Roosevelt and his horse at the south unit’s visitor center.
It really is no secret, there are several animals that live in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, including the Prairie Dog.

The legacies of conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt are significant and far reaching. Every time a President designates a National Monument, we have Roosevelt to thank for the 1906 American Antiquities Act. The comeback of the Plains Bison from near extinction is owed to President Roosevelt. As president, he was directly responsible for adding 230 million acres of protected public lands, including five national parks. There I stood in Theodore Roosevelt National Park photographing a herd of wild horses that are also in some way associated with the park’s eponym and his legacy.

The watchful eye of the dominant mare kept me a safe distance from the herd.

I carefully walked toward the herd while examining my surroundings. Way too early for the drive-by tourists, I was alone with the wild horses. Meet equus caballus, the modern horse of North America. One of the mares, the largest of the group stood on a high hill overlooking the herd while giving me the eye. For the longest time, she did not move and neither did I. That’s fine, I can wait. The others paid no attention to me as they grazed casually. Eventually, the mare relaxed and went back to the calm demeanor of grazing. That’s all I needed – I was in.

Three of the six mares in the herd.

During the modern ranching era, of which Roosevelt was a part, feral horses were considered a nuisance and cattlemen worked to exterminate them throughout the west. Efforts to preserve them ensued and in 1971, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act mandated their protection and named them a “national heritage species”. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the few where free-roaming horses live and are part of the legacy leftover by Roosevelt’s open range ranching era.

I spotted the coyote only through my telephoto lens and tried to capture it as it stalked the herd. It did not stick around, possibly due to my presence. From these horses, I was about 300 feet away.

The small herd of horses gave me a gift in the form of a day-old filly and the mare she identified as mom. Almost entirely, my attention was drawn to the young horse with its long lanky legs barely able to keep her upright as she sprang back and forth in fits of energy, never straying more than a few horse lengths from mom. After short periods of activity, the young one would find a nice spot to lay down for a spell. Her watchful mom never let her out of her sight, and she most certainly was aware of the coyote that stalked the herd from a higher point for a short time that I could see.

Meet Dolly and her one-day old filly, Oakley. Dolly and Oakley have a sabino coat color, which is the white irregular spotting, largely on the belly and face.

For many years, the National Park Service attempted to remove all horses from the park. In 1970, the park changed its policy to recognize the horse as part of its history, yet another Roosevelt legacy. Horse management rather than removal is the park’s current approach. Occasionally, the park rounds up a small number of horses and takes them to public auction. Current management has evolved and includes contraception, genetic research, and low-stress capture techniques.

Meet Flax, the stallion of the group and Oakley’s daddy.

It wasn’t until after the fact when I began researching the horses that I learned about the North Dakota Badlands Horse, a nonprofit organization that monitors the herds in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. From their website, I found the link “2021 Foals” and discovered photographs of newborns. I was so delighted to find a picture with information on the mare and filly I had spent two hours photographing. The mare’s distinct markings made it easy for me to identify her. From the photograph description, I learned her name and her filly’s name, Dolly and Oakley, respectively. Oakley’s birth date was also provided, July 26, one day before I met her and Dolly. I also learned Oakley’s daddy’s name is Flax, the stallion who appears in a few of my photographs.

Here you can see Dolly’s sabino pattern on her belly. Oakley pranced around her momma in fits and starts to strengthen those day-old legs. Still a bit unsteady and awkward, Oakley never strayed too far from mom.
I learned that Oakley is Dolly’s tenth offspring, but apparently the first documented sabino among her siblings. Some of the offspring belong to Flax, but Dolly’s previous mate is Cocoa.
The little one tired easily and would often find a nice spot to rest.
The strange pattern on Dolly is called roaning, a mix of white and red hairs, which I understand to be characteristics of the sabino coloring.

From last year’s visit to Custer State Park, I recognized the loud snorts and grumbles that emanate from North America’s largest land mammal. So, when I heard the distinct bellowing of a male bison that came from the other side of a hill where the horses were grazing, I suspected there was more than one bison nearby. Bison run in herds, and I did not want to find myself in the middle. The horses had already begun to move further away, cueing me to leave as well.

The bison herd came through, the horses moved aside and I went back to my truck.
By now, the horses were out of sight and the never-ending trail of bison were closing in on the road where I was parked.
One of only two facilities along the entire scenic drive through TRNP and thankfully I didn’t feel an urgent need to use it.

Within his namesake park, perhaps the most direct evidence of Roosevelt’s legacy is the extremely large bison herd that interrupted my photo shoot with the horses. The Park is a relatively small patch of land that is part of the Plains Bison’s rich grassland once extending from Canada to Mexico. When you visit a park and see bison in great numbers, you cannot help but think about their comeback from a few hundred shy of total extinction. Among many ways humans caused the bison’s near extinction was the re-introduction of the horse into North America. Horses compete with bison for grazing, but it was the use of the horse for hunting by the Plains Indians that caused a much greater devastation to bison.

From the truck, I photographed the bison including this mother and young one that is often referred to as ‘red dog’. I noticed several red dogs with one or two females. I also noticed the larger males were butting heads with each other and sometimes one took an interest in a female. I believe this was the beginning of rutting season for the bison.
One of about 300,000 bison living on Federal, Tribal, State and Private lands.

But that was then, and this is now. The North American wild horse is a popular symbol of freedom, bravery, determination, and beauty. And for that, I am privileged to have spent time photographing them and observing their equine culture for a short time. After spending two hours with Flax and his harem, Dolly and Oakley, it was time for me and the horses to move out of the way and allow the bison its space. The horse and the bison co-exist in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but the bison is the landlord. The unnamed bison, the keepers of the grasslands. Thank you, President Roosevelt.

Check out my previous blog about our first encounter with bison, and our 2021 national park experience.

Here are a few more images from our time at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

A morning hike in the south unit before temperatures rose above 90.
Evidence of bison are everywhere.
The large ungulate footprint of a bison.
We drove up to the north unit to see the cannonball concretions. These are created by the precipitation of limestone, forming “concrete” and through erosion become round.
A scenic view in the north unit.
As long as there are prairie dog towns, there are prairie dog photographs!