MEDORA, N.D. — We're trying to give the two bison a wide berth, but it isn't easy. We're hemmed in in a tiny meadow bordered by a wall of clay and juniper-choked drainages. The two of us are no more than 25 yards from the closest bull, who has raised his massive head to deliver a deadpan stare.
Duluth's Ken Gilbertson and I have come upon the bulls during a week of backpacking in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park Badlands. We've been hiking all day in a cold, slanting rain. Our boots are caked with a sludge of bentonite clay.
The bison seem impervious to the rain, and for that matter, to almost every other kind of natural eventuality this 70,000-acre park in North Dakota's Badlands can dish out.
We ease along a ravine, keeping an eye on the one-ton beasts. They get back to grazing — a good sign. Running short on options, Gilbertson and I drop into the junipers of a steep crease in the land and muck our way up the other side. The bison haven't budged. We ease away and continue along a high ridge, avoiding a more exciting encounter.
This land, sculpted over the eons by volcanic activity alternating with ocean basins, has since eroded into a random conglomeration of buttes, mesas, ravines and broad valleys. Theodore Roosevelt discovered it before he became president and had a ranch here. The land and the rugged lifestyle it required had a profound effect on the man.
"I have always said I never would have been President if it had not been for my time in North Dakota," he wrote.
The land, in three separate units, was declared a national park in 1947.
Most visitors are content to drive the 36-mile scenic park road in the South Unit, glassing for bison, elk, mule deer, feral horses and pronghorn antelope. Gilbertson, a University of Minnesota Duluth professor and head of the Department of Applied Human Sciences, has been leading outdoor education students on trips here for 32 years.
He knows the park intimately and prefers to get off the beaten path, ambling across the land, sleeping in the backcountry.
If you look at the terrain from the road, you'd be inclined to think traveling the backcountry is impossible. Long ago, Gilbertson learned how to get around.
"Ask the animals," he says to himself when trying to choose a route.
Which means, follow the well-trodden paths of bison, mule deer and elk. Invariably, they choose the most expedient routes. And sometimes, the routes lead to the critters themselves. A pocket of bison in a verdant valley. A pair of approaching wild stallions. Three young mulie bucks fording the Little Missouri River.
One day, a coyote barks at us as we pass. Another afternoon, a red roan mare grazes through our camp. In our week at the Teddy, we would see far more animals in the backcountry than humans.
We camp beneath the cottonwoods along the Little Missouri River or in grassy meadows among the hills.
Several nights, we are ushered toward sleep by the wild yapping of coyotes, the cooing of mourning doves and the hooting of a great horned owl. At our final camp, I step out of the tent in the middle of the night. Clearly, the heavens here have been issued an extra ration of stars.The Milky Way arcs over it all like a basket handle made of a colt's breath on a fall morning.
As I stand there gazing at all of this, a single star decides its time is up. It burns across the sky in a streak of yellow-gold and snuffs itself out.
Time to head back to the tent.