I was interested in seeing more of northern Nebraska- inspired by what I saw during the river clean-ups over the last few months. My mother proposed that we visit the badlands- so we did! We drove up 29 and west on hwy 12-out of sioux city, IA. In search of a place to stay, we found PONCA SP on the Nebraska side of the Mighty Mo. We picked a spot and visited the river for sunset. I fished- caught a couple of Drum, a tiny channel catfish and something that a local identified as a Redhorse- out of a green eddie in the river.
The river is wide here; many broad sandbars disrupt the smooth surface and make the water rough. As the sun became lower, the texture on the river became more defined. The sky was orange and yellow, green and blue- only a slight breeze blew past the soft bluff just downstream from my eddie.- upstream was flat.
The moon was still very bright, and it was an early night.
In the morn, I fished in the same eddie as I had the night before. My mother disappeared on a trail through the wet prairie behind me. I caught another miro-catfish. A small bit of worm, small sinker and a size 6 hook did the trick., 4 drum and a small gar, too.
We left the park and headed west early- drove to the far side of the town of crofton- to a gas station at the corner of 121 and 12 where a man approached the car and attempted to fill'er up. 'Shoulda seen the look on my mothers face when he asked her what octane gas she wanted. - Unfortunately, his pumps would not work and we had to fill up in yankton. I really wanted to find a good gravel bar- I owe a friend a bison tooth! There were none accessible here and we visited the Lewis and clark rec area just west on the lake. There was a small pond on the area- separated from the main lake by only a few feet of gravel. I through in a small silver 'jerk bait' and caught a handful of sunfish and bluegill. I tossed it near a patch of hornwart in the middle of the lake and began to fish the small lure. When I spotted the large fish goin at it, I let the lure lay still- suspended in the water just inches from the surface. The large black bass approached it, and upon seeing my lure give a final twitch, inhaled it!
It took me a second to get him in- The largest bass Ive landed in a long while! We walked the shore for a few minutes and I fished some more. All of the boat traffic on the main lake made the water mucky- though still much clearer than the Big muddy would be south of Sioux city
Near the little town of Niobrara, we explored a huge wetland on the shallow Missouri river and the braided waters of the niobrara river near the confluence (of the Mo).. I spotted a gar in a pool within the thicket of cattails on the Missouri- Through that same little jerk bait in front of him and twitched it to watch him stalk the lure. He snapped at it, but I pulled it from his reach. I toyed with him a few minutes before I let him get it- reeled it in and snapped a photo before releasing 'em again.
Hwy 12 is closed- a sign read. We took a detour south- right by Ashfalls fossil beds. The area, designated a historic sight by the state of NE, is a large prehistoric watering hole that was smothered in volcanic ash over 11 million years ago- The volcanic blast, from southern Idaho, laid 10-20 inches of ash on the creatures that were using the pond. Now, paleontologists study the skeletons of everything from zebras and rhinoceros to camels, elephant and buffalo on the site. Public, for a fee, is invited to come see the fossils.
We walked around the area- the bones were everywhere! Skeletons showing food and babies in mothers and adults were displayed in glass.
It was not until we got into cherry county that we noticed the lack of trees and rolling sandhills that surround VALENTINE. We'd visited the area once before- and loved it !
Just east of the town is a small state park and a large refuge called Ft niobrara Wilderness. We found a small herd of bison and a city of prairie dogs here. They 'barked' at us until they retreated to their holes. The small squirrel-things stood on their hind legs to watch us go by- like a meerkat.
In smith falls state park was the niobrara river. It is mush skinnier here than just down the road in valentine. There are no sandbars or islands- just a shallow stream resembling the blue river near swope park.
A small creek trickles into the Niobrara in the park- a short hike reveals the tallest waterfall in the state- Smith falls. The spring-fed falls created a little oasis in the desert that surrounds the park and displays a sample of the plants and animals that have survived there since the last ice-age- when the climate was wetter. The water WAS COLD! my mother jumped under the falls first- then I HAD to . The waterfall does not discharge a great volume of water, but spills the little water from about 70 feet.
Many canoes floated past our campground on the river. I found a small creek in the park- its dry bed was full of fossilized bone shards. I found a hunk of fossil antler- like from a deer- and a small gypsum crystal. We had a good fire.
In the morn- the cool, cloudy, rainy morning- we visited the falls once more and headed towards town. There we found a small local diner- the name of which I cannot remember. It was full of cowboys- the hats, boots, tight jeans and all! We had a nice meal and drove north on 83. When we crossed the border into south dakota, we entered an Indian reservation. The first thing you'd notice is the casino and truck stop powered by a huge, single wind turbine. The towns were not wealthy, but those things like graffiti, trashy and littered homes and sagging pants that I tend to associate with poverty were not common. Liquor and pawn shops, however, were around every corner. The skin of every pedestrian was like tanned leather- though not everyone looked native American. The colors of whatever tribes or families were displayed on just about everything.
We got onto hwy 44 and the land grew flat- more so than I'd ever seen it! There were hay fields everywhere- each in a different stage of harvest or re-growth. Those giant rounds of tan hay sat on the side of the hwy for the duration of our drive. A few homes speckled the landscape, but there was not too much but cows, hay, a little corn and some broad leaf row crop I didnt recognize.
We saw the first buttes and eroded badlands long before we neared the border of the National park. We got to the town of interior- on the edge of the park and hung a right. There we were! My mother got a annual pass so that I could have it for parks in the future.,
We drove a bit further into the park and found a visitor center. In front was a HUGE eroded hill- the start of an amazing formation of the badlands. We picked up some maps and headed into the area.
I was very impressed with the land, but felt disappointed when I learned that there were only two hiking trails. There was a handful of boardwalks, but there was only a 5 mile trail and a 3/4 mile one.
When we arrived at the head of the castle trail, my mother began to prepare for the hike. I intended to walk the trail, but felt no need to pack or change clothes or any of that. I walked over to a ledge- there were many people in the area- mostly families and elderly folks. I was overwhelmed at the site that greeted me at the ledge; which I later learned was named the window notch. You could see for miles over the seemingly endless 'badlands'
Some of the critters of the area during the sub-tropical Oligocene epoch that lasted from 23-35 million years ago. The illustration is from the park brochure- The small deer thing on the left is called a Leptomeryx, and is the creature that I believe the little jaw belongs to. The trio of taper-things are called Oreodonts- literally, Mountain-tooth -I believe I found teeth from these creatures as well- will have to go back and get a better look!
On the trail- which weaved through the isolated mountains in the small beds of grasslands and stream beds- I began to find fossils. It was sometime around noon and far too bright for photos, so my eyes were on the ground. There was not a whole lot of variety in the rocks I found, but when I stumbled upon a nice wash-out of gravel and chunks of dirt I found the first of many bones. It was a small set of teeth- herbivore- larger than a big rodent, but too small for a deer. I later read that there was once a small pika-type of a critter from which I suspect the teeth came from. I took a photo, but not one with any size comparison. I'd guess that the whole thing was a little over an inch long? I found also a small skull that looked similar to a modern- day raccoon, a piece of shell from the carapace of a hug tortoise, a crushed horse skeleton, several sets of large teeth from an ancient creature I suspect to be the oreodont, and a million shards from all sorts and sizes of fossilized creatures. A beautiful set of oddly shaped crystal points lines a crevasse on one of the rocks- I believe them to be those of calcite. We lasted maybe two miles on the trail and turned back- my mother became overwhelmed by the heat that radiated from the rock.
We accidental exited the park on 240E and pulled over to find the pass we'd got. Just across from where we parked was a small helicopter and a little shack- my mother offered to take me up and the next thing I knew we were being escorted over to the little bubble of a helicopter. I gave my mother all of my cash towards the fight and park pass. We put the headsets on and were able to speak with the pilot and each other.. Lift off- we scooted just above the grassland for a few hundred feet. The helicopter was surprisingly smooth! Without warning we rocketed into the air- my mother closed her eyes and gripped my knee. She is afraid of heights!
I felt he grip loosen when the little pod leveled out a few hundred feet off the ground. It was soo cool! I snapped a few pics- stuck my camera out the small window for a couple of them . ,. I was taking aerial photos!
We flew over the park for several minutes before circling back over the prairie. The pilot carried on a conversation with my mother, but I was waay too distracted by the incredible panorama to pay any attention to their words. We swooped to the side and down- I felt a shot of adrenaline go through my head... though I was not clinging to anyones' flesh! My mother faced the sky and her eyes were as tight as her fists. I looked out over the horizon and had a second of dizziness. Once we were only a few feet from the ground, we wizzed across the grassland- over a fence and a pond, through a row of trees - we rose quickly over the highway and circled back for a smooth landing. It was soo cool!
After our thriller, we circled the park and were back in the badlands when a threatening set of storm clouds drifted over us and darkened the sun. We drove about the park -stopping for photos and walks. I found a complete jaw- looked like it came from a medium-sized pig. A family came over and I showed them the fossils that were embedded in a mound of red rock or dirt. The smallest boy of the group went on and on about what kind of dinosaur it belonged to.
I climbed through the pinnacles for a low-light photo shoot and we got to a small wetland before we left. There we found a group of angry rock-wrens, some meadowlarks and handfuls of different toads. Some had dark strips on their sides and legs and bright yellows on their backsides.Other toads were covered in red spots. The one below is a red-spotted toad, I believe the others to have been different types of woodhousii.
Stayed in a small motel in Rapid city- my mother needed me to see Mt rushmore in the morn..
.....We got there early and there was only a handful of people at the memorial. We walked the path around the front of the carving- Got to look up Lincolns' nose. It was actually cooler than I'd expected, but wasn't any big deal for me considering yesterdays' adventures!
My mother went on about how much it'd changed since she visited it long ago. It was a perfect day to see it- the clouds created moments that seemed to spotlight the sculpture.
We drove down some curly-cue mountain hwy through one-way tunnels and such until we passed a tempting national forest area that we had to turn around to see. I through my lucky lure in for a few casts- until something finished it off. My mother conversed with a local woman about less-known trails and roads in Custer state park, our next destination, and I became distracted by an eroding granite hillside. It was heavily wooded by pines, but the understory was bear. I found huge slabs of mica and gorgeous hunks of clear quartz- though no points. I collected a few flakes and pieces of mica and quartz- one thin sheet of mica- about an inch in diameter- is a brilliant red colour. My favorite piece was as block of quartz with a sheet of silver mica on the top face- In the mica are many small bars of a metallic black mineral. The whole think is only about 3 inches long, and an inch wide and tall. It is legal to collect small quantities of rock or mineral from the national forest for personal collection- so I nabbed a hand full of the shiniest, clearest, most beautiful ones I could find, and a chunk of shiest that we found on an embankment on the entrance road. The shiest is fine and the worn faces show small, dark garnets. I did not know about the garnets until I examined the rock that I put into my garden- would LOVE to have collected some!
When we crawled over the cattle gaurd that marks the edge of Custer state park, we encountered a mob of parked cars, little kids with carrots and wild borros. My mother slowed to maneuver around the jackass'- people and horse alike- and I snapped a photo before one of the critters attempted to stick his head into the open window of our moving van-
We drove past a glade and a bison that rubbed it's head on a tree next to the road. We paid our fees and entered the main park where we pulled over for the largest herd of bison I couldve imagined! There were several hundred of the giants on a hill not too far from the road. I noticed a family of antelope to the left of everything. They wondered closer until the baby was just a few hundre feet from the line of cars. A pair of male bison went at it- raming their heads at our side of the herd. There were other brawls, too, and there was a noise coming from the group that sounded like the deep moan of a far-off thunderstorm blasting operation. After a while of watching and listening to the bison, we continued to find a handful of different groups of antelope and borro. We cut through a handful of country roads within the park, but never found another bison.
Before we left the park, I explored a patch of red dirt and rock. There were a lot of tiny crytals, but I could not ID them. We followed a set of dirt roads leading south to exit Custer SP- were stopped early by a large group of pronghorn... we crept on them in the minivan- until they stood in the road only a short distance from us. I couldnt believe how close we'd got, and they seemed oblivious to our presence. A couple of males locked horns for a second and a trio of youngin's stretched and ate just to the left of us. Just a short distance further we found ourselves in the center of a prairie dog empire!
their little red and white holes spanned for as far as you could see and each and everyone of them gave us a word before retreating. Most poeple refer to their yelp as a bark, but I soon recognized it as being strikingly similar to the noise made when a squaeky toy is repeatedly beaten.... I dont mean squeazed- you know the sound when you step on or hit a squaeky toy violently?....
We took a turn and exited the rodent city. Drove right past another grouse of some sort. A huge female that looked something between a roadrunner and a chicken. She took shade under a tree that hung low over the red gravel road. We drove through another two indian reservations to get back to valentine..,. We watched a storm develop and grow to the SE... A huge band of rain reflected bright when it was not shaded by the tall clouds overhead. It was not until we dipped south and began to head East on hwy 12- about 30 miles from valentine that we bagan to feel it.
At one point- just before we we swallowed by the shade of the storm- the ground infront of our vehicle reflected the bright sunlight and was overwhelmed by a BLACK sky behind it. The storm in the distance was not a dark grey or blue at that afternoon hour, but was black. There were threatening clouds directly above us- those bubbly mammatus clouds associated with severe weather, and a light roll cloud low and to our right.
after several minutes in the dark shadow of the storm and without precipitation, I spotted a familiar silouhette on the souther horizon- that darkened, tube-like vertical structure known as a tornado. I lost sight of it within seconds of spotting it- behind a long sanddune. My heart beat fast with excitement and I knew I'd seen somethin before I was able to recognise it as a funnel cloud. When the end of the hill revealed what I had seen I was sure of it! It was faint and small, but could have been nothing else! I asked my mother to pull over and told her what I'd seen- She did and I went to the back of the car and further down the road until I could see it agian. The sky was so dark (and I was so excited!) that the three photos I took were blurred beyond recognition. I watched it until I could not see it anymore.
We continued towards Valentine and watched all sorts of stuff blow across the road.. a tumbleweed and a trash bag.. then a sign and a large plastic trash barrel. When we got out to get a hotel room (mom was too wimp to camp!).. the sky was lighter, but the winds were strong.
The weather channel warned of a tornado south and west of valentine... near where I'd spotted one! Proof!
My mothr and I walked the town for a few hours as the sky grew sunny again. THe storm moved south and east and dropped several tornadoes before dissipating inside county lines. Wasnt anything too good in town, and we drove east, back towards the state park and wilderness area we'd seen just two days before. Stopped at the Niobrara access at the edge of th wilderness.. I walked up and down the river to find what I could. A zillion different COOL damselflies. red ones, bronze ones and a few beautiful iridecent green ones with large, opaque black wings. I recognized these as those found in the blue river corridor.. ebony jewelwings! Ended up staying on the river for the evening. Sunset was dissapointing.
In the morn we had ourselves a nice gasstation breakfast before heading south. We drove through the Valentine NWR.. . found several ornate box turtles, a mob of hungry horseflies, a flock of pelicans, a large woodhouse toad and some awsome birds and plants! First was a nighthawk that I spotted perched on a fence post just off the road. We stopped and I got out. I crept on the bird stopping every few feet to take a photo in case I could not get any closer. I would move and the bird's black eyes would open wide, but if I stopped, his eyes would close slowly.. as if he would fall asleep every time I stopped. I woke him up a half-dozen times until I was no more than 10 feet from the bird! I turned around and began to walk ... he'd fled by the time I'd reached the road. Lots of doves!
Our last stop was on hwy 183, just south and west of Kerney. It was a rec area on the Platte that we found blocked by construction. We headed east and got off on the FUNK/ODESSA exit... .drove south across the river and pulled into a gravel company. I asked the man if we could leave the van in his parking lot while we explored the Platte only a few hundred yards up the road. He told us we could park on the side of the hwy. We did, though I cant imagine it was legal. I waded across the river and my mother was soon to follow... The water never rose above mid-theigh.
I found a nice garvel bar and hunkered down. I looked through the stones beside me and crawled a few feet for a better selection. A handful of cars passed on the bridge above us- my mother walke downstream. I found some nice carnelian and a oiece of clear quartz. My mom came up with a handful of stones, including a chip of a bison tooth, and a toad. I continued to cawl across the warm sandbar and found my own piece of tooth. I crossed onto a shallow island on the main channel of the river- if there was such a thing. I went about the proper procedures in claiming the property- wrote my name in the sand and declared a short speech adopting the constitution of the US and asking for any objections... didnt get any!
My mother came tresspassing on MY island. she got bored after a few minutes and wanted to go. It was within seconds of her request that my eyes fell upon the iridecent blues and greens of a small piece of labradorite. The gem is only about a cm long, but is surely beautiful. I was very excited to find it! I showed my mother... she did not seem to share the excitement that I felt... she just couldnt appriciate the brilliant gem as I did!!! My mothe began to walk back and I stayed for a second- confident that I could catch up later. In the corner of my eye I spotted something white moving. It was small, but still larger than a bug. I heard a buzzing- like wings, and the white flew infront of me. It was fast, but I was able to snatch it out of the air.. It did not feel good in my hand. I began to regret catching it... until I saw it... A GIANT bettle !!! It was some kind of a sawyer or borer, but was much larger than I knew them to be. It was white with black splotches(yes, splotches is a word).. .had long, thick antennae, huge mandibles, a spiny thorax and was a little under two inches. The beetle sqeaked and squealed... like a bess beetle does when held. I dint know what he was saying to me, but it didnt sound like it ouldve been too nice. I showed my mother, wrestled it for some photos, discovered how hard it bit, and released him. Turns out he was a borer called a COTTONWOOD BORER- and was west of his known range.
On the way home I joked about traveling all those hundreds of miles for a tiny rock collection and my new gem. My mother wasnt as happy about that, either!