We had planned on going out to Isle Royale in Lake Superior for a 4-day photo trip, but the ship captain called in mid September and said we were the only three passengers for two weeks on either side. So he was packing it in for the season on October 2nd. Time to make a new plan.
I suggested Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota. I had done a couple backcountry hiking trips out there many years ago and remember all the interesting wildlife including Wild Horses, Bison, Elk, Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, Pronghorn Antelope, Bighorn Sheep, and how can we not include the Rattlesnakes and “Horny Toads” (actually Northern Short-horned Lizards). The land is more vegetated than the South Dakota Badlands and so—even though it’s still badlands—it is more hospitable to critters.
Ryan Marshik and I drove all night (9 hours) from Duluth, arriving at 4:30 am—two hours earlier than expected due to two factors; 1) MapQuest said it would take 10 hours but we had no traffic and no road construction and only stopped for gas. And 2) we counted on finding a breakfast spot in the early morning to eat a giant, greasy, gut-filling meal. But not even Dickinson had an all night diner, and Medora’s lone cafe in the off-season, is only open Monday through Wednesday (!).
So after an uncomfortable two-hour nap in the car, we headed out on the 36-mile loop. We found a heard of Bison in the campground and a flock of Wild Turkeys on the flats but this was before there was “shooting light.” A side trip up a dirt road towards Buck Hill netted us a mellow and large-racked Mule Deer buck. We followed him over a couple hills (lower photo). Mule Deer have dichotomously branched antlers unlike Whitetails which have one main beam with several tines coming off it. Muleys also have a unique escape gait in which they literally seem to bounce across the landscape, all fours in the air at one time (see photo below). Their name comes from their large, mule-like ears.
A band of Wild Horses next caught our attention. They certainly have a different unkempt look compared to domestic horses. Each little band has a leader (thanks Chris!) who controls the group. He is usually the one that keeps a sharp eye on little humans with big cameras. The range of horse colors is amazing…some resembling Apaloosas, some sharing the color pattern of a Holstein cow! Wild Horses had been in the area for nearly a century but disappeared in the mid twentieth century. The current stock was reintroduced from Montana in the 1970s.
Our last stop before lunch was one of the many Prairie Dog towns that dot the park. It was great fun just sitting in their midst and watching their antics. I especially liked their alarm yip, where they would stand up, throw their head back and give a sharp yip. It is executed with so much force that I even saw one guy flip over backwards! If Prairie Dogs can show an embarrassed expression, this guy had it all over his face. See top photo.
And this was just the first morning! I will post several more journal entries from this quick 3-day trip in the coming days.
p.s. You can always click on a photo to see it in a larger format.
Prairie Dog yipping: Canon 7D, Canon 500mm f4 and 1.4x teleconverter, 1/1500 at f5.6, ISO 200, tripod with Whimberly head
Mule Deer buck head-on: Canon 7D, Canon 400mm f5.6, 1/500 at f5.6, ISO 320, handheld
Wild Horses: Canon 7D, Canon 400mm f5.6, 1/1000 at f5.6, ISO 100, tripod