In early spring of 2007 I decided to quit my job, sell my house along with nearly everything else that I owned, and to live out of my car while traveling the country. These are my stories (and pictures) of life on the road.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Prairie Story

The prairies of the upper midwest used to stretch to the horizon, as far as the eye could see. No rocks, no hills, no trees, and few lakes, rivers, or streams. The grass would grow higher then a man's head and with no visual markers for a guide the early travelers through the prairie had difficulties keeping a straight line. I've heard that they used to sit a couple kids on back of the last wagon to watch a 200 foot section of rope being towed through the grass. If the rope started to curve that meant they were starting to veer off course and the kids would give a holler.

Things aren't that way anymore. While there still aren't any rocks or hills the prairies are long gone, along with the buffalo that used to roam them; they've been replaced with fields and cattle pastures. I'm sure there are still some native sections of prairie somewhere in the area that have never seen a plow, cow, or herbicide; but I don't know where they are and if they exist they can't be very big. What we do have though is land that the state has bought and turned back into pseudo prairie. I've never been a hunter but I'm sure that they're to thank for this land. If it wasn't for the pheasant and deer hunters paying the state for the right to hunt the money never would have been spent to reclaim these lands and to try and turn them back into prairies. I doubt the main purpose of these lands is for prairie reclamation, but rather to give the deer and pheasants a good place to live so hunters can shoot them every fall. Yeah, it sounds kinda bad, but really I think it works out best for all involved, deer and pheasants included.

North of Estherville there are quite a few of these public lands and about 5 or 6 years ago I started exploring them. I'd always driven past them and seen signs for them but I'd never thought of walking them. Once I did though I found something I hadn't experienced hiking anywhere else in the area and they turned into some of my favorite hiking areas. In particular a largish tract NW of town where four such adjoining areas have been bought one at a time that now let you walk for miles through uninterrupted prairie.

On the northern edge is small little Ringham Habitat. It's a really small section and the only one that actually tries to be something. It has wide, mowed trails around it leading to the star attraction, a few indian burial mounds in the back near the Burr Oak trees that begin growing as the land drops away to the river. The other areas to the south are Crim Savannah and Anderson Prairie. They have no trails, attractions, self guided signs, or anything else to try and accommodate you other then a small, roped off, grass parking area. If you continue walking east on the southern side of Anderson Prairie you'll reach the oak trees that follow the river and you'll find a trail through them. If you follow this trail you'll come out of the woods in about 1/2 mile and be in a separate section of Anderson Prairie that can be also accessed by N26 just north of town.

When I woke up this morning I found myself thinking about the prairie and how I wished it was spring time so I could get out and enjoy it. Then I decided that I didn't need to wait for spring to go out and enjoy it; I'd take Rudy and we'd go today. While the prairie is usually much more interesting in the spring and summer it can also be a pretty neat place in the winter with a nice covering of white snow. There are an amazing number of animals that live in the prairie but you usually never see any sign of them because of all the grass. That changes in the winter though with snow on the ground; even the smallest critter leaves tracks behind as a record of it's presence.

We arrived a little before 2:00 on a surprisingly warm (around 30) and relatively calm day with winds blowing up to a little over 10 mph. One thing about the prairie is that there's no place to hide and the wind can just about drive you nuts, and that's on a good day. On a bad day it can make it so bitterly cold you can't stand to keep your eyes open. Today was a better then a good day.

We pulled into the parking area for Anderson prairie and from the car tracks it was obvious some other people had been around in the last week or so since the snow. As we started walking into the prairie we were following a couple other sets of footprints when I realized that I'd never seen anyone on the prairie that wasn't hunting. I see tracks in the snow from people I assume are out hunting early/late and I see people walking through the prairies during hunting season (when I avoid them). But I've never before seen someone just out enjoying themselves; they don't know what they're missing.

In the winter with snow on the ground it's plain to see these prairies aren't virgin. It's easy to spot the 2 rut trail the maintenance trucks use when they need to do something on the prairie and you can see that the grass even seems to be growing in rows, just like crops. I don't know why exactly it looks like that; though I assume they planted it with a machine when first turning it back into a prairie and while the grass is growing on its own everywhere it's still thickest where it was originally seeded.

We climbed up on a small, rolling hill for a better look of the area and found tracks running everywhere. On top of the hill, following two neighboring “rows”, looked to be a pair of coyote tracks. We followed the tracks for a while as they crossed rabbit and mouse tracks and as they went down one small hill and up the next, always staying in their row. I could almost see the pair loping through the darkness at a steady gate, hoping to scare up some game. I'm sure if I would have followed the tracks they would have led to the woods bordering the river about a 3/4 mile away.

Instead we turned north to follow the prairie the long way. After a short distance we came across a set of rabbit tracks which were soon joined by a set of canine tracks. It's possible they could have been the tracks of someone else who had their dog out, but I like to think it was another coyote. I followed them for a while before they went into thicker grass and I was further thrown off track by Rudy following them as well, ahead of me of course.

I also came across the trail of what I think was a kangaroo rat. They looked like they were made by only 2 feet (always right next to each other) and a tail lightly dragging behind. I can remember seeing them on TV as a kid and thinking they looked so cool. Then one night when I was probably 8 or 9, returning from fishing with my dad, I swore I saw one hop across a gravel road in our headlights. My dad didn't see it and I don't think he quite believe me, and I wasn't so sure I believed myself either; I didn't think we had them around here. It wasn't until fairly recently that I discovered that actually we do have kangaroo rats in the area but since they live the prairie and are mainly nocturnal they're not generally seen. The tracks that I saw today was the first time I'd seen any sign of them since my brief siting as a kid. It made me happy.

We continued walking to the north into Crim Savannah where we picked up a small creek, next to which the state had cut down some very large trees in the last couple years and left them laying there. While it kind of seems like a shame, on the other hand there aren't supposed to be trees on the prairie. We followed the creek down across a small valley it had either cut over the years or had opportunistically decided to follow as a path of least resistance. We went back up the other side and walked to the edge of the line of Burr Oak tress where we could look down the mostly frozen river below us. Rudy walked around, sniffing about, while I just stood there for a while and enjoyed whatever it was I was enjoying.

We'd walked quite a ways by then through the snow and we were both ready to head back. We picked up a well worn path the deer had made right next to the tree line and followed it back towards the car. We followed the tracks up a steep slope, where judging by all the skid tracks and spots where it looked like deer fell down, that they'd had a tough time getting traction on the hard, icy snow.

Over the prairie, in the deep blue sky, hung a perfect looking 1/2 moon. I stood looking at it and when I looked down it seemed that Rudy was watching it intently as well. I don't know just what exactly was going on in his mind but he seemed a little unnerved by it. He wouldn't take his eyes away from it for very long and started growling a little at it. I've never seen him pay any attention at all to the moon before; maybe it was the first time he'd ever actually noticed it. Once we started walking again he managed to put the demon in the sky out of his mind and went back to sniffing the holes in the grass. By the time we got back to the car the sun was hanging pretty low in the sky, casting long shadows from the tall grasses and making odd patterns in the lightly drifted snow.

I don't really know why I enjoy walking in the prairie so much. It's generally not very exciting and because you can see for miles ahead of you there aren't any surprises waiting around the corner. I suppose it's mostly about being alone and feeling like you've been transported back in time a little. It's not too hard to stand in just the right spot and imagine that instead of a bunch of cattle just on the other side of that hill that the prairie keeps rolling on for miles. While I don't think I could explain it there's just something peaceful about being out on the prairie on a warm, calm day.

As the winter turns into spring, summer, and fall I'll try to keep you updated on the prairie and how it progresses through the year. It's quite an amazing transformation and I'm usually astounded but what I see when I actually take the time to look.


Anonymous said...

I know this prairie quite well, used to cross country ski the Ringham habitat.

I don't really think it is quite legal to ride horses on it but last fourth of July I pulled up with my horse trailer and just pretended I owned the place and whipped it right in. I unloaded Molly and set off at a brisk trot, felt great.

Had trouble getting across the creek so had to go to the road to get over to Crim's and Anderson's but once there was very nice. I have learned to be patient and wait for the end of the day to do this, the reward is even on hot days the sun is low and it feels much cooler, this evening was perfect. Another benefit is the long shadows add to the sense of wonder.

Feels so good to top the hills or perhaps swells would be more a befitting name. Large swells covered with long prairie grass, the wind plays with it giving the impression of waves on the ocean, not large waves but nice gentle rythmatic ones.

We spent the last hour of the day wandering over and between the hills, checking out the draws and the burr oaks you mentioned bordering the river then with the sun slipping down we topped the biggest hill we could find, third one in from the gravel road to the west,south side. Molly was content to munch on rare plants and flowers, from my perch I could see far to the west and to the north I could see well into Minnesota. there is no doubt in my mind that Indians camped right here, attracted by the game, water and view. 200 yards to our east a couple of deer came out of the corn to the south field and slipped into the tall grass, they seemed quite content and paid me little notice.

It was getting dark before we headed for the road and our trailer. Just Molly and I, a soft wind in our face, the gentle squeak of saddle leather. Memory is burnt into my head. Hope I never lose it.

Alan Gage said...

Thanks for the comment "anonymous". Gee, I wonder who you could be?

Guess I'll have to start looking for someone around town who owns a horse named Molly. Unless you're just trying to throw me off track with a fake horse name.

Ohhh, you're a clever one!

Until next time, "anonymous" :)


You've reached the end of the page but that's not the end of the stories. If you want to read more (and who wouldn't!?) then click on the archive links to the right hand side of the page. They're listed by month; the adventure starts in May.

The February archives aren't actually from this trip but are previous adventures I've had, which are worth reading as well.