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The Prairie Pothole Region Central North Dakota's Womanly Meadow

Posted by Burdette B. (Burt) Calkins 10/31/2016 3:18:09 PM

The Prairie Pothole Region:

The Womanly Meadow of Central North Dakota

By Burdette B. (Burt) Calkins

Many people already know much about man's impact and activities in North Dakota, but perhaps not so much about the complex ecology, geography and geology of the Prairie Pothole Country. It is worth understanding, appreciating and visiting at a leisurely pace. Hardcore urban dwellers might not like the reverse claustrophobia caused by endless space and lack of trees, but if you appreciate and value the natural world you can fill your nostrils and heart to overflowing here.

 

Much is written about North Dakota's Badlands to the west, and its Red River Valley to the east. But Central North Dakota is often missed when hurried across Interstate 94 at 75 miles per hour. It is home to the Drift Prairie and the Coteau du Missouri or "The Hills of the Missouri," and is called the "mid" or "mixed-grass prairie," between the short grass to the drier west and the tall grass to the wetter east.

 

It is "where the West begins," smack dab on the 100th Meridian. "In the West we finally sloughed off the vestiges of Europe... and created a new chapter for America," said early 20th Century frontier historian Frederick Jackson Turner. While we still cling to some European traditions, it is new place in the new world. Here, we are writing our own history while shedding the mantle of orphans with inadequate traditions.

 

Widely known as the Northern Plains or the Prairie Pothole region, this area is land and water with a touch of Man's Dominion threaded in. Like native son and western author Louis L'Amour, I have been "yondering" over this landscape for a lifetime in trains, planes and automobiles... not to mention barefoot and bareback. I have been in it, on it, above it and beneath it. Here I find my genus loci or "sense of place." Environmental Determinism tells me it is "home"...where I belong... where I was born and raised. Many times I have gone far away, but I always return to what western novelist Wallace Stegner called, "the grassy green, exciting wind, with the smell of distance in it."

 

It is also a "North Place," nestled against the Canadian border and the "North Hole in the Sky," from which snow geese and tundra swans appear in the fall. Later on in winter snow buntings and snowy owls show up. Prairie grouse or "sharptails" dine on snowberries and Saskatoon berries. Even our Red River of the North flows northward into Hudson's Bay.

 

I have asked many over the years what "prairie" means. No one can give me a precise answer though most attempt to. "Prairie" is a French word meaning "rolling plains of grass," derived from a root word meaning "meadow grazed by cattle." Since it is in the feminine gender, it can be interpreted as "womanly meadow."

 

This area in North Dakota is part of a triangle from the middle of the southern border, 300 miles northwest to the corner of the state bordering Montana, then back east along the Canadian border to the western edge of the Red River Valley, and then south along the Red River Valley some 220 miles to the North Dakota/South Dakota border.

 

Located at the heart of the continent, it comprises about 40,000 square miles in North Dakota within more than a million square miles of grasslands in the United States and Canada. It has a Continental Steppe climate making it cold in winter and hot in summer. The temperature varies 180 degrees Fahrenheit from a record high of 120 degrees to 60 degrees below zero. North Dakota is best enjoyed somewhere in-between! Personally I live for the spring and fall. Hauling and stacking 90-pound hay bales in 100 degree August heat had strong input on career paths I chose.

 

The wind blows here, to put it mildly. And, it will rain, snow or hail. Total precipitation hovers around 20 inches, just on the edge of semi-arid, but enough to grow crops and fuel blizzards and floods. The Texans may dread a Blue Norther, but they have never experienced a full blown Alberta Clipper. But despite all the stories, it can't be all bad when vivid boyhood memories recall wonderful snow forts, making ice cream on a friend's dairy farm in the heat of summer, and using hailstones to freeze the fresh dairy cream in a hand cranked, wooden ice cream maker.

 

Garden, Breadbasket, Center of the Earth

 

The prairie has been seen in many ways. To President Thomas Jefferson it was a garden, and today it is known as the nation's "breadbasket." To some it was a vast wasteland, "The Great American Desert," to be crossed quickly. To the Plains Indians it was the Center of the Earth. To a cattleman or farmer, it can be Heaven or Hell.

 

But people came and settled the land, even though it was tough. One introduction to O.E. Rolvaag's classic immigrant novel, Giants in the Earth, says, "They struggled and died that their children might inherit the promise." Many came and left again. The hardy ones stayed, and there are nearly 700,000 at present who still persevere. They remain cautiously optimistic about the future, which, to a resident of the Northern Plains, is being practically delirious... all the while feeding untold millions of people throughout the world.

 

There are more trees than some would think, the result of enlightened conservation programs stemming from the New Deal. Tree stands and shelterbelts now crisscross the landscape whereas old texts speak of seeking shade behind haystacks. I took an older relative who had left for the West Coast in the 1940s on an extended trip around the state a few years back. He almost didn't recognize it. He was astounded by all the green and the trees. He passed away not long after his return to Seattle, but his daughter said that all he talked about in the time he had left was of his trip back to North Dakota. At least his heart had come home for awhile.

 

And, some areas are rockier than others, when glacial rocks of all sizes reach the surface due to frost heave, wind erosion and such. Every North Dakota farm boy and girl knows about pickin' rocks. One farmer who had a particularly rocky hilltop area said, "That land is so bad that even if you had two women and a bottle of whiskey, you couldn't raise hell on it!" But that is the exception rather than the rule, and cows know how to eat around the rocks. We have "sidehill gougers," too, cattle with legs shorter on one side so they can graze around the hillsides without tipping over!

 

A Legacy of the Glaciers

 

The Prairie Pothole region is a legacy of the glaciers which visited many times after millions of years of warm, shallow seas. The last glaciations, the Late Wisconsian, began 25,000 years ago and ended about 10,000 years back. The glaciers deposited immense amounts of "till" or "drift," grinding and rearranging the surface of the earth. We call this area the "Drift Prairie" or "Drift Plains" and sometimes the glaciated plains. It is also in the Central Lowlands Province as disassociated from the higher plains to the immediate west. At the continental divide here water flows both to Hudson's Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. At less than 2,000 feet above sea level, it isn't very high.

 

When the leading edge of the glaciers finally stopped, the ice behind kept advancing for awhile. As it did, it brought more "till" but started to drop this material as a terminal or end moraine. When the ice was gone this piled up "till" became the Coteau du Missouri or Hills of the Missouri. They roughly follow the line described above from the central southern border to the northwest corner. Huge blocks of ice created depressions and later potholes as they melted.

 

These two features, the "Coteau" and the "Drift Prairie" behind them, constitute the Prairie Pothole Region. The ice had also turned several rivers southward and the present day Missouri River parallels the Coteau. The Pothole Region never really developed many stream systems and the water just puddled up. Glacial meltwater did form some streams, such as the James and Sheyenne Rivers emptying a large amount of water into the new proto-Missouri River diverted south by the glaciers and the Red River headed north. When you cross the James or Sheyenne river valleys now, you cross small streams. What folks don't realize is that the tops of the valleys are a mile or more wide and once ran brim full.

 

The Sheyenne created the Sheyenne River Delta where it emptied into the large ancient glacial Lake Agassiz, part of the bottom of which is now the valley of the Red River of the North. The Sheyenne River Delta is also known as the sandhills and officially part of the Sheyenne National Grasslands. It is representative of Tall Grass Prairie and is very much worth visiting. It is significant to note that much of the eastern Tall Grass Prairies are gone now...replaced mainly by the "Corn Belt."

 

The glacial ice was so thick - up to 3,000 feet deep near Pembina - that it depressed the surface of the Earth by several hundred feet. It is still rebounding as the Red River continues to slow and meander evermore. This is one of the reasons the Red River Valley floods so badly. The glaciers crept south, ground the earth into smithereens and left hundreds of feet of "till" which was very nutritious. During the cooler, wet period after the glaciers, forests flourished. Eventually, it warmed up and dried out. The forests disappeared and the grasslands developed. Nature populated this area with millions of bison and lesser creatures.

 

Drumlins, Donuts, Kettles and Moraines

 

The glacial formations intrigue me. The fact that Devils Lake was scooped out by an "ice thrust" which plowed up and deposited Sully's Hills to the southeast is amazing. Beyond that is Devil's Heart Butte, a conical shaped butte which is either a "kame" formed by slumping material, or a "sand volcano" of till carried upward when thrusting depressurized the aquifer below. I also like the "eskers," ridges left from water and till flowing in, under and through tunnels in the ice. When the ice melted, ridges were left on top of the ground. The eskers I like best are north of Cando. They are branching eskers crisscrossed by lateral trails created by roaming buffalo herds. To some, they might just be some non-descript ridges with cowpaths across them, but to me they are totally unique.

 

There are also the drumlins, donuts and puckered lips, kettles, dead ice moraines and associated collapsed hummocky terrain. I am especially fond of "glacial erratics," boulders as big as cars setting all alone in the middle of nowhere, transported hundreds of miles by the ice. We call them "buffalo boulders," since bison and cattle alike love to congregate around them as ersatz scratching and rubbing posts. You may also discover ice drag markings and ice thrust polygons, ancient beaches and lake bottoms, lovely ranges of hills and amid all this...water...potholes, sloughs, ponds and lakes of many sizes and descriptions. Ice, water, rocks, mud and time did all of this. There are fens and glens and maybe even boogeymen.

 

That is the entire point of an excursion around the Drift Prairie. Armed with a few good references, this so-called wasteland becomes a pleasant and informative adventure.

 

And every so often you'll find a friendly, small town with happy folks, great food in places with names like the "Chat & Chew" and a welcome shady place to pause and rest. Some of this food can be described as North Dakota cultural classics, such as fleischkuechle, lefse or Indian fry bread.

 

Birds, Animals and the Nation's Duck Factory

 

There is no need to hurry on the Drift Prairie or Coteau. Many come just to experience the magnificence of creation as seen from the Plains. A friend, Dr. George Archibald, who is globe trotter and founder of the International Crane Foundation, told me that one of his favorite places in the world is Kidder County, North Dakota. He comes in the fall, incognito, to simply go out upon the land to watch the spectacle of the North American waterfowl migration when more than 500,000 sandhill cranes, along with millions of ducks and geese, funnel south through North Dakota in the Central Flyway.

 

I understand this completely. I have hidden in a rock pile in a stubble field while perhaps 50,000 sandhill cranes settled in to literally fill the field. The noise and hubbub was overwhelming. My Michigan friends were stunned. I took those same folks to a place so pristine in the Coteau near Denhoff, that one of the women got all quiet and funny. I said, "What's the matter, Dot?" She just murmured, "My God...where are the buffalo?" There was nary a manmade object to be seen, just hills, deep grass and ponds inhabited by waterfowl and shorebirds. As if to reinforce the scene, a huge "Nervous Nelly" whitetail buck jumped out of the nearby cattails and disappeared over the hill.

 

I have also observed an estimated quarter million snow geese on Lake Darling northwest of Minot. The lake was white. When they went out to feed, the sky was full of birds. I have also seen the sky completely covered with skeins of snow geese as far as the eye could see. It was as if the entire sky was covered with an immense fishnet of white. I have seen whirlwinds of thousands of ducks coming in to feed. If you are really lucky, you might even see a whooping crane. These are the sights and sounds of the Northern Plains and the Prairie Pothole country.

 

In this wonderful land of rolling hills, grass and water, various forces in times past and present have worked to drain the water, replace the grass and put it all into cropland. Common sense, new knowledge and the land itself temper these efforts. Much challenge remains, but we are learning that grass and potholes can be good for storing water, replenishing aquifers, preventing erosion and cleaning the environment - all the while providing a wonderful place to live for both man and beast.

 

The buffalo or bison are gone, but the mixed-grass prairie nurtures hundreds of thousands of domestic livestock while still providing a place to support all kinds of wildlife, especially waterfowl. Enlightened efforts in the last half of the 20th century have restored a hundred million ducks to the Central Flyway. The pothole region is the greatest duck production area in the world, and 50 to 80 percent of ducks produced on the continent are produced here, on only 10 percent of the continent's breeding habitat. Early explorers such as the fabled David Thompson and John James Audubon remarked repeatedly about waterfowl in countless numbers. One mentioned wild rice everywhere, "upon which waterfowl become very fat and well tasted." Tens of thousands of hunters still descend on the pothole region each fall to "go ducking" and "crawl a pondhole" to quote older references.

 

It is here that intense wildlife management brought the magnificent Giant Canada Goose or "Grandpa Geese" back from the brink of possible extinction. It is one of the great wildlife success stories, and now you can see these wonderful huge geese throughout the state. We also do our part in North Dakota to save the rare and endangered whooping cranes.

 

But the state and the pothole region harbor more than just waterfowl. There are 300 species of animals, such as deer and pronghorns living here, plus all the smaller critters from raccoons to badgers, foxes, mink, coyotes, otters and more. We have cottontail and jackrabbits and even snowshoe hares. Wolves, mountain lions, bears, moose and elk are all seen occasionally...and once-in-awhile something as rare as an oceanic Great Skua, whose global positioning system obviously suffered a major glitch. Upland birds in North Dakota include pheasants, partridge and four species of grouse, even the old prairie chicken, which early folks called "yellowlegs" or "squaretails." The skies are full of eagles, hawks and owls. Wildflowers abound, with some very rare, like the western prairie fringed orchid.

 

The prairies are rich and alive. Many Native American tribes knew this, preferring to live in the grasslands rather than woodlands or mountains. They made a great living here. Black Elk, the famed Oglala Lakota medicine man, said in part, that life on earth was a good story to tell, "of two-leggeds sharing in it with the four-leggeds and the wings of the air and all the green things...." You can still find that here in the Coteau and on the Drift Prairie, far and away from the import loop and concrete jungles.

 

Refuges Help Save our Natural World

 

We've managed to save a good portion of the natural world in North Dakota. There are more than 60 wildlife refuges, including some of the first in the nation. Chase Lake, for example, was established in 1908 as the 15th national wildlife refuge by President Teddy Roosevelt to save the American White Pelican and is the breeding ground for as many as 35,000 breeding pairs in a record year such as in 2000.

 

The birding world loves the pothole country, too. Some 392 species of birds have been observed in North Dakota with 216 breeding species. This is more than half of the 750 species of birds in North America that make it north of the Mexican border. We enjoy an overlapping of both eastern and western birds - and in winter even arctic birds. Birders come from all over to add special birds to their lists such as Baird's sparrow, a very northern breeding bird. In fact, the first scientific sighting ever of Baird's sparrow took place in North Dakota.

 

Take time to enjoy the medleys of the 1,200 native plants in the state, such as the wild flowers - the prairie smoke or old man's whiskers, prairie clover and the pasque flowers. Sit back in the little bluestem (or red sandgrass, as I like to call it) and the buffalo grass. Smell the prairie roses and listen to sounds you may never have heard before such as the weird "oonk-a-lunk" sound of the "Slough Pump" or American Bittern. A wetland can actually be a lively chorus of crickets, frogs, bird calls and perhaps even a coyote howl. Spend time...take time. Arm yourself with camera and binoculars plus a good bird book. The oxen are slow but the earth is patient. You might even see a muskrat ramble.

 

I have just scratched the surface, as did the glaciers. There is much more to tell, but space limits me. Come and visit Central North Dakota. Wander about the Drift Prairie, Missouri Coteau and neighboring areas. You may find many pleasant surprises, and you will enjoy an interlude unique to all of the world at the Geographical Center of North America.

 

Life is short. Drink the best wine first. Come drink in the Prairie Pothole Country while falling in love with this Womanly Meadow.

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