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Zaleski: ND Badlands in early spring invites hikers

Near the Custer Trail, west of Medora, N.D.The North Dakota Badlands looked bleak and colorless. Winter was reluctantly letting go, but spring had not yet asserted herself. Ancient junipers and the occasional stand of ponderosa pine had not yet b...

Jack Zaleski of The Forum Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Jack Zeleski of The Forum Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Near the Custer Trail, west of Medora, N.D.

The North Dakota Badlands looked bleak and colorless. Winter was reluctantly letting go, but spring had not yet asserted herself. Ancient junipers and the occasional stand of ponderosa pine had not yet brightened with warmer weather, instead were hunkered down against the chilly wind, their branches dark with the muted green/black of winter. Gray thickets of twisted and broken ash trees in the bottoms showed no new leaf buds, even as snowmelt from mottled drifts on the north and east slopes of the canyons burbled in the deepest draws.

But as always in the rugged landscape, there was color and life. A hiker couldn't miss it. Whizzing by at 80 mph reveals little of the subtle beauty of the place. You gotta get out and walk.

We'd traveled west to visit family and friends. We'd been in Bismarck for a Heritage Center program on good government. The next day drove into the Badlands, where we stayed at a friend's home just off West River Road. The chalet-type, glass-front cabin faces east from a perch at the head of a wooded canyon that connects to a network of draws, ravines and gullies. A hiker's paradise.

On game trails and livestock paths, we trekked to the flatter lower reaches, sheltered from the wind where the walking was easy. The land looked brown and dormant from a distance, but close up, it was awakening. In deep cuts where water rilled and sunlight penetrated, shoots of green streaked last year's dessicated grasses. No crocuses yet, but on the higher elevations, patches of the tiniest white blossoms looked like snowflakes that had been spared by the warming sun. They glowed defiantly in the wind, hints of sure-to-come blooms of crocus, prickly pear cactus and thorny buffaloberry.

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We'd hiked the area before, but this time a spectacular change caught my eye. A scoria boulder half the size of a Volkswagen had tumbled from the peak of an eroded cliff, slammed into a fence corner, snapped off several six-inch-thick posts and came to rest in a tangle of woven fencing and barbed wire. Probably dislodged in a downpour. What must it have sounded like when it careened off the rim?

With trees naked and grasses short and matted, it was a good time to see the Badlands' wild inhabitants. In one long day, we came upon an unruffled herd of pronghorn antelope, haughty cottontails nibbling at the bark of hardwood shrubs, owls cruising silently above the depths of canyons, turkeys in feather-fanning dances, a cluster of pheasants exploding out of the brush, and an unhurried parade of a dozen mule deer on a canyon wall, stopping, turning and wiggling their big ears at us. Curious, not afraid.

Also at this time of year: no mosquitoes or ticks, and no worry about heat or dehydration.

If you drive by, you'll miss it. If you wave off the spring landscape as dull and dreary, you'll miss it. If you don't stop, you'll miss the sweetness of sage in the air. Find the back roads. Get out and walk and see and enjoy.

Zaleski retired in 2017 after nearly 30 years as The Forum's editorial page editor. He continues to write a Sunday column. Contact him at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5521.

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