Waking up in Aberdeen, South Dakota convinced us that we had left one culture behind and found another.
Hitch’n Post clothing and gift shop in Aberdeen, South Dakota.
Only one day earlier, we looked out the window at breakfast to see recreational lake, rimmed with year-round and seasonal homes. The wallpaper stencils, the paintings, and the dust collectors had themes involving fish, pine trees, loons, and bears. From this point on the bait shops would be replaced by tack shops for riders. Paul Bunyan had given way to the cowboy. The bases of lamps were made from snakeskin boots, rather than fishing lures. Loon worship is gone. Pheasant worship has arrived.
On the way out of town, we decided that Aberdeen would be nice place to return for a longer visit, when time permitted. On our way out of town, we photographed the Brown County Courthouse.
Brown County Courthouse in downtown Aberdeen, South Dakota.
Of course the flag was flying because the wind hasn’t stopped since we got to the state. Such lovely historic architecture was found in public buildings all over. Private ones were typically flat-fronted wood buildings facing the street or massive square brick buildings. Ranch houses were more common too.
At the tack shop, the counter clerk Shelia said she loved the wind because it kept down the mosquitoes. This was the gist of her response to my question asking for a freshwater concern. More specifically, she remarked that “Aberdeen was built on a slough,” adding that “mosquitoes should be our state bird.” To keep the town from being a buzzing, bloodsucking nightmare, they spray weekly in the low water spots. I had trouble believing there were any wet spots left, given the steady evaporating wind. On the bright side, she liked freshwater because it was “refreshing.” By that, she meant you could jump into it and cool down.
I have one other comment about Sheila. The night before, my editor at the Hartford, Courant -- where I publish a regular Op-Ed column – advised me to get both first and last names from every source. To their standards, a first name was equivalent to that of an anonymous source, which the newspaper doesn’t allow. That evening, I became a bit worried, because, I had been asking for first names only, on the premise that the responses would be given less often and would be more guarded.
Then, on my first encounter after this warning, I did an experiment by asking Sheila for her last name. She refused. Had I chosen to meet the standard for reporting of the Courant, I would have completely missed the water story about the slough and the spraying. I decided that I would continue to use first names only, except for those I encountered I public facilities.
Driving north on State Highway 281 was uneventful, largely because the road ran as straight as a taught string. In Oceola Township, the highest hills were the only hills, piles of sand and gravel being mined for some purpose.
Just beyond the tiny town of Frederick, the road made a slight curve to the west, the first in many miles. I knew from my map that we were now exactly two miles from the North Dakota border. Had the wind been at our backs, we could have sailed all the way into town. Instead it was against us, cutting our mileage by a significant amount. Perhaps we will gain it back when we head back east.
Historic boundary marker at the South Dakota-North Dakota state line.
The main point of the boundary marker was to point out that North and South Dakota were created as twin states out of one territory. I reflected on the fact that I was a twin as well, born in the same year as my brother James Perry Thorson, whose middle name is that of my grandfather, son of an immigrant Norwegian farmer who homesteaded in Wells County, more than a hundred miles to the north, giving me a Dakota connection for life.
A welcome sign greeted us on the north side of the border. Looking back, I didn’t’ see one welcoming visitors to South Dakota, though I may have missed it. Looking back was an experiment designed to confirm whether the state officially welcomes visitors on its county roads. When entering the state, I found no welcome sign at all where we entered at Lake Traverse.
We continued north on a straight line. Just south of Ellendale, the first town in North Dakota, Kristine gasped at the city skyline ahead of is.
The skyscrapers of Ellendale, North Dakota are grain elevators.
With so much space, people have no need to go vertical with their buildings. But the grain elevators must go vertical because they rely on gravity to send the grain to waiting railroad cars. Almost without exception, grain elevators signal the presence of railroad tracks. Indeed, without the farms, there would be no railroads and with no railroads, no large commercial farms. The grain elevators are the link between these seemingly separate spheres.
When we drove by the siding, I thought of Grand Central Station in New York City, where I had been exactly one month before for a meeting regarding national water research and policy. I had taken the Metro North commuter train in from New Haven, Connecticut, changed to an underground shuttle at Grand Central, then took the E line north past Columbia University to City College, New York. What a different world that is.
In New York City, especially on Manhattan, there is a crush of people and the price for commercial and rental properties is as high as its skyscrapers, which is why they are there in the first place. In Ellendale, half the buildings were boarded up, and the streets were eerily silent. Given a choice between city and country, I’ll take Ellendale any day. The gas was selling for $2.42 per gallon.
To left of the road were patches of white where puddles used to be. This was unmistakable evidence of salt in the soil, concentrated to a visible powder by evaporation. The air is cooler here than to the east because of that. It sops up nearly 80 kilocalories of heat for each gram of water turned into vapor.
Crossing the Glacier Margin
At Edgeley, we turned west following State Highway 13 all the way to the edge of the Missouri River. At Kulm, Fedonia, and Lehr it jogs south before the home stretch between Wishek and Linton.
Edgeley is fairly flat country, rendered even flatter by the ice sheet that, at one time, slid overhead at a speed of a few yards of tens of yards per year. The load of ground-up rocks and gouged out clay being carried in the lower levels of the ice were pasted to the surface as till, giving rise to productive farm fields.
Just short of Kulm, however, we began to climb a broad ridge, with crops giving way to rangeland. Looking at the map, I realized that the ridge was a couteau, in this case unnamed, and much more distinct to the south. Part way up, we discovered a row of eight dead threshing machines from an earlier, and presumably better era. How they got there is a mystery. Certainly it involved a change from a crop-based to a grazing-based local economy.
At the top of the ridge was a long row of wind turbines producing electrical power for the North Dakota Wind Energy Center. That was the sign posted on the hurricane fencing around a small enclosure no more than about 30 feet square. Inside were a few electrical transformers.
“Mon Dieu!” I thought. Apparently, a hundred or so enormous turbines spread out in a line on the ridge needed no more than a tiny electrical station, less than a tenth the size of those we see once in a while along a typical transmission line. Leaving the station was a single wire. Wind, when measured against the concentrated power of fossil fuels, doesn’t have a chance, even here where the wind blows steadily.
The terrain changed on the west side of the ridge. We would cross more than thirty miles of bumpy, bouldery, grazing land dotted with blue potholes. Here and there were elliptical piles about the size of a two-car garage consisting of rounded boulders. This was a broad moraine, a belt of ice stagnation topography where debris thrust up onto the ice by compression against the ridge melted down in a chaotic fashion, leaving potholes where lumps of ice used to be.
Green prairie, blue potholes, and multi-colored horses in grazing county of the ice stagnation terrain near Kulm, North Dakota.
In one field was a row of eight dead threshers, each the size of a truck. These machines were used to separate the grain from its chaff from crops fed into its conveyor belt. They extinct when combines arrived as did typewriters when word processing on personal computers arrived. A combine is a self-propelled thresher that picks up the grain directly from the field. On the trip, I probably saw more than a hundred of these machines, arranged in ways that suggest prairie folk art.
This is great pasture country because the chaotic landscape created microclimates of shade, wind, and sun responsible for a great variety of growing conditions for grass at the scale of acres. Part of that chaos are thousands of water-filled potholes, which provide water for thirsty livestock and also contribute to a variable plant growth, a complete gradient from truly aquatic plants to the bunch grass characteristic of steppes.
The wind was strong everywhere. The grass billowed in waves moving along at a speed I estimated to be a steady twenty-five miles an hour. Small protected potholes remained a deep bright blue. Water from the larger potholes was blue at a distance, but, closer up, had been churned into a light brown color by the suspension of mud into the water, except for the whitecaps.
Strong winds all day from the west (left to right) raised the water level in this pothole enough to flood the road near Lehr, North Dakota.
Some of that mud came from erosion at the edge. Boulders exposed there indicated that the hills were composed of glacial sediment dropped on top of the ice in ages long gone. Another source of mud were small landslides, which opened up holes in the grass to expose brown earth.
With so much water, I wondered why we had yet to see a rowboat, a dock, sailboats, or any sign of lake culture. Water here was used for livestock, and doubled as resting places for migrating waterfowl.
We found Leo at Lehr. When we pulled off the road to grab a sandwich, we found this eighty-something man riding a John Deere lawn tractor, and dressed in a cap, coat, heavy overalls, and probably additional layers below that. Leo ran the only commercial roadside enterprise, a combination gas station (two old fashioned pumps), general store, the predecessor of today’s convenience store, but with a dirt pavement instead of asphalt. He was of Russian extraction, the child of immigrants from Old World Tortina. Most of the immigrants around here were Germans and Russians, he said. The Swedes gave it a try, but left.
His positive comment about fresh water was “I like fresh water.” He had nothing more to say on the subject. His concern was that the water has too much alkali in it, meaning it is hard and tastes funny. He drinks the town water, which is pumped up from a well and treated with chorine, but doesn’t like it much.
He remarked that this country was better off with it’s thousands of potholes because they gave the livestock, principally Angus beef, a place to drink. In the old days, a few of them dried up completely. That was “before the snow started to fall.” Perhaps this comment was an exaggeration of a real trend. Snowmelt is indeed the main recharge source to aquifers around here.
Down the road we saw a sign for Green Lake Boating and Camping. That must be a big pothole, I thought. It was the first sign of lake recreation since Buffalo Lakes, South Dakota, which seemed a world away.
Beyond the Moraine
We found our first polluted pothole just short of Wishek, covered with floating aquatics and duckweed. Just up hill was a manure-trodden ground feed area draining right to the pond. Just up the hill was the first herd of dairy cattle, in this case Holsteins, we’d seen for more than two hundred miles. There were feeding stations made out of old tractor tires. Boulders were very concentrated on the heavily trampled surface.
The connections were clear. Nutrition brought in from outside in the form of feed allows cattle to concentrate the boulders through trampling compaction and surface erosion. This concentrates the manure, which concentrates nutrient in the pond, which fosters the growth of algae.
We saw a sign on the edge of Wishek: “Sauerkraut Capital.” This supports what Leo had to say about the settlement history, dominated by ethnic Germans.
What made me stop was the snowplow on the train, a modern-day reminder of the historic images of trains plowing there way through blizzards.
Bright yellow snowplow attached to a train in Wishek, North Dakota.
Apparently, this still happens. I tried to imagine the scene in which the train gets through faster than any emergency vehicle. The real reason for the plow, however, was the drifting caused by the wind. In winter this is a desert, combination Sahara and Antarctic, with subzero snow blowing about by the wind into huge drifts that must be cleared.
To get a good shot of the snowplow, I entered a junkyard so old that one section had cars from the early 1950s.
Junkyard for 1950s cars in Wishek, North Dakota.
I didn’t see a spot of chrome left. All that chromium, a toxic heavy metal in its aquatic form, has entered the soil and probably the groundwater. Junkyards continue to be chronic sources of water pollution today. Of course, there were also rusty barrels. God knows what they once contained. For all I knew, I was on a hazardous waste site.
West of Wishek was a different world. We could see clay at the surface and the local relief was lower, but the land was still covered with glacial boulders. The glaciers overrode this land, but didn’t do much to it at all and it was quite long ago, before the last invasion by the ice. If potholes were originally present, which I doubt, they have been long since filled by local mud. This was a largely non-glacial landscape with minor buttes; stream dissected slopes, and a broadly terraced valley. This indicates the long-term work of rivers, rather than glaciers. Still, the boulders remained. One field alone had about 20 piles.
On the low terraces above Beaver Creek we saw the first many dikes on our trip. These were overgrown with brush, and with control structures made of stone. Most looked abandoned, as if from an ancient civilization before the age of concrete.
We turned north at Linton on North Dakota Route 1804. There, we encountered a sign for the Lewis and Clark Trail, the most scenic part of the trip.
North Dakota Highway 1804 follows the route of Lewis and Clark to Bismarck, North Dakota.
Decision in Linton
This town looked neither eastern nor western, but something in between. On the far side of town Kristine noticed a sign that read “Vote Yes for Better Water.” Sensing a good water story, we pulled over for a photo.
Billboard in Linton, North Dakota urging residents to approve a plan by the Regional Water District.
Behind us was a guy with a green T-shirt named Bob Job. He was a city employee, out to patch a piece of the sidewalk that had ruptured from subsidence underneath, a common occurrence in fill made of silt-clay and on an artificially steepened bank. Soon after I showed up, three or four others showed up to see what I was up to. When I asked for their photograph, however, they quickly retreated. Bob, being a supervisor, felt obliged to comply with my request.
Bob, a city employee for Linton, North Dakota was my informant on its water decision.
He explained that the “South Central Water District” had put the billboard there. He corrected himself, saying it was officially the “Regional Water District.”
Basically, this company sells water to communities from the Missouri River that is gathered more than fifty miles upstream. The regional water district gets bigger by gobbling up the water utilities of small towns. Bigger means more efficient, which means it saves money because each water supplier must meet stringent sampling, analytical, and reporting requirements to the “Feds,” by which Bob meant the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is increasing the regulatory burden on small towns and companies to meet the rising concerns about public health.
Linton’s water supply is now 5 wells pumped by the city and distributed to customers via their taps. I’m not sure whether they get a water bill or whether it’s paid by taxes.
Additionally, the regional water is better, being “only 6-hard,” rather than “35-hard.” Here he refers to what geochemists call total hardness, which is largely about calcium, sodium, and magnesium ions.
Linton’s choice is to either keep the status quo, or pay more for better water, while at the same time becoming dependent on a distant utility. The converse is to pay less for worse water. The vote, is very close, “50-50” according to Bob.
Lewis and Clark Trail
On the far side of Linton, we turned north on North Dakota 1804, which parallels Lake Oahe, an enormous, ribbon-shaped reservoir of the Missouri River. We had joined the Lewis and Clark Trail. They don’t call the Missouri the Big Muddy for nothing.
Water’s edge at the boat launch at Oahe, North Dakota. Note that the water is fairly high against the trees.
The Missouri River is full of suspended clay because it drains dinosaur-era shale made of mud that was pressed together solely by the weight of the mud above it.
Outcrop of marine sedimentary rock in Livona, North Dakota, just north of the Oahe boat launch. This isolated remnant of ancient rock is called a butte.
Though more than sixty five million years old, the shale is hardly what one might call rock, for it falls apart easily when soaked by rain and penetrated by plant rootlets. This material was deposited at the bottom of a shallow ocean that extended form the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, isolating the Cordillera as a separate continent. Now, many geological epochs later, that same mud is washing back to the sea via the Missouri, then the Mississippi Rivers.
Sediments above the marine shale are mostly siltstone and mudstones deposited after the dinosaur extinction by broad alluvial rivers. Over the last fifty million years, the land has been uplifted, the interior sea drained, and the mud slivered and sliced into the terrain around here. The creation of landscapes by the removal of what had been there before is a water story unto itself.
Within the last fifteen thousand years, some of the mud being carried was deposited in the winding river bottom as modern sediment called alluvium. Each spring during flood, the river meanders against its bank and re-suspends the mud into the flowing water. Wave erosion does much the same.
Wave erosion at the edge of Lake Oahe, North Dakota erodes the shoreline material and suspends the mud.
Hence, the source of the river’s mud today is river mud of geological eras gone by being recycled. In turn, this mud was made by the combination of water, rock, and vegetation during weathering.
The size of the particles making up the mud is small enough such that only minor turbulence is required to keep it suspended in the water. Any sand that would have been present with the mud, has long since settled out.
Here, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a pumping station. It’s fully automated, thanks to new equipment, a fancy cabinet that looks like an oversized refrigerator with the door wide open, but with electronics inside, rather than food.
Closet for automatic pumping on the shore of Lake Oahe, North Dakota.
It was a Watertronics-brand automatic water pump, connected to a serious, probably 10 inch pipe heading down into the river.
Water pump at lake Oahe, North Dakota.
Nobody was watching it. Nobody was around. Not one vehicle was in the parking lot. I could have thrown a rock at it and set the government back a few hundred thousand dollars, had I been either a Libertarian or an angry teenager.
Yes, the upper Missouri River is used for its water. There are two major dams. Lake Sacagawea is impounded by the Garrison Dam on its south side, and is so big there is no bridge across it for hundreds of miles. It looks like a flooded stream watershed with V-shaped bays where tributaries used to be.
Lake Oahe is more ribbon shaped, being broad overflow channels for ice age melt. After the ice, it was a fertile lowland alluvial valley in these parts, sacrificed in the name of water. Chad and Tom were apparently pleased, for they came down to launch a boat and go fishing on this enormous, but very windy lake.
Chad and Tom going fishing on Lake Oahe, North Dakota.
As Chad stepped out of his buddy's large white Chevy truck an empty water bottle went skittering uphill, blown by the strong wind. I chased after it, grabbing it ten yards downwind to the east. Of course, no-body would drink the Missouri, which explains the empty bottle. The best thing about freshwater for Chad are the reservoirs of the Missouri, on which he grew up. Hardly a pristine blue pond, they are beautiful in their brown loveliness. His downside was the need to manage water, especially in the drought. He was happy with the Corps for doing what they do. Most environmentalists are not.
Wanting the name of the dam at its south, I traced the snake-like-lake further downstream on my map. I had to change maps, for it extends at least a hundred miles down to the center of South Dakota at Pierre where the Lake Oahe Project dam stands. Near its southern end, Lake Oahe floods not only the channel and the alluvial lowland, but the watershed as well, giving rise to the familiar V-shaped pattern of bays.
Lake Oahe ends just short of Bismarck. Along with Mandan to the west, it straddles a flowing section of the Missouri that extends about fifty miles north before being submerged again beneath lake Sacagawea.
Everywhere you look, there is brown mud, present wherever the grass cover has been disturbed by the digging of badgers, the tires of vehicles have pressed too tightly, where small landslides have left their head scarps, along eroded cliffs, and where water has flowed over the landscape hard enough to cut through the sod.
Without a grass cover, the entire landscape would come part and flow downhill with surface streams as fast as the particles could be released by the soaking and freezing of water in the soil. Badlands are the result, places where rills and ravines have cut down through ancient muddy layers. We saw only tiny ones today. Much larger badlands await us tomorrow.
Below badlands, the mud is either carried away by streams, or is locally deposited. This is exactly what happened on the site of a construction project just south of Bismarck. Construction was associated with the widening and improvement of Route 1804, which we had been following up from Linton to the south. The grass cover had been stripped away, exposing what had been formerly grass covered. Then came heavy rains. The naked soils were too clay-rich to allow rapid infiltration, forcing the water to flow over the surface instead. What had been a smoothly graded surface was cut by millions of rills, thousands of miniature ravines, and a few gashed deep enough to be considered arroyos.
All that sediment was carried into a ditch, which did catch and hold some of the mud.
Failed sediment control in the ditch for Route 1804, south of Bismarck, on the afternoon of July 15, 2009.
Note that the puddle is still draining in the distance. Meanwhile, the surface near the tubes of straw is already cracking from shrinkage caused by evaporation in the windy sunny sun. Note the tube that crosses the channel. The level of mud above and below it is the same, meaning that it did not block sediment. The white blob to the right is the intake for culvert, through which washed lots of mud, trapped on its upstream side. The newer straw tube, identified by its light color, is set on the grass, put there after the failure.
Detail of failed sediment control on Route 1804 south of Bismarck on July 15, 2009.
Note that the mud is thicker downstream of the black plastic silt fence, the opposite of the goal to trap sediment. Also, the tube was broken and the fence fallen.
Remember the painted moose in Bennington, Vermont and the painted fish in Escanaba Michigan? We found their western counterpart in Bismarck, a painted horse, standing in front of a local business.
Folk-art plastic horse in downtown Bismarck, North Dakota, painted with local color.
Though the photo doesn’t do it justice, there is a brown skyline of buttes and pointed summits. In the foreground, are buffalo grazing on the range. On the face is a branching pattern of streams characteristic of badland topography. On its rump are roadside flowers that look either like miniature sunflowers or over-sized daisies.
It took us half an hour to find a motel for the night. There’s construction going on all over. Bismarck is booming.
After of late dinner, I asked our waiter Tom what he liked about fresh water. “You can land a plane on it.” He was reflecting back on his earlier experiences in California, from which he had moved. Thus far on our trip, he was the most health conscious about his water, perhaps because he was the first native Californian we had encountered. He wouldn’t drink water from the tap at all, not ever. Instead, his family drank only home treated water, usually from a device with the trade name Multi-Pure, which I find to be an oxymoron because to be pure is to be one thing, stripped of everything else. He mentioned that their family drank Willard Water, which is water treated with some kind of magic catalytic potion. It sounds like snake oil to me.
Soon, it was back to the motel for the night.