Minnesota Valley

_MG_0006.JPGThe Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge has already established itself as my new Ozark National Forest: nearby, beautiful and endlessly teaching and surprising me.

The refuge follows several miles of the Minnesota River, which is much like the larger Mississippi was before we engineered and tried to corral it. The Minnesota overflows often, leaving a chain of lakes and wetlands that are essential for all sorts of birds, mammals, amphibians — literally, take your pick of wildlife. I learned a lot about the place from a park ranger named Joel Vos, who talked with me for an article at work. But I was set on seeing it on my own time, too.

Ryan and I last weekend went out to the refuge’s Louisville Swamp Unit, a section about 25 miles from Minneapolis’ core — far enough for quiet and stillness. After the first 10 or 15 minutes of walking, we didn’t see anyone else. The loudest sound came from occasional groups of what I think were snow geese, whose call is less of a Canada goose’s honk than an excited chatter.

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_MG_0038.JPGA few stone ruins like this one mark where a family or two set up more than a century ago, small pieces of a terrible local history. In the early 1860s, some bands of the Dakota tribe, hungry and repeatedly betrayed by the United States, killed hundreds of U.S. civilians and soldiers and lost many of their own. It all ended with many of the Dakota’s exile to reservations outside of the state.

Some of the Dakota have returned since then, and the refuge today is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the state Department of Natural Resources. The trail we hiked is named Mazomani after a Dakota leader who tried to make piece in the conflict and was killed by the U.S. for his trouble.

Humans aren’t the only ones with stories here.

Life in many forms sticks around here during the cold months. In fact, the weather can make life easier to see. The snow was a canvas for three-clawed turkey and five-toed raccoon tracks, for instance. The frozen ground also helped us reach places that might be impassably soggy, if not flooded completely, in warmer months.

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_MG_0098.JPGSee the rabbit tracks there?

Throughout the second half of the hike was something I’d never seen outside of a zoo: beaver habitat. The gnawed, fallen trees were the first sign. Then there were the pond-side mounds of sticks, likely beaver homes. Next I saw twigs strewn around with their bark etched away by teeth. And finally came what I’m pretty sure were a pair of beaver dams near a particularly pretty stretch of trail. It seemed like every piece of the nocturnal critters’ lives but themselves was on display. I couldn’t believe the trail got so close to them.

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_MG_0143.JPGWe turned around at the glacial boulder, an elephant-sized hunk of rock dropped by retreating glaciers thousands of years ago and a cracking monument to this place’s history, human and otherwise. _MG_0135.JPG

_MG_0144.JPGThanks for looking.
Dan

Many colors

_MG_4524.jpgIt took only a couple hours in Minneapolis for the city to surprise me. There we were, strolling around downtown in the twilight, when the roar of at least 100 skateboards suddenly surrounded us. Dozens of their riders seemed to swoop out of nowhere to chill out at 20 Washington Square and watch each other attempt tricks. The lone security guard I could see looked a bit overwhelmed. My two local friends say the police support this youth flash mob, marijuana stink and all, because at least everyone knows where everyone is.

This odd coupling seemed an apt preface for downtown Minneapolis’s big event in the following days, the Twin Cities Pride Festival. Gay, bisexual and transgender pride events like this one grew out of protest and literal rioting decades ago. Now they have corporate sponsors and respectability and police escorts. The two poles still don’t always get along.

_MG_4579.jpgBefore I got to that, I explored a little more of this metropolis, home to more than 3 million people, than I had the chance to see last time. After the obligatory stop at the Mall of America, we got a taste of the city’s outdoors. The Mississippi River already flows huge and strong here, even just a tenth of its length downstream from its beginnings. Minnehaha Falls, meanwhile, strikes an impressive figure through a green-splashed bluff right in the middle of town.

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_MG_4701.JPGNone of these stops were strictly pride-related, but there was no missing that this was pride weekend. Target Field glowed in rainbow colors each night, and flags and banners and posters plastered downtown, uptown and several neighborhoods. The pedestrian crowd was just as colorful: perhaps tens of thousands of people with every color of hair and every variety of clothing. Couples of all gender combinations held hands as they walked. The official pride festival on Saturday and Sunday brought your typical fair foods and confections, drag shows, music, vendors and booths promoting dog rescues, political candidates, civic groups and health. A man in a bright red dress gave an excellent performance of two Lion King numbers. It was easily the biggest pride I’ve seen so far, and maybe my biggest festival of any kind.

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_MG_5415.JPGThe blanket of togetherness and support for non-straight folks had a few frays, though. “Man and woman,” one man on a bus downtown said after another called a kid with pink hair walking past an anti-gay slur. A protest for black lives and against police use of force delayed the Sunday parade down Hennepin Avenue, spurred on by a fatal shooting just the day before. (Echoing so many other similar shootings around the country, police officers said the man shot was armed while family and witnesses say he wasn’t)

Part of the crowd clapped and cheered for the Black Lives Matter contingent, but another part, many of them white, middle-aged same-sex couples, booed the group, dismissed the shooting’s importance and wondered why they couldn’t pick another time or place — a question that greets all sorts of protests these days. One person near me suggested throwing drinks and kicking the protesters when they lay on the ground, given that the protesters didn’t want police around.

This extreme response fascinated me, given the day’s history. Pride began with wrath during a multi-day riot in 1969 New York City’s Greenwich Village. In a time of laws against homosexuality and frequent police raids of gay clubs that led to the outing and ostracism of many of their patrons, a largely non-white group of those patrons one night put up a fight instead, resisting arrest, throwing bricks and bottles and injuring four officers. Protest parades in the following years were meant to say the fight for recognition and dignity, while less violent, wasn’t over. Evidently some think it can be over now. But others, like that group of protesters, see these shootings and prejudice of all types throughout the country and say the fight is still on.

Still, even the boos couldn’t truly stop the enormous group hug that is a pride celebration. I teared up a little when the crowd went almost silent, waving the “I love you” hand signal as a group of excited deaf participants marched past doing the same. Actually, I still tear up at that. And people of every age and skin color and relation turned out dancing and sharing ice cream and cheering each other on.

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_MG_5177.JPGThanks for the good time, Minneapolis.

Dan

The center of the world

_C1_3223.JPGThis mountain bears the likenesses of some of the most influential people in United States history and took more than a decade to carve. It’s a striking and masterly monument, without question. But even more impressive, at least to me, is the other history tied to Mount Rushmore and the rest of South Dakota’s Black Hills.

From a geological perspective, some of this rock is about half the age of the planet. Some of it is the rounded and durable granite you see above. Other outcroppings have been squeezed and deformed, sometimes until the original rock layers are vertical, and sparkle in the sun with countless flecks of mica. All of it is topped with rugged pine and spruce that give the Black Hills their name.

As for humans, they’ve been living around here for at least 12,000 years. The hills are therefore heavy with myth and religious significance, including ties to Oglala Lakota creation stories. A holy man named Black Elk called this place the center of the world, and his people called Mount Rushmore The Six Grandfathers, referring to the earth, sky and four cardinal directions, which might make Rushmore something like seizing and then carving into the Sistine Chapel. The U.S. swore it wouldn’t take these lands but broke the promise because of gold. (The U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 ruled several tribes were owed compensation now worth more than $1 billion because of this, but they haven’t taken it, preferring to get at least some of the land back.)

Despite all of this, it isn’t hard to see much of the Black Hills as they have been for ages, even just around the corner from the monument.

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IMG_2719.JPG(Note the climber there in the lower middle)

The Black Hills also hold more wonders hundreds of feet underground, and I don’t mean that gold. Wind Cave National Park, about 20 miles south of Rushmore, holds at least 150 explored miles of passages that could connect to several times as many unexplored miles, according to the National Park Service. Those passages are often brimming with formations called boxwork — tangled, glittering, translucent blades of calcite about the width and sturdiness of tortilla chips. I couldn’t photograph it adequately, but try to imagine this coating the walls and ceiling around you:

IMG_2681.JPGSome chambers feature calcite in other forms, like spiky frostwork and little rounded blobs called cave popcorn, or, in this case, both:

IMG_2682.JPGIn the end, all of the Black Hills’ contents have something to offer. Just remember where you’re standing.

Thanks for looking,

Dan

Through the Wall

C1_3356.JPGSouth Dakota’s plains of grass and corn and sunflowers stretch smooth and gentle for hundreds of miles until they reach the Wall. Half a million years of water and wind have carved a jagged rampart here that runs about 80 miles long. In another half a million years, it’ll be gone. But for now, the heart of Badlands National Park looms over the ground like the steeples and rooftops of a petrified city. Their sides reveal around 70 million years of history, including millennia of human conflict and reverence that continue today.

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_C1_3379.JPGA loop southward from the interstate swoops through the park’s northern, busier half, giving the bulk of visitors a good sample of the land’s various personalities. One section near the main entrance holds a grove of junipers and cottonwoods, thanks to falling rocks that have compacted the ground enough to catch the rainwater they need. In other sections, erosion has gouged sharp ridges of chalky, crumbly, barren rock bleached enough to reflect a second dose of the sun’s heat. Toward the end of the loop, the smooth Yellow Mounds and prairie dog towns with thousands of yipping residents show a softer side. It isn’t all cuddly, though. During our drive, a coyote darted across the road and disappeared into one of the towns, then ran back a second or two later with a motionless prairie dog in its jaws.

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_C1_3399.JPGIt’s around this point that the road forks. Most people end their visit here, following the paved highway to the right straight out of the park. For the few who stay, the road forward becomes gravel for mile after brain-rattling mile. That was our path. A deeply sculpted butte with a spectacular reputation, Sheep Mountain Table, waited at the end.

The road cuts through pastures and actually exits the national park for a while, passing by a mostly abandoned, creepy little town called Scenic. We got there in the late afternoon, giving it an eerie sort of light. The strangeness continued as we crossed back into the park: The carved slopes in this single area sport countless mushroom-like formations that looked like a crop of foot-tall Stonehenges. They’re essentially tiny buttes, capped by rock that’s more wear-resistant than their skinnier bases. We were alone. A mile or so and the mushrooms were gone. The rutted road soon became impassable for anything but four-wheel-drive trucks. The last couple of miles would be on foot.

Somewhere along this final stretch, we entered the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a century-old monument to the damage the United States has done to the Oglala Lakota tribe. Its residents are exceptionally poor and wounded by alcohol sold by the millions of cans across the state border in Whiteclay, Nebraska — an ongoing lawsuit by the tribe aims to put an end to that. (For more information about it, I recommend the University of Nebraska’s nuanced, well-done reporting here.)

The government pushed the tribe into this reservation as part of a treaty it soon broke by taking the sacred Black Hills nearby and other lands. U.S. forces killed at least 150 adults and children near this section of the Badlands in 1890; the Wounded Knee Massacre would be the final real conflict between the indigenous people of the Plains and this country.

This suffering and other cultural history have made the area sacrosanct to tribe members. Some have tried to work out a way for the tribe to manage this section of the park instead of the U.S. National Park Service, though the effort seems to have stalled. Still, showing respect while here strikes me as an absolute requirement. We walked quietly on the gravel as bright blue birds flitted around. They seemed to be keeping an eye on us, or maybe just keeping us company. Tantalizing vistas occasionally appeared to one side or the other, teasing what waited ahead.

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IMG_2634.JPGIt wasn’t until the last few dozen feet of the road, which ends at an overlook, that the full splendor of Sheep Mountain Table opened up around us. The only sounds were a soft wind rustling the junipers and some buzzing bugs. I just stood there for a few moments staring in slightly misty-eyed awe.

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IMG_2655.JPGI stayed as long as I could, but daylight was fading. It was the perfect ending for the day. We drove back to the hotel in Rapid City under the slimmest sliver of a crescent moon.

Thanks for looking. Up next, let’s talk some more about those Black Hills.