Random acts of travel

Wandering the prairie as a grasslands nomad

I drove solo to Death Valley National Park one year and spent the whole trip looking over my shoulder. I committed no crime more serious than extremely distracted driving and hiking in  a rich visual landscape of surreal abstraction and surprise.  I would pull over or wander off trail for unnatural colors, unusual textures, or just a small shrub full of butterflies sitting in the middle of a barren.

And once, passing a coworker and friend on the way into the women’s room, she asked,”Hey, do you want to go on a kayak trip in Tonga?”

“Sure, sounds cool, sign me up,” I replied. “Where’s Tonga?”

That’s my temperament, orientation, and wiring: wandering, curious, focused on nature, taking in the world through my eyes. I think I hailed from nomads, following food across the landscape. It is not the best fit for today’s linear, boundary-defined, man-made world. But it is natural for me to be attracted to grasslands,  where I can wander and find little surprises everywhere.

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Broken Hills Interpretive Trail, Grasslands National Park

For most, this scene disappoints:  no towering mountains or trees, no sparkling azure lakes, no man-made stuff. For people like me, it’s an invitation to explore. What’s more, I have permission from the ranger, who says that Grasslands National Park allows people to roam everywhere. Hilltops welcome after dinner strolls from camps, and tempt you from a track.

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Frenchman Valley, as a storm clears and lets in evening light.

And navigation is not challenging here, even without a device.  The land is heavily sculpted by water, with a distinct orientation and flow, and landmarks easily visible from the ridge tops.  On Broken Hills Interpretive Trail, the yellow trail markers guide hikers down a path, but you can roam without fear of wandering up in the wrong drainage, as can happen in my area. Perfect.

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You can see in this aerial view how heavily the Grasslands West Block has been influenced by water.  Imagine the flood outflow from two melting lobes of a giant glacier sending water scouring across the land.
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This map illustrates what Parks Canada calls undulating prairie.  These undulations are important for prairie life. And you can see how Broken Hills got their name!
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Those undulating prairies wander into water-sculpted landscapes perfect for wandering and playing rock/fossil detective (don’t remove anything).

One of my challenges hiking Broken Hills was catching up to prairie butterflies.  They are really petite and speedy.  This makes sense if you think about what they face:  drying sun, a lot of wind, and no shelter from any airborne insect eaters.  Wing size needs to be large enough to absorb heat and fly, but limited to avoid moisture loss and predation.  At least that’s my amateur butterfly scientist hypothesis.

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Sorry, haven’t figured these two characters out yet!

At any rate, I know that some butterfly flowers like ridge tops, and they attract butterflies.  This happens in Eastern Washington, and sure enough, it works in southern Canada, too.

I also know the dark side of butterflies, as we humans interpret them. We poeticize them as flying stained-glass angels alighting on nectar-filled flowers.  But they need protein, too, and will find it in carnivore poop, blood, rotting meat, and so on.  Grasslands has its coyotes, as you can tell from night time howling and occasional deposits.  I never find butterflies on the furry scat, but they will land on more moist scat.

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Lovely little butterflies waiting their turn to access moist poop, lower right.
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Yum. Butterflies extracting needed amino acids and other nutrients from a rich source.

Larger animals and birds frequent these areas.  Wolves and bears that roamed the land were extirpated by settlers who couldn’t imagine coexistence with predators. But smaller herbivores are stalked today by coyotes that spread across North America with human settlers.  Wary, they give hikers a chance to leave, then bound gracefully away.

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Pronghorn antelope
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You’ve got two seconds to leave before they’re outta here.

An herbivore that doesn’t need to fear coyotes-and can injure feckless or ignorant humans-is the mighty bison.  I’ve personally seen one stand off a pack of wolves in Yellowstone National Park despite a clearly broken leg.  After awhile, the wolves gave up and ambushed an elk.

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Viewed from Hellroaring Creek Overlook, Yellowstone National Park, 2012.

You can find traces of buffalo throughout the prairie landscape, including poop, laydown areas, and tracks dried in once muddy areas. As a prairie detective, you can take notes on where they sleep and what paths they use.

This buffalo bull at Grasslands appears unconcerned about either the weather or people.

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People have long wandered these lands; Parks Canada literature says the park includes 12,000 known tipi rings, and drive lines that people used to direct bison (or perhaps antelope) into traps.

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Tipi ring used by native peoples skilled in anchoring shelter on windswept prairies.

I’m not a good enough prairie detective to determine whether piles of bones are a result of natural death or hunting, or how old they are. This is a harsh environment that can fatally tax young and old animals.

The bone at lower right looks really lacy and weathered, and many appeared cracked.  I could make up a whole pile of stories about these, but really, they could even hail from the previous use of the area for ranching. Note that I moved nothing, and just took pictures.

If it doesn’t work out for an animal (or you), there are always patrolling vultures to clean up the aftermath.

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Other random finds on my Broken Hills investigation include a shed antler and various flowers.

Like people long ago, I become nomadic in grasslands. Unlike those resilient, skilled people, I am not dependent on the landscape and its inhabitants. I’m just a prairie detective, with ancient genes directing me to root around for suprises hidden in the grass.

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For a printable maps of Grasslands National Park trails and other invaluable visitor information, visit Parks Canada.

 

Author: Monica

Once a scientist, now a communications professional, always a wildlife/nature nut. Helping create a balanced future for people and wildlife.

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