“Phew! My clothes stink,” she said.
“Yep, everyone is going to know where we’ve been, just by getting close to us,” he agreed.
And so, the two Mild-mannered Explorers headed home from the wildfire.
The Mild-mannered Explorer’s Spontaneous Plans
It all started when she said that Sunday noon, “Hey, we got everything ready, we could load up the pickup and go camping in the Badlands tonight and tomorrow night.”
Since most people camp in the Badlands on weekends, and clear out on Sunday, the Mild-mannered Explorers adjusted their schedule to move in to a vacated campground on Sunday and stay through the first of the week. In past years, they had sampled all of the accessible campgrounds in the North Dakota Badlands and the National Grasslands. They settled on three favorite campgrounds with plenty of shade trees, privacy and access to spectacular views of the Badlands.
On this trip, they weighed the options of which of their three favorite campgrounds would be their destination: Burning Coal Vein campground at mile marker 0 on the Maah Daah Hey Trail, not far from Amidon; Elkhorn Campground next to Teddy Roosevelt’s ranch and the Maah Daah Hey Trail, 25 miles from Medora; or Magpie Campground, 20 miles from Grassy Butte on the Maah Daah Hey trail.
“Let’s go to Magpie,” they decided. South of Grassy Butte and then west 16 miles on a gravel road, the pair could envision the route they had taken often. They knew the green basin on the floor of the valley was a welcome cooling site. It gave them the option of hiking the trail north to the cold Ice Caves, or south to the unusual ridge called Devils Pass.
Sitting on the back porch of their prairie home, the pair enjoyed the shade even while the temps edged past 90 degrees. “It’s going to be a hot camping trip,” he advised.
She surveyed the cloudless, bright sunny sky and agreed. “We can hike in the morning when it is cool, and when it heats up, we can hide in the shade at the campsite.”
“I like that idea. I can read and write in the afternoon until it gets too hot. When it gets hot, we’ll string up the hammocks between the trees and nap,” he said.
Like some people, especially “preppers” who have a “go bag,” the Mild-mannered Explorers have a camping go-box already packed for a trip. It holds camping supplies such as toilet paper, bug spray, mess kit, instant coffee, instant food mix, flashlights, headlamps, dishwashing liquid and dish towels, matches, candles, and paper towels.
They loaded up the box, tossed in a change of clothes, a cooler of ice and cold drinks, a few chunks of firewood, their tent and lawn chairs. Then, at the last moment, they strapped in their all-terrain bicycles just in case they felt like pedaling the Maah Daah Hey.
The Day Looked Promising for the Mild-mannered Explorers
On the road west, they stopped at a grocery store for a few camping groceries and a 2.5-gallon jug of water. Baby wipes were added to their go-box because they are good for a quick cleanup of face, hands or other surfaces.
A maze of road construction cones and pylons created a confusing path through the prairie. “It would be tough to do this at night,” she said. “The reflectors are challenging to figure out which lane to be in.”
So, they drove slowly west on Highway 200, even stopping to explore a two-track trail section line. The fall back motto of the Mild-mannered Explorers is, “I wonder what’s over that hill.” So, they explored the road that led over the hill and bordered a green oat field.
Back on Highway 200 they crested a series of rolling hills and could see on the horizon, smoke appeared to be rising. “Hmmm. I thought the wildfire was closer to Grassy Butte,” he said after judging the apparent source of the fire. It was much farther south than Grassy Butte. “Maybe I have my directions screwed up. We’ll see when we get closer.”
At the intersection of Highway 200 and Highway 85, south of Grassy Butte, there was no mistaking the fact that the smoke they were watching was near Magpie Campground. “Gee, do you suppose that wildfire is getting close to Magpie? What if we can’t get there,” she pondered.
Smoke on the Horizon
They kept their eyes on the white smoke ahead of them. At 45 mph on the gravel road, they slowly approached the source of the smoke. The closer they got, the larger the smoky area became. Mostly white, steam-filled smoke rose above the horizon. Occasionally a dark black center of smoke rose in the midst of white. “I bet that’s a tree grove, lots of oily sap going up there,” he sadly pondered.
The pair grew quiet, fearing the region they loved was being assaulted by fire. There was no question, the smoke was coming from near Magpie Campground.
Over a hill, and down below, a Billings County Sheriff’s vehicle flashed its red and blue lights as the Mild-mannered Explorers approached. The Deputy waved them over. They pulled up, window to window facing opposite directions. Deputy Frank, a young, good-looking southern California transplant to Billings County told them they could go no farther, “Where ya headed?”
“We’re headed to Magpie Campground.”
“Sorry, you can’t go there. I’ll have to stop you here. That’s where we’re setting the backfire,” Deputy Frank told them. A wildfire had blown with the wind from the northeast, right down the Maah Daah Hey Trail to Magpie Creek. To stop it from going farther, crews were burning off part of the grassland near the campground. The creek that bordered the campground also created a natural barrier to stop the backfire from following the wind. The flames of the backfire did not cross the creek, instead, they lazily moved up the hill toward the approaching wildfire. It burned up all the fuel the hungry wildfire needed to keep moving. The backfire worked. It cost a great deal of vegetation. Prairie grass, sage, buffalo bushes, junipers, ash and aspen trees were sacrificed to stop the wildfire.
“Can we hike up over that ridge to take photos of the fire,” he asked Deputy Frank?
“I’ll have to say no,” Deputy Frank said. “But this is a temporary blockade here. In a while, you might be able to.”
The friendly conversation ended after the pair learned Deputy Frank was an underwater photographer. They laughed there wasn’t much call for his expertise in the arid regions of western North Dakota, but his skills will be needed when the wildfire is underwater – which will be never. The complete lack of rain had reduced most if not all water holes, lakes and ponds in the west.
Finding a Place to View the Fire
They agreed they would not breach the stop point; they turned the pickup truck around and headed back to where they came from – but only to the next ridge. At Castle Rock, they turned up a road to see which ridge would give them a visual access to the wild fire.
The first ridge was a dead end. It didn’t go far enough. So, they hiked down the hill to another ridge. He took a set of switchbacks on the face of the ridge that deer had cut for an easy climb.
About 100 yards away, she headed up the ridgeline, a more gentle upward approach to oversee the valley where the fire burned.
The View from Above
He got to the top first and hiked the ridge closer to the fire. He got a lot closer to the valley than she did. He could see where the wildfire had swept down the canyon, over the Ice Caves, along the Maah Daah Hey Trail.
He explored the idea of following the ridge even closer. The wind drifted the smoke their direction, and more than once it choked his breathing. He decided to go no farther.
A half-mile from Magpie Campground, they could see the blackened remains of their favorite camping area. The Campground itself was spared the inferno, but the rest of the valley was smoking and burning.
Leaving the Fire Behind
He turned around and picked a path to meet her on the ridge where she was viewing the fire. “It’s getting late. I’m not sure there’s any reason to get much closer. I got a few good photos to show the charred trees and shrubs. What do you say we go back?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m very hungry. We’ve got all that food in the cooler that we bought for camping. Maybe we can have our own tailgate party,” she suggested.
“I’m thirsty, let’s go.”
Like always, the trip down hill was faster and easier than going uphill. They cut across the switchbacks he had taken up the hill, and made it to the bottom quickly.
A short hike to their truck, a slow drive through a herd of Angus cattle and they were back on the road. “Let’s get to a hilltop somewhere and we can watch the sun set,” he suggested. “I think the moon should be rising soon.”
Before the Mild-mannered Explorers left the valley, they drove the now-open road where they had originally intended to go. The once lush valley was charred and scarred. The hill on the other side of the tree-lined creek was black with the waste left behind when the wildfire consumed everything in its path.
The pair drove past the staging area where trucks from the different agencies were parked. Crews from the Interior Department/National Park Service, the Forest Service, Billings County, Dunn County and local volunteer departments worked from this point to fight the fire.
Back east on Magpie road they turned on Goat Pass Road and headed southwest a quarter-mile. They pulled in to what had once been an oil well pad. Like all oil wells, the temporary well pad was being restored to natural growth now that the well was retired.
They pulled out their lawn chairs from the camping supplies in the back of the truck and broke open the cooler with cold drinks and hearty, meaty sandwiches. They were quiet as they surveyed the smoky valley. The smoke created a filter over the rising moon, giving it a brilliant orange glow. They knew the scars of the wildfire would continue to expand unless a good dousing of rain helped revive the fragile Badlands vegetation.
The air turned cool, and the night crept in over them. So, the Mild-mannered Explorers loaded up their temporary tailgate party gear and headed east toward civilization. A few of the firefighter trucks were also heading east, their work for the day was finished. Now all that remained was to keep a watch on flare-ups and hot spots. Only rain could bring the relief the valley needed.
A Red Sunset
On the two-hour drive home, the pair kept an eye on the western horizon and watched a brilliant sunset illuminate a growing pile of clouds on the western horizon. There wasn’t much hope for any rain relief from the clouds – at least not on that day.
Things changed, 24 hours later. Radar showed a line of red and yellow color-coded storm systems moving from Montana to North Dakota. The first line of thunderstorms with rain, hail, lightning, and wind passed to the north of Magpie and drenched Grassy Butte.
An hour later, the second line of storms passed over the burned out area and dumped an inch of rain. “Puddles on Magpie and a half-inch in the gauge when we got home from watching the lightning! Awesome night!!!,” wrote one area rancher to the Mild-mannered Explorers.
“We got an inch here,” wrote another. “It worked and now the Forest Service is babysitting hot spots. Praise the Lord,” he wrote
The Magpie Wildfire was under control, but it was only one of many that ravaged Western North Dakota. At the time of the Magpie Wildfire, more than 200 wildfires had been reported and quenched by firefighters so far in the summer months. Three counties alone had about 50 of those fires, keeping volunteers busy through the first part of July.
The Mild-mannered Explorers keep the region, its ranchers, farmers, and firefighters in their conversation, their thoughts and prayers. They promised each other they’d go back to do what they could to help restore the region to its former beauty.
Note: The fire began July 8 and consumed about 5,000 acres. One week later, the cause is still not known. One-third of the Maah Daah Hey Trail and the Magpie Campground are closed.
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