Wild Animals and Wilderness

Wow! What a week. If you don’t want to plow through all the yadayadayada, just skip around and take a look at some of the photos…we’ve had some interesting times. One of the reasons I started this blog was to keep a record – for us – of our adventures. In a few years, when we’re in The Home, drooling on ourselves, we’ll be able to re-live these times. These are some of the things I hope we’ll remember.

We decided to leave Valley of Fires a day ahead of our plan, and shorten the lengthy drive to our next scheduled stop. Oasis State Park (NM) seemed like a good choice for an intermediate stop. Well, maybe….we drove through miles of flat territory, studded with cattle feedlots. Oasis SP is an odd spot – a small campground stuck out in a huge flatland. There is absolutely nothing nearby. I’m not sure why anybody would actually plan to camp here. It’s barren. 20180410_171905944341651.jpg20180403_1832351700276330.jpgThe wind was roaring – we sat outside for a few minutes, and congratulated ourselves with having a shorter drive for the next day, then dove inside to seek shelter from the wind and cold. It wasn’t pleasant.

Several years ago, we stayed at Caprock Canyons State Park (TX), and my most best memory of it was the prairie dog village.20180404_171509487528699.jpg With my cellphone camera, it’s impossible to get a decent photo of this experience – prairie dogs and their environment are nearly the same color, and I couldn’t get close enough for a clear shot. But this video gives you a great idea of  what the experience is. Enjoy. It’s crazy. When I walked past the village with Jezzy, the activity and chatter between prairie dog ‘condos’ increases. Jezzy is entranced. Prairie dog is the new squirrel.

But, this trip to Caprock was all about the bison. Their stately presence is something we’ve enjoyed at Custer State Park and Teddy Roosevelt National Park, but this was contact on a whole new level. (This guy is nuts for turning his back as he did.)C9C05651-69C9-45BB-B219-E9CDB2C50C69 They wander everywhere – disrupting traffic and foot-flow whever they pass. Our campground was a prime target. I awoke one night at 4am to a strange noise directly outside the window that I couldn’t identify. When I opened the shade, all I could see was the huge body of a bison, standing three feet from my reach – right at the edge of the trailer hitch! Apparently, the Campsh@ck was perched on some tender shoots he wanted to have. Although he never bumped the camper, it took a long time to get back to sleep that night. In the morning, we discovered a delightful ‘hostess gift’ which he left for us. 20180410_1734141033266775.jpgOur new neighbor the next day had a similar experience. She rolled in with her small camper to the sight of the bison hanging out in her campsite. 20180410_1742562001968800.jpgHe was nearly as big as her camper.IMG_20180407_173257.jpg There was a bit of cat-and-mouse as she tried to wait him out before leaving on her bicycle. Nerve-wracking, to be sure.

It’s impossible to explore the Canyons without a bison encounter. 20180410_173218708221960.jpgWe hiked the 6.5 mile Rim Canyon loop, and met up with a few surly-looking beasts. For sure, we gave them a wide berth, and moved on. But, I believe it was this same group who caught up with us as soon as we entered the enclosed campground for people camping with horses. Although it looks like I’m right next to them, we were (thankfully) separated by a thin strand of barbed wire.

 

Bison may look stupid and docile, but they are quick and agile. From the protection of our truck, we viewed one lone bison racing across the prairie – apparently waking up from a nap to find the herd had left him behind. Believe me, he was hauling ass! It was amazing to see. I was even attacked by a bison statue. Nobody was injured.20180406_1151231800038015.jpgOn one particularly cold morning, we left in the truck to explore nearby Turkey TX. Upon returning, we met our neighbors who told us that we had a big bull bison using our electric post as his scratching post. He inadvertently turned on our water spigot (we had turned it off and disconnected the hose due to 20 degree temps the night before). Water was spraying everywhere! They waited for him to wander off, then turned off the water.

We hiked another day from the far end of the Canyon into a completely different landscape. A3B3AAB4-4125-4BDD-9B94-A65E55098D0F5C7F3612-5944-4650-BDD1-12D26625CF14 20180410_1743511652084639.jpgAlthough we were plagued by fierce winds and plunging temps, I’d go back there in a minute. It’s so beautiful.20180406_1043551261039530.jpg20180406_1043121373068015.jpg20180405_1239331453774573.jpgWe were sad to leave Caprock, but hopeful to find some warmer temps. The dry 30mph winds and below freezing temps at night were wearing us down. We couldn’t have a fire, it was too windy to keep our awning up to sit outside, and we were a bit tired of the close contact of being stuck inside a small space (small campers are even smaller after a few days of inclement weather)

One more curiosity about this area – on the road into the Park, there’s a fence stretching about 3/4 mile on which folks have decorated boots and hung them on the fenceposts. Here are a few of my favorites.

We didn’t have high expectations for our next stop – Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. But, what an interesting spot! More bison, Oklahoma Longhorns, coyotes, turkeys, geese, a primo lakeside campsite for $10, and more.20180410_1803002120749914.jpg20180409_195102713387479.jpgOne big downside.20180410_1747531235530549.jpg This is the third time we have encountered a water-warning in a western State or Federal campground on this trip, and it’s worrisome. Twice, the warning was for high nitrates, but the e-coli warning to avoid all contact and boil water was scary. There were several pit toilets around the campgroud which had been de-commissioned, and I’m pretty sure that was related to the e-coli contamination. Creepy. Once our clean water is gone, what’s next? We had five gallons of drinking water with us (way more than enough), and we used water from our tank for dish washing. But, I did take showers there – yuck!

The Visitor Center in the NWR is amazing – videos and displays about rejuvenation of the prairie, saving the bison, and restoration of the prairie. Between 1830 and 1860, the American bison herd was reduced from 50 million head to a few hundred. For me, those numbers are incomprehensible. Old photos show settlers sitting in stacks of bison hides or amidst piled of bison-head skeletons. President McKinley signed the Wichita Mountains NWR into existence, and thus began the long, slow process of saving the bison from extinction. Hooray for that effort. Longhorn cattle are also prominent in the NWR landscape.20180408_1403421539330140.jpg20180409_12474982827992.jpgIn the middle of this National Wildlife Refuge in western Oklahoma is a curious area called Holy City. 20180410_175538681212606.jpgAlthough I can’t speak to the religious aspect of this site, it certainly was a fantastic photo op.20180410_175659957570438.jpg20180409_140056961592622.jpg20180409_140604206578278.jpg20180409_140644805783642.jpg Since is was just a week after Easter, I can only imagine what it must have been like the previous week. Holy City was built in 1926, and is the site of the longest running annual Passion Play in the US.

One other event affected our visit to the NWR. While we were there, there was a full-scale controlled burn of the prairie inside the NWR being conducted by the Forest Service. We planned to cycle to the Visitor Center, then on down to a trail around Scott Mountain. Once we passed the VC, we noticed an unusual amount of smoke. Soon, signs appeared about the burn.20180410_175436416705792.jpg In this area, the Eastern Red Cedar is an invasive tree, which (left uncontrolled) would totally dominate the landscape. Burning is a method used to eliminate the cedar, since they perish, the native oaks survive, and the prairie grasses re-establish themselves within a matter of days. It’s easy to see the effectiveness of this tactic. Areas which have been burned are easily distinguished from those that have not, based on the scrub, and the trees. The area to the right of the sign in the above had been previously burned.The smoke from the burn was horrible though, and we were prohibited from cycling through the area we planned. 20180410_175354836702364.jpg Here’s what it looks like – I would love to go back in a month or two and take a photo from the same corner to see the difference.20180409_1422391573388771.jpg20180409_142127435293032.jpgThe hazy smoke affected all my photos from the day, although we enjoyed our ride and the sights.

We loved the historic stone buildings there. The photo below shows John near an early gas station. 20180410_1752381222561205.jpgThere are several dams in the area, and we found a terrific spot for lunch. 20180409_143549378829547.jpgThe Wichita Mountains NWR turned out to be a terrific spot to explore, and we were sad to leave. There’s much to see here, and we will definitely be back.

Heading toward an old favorite site – Galveston Island State Park. On the way there, we’re staying at two new (to us) campgrounds. Stay tuned….20180409_1523241213192847.jpg

 

Testing Our Mettle

Anyone who’s ever been camping knows that it’s more fun to camp in great weather than it is to camp in the rain. Judging on that standard, this has been the week from hell.

We started out near Tulsa at Washington Irving Recreation Area, a Corps of Engineers campground on Keystone Lake.20170427_170244 We knew bad weather was coming – we are well armed with weather-watching tools when we have a bit of internet access. Since the shit was scheduled to hit the fan Friday night/Saturday, we decided to stay until Sunday morning, so that we weren’t trying to move down the road in severe weather. Smart Decision #1.

We never heard specific rainfall totals, but we believe we got between 6-8″ of rain from Friday night to Sunday morning. In the hopes of giving ourselves a bit of extra shelter, we deployed our large yellow awning when we setup camp on Thursday afternoon. So, at 4:30am on Saturday morning, we found ourselves outside in 60mph winds trying to wrestle the awning off the Campshack (our new name for the Fireball). It had totally pulled out of its stakes, but remained attached to the keder rail, which hooks the awning to the trailer. We got soaked, and were nearly flogged to death, trying to get a grip on the flailing awning (which miraculously was undamaged). We were absolutely pounded by rain and high winds (40-60mph). We got about four big bangs of hail, but mercifully escaped that ordeal. Here’s one telling photo.20170501_113921 The following photos tell the story of this storm. Check out the rising lake level.20170427_17033820170429_10180220170429_15563520170430_073231We escaped Sunday morning, driving through Tulsa to have breakfast with a fellow T@Bber, and headed toward Fayetteville AR to Lake Wedington, a somewhat shabby little National Forest Service campground in the Ozark National Forest. 20170430_144012Fayetteville got hammered by the storm, absorbing 10″ of rain. Fields were submerged, and ditches alongside the road were filled with rushing water. This sure doesn’t look like any river view I’m familiar with. 20170430_124435-120170430_124502-1Our campground had several sites underwater, but we grabbed a decent site, and hoped for the best. A bit of sunshine helped, and we put everything up and out to dry. Our awning and patio mat were soaked, and the inside of the Campshack had that ugly, wet feeling that comes with a perennially damp dog, and eight wet feet traipsing in and out. We were desperately seeking sunshine. While we were there, a boat drifted up and beached itself on our campsite. We immediately adopted it, and named it Plan B.20170430_180220 We were rewarded with sunshine for a day. What a lift to our spirits that was.Fayetteville is gorgeous. We drove into town to check out one of the many breweries. Good beer/marginal food at the Bricktown Brewery. It’s near the campus of University of Arkansas in a beautiful old downtown area. I was especially taken with this little garden area, and one of the sculptures there. The old lady knitting was so realistic that I could have struck up a conversation.

After lunch, we headed to the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. It was a pleasant diversion, but small and not really notable. But it sure was a great feeling to be out and about in the sunshine.20170501_150459They either did a fantastic repair job, or had little storm damage.

Our next two choices for campgrounds moving eastward were both closed due to storm damage. We had hoped to camp alongside the Buffalo National River, but had to move east to Robinson Point, a Corps of Engineers campground near Mountain Home AR. The drive though northern Arkansas was incredible – rolling hills with every shade of green you can imagine. May must be the best month for this area – not a lot of color, but green and fresh. We passed through towns with names like Flippin and Yellville. I had thought that our route would take us right through Flippin, and was disappointed and surprised to find that we just passed closely. I really wanted a photo of the town name.

The amount of water at Robinson Point is astonishing – probably 45 of the 70 campsites are fully submerged, as well as is an entire island in the lake about 50 yards offshore.20170502_15130220170502_151442(The photo above shows an area of about 30 campsites which are wiped away.) This is primarily due to the fact that dams above this campground along the river have been opened up to release flood pressure upstream. We were told that the usual flow from the dam at Bull Shoals (the first one above us) is 20,000 gal/sec, but it was increased to 60,000 gal/sec. The lake here is the color of a latte – no resemblance to any kind of water color you’d ever want to see. We grabbed an available (high) site and set up. Jezzy and I wandered over to find the registration station to pay for our two nights. Couldn’t find it. We patrolled the entrance area – nobody home at the Camp Host site. I was heading back to camp when I spotted a Corps of Engineer truck heading my way. I flagged the driver down, and explained that I couldn’t find the registration box. The driver shrugged. “Just camp” he said. “Free?” I asked. He nodded. I remarked what a gorgeous campground this was, and said that I was sad to see such extensive damage.

He just kind of stared off ahead, nodded, and pulled away. It’s shocking to see this kind of damage. Some of these places will take weeks or even months to recover. Tomorrow (Wednesday), we’re supposed to get another 1.5″ of rain here.

More Oklahoma Surprises

Already, it seems like forever ago since we left Great Salt Plains State Park.  We planned an early departure, so we could stop in Oklahoma City to visit the  Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, established to commemorate the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995.20140418_124849 This memorial site is somber and moving, with hand-crafted bronze chairs in place for each of the 188 bombing victims, including smaller chairs for the children, which are especially gut-wrenching.  The chairs are arranged in nine rows, according to the floor of the building each of the victims was on at the time of the bombing.  At night, the bases of the chairs are softly illuminated.20140418_12354520140418_123445 Large black granite walls with the times 9:01 (the last minute of normalcy before the bombing), and 9:03 (the time the recovery and healing began) guard the site, which includes the chairs, a walkway built from granite of the Murrah building, and a flat black-granite pool.  It’s dignified and quiet – a fitting tribute.There’s a wall with hand-made tiles from kids all over the world recognizing the sorrow of the families and friends of the victims.20140418_13054020140418_13024620140418_130210 April 19 will be 19 years since the bombing.

We hustled out of OK City, not wishing to see other sights this trip, but anxious to find our new campsite at Chickasaw National Recreation Area.  By a lucky accident, we made a wrong turn into the area, and found ourselves at a campground which was not the one we for which we planned (although we had no reservations).  A part of the same NRA, this campground had deluxe paved roads, paved slabs, and water/electric for just $12/night with our Geezer pass.  Showers, even!  A view of the lake. Heaven.  John celebrated by baking Dutch oven cinnamon rolls for breakfast the next morning.  20140419_08291620140419_08295520140419_085605Don’t let the dark tops fool you – they were spectacular.  Scarfed down while warm, with the gooey frosting oozing between the layers.

We decided to explore the next day on bikes, and headed toward Sulfur, the nearby town.  The Chickasaw Cultural Center caught our eye on the way by, so we happily detoured into the curving driveway.20140419_150104 What an informative afternoon we spent – live demonstrations of archery, weaving, beading, spear-throwing games, were all in process.20140419_12174920140419_12120920140419_121151 Native stomp dancers talked about their traditions and culture.  A movie, and audio presentations.  For lunch, a bison taco and hominy stew.  But, the best part was the old tanner who was working there.  This elderly gentleman hunts and tans all of his own hides, makes all his own clothes, camps in a teepee, makes bows from native materials, raises bison, and is the real deal.20140419_12263620140419_122706 He was very gracious in spending time with us, explaining his craft, and answering all of our questions.  What a treasure.20140419_150313

Back at camp, I decided to forage for unused firewood at empty campsites.  That’s a favorite trick of ours – we HATE spending $$ for firewood, and forage when we can.  There’s an astonishing amount of wood left at campsites every day.  Free for the taking. We have no pride when it comes to hauling it back for our own campfire.  What did I spy but the greatest carved hotdog stick ever!  Four-pronged, with a handle. 20140419_174413 I grabbed it, and sprinted back to camp, hollering at John to come see.  He was knee-deep in giving Fireball tours to about five passers-by at the time. (This is something we do a lot.  Everyone wants to ask us about the Fireball, and check out the inside.  We gladly oblige).  I was quickly brought back to earth – Hey, City Girl – this is no hotdog stick, it’s a frog giggin’ stick!  Ick!!  I don’t know exactly what the process is, and don’t want to know.  The loss of innocence was crushing.

Hating to leave this fabulous campground, we sadly pack up on Sunday morning and head for Crater of Diamonds State Park in AR.  Hoping to screen/dip/mine the big one, although we have no idea what the process of finding your own diamond really is. Guess we’ll find out. How hard can it be, anyway?

Peace and Quiet and Birds

Pelicans in Oklahoma?  Sure….and the Easter Bunny is going to load the Fireball up with Reese’s Peanut Butter eggs this weekend. Right.

But, here we are, camped on the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River in Great Salt Plains State Park (OK), and we have white pelicans floating alongside our campsite.  20140416_152231And, there’s an enormous lake which has about 1/2 the salinity of the ocean just a few hundred yards away.  This is not the Oklahoma we expected to see.20140416_15360520140416_155117Our own private dam….20140416_155240and a beautiful campsite (see us on the left about 1/2 way down on the left?) complete with water and electric for $18/night.20140416_152924I really can’t believe I’m in Oklahoma (until someone wants to talk politics).  It’s beautiful and peaceful.20140417_121501 20140417_143043We’re right alongside the edge of the Salt Plains National Wildlife Preserve, so I cycled over there to take in the sights and see the Visitor Center.20140417_141225This is on a major north/south migratory path for many bird species, but there was a lot of room at the inn today, as there weren’t many birds in sight.  I rode along the gravel roads and hiked the Nature Trail and saw a few egrets, Great Blue Herons, many other wading birds that I couldn’t identify, mallards galore, one bluebird, a pair of cardinals, and a bunch of cormorants.  Lots of other small birds which I couldn’t see well enough to identify.

Persistant knocking on the door of the Visitor Center persuaded the Ranger inside to open up and let me see the exhibits inside.  He answered all my lame questions, and offered up the following tidbit.  On a single day, there were 130,000 Sandhill Cranes and 120,000 Canadian Geese here last fall.  Can you imagine seeing that through these birder blinds?20140417_13315420140417_133122Such a sight (and such a ruckus) is beyond my comprehension.

It’s a quiet place, and we were happy to be here.  John rode off in search of digging selenite crystals, which take on a unique formation in this area.20140417_134140 However, the digging area was both farther away than he was willing to cycle (about 40 miles round trip – tough on his CX bike) and it required more/better tools than we had.  Next year.

Windy, cool, cloudy, and a bit of rain for the day, but we are happy to be out in the boonies. I’d love to be here during fall migration when there are hundreds of thousands of pelicans (the Ranger told me that the ones by our campsite have probably decided not to make their return trip to Oregon, and will stay for the season), plus Whooping Cranes (up to about 300 from near extinction of a population of 18), and dozens of other species.

Things are on the upswing, after disappointment in Dodge City.  We’re on our way tomorrow to the Chickasaw National Wildlife Refuge in OK for a few days, so (hopefully) more of the same peacefulness will stretch into the weekend.