MAY DAY PARADE - MULTI-SPORT ADVENTURE IN THE BADLANDS OF WESTERN NORTH DAKOTA
“The very basic core of a person’s living spirit is the passion for ADVENTURE” - Chris McCandless
The May Day Parade:
26.50 miles over 10.50 hours
-12.00 miles hiking (no established trails)
-7.50 miles paddling (Little Missouri River)
-6.50 miles gravel road biking
-0.50 miles wicked kayak portage
Parade Route: Kayak > Hike > Kayak > Portage > Bike
The main objective of our expedition was a visit to the legendary Rock House, a 100 year old house/cabin, which sits in a sunken valley a few hundred feet below the summit of Bullion Butte, located in the rugged badlands of western North Dakota. Ordinarily, an ATV will transport you up to the Rock House quite easily, only needing to negotiate a few washed-out, rutted-out trails/roads. In an effort to complete our quest to the worn out, yet majestic house; Brent Brannan, Matt Ehrman, Toby Marman, and myself looked for a far less ordinary route, a route that required hiking, biking, kayaking, a self-supported route, a looped route commencing and concluding at the same point, a route that very likely had never been taken before, a route that very likely will never be taken again, a route that would become known as the May Day Parade.
I’ve heard it said, “true adventure doesn’t begin until something goes wrong.” Driving down East River Road early that morning, enjoying the countryside and preparing to embark on our journey, it was already apparent we had true adventure on our hands. The plan was to make a stop along the gravel road and stage our bikes, eventually making our way back to them at the end of the day.… after what was to be a long, but mellow (in terms of gradient) boat portage (1.50 miles in length). However, due to extremely soggy conditions along the low-lying jeep trail, which we intended to use as a portage alley, it was evident we would have to make adjustments to our plan, moving both the portage and bike drop to higher, more suitable terrain. As a result, the point at which we exited the river bottom, beginning the portage, would have to be adjusted as well. When dealing with a place as wild as the badlands, this revision to the plan changed everything…. our mellow portage would now become an intense, nearly vertical bushwhack.
Already knowing we would be ending the day differently than expected, for good measure it seemed, Mother Nature threw us an additional curveball, ensuring we would not begin our day as expected either. The soggy conditions, once again, had the group picking apart our map(s), looking for a new/more inviting starting point, a location at which we would be able to launch the kayaks and begin the excursion. We found what we were looking for a mile up river, just off of a gravel road…. surprisingly and luckily, this launch point turned out to be much more accessible than the original location we had plotted out. And now, finally, with the anticipation of the day gnawing at us, as the western meadowlark sang its unmistakable, childhood-memory inducing song (heard far less often than it should be), we geared up and set out; paddling our way down the Little Missouri River; it looking much more like rich, creamy, chocolate milk than the oddly north flowing waterway it is…. we certainly made every effort to breathe in and enjoy the cool, crisp morning air.
- The Little Missouri River - locally known as, the Little Muddy… Brent Brannan, Matt Ehrman, Toby Marman, and Parker Scott pictured
The badlands are a special place; every time you are lucky enough to make a visit to them, they quickly remind you of all they have to offer…. the gnarly bluffs and rock outcroppings, the abundance of wildlife, the sereneness, the solitude, the beauty; it is all right there, and we found ourselves right in the middle of it, taking it all in with not a care in the world. Right on cue, quickly reminding the group of the day ahead, letting us know this adventure would not be a walk in the park, the seemingly always-present North Dakota wind picked up and let its presence be known. As stated before, the Little Missouri River flows north; that, combined with the prevailing northwest wind you find in North Dakota, turned the nearly effortless, tranquil paddle into somewhat of a strenuous chore (it was nothing we couldn’t handle, but enough to grab our attention). We completed the 6.00 mile initial paddle portion of the parade and made our exit onto the muddy banks of the river…. we were a little behind our loosely calculated schedule, this because of the wind and a few hang ups on the lurking rocks/sandbars found throughout the river. Getting to the first “check point” felt good, morale was high and we were ready to start our hike through/over/up/down/across the badlands to the Rock House…. the first leg of the hike would be infused with uncertainty, in terms of the route we would take and what obstacles we might (would) encounter.
- making our fist boat exit, preparing to begin our hike to the Rock House…. Matt Ehrman pictured
Channeling your inner billy goat is a requirement on any hike through the badlands, and even more so when not using established trails. With so many boulders/crags/cliffs/outcrops/drainages to negotiate, the strategy of trial and error is best applied…. choose a route, explore it, if it works, continue on; if not, go back to the drawing board (it isn’t so much that you lose your bearing, it is more about finding a passable line). This go around, I felt like we were pretty lucky as far as finding the right path, especially early on in the hike. It didn’t matter who was taking the lead, we were always making progress, using the dried up drainages and livestock/wildlife trails to our advantage when ever possible; slowly but surely navigating the series of mini* canyons as we neared our destination…. after managing our way through three of these “ascent-descents”, we finally topped out on a vast plateau, which was now the only thing standing between us and the base of Bullion Butte.
*”mini” meaning half of a mile to a mile from the ridge on one side of the canyon to the ridge on the opposite side, usually losing/gaining around 150-250 feet between the two ridges
Bullion Butte was right in front of us, we could almost reach out and touch it, we would be there in no time…. at least that’s what it felt like. However, that was far from reality as the hike across the plateau seemed to never end. By now, the wind was sustained at 25 mph, gusting to 35 mph, and we were driving directly into it. This portion of the expedition became more of a mental test rather than the physical test it had been most of the way…. there was nothing to look at, nothing to keep the mind fresh; just us, the open prairie, and the vicious wind to fight. Adding to a slowly deflating mindset (as we now ended the trek across the plateau and began the initial stages of the ascent up Bullion Butte), we started to come upon more ravines which were unaccounted for…. the map we took with us was made using Google Earth, zoomed out, making the entire parade route visible (this was the biggest/dumbest/most unsafe oversight of the day - leaving the detailed maps in the vehicle). Without the intricate detail of a proper map (no contour lines), these huge depressions in the Earth we were now encountering looked more like small ditches rather than the 100/200 feet deep obstacles they were. As we made our way across, in, and out of this newly found terrain, the group began to realize our hike, and day, were each going to last much longer than anticipated (there was not a goal as far as time spent on the “trail” goes, but each portion of the parade did have a certain pace designated to it).
- Brent Brannan and his comedic attempt at make time pass on the never-ending hike across the plateau
Achieving the summit of Bullion Butte does not require ropes or climbing of any sort, still, it is a demanding hike, especially when making the final push, but definitely attainable; even after the long, wind battered, monotonous approach we made across the plateau. Standing on the rim of the butte, gazing into the scenic valley, it still clinging to the last remnants of winter snow, we caught our first glimpse of the Rock House. Two of the four members of the group had been to the Rock House prior to this day, but even for them, it was still a thrill to see the long standing “gambler’s cabin”, as it has been known over the years. After taking in the memorable sight, we made our way down from the butte rim, enthusiastically tackling the required down climbing and scrambling en route to the valley floor, and ultimately the Rock House. We had arrived at our destination. The old house and its surrounding area are remarkable. The original roof, doors, and windows have been replaced, but the old stone making up its frame has never been touched. The abundance of trees around the house provided amazing seclusion… there wasn’t a sound to be heard and the wind was non-existent. It is an exceptionally peaceful location. We explored a bit, signed the guest book, which is left out for any visitors that might happen upon the house, and then sat down to feed our bellies and rest our feet. As we relaxed and refueled, we were sure to take in all that the unforgettable setting had to offer.
- looking back at the butte rim from the valley floor… a gigantic aerie (estimated at 8-10 feet in height and 5-6 feet in width), more than likely home to a Bald Eagle or Golden Eagle, can be seen attached to the rock face – look for a brown oval shape toward the left end of the rock wall, located in the upper/middle portion of the picture
- resting, relaxing, and refueling while at the Rock House…. Toby Marman and Brent Brannan pictured
The recharging of batteries did wonders for our attitudes and aches, we were ready to rock and roll. After taking a good look at our half bogus map, as well as getting an advantageous, aerial view of our return path as we stood atop the vast bluff, we were able to see/find a detour around the badlands/ravines found at/near the base of the butte, those that were unaccounted for on the approach. Having that knowledge, combined with the fact a majority of the hike back to the river would be downhill, and more importantly, down wind, we established a pretty fast pace, even running down the lower portions of the butte. Outside of making a few wrong decisions as far as route finding goes on the way back (it was our intent to trace the route of our approach on our return hike), it was pretty smooth sailing. The couple of “wrong turns” we did take led to some of the more exciting portions of the trek…. a couple of small, mandatory cliff drops were encountered and some creative hiking/climbing had to be implemented (this exactly what we were looking for when we decided to not use any established trails). The trip back to the boats took both less time and less effort. As a result, we were ready to take on the last few miles of paddling for the day. However, even with the resurgence of energy and thought of our end point inching near, the unknown was still looming….. would we find a manageable (not miles out of our way) take out point along the river, would we find passable terrain as far as the portage goes?? The sun was starting to hang low in the sky making these concerns quite valid.
- Matt Ehrman negotiating a small, but steep transition in the badlands…. Toby Marman pictured in the background
The wind was still blowing, that was evident as we pushed off in the kayaks. We didn’t have far to go, but our progress would be tamed by the menacing wind…. this stretch of the river lacked protection from the wind, with high bluffs to the east of us, but mostly open prairie to the west, allowing the gusts to wreak havoc on our paddle mission. Looking at the map, meagerly advancing down the chocolaty tributary, we plotted what looked to be an exit point…. a drainage leading to the east, approximately on the same latitude as our bikes. We ducked our heads and battled down the river. For only being a 1.50 mile paddle, it felt like it took an eternity to navigate the choppy water, eventually/finally hitting the drainage we had marked. Although it was our best option, this exit point was anything but ideal. The drainage was gross….. both awful looking and awful smelling, possibly being a stream of mostly cow piss for all we knew? Muddy, high banks made it hugely difficult to manage your way out of the boat onto shore, and once there, it was hard to imagine traveling much further; amazingly dense shrub growth was now our roadblock to the prairie/portage route above. To be honest, I didn’t think our chances were good, in terms of getting out of this situation and back to the vehicle before the wee hours of the morning. As a group, we made the decision for two of us go ahead on a scouting mission in an effort to find a route, looking for the most passable terrain. Staring us in the face was the task of taking the kayaks up and out of the river bottom - pushing, pulling, sliding them up and out of the badlands, gaining some 200-250 feet along the way, skirting a 100 foot cliff at one point…. this was going to be a difficult portage regardless, but finding an easier path here and there could possibly make all the difference (this was by far the most physically grueling portion of the day, and for me personally, probably my lowest point mentally as well). Struggling our way out of the river bottom onto the more calm terrain, we began to see the light at the end of the tunnel; at this point I don’t know if it got easier or harder, if it hurt worse or felt better, but I knew we had to push through and put this agonizing climb behind us. As we neared our “checkpoint”, a herd of cattle started making their way toward us; I assume they thought we were putting out feed?? The herd began approaching very quickly and we ducked the fence just as they arrived to greet us (the last thing we wanted to be dealing with were hungry/angry cows). We stood there, looking at where we came from, looking at the kayaks laying in the prairie, and then looking at the cows; the kayaks looking extremely out of place, and the cows giving us a glare that said, “what the hell are you doing here?” That look from the cows was exactly what we needed… it was just enough to get a laugh out of us. As good as it felt to make it to the bikes, we needed to press on; there was still 6.50 miles of the undulating gravel roads waiting for us (not a gargantuan feat to take on, but not a walk in the park either).
- Toby Marman and myself looking for an exit point along the Little Missouri River… a glimpse of our zoomed out (almost good for nothing) map
The bike ride back on the not so flowing gravel roads, to where the day began some 10.50 hours prior, was more of a ride of reflection than anything. At this point, it was a surety the goal of completing the May Day Parade would be achieved (the journey earned its name at some point throughout the day, however, none of us can remember exactly when or where it became known as the May Day Parade). Looking back over our shoulders as we made one of the last climbs, it provided us the opportunity to soak in the last remaining glimpse of the day: the truly magical badlands, the cattle grazing, the Little Missouri River meandering, Bullion Butte in the far off distance. Eyeing Bullion Butte from this vantage point, being able to see the breadth of our travels, it was hard to imagine everything our day encompassed, it was hard to imagine all of the terrain we navigated, it was hard to imagine why anyone would do what we just did. But as we dismounted from the bikes, signifying the end of the day, with the high fives flying, we were soon reminded as to why a person does these things. It could be the sense of accomplishment? It could be that sense of adventure a person needs every so often? Maybe It makes you feel young? Maybe It makes you feel alive? I suppose in the end, that which is taken away from any expedition is specific to the individual…. whatever It does to you, whatever feeling It brings you -- It -- is yours and yours alone; and It is why the four of us chose to set out on The May Day Parade.