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Badlands and history in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The Free Press WV

For travelers looking to visit all 50 states, North Dakota is often one of the last to be checked off. It’s not exactly on the way to anywhere else, and flying there is expensive.

It ended up being 49th on my 50-state quest (sorry, Idaho!). Part of the challenge was deciding what to do there and how to get there. I had to choose between visiting Fargo in eastern North Dakota (and the name of one of my favorite movies) or Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the west. It’s 330 miles (530 kilometers) between them, and I didn’t have time for both on a week-long road trip that also included Montana’s Glacier National Park and Idaho’s Craters of the Moon.

In the end, Roosevelt Park won out. Photos of its badlands and prairies enchanted me, and the story of Teddy Roosevelt’s sojourn there following the deaths of his wife and mother on the same day intrigued me. What was it about this place that allowed this future president to grieve and recover — while at the same time inspiring him to become one of America’s most influential conservationists? I needed to see it for myself.

GETTING THERE

My husband and I flew to Denver — by air from New York, the cheapest jumping-off point — and rented a car (unlimited mileage, of course). We then drove 600 miles (965 kilometers) north through Wyoming and South Dakota to the tiny North Dakota town of Medora (population 132), at the entrance to the park’s South Unit.

Fortunately, those 600 miles were easily done in a day, thanks to speed limits of 75 and 80 mph (120-128 kph) in many spots, and little traffic outside Colorado. Still, it felt like we were heading to a pretty remote place, and I wondered if the park would hold its own against national parks I’d visited in Alaska, Hawaii and the Southwest, not to mention Yellowstone and Yosemite. About 700,000 people visit Roosevelt Park yearly, compared to the more than 3 million annual visitors at places like Montana’s Glacier Park.

THE LOOP AND WILDLIFE

Teddy Roosevelt Park is open 24 hours daily. We arrived at 7:30 a.m. one day at the tail end of last summer. Map in hand, we drove the 36-mile (58-kilometer) scenic loop around the park’s South Unit, stopping at many of the nearly 20 points of interest along the way.

Within minutes, we came upon a prairie dog town. Dozens of the tiny creatures scampered back and forth, popping in and out of little holes amid scrubby grasses. We’d see three more prairie dog towns before we completed the loop, along with wild horses grazing on a hill by the roadside and in another spot, a herd of bison. The wildlife encounters were thrilling and unexpected surprises.

THE LANDSCAPE

The landscape was thrilling too. The scent of sage perfumed the air, and bursts of red foliage punctuated the gray-green grasslands. Stripes of peach, cream and mud-brown earth and stone lined the curving banks of the Little Missouri River.

Framing it all were the famous badlands stretching to the horizon: flat-topped stone formations with striated slopes in tawny yellows and russet reds, dotted with bright green trees and patches of grass. They looked like the crusty paws of some massive alien creature on the verge of rising up.

We did most of the hikes along the loop drive, some just a few minutes’ walk to an overlook, others 20 to 40 minutes along hilly trails covering a mile or more. At every stop, we were awed by the scenery, from the astonishing palette of earthy hues to the stone shapes etching land and sky.

ROOSEVELT’S STORY

An exhibit at the visitor center tells Roosevelt’s story. On his first visit in 1883, he hunted bison and invested in a ranch near Medora. He’d been a state assemblyman in his native New York, but after his mother and wife both died on Feb. 14, 1884, he left politics and returned to the badlands to mourn his losses. He lived in a small ponderosa pine cabin now located just steps from the visitor center. It’s furnished with period pieces and some of his belongings, including his traveling trunk, a replica of his writing desk and a rocking chair.

Roosevelt lived the cowboy life, spending days riding and herding in what was considered America’s last frontier. His experiences there were formative: He lost more than $24,000 when blizzards decimated the cattle he’d invested in. He witnessed the environmental damage done by overgrazing. And he realized that the bison, who once roamed the plains in the millions, had dwindled to the hundreds.

Roosevelt wrote three books inspired by his Western sojourn. He eventually returned to politics, serving as New York governor and from 1901-1909, as U.S. president. His accomplishments included the conservation of 230 million acres of land, a legacy that led to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.

For me, Roosevelt Park ranks among the most interesting and beautiful I’ve seen. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to visit, and I hope someday to go back and absorb more of the place that Roosevelt called “a land of vast silent spaces — a place of grim beauty.”

State Parks look to cater to top outdoor activities

The Free Press WV

The top man with the West Virginia State Parks told lawmakers the Mountain State is a treasure for adventure seekers and the parks are trying to do more to accommodate those looking for adventure activities.

Sam England detailed a list of the top ten outdoor pursuits ranked by the amount of money spent to pursue them nationally during an appearance before a legislative interim committee. The top listing was trail sports, which includes hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, and horseback riding. The category also included rappelling and bouldering as well as trail running.

“We have over 12 hundred miles of trails used for hiking, biking, and horseback riding and other things,” England said. “But it’s exciting to us because our number one gateway activity to state parks is hiking.”

Camping is second on the national list when it comes to spending money. England said the category encompassed everything from tents up to full sized recreational vehicles. Those R-V’s are where the prices tended to climb–and those driving them tended to be willing to spend a lot more.

“As a result, our desire is move into that arena and be able to take care of that segment of camping as well,” said England of the growing number of R-V’s traveling into West Virginia.

The high ranking of R-V camping is causing the park system to look at improving and expanding the offerings for those large motor homes. England said the master plans call for more spaces, improved access to parks, and more campsites with full utility hookups.

The rest of the top ten in order of money spent included water sports, wheel sports (biking), snow sports, motorcycle riding, off roading, fishing, wildlife watching, and hunting.

According to England the state parks or state forests have some level of accommodation for all of those user groups. Long range plans call for improvements to specifically cater to all of those user groups.

Investigation Into Shark’s Death Turns Criminal

The Free Press WV

A great white shark with cuts and puncture wounds on its body washed ashore, dead, on a beach in Aptos, Calif., Sunday, and law enforcement officials with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife are investigating. The male shark, believed to be a juvenile, weighed about 500 pounds and was eight or nine feet long. A necropsy was completed on the seemingly healthy shark, which was described as “fat and robust,“ and something it uncovered led the investigation to turn criminal, but it’s not clear what, the San Francisco Chronicle reports, noting that the idea of foul play being involved sent “shock waves” through the research community.

“Great whites have numerous protections under state and federal laws. They are an extremely rare animal and play a crucial role at keeping the oceans, ecosystems and food webs balanced,“ one researcher says. Another researcher had earlier theorized to KION the shark may have been involved in a fight with another sea animal, swallowed debris, suffered an injury from a fishing hook, or that a pathogen could be to blame. A marine biologist had previously come under fire for posing for a photo with the dead shark, the San Jose Mercury News reports, though researchers said they were just attempting to document its size in case it washed away before its body could be recovered.

Cocaine Now Wreaking Havoc on ... Eels

The Free Press WV

Humans aren’t alone in a battle with illicit drugs, which have penetrated waterways worldwide via wastewater and other means. European eels are feeling the effects, and probably other animals, too, say researchers at Italy’s University of Naples Federico II. After previously finding cocaine in eel flesh, the team investigated how the drug affects the swimmers, known to travel 3,700 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to spawn in the Sargasso Sea, near the Bahamas. It certainly wasn’t beneficial: Farm-raised eels confined for 50 days in a lab tank with roughly the same low-level amount of cocaine found in some rivers, about 20 nanograms per liter, appeared hyperactive and swam faster than their sober counterparts, reports New Scientist. Dissection revealed more: skeletal muscle damage that remained even after the eels spent 10 days in clean water.

Researchers predict migration difficulties as a result. “In addition to sufficient energy reserves, the eel needs a healthy skeletal muscle and an efficient aerobic metabolism, in order to complete successfully its migration,“ they write in Science of the Total Environment. Study author Anna Capaldo offers more at National Geographic, explaining cocaine’s effect on cortisol and dopamine levels could impair reproduction and prevent an eel from reaching sexual maturity. It’s more bad news for the eels already critically endangered by habitat loss, pollution, and over-fishing, per Smithsonian. But humans should be concerned, too: “Since the skeletal muscle is the edible part of the eel,“ those with a taste for European river eels could be ingesting cocaine, though probably not enough to be dangerous, researchers say.

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