02-Feb-2004 -- I, Joseph Kerski, Geographer from Colorado USA visited Latitude 46 degrees North, Longitude 103 degrees West on a midwinter's day in extreme southern North Dakota. I was en route to meet with Standing Rock Sioux tribal professionals who use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and GPS, to conduct a workshop there, and converse with faculty about GIS and GPS at nearby Sitting Bull College. What better way to begin several days of geographical analysis and mapmaking than with a confluence visit? The visit would not prove to be the longest or most difficult I had experienced, but it did prove to be the coldest.
After a scenic moonlit drive through the Black Hills the night before, I began the day at Belle Fourche, South Dakota, leaving the city by US Highway 85 at 6:30am. I was treated to a spectacular sunrise reflecting off of the snow-covered buttes. At Ludlow, I turned east on a county road, following it to South Dakota State Highway 79. The area is dotted by scenic country churches, some of which have been abandoned (see photograph). At the North Dakota state line, the highway changed to State Highway 22, which I followed for three miles to a road named "2nd Avenue Southwest." I drove west on this road for two miles. The mile system is an ingrained part of the landscape here, with most roads in this part of the country laid out at one mile intervals. At the two-mile point, I stopped at 9am local time and noticed the farmhouse one mile ahead. A No Tresspassing sign was posted on the south side of the road, but to the north, no signs were present, although I would see a No Hunting sign on my journey. I assumed "No Hunting" did not mean "No Confluence Hunting." I surveyed the track to the north. This track was also the Adams-Bowman county line. As the track was buried in snow and had not been driven on recently, I knew I would have to walk from here. The distance to the confluence was only one mile (1.6km) to the north-northwest. I made all of what I thought would be the proper preparations. Despite the sunshine, the temperature was about -20 C, and therefore, I wore waterproof boots, hat, gloves, a heavy coat, shirt, and two sweaters. Unfortunately, this proved to be inadequate.
My journey north for 1.6 km on the section line track became an interesting study in melting and freezing as to which side was easier to walk upon. I wished I had been as light as the rabbits, whose tracks could be seen hopping along the top of the crusty layer of snow. Alas, I sunk into about 8cm of snow and 14cm of crust with each step, making for slow progress. The road dipped and rose and I soon lost sight of the vehicle, although the high ground along the track afforded a nice view of the surroundings. It was so cold that my sunglasses became frosted, and I put my GPS away for awhile, reaching for it again just as I crossed the 46th parallel. I then struck due west down a slope, sinking in the snow up to my knees in places. Again, I put the GPS away, getting it out when I arrived on the north end of about a half hectare that was fenced in barbed wire. I found that I was only 30 meters south of the confluence. I walked due north, and the lack of trees made it easy to zero out the GPS unit. I arrived at the site at 9:45am.
The confluence lies on a slight slope to the south of approximately 5 degrees. The confluence lies in the lowest ground for several hundred meters in each direction, except to the south, where a lone cottonwood tree grows in one of the intermittent streams. The landscape in this region slopes to the south towards the Grand River at the North Dakota-South Dakota state line. Contrary to what some might think of the North Dakota landscape, this area is not flat, but dotted with numerous small buttes and mesas. A ridge to the south prevented a view of the Grand River. The farthest horizon I could see was approximately 13 km away. Despite the clear day, near the horizon, the sky was a pewter lead color, a phenomenon I had never seen in my home state of Colorado. Except for the occasional riparian cottonwood tree, and shelterbelts of spruce and other trees planted near farmhouses, the landscape was treeless. The shortgrass prairie was largely cultivated in this area in wheat and sunflowers, with some cattle grazing. A few stalks poked through the snow (see photograph). The farmer bringing hay to his cattle at the state line was the last person I saw. Rabbit and antelope tracks were present, but I saw no live animals at the confluence; flocks of birds were numerous. I reflected on the previous visitor's trek through a thunderstorm, which was quite the opposite of today's weather. However, this is the high Great Plains, which experiences a gamut of weather conditions.
A confluence visit is always exciting for me, particularly one near a state or national boundary, such as this one is. I had been to 46 North about 6 months earlier in a Michigan forest, at 88 West. Reflecting on the vast differences between the vegetation at 88 West versus 103 West, I spent 30 minutes at the confluence. I enjoyed the wide open spaces so different from my home in the rapidly growing Front Range of Colorado. My visit was prolonged by a change of GPS batteries and photo troubles, interspersed every five minutes by a vigorous rubbing of the hands to prevent them from freezing. The photo troubles had to do with the brightness of the sky and snow, causing at least 10 photographs and one movie that were nothing but white. I retook the movie and photographs but the viewfinder on the camera kept freezing, preventing me from seeing them. By lying down on the snow, I hoped that the photograph of me would turn out better than the one I tried in the distance. As my feet were starting to freeze, I exited the confluence site at 10:15am.
I arrived back at the van at 10:45am local time, making sure I still had all 10 toes. I felt rather ashamed of my frozen state after only 90 minutes on the prairie, particularly in light of my glacier, mountain, desert, and rainforest-exploring confluence colleagues around the world. I found myself admiring these confluence hunters as well as the people who inhabit this region. One has to admire the settlers of this area who walked and rode in wagons to this region in the late 1800s. Those who remain today, in the face of decades of population loss in the region, also deserve respect. Finally, I found newfound respect for the original inhabitants of this region, the Teton Sioux and their descendants, some of whom I would be working with over the next few days. I drove east on 2nd Avenue Southwest, north on State Highway 22 to Reeder, and east on US 12. US 12 is a wonderful road because it straddles the North and South Dakota border for nearly 80 km. I took this road east to the lands of the Standing Rock Sioux.