When we ended our last post, we made a u-turn south from Jasper National Park in Alberta beginning our long and circuitous trip home. We returned to Banff where the thick smoke from the forest fires was still ever present. We only used Banff as an overnight stop before turning our sights east toward Grasslands National Park.
After leaving Banff, we stayed over a couple of nights in Cochrane, Alberta where we met a real nice couple – John and Margaret from Milk River. We had a great time going out for dinner and ice cream (not in that order) with them. John was a former member of the Snowbirds, the Canadian Air Force version of the USAF Thunderbirds or the US Navy Blue Angels. The Snowbirds performed an airshow near Cochrane while we were there, but Anna and I weren’t able to make it to the airport early enough for parking and the show. We were, however, able to see part of the show from our RV park. Cochrane had the vibe of many Canadian small towns, but an active growth spurt was underway with new commercial retail areas sprouting up on one side of town. Our campground was extremely nice, but strangely located in a commercial/industrial park of town. Directly behind our motorhome was a city green space dedicated to walkers, joggers, and dog lovers. It was common of many of the outdoor wellness areas we have seen throughout or visit to Canada.
After spending a couple of days in Cochrane we traveled past Calgary to Maple Creek for a two night stay. Maple Creek was a really small town. I mean small. The campground was nice with the exception of a gazillion ants that greeted us at our picnic table. The campground owner had some sort of a need to make customers think they were in Margaritaville with office, tiki bar, and pool decorations – weird is a good descriptor for the juxtaposition with the area we were located in.
Next came the drive to Grasslands National Park – one of our destination locations. There wasn’t but two possible routes to get there, and as luck would have it – I picked the road from hell. Oh my gosh! There were heaves, holes, construction areas (nothing like any construction areas we have ever seen), gravel, stones, asphalt (loose), mud, and dirt… powdery dry dirt by the megatons. Our white CRV was completely brown except for the parts that had tar on it. The storage bins under the motorhome were filled with powdery dirt, we couldn’t see any identifying marks left on the tow gear, and quite frankly, I was exhausted from dodging everything that had been thrown at me in an attempt to negatively realign the front end of both vehicles. Man I was tired.
Grasslands is an interesting national park divided into two main sections, the east block and the west block. It is separated by private lands and being one of the newer Canadian national parks, is still going through land acquisition and legislative processes. The east block is somewhat similar to our Badlands in the US, and the west block (where we stayed) is rolling hills, buttes, and coulees with blowing grasses. We stayed in Frenchman Valley where the bison roamed free. There were two herds near our campground, and dozens of single male bison that had been kicked out of the families. Our campground was full of a variety of small gophers that drove our golden retriever,Camper, nuts. Down the road from us was a large colony of black-tailed prairie dogs – one of the few natural colonies in existence.
Anna and I would go out in the evenings looking for burrowing owls that make their homes in abandoned prairie dog tunnels. It was very interesting. Many of the prairie dog tunnels were ofter over thirty feet deep and/or long. Sometimes the tunnels were networked with other prairie dogs tunnels. We spent one morning with a park ranger who taught us about the diversity of the area, and the various eco-systems, and a second morning with a team of park rangers who took us to a special bison facility were we learned about how the park service manages the bison herds, tracks their movement and habits, monitors there heath, and culls the herd size to insure that the land can sustain the population.
The main reason we picked Grasslands National Park for a destination is that it is a dedicated night sky preserve with 360° indescribable views of the night sky including the planets, the Milky Way, and all of the various constellations. Our first night there was stormy and the sky was blanketed with clouds, but the second night was absolutely beautiful. Anna and I walked outside at 2:30am and felt like we were on an open plains planetarium. I have never seen a sky so beautiful. The Milky Way was directly overhead which made it impossible to tie it in with any land features for good photography. We had already picked out an open field corral, and an old abandoned farm site as anchors for the viewing of the milky way galaxy, but it just didn’t work out. It was also in the 40° range with a pretty brisk wind. Anna didn’t want to stay outside and she convinced me that I should go back inside also. While the astrophotography didn’t work out well, we did have some beautiful sunsets like the Red Chair photo above.
Grasslands National Park was our last stop for this Canadian venture and it was time to come back to the good ole US of A! We re-entered the United States about 40 kilometers south of Val Marie, AB at the Monchy crossing into Morgan Montana. This was our eighth border crossing since we began motorhoming and it was the first time we had items confiscated. The fee for crossing the border was three tomatoes… seriously? The border control officer told us that they take tomatoes seriously. Okay!
Our first stop back in the United States was at Fort Peck, Montana. This was a fun stop for us. We just relaxed in the campground and explored the area around the dam and the little town. One day we visited the Ft. Peck Interpretive Center and took a tour of the Ft. Peck Dam powerhouse on the Missouri River. The interpretive center had a large display and a variety of information pertaining to dinosaurs that once inhabited the region and the archeological digs in that have uncovered many skeletal remains and fossils from that era in time. The information about the construction and operation of the dam and powerhouse was also fascinating. When we drove to town to pick up our mail (thanks Amy and David), there was a big sign in the main downtown street about the musical “Grease” that would be performed at the playhouse that evening. We went back that evening and attended the show. We were amazed at how talented the performers were since the area is so sparsely populated.
Soon it was time to move on from Fort Peck, Montana to Medora, North Dakota. Medora is also a fun little town. Originally founded to honor the wife of Marquis de Mores, a French nobleman, the town is now the commercial support structure for Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This stop was amazing. The national park had three separate units or locations. We focused on the South Unit and really didn’t have sufficient time for the Elkhorn Ranch or North Unit. There were numerous hiking trails and a 36-mile scenic driving loop with overlooks and side roads allowing visitors a great view of the badlands. We viewed bison, wild horses, prairie dogs, and coyotes during our time in the park. We watched coyotes working as a team to stalk prairie dogs and did up their tunnels. The majority of the park features a broken topography of canyons, and geological strata including hoodoos.
The Theodore Roosevelt Foundation sponsors many of the facilities and much of the entertainment in Medora, and entertainment there is. We were able to spend part of an afternoon at the Town Hall Theater enjoying Joe Wiegand, a Teddy Roosevelt reprisor who fully engaged his audience in his performance. Another afternoon we were able to see Jared Mason, one of the stars in “Stomp” and “Million Dollar Quartet” perform his one-man do it all show. Jared Mason has recently moved his family to Nashville, and is really talented. Hopefully, some day soon, everyone will know who Jared Mason is. The crowning entertainment event in Medora is the Medora Musical, an intricate yet down home outdoor stage performance with the Coal Digger band, the Burning Hills Singers, Anti-Gravity aerobatic team. The show was almost three hours of amazing musical talent. Wow… just wow! The amphitheater is located in a valley that we accessed by descending down a 7-story escalator. The stage was surrounded by hills and the stage was set under a full moon. At the top of the escalator is a large dining area where we were treated to a pitchfork steak fondue. We met two couples while waiting to enter the dinner area. We joined them for dinner and a great time was had by everyone. We were in Medora for three days, but could easily have spent a week enjoying the area. We’re heading east from here, and then back north to the border to visit the International Peace Garden.
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