Oh....My....Lord.....We,re Exhausted....And not even near our Camp!

Published: May 19th 2012
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1: Top of the Butte - Maah Daah Hey 48 secs
Friday, May 18, 2012. A bit of rain around 2:00 a.m. pattered on the tent, but no wind. Birds sang late into the night all around us. Up and "at em" at 6:30 a.m. Tom and I had a good "stick to your bones" breakfast of my concoction of Potato crowns, Spam, Goose sausage (Tom supplied) Mozzarella and Colby cheese and Eggs all mixed together and wrapped in tin foil for warming on the grill. Some coffee and juice, loaded the bikes and headed back out to U.S. Highway 85 for the trip north to the CCC camp just south of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park's north unit...a left turn just before you cross the bridge.

We unloaded the bikes, registered with our names and destination, and lifted the gate at mile post 97 of the Maah-Daah-Hey trailhead under overcast skies and no wind, temperature around 55 degrees. Time: 9:00. We loaded our packs onto our bikes ahd headed south. My supplies included rain gear, three power bars, three 30 oz water bottles and a 70 oz water camelback, camera, tripod, tools, phone, sunscreen and extra reading glasses all in my saddlebags and a day backpack strapped to the back of the bike.

Right away the trail was challenging, very rough terrain, but do-able, and mostly uphill...steep up hill. At the top we had some easy riding on nearly level ground. I was suprised that the trail was so tiny, just a cow path in most areas, and in others...none-exsistant except for the posts guiding you from one to the next. I would hate to have to find my way at night. Thankfully, Tom brought a GPS with the trail coordinates to guide us back to the trail location at the times we ended up accidentally following a well worn cow path instead of the overgrown or washed out trail or were forced to detour around damaged areas of the trail. We reached mile post 88 marking a gate secured entrance to an area restricted to hikers only, no bikes...so we followed the fenceline through dense sage brush and some trees till we ended up in a steep-walled box canyon. Rode back and forth here for some time attempting to find a trail to no avail, but what the heck....we had all day. Finally ended up going into the restricted area because that was the only place the trail continued to be marked. We came across the only hiker we met on the entire first day in that area. Glen was from Dickinson and had been hiking the trail since Monday (he packed VERY light...had a good hat on and a camelback....long pants, we were later wishing we had long pants)...Lucky guy only had about 10 miles left.

After exiting the restricted area we went through some absolutely beautiful badlands, but several wash outs and sloughed hillsides forced detours that almost had us hoplessly lost. Only the GPS kepted us from being lost. At one point we had to scale a steep thickly treed hillside (more like a cliff) by carrying one bike at a time to the top, a huge expenditure of precious energy. We had to come to a complete stop each time we wanted to enjoy the view as the riding was on almost knife edge trails with a loooonnnggg drop, not for those afraid of heights...made my tummy tickle. The trail finally crossed a gravel road at about mile post 86 and I had to ride the gravel road for a bit just to relax and get my confidence back, showing myself that I
Yes, this is the trailYes, this is the trailYes, this is the trail

Trail conditions were challenging in several areas, particularly between mile posts 86 and 78
really did have good balance. Said hi to all the prairie dogs as I passed there town. They chirped a cautious greeting (cusing?) then back to the trail. This portion of the trail...between mile posts 86 and mile post 78....became our downfall....GET OUT THE MOUNTAIN CLIMBING GEAR! Many steep banked washed out or sloughed ravines that served as the trail access to creek crossings and then pushing the bikes back up very narrow ravines on the opposite side. Access measured about a foot wide for the bikes and our feet with walls about 6 feet high...the climbs varied between 30 and 60 feet...another huge expenditure of our waning energy. By 1:30 p.m. CDT we were only to mile post 84, about a third of the way to our destination at Magpie Camp. Four and one-half hours to traverse 13 miles of trail. Took our first break...water, powerbars, rest. So far, I was metering out my water use very well. I still had one and a half bottles of water and a full 70 oz camelback. Thank God the sun wasn't beating down on us. Due to the deteriorated condition of the trail and our own deteriorating physical condition, it took us two more hours to get to mile post 78, a very steep and long descent into a creekbed, which we didn't attempt. Across the creek was a gigantic slough of the creek wall, about 70 feet high with a trail marker laying in the mire at the bottom. VERY BROKEN DIRT AND ROCK with no sign of the trail. Also, Tom was nearly out of water. I told Tom we needed to turn back. He said we had come too far to turn back.

I took an assessment of our situation:

1. Tom was nearly out of water...big concern

2. We were both near complete exhaustion from pushing, pulling or carrying our loaded bikes across, up and down numerous steep land sloughs, washouts and creekbed crossings, not to mention the normal steep trail climbs.

3. At our current rate of travel (over six hours to cover 19 miles) we would not arrive in Magpie Camp until well after nightfall...if everything went right and the trail was easy to follow...and assuming we could average 5 mph.

4. Indications were that the trail would not be easy to follow...we just didn't know what the next 20 miles held for us.

5. Water was available at the Bennett Camp. The turn to the camp was two miles back at mile post 80, then three additional miles to the camp. Maybe even help to give us a ride back to our truck at the CCC camp.

The decision was obvious. Turn back. The ride back to mile post 80 was uneventful. I was concerned that Tom was falling further and further behind. When we got back together at mile post 80 (Bennett Trail turn) Tom said that his bike wasn't shifting right, I was worried that his chain might have a bent link, a prelude to a chain break that would end our trip.

We were delayed one more time on the Bennett Trail. The trail descended to a creek crossing (another steep and deep ravine) so we crossed and pushed up to the top of the opposite side, but the next trail marker was no where in sight. After hiking around for some extended period of time we returned back down to the creek bed and the last post we saw. Then we noticed two trail posts on the same side, travelers needed to come down the bank to the creek, then go back up the same side on the other side of a deep ravine that divided the trail at the top. In our state of exhaustion, confusion started to set in. We couldn't figure out which trail we had come down, all the trails were starting to look the same. I hiked to the top of one that had two bike tread marks in the mud and made the determination we had to push our bike up the other, which we did. After traveling a short distance on that trail, the GPS told us we were retracing our tracks....so, back down the ravine to the creek and back up on the trail I thought we had come down. THAT, was the right trail to follow. We finally reached Bennett Camp after another increadibly slow two miles at about 7:30 p.m. CDT, going straight to the water pump to re-fill our water bottles and Tom's camelback. I thought we might find a road we could ride to Magpie, but we didn't have a road map in hand, and with the potential failure of Tom's bike chain, it was time to cry "Uncle" and call for help. Just then the batteries died on the GPS, sealing the decision. It was starting to rain, the temperature was rapidly falling and the wind had picked up to about 15 mph. The straight-line distance from Bennett Camp to Magpie was approximately 25 miles, and even if we could find a road that took us there, we wouldn't make it till after midnight. I was starting to shiver and thoughts of hypothermia were coming into play. Tom reminded me that I had raingear along and I got it out and put it on. Uncertain as to whether we were in Billings County or McKenzie County, I called 9-1-1. I told them we had been biking the Maah-Daah-Hey trail for the past 10 hours and were completely exhausted, our location and that all we needed was a ride back to our truck at the CCC camp and we would take it from there. A McKenzie County Deputy soon arrived at the Bennett Camp an informed us we could be charged with making a false 9-1-1 call as that was for emergencies only. Another straw...fortunately it did't break the camel's back. We weren't charged. Tom was given a ride back to the truck while I guarded our equipment. Tom returned about one hour later and we loaded up our gear for the trip back to Magpie Camp, arriving at about 10:30 p.m. in the rain. We had a beer while sitting in Tom's truck with the heat on. Finally the rain let up some and we cooked a couple of steaks on the grill before turning in....it continued to rain through the night.

Saturday, May 19, 2012....Up at 7:00 a.m. We unceremoniously cooked our breakfast, broke camp and headed for home in the rain.

Epilog: While the Maah-Daah-Hey trail provides a stunning panorama of western North Dakota's Badlands, extended traverse of the trail is more suited to hikers due to the narrowness, collapsed and rutted condition of the trail. At times, you cannot see the trail except for the occasional mile post in the distance...if it has not washed away. GPS was essential for us to keep on the trail. Our total distance traveled, according to Tom's GPS, was 27.5 miles...in about 10 hours. If you are going to ride the trail by mountain bike, you should only attempt it as part of a day-trip in scenic locations identified in advance and in close proximity to campsites. Our goal was to ride it in three days, but due to the condition of the trail, 10 miles per day would be a comfortable limit for trail riders, in my opinion. Assuming our rate of progress, and if the condition of the remainder of the trail remained the same as the first 19 miles we traveled, this trip would have taken us approximately 7 days to complete. Great scenary....if you can take the time to stop and enjoy it. But in the most scenic spots it is wise not to take your eyes off the trail. The GOOD easy riding parts of the trail consisted of a six inch deep rut no wider than approximately eight inches requiring constant attention to your riding line to avoid being tossed off the bike. The downhill descents required as much upper body strength as lower body strength required during the steep up hill climbs. Although Tom and I considered ourselves in excellent shape for our age, we attempted to cover too much rugged terrain in too little time....we are glad for the experience, and happy to have survived without injury or serious consequence. There is a reason the area is called "The Badlands". Thanks for following our trip everyone. Thanks for your concern, Mary. We were fortunate to be capable of texting messages via cell phone across most of the trail we covered. - Rick


23rd May 2012

Holy Smoke!
Just read your account of the trip. I've been tied up mostly away from my computer and thought you would have just finished your trip. I was wrong. Sounds hugely exhausting. When friends and I went winter backpacking in the badlands over 25 years or so we would hike only 4 or 5 miles before setting up camp for the night. We normally did this when there was snow on the ground so we didn't have to carry water but would just melt snow to drink and cook with. We would go for little hiking excursions w/o packs after camp was set up. What you and Tom did was in a whole 'nother world! Look forward to hearing more after you have recovered.

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