Gregg Treinish and his team at Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation bring us stories from around the world about adventuring with purpose. Here, ASC volunteer Morgan Cardiff shows us the wonders and challenges of life on the American Prairie Reserve, where he collected wildlife and environmental data on the Landmark adventure science crews this August and September. Morgan hiked throughout this wild landscape, managing remote cameras, mapping prairie dog towns and recording every animal sighting.
By Morgan Cardiff
You feel the wind first; a few fresh gusts that relieve some of the day’s heat and force the mosquitoes into hiding. Within the hour you’re scrambling to stop your tent from blowing to the next county.
During this particular storm, the first drops began to fall around midnight, a slow but constant tapping on my tent. I woke about four hours later, when, my tent lying half-destroyed around me, I had to look for alternative sleeping arrangements.
Over the next 36 hours, the rain continued to fall. Bone-dry creek beds turned into raging torrents, effectively isolating the Landmark crew on what was now our Sun Prairie island.
We had just received eight inches of rain in a 48-hour period. The average rainfall for the town of Malta, 40 miles to the north of the Sun Prairie, is 12 inches.
“That was the third 100-year storm in three years,” said American Prairie Reserve Operations Manager Damien Austin a few days later.
I’d read about the brief but intense Northern Montana summer, with its 90-degree temperatures, big blue skies and the occasional super-cell storm crossing the prairie. My first two weeks on the Landmark crew provided just that. This, however, was something different.
Watch a time lapse from the reserve, showing northern lights, an electrical storm, and a sunrise:
Even after a short period of time out here, you start to pick up on the subtleties: How most of the storms track west to east, dropping sporadic rainfall in their wake, that a dragonfly sounds terrifyingly like the prairie rattlesnake and how a whole herd of bison seem to appear and vanish like a ghost in the night.
The “Great Storm of August 2014” was not one of those super-cell storms I so wished to photograph. Winds howled from the east, the sky remained gray, rain fell constantly, and we were trapped for what seemed like days and days in our small camper. Not the Montana summer I expected.
Calling to check on our cabin fever status, ASC Program Manager Mike Kautz mentioned something along the lines of an “unprecedented event.” I liked the thought of that. I tend to be attracted to extremes—extremes of weather, of human passion and endurance.
I came here for those extremes, and for the opportunity to contribute to a long-term vision. It’s refreshing to remember there are still environments where we cannot be dominant. They remind us we are not always in control, and that we must live in the moment, submitting to outside forces and learning to live within their bounds. I get the feeling that life out here accepts this proposition, and those who couldn’t accept it have long gone.
The days of waiting out the flooding rains, of gale force winds that could blow my tent to the Little Rocky Mountains—they all add to the experience.
While the storm brought destruction, it also brought life. Fields transformed into what I can only assume resembles spring, and the bison have become playful again after the stifling heat of early August. Describing the plague of mosquitoes that wreaked havoc on my sanity as “horrendous” fails to describe their effect in even a remote sense.
Life in northeastern Montana is not easy, but it is unique.