Story and Photos by Hannah Larson
Landmark Crew Member
Ryan, Emma and I are trekking across a flat stretch of prairie that, at the moment, looks more like a shallow lake than a grassland. With each step, we lean forward to gain traction, but our hiking boots disappear under thick brown gumbo mud. This is our first hike on Sun Prairie North, a 22,000-acre parcel added to the American Prairie Reserve in summer 2014.
Hiking through the mud is exhausting, but all we can do is laugh at the absurd amount of muck coating our boots and legs. The weather is lifting our spirits, too—it’s an unseasonably warm day with bright sun and azure sky reflecting off of the water around us. Our hats and jackets are stuffed into our backpacks. Eight miles behind us, four more to go.
In early February, we sat around our dining room table with ASC staff and sketched out six transects for this new phase of the project. It was a logistical puzzle. Which roads could we safely drive to access the hikes? Would we be able to cross the streams that meandered across the map? Would each transect be far enough from the others to ensure we would see different sets of animals? The final result was a colorful set of elongated rectangles superimposed across the topo lines on our computer.
Now, slogging through the mud of the flatlands, we are experiencing the terrain in person for the first time. Most of my past hikes have been on established trails, trod by thousands of people before me. However scenic these trails may be, they don’t quite inspire the sense of adventure I feel every time I step onto the prairie with the Landmark crew.
Here, I never know what the day will bring. It might be a herd of mule deer bounding over the next ridge or a snow-white jackrabbit pressed into a hiding spot under a clump of sagebrush. It might be a chilly wind that prompts us to race across frozen ponds, hurrying back to the warmth of our ranch house. Or, like today, it might be a perfectly blue sky with warm sunshine that thaws the ice into miles of heavy, wet mud.
Back at the house, we flop into camp chairs on the porch and fling off our dirty gear, basking in the evening light. Maybe we will reroute that transect around the endless plains of mud, maybe not. Right now all we know is that it’s been another challenging, amazing day on the prairie.
Originally from Minneapolis, Hannah Larson grew up canoeing in northern Minnesota and Canada. Since graduating from Bowdoin College with majors in Environmental Studies and History, she has led wilderness trips in Minnesota, built hiking trails in Maine and New York, collected stream data across the western U.S., and worked for environmental nonprofits in Washington, D.C.
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