|Daybreak on Stoney Run|
At ten in the morning the next day, Tamara put on her runners and headed out the back door. The house was dusted, floor was vacuumed, dishes were done and it was time to visit the wild things that co-habited with her near the lake on this lightly snow-covered autumn morning.
Interestingly enough, the dike that carried County Road 13 across Stony Run hadn’t been around very long. She never imagined how farm wagons from the north of the lake had crossed into town before they built the narrow isthmus to create a road-bed. But here it was, both sides steeply descending into the water, the edges covered with reeds and cat-tails where coots, mallards, and wood ducks as well as Canada geese, an occasional pelican, and muskrats made their home.
Wildlife had acclimated successfully to the new traffic created by the Bakken oil fields. No vehicle traffic seemed to bother them, but one lone walker sent them into paroxysms of activity. Upon Tamara’s arrival, one feathered crittur alerted another and suddenly a chevron of paddling birds skippered across the water.
Tamara wondered if even the chicks understood that hunters, who were their biggest danger, walked while, the drivers of oil trucks or 4-wheel drive pick-ups tended to pause en-route to let lines of ducklings cross the road.
A stunning blue sky made sunglasses mandatory, but the cool breezes rampaging down from the border country made a heavy jacket and a tight beanie covering the ears necessary.
Her trekking poles kept her arms swinging. Tamara’s back, in particular, loved the motion. The faster she swung the poles, the faster her feet followed. Not that she was in a hurry. She loved this part of her morning walk. It was black-top, even in texture although sloped slightly at the outer edges. She walked in the middle since there was not much traffic this particular morning. The road headed straight north seven miles to the Canadian border. Only a few rises interrupted the view to the curvature of the earth. About a quarter of a mile beyond Stony Run was the Burke County Fair Grounds where the pavement ended and the gravel took over. One could see billows of dust from that point north as traffic approached. From behind one could always hear the gearing up of engines as vehicles left the city limits and headed north to farmsteads or fields or oil wells to pick up the day’s shiny black yield.
The Swainsons hawk, whose home was on a bluff about a mile distant, sat in a nearby snag watching his pantry, waiting for an unwary chick who swam a bit too far from mom or a lame adult who wasn’t swimming among the reeds as flexibly as his peers.
What a life, at least until the snow covered the ice. The water-way was mostly a flowing stream but sometimes moved as an underground aquifer that filtered through fifty miles of farmlands on its way between the moraine south of town created by glaciers a hundred-thousand years ago and the huge river bottom of Des Lacs, twenty miles north-east.
Anyone who thinks this part of North Dakota is dry ought to stop for a visit. There’s plenty of water, not all of it above ground. Birds congregated along the banks of this prairie paradise to live out their lives until winter threatened. Then, all headed south.
Western North Dakota prairie is not flat, but rather rolls as the land moves from one wetland where the water has come to the surface to a high point where wheat, oats, canola, flax, and sunflowers fill the landscape during the short summer. Oil rigs, like spots on a Dalmatian dog, rose frequently above the landscape. Near the wetlands, clusters of wild trees formed homes for moose, turkey, grouse, and white-tailed deer to escape the eyes of farmers and others who hunted in the autumn.
Here people really did shoot moose and then ‘pluck’ the big devils. After being hung to dry for a week, their various parts were butchered and frozen to provide sustenance for a family through the winter. As well, white tailed deer, pheasant, and mallards provided appetizers.
As for Tamara, she loved to hear the honking of the geese and the lovely line made by twelve coot chicks following mom across the water with dad bringing up the rear. She watched them learn how to stand on their heads in the shallows to feed on insects and worms on the bottom. No better example of the effectiveness of the food chain existed.
Caught in her reverie, she didn’t notice until the last moment the swift arrival of four vehicles; the local sheriff deputy’s SUV, an ambulance, and a fire truck along with a pick-up truck with only the driver inside. No sirens announced their arrival nor their departure north.
No one waved. All were traveling faster than usual on this two-lane country road. She wondered if there had been an oil well accident at one of the rigging sites close to the border. Small towns don’t keep secrets well. Soon, she knew someone would tell her the “haps” of the incident.
As she continued, she was air brushed off the road by a speeding white pick-up with an American Flag glued full sized to the back window. Ah, “Gerald’s on his way to whatever. Must have heard an alert over the radio,” she murmured to herself.
Arriving back in town, she headed for the Senior Center where local residents and folks from other villages gathered on Wednesday afternoons to play pinochle. She thought someone there might know.
“Hi, Becky. What’sup with all the traffic?”
The Center was located on the main drag down which all of those vehicles would have swiftly traveled to reach County Road Thirteen headed north across Stoney Run.
“Sure are a lot. Haven’t heard anything. Probably an oil rig accident, doncha’ think, Lyon?” asked Becky of another of the card players.
“Happens all the time. Those guys think they’re earning such a good living working on wells, but look at the accidents. No telling who got hurt this time. I think Jack’s working up by the border this afternoon. Sure hope he’s ok.” No one rose from his or her seat to move towards cars that could have taken them north to find out what had happened.
“Hope so. Well, I’m off. I was walking across the slough. They sure raced by me,” Tamara said.
“Sure you don’t want to play cards? We could use a fourth at table three,” mentioned Becky.
“Nah, been years since I played cards. You’d have to teach me all over again and today’s not the best time for that. Enjoy. Catch you at the City Council meeting tonight.”
“Oh, I never go to those anymore. Nothing ever happens anyhow. How can they sit there so quietly? Beyond me. Drives me nuts. You won’t see me there,” added Lyon.
Tamara smiled. She felt just like Lyon. “Ok. Enjoy. Catch ya laters.”
Returning to the house still perplexed about the accident, she considered calling the sheriff’s office, but decided they would be busy. Best just be patient. As she was changing her shoes, Bert pulled up outside the house.
In her stocking feet, she braved the stickers and box elder bugs congregating around the front porch. “Bert, did you hear anything about the emergency vehicles just now?”
“Emergency vehicles? Where? I heard no sirens. Where were they?”
“I was walking on the lake road and four passed me headed north.”
“Hope everyone’s ok. Someone was burning slash up north. I saw the smoke from the dump. Maybe it got out of hand.”
“I didn’t see any smoke coming from that direction.”
They walked back into the house for lunch, a grilled cheese for Tamara and a boiled potato and white bread sandwich for Bert. It always made her choke when she watched him eat that stuff, boring and stale and dry, He enjoyed. She took her food to her desk and turned on the computer.
Sitting at her computer in the attic office overlooking the snowy slough, Tamara watched the golden fluff left over from the durum harvest mix with patches of snow by the grove of leafless trees to the west of the now almost invisible red barn. Her fingers tingled just a bit in the cold. The temperatures today never quite made it above freezing, but fortunately the wind forgot to blow.
Prediction from NOAA for the next couple of days was for an Alberta Express. It was strange that a line on the map delineated the border between Canada and the USA. It seemed to leave such an impression on her mind that somehow the weather followed the 49th parallel.
Of course, it didn’t. But as always what she thought was far more important than any fact floating through the intellectual-sphere. The weather to the north was always exciting; less forgiving, colder, wetter, more deadly than the weather on the south side of the border.
In fact, it was the Rockies, Canadian and American, that affected the storms that made it into her little corner of the prairie. Actually not a corner; these land forms encompassed thousands of square miles of short grass prairie over which weather moved along ancient patterns established by warm air rising from the Gulf of Mexico two thousand miles south to mix with arctic billows sliding across the Bay of Alaska through the various canyons of the northern Rockies and out onto the plains.
All residents could do was cope with whatever the fronts far out in the southern or northern oceans leap-frogged into their atmosphere. They dressed warm in winter and undressed more by more in summer, but people always allowed for the winds that cooled by myriad degrees in winter and by ever so slight degrees in summer.
The worst storms in over twenty-five years lingered in their half-acre in the winter of 2010-2011. The rainstorms of spring 2011 filled the lake to within twenty feet of the house. Sump pumps worked 24/7 to pull out the ground-water beneath their basement. During spring planting, behemoths of the fields, giant tractors, cultivators, and seeders with farmers in the cabs slid down into wind-rows, and sank four or five feet into the clay bottoms beneath the shallow topsoil. No vehicles could pull them out. Patience was the mantra of the day.
And then on May first the warmth disappeared. A gigantic storm rolled in off the Bay of Alaska dropping huge feet of snow on mountain tops and still had enough moisture when it met the warm uplifting Gulf of California stream of air to leave six feet of snow powered by winds up to ninety miles per hour on northwestern North Dakota.
There the northern plains sat in the middle of spring with no electricity. The wet ground followed by the extreme wind conditions of the pulsating storm activity pulled the electricity poles loose from the clay-based soil like a seven-year-old pulling a loose front tooth. The ground was so soggy that the huge electrical-line equipment, driven by the best electrical linemen in the industry, bogged as soon as they left the roadside to reset the poles. Seventy heavy duty repair vehicles lay stranded up to their knees in mud surrounded by puddles of water on which mallards delightedly ducked beneath the surface to feed and Canada geese trundled on the upper quarter of huge wheel-wells watching intrepid linemen attempt to repair what they could not reach.
And Tamara and Bert? They hooked up the propane heater to keep warm and kept the refrigerator door closed so that milk would not sour any faster than it might. They pulled out the jig-saw puzzles, moved furniture so that the table top was close to the bay window for light and used the white cloud cover to reflectively illuminate the puzzle pieces as they gossiped with neighbors about the worst winter they could ever remember living through.
Bert had stories of Nepal where he had climbed some of the world’s highest peaks. Jack, who had been born in Flaxton, told stories of farm women who at the turn of the last century walked thirteen miles through snow drifts with a plucked rooster in hand to visit neighbors who lived in shanty shacks buried under sod roofs.
Tamara remembered the ice storms of the late 1940s in the lower peninsula of Michigan when she was not allowed to go out of doors for fear of huge tree branches cracking and dropping. She told the story of a little second grader who wanted to be part of the social group with whom she sat in class. In the playground she tried to be part of the group as they forced her to stand in the middle of a March stream at the back of the playground. There she stood with the icy water leaking in over the tops of her rubber boot tops. When the bell rang, the others who had held her captive in her watery prison ran to the classroom. Tamara gingerly tiptoed out of the middle of the stream and immediately told the older children in her four-room school house how she had been treated.
The bullies found themselves in identical situations during recess the next day. The second grader had learned a lesson. Suffering in silence was not an option. Seeking out the support of older, wiser, more powerful persons paid off. And the gift of gab was an essential tool for restitution.
In the midst of enjoying their evening stone-soup made from contributions from several households in town on the propane stove top, Jack and Becky and their families commiserated, drank the last bottle of wine in the house and when everyone left for home, Bert turned off the propane heater to save on fuel. The two of them snuggled into the down covers to keep warm for the night. Five days later, Montana/Dakota Utilities figured out how to lay lines just above the surface of the wetlands and electricity was restored.