Winter Preparedness And My $1,000 Trip To The Killdeer Mountains

A year and a half ago I began driving to a wooded valley in the Killdeer Mountains on the Fort Berthold Native American Reservation.  I happened upon this valley when I was working for an oil field service company, working on oil well sites.  When I first saw this valley, it really amazed me because in the six years that I have lived in North Dakota, I had never seen a forest.

When I was in the High Plains Cultural Center in the town of Killdeer, I read a pamphlet about the Killdeer Mountains.  Because of the mountain peaks shielding the deep valleys, it created a mini-ecosystem, where this is one of the few or only locations in North Dakota where Burr Oak trees grow.  Native Americans lived in these valleys of the Killdeer Mountains for more than a thousand years where they prospered because of the forests, the wildlife living in these forests, and being shielded from the high winds of the Dakota prairies.

In this valley, I had seen turkeys, deer, and wild horses.  I had also been told by one of my co-workers, that different people, including him, had felt like they were being watched from the trees by something, to the extent that he and others refused to work in this area by themselves.  This was probably Bigfoot, I looked up Bigfoot sightings in North Dakota, and there have been many Bigfoot sightings on the Fort Berthold Native American Reservation.  Why wouldn’t they be in these hidden valley forests with all of these turkeys and deer to eat?

After this past summer was over, I had not felt like driving up to the Killdeer Mountains.  I had a long drive to and from work every day, and I didn’t feel like driving on Highway 22 any more if I didn’t have to.  I was also not in the mood to have something go wrong out there, there are all kinds of things that can happen, and you are a very long way from getting help.

A friend of mine who is in his sixties, is a very enthusiastic long-time hunter and trapper in North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.  I asked him if he wanted to drive up to the Killdeer Mountains with me, and he said that he did.  The first time that I felt like going and he was in town, was Monday December 24.

The vehicle that I wanted to take, has full-time four-wheel-drive, and it also has differential locks, which lock each wheel so that there is no limited-slip non-four-wheel-drive bullshit going on when you don’t want to get stuck.  It has new, deep tread, 31 inch off-road tires.  It has never had any mechanical problems whatsoever.

In this vehicle, I have about four tow ropes, a two-ton cable come-along, a jump start box with air compressor, a large can of fix-a-flat, a shop jack and an emergency jack, a set of tools, a spare tire and wheel, another spare tire, coolant, engine oil, bottles of water, an extra winter jacket, extra clothes, gloves, a sleeping bag, a pistol, a rifle, and a mountain bike.  And I made sure that my phone had nearly a full charge before we left.  Later on in this story, you will see that all of this stuff was still not enough.

I set my trip odometer before we left Dickinson, to let my friend know how many miles it was from Dickinson to the turn off from Highway 22.  I set my trip odometer again at the turn off from Highway 22 to get the distance to the next turn off.  I pointed out to my friend, the houses that were the closest places to go to if there was some kind of emergency.

When we got to the turn off leading to the valley that I wanted to go to, there was snow on the ground and on the road, even though North Dakota had just gone through a one week period where the daytime high was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit.  I slowed down and tried to drive carefully on the winding, up and down, red scoria oil field road.

When I got to the “Y” in the road where I wanted to turn to go down into the valley, to my surprise, there was now a fence and a locked gate across the road.  I couldn’t believe it, though I had always feared that this would happen.  I had written two or three blog posts about this valley, showed pictures of it, and made a couple of videos showing it.  My first impression now was that the Native American who owned the land on the west side of the road had unlawfully closed off this road, to keep people out, even though there was Bureau of Land Management public land on the east side of this road.

I stopped and thought about this, and I tried to figure out what was going on.  Could it be that the Bureau of Land Management put up this fence and this locked gate to keep people from using this road, because too many people had gone down this road but couldn’t get back out having to drive uphill through deep snow?

I called a friend of mine who had been to this area before I ever had, and he said that no, this road shouldn’t be closed, that it was designated as a public use trail to access the BLM land.  Did the fence and the gate have any BLM signage or North Dakota Game & Fish signage, he asked?  I said no, it doesn’t.  My friend who I called on the phone said, well then, that’s your answer about who put that fence and gate up, a private land owner did that.

I looked around the area of the gate to see if there was another way to get in, but there wasn’t at this spot.  I had a vague idea from having looked at Google Earth satellite imagery that there were trails that wound around, going downhill, and reached the valley at different points, but these trails were on private land.

The friend that was with me, said that he would like to drive down an underground pipeline easement, so we drove down an easement for about a mile.  We turned off of this pipeline easement to see about taking another trail, but I didn’t want to go on other trails for a couple of different reasons.

Going on a trail that I did not know, it was possible to go down a hill that was so steep, that I would not be able to climb back up it on the way back.  Or, I could end up sliding off of a trail into a ravine, and there would be no way to get my vehicle out.  I was also concerned that the landowner could have spiked the trail in order to flatten the tires of trespassers driving on his property.

Before long, we were back on the red scoria oil field road, and I found that my right rear tire was completely flat.  This tire had a cut across the face and the sidewall of the tire, like only a jagged piece of metal sticking out of the ground could have caused.  The tire bead had separated from the wheel.  I had to jack up the rear axle to get the tire off the ground to try to get the bead to seal when I used my can of Fix-A-Flat on the tire.  This didn’t work at all, the tire bead didn’t seal or the tire cut was too big.

I got my spare tire out from under the vehicle, and I replaced the rear wheel with my spare tire.  When I lowered the rear axle back down and removed the jack, the spare was half-way flat, and it appeared to be getting flatter.  I connected my air-compressor to the spare tire to try to inflate it, but it just kept deflating.  I had already used my can of Fix-A-Flat.

It was now almost dark, and it was December 24, Christmas Eve.  I felt that all I could do was get hauled on a flat bed tow truck back to Dickinson.  I knew from working in the oil field on the Fort Berthold Native American Reservation, that any vehicle left unattended overnight in a remote area will get stripped and destroyed, so I couldn’t just try to get a ride back to Dickinson and leave my vehicle.  I knew that the friend of mine that came along with me would probably like to get back to Dickinson without any more problems.

I called a tow company in Dickinson, the tow truck driver had worked in the oil field, and he knew where the turn off was at Highway 22.  I told him that I would meet him out at the paved road, because there was no way he was going to be able to find me out on the winding scoria road in the dark.  I completely destroyed my spare tire, and possibly the wheel, driving it flat for several miles on the scoria road back to the paved road where the tow truck driver could see me.

The flat bed tow back to Dickinson was $510, and I knew ahead of time that it would be this much or even more.  On the following Wednesday the replacement tire for my badly cut tire was $250.  The spare tire that I destroyed and the wheel that I may have destroyed will be another $250.  Altogether about $1,000.

Knowing that this kind of thing can happen, I had tow insurance coverage on this vehicle, but I don’t know if the insurance company will try to get out of paying for the tow all the way back to Dickinson, instead of Killdeer.

I didn’t mention in this story yet, that on a fairly safe looking trail, my full-time four-wheel-drive vehicle got nearly sideways on some snow that must have turned to ice.  If I had not recovered from this slide, which I very nearly didn’t, my vehicle would have slid down into a ravine, about thirty feet down.  The only way to have gotten my vehicle out then, would have been with a four-wheel-drive tow truck with a heavy duty commercial winch.  This might have cost $1,000, and I don’t think that insurance would have paid for this.

My lesson from this, is that in the Winter in North Dakota, you want to try to do everything you can to not have problems.  Don’t take chances driving, especially off road.  I got off very lucky, and this still cost me $1,000.  I could have gotten stuck much further back in the woods, or I could have slid into a ravine, where a tow truck company might have been unable or unwilling to try to recover my vehicle.  Leaving a vehicle unattended overnight in a remote area, can result in your vehicle being stripped, vandalized, or destroyed.  So don’t get yourself into this position to begin with.

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