Range Roaming – Nebraska 2013 – Day 26

The effects of wildfire: Alliance to Chadron State Park

Friday May 10, 2013, 46 miles (74 km) – Total so far: 1,114 miles (1,793 km)

I want an early start this morning so I have plenty of time to get in some hiking at Chadron State Park this afternoon. It is cold enough to see your breath and to need gloves when I leave at daybreak.

Unfortunately, my asthma is incredibly bad this morning. I woke several times through the night wheezing. I also woke once to a headache and nose bleed. The room I stayed in definitely had a mold problem – those are all the symptoms I get with mold. It causes the most severe asthma attacks for me of any of my triggers. If you want to know if mold or mildew is present somewhere, send me in, I’m like a canary in a coal mine with mold.

The mold, combined with the cold, dry air of the morning, has my chest so tight I feel like I have no lung capacity at all. I just can’t get a deep breath. So about two miles into the day, I stop to use my inhaler. No sense trying to be superwoman. The ventolin immediately allows me to breathe, though it is well after noon before my lungs feel normal. Thank goodness for the fresh air today.

I also encounter 15 miles of roadwork, starting at the Hwy 385/Hwy 2 split. The signs advertise 15 miles of grooved/milled surface. Of course, the deepest grooves and the piled heap of asphalt debris are located where the shoulder used to be. But luckily, the grooved stuff only lasts for 10 miles. Eventually the pilot car starts for the day, meaning the cars come in bunches. In the time between car bunches, I can ride out in the middle of the lane where the grooves are minimal.

Good to get all the negatives out of the way early. The rest of the day is all very good. The headwind is light, the shoulder is huge, the traffic mostly considerate. There is a lot of climbing to do, but the road surface is generally good. All is well with the world today.

If anybody wants to tell you Nebraska is flat, tell them to go ride Hwy 385 north of Alliance where the road drops off the tableland surface and climbs and descends a gazillion drainages feeding the Niobrara River.

After the gentle hills and flat terrain of the first 20 miles out of Alliance, the road drops into a series of drainages feeding the Niobrara River. The tableland is highly dissected – this means you have a lot of climbing and coasting to do in and out of each creek.

The general direction is up, though, as you climb toward a cell phone tower in the far distance. Oh, that cell phone tower is visible for about 15 miles. Knowing it’s going to be the high point, I wheezily climb and climb, gradually gaining ground. Finally, I pass the cell phone tower, and the dark line of trees I’ve been able to see far in the distance all day take on individual form.

From Alliance, we climb and descend all morning, but the general direction is UP to get to the Pine Ridge. Note the pronghorn on the road ahead giving me the eye. I note that they never seem to jump the fences – preferring to go under if required. My wildlife vet friend says they can jump if incredibly stressed, but prefer not to do so.
I think we are at nearly 5,000 feet elevation. There is still snow left in places. This area really got dumped on in April when I was getting rained on in Illinois.

From the top of the Pine Ridge, we have a quick descent down to the Chadron State Park entrance. We see the first burnt trees from the wildfire that swept through last September. The way that a fire burns hot or cool, partially depending on topography and fuel load, is already very apparent.

Yippee!! After climbing all morning to the crest of the Pine Ridge, the last 10 miles to the state park are downhill.

When I get to the park, the ranger tells me the walk-in tent sites are very ugly after the wildfire and suggests I camp on the lower, non-electric loop instead. It’s the same price. I ask her a bit more about the fire. The fire has burnt through most of the park, though most major assets were saved.

My PhD research was about building trust between wildfire-prone communities and fire management agencies. In that research I talked to many, many community members and agency staff. So I always find public perception of fire interesting. The ranger here doesn’t have much good to say about the fire. It has destroyed the park, and it will never be the same, in her opinion. Her focus is on loss and what will be a changed experience for anyone coming to the park this summer. Her sadness and pain are palpable – it’s hard not to feel very sad for those who feel such loss, even though fire is an inevitable and needed piece of the puzzle in many ecosystems.

Our campsite at Chadron State Park. The ranger says the walk-in tent sites used to be beautiful but are ugly now after the fire, so I choose this regular non-electric site. Mistake. The walk-in sites are still nice in my opinion. There are flush toilets and hot showers at this camping area.

After getting the tent set up, I head out for an afternoon of hiking. They have cut down a lot of dead, standing trees. I can hear the chainsaws working in different parts of the park while I walk. I hike about 8 or 9 miles, taking in this new landscape and the rock formations exposed here. Much of the rock is part of the Arikaree formation, deposited in a semi-arid environment from the late Oligocene to the early Miocene (20-30 million years ago).

I hike a whole bunch of the trails. I enjoy a walk along and through these bluffs. The fire scars are everywhere, but I’m okay with fire in the landscape, so it doesn’t detract so much from my experience as it might for other people.
Looking out over the bluffs in the Pine Ridge. This is the same formation that is over near Crawford that we’ll see tomorrow.

I get rained on during an afternoon thunderstorm while hiking, but the rain almost feels like company. I do not see another person out on the trails the whole time I’m hiking.

Once back to the tent, I note the front tire is flat. I set about fixing this, finding another thorn to be the culprit. My poor thumbs protest when I abuse them to get the tire back on the rim. They haven’t yet recovered from the other two flats. At least my lungs have recovered from the mold – just don’t ask how much phlegm I’ve coughed up and deposited along the road and then the trails at the state park today. Another good day – keep ’em coming!

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