badlands adventure science A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Photo: Jessica Kuepfer

When I began my last post for The Green Athlete, I had no idea that I would actually participate in the trek I was writing about. In a rapid sequence of events, I found myself in my Prius on the way to the badlands of North Dakota.

I have been running ultra marathons for a number of years now because of the way that the sport melds athletics and the natural world. When I found Adventure Science, a company that combines sport and science into exploration, I knew that it was something I wanted to pursue.

Founded in 2008 by Simon Donato, Adventure Science has held past treks such as searches for missing people in Nevada and the Sierra Mountains as well as archaeological searches in Oman Musandam, Donato. The organization strives to take athletes to the untouched corners of the world for the sake of science.

The trek that I participated in, 100 Miles of Wild, was the product of years of preparation and research on the impact of fracking on the untouched badlands that inspired Roosevelt to create the National Parks System. We were informed on the first night at base camp that a great amount of the terrain we would cover had been largely untouched by humans for years.  

Over the course of six days, we covered over 250 miles of badlands, stopping every couple of hours to record our findings of local vegetation, wild life, oil pads and other notable things we encountered along the way. We would take a panoramic video, shoot the same sequence with a camera and reflect on the whether the area felt “wild” or if we felt the presence of civilization.

It was a monumental trek for me, as I was surrounded by geologists, orienteers, archeologists and elite athletes. Although I was not professionally trained in any of these practices, I felt I played an important role in the trek. The trek had two main goals: To provide data to assist local citizens in their decisions regarding the 30,000 – 50,000 new oil wells said to be coming to the badlands in the next five years and to see if the badlands could be as enchanting for visitors today as they were hundreds of years ago when they inspired Theodore Roosevelt to create the National Parks System.

Since returning and reflecting on this proposal for an anarchist ecology, I have come to understand that my role in the trek was to embrace un-expertness and re-enchantment. I learned the geology of the landscape by walking it, examining soil layers in creek beds and holding petrified wood. Finding native tools and flints in a creek bed, surrounded by ancient bison bones was a thing of wonder for me. Learning how to manoeuver over difficult terrain with a map and compass for the first time was an awkward and thrilling experience.

I spent over a week immersed in the habitat of the badlands – watching the wild life, maneuvering the terrain and witnessing spring arrive to the landscape. It was an experience that connected me to nature beyond anything I could read, watch or discuss with anyone.

The badlands are raw, wild and admittedly not that pretty. The buttes that consume the area were affectionately called “Kitty Litter Mountains” and the cattle grazing areas had the trekkers dodging cow patties and barbed wire fences, but they hold a deep history and a wildness that is redeeming. The love of the Badlands was demonstrated at the press conference that Adventure Science held upon completing the trek, where many dedicated North Dakotians shared their love of the badlands and the struggle with the impending oil pads that threaten to overtake their favourite hiking spots.

What does it mean to have travelled 100 miles across the badlands? In terms of the impending fracking, oil pads and other environmental disruptions, I am not sure. I travelled to the furthest reaches of the badlands to really see them, observe the interaction of oil and nature and share it with others so they can see it too. Like many things in the environmental sphere, what happens is beyond my control, but there is a deep satisfaction in knowing I did everything I could do.  

Jessica is A\J's Advertising and Outreach Liaison, and a recent graduate from the University of Waterloo with an English major and French minor. She's also a fitness instructor, marathon runner and volunteer with Greening Sacred Spaces.

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