Story and Photos by Elisabeth Shapiro 

As Caroline and I drove north after our two months on the American Prairie Reserve, several raptors took turns gliding alongside the car—a bald eagle, a snowy owl and several hawks. It felt as though they were bidding us safe passage. A few miles short of the border, a herd of pronghorn gathered warily at the side of the road, eyeing us as we raced by.

Now, just hours after leaving the crew, we’re sitting in a hotel room in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, bemoaning the end of our time on the Landmark Project. While we’re still technically on the prairie, the fields here seem more cultivated and no bison roam these plains.

At the beginning of January, Montana’s northern plains greeted us with a blizzard, knee-deep snow and gale force winds. Toward the end of the month, temperatures surged and the thick blanket of snow melted away. During this false spring, many of the roads and transects flooded out and rivers appeared overnight in unexpected places.

This sudden change in weather forced us to change plans, delaying transects until we could safely traverse the flooded-out two track roads. It also left us with free time that we used to explore farther flung parcels of the Reserve, as well as the surrounding area. 

We spent a morning racing gleefully through the Larb Hills, just west of Sun Prairie North. We scrambled up and down mud-slick slopes, pointing out particularly unusual rock formations. We crawled into caves, hoping not to disturb any winter inhabitants. We collected yucca fronds to weave into rope and friendship bracelets. After a few hours, we collapsed into the truck, shaking thick mud off of our boots and passing around nuts and dried fruit.

Another day, we trekked out to the Burnt Lodge parcel, nearly an hour southeast of Sun Prairie, lured there by promises of bighorn sheep. We parked by a series of old cattle corrals, slowly making our way out toward the rocky hills and pine trees looming on the horizon. After a few minutes, we spotted a herd of elk grazing a few miles away. Binoculars were eagerly passed around the group, cameras taken out, and zoom lenses tested. We hiked toward the elk for nearly two miles, stopping every few hundred feet to admire them from a new vantage point, as more came over the hillside. 

Eventually, as we stood on a ridge above a prairie dog colony, the elk judged us to be too close. They began to run haphazardly in all directions before converging into an undulating wedge-shaped mass, disappearing just out of sight over a neighboring hill. We stood in silence, as the sound of hundreds of hooves pounding dirt mixed with the alarm calls of frightened prairie dogs, grateful to see this, but guilty to be the cause. It wasn’t until we were driving back to Sun Prairie, that we realized we hadn’t seen any bighorn sheep.

Time on the prairie passes swiftly, as clouds swirl across the blue sky and we walk paths that can’t be seen. Dawn becomes dusk much too quickly, but with each passing day, the light lasts just a bit longer. My time here is over for now, but I know I’ll be back.

Hailing from the Canadian Prairies, Elisabeth Shapiro completed her bachelor degree in Environmental Science at the University of Guelph in Ontario. 

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