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Up and Down Sand Dunes

March 22, 2017

Larry and I were itching to go canoeing, there had been several good days for it but we weren’t able to get together on those days. This morning was cutting it close on temperature; it was around twenty eight degrees. Larry said, “It’s a little too cold for canoeing this morning; there’ll be some ice.” So instead of going canoeing we headed down Highway 84, turning off for West Newton. Just before West Newton, Larry pulled off on to the side of the road.

We stepped out of the truck; Larry came around to my side of the truck to let Hank out. We walked down into the ditch, ducked under the low branches of trees and stepped out on to the rolling prairie. Last time we walked a fairly flat section of the sand prairie; today we traversed the sand dunes, some as tall as thirty feet, though one seemed taller than that. We passed some gopher mounds, decent piles of sand resting on top of the grass. As always, Hank ran ahead and went this way and that way, exploring at top speed. The prairie grasses here didn’t seem quite as thick though the little bluestem was about knee height. (It never ceases to amaze me how vast the prairie is – is it really so big or does it only feel that way because it’s empty, there’s no buildings, very few trees, nothing to break up the horizon?)

It started out as gentle inclines but the further we walked the larger the dunes became. There was a wall of trees to the left and right of us and behind us but it was completely open ahead of us. Ahead, far off in the distance were bluffs, hemming in the prairie. We veered to our left. It didn’t take long before I was winded and breathing heavily – I guess I need to walk more, especially uphill. Up and down and back up we went, again and again. There were a few trees here and there dotting the prairie, tiny oak, cedars and pine trees. Many of the little pine trees had been cut down, lying in little piles here and there. Larry explained they were being cut to keep the trees from taking over.

We approached the pine and cedar wall on our left. Hank sniffed around at the bases of a few of the trees. At the tree line, Larry turned right, walking along the tree line. I followed behind, even fell behind a ways every now and then. We continued climbing up and down the dunes. It seemed like we’d been walking a long time. At the top of a dune, I had paused to take in the landscape, turning every direction. The prairie stretched far into the south and west. Turning east, the line of trees we’d ducked through to get to the prairie seemed a long way off. Far in the distance to the northeast, I could see the smoke stacks of the Alma power plant. I also took in the texture of the dunes, the depressions, pockets between each rising dune. As we stood there on top of a dune, looking east, Larry explained how the encroaching trees made things difficult for nesting turtles by creating a barrier that’s hard to penetrate and the trees provide a place for predators to sit and wait. We only paused for a moment before we continued walking. Larry turned to the right, leading us north, along the top of a dune. We passed along a small tree broken off, bark rubbed away. Larry made a comment about a buck really going at it, rubbing it with its head. I continued to marvel at the roll of the dunes and in the largeness of the prairie as we walked along. It had a way of making me feel quite small, and very much out of shape as I breathlessly and wearily trailed behind Larry, traversing only a small fraction of it. – Up, up the side of the dune, almost stumbling and crawling my way up, then down the other side, still stumbling but at a faster pace. Some of the dunes seemed much taller than their alleged thirty feet height. If the walk was any effort for Larry, it didn’t show. Hank seemed incapable of weariness as he bounded up and down the dunes at a sprint, always running; looking for sticks, hoping Larry will throw one for him.

We came to a much bigger depression between dunes, more like a valley than a pocket. It was filled with short little sumac, growing in a thick patch, grazed heavily by the deer. There were a few short, rounded cedar trees along the edges of the sumac and a few milk weed plants. We passed through the sumac and climbed up the next dune – again stopping for just a moment to admire the view. The rolling dunes ahead seemed to match the shape of the distant bluffs, only much smaller in scale. The sight was incredibly beautiful. We followed along the ridge to an active sand dune (We’d turned to our left again, heading westward), the soft sand was mostly exposed, very little vegetation grew on it, clumps of grass here and there. It was like a sand dune on a beach, reminding me of a scene from Anne of Green Gables when she’s walking along the shore. I had the urge to lie down on the sand, to feel it, let it run through my fingers. The grain was quite fine, making me think it is a soft sand rather than a course sand. Larry talked about the active sand dunes before we moved on. He also said, indicating a little further west, “This is a good spot to see pasque flowers in bloom.” I have yet to see a pasque flower but I hoped I’d see one in the coming weeks.

We walked down the dune, going westward, and then back up another. We paused for a moment on top of the dune, once again taking in the landscape, turning to look in every direction. There were a few cedar trees here and there. One stood on my right, as I faced west, a little down the slope from where I stood. On the other side, to the north of the cedar was the biggest dune we’d come to yet. Larry continued on ahead of me up the large dune, I turned to follow. He was already close to the top of the dune when I started hiking up it; he looked so tiny, dwarfed by the dune. It was the steepest climb yet, it felt like I could barely breathe by the time I reached the top – I’m so out of shape! But the view from on top of the dune was even more stunning, with the higher elevation. The prairie felt much bigger; I felt so small. How much larger would it feel if it was treeless like Larry would prefer it to be? That would have been a lot of hollows to search for lost cattle. How had the first settlers felt when they arrived here? To the west, I could just make out the road, a little sliver cutting through the prairie.

I looked at our shadows, ours and the dune’s, in the hollow – we looked so tiny compared to it all. There was a cluster of oak trees on the eastern slope of the dune. Larry led us downward through the trees. (We heard two flocks of swans flying overhead, heard them before we saw them.) Larry thought he heard a meadow lark. We were now heading eastward, making our way back to the truck. I paused to look at a skull, probably of a deer, lying in the grass. We passed a cedar tree, walked by a large patch of fox tail grass.

Just before the wall of trees we paused by the gopher mounds. Larry said something about how I could see how important they were to a place like this. Then we ducked under the branches, climbed up the ditch, and crawled back into the truck. I was a little surprised we’d only been walking for forty five minutes. We continued down the road to Halfmoon Landing. I tried sneaking through the trees there to look at the ducks but despite my best efforts I still made too much noise and scared them away. They were mostly mallards, but there was a ring necked duck across the water and further up the other direction a few wood ducks with the mallards. I returned to Larry, who stayed by the truck and then we left the sand prairie.

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