On a Golden Ribbon from Shore to Shore: Lake Andes Wildlife Refuge

The beauty of burnished fall fields in South Dakota.

They don’t have the impact of the Grand Canyon, but South Dakota fields have a subtle beauty–especially in the fall.

When I took off from Lincoln this time, I decided to go north through South Dakota and North Dakota. Part of my goal was to visit a place I’d never been before: North Dakota. However, I also wanted to see more prairie. I love the prairie. It’s a subtle beauty, and I had studied Great Plains geography, history, music, and literature in college. I wanted to see where Per Hansa and his wife played out their pioneering lives in Giants in the Earth. I felt as though I could understand and appreciate it, even if most of the people I told about my destination thought it would be boring.

Golden South Dakota flora along the highway to Pierre.

The golds and browns of South Dakota in the fall have a calm, coming-home quality.

I wasn’t disappointed. As I traveled up through South Dakota’s capitol, Pierre, and then to North Dakota’s capitol, Bismarck, I saw beautiful autumn-golden fields—both pasture and crops. The colors were muted, because it was late in the fall. Bright yellow leaves still clung to the branches on the sparse trees, but instead of presenting as a mass of gold, they looked like lace, almost like mist surrounding the dark branches. Many of the trees had more leaves on the bottom than the top, which made the misty “leaf ring” around the trunk look like a netted tutu, with multiple graceful branches rising up from the skirt into the sky.

Sunflowers are everywhere in South Dakota and North Dakota.

The Dakotas produce 85% of the nation’s sunflower crop. (Rapid City Journal, August 23, 2013.)

In South Dakota in the fall, be on the lookout for herds of Harvesters.

I passed a convoy of John Deer Harvesters just coming out of the fields in November. Where will they go next?

In South Dakota, I saw harvesters everywhere. They were parked in farmyards and in the fields with pickups, grain movers and clouds of dust floating after them. Tractor-trailers moving south on the highway carried big combines, I assuming to their next contract assignments. One time, I saw three harvester-laden trucks in a small convoy. I imagined the silos filled with grain—corn, wheat and sunflowers.


Roadside conservation area along the South Dakota highway.

Late in the afternoon, this roadside conservation area seemed to preen like a bird, as the breeze bent the water and the burnished grasses in ripples.

As I moved north from Pierre to Bismarck, the harvesters thinned. The fields already had been shaved, opening up the sky and shutting down the land for winter. Small conservation areas along the highway took the limelight from harvesting, glowing in their fall finery: creamy pale-yellow grasses, spent brown flower stems, stiff cattails and reeds surrounding quiet waters.

The Lake Andes wildlife refuge headquarters was closed, but this lake in the middle of South Dakota was open for visits.

I was the only person for miles, I think. Lake Andes was silent–closed for the season, except for diehard nature lovers like me.

I left the highway and dove into North Dakota autumn to see the Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge, ending up on a unique dirt road surrounded on two sides with the waters of the Lake. I was the only one there. The visitor center was closed. Everything was brown and dusty, but beautiful in a minimalistic way, and peaceful. I stopped the truck, turned off the motor and stood by the north side of the road, gazing across the water quietly. My brain slowed down, my heart stopped bombarding me with doubt and sorrow. In the heart of the Great Plains, in a place I’m guessing few people visit each year, I found a few moments of peace.

The Lake Andes road stretches from shore to shore in this beautiful South Dakota wildlife refuge.

The Lake Andes road is flanked by water on both sides. It felt as though Rocinante and I were floating on a golden ribbon stretched between the shores.

I had wondered if the northern launch of my trip was a mistake, but standing there on the edge of the road surrounded by water, a slight breeze teasing the tension away from me, I decided it had been a perfect decision to come this way.

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