Going To Stanley


by Jay Hudson

Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge lies in the far northwest corner of North Dakota and held out the promise of few visitors, open vistas, and absolutely terrific birding. After mooching off my cousins in Whitefish, Montana, my brother Allen and I climbed aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder for a 12 hour daylight ride to Stanley, North Dakota in June of 2001. The last time I rode the Empire Builder was in the summer of 42 so I thought this would be a great way to relive old memories, lose the stress of driving, and get a perspective of America while sipping a beer without the worry of the Highway Patrol.

The Empire Builder provided “Rails, and Trails” volunteers who used the speaker system too alert us to historic spots along the “Highline” that imaginary line across the Great Plains just below our border with Canada. They told of Indians, the frontier army, mining and timber operations. They regaled us with battles from the history books. They told stories about how towns sprang up as the railroad expanded west. They startled us with tales of the destruction of the bison herds by profiteers and English “Dudes” that brought silver dining ware, and copper bath tubs with them so they could camp as English “Gentlemen”. They told how these gentlemen dudes killed bison by shooting off the platform of the last railroad car as game was herded to them by hired drovers and they told how President Polk’s “Manifest Destiny” would tame the savage west. Allen and I visited the lounge car where we met foreigners whose up-to-date national rail systems were a way of life, and who told us of their amazement at how far behind America was in train technology. We found new friends in the observation car and the truth of an old German folk saying that “Cheerful company shortens the miles”. The train had picture windows, window shades, reading lights, ample storage space, little pink destination slips above the seats, leg room to make tall people comfortable. There were enough cars linked together to take middling walks and get rid of riders cramps. We spotted wildlife in abundance along the tracks with mountain goats at the south end of Glacier National Park, badger, pronghorns, deer, coyote, bison, and pheasant as we entered the open plains of eastern Montana. We were enthralled when a thousand penned horses came into view with cowboys riding amongst the herd while others sat on corral fences. It was an artist’s canvas with dust, muted colors, evening light, and more horses than our trainload of tourists had ever seen. One foreign visitor speculated that the horses were headed for the slaughter house, and then to Europe where horse meat is a more accepted meal than here in America

Stanley, North Dakota was a “whistle stop” and the Conductor had told the train engineer that Allen and I wanted to detrain there. I had made phone arrangements for a motel room in Stanley, and the local Ford dealer told me he would pick out a used car for me to rent for the day.  I was now settled down in a comfortable large seat ready to relive 1942 when my parents put me in the care of black Porters on the train in Chicago and Grandma and Grandpa picked me up in Shelby Montana to spend the summer on the ranch.

My brother, and I stepped off the train to an empty platform save for the Conductor who waved the Engineer to begin the next leg on their journey. The Ford dealer was not at the station to meet us with the car. A gracious local lady gave us a ride across town to our motel on Highway 2. We checked in, and asked the clerk if our car had been left for us. It had not, so I asked about somewhere to eat within walking distance.  The motel clerk said there was only one café but it was a bit far to walk. Then she said in a North Dakota accent right out of the movie “Fargo”, “Here are the keys to my pickup, head west out of town to the diner!” The offer set me back a bit, and reminded me that there are still very friendly places, and people out there in America. We settled into the café while working farmers, and ranch hands sipped cold ones, and joked while over in the corner a crowd of ladies (about the class of 64) pointed at an open high school annual laughing at long forgotten stories. The town Mayor plunked down at our table. and proceeded to make us feel welcome while cowboys slapped him on the back as they went by on the way to the pool table.

The next morning the Ford dealer showed up with a van off the lot, we signed the papers, dropped him off at the dealership, and left for the refuge. The previous week it had rained across the northern plains, and the sky was crystal clear, the weather was a pleasant high 70’s, the grass a deep verdant, and the sunrise like a postcard. I had to remind myself that this would not be the case in February in Stanley North Dakota.

The “Guide to the National Wildlife Refuges” defines the refuge as 27,000 acres of rolling, mixed grass prairie dotted with more than 4,000 pothole wetlands. It’s huge prairie country where every water body harbored birds either breeding or migrating.  The refuge hosted 226 different birds, and at least 104 of those breed there. I was after the Bairds sparrow, Sharp-tailed grouse and the possibility of the Hudsonian godwit to add to my life list. After a brief orientation by a naturalist at the headquarters on the most likely sites for my target birds, we left under the call of a high flying Wilson’s snipe. Four hours later and not having seen another person, we returned with a count of 68 species.

There are over 500 refuges in the system, and North Dakota is the proud sponsor of more refuges than any other state. The Lostwood Refuge may be a bit out of the way but if you want an alternative to Disney Land, or the overcrowded National Parks, I suggest you experience the pleasures of Amtrak’s Empire Builder across the Montana Rocky Mountains, the high plains and pothole country of North Dakota. When you get off in whistle stop Stanley, be sure to smile when someone offers you their pickup to hunt up dinner.