The Prairie: Looking Beneath the Surface

Gregg Treinish and his team at Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation bring us stories from around the world about adventuring with purpose. Here, ASC volunteer Laura Hitt digs deep into life on the American Prairie Reserve, where she collected wildlife and environmental data on the Landmark adventure science crews this September and October.

By Laura Hitt

The prairie awes me. Every day I run into something unexpected and raw. A few days ago during a sunrise birding session, we found the remains of a huge bird, its feathers impossibly large. We later identified it as a golden eagle.

The Landmark crew checks out a ring-necked pheasant killed by a car on the Regina Road. (Photos by Laura Hitt)

A few days before that, Allie and I ran into more than 200 bison while hiking Transect Three. We watched as they streamed over the hills, running single file across ridges.

On the way back from a scoping session, a great horned owl kept pace with the car at sunset, silhouetted against the orange horizon. Perching on a tree by the road, it shrieked, a call-and-response with the lowing cattle nearby.

Prairie nights hold equal excitement: We’ve spot-lighted for black-footed ferrets, northern lights streak across the sky and we even witnessed a total lunar eclipse. The night of the eclipse, we all rose at 4:30 a.m. to watch the Earth’s rusty shadow blot out the last of the moon’s white, a bloody watercolor wash over the pale orb.

Up close on the pheasant (Photo by Laura Hitt)
Up close on the pheasant (Photo by Laura Hitt)

The depth of the human dimension on this landscape also fascinates me—from the homesteaders to the natives who lived here before them. We see and feel evidence of both.

I found an arrowhead while walking Transect Six, a small, glassy triangle with worked edges, dull now. We’ve visited Medicine Rock, a huge pinkish stone covered in ancient petroglyphs and lichen where people still come to leave their prayers.

The big, beautiful prairie sky. (Photo by Laura Hitt)

Some of the things we find are saddening. In one day, Kim and I found a female coyote that was hit by a car on Regina Road, as well as a badger and a ring-necked pheasant. Fall is a time of increased roadkill, with many animals migrating, looking for mates, or escaping hunters.

Fall is roadkill season. (Photo by Laura Hitt)

We brought the coyote home with us and spent about two hours skinning her. Peeling away skin to reveal the hidden body beneath was surreal—the skin, blue and a bit tacky, pulls away from the muscle with a bit of tugging, a bit of cutting.

Without fur, she was tiny and lean, nothing more than muscle and small brown eyes, a shattered shoulder and leg. I’ve seen nothing more beautiful that her wiry black-tipped tail, the reddish flanks. And the face: Ears so soft, eyelashes and whiskers still intact.

Each of the Landmark crewmembers has applied a similar process to the prairie itself. We are peeling away its layers, respectfully, attentively, in wonder. It cannot be understood at first glance or from afar, and we want to know what is beneath the surface.

Read more about Landmark on the ASC Website, the Field Notes blog, and the ASC Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+ pages.

Read More by Gregg Treinish and His Correspondents

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Meet the Author
Gregg Treinish founded Adventure Scientists in 2011 with a strong passion for both scientific discovery and exploration. National Geographic named Gregg Adventurer of the Year in 2008 when he and a friend completed a 7,800-mile trek along the spine of the Andes Mountain Range. He was included on the Christian Science Monitor's 30 under 30 list in 2012, and the following year became a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work with Adventure Scientists. In 2013, he was named a Backpacker Magazine "hero", in 2015, a Draper Richards Kaplan Entrepreneur and one of Men's Journal's "50 Most Adventurous Men." In 2017, he was named an Ashoka Fellow and in 2018 one of the Grist 50 "Fixers." Gregg holds a biology degree from Montana State University and a sociology degree from CU-Boulder. He thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2004. Read more updates from Gregg and others on the Adventure Scientists team at Follow Adventure Scientists on Instagram @adventurescientists, on Facebook @adventurescientists, and on Twitter @AdvScientists.