I knew I wasn’t in Missouri anymore when I looked down at the feet of the two other men I was in line with me at the Pizza Hut in Council Grove, Kansas. Sure, all three of us had boots on. I had on what I thought until that moment were pretty manly backpacking boots. The other two gentlemen had me beat; dangling off their cowboy boots were spurs. Welcome to the world of real cowboys and cattle ranchers of the Flint Hills tallgrass prairie.
I returned to the Flint Hills region in June to see how the tallgrass prairie was regenerating itself. What was two months ago blackened scorched earth was now an ocean of prairie grasses swaying in the steady wind. Describing the prairie as ocean-like is probably an overused metaphor, but it is accurate. The never ending waves of blowing grass, reminds me of the ocean when sea kayaking in Alaska and Hawaii – an ocean that is always moving, never ending, as far as the eye can see.
The timing of my trip in early June was picked for what I believed would be maximum wildflower opportunities and to beat the hot weather of summer. Unfortunately, I was only right on one those points. On the day I arrived in the Flint Hills it was 104 degrees F. and would stay above 100 for most of the week I was there. It was a cooker. To keep expenses down I car camped at Council Grove Lake, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir on the Neosho River. Camping at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is prohibited, though the preserve is open 24 hours (which, as you shall see, was important).
After only a quarter of a mile of hiking the next morning at the preserve that it was painfully clear that I was going to have to re-think my plans. The heat was just unbearable. Plans for carrying extra equipment to do HD video – scrapped. It’s enough that I carry 30-35 pounds worth of still camera equipment; there was no way I could carry more in the oppressive heat. Oh, and for those who haven’t ridden in my 1991 Honda Civic — I haven’t had working car air conditioning for 15 years.
When faced with an obstacle, I look for an opportunity. In this case, I decided if it was too hot during the day to shoot, how about shooting at night. That got me thinking about all kinds of possibilities — sunsets, twilight, and eventually star-filled skies. My days quickly became a split shift. I’d be up a little before sunrise to mine sunrise opportunities along the The Flint Hills National Scenic Byway (K-177). Head back for a nap and a swim at the lake, hike out on the prairie for several miles around sundown, then returning well after sunset. For part of the trip the moon didn’t set until after 2 a.m. This meant getting up again, every so quietly unlatching the giant squeaky swing gate of the now closed and sound asleep campground and driving the 25 miles or so to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve for shooting the Lower Fox Creek School under the stars.
Some nights afforded views of the stars, others not. There is relatively little light pollution from nearby cities (the only light coming from Emporia 25 miles away), making it possible to see deep into space and peer at the Milky Way. I found the starlight attempts tricky. The main trick is to get your exposure long enough to record as many of the starts without getting the movement. It’s a delicate balance between adjusting your shutter time and the ISO with your lens wide open.
The nights on the prairie were thankfully cool. On one late night/early morning, I swear every coyote in Chase County, must have been howling. What a hair-raising treat! I could just picture the coyotes and other nighttime critters wondering what this crazy person was doing out so late at night.
This was my routine for several days. Towards the end of my trip, the temperature forecast looked like it was going to be more reasonable so I decided to hike the relatively new Bottomland Trail and Fox Creek Trail (approximately 7 miles round trip) that traverses the lowland prairie along Fox Creek. One of my goals for the hike was to climb a high hill that would afford (or at least what I had hoped) a view of the historic Spring Creek mansion and it’s massive barn with a vista of the prairie in the background. Unfortunately, trees obscured most of the home, meaning I’ll need to attempt the shot in the early spring before the trees surrounding the home are leafed out.
This wasn’t the only reason for hiking these trails. The area along Fox Creek encompasses rare lowland prairie — rare because most lowland prairies have been lost to farming. The National Park Service is in the process of restoring this lowland from crops and cool season grasses planted by farmers as hay to true (warm season) prairie grasses. The restoration will be a process could take decades — a process that will involve invasive plant removal, burning, and reseeding.
I look forward to the day when it’s fully restored. It’s hard to believe that less than four percent of the original 140 million acres of tallgrass prairie remains in North America. Most of the remaining tallgrass prairie is in the Flint Hills in Kansas.