Lake Region Outdoors: Slip sliding away

Carson Byram

If you’ve ever been in western North Dakota after a rain storm you may have encountered some of the slipperiest, greasiest clay to be found anywhere. It’s hard to believe that something so slick could also stick like glue to anything it comes in contact with, including shoes, boots, truck or bike tires. It’s referred to as Bentonite clay, gumbo or sometimes snot on a doorknob.  Whatever you call it, my sons ran into it last weekend in the North Dakota badlands.

Jason and Casey Byram along with their friend Mitch Thompson had been planning to ride mountain bikes on the Maah Daah Hey trail for several months. They choose last weekend to make the trip.  They were hopeful the weather would cooperate, especially that it wouldn’t rain. They knew rain on the bare clay that made up much of the trail would turn it into a slippery mess. Little did they know their fear of rain would be realized.

Late Thursday night, they drove to the trailhead at the north end of the Maah Daah Hey. Their plan was to sleep quickly, get up early and start their ride down the trail toward Medora. They had three days available to make the trip and they carried all their camping gear and supplies on their backs.  Unfortunately, a thunder storm, with heavy rain during the night, set the tone for the rest of the trip.

Friday morning they got up to muddy, slippery conditions.  They had no choice but to hang around camp until the trail dried out a bit. Bright sunshine and windy conditions sped up the drying process.

Once they got going the conditions weren’t too bad. They traveled a total of about 35 miles that day, well short of their goal of 50 miles. The day was punctuated by sweltering 90 degree heat and a few spills on the still wet clay. (One spill can be seen on the Devils Lake Journal website at and also on the Journal’s Facebook page). The group also had a close encounter with a prairie rattlesnake that they found sunning itself on the trail. The day ended with threatening storm clouds to the west.

During the night, a massive lightning storm passed through the badlands accompanied by heavy rain and strong winds. The group endured the night but again awoke to a thoroughly wet trail.  

They spent much of the morning waiting for the sun to come out and dry the clay. When the drying conditions didn’t materialize and with a forecast for more rain later in the day the group decided to end their trip without reaching Medora. They got enough cell phone signal to call Jason’s wife Kristin, who made the trip west to pick up the boys on a nearby road. The slippery clay had won this round.

I’ve had other bouts with the nasty clay in the past. The boys and I once got caught on a snotty clay road between Golva and Marmarth, ND.  We were antelope hunting (or at least trying to) when heavy rain made the roads almost impassable. I remember trying to stop on a slope and feeling the pickup slide downhill toward a mud hole on the side of the road.

Somehow I got the truck backed up and out of there without any mishap. I felt lucky to get off that road.

On another occasion, I was antelope hunting with my Dad, Bill and brother, Brent in eastern Montana. Much of Montana shares the same clay with North Dakota and it’s just as slick. After a successful antelope hunt we were trying to get out of the ranch and back to the main highway.  The 14 miles we traveled was some of the hairiest I have ever seen. We kept sliding off the road and into the ditch. My brother, Brent was driving and he’d gun it and get us back up onto the road and then we’d slide off again into the other ditch.  

We actually made the best time driving in the grass covered ditch instead of on the greasy road. After many white knuckle trips off the road we finally made it to the highway.  By that time, the wheel wells of the pickup were so full of the clay that the wheels would barely turn.

I’m sure I’ll run into wet conditions in western North Dakota again. It’s all part of the outdoor adventure in that part of the state.