Prairie visit fends off discouraging words
Sometimes we learn more by being away. Such is the case with our former home on the range – Manhattan, Kan., site of the beautiful and worthwhile Konza Prairie.
Somehow it never registered with me that “Home on the Range” was the state song of Kansas, but once a guy goes through its checklist, such trivia gets hammered home.
Buffalo at the Konza? Yep, although we didn’t see them (or, more correctly, bison). Deer and antelope playing? Absolutely … we think. Discouraging words? Depends on your definition of “seldom.”
The song came up because my son, Sam, thought he spied pronghorn antelope moving across a hillside there March 24, when we stopped for an early-evening hike on our way back to Portage County.
Were they pronghorn? Such questions always mean a little research, which was inconclusive but led me down all sorts of interesting side trails on the internet – itself fine recreational country, despite its lack of greenery and swimming holes.
Turns out the song in question was written by a guy named Brewster Higley VI, in Smith County, Kan. Despite this, an Arizona couple claimed to have penned the words and sued NBC for a half-million in royalties in 1934.
Think about that one. Radio wasn’t that old and NBC wasn’t even 10, but lawyers were already claiming the wide-open spaces on behalf of their clients. For a major chunk of the proceeds, of course.
And speaking of greedy attorneys, we did see turkeys and lots of whitetail gobbling up their free dinner in the Konza’s pasture, but this isn’t a column about economic hangers-on fattening up on semi-public land. It’s about hiking.
Same old fight, but victorious ending
“OK, let’s go back to the car now.”
The initial complaint came after we’d crossed Kings Creek on what’s known as the Nature Trail and come to the first good hill. Barely a half-mile in and the kids were already trying to get out of their exercise.
But I was determined to help them enjoy a walk after five hours of sitting in the Subaru on our way back from Texas and the previous night’s camp in Oklahoma.
Having spent many fine hours on the Konza, a joint Nature Conservancy-Kansas State University project, while living in Kansas until 2007, I knew the kids would have fun if I could get them to the point of no easy return.
“We’ll turn around once we get up there,” I said, stretching the truth and nodding toward the promontory about 60 feet above us over the next quarter-mile or so.
Our eyes swept up the steep stretch of tallgrass to the ridgeline, where we saw someone moving back and forth. Whining, the kids started off and eventually raced on ahead.
Up top, a young woman tried to light several torches in a whipping wind. What appeared to be a miniature shrine was actually a gift bag and other items, part of an anniversary celebration her friend had planned for his wife.
They’d gotten engaged on the spot – and what better place? The entire world and its future seem to open up for untold miles to the south and east – rolling plains punctuated by dells, glens and canyons of the sometimes-running waterways.
That’s 60 discrete watershed units, where all water flows into a central stream, in the 8,616-acre preserve, according to the Konza biological station’s website. Not so romantic, but good info nonetheless.
Equally spectacular views open to the north and west, where climbers can see George Custer’s Fort Riley, the Kansas River and Manhattan, home of Kansas State, not far from where the Kansas is joined by the Big Blue River.
The openness and promise of the west, and all of life, are easy to sense during a walk at the Konza. It’s worth a detour on any trip through the heart of the country.
“OK, now let’s go back down,” Sam said.
“Not so fast, buddy,” I said. “The top is just over there.”
I gestured along the ridge, past where the trail wraps around a radio tower and toward its looping descent between two slopes. The teenager was not happy, and the 7-year-old naturally joined the protest.
If I could get them to the juncture of the Nature Trail and the Kings Creek Loop, a second 2.5-mile trail, we’d be halfway finished with the first of three conjoined loops totaling about seven miles.
From the junction, it would be easier to get the kids moving toward the trump card (which somehow sounds like a dirty word this spring): an old homestead they could explore down in a crook of the creek and nestled at the base of a hill.
It was the golden hour, when the sun’s rays highlighted the gorgeous grasses, tall and dry from the previous year in still-droughty Kansas (about 75 percent of the state right now, which seemed to be delaying spring).
The steep decline was perfect for a headlong rush down the trail, a little rock-throwing and some feisty sword-fighting. Despite his pitched battles with the combative Lorena, Sam’s eyes were still sharp: “Hey! Pronghorn!” he called out.
Sure enough, about 150 yards away on a slope, there was something. Sam’s call made me see an animal that may have been imagined, but he was pretty certain.
I had to ask him about it almost two weeks later, and unprompted, he mentioned that he very clearly saw “a black stripe and a white one” on the creatures’ torsos.
Showing him some pronghorn photos, I noted that some pronghorn coloration might appear dark enough to look black under certain conditions. In any event, after poking around the internet, I realized that, given the animal’s known range and habitat, it was more probable than not that we’d seen whitetail.
Still, that doesn’t explain the stripes. The creatures definitely seemed to have the more compact bodies of pronghorn (which, as it turns out, are deer who are mistakenly named antelope).
A quick call this week to Jill Haukos, director of education for the Konza Environmental Education Program, confirmed that pronghorn were unlikely – a 10 to 15 percent chance at best. Nobody has reported seeing them, she said, despite plenty of KEEP tours conducted for bison-viewing and other activities. Generally, they’re in the western half of the state.
Regardless of the animals’ identity, our hike continued. Soon we were at the 1878 Hokanson Homestead, established by Swedish immigrants. The original limestone barn, other building foundations, a wildlife observation lean-to and an outdoor seating area are just some of the kid-worthy things for grown-ups to see.
KEEP recommends an hour for the homestead alone. Despite our hunger, the kids were having a blast in the lengthening shadows around the old buildings and now were reluctant to leave.
They continued their swordfights all the way back, with one rousing battle next to a massive, gnarly and sadly dead old bur oak that had succumbed to fungal disease.
But there was no room for regret on this evening.
“That was OK, dad,” Sam concluded as we headed toward the car.
Things to know about the Konza
Open year-round, the prairie has a number of excellent public programs, but much of the preserve is off-limits to visitors. Time on its three loop trails, like the rest of the preserve, may be limited by prescribed annual burns that help keep the prairie healthy.
Both bison and cattle are kept on the station, which has a wide range of conservation and ecosystem research projects. All manner of birds and other wildlife has been spotted, and KEEP maintains an updated list on its website (keep.konza.ksu.edu). Of special note is the short-eared owl, which is not listed as “threatened” or “endangered” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service but is of “management concern,” and is highlighted in the Hokanson wildlife lean-to.
The KEEP website is great to start exploring. The Manhattan area is also a fine place to visit, with Tuttle Creek State Park on Tuttle Creek Lake northeast of town, a fantastic national scenic byway just south of Manhattan and Interstate 70 (Kansas 177 out of Council Grove and Cottonwood Falls), and the new Flint Hills Discovery Center downtown. We hear it’s excellent, but haven’t yet visited. Don’t miss the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City.
We’ll vouch for the once-shuttered and now-reopened Cox Bros. BBQ, with locations in both Manhattan and Junction City (home of Fort Riley). It gives a nod to all of the major sauce types, but as barbecue-deprived Wisconsinites and former Texans, we find this Texas-centric establishment (“No, Lorena, Jerry Jeff Walker is not related to Scott”) as authentic and iconic as the Konza itself.
Both were special treats for a trip we’ll long remember.