Kite Photography in Western North Dakota

On the weekend of October 6-7, 2012, we (meaning archaeologist Richard Rothaus, artist Molly McLain, and myself) piled into the Trefoil field vehicle and cruised out to western North Dakota for a session of low altitude, aerial photography (“low altitude, aerial photography” is the phrase you use in fancy proposals; in lay terms it is kite photography, a do-it-yourself technique historians and archaeologists grapple with from time to time, in Omanwestern North Dakota and the eastern Mediterranean). A fortune cookie has read that you cannot control the wind, but you can adjust the sails. This is true, and when it comes to time-sensitive kite photography on super still days on the northern Great Plains, you can also expend vocal hot air, curse the gods, embrace the absurdity of said still day, and record your comrade at his finest. So while at Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch site on Saturday evening (with less than 4MPH of wind), sometimes you can catch Rothaus opining on the situation:

To be sure that you caught the audio, Rothaus made an initial objective statement that gave way to the rhetorical question, and then the camera panned over to the impotent aesthetics of a pile of kite on a gravel road. BULLY!

Rothaus from the above video:

I need four miles an hour worth of wind. How can there not be four miles an hour worth of wind in North Dakota?

That is an excellent question, Richard. The gods eventually smiled on us, though, at least for a couple moments, and the wind took the kite in the air allowing the digital camera to capture the evening panoramic of the Elkhorn Ranch:

Elkhorn Ranch photo by Richard Rothaus/Trefoil Cultural, October 2012.

There are green evergreens (which is why they call them ever-green) to the right and leafless deciduous trees to the left, the Little Missouri River looking more like a creek as it should in autumn.

Another one of the problems of kite photography is figuring out what minor or major adjustments the camera needs to capture enough horizon to give the viewer a sense of direction. If you want to make an adjustment, you have to repeatedly send the kite up and down with each camera tweak (bring snacks and a cooler).

Digital cameras attached to low flying kites will not capture everything, and this is why cross-disciplinary teams are a great idea for any type of field research, foreign or domestic. For example, approximately 10 steps to the south of the Elkhorn Ranch visitor signatory signage, an oil derrick can be viewed to the east-southeast across the river. While Rothaus is putting together the kite photography apparatus, you can also capture photos of a book Bill Sewall wrote about his time at the Elkhorn. Bill and his comrade Wilmot Dow did the majority of the hard work out at

Bill Sewall returns to the Elkhorn Ranch, 2012.

the Elkhorn. In thinking about this, I suppose a cynic might say that Theodore brought Bill and Wilmot on board so he could have the time to write about how hard he was working in western North Dakota — if the technology was available, Roosevelt probably would have blogged about kite photography while his comrades were doing the actual hard work of kite photography, too (one has to be a bit philosophical about this).

Anyhow, that evening we refortified with elk burgers and steaks in Medora, and the following day set out to capture some portions of badlands undisturbed yet by precious energy development. We were made aware of these portions of lands through stories in the Dickinson Press, and through one of the missions carried out by the Badlands Conservation Alliance. So on a Sunday we drove down to the area. The wind was really blowing. It was blowing so much that I once again decided not to do any hard work, but do the all important work of capturing the hard work. Notice similarities between Richard Rothaus reeling in this kite and someone reeling in a marlin while deep-water fishing:

It almost smacks of a passage from Fear and Loathing, where kites were swooping down on Richard like huge manta rays coming from all directions out of the sky. Another peril of low altitude, aerial photography is in the photo below. You’ll eventually come across landscape shots like this. If everyone remains silent enough in the field truck, though, you can all pretend like you didn’t just see it. That you just didn’t see this here. Everyone just has to look straight ahead and talk about the weather or something. Don’t draw attention to the following…

Oil Pumps and National Grasslands signage in western North Dakota, October 2012.

BULLY!


One response to “Kite Photography in Western North Dakota

  • nodakian

    Just a quick note on your last picture’s caption- those are actually pumpjacks (AKA “nodding donkeys” and “rocking horses”, among other names). Derricks are the tower like structures erected when they are doing the drilling. Once they finish drilling, they take down the derricks and other drilling equipment and install the pumpjacks to bring up the oil.

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