It is very cold.
On the night of Monday, Dec. 5, a powerful blizzard was raging between the tents, tipis, and cobbled-together structures of the sprawling Oceti Sakowin camp, epicenter of the resistance against the Dakota Access pipeline in south-central North Dakota.
I was stranded there along with at least 10,000 others, exposed to the 14 below zero wind chill and lacerating 55 mph winds that are uncommon even in a North Dakota winter. The roads were closed. No one gets in, and no one gets out.
My garments were many but insufficient. Thermals. Flannel. Fleece. Two layers of thick wool socks and a sleeping bag pulled tight around my nose in the steel envelope of the car, our shelter against the storm.
The cold crept in. I am a small-town journalist, a glorified tourist. I was not prepared for this.
Agree with them or not, it is impossible to deny the extraordinary grit, generosity, and humanity the self-proclaimed water protectors displayed that deadly night near Cannon Ball, N.D. They were out there in the dark, helping each other survive the worst storm the protest camp has seen in its eight months of existence, serving hot food, ferrying hypothermia victims to shelter, holding each other up, or just sleeping the deluge away in cheap tents filled with snowdrifts, the warm days of summer fading into dream.
Many would leave in the days ahead, but the most committed say they will not depart until the “black snake” — the name some protesters use to describe the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline — is dead and uprooted from the frozen earth. They were also unwilling to allow an ill-prepared visitor to freeze or go hungry, even if it meant sharing their own precious resources to do so.
It was the day after the Department of the Army had denied Energy Transfer Partners permission to drill and install the 30-inch diameter oil pipeline beneath the Missouri River. The camp was overflowing with more than 2,000 U.S. military veterans who had come to support the movement, and hundreds more members of the national and international news media who came to witness whatever would happen next.
I was with a photographer that morning, searching for one story in a place that is bursting with them, when we came across Alvin Grass Rope of the Lower Brule Sioux. The blizzard had not yet started, but snow covered the ground and the air was freezing.
He was busy building a tipi.
Over their long history, the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota tribes have weathered thousands of harrowing northern winters in tipis, Grass Rope said, and this time will be no different.
"We're here till the end," he said. "I want to see them take the pipe away. The day I start seeing them removing the pipe, taking it out of here, that's when I go home."
Word spread that the veterans were mustering for a march to the Backwater Bridge on Highway 1806 north of camp. Before they arrived, the veterans made it known that they planned to breach police lines and march to the drill pad, the main site of pipeline construction. Maybe this was it.
Everything in the area that walked on two legs rushed to the road and followed the group up the highway toward the barren spot where militarized police and mainly peaceful protesters have clashed on several occasions in recent months.
The snow began to fly.
"It is cold,” said U.S. Marine Corps infantryman John Boyd, 33, of Sacramento, Calif., his arms linked in a line of fellow veterans on the whited-out roadway. “But to be here with these people and protect them and honor everything they stand for. It's humbling.”
The march ended without conflict as the snow swallowed up the river valley. Back at the Oceti Sakowin camp, people were sledding and skiing down the hills overlooking the massive tent city that, since its formation in the springtime, has become one of the largest human settlements in North Dakota.
The storm swelled, and reports came in that vehicles were sliding off the roads, that the camp was completely cut off from the outside world. Aside from our sleeping bags and the clothes on our backs, all of our food and winter supplies were in another vehicle belonging to a colleague who was himself stranded at the Prairie Knights Casino and Resort several miles away.
Darkness fell as we set out into the wild corridors of the camp, teetering on the edge of what felt like a potentially disastrous night, the icy northern winds biting deep, threatening to blast us to our knees.
In the relative warmth of his yurt, poet Mark Tilsen of the Oglala Lakota gritted his teeth. The leaders of the protest movement fear the wrong things, he said. They fear that he and others will come to harm, or may even die out here in the fight against the pipeline. But more than 300 miles away, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where he is from, where the life expectancy is in the 40s, people are dying everyday. Since he has come to the Oceti Sakowin camp, Tilsen said, nearly 20 members of his family have passed away back home.
“This is the hard time,” Tilsen said.
In a dim and howling meeting hall, an elderly veteran clutched at his heart with a trembling hand. The sacred fire, a site of nearly constant ceremony and dance, was abandoned but for a few wayward stragglers. Medics and volunteer security patrolled the snow, brought food and water to different community tents, shone LED headlamps into derelict faces and asked, are you OK? Do you have somewhere to stay?
Those who didn’t were being taken to vacant tents, or to the immense geodesic dome near the center of camp. A smaller group would be housed in a plywood structure being hammered together by Thomas David Langenderfer of the Apache Nation.
“If you’re going to come out here, be prepared,” Langenderfer said, his words snatched away in the wind. “Or stay home for now, because it’s going to be a long winter. Just keep praying. We got this, but don’t forget about us, because we need all the prayers we can get.”
In our search for temporary shelter, the photographer and I stumbled across a green Army tent called Winona’s Kitchen, where Sam Doodley, 33, was busy doling out dishes of venison stew, beef tri-tip tacos, meatballs, and banana pancakes with fresh strawberries and whipped cream to a crowd of cold and weary campers huddled together by the propane burner.
Doodley had been working the grills since 7 a.m. and would not finish until midnight. Bedraggled and worn, his demeanor somehow remained sunny and upbeat, even though he had locked himself out of his van, where all his winter gear was stowed.
“This is the ultimate test," he said, "to have an insulated sleeping bag and have that denied, and decide to stay anyway."
Doodley kept us all well fed. Shivering, I steeled myself for the next foray into the blizzard and cupped my hands over the the fire. A Navajo man laughed at my seriousness and taught me a phrase in his language.
"Deesk'aaz," he said behind the bandanna tied to his face. It is very cold.
Nine minutes after 1 a.m., the photographer and I crawled into his car, a Ford Taurus with bald tires and California plates, and mummified ourselves in our sleeping bags. I had been there for one day in those brutal conditions, which many of the people in the camp are ready to endure until the ice thaws in the spring. And I was ready to go home.
In the morning we would re-emerge and help others in the camp shovel their way out of the snow, out of the incredible gravity of that place, and they would help us in return. No one would ask, and no one would hesitate to pick up a shovel.
It is very cold. But as I drift off to sleep, it feels a little warmer.