Updated 10:45 a.m. | Posted 4 a.m.
Where thousands of people once built, slept and ate — and protested — a couple of hundred Dakota Access oil pipeline opponents now struggle to clean up camp as a deadline to evacuate approaches Wednesday.
Spring flooding is expected to inundate the Oceti Sakowin camp within days, prompting the Army Corps of Engineers to order people off the property by 2 p.m.
Some protesters began burning wooden structures in the camp Wednesday morning as part of a ceremonial cleansing of the area.
More structures burn as heavy snow falls at the Oceti Sakowin camp pic.twitter.com/IhksWHqMlc— dan gunderson (@gundersondan) February 22, 2017
Winona Kasto has been worrying this week about saving her kitchen supplies from demolition crews.
"Got to take those two tipis down, this tent, these two tents, that meat tent and this RV," she said surveying the kitchen operation that has fed countless protesters who started arriving in big numbers last fall to challenge completion of the Dakota Access pipeline.
The $3.8 billion pipeline to carry North Dakota oil to a shipping point in Illinois is nearly complete, except for a stretch underneath Lake Oahe, a Missouri River reservoir near the camp.
Back in December, Winona's kitchen swarmed with volunteers. On Tuesday, a handful of people, including her family, helped as she tried to relocate the kitchen to a new camp just up the road on private land.
"My heart's here with Oceti, so I'm going to continue to feed everybody, just from a different place," she said.
Much of the camp site is now a quagmire, mud makes it difficult to walk or drive, compounding the cleanup. State officials say nearly 250 truckloads of debris have been hauled out of the camp. Front end loaders scooped up snow and abandoned campsites as they cleared sections of the camp.
Dozens of tents, tipis and wood structures remain to be demolished by contractors after the people are evicted.
Contractors will try to recycle what they can, and they won't simply bulldoze the remaining structures, said Major French Pope of the Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the cleanup.
"There's a lot of culturally and spiritually sensitive items on the ground that we'll definitely have to consider as we're going through the cleanup effort and make sure it's done in a respectful manner," he said.
Pope is confident the site can be cleared before spring floodwaters arrive.
Remaining protesters have joined in the cleanup.
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Travis Kelley arrived months ago from Texas; he's helped clean up dozens of camps people simply walked away from.
"It's tough, it's a little confusing cause the things that are left, it wasn't just shelters and canned goods. We find people's journals and people's personal effects," Kelley said. "Who were all these people that just left their stuff? Because they didn't just bail out on a tent, they bailed out on their gear and their bags and their personal belongings."
Kelley said one of his greatest fears was not realized.
"One of the most relieving factors has been that we haven't found somebody in one of those tents," he said. "Yeah, there may be a lot of stuff here lost but we haven't come across any lives lost."
Kelley says he will stay past the 2 p.m. deadline as a final act of resistance. So will Stuart Perkins, a Red Lake Ojibwe tribal member from Minneapolis.
"People are scared, people aren't just scared of the police, they're scared of this ending, they're scared of leaving what we were for the last few months here, they're scared of leaving that behind," said Perkins, who came here in late October.
The pipeline Perkins worked hard to stop is being finished just over the hill from where he stood. But despite that, Perkins says the experience has changed him. He's not sure where he will go next, but he says he will keep fighting for environmental and tribal justice.
"They're going to come for Minnesota — Line three, Enbridge is going to come, and we gotta stop it and we gotta show them we will fight," he said, "we will resist and we will stand regardless of any threat you throw our way."
Perkins expects to join others in a prayer circle when the deadline to leave camp arrives. He expects to be arrested, and for him it's the only way this experience can end.