The thundering rumble of 1500 stampeding buffalo. The call of the west. A west with the ground shaking, cowboys chasing bison. Massive clouds of dust rising from a line of buffalo pounding across the valley. The tales of Native Americans driving speeding herds over cliffs. And a land with limited water drew me to the Black Hills for the 2006 Annual Buffalo Roundup at Custer State Park.
For the last several years, I’d taken a fall canoe trip to the Boundary Waters for a seven to ten days, but having been on the water four to six days a week guiding kayaking on Lake Superior, I felt no desire to spend more time on the water. Plus, my friend, Steve and I had planed on paddling the Steel River in Ontario for a quick seven-day fall trip. But the season had been dry; the river was low and surrounded by fires. Then when I talked to Steve, he told me that a friend’s mother, a fortuneteller, who he had never met before, told him, “Don’t push the river.”
Don’t Push the River
After he mentioned the fortuneteller, we decided to head out to the Black Hills, which is about as far away from a river as you can get. The Forest Service describes the Black Hills as “1.2 million ponderosa pine-studded acres ranging in elevation as high as 7,242 feet. Amid the splendid scenery are 11 reservoirs, 30 campgrounds, 26 picnic areas, 2 scenic byways, 1,300 miles of streams, 13,426 acres of wilderness, over 450 miles of trails, and much more.” Even as huge as the Hills are it is still .1 million acres smaller than the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness, my normal fall haunt, and could represent the amount of development that the BWCA would see if opened to such development. We decided to just head out, find a campground, do some hiking, and attend the roundup. It would be good to see Steve again.
Steve and I have been friends since forever, and I still remember him from grade school – with wild blond hair and a head much bigger than his body. We lived a block away from each other during high school, went to college together and lived in the same dorm, and then after that we lived on the same block in two different houses, and after college, we shared an apartment for a couple of years. I’ve paddled countless miles with him, hiked part of the AT with him, and ascended many mountains and cliffs with him – not to mention all our other exploits. Our friendship hasn’t always been rosy, like when we were both infatuated over the same girl, or when roommate troubles got to be too much, but we always got past the problems and remained good friends. He moved to Colorado a couple of years ago, and I had only seen him once since then, so it would be good to see him again.
A Large Gapping Hole
I arrived in the Hills a day before Steve and spent a day driving around Deadwood and Lead and visiting the typical tourist traps. The day was cold, windy, and snowy. Terry Peak, the local ski resort, had received several inches of snow when I checked it out, and the fall color was bright and yellow from the birch and aspen. It was a much better display of brilliant color than we had gotten back in the Minnesota northland.
The most interesting location I visited was the old gold mine in Lead. The mine closed in the early 2000s, and now all that remains is a massive gapping hole, and a park that was in part developed by the former mining company. The interpretive signs serving as a tribute to the company and a glossing over of the environmental damage it created. The brutal wind, snow blowing sideways, and the clouds letting sun flash into the pit occasionally combined to make me feel what it must have been like for the original gold miners who illegally moved into the Black Hills and violated treaties to try and make their fortunes. It must have been miserable for them in the winter.
After suffering a miserable cold night myself in a too optimistically rated sleeping bag, I awoke to the sound of falling leaves on my tent – a nice gentle sound. Steve would be showing up today and it would be good to see him. I planed very little and spent almost the whole day exploring the many shops of Hill City, which happens to be one of my favorite towns in the whole world. I spent an hour or so in Warrior’s Work Studio. The Warrior’s Work Studio is a gallery steeped in the legends and feel of the Black Hills. The artwork both by Native and non-Native Americans reflects the heritage of America’s indigenous past. It’s exactly what you’d expect in the perfect art gallery at the heart of the Black Hills, plus they frame everything in leather, which lends such an organic feel to the art displayed that you could probably frame an average painting and make it look good. But nothing in the gallery was average and the leather frames added to rather than subtracted from the framed works.
My favorite artist from the gallery was Rocky Hawkins, whose paints seemed to capture spirits – something I attempt to do with my photography.
Steve showed up in the afternoon. It was good to see him. We went straight back to Custer State Park and set up camp and then drove around a little bit. We went into Custer for dinner. Custer is a town that has always been hard for me to like. It’s streets are broad, but the buildings seem run down and the town overall feels slightly dirty. There’s been nothing that really draws me there other than some places to eat when you don’t feel like eating camping food.
One of the nice things about meeting up with old friends that you haven’t seen for awhile is how easy it is to fall back into that friendship. There’s no work, you don’t have to listen to many stories from the past because you’ve shared them and you don’t have to tell your tired old stories, you can just kick back and relax and talk. We talked into the evening and retired to our own tents – plus if you know your friends, you know that they sometimes snore, which means you can plan separate tents.
In the morning, we decided to hike up Harney Peak. Harney is the tallest point in South Dakota and rises to 7,242 feet above sea level. On a clear day, you can see three states from the summit, which is now crowned by an old fire tower and CCC pump house that is including in the National Register of Historic Places. We hiked up the trail from Sylvan Lake, which is a six mile round trip. In the past, when Steve and I have come to the Hills, we always hiked up from Horse Thief Lake, which has a much greater elevation gain and is a longer hike. The last time we were out there, a group of Iowans mistakenly turned down the trail to Horse Thief Lake and followed us to our car. By the time, they reached the parking lot, they realized that they had taken a wrong turn and their car was back at Sylvan Lake. We gave them a ride back around to the lake. And a trip before that involved arriving just after a hailstorm had covered the ground in an inch of hail. We met up with a French man who needed a ride down to Rapid City, so we gave him a ride.
On this hike, it remained sunny, but windy. At the summit, we had to bundle up while we got our views, but on the way up and down, we hiked in short sleeves.
The next day, we went to relive some of the fun we had in high school with a trip to Jewel Cave. In high school and shortly after, Steve and our other friends spent a lot of our free time exploring the limestone caves around Dubuque, IA. The cave tour was fun and it was nice to spend some time underground at the second largest cave in the world. Just this last winter explorers discovered and mapped more of the cave making it larger than Mammoth Cave. Our tour was only an hour or so, but the number of features along the route made the trip worthwhile.
Get Along Little Doggy
The roundup seemed to come almost too quickly. In the Hills, there are too many activities to do and too many places to see, but with the weekend upon us, Steve and I made our way to the art festival. The park was crowded with people walking tent to tent looking at jewelry, nature photography prints, Native American style crafts, paintings, woodcarvings, and the many other vendors. We ate buffalo burgers under the big top tent while listening to a cowboy poet. We watched Native American dancers in full-blown traditional outfits. And we caught old time country singers. Steve sampled some chili, but I passed because the buffalo wasn’t sitting well. Then we watched a snake handler from Reptiles Garden give a presentation on snakes. At the beginning of the show, two kids were boosting about how brave they were to sit in the front row. When the first six-foot python came out of the basket, one of the kids ran away as fast as she could go. The other sat in his seat and nervously glanced around.
After the python, a bull snake came out and then a rattlesnake. He dropped the rattlesnake onto the ground and let it move around. It was the closest – willingly – I’ve been to a live uncaged rattlesnake. A slight thrill.
In the morning after the art show, we woke up early to get to the roundup. We decided to come in from the south and were glad that we did. We sat in line for an hour and half to get a parking spot, but, at least, we got there before the show started. The event coordinators held off running the buffalo until they could get more people parked and ended up with an estimated 11,000 people at the event. About seven people per bision. By the time they were ready, the bison herd had split. A few hundred came over the hill, but not enough to capture the classic postcard image, and the rest came up the draw. The bison went to the far side of the valley as they passed the south viewing area, but once they hit the north fence, the cowboys stampeded them down the north fence area to the coral. The ground must have been shaking as the buffalo passed.
Steve and I walked around a bit after the roundup and eventually made our way to get some more bison to eat at the corals. After lunch, we watched the cowboys work at sorting out the herd, deciding which bison would stay in the park and which would go on the auction block. The main criteria seemed to be whether or not a cow had milk. If she did, then she stayed. The calves stayed and the rest went to the auction block. The old bulls weren’t rounded up, but instead, many of these would be hunted later by paying clients.
Shortly after the roundup, Steve and I made it back to the camp and he took down his tent. We went into town and ate some pizza. Steve treated. After dinner, we hugged goodbye and Steve took off back to Colorado. I stayed the night, got up early, and left the Hill before the sun rose on another day. It’s good to spend time with old friends at new events.