Jul 9, 2020 – Let the Chips Fall Where they May

The American Alligator is synonymous with The Everglades. I can remember clearly the first time I saw one in the wild. At least six feet in length, the reptile’s presence commanded its watery environment. It appeared to not have any interest in me or anything for that matter- it was just there biding its time. I could not keep my eyes off it, it looked so primeval with its thick armor of dull gray skin. In terms of evolution, the American Alligator got it right the first time having not changed much over the millennium. Nearly extinct from hunters a hundred years or so ago, its comeback is the symbol of all that is right with the Everglades. The quintessential keeper of the swamp, the American Alligator IS the Everglades, always has been and respectfully, always will.

Like my first encounter with the alligator, my first siting of a bison in South Dakota felt as if the magnificence of everything I came to see and experience in the Great Plains was filtered down to that single moment when I saw a lone bison standing under a tree. Like the alligator, the bison appeared to not take any notice of my presence nor cared one way or the other. It was just there – keeper of the grasses. The American Bison IS the Great Plains, always has been and respectfully, always will.

The classic bison profile stands out against the very large longhorn steers. The second bison is laying down behind the steer.

On July 9, two days after arriving at the Black Hills in South Dakota, Vivian and I saw two American Bison, number 4 and 5 on our count. The two were hanging out behind a small herd of longhorn cattle at the foothills of Devils Tower, not far over the Wyoming border. The monolithic rock formation with its vertical columns stood out in severe contrast to the brilliant blue sky and green pasture foreground, a perfect backdrop for the bison on the plains. Despite it being in the same family of Bovidae, the bison appeared out of place next to its cousin. Or should I say, the longhorns looked out of place in the bison’s grassland.

An artist’s depiction of what the America’s Great Plain once looked like. Photo taken from South Dakota State Historical Society’s website.

The bison is synonymous with the Black Hills or really, the Great Plains. In fact, it became the national mammal of the United States in May of 2016. I am sure most Americans slept through that one, I know I did and only recently became aware of it as my interest piqued from our travels. The irony of bestowing an animal that was brought to near extinction with the honor of national mammal by the very same government that caused its near extinction is not lost on anyone with an ounce of cynicism. Long ago, the bison once roamed North America in numbers upwards of 30 million. By 1890, there were less than 1000 and ten years later, only 325. Our national mammal, indeed.

A mountain of bison skulls. Photo taken from South Dakota State Historical Society’s website.
Among the few that remained after 1900, bison were being exploited. Photo taken from South Dakota State Historical Society’s website.

For centuries, Native Americans relied on bison for their survival. It provided them with practically everything they needed – food, clothing, tools, shelter. The bison was also an object of worship for many natives. Following Lewis and Clark’s Corp of Discovery in the early 1800’s, the American westward migration commenced at an obscene rate. By the 1860s, the elimination of the bison began. This was primarily by hunters who killed the animals for their hides, bones, and tongues, and consequently leaving the carcasses to rot on the plains. When the trains started running through the Great Plains, it was all too common for passengers to shoot the large beasts for target practice as the train thundered past the herds. While the killing of animals to extinction to fuel a fashion trend is difficult to wrap one’s head around (I am still struggling with the thought of plume hunters), this horror pales in comparison to the atrocious effect it had on native people, best summarized by General Phillip Sheridan, Commander of the US Army Cavalry who stated, “The buffalo hunters did more in five years to defeat the Indian nations than the army had done in fifty.”

Each year, Custer State Park’s bison herd is rounded up, an important management strategy (and very popular sightseeing event) to maintain a large and healthy herd. Photo comes from South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks website.

Ranchers that moved into the northern Great Plains also contributed to the bison’s demise. But ironically, it would be a handful of ranchers that eventually initiated the slow return of the American Bison. Today, there are almost 400,000 bison throughout North America, most of which live on public and tribal lands, including Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The state park is home to 900-1600 bison, the second largest publicly held herd in the country.

I left Vivian behind a few mornings to go photograph the Black Hills from atop a ridge overlooking an enchanting view of the hills.

Only three days into our 2-week stay in the Black Hills, I left Vivian and our RV behind to drive in the dark toward the main entrance of Custer State Park. Not far from there I turned onto Wildlife Loop. As sunrise approached, it became lighter as I made my way to a previously chosen location where I was eager to photograph the sweeping Black Hills landscape from atop a ridge. My truck, as far as I could see, was the only vehicle on the 18-mile loop.

A herd of bison stopped me in my tracks as they walked on by.

As I slowly made my way on the 25-mph highway, I had a difficult time containing my eagerness to photograph the landscape before the dawn’s early light lost its sweetness. And then abruptly, my anticipation was interrupted. Stopped in my tracks on a highway where no other traffic was evident for miles, I sensed something special was about to happen. The sheer size of the bison is enough to stop anyone in their tracks, even if one is driving a full ton pickup. It was not one bison that caused me to stop, it was at least 50. That was my immediate impression as I put the truck in park. Within a second or two, I came to realize that was only the beginning as I watched a thick line of bison a quarter mile long wind its way toward me.

Too excited and wanting to capture video and photos of this event, I never did get a count. At best guess, upwards of a couple hundred bison proceeded to walk past me.

The sauntering procession began somewhere in a field on the other side of trees that blocked my view. All I could see were large animals appearing in the distance one by one. In total awe I watched several of them pass by within six feet of me. The adults’ wariness was evident with a steady eye contact. The calves were never far behind them. The only sounds were the gentle clopping noises of even-toed hooves on the pavement and occasional loud bison grunts and snorts. I opened the door and stood on the running board to get a better view of the animals as the long parade passed on both sides of the truck. Minutes passed. Alone with a few hundred bison and three pronghorn that leapt briskly through the scene at one point, I felt as I do when alone in the Everglades.

Later that day as I backtracked the Wildlife Loop, I came onto this common scene. Not long after this, a video of a female buffalo charging a woman who got too close to a calf went viral.
A similar type of scene in Everglades National Park. The park warns people to give alligators a wide berth.

A moment like this takes on an entirely different meaning when experienced in the presence of others. And that happens a lot in Custer State Park. In fact, the park warns visitors of frequent traffic jams because of bison herds blocking the road. Similarly, visitors to Everglades National Park are warned to give alligators a wide berth as the reptiles lay out in the sun in the presence of hundreds of onlookers walking along a narrow boardwalk. It feels like Disney World when you see so many alligators lying motionless in the open as dozens of tourists accumulate to take pictures before walking on by. In Custer State Park, stopped vehicles accumulate on the road, and doors open as passengers try to get a clear view of the bison with a camera or phone.

Alone with the bison.

But when given an audience of one, nature will put on an extraordinary show of epic magnificence, if only for a fleeting moment. With no others to distract or to serve as a buffer, the experience can be palpable. It is nothing short of a unique gift from nature, to be kept safe in a memory. The Black Hills gave me such a gift at the crack of dawn on Wildlife Loop. For about 10 minutes, I stood still from the safety of my truck and viewed a few hundred bison saunter on by. And in those moments, what I had anticipated in the Black Hills no longer mattered. Everything came down to this.

Bison at the Game Lodge Campground in Custer State Park. What an experience to step out of your RV only to be confronted with a herd of bison.

After that, Vivian and I saw many more bison, often in the presence of many other visitors to the park. The Black Hills gave us one gift after another; I got to photograph the enchanting hills on a few occasions and Vivian got to spend time fishing the many lakes in the area. And then there were those two grand rock sculptures we visited (those are for another blog). But it was the time I had alone with the bison herd that defines the Black Hills for me.

Each morning that I went out to photograph, I felt as if I had the entire Black Hills region all to myself.
One last scene, from atop a ridge where the Wildlife Loop highway runs through it.

Jul 7, 2020 – There’s Gold in Them Hills

Custer’s campground base in the Black Hills.

On July 2, 1874, a United States Army expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer set out for the uncharted Black Hills of South Dakota. Among their many missions was to investigate the possibility of gold mining. On July 31, the wagon train arrived at Black Elk Peak (highest point in South Dakota) where a camp was set up at the mountain’s base. This camp was named ‘Custer Park’. On August 15, Custer wrote a letter to the Assistant Adjutant General of the Department of Dakota and stated the following “…examinations at numerous points confirm and strengthen the fact of the existence of gold in the Black Hills.” A scout carried that message to Fort Laramie and from there, it was telegraphed to the press eastwards and the news spread like a social media tweet storm.

A modern-day campground in the Black Hills.
Vivian and Connie’s campground base in the Black Hills.

It should be noted at the time of the expedition, the Black Hills was exempted from all white settlement forever according to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Justifiably, the Lakota people living in the Black Hills were alarmed to Custer’s expedition. The short of it is, Custer’s letter piqued the U.S. government’s interest in owning the Black Hills. But there was this nagging issue of a treaty. To earn ownership of them there hills, the U.S. government would have to buy or steal them from The Lakota Sioux. At first, Congress took the high road and offered The Lakota $25,000 for the land and to relocate them to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). When the chiefs refused the offer, a US commission was sent to the Black Hills to pressure the Lakota leaders to sign the new treaty. They failed.

Custer’s expedition Wagon Train.

President Grant and members of his cabinet met with military leaders in Washington D.C. to discuss the issue. Indian Inspector Erwin C. Watkins responded to their discussion with this: “The true policy in my judgement is to send troops against them in the winter, the sooner the better, and whip them into subjection.”

Connie and Vivian’s expedition Ford F350 without its wagon attached.

Thus began the Great Sioux War of 1876-77. After a series of campaigns, including the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn where Custer met his defeat, the Agreement of 1877 officially took away Sioux land and permanently established Indian reservations. Meanwhile, the Black Hills Gold Rush had already commenced.

What a hike in the Black Hills looked like for Custer’s expedition group.

Fast forward to 1919, 40 years beyond the peak of the Black Hills Gold Rush. South Dakota was now a state, and under the leadership of Governor Peter Norbeck fast becoming a popular tourist destination in place of its gold. Norbeck would leave a tremendous legacy to South Dakota during his two terms of governorship and later as State Senator. In 1919 the “prairie statesman”, urged the state to acquire a 72,000 parcel of land designated as Custer State Forest and turn it into Custer State Park, South Dakota’s first and largest state park.

A modern-day hike through the Black Hills.

Driven by his vision for South Dakota, Norbeck personally oversaw the development of South Dakota’s Custer State Park including the infamous Needles Highway. He initiated the creation of Needles Highway by marking the entire course through steep slopes of pine and spruce forests and rugged granite mountains by horseback and on foot. In 1922, the Needles Highway was completed, including two tunnels blasted through granite rock.

Imagine a highway being created through those rocks.

On July 7, 2020, an RV expedition led by Vivian and Connie set out for the popular Black Hills of South Dakota. Among their many missions was to explore Custer State Park’s many scenic highways including a drive through the infamous Eye of the Needle, and to discover its many lakes, hiking trails and wildlife. The RV in tow arrived at Heartland RV Park located along Highway 79, a short distance from the small town of Hermosa where it would be set up for two weeks. The camp was named ‘#630’.

The Black Hills as seen from a highway.

With a laundry list of things to do and places to see including lakes to fish, lands to photograph, historic towns to visit and trails to hike, it was almost overwhelming to figure out how to fit them into a two-week period. So, on the first day, it was decided to initiate our Custer State Park expedition with the most anticipated (and perhaps feared) activity on our list, and that was to drive the truck through the Eye of the Needle.

Classic South Dakota storms were frequent during our stay. During one of those storms while inside the RV, we heard a loud noise, only to look out the window to see our neighbor’s awning blown out.

The name ‘Needles’ refers to the granite spires that comprise a region of the Black Hills. Basically, these are tall vertical rock formations with sharp looking tips. Besides the view, which the driver cannot fully appreciate having to keep her eyes on the road, the best part of the highway or at least the most anticipated are the tunnels; and there are two of them.

Custer may have killed a grizzly bear during his expedition to the Black Hills, but…

Winding through the mountains we eventually came to the infamous 8’9” wide and 9’8” high Eye of the Needle. We got our truck through it in one piece and could sigh relief as we knocked that “must do” off our expedition list. Custer may have shot and killed a grizzly during his expedition to the Black Hills, but we passed through the Needles and lived to tell the story!

…we drove through the Eye of the Needle!

One last thing about them Black Hills – gold may have been discovered from Custer’s expedition, but our expedition to the Black Hills felt very much like striking gold. Take away Custer State Park and the area is left with two national memorials, two national monuments (one of which is in Wyoming), a national park and several historical mining towns. Not to mention 1.2 million acres of beautiful wilderness full of wildlife. Now that is gold.

Stayed tuned for more of the Black Hills expedition. Meanwhile, enjoy this slideshow from some of our hikes in Custer State Park.