What are WE doing HERE
We knew about the approaching snowstorm as we left Pierre that morning. It was the first week in Jan,2009, and I now was beginning to question our decision to make this trip to the Black Hills. It was snowing horizontally, not quite a blizzard, but enough to make me think "What am I doing here?". Our primary objectives were two fold, photograph Bison in a snowstorm and to visit one of our favorite destinations,Custer State Park in all 4 seasons. On this trip , we opted to cross the state via Highway 14.
It was 120 miles to Wall, we had 4 wheel drive truck, no problem? WRONG! That stretch of road turned out to be one of the longest drives we have made in a long time. After about 40 miles a local pickup appeared in my rear view mirror and after passing us I stuck with him like a tick on a dog. We were the only vehicles on the road that morning. When he stopped in the town of Phillip, we stopped in Phillip. When he left Phillip, we were in his rear view mirror. Finally, we reached Wall, what a welcome sight.
After a short break,we got back on the freeway, driving became "a little less tense" because there was more than ONE vehicle on the road. We were able to get to the park without incident. Believe or not we virtually had the park to ourselves, a couple of park vehicles and a couple more from out of state, was it. We did not have any problem finding our Buffalo. Scattered over the landscape were small groups doing what Buffalo do on a cold winters day.
I have seen a study regarding the ability of the American Bison to withstand the freezing temperatures of winter. This study was part of a Canadian project that was monitoring wolves and moose using infrared heat sensing equipment. The aerial observers could detect the moose and wolves with this equipment, but an entire herd of Bison was not detectable.
With the passing of the snowstorm the temperatures started to plummet and about 4 in the afternoon we noticed that we did have the park to ourselves. Once again that day I thought, "What am I doing Here?" With the side windows starting to frost over and getting colder by the minute, we decided to call it a day.
During our years of raising a family we had visited the area a number of times during the summer and even though it was good we have found that the "off season" is much more enjoyable. The lack of summer crowds has it's benefits when it comes to visiting the park and photographing wildlife. The drawbacks are some of the high country roads are blocked and it does get cold. No problems were encountered along the wildlife loop or on highways 16 or 87, but roads were closed going up to the Needles.
For those of us that live in Minn, the Black Hills are an easy one day drive from the Twin Cities. Our preference for lodging is the town of Custer, which is just a few miles from the west entrance of the park. It has all of the needs that are required for a comfortable stay even in the "off season".
Custer State Park is tucked on southeastern edge of the Black Hills National Forest which is located in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming, covering an area 125 miles long and 65 miles wide; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Hills#History
. The 71,000 acre park has a wide range of diverse landscapes from the sharp contrast of the Needles to the short grass prairie along the Wildlife Loop. The park is also home to a wide range of wildlife, which makes it a favorite for many nature observers and photographers. We have called this area "Our Little Yellowstone" because with the exception of bears, moose and wolves you can photograph all of the major animals here. Bison, Elk, Whitetail and Mule Deer, Pronghorns, Bighorn Sheep, and Mountain Goats are the major herbivores that inhabit the prairies and forests of the park. The carnivores include Coyotes, Bobcats and Mountain Lions. With a wide selection of birds and small critters a nature enthusiast can be kept very busy.
The park was named after Brevet Major General George A. Custer, who was the leader of the expedition that found gold in French Creek in the vicinity of today's park. This discovery led to a volatile period of our history that changed the landscape forever. The state of So. Dak. took an active role in preserving a portion of this area by establishing this park, it's first, in 1897 a mere 8 years after becoming a state and 20 years before Yellowstone N. P. was created. It was known as the Custer State Forest and Game Preserve. The present day park was established in 1919.
It was in 1914 that Peter Norbeck was the instrumental leader in the purchase of the first 36 buffalo that is the foundation of today's herd. The annual Custer SP "Buffalo Round Up" is a must do event; http://northlandadventurer.com/custer-state-park-buffalo-roundup/
, which takes place at the end Sept.
All in all, to experience this part of the country in the dead of winter is well worth it. So if you see a white Ford Ranger with Minn tags parked next to a herd of Buffalo, it just might be us.
Custer State Park Roundup
by Dan and Mary Dreher
The thunder had gone on for half an hour as I ran along the ridge jockeying for a better view. Then to my delight I find the right spot and on cue the earth begins to shake below me. The massive dust storm builds as the thunder grows louder, there on the horizon they appear. Hundreds of wild buffalo race full bore down the hills of South Dakota's Custer State Park. As I watch my imagination runs wild. For a moment I am thrust back into the Old West. The same old west that was written by Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour and sung by Marty Robbins.
As the bison stampede over the hill it seems these wild beasts will run right over me. My heart races with the thrill of the event and the fear of the unexpected. But the expert horsemen and seasoned wranglers turn the leaders down into waiting corrals along the Wildlife Loop Road.
I watch as these professional cowboys sort the massive herd into the security of holding pens. A reluctant bull defies their efforts and bolts for freedom. There is a short standoff, but outnumbered he gives up the run and follows his comrades into the corral..
The easy part is now over, the
real work begins. Each animal is identified and marked either for release or
sale. They are all inoculated and a tag
is placed in their ears. The buffalo are not happy with any of this and
many protest. It is hard to beat the
bravery of the men and women who face these thousand pound hostile brutes,
maneuver them into the safety of a stall
to vaccinate them, collar a select few and mark their ears all the while this
animal is trying to hurt or kill them. Every
year in September, Custer State Park in South Dakota, puts on this exciting
event. They herd the 1,300 wild buffalo
into holding areas and wait for the day of the roundup. It's hard to forget the thrill of being there
and watching the roundup unfold.
the day approaches the human activity builds from a small rumble with venders setting up, park personnel readying the pens for the
expected onslaught to full chaos as the human mob descends upon them.
Our morning started before dawn in
a motel room in Rapid City. We grabbed
some coffee and a bagel and were off. We
made good time getting to the park entrance at 6:30 am, there was hardly any
traffic at all. At the entrance gate
there was a couple of cars in front of us, we wonder what we will do for the next 4 hours before the annual round-up begins.
We ended up in a long line of vehicles crawling towards the Wildlife Loop Road. Oh good grief! A bladder full
of coffee, no rest rooms on a stretch of road that is primarily short grass
prairie and nobody wants to lose their spot in line. If you have been on the
Wildlife Loop Road you know where the road crosses the French Creek. Well, this became the unofficial Rest Stop.
Drivers and their passengers would take turns jumping out so their vehicle did
not lose its place in line while the cars inched along to their destination
we made it to the parking lot just as the herd was about to crest the hill to
the south of the viewing area. This was obvious to me from the crowd reaction. Dan
had to park the vehicle and I jumped out when he said “Get Out”. That was
the last time I saw him for at least an hour. He didn't know where I was and I
didn't know where he parked. I couldn't find him in the crowd and cell
phone service was sketchy at best.
Dan did not see much of the thundering herd, but he was able to get into position to watch the wranglers maneuver the herd into their large holding pens. With the exception of a few ornery bulls the annual Buffalo Roundup was accomplished without much fanfare. These few bulls did test the riding skill of the horsemen along with the driving skills of a few chase vehicles.
As the crowd disburses to the vending area, the wranglers begin culling out animals and maneuvering them into chutes to be vaccinated and marked. Watching you can't help by be impressed by their skills while the animals object and attempt to escape. The wild buffalo are restrained into chutes with their heads secured in stanchions while the cowboys work at amazing speed. By the time these magnificent animals are released, each and everyone is bursting with fury.. Jumping out of harm's way, the wranglers pull the release level and leap upon the fence as animals weighing over a 1,000 pounds bound toward them.
It's hard to compare the excitement of this event to anything else. You will enjoy the sights and sounds of the Wild Old West at Custer's Annual Buffalo Roundup. It is well worth the trip.
Custer State Park's 49th Annual Buffalo Roundup is Friday, September 26, 2014.