Showing posts with label Black Hills. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Black Hills. Show all posts

October 18, 2018

Heading onto the Prairie

Northbound, breaking free of the Colorado Front Range corridor
I don't drive Interstate 25 north of Denver very often, but when I do, it reminds me more and more of Interstate 95 in New Jersey. Like how many shopping malls can there be? Or how about RV dealerships the size of Army posts?

There comes a time, though, when you leave all that behind. It's like Fort Collins just sucks three-fourths of the vehicles off the road.

I stopped briefly at the Sierra Trading Post mother ship in Cheyenne for a cappuccino and to browse the discounted hiking pants. Lots of great deals for short, tubby guys there! Bought some socks.
Somewhere south of Newcastle, Wyoming
I continued north on US 85 along the western edge of the Black Hills, Inyan Kara mountain, and so on. One of my favorite drives.

Tomorrow, some serious prairie melancholy.

December 18, 2015

Look What Smokey Bear Left in my Stocking!

The Fiddlin' Foresters
Am I opening presents early, when Smokeymas is still a week away? Not really, I found this CD, "In the Long Run" by the Fiddlin' Foresters, at ARC today.

I had no idea that (a) the US Forest Service had an "official old-time string band" and (b) that their website had been presidentially singled out by Barack Obama as an example of government waste. Was that a taxpayer-funded banjo too?

Thank heaven we have saved $10 annually on domain registration fees. The deficit will melt like snow in May if we keep this up.

The album is still available.

I played it on the long drive home from Colorado Springs. They do a tricky thing in the middle, moving from the campfire-singalong jollity of "Smokey the Bear" through another cut and then into "Cold Missouri Waters," which is a song I rarely listen to because it interferes with my vision, and that's not what you want at 65 mph. Jane Leche gets into Joan Baez territory with the vocal track (YouTube).

"Is that about a wildfire?" M. asks.

"Mann Gulch," I manage to say, although my voice sounds funny.

But let's be real. The song is a weeper, but I was not even born yet when the events took place.

I am thinking more of a sunny dining hall at the Wheaton College science station/summer camp in the Black Hills National Forest of South Dakota. A boy sits off in a corner while his father, the Pactola District ranger, gives some students a quick version of what would be today the S-190 and S-130 "red card" wildfire-training classes, in case they have to fight a fire on or near their 50-acre site.

Sheet music to "Smokey the Bear" sits on the rack of the upright piano in the dining hall, and the ranger is telling the students how you should never run uphill from a fire, how something bad happened in Montana not too many years before.

November 05, 2013

The Tumbleweed Menace

Colorado Springs Gazette columnist Bill Radford notices the tumbleweed hordes of 2013. 

Oh yeah. I am not one of those people who goes around mowing everything mowable — that is so Midwestern— but this year I mowed one little meadow that I had not touched in twenty years, because it was sprouting kochia and Russian thistle, the baddies:
In El Paso County, the two chief culprits are Russian thistle and kochia, [rancher Sharon] Pattee says. The Colorado State University Extension labels them both as "troublesome annual weeds of rangeland, pastures, fields, disturbed areas, gardens, roadsides, ditch banks and small acreages."

Both are non-native species. Russian thistle originated in, yep, Russia, and is believed to have come to the United States in the late 1800s through contaminated flax seed. Kochia is from Asia.
Tumbleweed Christmas trees? Been there, done that. One year when I was little, I was sick in bed during Christmas, so my older sisters decorated a big globe tumbleweed with glass ornaments and put it by my bed.

This was when we lived in Rapid City, S.D., where they were easy to come by.  This year in southern Colorado, every barbed wire fence looks like a fuzzy brown wall. Yeech.

September 19, 2010

On the Road


US 85, going up the western edge of the Black Hills in eastern Wyoming.

October 10, 2009

A Plot for Black Hills Bears

I wonder how many people drive past the Bear Country USA private zoo on US 16 near Rapid City and find themselves modifying Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi." (Video here.)

It would be something like, "Took all the bears, put 'em in a bear museum / And charged the people fifteen dollars just to see 'em."

(Doesn't scan as well as the original. Blame inflation.)

All through our recent trip, I would do something like leave the cooler outside our pop-up trailer, catch myself—"A bear might get into it!"—and then realize that there are virtually no bears in the Black Hills.

Sadly.

I read that the last Black Hills black bear was shot in 1968 near the hamlet of Rochford, which means there were a few around when I was a boy, but I do not recall anyone needing to be too "bear aware" with garbage cans, etc., back then. (Grizzly bears were extirpated earlier.)

If you see a black bear, you are supposed to inform South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, which categorizes them as "state threatened," and fill out a "Rare Species Report Card," available as a PDF download from the web site.

But if I had (a) lots of money and (b) some close-mouthed co-conspirators, I would acquire the following:
  • one or more large culvert-style bear traps
  • one or more small cargo trailers, modified with additional air vents
  • large pickup truck to pull the above
And we could do our own bear-reintroduction program. After all, there are plenty in Colorado, where they have been taking food out of the mouths of the poverty-stricken Aspenites.

From capture to release should not take more than ten hours, on average—not too long for the bear to be confined. It's feasible.

Really, I am surprised that more black bears have not wandered over from the Bighorn Range or elsewhere in Wyoming. Too much open country, coal mines, Interstate 90, etc. in the way?

Quieter Skies in the Black Hills

Just a couple of things left to say about our trip to the Black Hills. One sneaked up on us after we had been there two or three days--the quiet skies.

Wherever you go in Colorado, you are under some air route centered on Denver International Airport. High-altitude jet noise is just part of the background--and the higher you climb, the closer the airplanes are.

I remember how quiet it right after the Sept. 21, 2001 hijackings when all air travel was shut down. I was sitting over a spring in the Sangre de Cristo range during muzzleloader season when a Learjet streaked overhead (Mr. Big coming back from the coast?) and all I could think was, "Oh shit, we're back to normal."

But Rapid City Regional Airport has far fewer flights, and about a third of them go eastward to the Twin Cities or Chicago, making for much quieter skies.

October 07, 2009

The Hot Springs Mammoth Site & Other Proboscid News

Earthwatch volunteers at The Mammoth Site. Photo by Chas S. CliftonAbove: Earthwatch volunteers excavate Columbian mammoth skeletons. The skull of a short-faced bear sits on the green sheet of paper at lower center.

Thirty-five years ago a bulldozer operator clearing ground for a subdivision on the edge of Hot Springs, South Dakota, grazed some Columbian mammoth bones—and realized that he had hit something important.

Today that spot is The Mammoth Site, a combination of working excavation, museum, laboratory, and gift shop.

Its structure covers a site that 25,000 years ago was a sinkhole that trapped dozens of mammoths who, perhaps while grazing in lush vegetation growing by the warm spring water, slipped in and could not climb out. (This was thousands of years before the accepted date of human arrival in North America.)

It is disquieting and sad, as M. noted, that all these big animals died struggling to breathe—except, perhaps, the short-faced bear. Did it climb down to gorge on mammoth meat and eat itself to death? Couldn't a big, agile bear make it up the slippery slope of decomposed shale? Or not?

It's a little touristy—get your mammoth hand puppets and key chains here—but definitely worth seeing.

•••

In other ancient proboscid news, a baby Siberian woolly mammoth found nearly intact has provided more information about the species not obtainable from fossils.

"We had no idea from preserved skeletons and preserved carcasses that young mammoths had a discrete structure on the back of the head of brown fat cells," said Prof [Daniel] Fisher.

Meanwhile, on June 1, 2009 two Colorado boys were poking around in a creek bed. They were not engaged in organized youth activities, mentored by adults and involving clear boundaries and a rulebook. They almost certainly were not wearing helmets.

"We were just thinking about walking up and down that stream and looking at the side of the banks to see if we see anything," said Tyler [Kellett] . "That would be fun."

They found a mastodon skeleton.

October 06, 2009

A Tale of Two Caves

Park Service ranger at Jewel Cave National Monument. Photo by Chas S. Clifton.Above: Kids peer up at calcite crystals as our Park Service tour guide describes the formation of Jewel Cave.

Outdoor travel in late September is always chancy. More than once we have faced the "disappearing campground blues," when forest and park campgrounds start closing, forcing you into more crowded quarters at the few the authorities deign to leave open (e.g., Madison Junction at Yellowstone).

In Yellowstone last year, I kept thinking, "If this is the 'off-season,' I am glad that we did not come during the high season." There seemed to be plenty of people at all the auto-accessible geothermal features, not to mention the scores of wolf-cultists.

Likewise the Park Service thinking on ranger-led tours.

When we came to Wind Cave on September 29th, all of the cave tours were canceled but one, the "Garden of Eden" tour, which M. and I decided should be called the "geezer tour." It lasted an hour, but most of that was just standing around listening to the ranger guide tell stories. He told them well, interweaving geology and history, but still, of miles of public cave trail, we saw maybe a quarter mile and three rooms, chiefly the room called the Garden of Eden by its discoverer in the 1890s.

I assume there are staffing issues with seasonal rangers, etc., but it also seems that the Park Service assumes that anyone traveling after Labor Day is decrepit and unable to handle a longer walk and a few more stairs.

For that "geezer tour" you pay $7. And, yes, we had a full tour group on a Tuesday afternoon.

Things were somewhat better over at Jewel Cave National Monument. Again, some of their most interesting tours are offered only in the high season.

But we were able to take the Scenic Tour—a half-mile loop, one hour and twenty minutes, $8 for an adult ticket—a better value than Wind Cave offered. There were more than 20 people in our group, on a snowy Thursday, October 1st, and another group was entering as we were leaving. There are plenty of "off-season" visitors.

You spend a lot of time trooping along clanging industrial aluminum catwalks and stairs, which give the cave a sort of "secret lair of the super-villain" feel. But wood would not last well in the 99-percent humidity. And you see enough rooms, passages, formations, etc., to give you a real feeling for the cave, which actually includes about 140 miles of mapped passages.

Notice the absence of geezers in the photo above. Home-schooled kids? Kids whose parents thought that they would benefit more from a cave trip than the classroom? Either way, I was happy to see them there.

October 05, 2009

Parkitecture in the Black Hills

Above: the State Game Lodge at Custer State Park, built in the 1920s, with its two recent wings.

One way in which Custer State Park resembles a mini-Yellowstone is that it offers a few examples of "parkitecture," the building style of the 1900s-1920s that features massive timbers, rustic stonework, and an overall "hall of the mountain king" effect. (You can see more examples at the Parkitecture web site.)

Norbeck Visitor Center, Custer State Park. Photo by Chas S. CliftonCuster's Peter Norbeck Visitor Center (above) suggests the Norris Geyser Basin Museum in Yellowstone--classic parkitecture. Here (below) is a detail of the copper downspouts:



Wind Cave National Park visitor center, 2009. Photo by Chas S. CliftonThe visitor center at Wind Cave National Park (above), built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, offers a relaxed and inviting face as well.

Although I do not visit just to see the buildings, I make a point of experiencing them—having a drink in the bar while watching tourists interact with the buffalo, wandering the museums, eating a meal in the dining room. It's all part of slowing down and being there.

October 03, 2009

Why We Go to South Dakota

Park ranger at Wind Cave National Park. Photo by Chas S. Clifton.Wind Cave National Park ranger Garrett Roke leads a tour underground.

It happened several time that when M. and I told friends we were going to South Dakota, the response was, "Why South Dakota?

Despite the fact that the state tourist authority runs regular ads in the Denver Post Sunday travel section advertising the Black Hills, you do not see many green-and-white Colorado license plates here. Lots of Midwestern plates instead: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, etc.

Bird-hunters may come for pheasant, etc., in the prairie counties, but the Black Hills don't draw us Coloradans.

Too bad.

Yes, the eastern Black Hills are one of the most touristy and billboarded places you will see. When I was a kid, one of my regular playmates was the son of the manager of Reptile Gardens, a private zoo that put up more huge signs than any Black Hills "tourist trap," including Bear County USA, the Big Thunder gold mine, the Circle B Chuckwagon, and all the many others. We thought it was all normal at the time.

One the other hand, Wind Cave National Park (28,295 acres) and the adjacent Custer State Park (71,000 acres) make up a mini-Yellowstone.

What they lack in geothermal features and grizzly bears, they make up in underground stuff, in the case of Wind Cave, where interpretive ranger Garrett Roke describes 133 miles of explored passages underlying a square mile of surface area—incredibly complex, in other words. Exploration began in the 1880s with candles and balls of string and has not finished yet.

Although the local Indian hunters probably knew about the cave's natural opening (still there), which only a small adult could wiggle through, they apparently made little or no use of it. No Chauvet-style cave paintings.

And down the road is Jewel Cave National Monument, with less surface area but even more miles underground. More on it later.

Wind Cave NP and Custer State Park together preserve a good chunk of edge habitat, where the prairie meets the hills, where your hiking plan may have to include a big bull buffalo snoozing in the middle of the traill

While my fondness for the Black Hills starts with having spent eight years there as a kid, I have good reasons for going back now and again.

Some more photo posts will be forthcoming.

September 28, 2009

From Custer to Custer, and, oh yes, Custer

Today we leave Custer County on our way to Custer County (the one with Custer State Park) in it.

The great cavalry tactician has quite a few things named after him. It's part of a shift in nomenclature that I notice when traveling north of the Platte.

M. and I live at the northern edge of the tide of Baroquely religious Spanish place names, which is how it is that I belong to the Blood of Christ Shooting Sports Club—which sounds like something from Franco's Spain.

But up there in the country of my boyhood, place names reflect a flint-hard animism (Spearfish, Sundance, Black Hills, Bear Lodge) or the memories of Army officers, from the luckless (Cherry County, Fort Fetterman) to the more competent: Sheridan, Fort Collins, Miles City, Sturgis, Crook County, Terry Peak.

Which brings me back to Custer. On my trip north three weeks ago, I listened to the audiobook of James Donovan's A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn—the Last Great Battle of the American West.

What I learned from it was not so much about the battle, which is covered elsewhere. Read whatever has been published since the archaeological work of the 1980s, such as Son of the Morning Star: Custer and The Little Bighorn or Soldiers Falling into Camp: The Battles at the Rosebud and the Little Big Horn.

It was the politics. The post-Civil War Army was a real catfight, as officers fought for promotion in a shrinking military force, and back-stabbing was an art.

Donovan describes how Custer and the man who would become his key subordinate at the Little Bighorn, Capt. Benteen, published anonymous letters attacking each other in newspapers during the 1870s. Talk about blogging about your boss!

Yes, Custer's rashness led to the complete loss of his battalion, but he was also a convenient scapegoat, Donovan argues. Terry's caution, Crook's vacillations, Gibbon's hesitations—not to mention Benteen's hesitation to reinforce Custer when ordered—all were minimized in the official reports, while Custer took all the blame, being conveniently dead.

Even the inquest into Major Reno's drunken cowardice at the Little Bighorn was affected by a desire to save regimental honor and blame Custer, Donovan suggests.

As I drove north, occasionally the text and geography coincided, so that certain locales, such as those from the 1874 Black Hills expedition, coincided in the text and out the windshield. It's nice when that happens.

Now M. will be with me, but we are not looking for Custer. Blogging will be irregular, maybe nonexistent, until we return.

September 06, 2009

Prescribed Burn at Wind Cave

A news photog's shots of a recent prescribed burn at Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills -- interesting to me partly because I plan to be there later this month.

The forest is mostly ponderosa pine, and the Park Service offers its thinking on fire and forest ecology here.