Showing posts with label South Dakota. Show all posts
Showing posts with label South Dakota. Show all posts

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.