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Where the Buffalo Roam

Thu, 3 Oct 2002
written by Teresa

The bison herd in Custer SP, SD The autumn has followed us down from the mountains and is playing out its drama here in South Dakota. The forest floors are scattered with red undergrowth while the silver birches yellow among the ever-dark pines. On a day like today, with the sun shining and the sky a clear unbroken blue, there is a feast of colour, shape, shadow and movement for the eye.

In Custer State Park, the bison roam across the open prairie. They give scant regard to the likes of us ogling out of our car windows and simply amble across the roads secure in their size and supremacy. Inching forward through a herd of bison is a very particular experience. A deep low frequency rumble emanates from the herd. Mothers suckle calves; animals jostle for position while all the time the inexorable business of digesting acres of grass continues. It is almost impossible to believe that there were sixty million of these animals scattered across the States when the first white people arrived. That they were hunted almost to extinction in a few short years, destroying a human way of life in the process, is a fact not often acknowledged here in the West.

The Park covers a vast area and is mainly devoted to the herd and it's management but the prairie dogs are just as fascinating per cubic inch of body mass. They are preparing for hibernation and are about as podgy as they can be, while still being able to walk. They sit at the mounded entrances of their communal tunnels resting on their generous haunches with their arms only just meeting over their rotund bellies. At the slightest sign of anything untoward they take off at a remarkable waddle, waggling their short tails in agitation and squeaking in high-pitched alarm.

View from a hill in Wind Cave NP, SD We have also been treated to close up views of the pronghorn antelope. Driving along, we were brought to an abrupt halt by a male chasing a female back and forth across the road in an attempt to persuade her to acquiesce to some hanky panky. She was having none of it. The agility, speed and grace of these animals are truly amazing and their neck markings give them a distinctive and somehow regal appearance. The elk are also in rut. As we sat over a campfire at Wind Cave, their bugling was interspersed with the howling of distant coyote packs. There is something truly wild and primal about these sounds travelling out across the grasslands. It is reminiscent of a time not long passed when we were the interlopers in a land belonging to others.

Wind Cave National Park is adjacent to Custer and as they like to mention is the point at which the flat rolling prairie of the east meets the hills and mountains of the west. The Park is named for it's cave and in spite of previous visits we couldn't resist going on their winter tour. Boxwork in Wind Cave Apart from the boxwork, the most memorable features of the cave are its darkness and silence, both of which are absolute. For the few seconds of experiencing these, they are strangely enveloping and comforting. It is literally another world separated from the hills and prairie by a few hundred feet of earth.

Evans Plunge in Hot Springs claims to be the largest indoor pool filled by a thermal spring and we went to "take the waters" a few days ago. Having been frequent visitors to Glenwood's pool we had high expectations. The biggest shock was that the water wasn't warm. In my mind I had somehow associated the word thermal with warmth but obviously these things are relative. One of the nicest things about it was the floor of the pool that on first sight appeared to be lined with sticky back plastic covered in pictures of pebbles. The pebbles turned out to be real even though the water temperature left something to be desired. The water slides on the other hand would have made up for anything and left us free to act our respective shoe sizes.

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