Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hiking Wind Cave, South Dakota

...or, Who Turned Off the Air Conditioning?
Dakotas Day 3 - Sunday July 31, 2011 (Part 3)

10:45am - Dave and I stop for a second South Dakota geocache within a mile of the trailhead of our intended hike, and then we make our way to the parking lot. It is hot, with temperatures in the mid-90's. The sky is clear and blue and the sun shines down. Exactly how much sun would be apparent later, but at the moment it is beautiful country as far as the eye can see and we are anxious to get on the trail.

Rolling grasslands
10:57am - We set out on an approximately 4 mile hike, diving headlong into the heat of the day. From parking, we will follow the Lookout Point Trail south then east around to its intersection with the Centennial Trail, which we will follow north and then west back around to our starting point. Scenic highlights of the trail are to include a prairie dog town, open rolling grasslands typical of the southern Black Hills country, and a stream valley with pine forests. We can expect to see prairie dogs (yes), bison (yes) and possibly rattlesnakes (thankfully, no). The guidebooks recommend this hike highly for those (like us) that want to capture the flavor of the different kinds of terrain that can be found in this park but do not have a lot of time for a more extensive hike in which to explore the area. In other words, this hike should suit us perfectly.

Fields of flowers
10:57am - Off we go. The first part of the hike is along a tiny stream through patches of grassland and fields of yellow and purple flowers. Soon we climb out of the little stream valley and crest a rise that gives us a fantastic view across the grassland, and provides a nice overlook down into a prairie dog town. Our presence sets the sentries to chattering, and some of the prairie dogs disappear into their burrows. Others stand upright and still, watching to see what kind of threat we might pose.

There are places here where you can see for miles and this is one of them. The sky is huge, and the horizon stretches on for a very long way. This is an observation I will make many more times before the week is out...

The road goes ever on...
Somewhere around here, I mis-read the map, and think that we are halfway done the southern part of our loop when in fact we are only one quarter of the way done. This mistake doesn't do any harm, but causes a little bit of confusion later on when we are trying to figure out when we should be expecting to find the next trail junction landmark. A quick consultation with my gps and a topographic map set us on the right path, but the minor error on my part makes me very conscious of being correct in map reading for the remainder of the trip. I pride myself on being very good with maps and my gps, and having jumped the gun here on the first opportunity was a cause of minor embarrassment to me (although I doubt anyone else really noticed).

11:10am - It is hot. We are hiking along the top of a ridge line in the grasslands and the sun is beating down. There is no shade because there are no trees. The temperature is in the upper 90's and the sun is brutal, but it doesn't feel too bad yet because of the breeze up here on top of the ridge. We are hiking in what will be the most common formation of the trip - Leo in the lead because he sets a moderate pace that is acceptable to everyone. Ted would go faster, but he doesn't typically lead for exactly that reason; he would gallop out ahead and create a gap between himself and the rest of the pack. Dave and Ted follow Leo (interchangeably) in the #2 and #3 spots, and I bring up the rear. I don't bring up the rear because I am the slowest hiker necessarily, but because I am the expedition's designated photographer. Dave has brought a point and shoot camera and takes some pictures when the mood strikes. Leo and Ted have not even brought cameras. That leaves me and my new DSLR to take as many pictures as possible, which suits me fine. I would take lots of pictures on a trip like this regardless of any other factors, but knowing that I am responsible for the primary (and in many cases only) photographic record of the trip makes me that much more conscientious about taking as many pictures as possible. As a result, since I tend to stop frequently to take a picture or three, I am generally the one bringing up the rear and calling out "wait for me, guys!".

12:07pm - We are at the halfway point.

12:10pm - Down into the stream valley. The write-ups on this hike are that the first part is prairie grasslands and the second part is riparian stream valley, and we have reached the second part of the hike. As we get into the wooded section of the hike, we come across the only other hikers we will see that day, who have stopped to watch a bison across the valley with a telescope. We stop to check out the bison as well, but there isn't too much to see, as it appears to be a large male in the tree line several hundred yards across the valley. It is an impressive sight, but we will soon see one much closer up.

12:18pm - We reach a stream crossing, and are confronted with a dilemma. The stream ahead of us is not a major obstacle, and can be crossed easily, but another thirty or forty yards past the fording spot seems to be the bedding down location of a single very large bison. My first instinct is to be as quiet as possible while we figure out what to do. Leo's first instinct is to yell at the bison so as to let it know we are there and not surprise it (which he does). The bison doesn't move at all.

We stop and debate the options. Crossing the stream and going to the right around the bison is option number one, which would put us behind it, but does have the drawback of pinning us between it and the stream should things go bad. Option number two is to ford the stream and then go left up the hill and around it to its front. This has the downside of being in its field of vision, but has the benefit of putting us nearer the tree line should we need to seek shelter from the bison's unwanted attentions. I believe that I am the only one who wanted to go to the right, so next thing I know we were crossing the stream and going off to the left up the hill. I am keeping a wary eye on the bison, but it never so much as flinches. The worst part of this choice, and the part that will worry me for the next day or two, is that the "go left up the hill" choice leads us through an unavoidable field of thigh-high poison ivy. And I am wearing shorts. As a kid, I caught poison ivy very easily, and all I can imagine as I wade through the poison ivy jungle is "red, swollen and itchy from ankle to thigh for the next week or two."

The more immediate concern though is the bison. As we crash through the underbrush around and in front of it, it never moves. I think that it is either a very sound sleeper in the middle of the day, or it is sick, or maybe even dead. The "maybe it's dead" theory seems more possible as we pass in front of it and it never so much as twitches, in addition to the smell of something dead that we all detect. The "dead or not dead" debate will continue for a while after we move out of the area, as something in the general vicinity was clearly dead, but something the size of a dead bison would probably be unmistakable and render all debate a moot point. Regardless, we march on in the sweltering 100 degree heat.

12:33pm - Nearing the end of the hike. And it can't come soon enough for me. We are only completing a 4 mile loop, but the unrelenting sun and the oppressive heat make this a much more taxing hike than it might otherwise be. I have done 7 or 8 mile hikes that seemed easier than this. Part of this, I suppose, is expectation. And my expectation of this hike, not accounting for the heat, was that this would be a "stretch the legs" hike. Despite the relative flatness of the ground, there was nothing easy about this hike on this day.

12:57pm - We climb the last hill and reach the parking lot and our van exactly two hours to the minute after setting out. I am tired and hot, but happy. There is a certain kind of satisfaction to be gained by completing something that requires physical exertion, and this hike was more difficult than the mileage would indicate. Not so much on the legs, but 100 degree heat will sap your energy fairly quickly, and this pretty well exhausted me.

A look at the GPS track when we get back home shows that this hike was 4.8 miles, or about three quarters of a mile longer than the guidebook indicated.

Next... Mount Rushmore and on to Sylvan Lakes

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