Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Happy Birthday Mother

As most of you know, my mother, Evelyn Jones, passed away August 13 of last year, just five weeks shy of her 99th birthday.   Monday, September 24, 2012, would have been her 100th birthday. Just before sunrise on Monday, we were on our way to the annual Buffalo Roundup in Custer State Park. As we traveled through the park, we saw this unusual "sun dog" in the sky.

Perhaps it was just ice crystals in the upper atmosphere, or perhaps it was Mother saying hello and letting us know she was thinking of us, too.

Happy Birthday, Mother. You were always the wind beneath my wings. We love and miss you.

Friday, September 21, 2012

That's Why They Call It Fishing

The last several weeks we have done our fair share of hiking, driving and looking. What we haven't done is fishing, and that's one of our favorite outdoor activities. One reason we haven't been out to wet a line is that fish are few and far between this time of year. By the end of the summer, most of the lakes and streams in the Black Hills have been heavily fished, and only fingerlings rise to the bait. Up until now, the scenery has been great, but the fish few and far between.

However, to get ready for the annual Buffalo Roundup in Custer State Park, the Parks Service has been busy in the last several days restocking the lakes and streams in the park. In preparation for the possibility of good fishing for a few days, John fulfilled his wish to try fly fishing. Last week he took a day trip with Dave Gamet, head guide with Dakota Angler and Outfitter of Rapid City. They fished north of Custer near Spearfish, and John had the thrill of landing a 20-inch trout and battling a fiesty 23-incher. The waters where they fished are catch-and-release, so John wasn't too disappointed when the larger fish managed to get into some rocks and cut the line.

Yesterday and today, we tried our trout-catching skills in the Grace Coolidge Walk-in Fishing Area in Custer State Park. On Thursday, the only thing we caught was a lot of fishing frustration and photos of a couple of squirrels, a chipmunk, a flock of turkeys and a menage a trois of dragonflies.

Today was a different story, thank goodness! Maybe it was because we got an earlier start, or were more patient, or perhaps the fish were hungrier. For whatever reason, we had a wonderful day fishing. 

John's theory that flies are better than bait was vindicated. I caught two nice trout on pink power bait, but he caught four, not only the most but the biggest, including this 16-inch beauty. 

It was a great day....and dinner will be something special!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Custer # 3

Tuesday found us, along with our RV neighbor, Susan, setting out on a morning jeep tour to see some of Custer State Park's bison herd, and hopefully other critters as well. We were not disappointed. Almost as soon as we left the parking lot, we spotted another covey of sharp-tailed grouse.  This one showed us his distinctive pointy tail.

Shortly after, we saw this nice pronghorn buck hanging out near the corrals where the buffalo will be penned. If you look closely, you can see that this fellow has been sparring for the ladies. There is a large wound on his upper right shoulder and his right horn is broken. I guess the other guy got the girls.

Driving across the souhern part of the park, we had beautiful views of the hills where the Custer SP bison range. 

Just out of reach of my camera lens, we saw this coyote standing watch by a prairie dog burrow...waiting for breakfast, I suppose.

And not long after, we located a sizable part of the bison herd. 

The animals we saw were mostly females with this year's calves. Mixed in were some of last year's calves (the ones with the straight horns) and some of the younger bulls (4-5 years old). 
Most of the mature bulls have already left the herd. They only stay with the females during the breeding season, which was mostly over in July. The rest of the time they spend alone.

A few of the cows had their calves late. You can tell the younger ones because they have reddish, curly coats.  We were told that the calves will shed their baby coats when they are 2-3 months old.  

However, because these calves were born late, their mothers will breed later than the others. This is why some of the younger bulls stay with the herd and are paying so much attention to them!   It's love, or maybe the perfume she's wearing!   They wouldn't get to first base if the senior bulls were still around, so they're hanging out with the girls and hoping to get lucky.

We were told that most of the senior herd sires are 7-10 years old. You can tell the ages of the bison by the number on the upper part of their right hip. This number is the last digit of their birth year. Cows usually remain with the herd until they are about 10 years old. The cow below has a "2" on her hip, indicating she was born in 2002,  She is 10 years old, no longer in her prime, and will likely be removed from the herd this fall.
As we were finishing our tour, we came across this large bull in another section of the park. We looked for a number, but he was unbranded. Our tour guide said that he was probably born after the roundup, and consequently was never branded. He estimated that this bull was likely about 10 years old.  He's quite a big boy by any standards.

As we were leaving the area where the bison were grazing, we came across this very handsome pronghorn buck. His good looks apparently weren't enough to attract any females, however. In spite of his efforts, like the buck we saw earlier, he too came away with only a scar to show for his efforts.  If you look closely you can see it on his right hip in the second photo. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Never a Dull Moment!

Well, there's never a dull moment around here. On Sunday we took a drive around the Wildlife Loop to see if any bison had been moved to the working pens in preparation for the Buffalo Roundup on September 24. There were no bison, but on the way back we stopped to say hello to some of the resident wild donkeys. Here Kota intoduces herself to an inquisitive jenny.

A little later, we saw a really nice pronghorn buck grazing right beside the road. He was no more than 30 yards away, so we stopped to take a couple of pictures.  I asked John to release the window lock (which we keep engaged to make sure Nickie and Kota can't lean too far out of the car) so I could take my photos. When he did so, unbeknownst to us Nickie put her foot on the back door controller and rolled down the back window on the driver's side. I happily shot away for a couple of minutes as the buck moved closer and closer to the car.  

Then several other cars stopped to watch, and the buck got a little nervous. He trotted ahead of the line of cars, crossed the road, then proceeded to gallop back toward us along the other side of the road.

The dogs began to whine and dance, and then the excitement was just too much for Kota. Before we could roll up the window, she took a flying leap, hit the pavement 10 feet or so from the car, and was off like a shot in hot pursuit of the buck. Long story short, John and I whistled and shouted while the rest of the tourists tsked-tsked and wondered what would happen.  Kota continued her chase for a good half-mile across the meadow, ears flying, until she became just a black dot in the distance. Fortunately, just before she disappeared over a rise, she responded to John's whistle and stopped.

When she returned, she was very proud of herself and fortunately none the worse for wear. We consider it a blessing that Kota stopped before she was too far away to hear us, and a miracle that Nickie didn't jump out to join the chase. As for the buck, he lived up to his "second fastest land mammal" reputation and never really had to extend himself to stay well ahead of his pursuer.

On Monday, we packed a lunch and drove the scenic Needles Highway up to Sylvan Lake, stopping on the way at beautiful Sylvan Lake Lodge, where this is the view from the outdoor dining area. 

There is a lovely walking trail (somewhat strenuous in spots) around Sylvan Lake, with lots of photo ops.

We also tried our luck at fishing in the lake. There was one guy fly-fishing from a kayak. We saw him land a number of nice trout, and there were plenty of "fish circles" on the water. However, neither John's flies nor my worms, salmon eggs or power bait were able to entice a strike. We had to be content with the scenery....which was awesome!


After lunch we continued down the Needles Highway past impressive rock formations like "The Needle's Eye," shown here. 

There are also two tunnels on this section of the road (the narrowest 8'4" wide by 12'0" high) and breathtaking vistas like these views of Cathedral Spires.

On the lower part of the road, we rounded a curve to find cars stopped in both directions to observe these four bighorn rams grazing beside the road. 

They were handsome fellows, and quite willing to pose for photos. 

We were very careful to roll up and secure the back windows so we wouldn't have a repeat of Sunday's fiasco!


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Custer, SD #2

On Friday, we drove some of Custer State Park's back roads, then traveled the route known as the Wildlife Loop through the lower part of the park. Beside the road, we came across this group of pronghorn antelope grazing in the meadow. 

The females and young were watched over by this handsome buck. Both males and females have two-pointed horns which are composed of keratin growing over a bony center. I was surprised to learn that the hair-like part of the horn is shed annually. The pronghorn is either "the second-fastest land mammal in the world, able to travel over 53 mph," or "among the speediest animals in North America." I'm not sure which is a more accurate so many things, it just depends on the source of your "facts."

Farther along the Wildlife Loop, we came across a small flock of sharp-tailed grouse foraging beside the road. This individual was very curious about our car, and stood still long enough for me to take a couple of photos. I think this may be a young bird. If you look closely at the feathers on its neck, they look a little "downy." Perhaps the youngster just wasn't old and wise enough to be afraid.

Shortly afterward, we came to the section of the road where the "wild" donkeys hang out. I say "wild" only in the sense that they roam freely in the park, and that they are descendants of the donkeys that years ago were used to carry tourists and miners into the back country. These days, they are known for blocking traffic to beg for treats. In exchange, they allow tourists to take their pictures and enjoy their antics. These two were demonstrating "I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine."

Not far from the donkeys we passed a prairie dog town. Kota and Nickie were most interested in this little fellow and his friends.
For lunch, we stopped at Blue Bell Lodge, one of four lodges in the park. We split an enormous buffalo burger with onion rings and were glad we didn't order two of them! Then we were off to the Mt. Coolidge lookout and fire tower. 

We didn't see the ranger who was keeping watch from the tower, but we did see the magnificent panorama from the top. To the east, you can see all the way to the Badlands, and to the west Custer and the Crazy Horse Memorial. On our way down, we took this photo of The Needles, a rock formation on the northern edge of the park. Even on a hazy day like this one it's still an impressive sight.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Custer, SD #1

WOW! It was 36 degrees yesterday when we struggled out of bed and made for the coffee pot and the high is supposed to be in the 70s. That's just the kind of weather we had hoped to find in South Dakota. Even though temperatures this summer have been above seasonal averages here, maybe we've at last turned the corner into fall.

We're enjoying our time here in Custer. Custer's Gulch RV Park and Campground backs up to national forest land, and there are miles and miles of ATV and hiking trails to choose from. Since there are very few ATV riders here this time of year, we ordinarily have the trails all to ourselves. The dogs like it because they can go off-leash. However, Nickie and Kota must wear their packs while we're out. That's because packs signal to them that they're "working" and are supposed to stay on the trails instead of dasing off in pursuit of a deer, squirrel or whatever.

It works most of the time. Here the three of them were able to sit still for a moment for a picture. (Colt only wears a pack when we need him to carry water; he's a good boy and stays right with John and me on our walks.)

And here's a picture of what happens when Nickie and Kota disobey and leave the trail to hunt. Kota only had to go a few feet off the trail to catch this unwary squirrel. Nickie was right behind her, and after a short tug-of-war claimed it as her own. We wouldn't let her take it back to camp, so John tossed the carcass into a small tree on our way home. The next day she ran ahead and managed to retrieve it and carried it with her until we again tossed into the weeds.  This morning she quickly found it and carried it with us on our walk. She put it down a couple of times to dash off in pursuit of deer, but each time came back and picked it up again. Finally after 45 minutes she got tired of carrying it and dropped it beside the trail. We'll see if she can find it again the next time we walk that way.

Earlier in the week I was able to witness what I'm told is a twice-a-year event at the Crazy Horse Memorial north of Custer. After the evening laser light show, there was a "night blast" scheduled. The first photo above is of the mountain at dusk.  Look closely and you can see the face and below it the statue's outstretched arm.  The second, below, is part of the laser light presentation that shows how the memorial will look when it is finished. The third is the start of the "night blast." It began at the base of the memorial and traveled all the way up to the top. Quite a show! I'm glad I was there to see it.

Saturday, September 1, 2012


Today brought more excitement than we had bargained for. Shortly after 2:00 of the campground owners pounded on our door and told us we were under a "preliminary evacuation order" because of a fire a few hundred yards from our campground. (Thank goodness we were in the RV and not out fishing or sightseeing!) We were instructed to be ready to leave at a moment's notice if the fire could not be contained. 

We sprang into action! While John warmed up the Volvo, unhooked the water, electricity, etc. and stowed the awnings, I put away computers, pulled in the slides and got ready to move out. In about 20 minutes, we were hooked up and ready to roll. For the next couple of hours we stood around with our fellow campers and watched the helicopter fly back and forth between the fire and the lakes in nearby Custer State Park where they were scooping up buckets of water and dumping them on the flames.
 Here is a shot over our neighbor's RV of the chopper dropping its load of water...
and flying away to get more.

Thank goodness the order to evacuate never came. Thanks to the quick response of the Custer firefighters and forest service personnel, the fire was brought under control. We were fortunate that the fire was north of our campground and the stiff breeze that fanned it was from the south, so it was moving away from us. By 5:00 p.m. we were told that the fire was officially under control and we could resume normal activities. Our good friends, Mike and Pat McFall who live only a few miles from our campground, graciously offered to put us up if we needed to evacuate.  We were very glad we didn't need to take them up on their offer.   

After the all-clear was given, we drove out the gates of the campground and saw firefighters working to put out any  "hot spots" that remained. In this photo you can see the smoke through the trees from our vantage point on the road.  It was only then that we realized how very close the fire was to our camp...only 500 yards or so!  There is a rocky ridge between the fire site and our campground, so we really couldn't see what was happening from our RV site.

Shortly after, a light rain shower passed over, and we saw these beautiful rainbows. They were comforting to say the least! 

Thank you, God!