Sunday, August 31, 2014

Custer, South Dakota

Our trip from Alliance to Custer was uneventful, and on Tuesday, August 12, we pulled into Custer’s Gulch RV Park and Campground.  There has been plenty of rain this year, and the entire Black Hills area is beautiful and green.  It’s quite a contract to the previous couple of years, which were drier than usual.  

We have spent our first couple of weeks just “chillin’” after such a hectic few weeks before departing Austin.  Of course, we took advantage of the wonderful logging roads and trails through the forest adjacent to our camp.  The dogs adapted quickly to their packs, and remembered (for the most part) to stay on the trail while wearing them.  

The forest between our camp and Custer State Park has changed significantly since our visit last year.  Large areas of dead trees, victims of the mountain pine beetle, have been cut and stacked (and presumably will be burned during the winter months).  In the second photo, you can see the reddish brown trees that have been cut and stacked.  The Forest Service says that these trees were actually attacked last summer/fall when adult beetles emerged from infested trees and flew to adjacent trees.  The adults bore beneath the bark, laying eggs and spreading fungus spores.  The eggs hatch as tiny white larvae that excavate their way laterally around the tree, cutting off the flow of nutrients.  Simultaneously, the fungus introduced by the beetles clogs the trees' pores, further reducing the flow of sap.  The tree succumbs the next spring as the needles turn yellow and then reddish brown in the summer.

The Forest Service and South Dakota Department of Agriculture say that the mountain pine beetle is native to the Black Hills, and that its life cycle includes periods when they become very abundant and then relatively rare.  The first recorded beetle outbreak occurred in the late 1890s.  An estimated 10 million trees were killed during this outbreak.  Approximately five outbreaks have occurred since that time, but none has been that serious.  Outbreaks last for about 5 to 13 years, after which the beetle population declines.  In the early 1970s more than 440,000 trees were lost.    The last previous outbreak occurred from 1988 to 1992 when 50,000 trees died.  At present, beetle populations are said to be increasing, and they are expected to continue to increase during the next five years.  So far, it is thought that 25% of the forests in the Black Hills have been destroyed by the beetles.

In the Black Hills, in addition to cutting dead trees, dense stands of living trees are being thinned aggressively to make it harder for the beetles to migrate from infected to healthy trees.  On our walks, we pass through some areas that have been thinned, and adjacent to others that are densely wooded.  Where thinning has occurred, the native grasses are thriving and in many places vegetation on the forest floor is taller than a dog. 

After getting settled in camp, we wasted no time in getting our fishing license and trying our luck in the Grace Coolidge Walk-in Fishing Area in Custer State Park.  

The first time we fished, we were not disappointed.  The trout were biting, and we had a feast of panko-crusted rainbows.  John landed two nice fish, and I contributed one.

Our next outing was different.  John and his fly rod only brought in this one fish, 

while Pink Power Bait and I caught this beauty.  Fortunately, it was big enough to feed both of us.  

Life in camp has been interesting.  Last week we enjoyed visiting with our next-door neighbor, Richard, who has come here from Alberta, Canada, for the last two years.  Richard didn’t bring his two dogs, Timber and Duke, so the Bagley Pack were only too happy to give him lots of dog affection so he wouldn’t be too lonely.

Another attraction this year has been the yellow-bellied marmot clan.  A number of these little guys live in rock piles in the forest and in camp.  They are mostly unaware of the danger straining at the end of each leash, and let us come quite close.  Occasionally one gives a loud whistle (thus the common name “whistle pig”) to warn their friends if it thinks we are a threat. 

Wickipedia calls them “large squirrels,” normally weighing between 3.5 to 11 pounds.   These don’t look like eleven-pounders, but they are very plump, and I’m sure couldn’t move nearly as fast as the squirrels that visit our backyard outside Austin.  Colt is disinterested, but Kota and Rue have visions of catching one each time we come near their homes.

There has been a lot going on in Custer, too.  The first week we were here we were treated to drive-by looks at a number of antique tractors.  There is an annual get-together here for folks who collect them.  They go out each day for a tour of the area, including visits to Custer State Park, the Needles Highway and Mount Rushmore.

Most of the tractors have been modified so they can carry two people, and have plenty of shade for touring.

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