I’m not much for hollering, but Quackgrass Sally sure is.
The rancher, horsewoman, writer and movie-props expert from Montana is, like me, hanging on for dear life to a rack on the back of a pickup truck as a herd of 1,200 wild bison thunders in the distance.
Our driver doesn’t have the same enthusiasm as the dozens of others hightailing it over the bumpy plains for getting up close and personal with the herd.
Quackgrass Sally, who makes no bones about the fact she’d rather be on a horse with the working cowboys guiding the herd, is quick and loud with the yee-haws in an effort to spur some action.
Soon enough, we’re on the edge of the herd, the sound of the hooves mixed with the crack of bullwhips and hollers of real, working South Dakota cowboys and a handful of hobby riders, skilled in riding and lucky enough to win one of 20 spots to join the roundup as amateurs, dodging prairie-dog holes, bison horns and the occasional grass fire started by the hot catalytic converters of journalist-laden pickup trucks.
As we bump closer to the herd’s destination, a paddock, I look up at a ridge and see it packed with people — an estimated 15,000 from as far away as China and as nearby as Rapid City.
After the work is done and the dust settled, park superintendent Richard Miller and herd manager Chad Kramer patiently answer questions from experts and greenhorns like me.
"We got all the animals where they needed to be, when they needed to be there," Miller said. "We were also happy to have no injuries to man or beast."
Kramer, looking every bit the part with his large, bushy moustache, black cowboy hat and .22-calibre pistol on his hip, is patient but seems like he’d rather be back on his horse than being scrummed in the heat by journalists from Belgium, Sweden, the Netherlands and Southwestern Ontario.
During this roundup, unseasonably warm temperatures of about 30 C were good for the tourists, but not so much for the animals.
"It’s too hot," he said. "Twenty-five degrees cooler would have been nice. They get too hot and after the first mile and half were slowing down, which added some work to keep them moving."
The Buffalo Roundup is an annual September event — Sept. 24 this year — in Custer State Park and for its first 25 years or so the roundup was a quiet affair among cowboys, park officials and veterinarians. Actor Kevin Costner changed all that after filming Dances With Wolves in the region more than 20 years ago and the event, intended to check the herd’s health, vaccinate young bison and cull numbers, has become the highlight of a South Dakota September.
Lodges and cabins in Custer State Park accommodate weekend guests for the full Buffalo Roundup experience. The State Game Lodge, which was built in 1920 and served as Calvin Coolidge’s summer White House, is well worth a look, even if you are staying elsewhere.
For those who like to ride without the threat of bison charging at 60 km/h, there are guided trail rides through the park’s back country. You can ride as part of a group or on a private tour anywhere from one-hour to a full day. Off-road, open-air Jeep tours provide much the same experience without saddle sores.
Fly fishing in trout-laden streams, complete with rented equipment and a guide, requires a state licence ($16 for non-residents) while an equally peaceful but more frugal option is a hike from near Game Park Lodge up the hill to Lover’s Leap.
Not yet one who’s gotten the hang of fly fishing and always the romantic, I join two expert guides and 100 or so other guests on the Lover’s Leap hike, which begins with a discouraging long, steady incline designed to separate the casual strollers from the determined marchers. Once past the trail’s early challenge, things get easier and rewarding. About an hour in, through ponderosa pine forest, hikers reach a ridge where signs point to the spot where two young lovers reputedly leapt together to their deaths.
The loop should take between two and three hours to complete and includes many stream crossings where slipping off a rock means wet feet. When I hiked it, there were significant areas of poison ivy.
Further afield, there’s a subterranean tour at Rushmore Cave in tiny Keystone where the family that owns the cave has added a single-run, high-speed zip-line down the hillside and an interactive 3D gunslinger theatre.
For historic railway buffs and families looking to time travel, the 1880 steam train of the Black Hills Central Railroad at Hill City about 45 minutes from the park provides a pioneering experience.
The Black Hills area near Custer State Park also provides some of the most scenic drives in North America, notably Needles Highway (aka Hwy. 87) and the picturesque Sylvan Lake rock formations. The Park is about 45 minutes south of Rapid City and about 25 minutes (in opposite directions) from both Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial.
IF YOU GO
For information on the 2012 Buffalo Roundup, go to custerstatepark.info. A seven-day park pass is $15. For Mount Rushmore, visit the National Park Service at nps.gov/moru/index.htm. For Crazy Horse Memorial, see its Facebook page at facebook.com/crazyhorsememorial. For general South Dakota travel planning, see travelsd.com.
American, Delta and United airlines offer service to Rapid City, S.D., via regional partners. Flights connect at Minneapolis-St. Paul. Custer State Park is an approximate 24-hour drive from Southwestern Ontario, 13 hours from Winnipeg and 16 hours from Calgary.