Wind Cave National Park (NP #20), South Dakota (State #37)

– June 10, 2015 –


Backcountry camping in Wind Cave National Park (map / wiki) was free. I hiked east on Centennial Trail down into a small valley following a level meadow stream.


I want to see bison.


On the hike in I passed bison tracks, bison chips of varying freshness, none dry enough to burn, and two bison carcases. The more complete of the two was less than 5 feet from the trail. I could recognize vertebrae still aligned, a stout femur with its ball joint, and a shoulder or hip bone with a flared plate intended for large muscle attachments. Below the bones lay a shrunken clump of hyde and fur which was not much bigger than my chest.


An aside: Last weekend (6/12/15) I visited a friend who is working towards becoming a surgeon, and we had a long conversation on how sheltered from death first world countries can afford to be, and more specifically, our own up-bringing. We generally agreed that society and individuals try to reduce exposure to death in an attempt to reduce suffering – out of sight, out of mind. But we also agreed that for us two personally, it was frustrating. Being sheltered from death essentially cheapens your experience of life. We felt misled to believe that the stakes are lower than they actually are.


Now, I’m not saying we should traumatize young kids with over exposure to death, and I’m not saying I want to go through war or natural disaster just to add it to my list of experiences. But I am saying that if you don’t participate in the regular occurrence of death and have time to dwell on thoughts of mortality, then at some point you will be thrust into dealing with the death of a close relative or friend, and you will not be emotionally equipped to handle it. In my experience, it has been people who love me and are looking out for my best interest who have prevented me from experiencing death. I don’t want to get into the details, but in the simplest language possible, it put distance between us.



Centennial Trail in Wind Cave National Park.


Surrounding the heap of carcass there was a depression about the size of a bison profile where the grass didn’t grow. I have three theories why the grass had not returned.


  1. The death could be more recent than it looked, and the grass has not had time to grow back yet. My guess was 9 to 18 months, but maybe it’s less than 6 months.
  2. Maybe the soil compacted under the weight of the bison to the point where it was too dense for grass to grow back immediately.
  3. Perhaps most grimly, the blood, flesh, and maggot bloom may leave the soil too rich in un-decomposed organic matter for plant growth.


I came across a few more of these bison halos while hiking out the next morning which leads me to believe that reason number one could be thrown out.


Dusk has, night will.


I pan around with my headlamp from the boulder I sit on, making sure to flinch every time a moth flutters too close. There are fire flies out. Lightning is happening somewhere. The flashes draw my eyes up, but their direction is obscured by low homogeneous cloud cover. The thunderless spurts of diffuse brightness had me questioning if they were actually happening at all until I lied back and looked up for the three or four minutes it took to catch one in the act.


They said it would be raining. All day every bite sized conversation mentioned it. I had heard it so many times that while I was filling out my backcountry permit it was me shooing away conversational down time with premonitions of rain.

We’ll see.

The boulder I sat on is just beyond the bridge over the creek.


Thunder – right on cue


9:45 pm 6/10/15 at the intersection of Centenial Trail and the connecting spur to Highland Creek Trail.



I didn’t end up going into the Wind Cave itself. I was in a bit of a rush to get to Minneapolis before the weekend so I could hang with my surgeon buddy, Adam.


Starting the hike out.


While driving out of the park I got to see a few bison up close. This picture came out best.


There’s no substitute for seeing bison up close.


They don’t seem to hold a grudge agains us despite the decimation of their ancestors.


Obviously, this is reading a little too far into it, but I like to think that nature uses these beasts as a vessel to communicate the emotional impact of nonviolent protest. On the one hand, I understand the reality that they were seen as nothing more than a resource by settlers, and no new change in philosophy could undo what’s been done to their numbers, their range, and their quality of life, and on the other hand, I know how robbed I feel when I think about how close I came to seeing millions of them roam wild.

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