If you’ve ever stared a bison in the eyes and seen its wisdom and eternal wildness, you’ll never forget that moment, and you’ll always wish you could return to it. In Custer State Park in the Black Hills you can do just that. Join us on an amazing journey!
Words by Jonas Larsson Photos by Anders Bergersen.
It’s pitch dark as I stumble out onto the parking lot in Rapid City, South Dakota. Dragging myself back to my hotel room and going back to bed sounds like a terrific idea, but I gather my resolve, click my rental car open, and toss my luggage inside. Getting up at five am, after just a few hours of sleep, is far from my idea of fun, but this time, it’s going to turn out to be more than worth it. We drive out onto an empty highway, and half an hour later, we’ve arrived at the Badlands National Park. As we follow the boarded walkway out to the park, everybody seems to be over having to have an early morning. The stars of the Milky Way glisten in the sky above a majestic ridge ahead of us, and give us just enough light to find our way as we head out into the inhospitable but beautiful terrain of the Badlands. We stand, awestruck, waiting for the sun to make its way over the horizon in the East, to light up this surreal landscape we have entered. It is dead silent, a warm, pleasant silence that is broken only by the howls of a pack of coyotes. Slowly, a magical landscape appears around us, mountain ridges and barren ravines no more than a few yards deep make up a labyrinth that looks like something from Lord of the Rings. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if Gandalf the Grey had appeared behind one of the nearby rock formations.
At the Break of Dawn in the Badlands
As the sun rises above the horizon, our monochrome surroundings transform into a powder-colored paradise. The photographer Anders and myself are silent, awestruck. It was here, in the Badlands, that Sitting Bull and his tribe went into hiding when the government troops were after them in 1864, and running into their famous chief in this sacred and fascinating landscape wouldn’t have surprised me much either.
After immediately losing each other down in the ravines, we find each other again on a plateau. We just look at each other, nod in agreement, and begin walking towards the car. When we’ve been driving for a few minutes, it all starts to sink in, and we begin to manage to put what we’ve experienced into words.
Bison Land, Black Hills
South Dakota may not be the most famous of destinations in the USA, but this only makes it all the more exciting. We decided to focus on the Western region of the state, to explore the Black Hills, but our main reason for coming here was to experience the Buffalo Roundup. This event takes place once a year, in late September. Its purpose is to gather up the dispersed herd of Bison, about 1,500 head, and run them down to a corral to receive a health check-up and vaccinations, before they are released again a few days later. It’s a well-organized and well-visited event. In 2015, 20,000 people came to stand on the hills around the corral and get a look at the mighty animals from up close.
Chad Kramer has an impressive moustache. Apart from his spectacular facial hair, he’s also the number one go-to guy when it comes to the bison of South Dakota. He gives us our “Bison for Dummies” introduction, and then we climb onto the flatbed of his pickup and head off into Buffalo country.
“If a bull snorts, you’re in trouble. It means: I’m mad, and I don’t appreciate you checking out my ladies.” Chad’s briefing isn’t just intended to scare us; a grown bison bull weighs a hefty 2,000 pounds, and they can move a lot faster than you’d think. The fact that they have such enormous heads (and sharp horns) doesn’t exactly calm our nerves. We take Chad’s warning seriously. Bison are generally peaceful animals. Most of them peer at us with curiosity, and several of them approach us, to take a proper look at the strangers that have come to see them. Suddenly, we hear an unnerving rumble behind us, a few yards away. An enormous bull is putting a younger male in his place. The cow has placed itself between the young bull and her calf. These are surprisingly expressive animals, and they have a powerful instinct to protect their young and their mates.
As a rule, bison live to be 17 years old or so, although one member of this herd has reached the respectable age of 22. They move around on the prairie in smaller groups, until their breeding time at the end of July arrives, and they start to gather in larger herds. When their mating is done, many of the bulls head off to live alone, or with other bulls in smaller groups. A buffalo is a calf for three years, and for the first three or four months of this time they are a bright shade of cinnamon, and incredibly cute. At the age of 5 or 6, they become sexually mature, and the younger bulls leave the herd at this point.
When our own curiosity and the buffalo’s have both died down a little, we jump off the pickup, to gain a better perspective. These buffalo are beautiful, and express a deep wisdom as they saunter around us. A magnificent 14-year old bull walks by very close to where we’re standing. Chad explains that the hump is a huge muscle that holds up the weight of the massive head. We wave goodbye to the buffalo for now, but we’ll be returning in a few days, to ride the pickup again and watch fifty or so riders round all the animals up and herd them down to the corral.
Black Hills is a sacred site to the Lakota who live in South Dakota. During the gold rush of 1874, relations soured between the gold diggers and the natives, who had a hard time getting along. In 1890, this tension climaxed and erupted in the massacre of Wounded Knee. The damage is not yet fully healed, but the government and the people out here work hard to normalize their relationship. The Lakota attitude to life is fascinating, and among other things, it allows the women of their tribe a good deal of influence. No decision is ever made without a group of older women having their say on the issue. Makes sense. It’s our guide Billy, from Tatanka, the Story of the Bison museum, who tells us about his tribe’s fascinating lifestyle. The whole museum was funded by Kevin Costner, who became involved with the Bison and the Lakota people after shooting Dances with Wolves in this area.
Billy continues to tell us about the Lakota’s views on nature. “We are a part of nature, neither above nor below it, and that is why it is important for us to respect Mother Earth and Father Sky. If we take something from nature, we’re also obligated to give something back,” he continues. The Lakota believe themselves to be descended from the bison, and the animals are sacred to them for this reason. They use every part of the buffalo; if the hunters have downed an animal, they take the liver out and eat it. This way, they can consume some of the buffalo’s spirit. For those who don’t quite have the stomach for raw liver, it’s enough to simply use blood from it to paint two lines in your face. The Lakota language has no words for “I” or “me”, it only has “we” and “us.” Courage, humility, respect, and spirituality are all core virtues in the Lakota culture.
The road we take to the roundup is full of cars. It seems everybody is heading out to see the buffalo today. We take a shortcut along small forest roads, bouncing around in our all-terrain vehicles as we drive between the trees. But suddenly, we come to a halt: somebody has forgotten to unlock a road barrier for us, and our only option is to turn around and head back. I start to worry that we might miss the whole roundup, but our guides grew up in the area, and are soon able to find us a different back road to travel on, that lets us sneak past all the traffic.
There is a sense of the calm before a storm in the corral; the riders set off over the hills, and we clamber onto the pickups. We park behind the riders, who are lined up ahead of us. Suddenly, the buffalo come thundering over the nearest ridge, racing at us like a brown, woolly tidal wave. Whips crack in the air, the riders shout and run the herd down, and suddenly, some of the buffalo turn back and try to escape. Five or six riders gallop after them, and we witness some genuine drama go down in buffalo land. They manage to turn the huge animals around, and the herd starts to move again, over Lame Johnny Creek and on to the corral, between the hills. The large crowds on the hills cheer and whistle, and the buffalo, calmer now, continue to advance until they’ve reached the corral. Suddenly, it’s all over. We look at each other, grinning like fools. We realize that we’ve just had a very unique experience.
Old-timer, Forever Young
This experience is decidedly less unique to Bob Landis. Bob is a youthful 81-year-old, and this is the fifty-first Buffalo Roundup he’s seen. “It happened pretty quick this year. The buffalo had already gathered close by.” He says this with an uncontrived cool that only a bona fide cowboy could get away with. Bob grew up on a farm, and has ridden horses for as long as he can remember. His handshake is like a sledgehammer, and he’s the archetypal cowboy, complete with a revolver on his hip. “I rarely need to use it, but if a bison turns to come after you, this thing will stop it dead in its tracks”. “So, it’s loaded?” I ask. Bob gives me a weary look, and directs his question to the mountains: “What use is an unloaded revolver, anyway?”. I consider this for a while, and then nod in mild embarrassment.
“Horses are my life,” he says, and tenderly pets his horse Chip. This horse was going to be sent the slaughterhouse, because it was difficult to ride. Bob, who has been breaking horses since he was a boy, bought the horse, and three weeks later Chip was a new horse–agreeable, happy, and easy to ride. Bob and I sit down to talk about the cowboy lifestyle, and the buffalo, and gaze out over the billowing landscape. We get hungry, and head off to find something to eat. On the way, many stop us, to exchange a quick word with Bob. I wonder how anybody can be so with it at his age. Bob is 30 years older than I am, but he possesses that spark of life that you can only gain by doing what you truly love.
It’s pitch dark when I wake up. I shuffle out onto the parking lot, unlock the car, sigh, and wish that I was still in the Badlands, or one of the other fantastic places in west South Dakota. But repetition is the mother of all learning, and I’d be more than happy to go back.