Traffic jam was one wild & woolly adventure


Naturalist Kevin Isely with an injured polyphemus moth on his hand outside the Custer State Park Visitor Center. (courtesy of Mary Lee Hagert)

Buffalo, tourists 

get crazy in Custer State Park

 

There were bison to the right, the left, up front and in the rear. The ambling critters were so close I could see the strands of curly hair on their massive heads and look directly into their ever-watchful dark eyes.

A thin pane of window glass was the only thing separating me from menacing curved horns. 

As much as I wanted to flee, I stayed inside, hoping the unpredictable, dangerous beasts would continue marching around our stationary vehicle.

It was July, the peak of the tourist season in the South Dakota Black Hills, and my husband, Karl, son Kevin and I were trapped in a buffalo traffic jam on the Wildlife Loop Road at Custer State Park. Countless cars, SUVs, pickups and motorcycles were at a dead stop, as people were mesmerized by the wild bison streaming across the curvy, two-lane roadway. 

I maintained my composure — just barely, mind you — and didn’t lay on the horn in hopes the animals would be startled enough to quickly move away. As tempting as sounding the horn was, Kevin, who is a program naturalist in the famed, 71,000-acre park this summer, cautioned it might inadvertently spark a stampede and that would be bad ... really, really bad. 

But I was frustrated that motorists wouldn’t proceed down the road when there were big breaks in the waves of buffalo. Instead they remained parked in the traffic lanes, extending everyone’s up-close encounter with the skittish beasts.

You see, we were on a tight schedule and simply hadn’t anticipated a buffalo jam. Although we should have, since this had happened to us before. 

The first time I was in a buffalo slowdown was as a child when my family was vacationing in the Black Hills. I still have the grainy black-and-white photos that Mom snapped of the animals sauntering across the same Wildlife Loop Road. And my husband and I have been in similar bison backups in national parks on past vacations with our sons. 

Kevin, who was more patient with this summer’s traffic snarl than his parents, pointed out, “This is just part of the Custer experience. While we’ve been lucky enough to have seen bison a number of times, for most of these folks, they’ve traveled hundreds or maybe even thousands of miles just to see a buffalo in the wild and this is their first time.” But we were impatient to finish the wildlife loop before needing to get Kevin back in time for a program he would be leading. 

He then tried distracting us with “fun naturalist facts.” He told us:

• Each animal had a number branded on its hindquarters, which identified the year it was born, and an “S,” which signified it belonged to the state park.

• The term “turning on a dime” was coined by Europeans explorers when they saw how fast a buffalo could pivot on its front feet.

• A bison can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and run 35 miles per hour.

When the traffic jam finally cleared, it was almost time for Kevin to report to work at the Custer Visitor Center, where he was scheduled to give a “Fossils of the Black Hills” program he designed. That evening we were in the audience for his campfire talk; we missed his “Match the Scat” program, which was a big hit with grade-schoolers, who got to identify the park animals’ freeze-dried droppings and dissect buffalo chips. 

My husband and I have plenty of good vacation memories and photographs of the stunning Black Hills scenery from this trip. But only later, when telling friends about our hair-raising experience with the buffalo, did we realize we had NO PHOTOS of the herd!

At the time, we were so focused on staying “on schedule,” that we didn’t fully enjoy our intimate look at North America’s largest mammals with our son, a naturalist expert, offering up interesting bison factoids from the back seat.  

Looking back, we’re reminded that it’s often the unpredictable and surprising events that are the most exciting and memorable.  

 

If you go ... 

South Dakota’s Custer State Park remains open year round, so there are still plenty of chances to see its 1,300 bison up close this year.

The park’s popular Annual Buffalo Roundup will take place Friday, Sept. 27, when visitors will get to see cowboys on horseback and hundreds of bison running in unison across the high plains, and perhaps encounter naturalists, including Mary Lee Hagert’s son Kevin, answering questions and providing information about Custer’s features, history and wildlife.  

 

–Mary Lee Hagert can be reached at roseville@lillienews.com.

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