Dances with buffalo in South Dakota

  • Article by: CONNIE NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 14, 2012 - 1:16 PM

Once simply a tool to manage the herd, the annual Buffalo Roundup in Custer State Park has become a Wild West show.

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We made it to the dining room of the Blue Bell Lodge by 5:45 a.m., and I quickly realized two things: We were late, and we were dressed all wrong.

Already, men (and a few women) wearing Western shirts, bolo ties and cowboy boots packed the log room. Some had leather chaps over their jeans and fringed leather gloves next to plates piled with pancakes, sausage, bacon and ham. (This was South Dakota, after all.) Their cowboy hats -- some weathered, some pristine -- remained firmly on their heads while they ate. As they finished up, the metallic jangle of spurs followed them to the door.

Dressed in our fleece jackets, baseball caps and high-tech hiking boots, my husband and I stood awkwardly by the vacant reception desk, feeling like quintessential city slickers, until a waitress speeding by put us out of our misery.

"Seat yourselves, folks! Seat yourselves," she called. "Breakfast is on!"

We'd driven nine hours across the South Dakota prairie and woken before dawn to see Custer State Park's Buffalo Roundup, where modern-day cowboys drive a herd of wild buffalo across the plains. But, like the more than 14,000 people who flock to the annual event, we wanted more than a dog and pony show. We wanted to time-travel to the Old West.

Even before we'd finished breakfast, we knew we'd found the right vehicle.

Now in its 47th year, the Buffalo Roundup is part herd-management tool, part choreographed spectacle.

Buffalo (yes, that's what they call bison here) were reintroduced to Custer State Park in 1914. Over the years, the massive mammals thrived and their numbers grew. But the limited grasslands in the rugged Black Hills park can support fewer than 1,000 of the behemoths over the winter, so the roundup was born.

Every September, cows and calves are driven into corrals. (The older bulls, "too big and too mean" to be involved, segregate themselves, said Craig Pugsley, the park's visitor services coordinator.) The animals are branded, checked by vets and vaccinated. About 300 are auctioned off, and the rest are released back into the park.

In its early days, the roundup was a workaday event, drawing a couple hundred local folks. But after the movie "Dances With Wolves" rekindled the long-smoldering love affair with the wild, Wild West, the roundup became a spectator sport, drawing people from around the globe, according to Pugsley.

"There's a romance to the whole event," he said, "to see the herd come down out of the hills ... the cowboys and cowgirls ... the ground shaking ... the dust billowing ... . This is something truly special, truly Western, truly unique."

That's why the rooms at the park's four lodges are booked months in advance. On the day of the event, the cars start lining up well before dawn. Some eager spectators even show up at midnight and sleep in their cars, said Pugsley. People now outnumber buffalo 10-1.

Prairie carnival

My husband and I left our rustic camper cabin (bunk beds, no kitchen, no bathroom) while it was still dark and hustled over to the lodge. We ate as fast as our breakfast companions, who were helping to drive the herd, then edged our rented Toyota into the unending line of cars snaking slowly through the park.

We crept along at 5 miles an hour, up and down a set of switchbacks, until traffic suddenly came to a standstill. There were no honking horns. No revving engines. All the people in all those cars sat and waited. After a while, the engines stopped, the brake lights went off, and people got out with steaming cups of coffee, leaned on their hoods and chatted with the folks from the car in front of them.

It was still a cool 46 degrees and we hadn't thought to bring coffee, so my husband and I sat in the car and watched the stars blink out one by one. As light filled the dark bowl of the valley, pronghorn antelope and deer appeared, calmly grazing as if they weren't being watched by hundreds of people a mere football field away.

Just as suddenly as it had stopped, the line of cars started moving again. We crawled about a mile, crested a small rise and got our first glimpse of one of the two viewing sites. It looked like a carnival plopped in the middle of the prairie.

Already a sea of cars and buses formed a makeshift parking lot just off the road. There were huge, multi-peaked tents, spilling orderly lines of people waiting for coffee and pancakes. A phalanx of Porta-Potties lined the road. Around the lot's perimeter, people had set up rows of lawn chairs, others had nabbed places up against the fence, a few sprawled out on blankets, sleeping through the noise and chaos.

We were guided into the lot by volunteers hollering "Move 'em!" and "Let's Go!," parked where we were directed, and slipped into the stream of people. I looked at my watch, it was 7:30. The show wasn't supposed to start until 9:30.

A showstopper

For the next two hours, we scouted for a place to perch, grilled roundup veterans about what was going to happen and took photos of the costumed cowboys. I met a couple from Eagan who said they -- wait! Was that the crack of a whip?

The crowd immediately turned toward the southern hills and let out a rowdy cheer.

A few dark, bulky shapes appeared on the top of the ridge. Then a few more. They congealed and floated down the hills like the shadows from a cloud.

Was this the roundup? I tried to ask the guy next to me, but he couldn't hear me over the cheering and clapping.

I looked back to the ridge, where the dark mass shifted, broke apart and came together again. Now we could clearly hear the crack! crack! crack! of the bullwhips and whoops of the riders. I realized this was it!

And then it stopped.

The buffalo -- now clearly buffalo -- had reached the bottom of the valley, where they filed in among the cottonwood trees lining the dry creekbed. The enthralled crowd watched and the buffalo rested while the 20 or so riders and their support trucks positioned themselves behind and to the sides of the herd to resume the drive.

With another crack, louder this time, and a chorus of whoops, it started again.

The buffalo were close enough that I could see their heaving sides, the clouds of dust they kicked up. And then I could see them -- a mass of matted brown fur, horns and hooves -- pounding right toward us.

Suddenly a handful of cowboys blocked my view. They had raced between us and the herd, just 100 yards away. I saw the sweat trickle down their red faces, heard them shouting commands. The ground shook, the air swirled with dust. For seconds, we were in a deafening, thrilling chaos. Then the cowboys spurred their horses and galloped after the buffalo as they shot through a low spot in a rise to the north.

Happy trails

While the riders regrouped for another push, some of the buffalo seemed to accept their fate and drifted slowly toward the corrals.

There were two more starts and stops and a dramatic finale, where the last of the buffalo poured like oil into the funnel of the corrals. Then a couple of cowboys swung the gates shut with a clang and the show was over.

For a while, nobody moved. Then people boarded buses for the corrals, where they would line up in an orderly fashion, buy plates of pulled beef and baked beans and sit in the shade of another set of multi-peaked tents to eat. As we walked the half-mile to the corrals and dutifully took our place in line, I realized that we'd been rounded up just as skillfully as the buffalo.

It wasn't yet noon, and the temperature had skyrocketed into the high 80s. If we wanted to stay to see the buffalo being sorted and branded, we'd have to wait another hour in the searing sun.

We'd gotten a taste of the Old West. We were hot, dust-covered and tired. Now I wanted what the New West could offer: a hot shower and a soft bed.

Connie Nelson • 612-673-7087

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