Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Eating Bison and Elk in South Dakota

We recently visited South Dakota and discovered that bison is to South Dakota what alligator is to Florida and Louisiana - it is on menus everywhere. We had bison as a major part of three meals and had three very mixed experiences. 

Custer State Park has a number of lodges with dining options and we ate at two of them. 

After a day of viewing bison and other wildlife in the park we stopped at Blue Bell Lodge. The lodge is rustic with stuffed wildlife on the walls and paintings and photos of the area and the wildlife. Just what you would expect. We were delighted to find a number of bison offerings on the menu. My wife had bison stew in a skillet and it was just okay. The bison had been cooked a long time and it was mushy and did not have the distinctive bison taste I love. She rated it a 3 out of 5. I got the bison tips in a skillet cooked with green beans, potatoes and mashed potatoes and it was very good, a 4 out of 5. The bison was moist, cooked medium rare as ordered, and the green beans and potatoes went very well together. The setting was wonderful following a day of wildlife viewing.
Blue Bell Lodge dining room.
Bison stew in a skillet with mashed potatoes.
Bison tips in a skillet with green beans, potatoes and mashed potatoes.
The next evening we spent our 35th wedding anniversary at the Sylvan Lake Lodge. This lodge dining room is much more fancy with white table cloths and a more formal setting. The menu was much more extensive and the price was double or more what the prices were at Blue Bell. But the food was at least twice as good. They not only had bison, but elk, pheasant and walleye. We got bison chislic as an appetizer. Chislic is a South Dakota dish of cubed meat, often wild game, either deep-fried or grilled, and served hot on a skewer or toothpick. This bison meat was extraordinary, a 5 out of 5. A nice cut, cooked medium rare and full of flavor. It came with a creamy horseradish Dijon sauce. We both loved it. Judy got a bison tenderloin and let me sample several bites. We both agreed that it may be the best bison we've ever eaten. A 5 out of 5. It cut with a fork, was warm inside, but still nice and pink and juicy. It melted in the mouth. Our picture does not do it justice. I got an elk chop because I don't see elk on menus very often. I find elk very lean and usually over-cooked and dry. But I decided to order it anyway and got it rare - and it came that way. I would have called it a tomahawk rib-eye and it was a very nice piece of meat. However, elk is not bison and the bison wins in the flavor department. The elk was much tougher and it does not have as much flavor as bison. However, that said, it was still very good - a 4 out of 5. This was a very nice restaurant and I would love to eat here again. 
Judy got a hand-made decoration from some visiting artists at the Sylvan Lake Lodge. 
However, the food was the real work of art. Bison chislic.
The chislic was medium rare inside. 
Bison tenderoloin.
Inside the tenderloin - red butter.
Elk chop or tomahawk.
Elk - rare on the inside.
From there to the Wall Drug Store in Wall, South Dakota, just outside Badlands National Park, and one of the worst dining experiences of our lives. Wall Drug is tackiness magnified. Signs are spaced about every quarter mile along the interstate for miles - you almost have to eat there as you've been bludgeoned by the signs. The place fills a full city block and you almost fill slimy as you walk through. It feels like a shopping experience put together by a used car salesman. You feel ripped-off from the time you walk in until the time you leave and you vow you'll never do it again. The website has a picture of a burger on it with a slice of cheese hanging over a thick burger with a big tomato slice and a large piece of lettuce hanging out all sides of the bun and a big quartered pickle spear. My picture shows the "world famous bison burger" we got - a thin, overcooked piece of meat with a single tomato slice that covered about one-third of the bun, an onion slice that was even smaller, two dill pickle slices and a piece of lettuce that covered less than one-fourth of the bun. I don't remember the cost, but it was not cheap and I felt ripped-off. We also got a bison hot dog which was shriveled up from being over-cooked, probably sat in a warming tray for far too long, and a flattened out bun that was form fitted around it with two pickle slices. We both had upset stomachs the rest of the day. Both the bison burger and hot dog rate a 1 out of 5 and that is giving it the benefit of the doubt. 
Inside the Wall Drug dining room.
Look at the picture of this burger and the picture on the website. Such a sad little heap of vegetables to complement the over-cooked sorry excuse for a bison burger. Unfortunately, the picture looks better than it actually tasted. 
And you thought the burger looked bad - this bison hot dog looks like part of the mummified hand of the crook whose hand was chopped off and preserved in a church in Prague. 
This bun was wrapped around the dog - no other comment needed. 
So we experienced bison at its worst and its best. I do love the bison as a South Dakota food theme. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Harney Peak

Harney Peak is the high point in the State of South Dakota at 7,242 feet in elevation and it claims to be the high point in the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains, although I'm not sure how that squares with Guadalupe Peak in Texas which is 8,751 feet in elevation and I believe also east of the Rocky Mountains.  

We decided to hike to Harney Peak from Sylvan Lake, in Custer State Park, which was featured in National Treasure: Book of Secrets, a film with Nicolas Cage, Jon Voight, Ed Harris and Helen Mirren. The trailhead elevation is 6,100 feet. Sylvan Lake is about 7.5 miles from the city of Custer, South Dakota.  Custer made national news just a few days before we arrived when it got 8 inches of snow in early September, the earliest snowfall since the late 1800s. We were concerned that the trail would be snow-covered and iced-over and impossible or too difficult to follow, so we spent the morning elsewhere in Custer State Park hoping that the sun would melt the snow off the trail. The temperatures were in the high 50s. 

Our fears were assuaged when we arrived a little before noon and found a parking lot full of cars near the trailhead and plenty of people either coming down from the mountain or getting ready to go. There was only about 1,142 feet of elevation gain, so we were not too concerned about an overly steep grade. The trail was 3.5 miles each way, or 7 miles round trip. 
The trail starts at a relatively even grade. Eventually we reached a sign indicating we were in the Black Elk Wilderness Area and then an overlook over a valley with the Harney Peak lookout perched on a ridge on the other side. The high point was not obvious initially, but once we spotted the lookout tower, the peak became obvious. 

The lookout tower on Harney Peak is right of center. 
Lookout tower.
As we hit trees which shadowed the trail on both sides, snow covered the surrounding landscape, but the trail was mostly snow free, although muddy in parts. 
Trail traversing through the snow. 
As we reached the rock spine upon which the lookout tower sits, we got help navigating upwards. Metal stars have been installed that bridge a couple of chasms and then rock stairs lead to the lookout tower itself. Park personnel were working on the tower, including some hanging on the side with ropes. The view from the top is incredible, particularly the Cathedral Spires which form the backdrop for the Cathedral Highway. We also could see the backside of Mt. Rushmore after having it pointed out to us, but the carved faces were not visible. 
The access to the peak is found in the center above.
The trail enters through the opening in the rock. Metal steps are found toward the top of the man-made wall.
Judy on the metal steps that span the chasm on the way up the rock walls.
Judy and the lookout tower.
Lookout tower.
Judy in the top of the tower.
A man-made reservoir is visible below.
Cathedral Spires.
Mount Rushmore is on the backside of the flat topped mountain in the center.
We had an enjoyable lunch of jerkey (buffalo and beef), potato chips, cheese dip and chocolate. 

I found a small sign for "Valentine McGillycuddy, Wasicu Wacan" which is Lakota for "Holy White Man. Valentine was the first known person to climb Harney Peak as a surveyor. He was later an Indian Agent and the doctor who treated Crazy Horse at the time of his death. His ashes are entombed behind the sign. 
Valentine McGillicuddy's ashes are found here.
Harney Peak was the site of Black Elk's sacred vision when he was age 9. As I understand it, Harney Peak was considered the central mountain of the world and the center of the earth to the Lakota. He saw more than he could tell and understood more than he saw. He saw the shapes of all things and the shape of all shapes as they must live together. Harney Peak is still considered sacred to the Lakota. Black Elk later toured with Buffalo Bill Cody in his Wild West Show, including a performance in front of Queen Victoria. 

The lookout tower was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps  in 1938. It was staffed as a fire lookout until 1967. 
We made the hike to the summit in two hours, spent about 45 minutes on top, then made it back down in an hour and 20 minutes. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Red-Naped Sapsucker

While Judy and I were hiking up to Harney Peak in South Dakota, a woodpecker landed on the side of a tree and I was able to get a few photographs. Although my identification is not without doubt, I believe it was a red-naped sapsucker. 
Red-naped sapsucker in the Black Hills, South Dakota.
The red-naped sapsucker  has a black head with a red forehead and a red spot on the nape. They are black on the back and wings with white bars and a large white wing patch. Males have a red throat patch and females have a red and white throat (lower red, upper white). This bird seems not to have as darkly a delineated black eye stripe and some of the spots on the back appear to be more olive-green than white and part of the red appears to be more orange. They do hybridize with the red-breasted and yellow-breasted sapsucker, and so this bird may possibly be a juvenile or a hybrid. 
As the name suggests, when drilling  holes with their bill, they eat not only insects but suck out and eat sap. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Black-Tailed Prairie Dog

There are five species of prairie dog: (1) Gunnison's prairie dog found in the four corners region (Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico); (2) white-tailed prairie dog found in western Wyoming, western Colorado and small portions of eastern Utah and southern Montana; (3) Mexican prairie dog found in southern Coahuila and northern San Luis Potosi in Northern Mexico; (4) Utah prairie dog found in portions of Iron, Beaver, Kane, Garfield, Wayne, Piute and Sevier Counties in Utah; and (5) the black-tailed prairie dog found from southern Saskatchewan, Canada to Chihuahua, Mexico, including the U.S. states of Montana, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. 
Black-tailed prairie dog in Badlands NP.
We were recently in South Dakota and had an opportunity to view black-tailed prairie dogs in Custer State Park and Badlands National Park.  My pictures are all from Badlands. The Custer State Park pictures did not turn out as well.
These guys are fat and happy as they prepare for a group hug.
The black-tailed prairie dog is usually tan colored with a lighter belly. The tail has a black tip which gives it its name. Adults usually weigh 1.5 to 3 pounds and are 14 to 17 inches long with a 3 to 4 inch tail.

Tunnel depths are four to five feet deep and colonies have 20 to 57 burrows per acre. Their common predators are coyotes, badgers, bobcats, eagles, hawks and rattlesnakes.
Burrows are quite close together.
When I look at this picture I hear the song "Muskrat Love" by the Captain and Tennille. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Plains Bison - South Dakota

Bison is to southwestern South Dakota what alligator is to Florida and Louisiana. It is on the menu of many restaurants and raw buffalo meat is sold in grocery stores. One of my main objectives in visiting Custer State Park and Badlands National Park was to see the bison herds they have there. Our expectations were rewarded, particularly in Custer State Park. 

Custer State Park has one of the world's largest public bison herds, around 1,300 individuals in the summer and fall. Each year about 300 bison are culled from the herd for sale in order to balance the number of bison that can exist on the grassland that is available, so the population declines by that number, to be increased by calves born in the spring. The majority of the bison are found in the southern part of the park, in the vicinity of the Buffalo Corrals, Red Valley Road, the Wildlife Loop Road on either side, and along the dirt roads covering the southern section, such as Oak Draw Road, Fisherman Flats Road and North Lame Johnny Road. 
We saw our first bison in mid-afternoon along Red Valley Road south of the southernmost portion of the Wildlife Loop Road. It was a decent sized herd, but nothing like what I saw early the next morning. 

This group was taken with a telephoto lens and was quite a distance away.
This big solitary bull was found along North Lame Johnny Road. His facial fur was covered in pollen or some sort of other substance. 
This same solitary bull turns sideways to lick himself and reveals his powerful hindquarters. 
This solitary bull was off the Wildlife Loop Road.
I got up early the morning we were going to leave the area and ventured into the park alone. I didn't see any other cars for over an hour. I started to watch a herd of about 40 bison off the Wildlife Loop Road about 100 yards away and as I watched they gradually got closer and closer to me. I was standing outside my car and turned to my right and was startled to see this group of bison walking toward me down the road. As they got closer, I got uncomfortable and got back in the car. 
I normally don't like street shots, but they do reveal the lower portions of the bison that are usually covered up by the long grass. Note the large hooves and the multi-colored tongue.

As the herd passed me by, they walked down the road towards a couple of vehicles that had just arrived.
A female and calf.
As the small herd moved on I drove a short distance to where the Red Valley Road meets the Wildlife Loop Road. There I encountered what must have been 500 or more bison. My understanding is that this is what the large bison herds looked like in the mid-19th century. The bison were not packed together like sardines, but they spread out over miles and miles. 
I particularly enjoy the young tawny calves.
A mother licks her calf. 
This is just a part of the herd that spread out over quite a distance. 

An older calf.
Kind of an ugly looking teenager.
The bison in Badlands National Park number between 300 and 500 (the only estimate I was able to find on-line). They are located along the Sage Creek Rim Road, a dirt road that covers the northern rim of the park. We found the bison we saw toward the latter part of the road, where the Badlands petered out and were replaced by hills and grasslands. The biggest herd we saw was about 30 individuals just a few hundred yards from the western entrance to the park. Before that we saw isolated individuals, the greatest number right in the Sage Creek Campground, where we saw about seven bison in the campground or right next to it. The most fun animal was a single bull that we encountered just off the road. Several times he started and ran and we were amazed at how quickly he moved and how his muscles rippled as he did so. It was an amazing example of power and quickness. 
This solitary bull was the first bison we encountered on the Sage Creek Rim Road. I got out of the vehicle to photograph him and he bolted and ran. I was stunned by how quick he was and how powerfully he ran. His muscles just rippled. I gained a greater appreciation for how dangerous the bison can be if they decide to turn on a human. They are so quick that you would stand no chance in trying to run away.
This same solitary bull shows battle scarred  horns.
Most of the bison we saw in the Badlands were solitary or in very small groups of two or three. 
The very deep grass obscured much of them. 

This big boy was one of two bulls walking through the Sage Creek Campground where small tents were still pitched with people milling about them. I would not want to be in a tent with one of these nearby. Once I was in a bivvy bag with a black bear nearby in the Sierras and I worried it might step on me. One of these would really cause some worry.
This herd was near the west entrance above Scenic, SD. 
Having recently viewed cape buffalo in Africa and these plains bison in South Dakota, I give my nod to the bison for viewing pleasure. They tend to grunt somewhat like the wildebeest and the power exhibited in some of the large bulls was awe inspiring. I suspect that in a head to head match with a cape buffalo a bison would lose - I don't think they are as nasty tempered as the cape buffalo, they don't have as dangerous a head covering and I don't think they share the same protective group mentality. But they are very fun to watch, particularly when they are on the move as I saw them early the one morning.