“Sometimes the only way to ever find yourself is to get completely lost.”Kellie Elmore
You’ve seen the pictures in brochures, but until you experience it, you may not understand the rush that comes from at afternoon herd movement in SouthDakota’s Custer State Park.
Even though we’d seen pictures of massive buffalo roaming freely in and through highways and fields in the park, we never dreamed we’d be stranded for an hour and a half — partly terrorized, partly thrilled to be among giants at sundown!
We didn’t enter into this rush hour completely unaware. At the Visitor Center, a ranger had pointed to a plastic buffalo atop the topographic map showing the last-known position of the herd. (Positions are verified and updated throughout each day, we learned.)
And that herd stood between us and the state lodge where we had reservations.
No problem, we thought. We’d love to see a few buffalo. And see them we did.
At first, it was only a few grazing along the side of the road as if they knew their boundaries, and we knew ours. We quickly found out that this was buffalo territory; we were just lucky to be allowed passage through it!
Just as the rangers told us, this was a herd of mothers and babies only — about a thousand of them.
The ranger also shared this: Males are kicked out of a herd once the little ones are born. So, the only way we would see males are as singles or two males together off to themselves.
On this day, I was the driver when we happened upon the herd. (Please pardon my pictures. I was clutching desperately to the steering wheel with one hand, holding an iPhone with the other and trembling as enormous, black/brown, swiftly moving animals lumbered past our car.)
I’ll admit we did wonder what would happen if our car came between a mother and her little one, and immediately we regretted renting a small Sentra that could have been tipped over in a heartbeat!
There’s not much to compare with this experience. Rushing buffalo can come upon you quickly — and, as they move past in a blur, you can hear thumping, pounding movements and the rush of their bodies passing by. If your windows are open, you may be close enough to smell the beasts passing by. One even brushed my rear-view mirror sending my phone to the floorboard and uprighting me as I rushed to roll up the window!
After an hour of inching along through the herd, (exhilarated by this hoped-for experience yet scared at the same time) we developed a plan. Take a right turn off the main drag and escape the herd.
But the plan was flawed: The highway on the right was flanked by a ravine. So now, we had buffalo in a hurry to get to a bedding-down place for the night but anxious to avoid the ravine. That meant only one place for the herd to go: around, in front, and behind us as we poked along nervously and cautiously in the middle of the road!
A bit later a driver in a red truck — local and experienced, no doubt — motioned for us to follow his lead. He taught us this trick: keep moving, slowly, slowly. Don’t stop. Don’t speed up and scare the herd. Don’t honk. Just most slowly and steadily.
It worked. The herd crossed the highway in front and in back of us, spilling into a valley on the way to their resting place.
We began breathing again. And repositioning ourselves more comfortably in our seats. “Did you get any good pictures?” we asked each other. And then we smiled. We’d been in watch-and-try-not-to-panic mode rather than trying to compete with the National Geographic guys!
If you’re looking for wildlife in Custer State Park (usually open October 1 to April 30), visit the rangers to determine the location of the herd. Then follow the appropriately named Wildlife Loop Road with your cameras ready.
Needless to say, there’s nothing like witnessing herd movement in South Dakota!
Rusha & Bert