Thursday, December 15, 2005

Bear Country, USA

I was prompted by Lynn, who posted the cutest bear photo from a recent family trip on her blog, to scan and put up a few pics from my own trip to Bear Country.

In August 1996, two friends and I headed west to the Black Hills of South Dakota where we stayed at a beautiful campground outside Custer. The campground was central to everything we wanted to see and do and is by far the best we've ever stayed.

Our first afternoon we headed just down the road to Jewel Cave. The scenic tour descends into the cave by elevator and follows a lighted half-mile passage through the cave, climbing up and down more than 700 stairs. You definitely get a good workout, but it's quite spectacular. Jewel Cave covers 1,254 acres and with 92 miles of mapped passages is believed to be the second longest cave in the country and fourth in the world. We did get a few pictures down in the cave, but they fail to do it justice.

One our second day in SD was packed with animals. We began with the Marine Life Aquarium just south of Rapid City. Small and cramped it was a bit of a disappointment, the only main attractions being dolphin and seal/sea lion shows. It was of no surprise to hear that the dingy facility was closed not long after our visit, in part due to an investigation by the HSUS.

The aquarium was followed by Reptile Gardens, which was much more impressive. You'd never know it was started in 1937 as the facilities were still quite new when we were there, and the Sky Dome awesome. We loved the Birds of Prey and Alligator shows--though we all agreed there was no way any of us would be climbing into a pen full of crocs, gators and caymans, especially with raw chickens in hand. Still, it was an impressive and fun stop. Kids and adults seemed to enjoy it equally. Again, there were pictures taken, but this was the year before we had zoom cameras -- which purchased prior to the next year's trip -- we weren't about to miss out on great pics again!

The best of the day was saved for last: Bear Country, USA. Bear Country is a drive-through wildlife park nestled among 250 acres of the Black Hills, and features a variety of North American animals: wolves, moose, cougar, bobcat, bighorn sheep, elk, deer, rocky mountain goats, buffalo, raccoons and wild turkey. Naturally, most of these animals have their own enclosures and invisible fences and cattle gates keep them from going astray. Visitors are advised to "stay in your cage, with the windows up!! The animals roam free here!" And they're not kidding.

That roaming free part can prove highly entertaining, as we discovered while driving through the large open area of the black bear. It was amazing, seeing so many of the "cuddly" looking creatures from our car--though we certainly wouldn't want to tangle with one. Some napped sprawled on sturdy tree branches while others enjoyed a swim or soaked up the sun.

As we neared the end of the bear section, one very large bear lumbered across the road in front of our car--then noticed that there was a plethora of crunchy grasshoppers stuck in the grill and hood (one of the "joys" of driving through the middle of South Dakota--we had the sun roof open until a huge grasshopper landed in the hair of the driver; it was closed immediately!). "Ahh..." he seemed to think, "lunch!"

The next thing we knew, the bear was standing over the hood of our car, trying to reach the grasshoppers. At one point he even tried to boost himself up on top of the hood by stepping on the license plate, which (thankfully!) bent forward under his weight. Even so, he continued to lick and paw at the crunchy treats for some time. A long queue of cars stretched behind us. Because the bear had stopped us in the middle of the road, no one could get around us and, of course, we could not go forward. Only the guy behind us could see why we were stopped (they do warn you to prepare to stop at any time), and he was laughing nearly as much as we were. Tears streamed from our eyes and one friend nearly hyperventilated. It was definitely the highlight of out trip!

The bear did eventually continue across the road, and we drove on to the visitor center seen in the background of the pictures below. We were able to bend the license plate back up, and were surprised that our diner left not a single scratch on the hood.

(My apologies for the poor condition of some of th epics. I couldn't get the screws from my scrapbook out so I could scan the pages flat, plus it was an older camera and not as high quality as what I have now.)


Maggie Nash said...

Those bears look big and scary...

Jana said...

Oh wow, Trix! I'd have been freaking out. lol Sounds like a good time though. How neat to get to see those bears up close, though. :)

Lynn Daniels said...

Wow! I'm so glad you posted your pictures...they're great! And the story just cracks me up. BTW, the wolves you mentioned on my blog daughter would have gone absolutely bonkers if we'd had wolves trotting alongside the car. She's a wolf nut.

Since you told your encounter, I'll tell you about one of our bison encounters.

It was pretty late, pitch dark out. We were heading back to our hotel for the night. As we traveled through Lamar Valley in Yellowstone, a bunch of glowing yellow dots appeared in the distance. We drew closer and discovered that those yellow dots were bison eyes. A whole herd of them were in the road.

Of course we stopped to wait for them to move on. One bison was clearly the leader of the herd; he was kind of nudging the others along. It almost seemed as though he was trying to clear them from the road for us.

One particularly belligerent female ignored his prodding, however, and steadfastly refused to leave the road. The male seemed to get angry, and became quite vocal. I guess the female was used to it; she ignored him at first, then, slowly as you please, finally lumbered off the road. My son was asleep, but my husband, daughter and I were laughing madly at these animals' antics.

Suddenly, the male turned and looked at us, then dipped his head and started trotting toward us. "[expletive deleted]," my husband said, "he's going to charge the truck!"

Honestly, I was holding my breath, waiting for my airbag to explode in my face the minute this huge animal crashed into the front end of my truck. I guess he was feeling generous, though, because at the last second he veered off course and ended up next to the truck instead of slamming into the front.

And with that, all the bison disappeared from the road and we headed back to the hotel. Breathing huge sighs of relief. :)

Heather said...

Thanks, Lynn!

Your daughter would have been in heaven. There were two arctic wolves when we were there, and both were running alongside the car. There were also wolf pups and bear cubs up at the visitor center. They were so cute!

I love your bison story, too. Wow, that must have been amazing - although I'd have been freaking when that one charged the truck, too. But what a great memory! Too bad your son missed it!