Pactola Reservoir, my old friend and companion, faces a greedy new gold rush in the precious waters that feed it

Pactola Reservoir — big, beautiful and beloved — is under threat from gold exploration in its watershed. (All photos by Top Dog Publishing)

By EDWARD MARTLEY, Top Dog Publishing

RAPID CITY, S.D. — It was dark as the inside of a cow that Saturday night in the late 1960s when the homemade raft, six of us aboard, putt-putted onto the glassy surface of Pactola Reservoir. We were going fishing, and the darkness of the night held promise of success. We would dangle lanterns over the side, and with no other light to distract them, trout would come our way. That was the theory, and the theory usually proved true.

My dad was with us, using the new spinning outfit I’d given him for his birthday, and like the rest of us, having a blast pulling in trout. The action came in fits and starts; the fish would bite like crazy for a while, stop for a while, and then go at it again. During one of the lulls, my dad leaned his rod against the rail to pour a cup of coffee when something — something big — hit his line and yanked the whole outfit overboard. He tried to make the best of it, but even as hard to read as he was, I knew he felt terrible.

The trip ended without further problems, and Monday all of us were back at work. On Thursday, I was having lunch at Art’s Café and eaves-dropping on a conversation in the booth behind: “Did you hear about Keith Johnson? He was SCUBA diving at Pactola and found a fancy spinning outfit on the bottom.”

Cripes! Keith Johnson (now retired) was a prominent Rapid City veterinarian and I knew him fairly well. I called him, described the rod and reel he’d found, and we determined it was the one my dad lost. I offered a decent sum to buy it back, but Keith said that was too much. We settled on a token amount.

To say my dad was surprised by the rod’s recovery and return was the understatement of the decade. He told the story for years thereafter, as have I.


The mountain village of Silver City is near the rendezvous of Rapid and Castle creeks as they join forces to fill Pactola Reservoir.

Our reservoir is said by many to be named after Pactolus, an ancient river god in what now is modern Turkey. His streams were flecked with gold from the time King Midas washed away the curse of the golden touch in Pactolus’s waters. Today’s name, Pactola, seemed appropriate, considering the gold activity in that area of the Black Hills before the dam was constructed. Now, our best hope is that gold will not be discovered before current strategies to stop exploration and mining have a chance to succeed. Let’s not have Pactolus waking up.

— theoi.com

I go back a long time with Pactola. During my high school years, I camped among the machinery in that bowl while the dam was under construction. I watched when the dam was completed and began to fill in 1956 and ‘57.

I learned trout bite in winter, too, and that Jenny Gulch on Pactola was the place.  The first time I ice fished in Jenny Gulch was with Al Scovel of Rapid City. I was driving, busting through heavy snow as we fought our way along the trail to the lake. We were getting stuck constantly; it seemed like we (mostly Al) carried that enormous Buick most of the way. Then, gasping, we hacked holes through a couple of feet of ice with a spud bar. We caught a modest number of fish and that was enough. After the battle to get to the lake, we scarcely had strength to pull them from the holes. A lot more fun to talk about than it was to do.

Over the decades that followed, I haunted Pactola and area around it, especially Deerfield Lake and Reynolds Prairie. Castle Creek is the primary contributor of water to Deerfield. It flows in one end of Deerfield, comes out the other, joins with Rapid Creek near Silver City, and together they fill Pactola.

She does the work while he fishes on Deerfield Reservoir.

Although I have seen Pactola Lake countless times, fished, canoed and taught my children and grandchildren how to kayak there, I never visited the face of the dam (the dry side). Three days ago, I finally did.

It was creepy. That thing is 246 feet high — nearly twice the height of the tallest building in downtown Rapid City. It is 2,236 feet long. You can scare yourself with more statistics in this article in the South Dakota Standard. There is a 200-foot wall of water hanging over my head. If the dam let go, the unleashed torrent would wipe out everything between here and Oblivion. A foolish fear.

More than 200 feet below the top of Pactola Dam is its outlet, the beginning of the portion of Rapid Creek that flows on to provide water for Rapid City, Ellsworth AFB and points east until it joins the Cheyenne River.
This closeup of Pactola’s outlet was taken Sept. 4, 2020, with a flow volume of about 70 cubic feet per second. That is nowhere near the 500 cubic feet per second shown in Bureau of Reclamation photos I have seen, which made the outlet look like a huge fire hose.

If the reservoir gets too full for its outlet to expel into Rapid Creek, there is always the spillway.
Rapid Creek view downstream a few seconds after leaving the reservoir.

Let me tell you what I really worry about. The Black Hills historically is gold country, and there are efforts under way (with gold in the $2,000 per ounce price range) to make it gold country again. Right now, companies are actively drilling test holes, searching for gold in the Rapid Creek watershed. The watershed is a big area that includes both Deerfield and Pactola reservoirs and Rapid Creek and Castle Creek. It also includes 2,000-acre Pe’ Sla, the recently acquired sacred ground of the Lakota.

This sign marks a border of 2,000-arcre Pe’ Sla, the Lakota’s recently acquired sacred area. It lies north of Deerfield Reservoir and is part of the Rapid Creek watershed. Several Native American organizations have joined the effort to stop gold exploration there.

In spite of “new technology” always touted by mining companies, gold extraction can be a nasty business that pollutes and poisons water anywhere near it. Rapid Creek supplies the water for Rapid City and Ellsworth Air Force Base and points on downstream to its rendezvous with the Cheyenne River. If that water is polluted, the cost to the city will be astronomical.

At present, the Black Hills and especially the Rapid Creek watershed provide some of the best and most varied outdoor recreation activities in the nation. Local residents are becoming aware of the gold threat to their way of life and are organizing to fight back. The plan, basically, is to have the area designated as a “recreation withdrawal” by the federal government. That would stop mining in its tracks. This won’t be easy, the Mining Act of 1872 allowing almost any kind of mining anywhere, but Rapid Creek Watershed Action is on the case. It’s a savvy group with powerful backing, but success won’t come easily. For more information and to volunteer, check the group’s website.

It will be nice, a couple of decades from now, if Al and I can carry a Buick to Jenny Gulch with the prospect of catching some trout that aren’t spiced with a hint of cyanide.

Pactola’s face. It’s kind of creepy, standing here and knowing there is a 200-foot wall of water over your head.
One of Pactola’s “children” is Canyon Lake in Rapid City.
Lily enjoys the beauty of Jenny Gulch.
Caroline and mom Sarah began Pactola kayaking many years ago.

Don’t just sit there, paddle!

If you want to anticipate outdoor recreation opportunities and adventures in the future, rather than have only memories of family fun in the past, there are things you can do to take action to protect Pactola Reservoir and the priceless and irreplaceable Rapid Creek Watershed.

  1. See the related story on the Top Dog’s blog: Take a Drive on My Adventure Road.
  2. Volunteer for one of the organizations that are partners in Rapid Creek Watershed Action.
  3. Donate to the cause.
  4. Sign the petition to create the Rapid Creek Watershed Recreation area
  5. Ask your Rapid City aldermen and women to keep our water clean.
  6. Share your memories of recreation and outdoor fun in the watershed.
  7. Learn more about the value of outdoor recreation.
Paddlers get ready to launch a flotilla of volunteers to promote the Watershed Action Campaign to boaters in early August.


Get out of the house: Enjoy beauty, safety of life in West River

What memories this abandoned ranch house east of Union Center must hold!

 

By Ed Martley

© 2020 Top Dog Publishing

RAPID CITY — There is no cure for Covid-19, but there is a safe relief from the stifling boredom we suffer while hiding out at home to escape the approaching disease.

One of our favorite boredom busters is to driving backroads of the mighty western South Dakota prairies. You can see forever across the endless landscape; if you encounter more than one other vehicle an hour as you crunch over the dusty gravel, it’s getting crowded. The vivid blue of springtime skies provides an intense background for hulking clouds. Animals, wild and domestic, turn their heads to watch as we roll slowly by. Always, always, bright meadowlark song worth a stop to listen, but that you can hear even with the car windows closed.

We have several areas we explore, and a big favorite is Highway 34 from Sturgis to Union Center to Enning, then south to Wasta and home on Interstate 90.

South of Enning

The closer you come to Union Center, the more you feel the freedom of wide-open spaces. When you turn south at Enning, getting into Belle Fourche River country, the topography begins to change. There are numerous cattle with new babies; a turtle; always deer, looking tatty as they shed ropes of winter hair to let their slick summer selves shine; hawks, falcons, kestrels, and, of course, the singing meadowlarks.

Several times we encountered small clutches of antelope. Twice we topped a hill to find some grazing in the roadside ditch. They quickly wriggled through the fence — not jumping it as would a deer. Both species are superb athletes, but you might say the rocket-powered antelope are “horizontal” athletes, while the spring-loaded deer are “vertical” athletes.

An antelope mom poses with her babies in Custer State Park. (Rowan Crooks photo)

Speed (approaching 60 mph) is not the antelope’s only remarkable attribute. They are renowned for their eyesight, said to be equivalent to 8-power binoculars. (I recall a time we were cruising along Interstate 90 not far from Gillette, Wyo., and saw several antelope in the ditch a half-mile ahead. A big buck jumped onto the highway and headed straight at us, the combined speed of beast and car more than 100 miles an hour. As he came closer, all we could see were those huge eyes, eyes the size of tennis balls, bearing down on us. With less than a second to spare, the buck swerved back into the ditch.) But I digress.

Along Highway 34, you get occasional views of the Belle Fourche River as it flows through ever-steepening breaks toward its confluence with the Cheyenne River. Buckle up, because the road drops like a roller coaster: down and down, round and round.

So that’s the story of just our most recent spring drive. There are many other possibilities in our beautiful West River country.

Suzanne’s quick-draw camera work caught this meadowlark a split second before it sprang into the air.

One of our first spring tours was on Spring Creek Road, the portion east of Highway 79 near Rapid City. Green, beautiful and sparkling with the music of meadowlarks. We had it in mind to get a photo of one of the little songsters, which turned out to be a whole lot harder than we anticipated. The creatures flitted from fence wire to fence post, never staying for more than a second. Shot after shot we tried, always missing by a feather’s width. Finally, Suzanne scored. She drew and fired without aiming and got lucky — catching a bird before it launched.

The most popular spring expedition hereabouts is almost certainly Custer State Park, especially the Wildlife Loop. It goes without saying the land itself is beautiful — hey, it’s the Black Hills — but also the park is populated with all sorts of highly visible wild animals. These include prairie dogs, antelope, deer, elk, bison and Bighorn sheep, some of which can be found standing on the road, blocking traffic for a half-mile.

Our COVID-19 social-distancing practice most certainly is helpful in protecting us from the virus. It is also a good plan when dealing with bison. Accounts of their attacks on annoying people and vehicles are the stuff of legends.

King of the Badlands

A big favorite, and we visit there often, is Badlands National Park. We drive Highway 44 east about 40 miles from Rapid City to the semi-ghost town of Scenic, then continue until we can turn onto Sage Creek Road. Heaven only knows what you’ll find there on any given day, but the chance of finding yourself in a herd of bison, or buffalo as I usually call them, is pretty good.

We stop at Sage Creek Campground to use the outhouse before continuing into the heart of the Badlands. Buffalo often frequent the area, and from time to time we collect wads of hair they have scraped off. We give it to a friend who incorporates it into her fiber art.

One late spring day, we pulled in to find the campground full of campers with buffalo grazing close among them. That was nerve-racking but what the hell — we didn’t know them so let the (buffalo) chips fall where they may. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) The disturbing thing was that a big bull was grazing five feet from the outhouse door. Our situation was dire enough that we had to wait for the creature to wander off.

Anyplace in the Black Hills area can be your favorite place, and you can have more than one if you like! The time to plunge into the mountains is now — spring — when the grass is its greenest, the creeks are full, the highways are empty, and power boats have yet to begin tearing up the lakes.

The scenery possibilities in the Black Hills are endless, and here is one you won’t forget.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Should you like to learn more about special Black Hills places, see Take a Drive on My Adventure Road on this website.