She lived to tell the tale

In defiance of all public health advice, from Dec. 13 to Jan. 1, I traveled more than 5,000 miles by train and auto to spend time with my daughter and my brother, whom I had not seen since Christmas 2019.

It was a calculated, managed risk. Christmas 2020 (is that an oxymoron?) was to be our eighth celebration of the Feast of Seven Fishes. It seemed to me that the mental health benefits of seeing my family outweighed the physical health risks. With a lot of help from family, friends, and the fantastic employees of Amtrak, my calculation was accurate.

So many folks have asked me about this adventure that it seemed best to describe it this way, on our blog.

Go? No go?

My brother complained in August that he could not face the possibility we would not be together for Christmas in Indianapolis — a family tradition linked to Johanna’s tenure at the Eiteljorg Museum. We have gathered every Christmas since 2013 to bake cookies, prepare the Feast of the Seven Fishes, play games, listen to music, and visit Johanna’s current exhibits.

Feast of Seven Fishes, 2014: Bagna cauda, crab dip, mussels in vermouth, smelt on a bed of chard, oysters, smoked white fish, salmon.

I vowed we would get there if I had to drive my 15-year old Subaru all the way and back.

And then Larry’s emails containing articles about Amtrak’s travel promotions began. Despite skepticism and worry from Johanna about my safety in trains and train stations, figuring out a route, picking the dates, and buying the tickets took 48 hours — about the same amount of time it took to ride the rails from Williston, North Dakota to Trenton, New Jersey.

My route was the Empire Builder from Williston to Chicago, the Capitol Limited from Chicago to Pittsburgh, and the Pennsylvanian from Pittsburgh to Trenton.

Amtrak has imposed stringent COVID protocols for pandemic train travel. And the employees enforce them. Whether you are riding in coach, business, sleeper car, or waiting in a station, the rules apply. My trip included waits at train stations in Williston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Trenton. In every one the seating was spread out, folks wore masks, announcements to remind travelers about social distancing and masking blared periodically. The best waits were in Chicago’s glorious Union Station, and on the platform in Trenton, where the masked Amtrak manager stayed out in the cold and chatted with me (after helping schlep my suitcase) about coming renovations and our shared hope that having a “train guy” as President might mean some future TLC for our railroad infrastructure and rolling stock.

Chicago’s beautiful Union Station.
And the snazzy Metropolitan Lounge where sleeper car passengers awaited their connections, comfortable, socially distanced, and masked.

Train travel options vary. On the long distance routes, like the Empire Builder, Superliner cars have the rooms and services on the top, and you move through the train on the upper level. My choice was for a “roomette,” basically a closet with two seats that merge into a bed. A roomier option is the “bedroom,” which has a bathroom and shower, but it costs more. The roomette choice includes all meals, four bathrooms (one up, three down), a shower (down), access to the dining car and the observation car, and your personal attendant. Attendants turn down the bed and fold it up again in the morning, bring your meals if you choose, keep you supplied with plenty of water, towels, and help you with anything you need. They scan tickets, make announcements, remind you to keep your mask on unless your roomette door is closed, clean the bathrooms, and pretty much rule their Superliner cars. (The attendant on my first leg threw a guy off the train for smoking. Yes. She did.)

Bed in sleeping configuration.
Seats in traveling configuration.

To be clear, I love trains. I grew up in a historic little industrial town where two rivers and five rail companies flowed together. My childhood dreams were punctuated by the THUMP of rail cars coupling in the yard across the river. My uncle took us down to the round house to talk with the railroad workers and we even got to climb up into the engine one time. We took the train to New York City to see the Christmas Pageant, the circus, and once a big trade show about fur, because my dad worked in a fur factory. Many years later, while living in Washington, D.C., I chose the train as my mode of travel, whether personal or business. Even after moving to South Dakota and flying east several times a year, I figured out how to select my airport in order to do ground transportation by rail.

All that by way of saying this train trip was meant to be.

Clickety clack

The stresses of 2020, trying to work and be productive while it seemed everything was crashing down around us, the confinement — even though Ed and I spent a lot of time getting into the outdoors and wild places of West River — the quiet alone time in my roomette was exactly what I needed to get ready and restored for celebration with my brother and my daughter.

I read a couple books, did some embroidery, and watched the gold and silver northern plains transition to Minnesota forests and lakes. Watched eagles fishing at open holes in the ice, and ospreys fishing aerially. When it was impossible for me to connect to a business virtual meeting because there was no wifi service on the Empire Builder, I heaved a sigh of relief.

Highly recommend.

Land of 10000 Lakes

Amtrak has figured out how to market train travel during this time when flying still seems unwise. Especially from South Dakota, where your chances of being stuck in a horribly crowded airport are way higher than 50-50. They have two-for-the-price-of-one deals, they have figured out how to safeguard their passengers, they are working on expanding connections to feeder rail lines. I’m already figuring out how Ed and I might visit friends and family on the west coast later this year, by taking the Empire Builder westward to Seattle and Portland.

I know it wasn’t Amtrak that arranged it, but here’s a benefit you cannot get in a plane or automobile. We departed Williston on Sunday night, December 13. My roomette was on the north side of the train, which hurtled eastward across snowy North Dakota at 80 miles an hour. Aside from an occasional barn light on an isolated ranch, it was dark. The sky glittered with stars, not a wisp of moisture or air pollution. And the Geminid meteor showers commenced. A glorious light show! It went on for hours, and each time my eyes got heavy and I almost dozed off, another burst would explode across the sky and keep me wakeful for the next round.

My adventure would not have been possible without help from family and friends: Ed supported my decision to travel, even though I agonized over whether I was being selfish and stupid and super-spreading. (I DO live in South Dakota, after all.) Larry pitched in for the roomette. Friend Carol sent me an N-95 mask from California. Everyone I talked to advised, encouraged, and chided me to observe the strictest measures: no contact before departure, taking my temperature, masking, all the stuff. Granddaughter Caroline drove me to Williston, picked me up and drove us back to Rapid City upon my return — an addition of 700+ miles to the 1800 rail miles and 1200 round-trip road miles from Easton to Indianapolis.

Feast Fish #2: Scallops with white bean ragu.

Best of all, Larry and Johanna made me laugh, prepped for our cooking, picked good music, and kept the cocktails flowing.

Joy to the world.

My Sweetest and Only Pea, Johanna Fennel Hands.
Brewing up a bourbon renewal.

Battle Pandemic Boredom

Discover unlimited, natural magic less than an hour away

RAPID CITY, S.D. — These are hard days, mid-November of 2020, with Covid-19 bringing us sickness and death and fear of our neighbors who might infect us with the virus.

Those of us who can are urged to stay home, avoiding contact with others. We mask when leaving the house, we maintain “social distancing,” which means staying at least 6 feet from others. We see our family, friends, and co-workers only on computer screens.

It can be a grind but there is a way to make it more bearable.

Discover the magic that awaits you no more than an hour from town.

Jump in your car and head onto the mighty prairies to the east or plunge into the remote areas of western South Dakota’s Black Hills. Take a camera if you are so inclined.

The healing power of nature, of being outdoors, is widely documented.

Virus or no virus, I am never happier than when wandering some narrow path through the mountains, not sure where I’ll come out and not really caring. (But I can make this promise: If you get yourself good and lost, you definitely will not be bored.)

I am happy to share these pictures of favored places, especially for the benefit of those who might be new to the area, but also for those who have lived here so long they have forgotten the beauty of this wonderful land.

The Custer State Park Elks Club meets on a sunny hillside, suspending club business long enough to pose for this photo.
This is Pactola Reservoir, undoubtedly (I contend) the most beautiful large lake in South Dakota. Pactola is filled by Rapid Creek, and the sprawling Rapid Creek watershed has the misfortune to contain the promise of gold. Exploration is under way and should there be a major strike, the toxic mess of mining could damage our pure water.
Every spring we escape winter (and this year’s virus lockdown) by traveling the prairies east and north of town to listen to meadowlarks sing. And sing they do. As you crunch slowly along a remote gravel road you can hear them, even with the windows rolled up. We encountered this abandoned ranch home on one such trip. Probably several generations of ranch folks were raised there, perhaps moving elsewhere when the well went dry. Or maybe they just built a nicer house.
As you escape the madding crowds of Rapid City and head into the Black Hills in search of sanitary solitude, you might like to see one of the most beautifully situated mountain villages ever. It is Silver City. Head west out of town on Rimrock Highway (Highway 44), take a right when you come to Highway 385, and drive a few miles to the well-marked Silver City turnoff. Keep going until you run out of road. This photo was taken from high on a hillside opposite the village.
Granddaughter Lily paddles her kayak on spectacular Jenny Gulch. The gulch is an extension of Pactola Reservoir, the biggest lake in the Black Hills and the source of water for Rapid City, Ellsworth Air Force Base and points east.
All teen girls are beautiful (I have raised enough of them to know) but there is always one who stands out. And here she is: The Belle of the Ball at Custer State Park.
It will take most of your hour to get there, but it’s worth the trip. Deerfield is for the anglers, sail boaters, paddlers of canoes and kayaks and other quiet pursuits. It’s a no-wake lake, and if you go roaring around in your power boat, you’re going to get fined. There are also several campgrounds if you want to extend your hour.
Canyon Lake is right in Rapid City and you can be there in eight minutes or less from any place in town. There are fishing docks, a paddle boat concession, and a nice spot to launch your own watercraft. A canoe outing at twilight is a nice way to end a hot summer day being cooped up in the house.
Badlands National Park is the ultimate other-worldly kind of place with its jagged, multi-colored formations. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright wrote that “the sky itself seemed only there to cleanse and light the vast harmonious building scheme.” The area is a tribute to the artistry of erosion as well as home to a variety of wildlife, including creatures ranging in size from prairie dogs to buffalo with the occasional rattlesnake thrown in just to keep everybody on their toes.
The sign marks a border of Pe’Sla, a 2,000-plus acre mountain meadow along Rochford Road, between the hamlet of Rochford and Deerfield Reservoir. Formerly known as Reynolds Prairie, Pe’Sla is a sacred area owned by the Lakota. We learned recently that a gold mining company has filed for a permit to use water in close proximity to the sacred site.
Braeburn Park near Canyon Lake is for dogs and is one of the most heavily used parks in the city. In the heat of summer, dogs explode into adjacent Rapid Creek for madcap canine games.
I was driving along the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop and decided to take a less-traveled path into a remote area. I topped a hill and the next thing I knew I was surrounded by dozens of buffalo. I thought how curious they were as the rubbed and bumped the car, making an odd scraping sound. Then I realized what they were doing. They were licking the car — they like the taste of accumulated road salt. It was scary being surrounded by animals taller than the car. I managed to creep through the mass of hair and beef, heaving a sigh of relief until I topped another hill and got caught in the middle of another bunch. Slurp slurp. You should see the tongue prints on the car.
Sylvan Lake is small but spectacularly beautiful, as the photo shows. Drive the Needles Highway northward out of Custer Park, continue on to the lake and thence to the town of Custer. No matter which route you take from Rapid City, you will pass through what many consider the most beautiful part of the Hills.
What better place to rest for the hardy souls who lived and toiled on the great prairie? Their spirits can still enjoy the brilliant stars in the pure black sky, the never-ending wind that kept them from tipping over before their time, and they can still see the eternal distance they saw in life.
Spearfish Canyon is on northern edge of the Black Hills, and its beauty serves as a balance to the Needles-Sylvan Lake splendor of the southern Black Hills. Suzanne and I were married at Spearfish Canyon Lodge and we like to visit Roughlock Falls at the time of our anniversary. The entrance is at the edge the town of Spearfish, and the exit is not terribly far from Lead.
The scenery possibilities in the Black Hills are endless, and here is one you won’t forget.
I’m not sure what I felt when I came upon this view in Custer State Park, but it was powerful. Perhaps it was a reminder why I love my West River South Dakota.

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.