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