Over the river, through the woods: a Black Hills Christmas

(Editor’s Note: If this story sounds familiar, it is because it has been printed somewhere every holiday season for the past 15 years. We do this because it brings back the best of holiday memories.)

Over the river and through the woods to Grandpa’s and Nonni’s cabin they came for Christmas, and once all had arrived, we counted 34 legs (seven people and five dogs.)

Christmas Day activities really start with preparations the day before, so we will begin there.hhra or vert -- reindeer cookies

Wife Suzanne (“Nonni” to the grandchildren) and I left town, driving over the creeks and through the woods to the cabin, buried deeply within the peace and beauty of the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota. The first thing we saw when we pulled into the yard was that the chipmunk table was in use again.

The chipmunk table is a chunk of log about a foot high and 10 inches in diameter. It stands on end, and until last springs, a chipmunk had been using the wood as a dinner table, evidenced by the stack of pine cone fragments. But last spring, the table’s user drowned in a rain barrel, which we immediately dumped. The table remained unused all summer, so we were highly pleased to see someone else move in.

Just behind the chipmunk table was a nail on the back of the cabin. The week before when we were hauling water to the cabin, a six-gallon container leaked and soaked my shirt, so Suzanne hung it on the nail. We forgot it, and when we saw it hanging there that day, it was badly torn. The sleeves were pulled out of the shoulders, and there were jagged little rips all over the garment. Can’t you just see a couple of young coyotes gleefully yanking on it? We left the remains of the shirt on the nail in case the Canis latrans wanted to have another go at it.

Christmas morning, we began preparing a traditional dinner with turkey and sweet potatoes and dried-corn pudding, all crammed into the little oven of the elderly propane stove.

Cooking in that oven was a challenge because the temperature is either 250 degrees or 450 degrees, the oven regulator being contrary. The trick was to adjust it often to come up with an average of about 350 degrees.

I guess we got it right, because aside from a few charred parts, everything was perfect.

The cabin is not terrible large. When you have five adults occupying the seating, two babies creeping as fast as they can to touch that fascinating wood stove, and a maelstrom of five swirling dogs whose aggregate weight is 347 pounds, there is little time to relax.

It was fun — it was hilarious.

Track of the cat, in front of our cabin.

Track of the cat, in front of our cabin.

And it was tiring. That night, when all of the family except two of the dogs returned to town, Suzanne and I put our feet up and relaxed, sipping tea and enjoying the warmth of the wood stove. As bedtime approached, she took the dogs out for their evening constitutional, only to bound back into the cabin moments later. She heard what sounded like a child screaming, and the dogs had taken up an agitated patrol around the cabin perimeter.

It is a lead-pipe cinch there were no children around in the snow-filled forest that time of night. And there were reports of mountain lions moving back into the Black Hills. We dragged the dogs indoors, possibly depriving a lion of its Christmas dinner.

Finally, blessedly, we crawled into bed. A word of advice: On winter nights, don’ t drink a lot a tea before bedtime, especially when outhouse is 60 feet away.


Sheridan Lake in winter leads off this collection of frosty images, with our holiday best wishes to all.

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