Little House on the Prairie Dog

Our ‘before’ picture, as the crew enters Wind Cave for the first time. Slightly askew, Clockwise from left: Matt Hughes, Dylan Welch, Nora Kaufmann (me), Christina Spohn, Rachel Stoddard, Sandra Zmeu, Leigh Davidson, Adam Zhang, Roger Dunn.

At 4:30am last Thursday morning, after spending a sleepless night clutching my knife in a truck stop outside Billings, Montana, I concluded my eventful drive to Rapid City where I was to meet up with Roger Dunn, my co-leader, and Christina Spohn, our apprentice crew leader. After parking for about 3 hours, we three picked up our rental vehicles and hit the road bound for Wind Cave National Park, our home for the next four weeks.

On the schedule for pre-program duties: hike the trails, meet the inevitable NPS personalities, and the much feared food shopping. This is how it all shook down: the staff at Wind Cave blew our expectations out of the water, the trails are beautiful and chalk-full of snorting bison, and food shopping was every bit as bad as I anticipated. Luckily for me and my blossoming dinosaur obsession, Roger and Christina were incredibly accommodating, and allowed our mid-day break from the dreaded food shopping to occur at the Rapid City dinosaur park- a concrete wonder created by the Works Progress Administration which remains un-renovated since the 1930’s.


From Left: Nora Kaufmann (myself), Roger Dunn, Christina Spohn having a merry time at the archaic Rapid City Dino Park.

Monday morning finally rolled around and the students arrived safe and sound, minus a missing bag. After the traditional confusion of the first evening, we woke up bright and early Tuesday morning ready to hit the trails. The first note of interest is the wildlife. Our crew is unique in that around every turn in the trail we have to be wary of the bison. In fact, our job security relies on the predictability of this 2 ton beast and its proclivity for knocking down trail signs and blazes.

We keep a healthy distance, but sometimes the Bison decide that our work site is going to be their next dirt-bath, in which case we usually end up retreating after a distant face-off. The best part is the gifts they leave behind. One of our crew members has a special knack for locating and destroying all of the residual buffalo-pies… with the bottom of his shoe. This has resulted in the development of a whittled shoe-flossing stick, which is a useful little tool designed to clear out those hard to reach places in the cracks of your boots.


Our crew after finishing our first Bison-proof post. From Left: Sandra Zmeu, Christina Spohn, Dylan Welch, Nora Kaufmann, Matt Hughes, Rachel Stoddard, Adam Zhang, Roger Dunn, Leigh Davidson.

So far we have been working very closely with Mike Carder, a goofy, sun-tanned, cowboy hat wearing enigma who won a permanent place in our hearts last week during our first formal Friday event of the season. At 7am when Christina, Roger, and I busted out the neck ties and suspenders for formal Friday, the kids reacted just as we expected: a few groans, some strained enthusiasm, but most of them looked at us like we were clinically insane.

When we joined the burly fire guys and rugged fence crew at the maintenance shop in our formal wear, the embarrassment was palpable and we almost felt bad… almost. Mike took one look at our crew, flashed us a giant smile, asked if he was under-dressed, and then announced that he would meet us at the trail head. When we reached the trail head, he strode up with a piece of bright orange flagging tape tied very formally around his neck; formal Friday was officially a hit.


Mike Carder: The man, The myth, The legend.

Duane, the resident elk whisperer (aka biologist), has also intrigued our crew. Somehow we have gotten about 4 days worth of mileage from just a five minute encounter. Next Thursday we will be accompanying him on an elk stalking mission, so stay tuned for details. I have faith in my crews’ ability to take the days’ experience and run with it for at least the duration of the program if not beyond. They already have a Duane-centric conspiracy theory based on the fundamental concept thought up one evening at dinner: ‘what if everyone is just Duane in different people suits?’. If that doesn’t thoroughly confuse you, let it be perfectly clear that I only partially follow these very intellectual if not irrational conversations.


Here we see Dylan imitating an elk being stalked by Duane. Or is he really Duane in a Dylan suit pretending to be an elk? The world may never know.

We have made a temporary home here in the Black Hills of South Dakota, bison, antelope, and prairie dogs all welcome. The crew is getting to know one another, the agency seems happy to have us, and we, the crew leaders, haven’t completely lost our minds—yet. I’m not sure who said it first, but my co-leader Roger often uses a quote that I find very appropriate for our situation: “Anyone can love a mountain, but it takes a soul to love a prairie”.