Sunday, September 9, 2012


Whenever we are traveling, we tend to take lots of pictures. In particular, we enjoy photographing whatever local wildlife we happen across. Last year, when we went to Yellowstone, we got some fairly decent photos of elk, deer and more bison than we could really stomach. We were hoping to get some similar photos in the Black Hills during this trip and so we set out yesterday on a drive through some of the backwoods, little used roads of South Dakota.

Elk with his fall rack of antlers

We didn't know what to expect, but we were pleased to come around the corner and see a bull elk lounging in the grass. Elk are not common in this area but do show up occasionally apparently.

Reindeer, a little far south

We were rather surprised however, when a couple of minutes later we came across a reindeer. We were wondering how he got to Black Hills when we were distracted by a couple of gamboling river otters playing by the side of the road.

In case you didn't know, this is what gamboling looks like.

Where did he get the dog biscuit?
Later we were gratified by the site of a gray wolf. We knew they had been reintroduced to the Yellowstone area but didn't know they were present in South Dakota.

Much more surprising was the pack of Arctic wolves around the next corner. I was lucky enough to snap this photo before the pack turned and headed for the (black) hills.  Then on my way back to the car, I understood why when I was confronted by...

a bear!

All right, perhaps we didn't run into all of these creatures entirely by blind chance. No, we forked over our hard-earned dollars to drive through Bear Country USA, a small drive through "wild animal park" just south of Rapid City. We wandered around Yellowstone last year at all hours of the day and night and never saw a single bear so we decided this year by golly, one way or another, we were gonna have bear pictures.

The drive-through portion also had some bighorn sheep, mountain goats and a few other critter areas. We really liked the Arctic wolves and drove in a circle through their area about a half-dozen times. But the clear stars of the show are the bears, of which they seem to have about 30.

Bear cubs at play
After the drive-through portion, they have a small, more traditional "zoo" type area with some smaller and/or more dangerous animals like grizzly bears, badgers and a bobcat. They also have an enclosure where they raise bear cubs after they are weaned from their mothers until they are big enough to survive amongst the male bears in the drive-through compound. It was fun to watch the bear cubs running around play-fighting with each other exactly like our schnoodles do.

As kitschy as this is, we actually really enjoyed it and thought it was $32 well spent. The weather was cool enough that most of the animals were out and about and there was a certain amount of excitement involved in waiting to see what was coming around the next corner. The only drawback is that the park rules are that you have to stay in your car with all the windows rolled up, so the photographs were all shot through an extra layer of glass. Particularly with the windshield, this was a problem because of the angle of the glass sheet. But they did have the foresight to have a window washing station at the entrance so you could get your windows reasonably clean before you started.

Bear up a tree
Now the question is, from a photographic stand point, is this cheating? Are animal pictures taken at a zoo intrinsically less worthy than pictures taken in the wild? My bias is, if it's a good photograph, how you get those pixels together is your business. When a magazine needs a picture of a bear, do they send their photographer on a three-week jaunt through the forest to get it or do they send him to the Chicago zoo? I'm guessing usually the latter. (Actually, they probably just pull up a stock picture and that was probably taken at a zoo.)

Anyway, of all the chintzy attractions on the road to Mount Rushmore, we thought this was the least chintzy. I mean really, would you rather spend your time in Sitting Bull's Crystal Cave or petting goats at Old McDonald's Farm? So if you're traveling through the area, consider stopping by and visiting the bears. It's the closest safe view you are likely to get and you won't have to worry about becoming grizzly grub.

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