Wind Cave National Park – Without The Cave

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Every National Park is worth visiting, in my opinion, and this one was no exception – even though we happened to visit when their elevator to the cave was broken down! Ugh! What bad luck is that?! We traveled two thousand miles and missed it by mere days!

Well, we decided to make the most of it and still enjoyed the visitor center inside, a free and engaging ranger interpretive program, and a beautiful hike around the park with views of the Black Hills and prairie land.

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Here’s to making a wish that the elevator works next time we’re here!

We did get to see the mouth of the cave system that a young guy named Alvin McDonald decided to squeeze through and therefore is credited as having found this vast underground maze of caverns – the sixth largest system in the world. Can we just take a moment to think about that for a moment? Who spots a small “breathing” hole in the ground and decides to squoosh their body through it and see what lies below? Well, it took one brave young man to do that here and it probably ultimately cost him his life at the tender age of 20 (through illness, not accident). Here is a photo of my boy in front of the opening to give you a sense of perspective:

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Alvin McDonald mapped the first 8-10 miles of this elaborate underground system using only candlelight in the late 1800s, beginning when he was only 16 years old. It’s a remarkable story that we got to learn about through the displays safely located in the visitor center. But really, who takes a candle and heads off into a dark tight underground tunnel? A braver soul than mine!

Interestingly, those brave explorers who discover a new chamber get to name it. Alvin named a number of them, of course, such as The School Room and Fair Maids Pathway. There are some entertaining and descriptive cave room names. There’s Deep Dish and Pizza Hut, presumably named by very hungry explorers, as well as The Contortionist (we can only imagine what it took to get into that one!), The Chamber of Lost Soles (oops!), Whiskey Bottle Room (sip sip), The Bloody Nose (ouch!)... These people seem to have a good sense of humor!

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There’s actually a list of very many Wind Cave Room Names that shows when the room was discovered, by whom and often notes explaining the curious name. For example:

Big Butt Canyon: A narrow canyon near Mystic Lake where Paul had trouble getting his butt through.

Berlin Crawl: This crawlway was named in honor of Andre Baumeister, a German researcher who refused to go through the crawl on an earlier exploration trip. After the crew surveyed through the crawl, the name came up because of its similarity to ‘Berlin Wall’.

Laugh Track: When Greg Nepstad first crawled into this room Jim Pisarowicz and Jim Nepstad were still in an incredibly tight passage. Up ahead of them they could hear Greg carrying on with a string of #$!#!’s which started them laughing.

Pant Peeler: A tight crawl that “peeled” Randy’s pants and underwear off as he crawled through.

Screaming Blob of Pain: A passage named after one of the surveyors hit her hand on a rock, causing her to scream in pain. She described her hand as a “blob of flesh” after the incident.

If only the elevator was working and we could have sneaked a peek at some of the actual caverns and crawl spaces…. Don’t they sound inviting? Haha! Oh well, we’ll just have to go back!

What was really heartbreaking at this and many other sites along our travels out west was learning more about the utter travesty that Native Americans suffered as a result of Europeans’ efforts to conquer, settle, raid and confiscate their territory. This area was actually one of many sacred sites of Native Americans, the Lakota Nation in particular. There was complete disregard for Native American welfare, rights and culture, and that is putting it mildly. I can’t tell you how often I felt disgust and despair at what has been inflicted on the native people and the wildlife of this country when visiting various major historical sites in the West. What a deeply shameful chapter of this country.

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This quote from one of the visitor center displays sums up the utter wildlife devastation:

The hunting days of the Plains Indian did not last. Bison robes became fashionable. Bison hunting became a popular sport. The Northern Pacific Railroad advertised “buffalo hunting expeditions” where passengers could shoot bison from a moving train. The slaughter resulted in thousands of bison, pronghorn and wolf carcasses left to rot near the tracks. This practice left Indians baffled and grief-stricken and often starving as well. By the time the killing stopped, bison populations had declined from about 20 million in 1850 to less than a thousand in 1900.

Complete carnage in only 50 years. It made me appreciate every single bison I saw even more, and sometimes it really was just one single bison for miles. (But lots of prairie dogs! My daughter loved those!)

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We took a few moments to admire this one enjoying a nice dust bath. What an awesome sight to behold (from the safety of the car)!

Have you been lucky enough to see the caves at Wind Cave National Park?

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