(State #36/50) Walking the canoe into a pool of muddy water, my cousin, Thomas, turned around. “Should we try?” he asked. I nodded and we hopped back in the boat. We paddled forward for about ten feet and then ran aground. Thomas and I strained and pried at the sand with our paddles, but it was no use — all forward progress had ceased. He looked back and I shook my head. Without a word, we both jumped out of Rider and commenced dragging the canoe downstream. The Cheyenne River, my ass.
Thomas had flown into Rapid City a few days before. We had toured the Black Hills, chased prairie dogs, and stared, with patriotic obligation, at the stone faces of four dead presidents. Then it was time to canoe, which was going to be problematic — South Dakota was in a massive drought. I prepared Thomas for the likely realities of the low water and my cousin seemed up for anything. I was thankful for his attitude… Unlike our canoe, it’d go a long way on the river.
“What stream?” the woman behind the counter responded. “The Cheyenne River,” I answered back, less confident. “We’re going to canoe down it and we’re seeing if we could, perhaps, park the car here overnight.” The woman looked me over with the proper amount of suspicion, trying to figure out my angle… It was, after all, an abnormal request. Her name was Karla and she was the Communication Director for the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. Before coming to South Dakota, she had worked with musicians, artist and organized concerts, etc. Karla has seen her share of grifters, users, charlatans, nogoodniks and ne’er-do-wells. But, after a few minutes of vetting, she determined we weren’t horse thieves. “You can park in the guest parking lot and use that gate to get to the river.” Karla said, warming to us. We thanked her and continued talking — what stories she told.
Thomas and I carried our gear down the sandy hill, past stables to the sand bar above the… Well, when Karla had asked “what stream?,” she wasn’t being funny. Standing by the Cheyenne “River,” I saw the drought’s true extent. The summer before, we were told, people jet skied here. It was difficult to imagine now, as my canoe was longer than the river was wide. I looked over at Thomas. He stood grinning, holding his paddle and wearing his life jacket. I laughed. “Take that thing off.” I said. “If we drown in this water then we deserve to drown.”
We fixed rum and cokes immediately, not even allowing the chance for frustration to drive us to drink. I pulled the boat out into the deepest water I could find — maybe a foot — and held Rider steady as Thomas jumped in the front. Then we were off, flying down the little yellow river for a good sixty feet until we came to a riffle and got stuck in the sand. “Alright, time to get out,” I said. Thomas guided the boat through and I helped her along until we reached the next stretch of suitable water. We jumped in, paddled a little, and jumped out to, again, walk the canoe downstream. We repeated this process until I lost count.
Yes, it wasn’t ideal floating conditions, but I’ll say this: if you have to push, pull and drag a canoe for two miles, this wasn’t a bad place to do it. The Cheyenne River splits the Black Hills and the great northern prairie. Along the river, willows and cottonwoods line the banks and lush green ferns and vines grow where cold spring water feeds into the stream. Birdlife abounded and we scared huge rafters of turkeys, watching them bob and scurry away into the high grass. We passed by sandstone faces and even floated under the shade of an overhang. Rolling prairie sprawled out towards the South. Escarpments of orange, white and yellow, dotted with dark green pines, rose to the North. Some of the wild horses, painted and speckled, patrolled the far-off pine ridges, hundreds of feet up.
The land on both sides was owned by the horse sanctuary. As Karla had explained, it was founded by Dayton O. Hyde in 1988 and is home to hundreds of horses that are too wild to adopt. Now they get to frolic and roam the lands of the sanctuary until they turn back to dust, as Karla put it. True, they’re not native (well, this horse species is Eurasian, though horses originated in North America), but you could argue they have more right to the western lands than any other introduced species. Surely, if there’s room in America for all of us non-native humans, there can be a little for wild horses as well.
In no rush, we explored and goofed around. Thomas climbed an old rickety deer blind (which, being the older, wiser cousin, I highly encouraged), we hiked out of the gully for views of the land, chased a big snapping turtle and ate tiny, tart green apples from an old tree growing from the bank. At one point, we found a section dammed by beavers. Thomas and I took advantage and canoed laps around a thirty-by-sixty-foot pool, enjoying the novelty of sitting in the canoe.
We had to carry the boat over several barbed wire fences, which crossed the stream. The third fence we approached, notably, wasn’t barbed wire. “I think that’s an electric fence,” I warned. Thomas didn’t hear. Pop! Thomas jumped back, shaking his hand, and turned to me. “That’s an electric fence!” he called out in surprise. He wasn’t bleeding from the ears, so we continued.
Finally, thankfully, after a few hours a sizable spring-fed stream flowed in from the hills. The cold, clear water provided a nice boost. Thomas and I got in the canoe and — I’m not making this up — didn’t have to get out for a half mile! We floated under the highway bridge, around rocks, beneath a barbwire fence and against cut banks.
As the sun lowered we found a camp on a grass bank above the stream. The sun cast soft light on huge cottonwood trees with thick, deep-creviced bark. “You watch, it’s going to get even better in a few minutes,” I told my cousin, cocky in my sunset prediction. Twenty minutes later all the colors faded to gray and Thomas, rightfully, made fun of me. That night we cooked quesadillas and watched all the stars come out. Laying out on a tarp, we looked up at the Milky Way, talked and watched shooting stars. It was supremely romantic.
The next morning, we canoed upstream and left the canoe at the bridge. After walking a mile up a dirt road, an employee from the sanctuary gave us a lift. Karla seemed happy we survived and rewarded our labor by letting us take showers. Then, as we left, the sky opened up and rain poured down upon the dust, the fields, the turkeys and the horses.
Driving to the Badlands that afternoon, I tried to distract Thomas as we crossed over the Cheyenne, again and again. Downstream from a reservoir, each stretch had three times more water flowing than where we had canoed… Yeah, it hurts to miss that one. But, but, but, our float was what people vaguely and all too commonly call “an experience.” I prefer the term ordeal. Yes, Thomas and I had an ordeal in South Dakota, but an enjoyable ordeal, which brings to mind a line from an ancient eastern parable, which I’m now making up… Sometimes, when traveling downstream, the canoe takes you and sometimes, you take the canoe.
River Stats and Fun Facts:
- Cheyenne, South Dakota (Not to be confused with the Sheyenne of North Dakota!)
- Dates Canoed: 7/26-27/2017
- Miles Canoed: 3 total (about 2 dragging the boat, 1 actually sitting in the canoe).
- Weather: Highs in the low 80s, partly cloudy to mostly cloudy with a cloudburst
- Elevation: Approximately 3240 feet Above Sea Level
- Launch Point: Wild Horse Sanctuary (43.313863, -103.605967)
- Campsite/Further Point Reached: (43.302704 ,-103.554946)
- Takeout Point: Bridge on highway 71 (43.305732, -103.563824)
- Songs Sung on the River: “Rocky Raccoon by the Beatles (“Somewhere in hills of South Dakota there lived a young boy named Rocky Raccooooon”), Hurts So Good by John “the Cougar” Mellencamp, End of the World by R.E.M and Home on the Range. (How did we not sing Wild Horse by the Stones? shameful!)
- Delicious Local Restaurant: Dew Drop Inn, Hot Springs — Thomas and I ordered greasy burgers and milkshakes. In the shade of a pavilion, we ate ourselves into a happy oblivion.
- Huge thanks to Karla and the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary for all their hospitality. Thanks to Karla for letting us shower after the canoe. And thanks to Steve for turning his truck around to pick Thomas and I up and take us back to our car.
- Wildlife Spotted:
- Birds: Wild Turkeys (about 100), vulture, night hawk, golden finch, dove, cliff swallows
- Mammals: White tail deer and wild horses (heard coyotes at night)
- Reptiles/amphibians: Snapping turtle, frogs (saw a Prairie Rattlesnake on way to badlands!)
- Other: minnows and big carp
- Noted Species: Big horn sheep, elk and mountain lions
- Ecoregion: Border of Northwestern Great Plains, (43e) Sagebrush Steppe and Middle Rockies, (17a) Blackhills Foothills
- Current Threats: Agriculture and irrigation taking water from the river. Mining runoff used to be a major issue. The Cheyenne still has a higher dissolved mineral content than other South Dakota rivers.
- Trash Collected: bottles and plastic trash by the bridge
Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $2716 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign