Winter Backpacking in the Black Hills

I’ve been wanting to post this for weeks. Finally I’ve  found the time to do it.

My family and I live in a beautiful, scenic and very special place: the Black Hills of western South Dakota.

Quite literally right out our back door… or only a short distance away…. are forests of Ponderosa Pine, rugged rock formations, single track hiking trails, deep canyons and clear cold mountain streams.

The Black Hills or Paha sapa as they are called in Lakota have always been and still are a special and sacred place for indigenous people.  You can sometimes find  prayer ties and bundles  (to be treated respectfully and left alone always).

It does not matter who you are or from where you are from. If you spend any amount of time here you too will begin to realize how special of a place this is. The Black Hills are much more than a unique geographic feature. They are not just an “Island in the Prairie.”

I need no human constructed building to worship in. I only need to go outside. My church surrounds me.

Every soft quiet step I take is a prayer.

My son Nathan and I had long talked about going for an overnight backpack-camping trip. Somehow we never got around to doing it. Comittments with work, traveling to present at medical conferences, and other stuff all seemed to get in the way.

Before we knew it, summer was long gone and autumn had passed.

Winter was here.

Nathan has been tent camping before, but with gear brought to the camp site in a vehicle. He also had been hiking and day packing before, but never over night. This would be a new experience for him.

What better initiation to overnight backpacking than to go winter camping at the same time?

So the Friday after Thanksgiving Nathan and I packed up our gear. We parked at the Iron Creek Horse Camp trailhead. I didn’t have a particular place in mind; I only wanted to hike in a few miles and find a flat and preferrably sun exposed campsite, ideally near one of the creeks in the Black Elk Wilderness.

I run these trails often, fly-fish the creeks catching brook trout and search these rugged hills tracking mountain lions (and who occasionally  follow me… out of curiousity… I hope).

Until now, however,  I had never backpacked in intending to stay overnight.

A good thing about winter camping is that you don’t have to worry about insects. We have very few mosquitoes here compared to places such as Minnesota or Wisconsin. But it’s nice to not have to worry about them.

The best part of winter camping- one almost never sees another human being!

Nathan and I hiked north from the trail head.

Soon we came across signs announcing that we were entering the Black Elk Wilderness.

The designation “wilderness area” was first created by the Wilderness Act of 1964. The  Wilderness Act defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Human activity in wilderness areas is limited to non-mechanized conveyance and tools. No mechanized vehicles or tools of any kind are permitted in wilderness areas.

This means no motor vehicles, no ATVs, no bicycles, no hang gliders, and no chain saws.

The Black Elk Wilderness is named after Black Elk or Heȟáka Sápa the famous  Holy Man of the Oglala Lakota who had his great vision here at age nine.  I read the book Black Elk Speaks decades ago when I was child.

Back then I dreamt of living in a log cabin in the mountains someday. I never realized that one day I would indeed live  in a log cabin in the mountains and it would be only a several miles from where some of the events in the book occurred.

As young men, Chris and I went on many camping trips bringing only our clothes, knives, and perhaps a tarp with our blankets or sleeping bags.

Sometimes we slept under the stars; other times we found a rock overhang or shallow cave. Everything else we needed,  we found or made. We learned to build a fire from scratch- not with flint and steel- but using dry wood with a fire drill.  I thought this was the normal way of enjoying the outdoors, but I guess it wasn’t.

I wish Chris could’ve been with Nathan and I on this adventure, in some ways  he was.

As Nathan and I hiked in the four miles to where I intended to camp, I made a point of showing him various edible plants along the trail. Foraging and gathering wild edible plant foods is most difficult during the winter, but even then there are foods to be harvested and consumed, if only you know what you are looking for.

The first wild edibles we found were Bear Berries (Arctostaphylos sp) . Dry, starchy with big seeds and only slightly sweet, bear berries  will grow at high altitude and in pine forests were few other edibles grow. They are also unique in that they one of the only berries available through the middle of winter.

Also known as kinnikinnick (name origin is Ojibwa I believe), bear berry leaves along with other plants such as the bark of the  red osier dogwood were used as a non-nicotine containing substitute for tobacco.

We picked a few handfuls of berries and ate them on the spot. They were so dry, we needed a swig of water afterwards to cleanse out palate.

The next wild edible we found were rose hips, the fruit of wild roses (Rosa rugosa sp). Large, tart and only slightly more moist than the bear berries, rose hips contain large amounts of vitamin C.

I think rose hips are best enjoyed steeped in hot water as an herbal tea. Called Hagebuten in German, one of my favorite childhood memories is the sweet-tart flavor of rose hip tea my mother had made for me sweetened with sugar or honey.

The third wild edible fruit we found were juniper berries. We sampled only one berry each; that was enough. Although they are edible and smell good, juniper berries are usually too strong and “piney” in flavor for most to enjoy and are only used in times of need.

Juniper berries are used as a spice in northern European cooking and also to flavor gin and other alcoholic beverages. I pick a cup or two of wild juniper berries every year to put into my homemade sauerkraut made from cabbages we grew in our garden.

Growing alongside the trail we found the dried stalks and seed heads of Bergamot (Monarda sp), also known as Beebalm, Oswego Tea or Indian Tea.

Not to be confused with the Bergamot orange, it is a member of the mint family. Like all mints, it can be made into a spicy strongly aromatic herbal tea. There were plenty of dried leaves still attached to the stalks ready to be harvested.

The tea is not bad but myself I prefer spearmint or peppermint. When the flowers bloom in early summer, it is a favorite nectar plant for bumble bees and butterflies.

The trail went up and over some ridges, along meadows and next to frozen creeks.

Some of the creeks still had evidence of beaver lodges and dams. These ponds were abandoned by the beavers a decade ago when we were in the midst of a drought.

The rains and water had returned but the beaver have not yet resettled most these streams.

Nathan wanted to show me how thick the ice was.

“Get off of there! You’ll fall in!” I shouted.

We were traveling light, and we only had one change of clothes. If he had fallen in and gotten soaked, he would have been OK. I wouldn’t have allowed him to become hypothermic- but he would be downright uncomfortable.

Maybe that’s the best way to learn such lessons in life as not walking on thin ice- by falling through and getting wet and cold?

It is but I wanted this trip, his first overnight backpack and also first winter camping trip to be a pleasant experience for him.

He’ll have plenty of chances to learn such lessons in the future.

The sun was approaching the horizon in the west.

Despite it being late November, the temperature in the sun was in the 40s- 50s. Only in the shady and snowy northern slopes did we have to put our winter coats on.

In the snow we saw the tracks of deer, elk, coyote, fox, rabbits, squirrels, mice, grouse  and various birds.

No mountain lion tracks today but often we see those as well.

We finally made it to our goal, the drainage of Grizzly Creek. Although there are no grizzlies, or even black bears living wild in the Black Hills today, I can only imagine how this creek got its name.

I fish for brook trout here in the summer. I brought my fly rod with me hoping for some more open water but most of the stream was frozen over. I didn’t have any luck snaking a wet fly down through a hole in the ice.

Oh well, I guess there’s a reason why fly fishing and ice fishing use different gear and techniques.

With only a brief amount of daylight left, Nathan and I were busy finding a flat place to put up our tent.

Cold air runs down hill. Even more important in the winter than in other seasons, we made sure to find a place to set up camp part way up a south facing ridge  that would be exposed the sun first thing in the morning.

It’s so often the little things that can be the difference between being comfortable or not.

Nathan and I set up our tent, I think it was the largest tent I had ever carried in a backpack- next time I think I will get a true backpacking tent to save on weight.

After shelter, the next requirements for survival are water and food.

The streams in the Black Elk Wilderness run cold and clear. I’ve drank water flowing directly out of an ice cold spring without purification.

Once water travels any distance on the ground surface, however, it’s best to take precautions.

Nathan went down to the stream to filter some water as I continued to unpack.

There is nothing like physical exertion in the outdoors to work up an appetite. Food tastes better in the wilderness.

I prepared freeze-dried Chicken Teriyaki and Sweet and Sour Pork plus with rehydrated raspberries, granola and chocolate for dessert. I usually prefer to make meals from scratch instead of using prepackaged meals, but this trip was special.

Mmmm. No boiled tree bark and squirrel stew for us tonight.

One difference between winter camping and camping during other seasons, besides obviously the colder temperaures, is the shortness of the days and the length of the night. The time between sunset and dawn is long.

Campfires are not permitted in the Black Hills National Forest and even if they were, it would still be too cold to stay outside for long.  Once the sun sets, there is not much to do but to crawl into your sleeping bag where it is warm.

We didn’t bring any kind of artificial light other than our headlamps. We used those only for setting up camp, cooking or emergencies.

We didn’t want to use up our batteries unless we needed to. Lights off. Time for bed. No late night reading in bed.

Dawn finally came.

As I had planned, the first rays of sunlight shined onto our tent, warming a few more degrees than if it had been in the shade.

Nathan arose in good spirits. I think he slept even better than I did.

The most important preparation for going winter camping is to have the proper gear. That includes not only clothing but also extra-warm down sleeping bags.

The first thing we did after arising (other than finding a nearby bush) was to heat up water for hot tea and our oatmeal.

After a cold night our bodies crave warm fluids and calories.

After breakfast, we went for a short hike on to the ridges above us.

Surrounding camp was a forest of large old Ponderosa Pine trees.  Sadly, almost every single one was under attack by pine beetles (see photo).

The mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) is native to the Black Hills and the west but over the past decade populations have risen to epidemic levels.

The adults are tiny, perhaps 5 mm in legnth. In the spring and summer adults seek out mature pine trees, burrow under the bark and lay their eggs. The beetles sometimes attack a single tree enmasse, signalling for others to join by releasing pheromones. Later a blue stain fungus moves in further weakening the tree.

The cause is probably multifactorial: too many years of fire suppression, too many acres of single species monoculture, too many trees that are all essentially the same age and perhaps too many warmer winters than usual.

One tiny pine beetle or even a few hundred is not enough to kill a healthy mature pine.

The pine trees secrete sap to drown or “pitch out” the beetles from their entry holes .  Sometimes the beetles even get trapped and die in the sticky sap of the pitch tube (see photo above).

When the beetle attack is in the millions, however, the tree has no hope.

It is estimated that there will eventually be 90-100% tree kill in some areas. In 3 or 4 years this forest will look very different. It will be even more different when the inevitable wildfires come.

Of course, by then the beetles will be dead and gone then too. As difficult as it is to see this happen from human terms, we need to remember that it is nature’s way. The Ponderosa Pine is a climax species adapted to forest fire.

If the trees do not burn on their own and/or are not selectively harvested, then they will find another way to die.

Once the beetles have done their work, the dead brown forest will be a fire danger and also look ugly (for human eyes). However  if you are an insect-eating  hole-nesting bird such as a nuthatch or woodpecker,  it will be a paradise for decades.

I suppose how you look at this all depends on your perspective.

As we climbed higher, we could hundreds to thousands of acre  patches of already dead forest around us.

 Soon, the entire forest will be brown and dead.

The trees will grow back, eventually, just not in our lifetimes.

The forest is still very beautiful now.  I try to commit these vistas to my memory so I can tell my grandkids about how it used to be.

I hope Nathan will remember this weekend as vividly as I do. I hope we can reminicse about his first time winter backpack camping with his dad and someday his kids and grandkids.

After a few hours of exploring the terrain around camp, it was time to pack up and head home.

When we were only a mile from the car, we stopped for a break.

Nathan pulled out the small A-minor Native Flute I had given him. He improvised a few tunes.

 Like father…. like son.

Soon we were back at the car, Nathan’s first overnight backpack/winter camping trip was history.  We were both looking forward to getting home and telling Mom about all we had seen and done.

But we also talked about future camp trips we’d like to go on.

Maybe we could even try camping in the summer when the days are longer and the temperatures are a little warmer?

Click here for a link to a video of Nathan playing his flute.


2 responses

  1. I love to see your Photos! It does seem like there should be more snow for your area…but then again, who knows. Looks like a wonderful time. And COLD>

    January 28, 2012 at 1:25 pm

  2. Drake

    This is really cool! The black elk wilderness is a very special place–one of the prettiest places in the hills for sure.

    January 23, 2015 at 5:24 am

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