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  • Writer's pictureInger and Jeff Latreille

A "Boxwork" Cave & an Ice Age Site

~Sunday, June 5, 2022~

Day 721

Just another day of epicness……touring another cave and visiting a paleontological dig site and this is just the tip of the iceberg when visiting Custer. I’m telling you, there is so much to see in these Black Hills of South Dakota, I know it will require another visit to get it all in.

Last night was quite something with the most violent thunder/lightning of the trip so far AND right over our heads. At one point, we thought lightning hit a nearby tree with a large crackling sound, enough to awaken anyone from a dead sleep, including Sadie. Being from California, I think our worst storms have been in Lake Tahoe, which are really not that violent in comparison. Anyway, it wasn’t quite the sleep I was hoping for.

We had a 10:30 tour at Wind Cave National Park for the “Fairgrounds Tour”. My first question to the ranger was….why is Jewel Cave a “national monument” while Wind Cave is a “national park”? The primary difference, she said, lies in land preservation and the process for Federal approval. National parks are protected due to preservation, conservation and public use value, usually focusing on a variety of things in one park. The example for Wind Cave is the cave itself and the native wildlife. And they require Federal approval. National monuments on the other hand have objects of historical, cultural and/or scientific interest, and a much speedier approval.

This tour had a larger group than our previous cave expedition from the other day, and boy what a difference in the two. This one felt more confining with lower ceilings and smaller passages, mostly consisting of “Boxwork”, appropriately named .

In fact, Wind Cave has a greater concentration of “Boxwork” than all other similar caves in the world, combined with its criss-crossing fins of calcite covering the cave’s walls and ceilings.

Wind Cave, established in 1903, gained national attention in part due to an adventurous teenager named Alvin McDonald

who scratched out a living offering cave tours. He even kept a journal documenting his many experiences in the cave while carrying a candle and a ball of string ensuring he’d find his way back. I still don’t know how even one candle would have prevented claustrophobia or provided enough light. And what would happen if the candle blew out? With complete and utter darkness, you wouldn’t be able to relight that candle in the first place. To give us a hint of what Alvin would have experienced, our tour guide turned out every hint of artificial lighting to give us a sense of what total darkness would feel like. Your eyes don’t adjust. You can’t even see your own hand in front of your face. But I do understand the fascination that Alvin would have had exploring these amazing caverns. Sadly, during a Chicago visit, bearing cave samples for the Columbian Exposition, Alvin contracted Typhoid Fever in the summer of 1893, and died. He was only 20 years old.

All in all, we negotiated 450 stairs through a complex underworld system full of frostwork, flowstone and popcorn formations. But, it’s so strange to think that 200 feet above these underground systems is a vibrant green prairie, teeming with wildlife. Who knows, Wind Cave could be the biggest cave system in the world once more is uncovered.

From there we drove over to Hot Springs, SD to a funky eatery called Chicago Street Cafe before driving to the Mammoth Hot Springs site. There really weren’t any other decent restaurant options so this one would have to do. You can tell it’s a local’s hang out for sure, featuring all day breakfasts, lunches, and fresh baked pies. To get to the dining area, you had to go through their gift shop, full of eclectic things from knives to guns to apparel. They didn’t have anything in the way of vegetarian offerings so had to give in to eating a burger instead. In any case, it fit the bill for two hungry tourists.

Just around the corner was The Mammoth Site, a National Natural Landmark site inside a sizable building

with changeable platforms as excavation efforts are ongoing. Inside, is the now dry sinkhole pond which attracted and entrapped over 60 mammoths (3 Wooly Mammoths and 58 large Columbian Mammoths) about 140,000 years ago during the Ice Age.

Also succumbing to the enticing pond were camels, a short-faced bear, and a variety of other creatures. The thought is that with the inviting water and food source, combined with the edge of the pond lined in red Spearfish shale, it made the surrounding edge incredibly slippery. The combination of slippery shale and the steep angle of the pond underneath fatally entrapped them.

It is the largest concentration of mammoth remains in the world.

The Mammoth Site was discovered in 1974 when a bulldozer was excavating the land for a housing development and unearthed gigantic bones and ivory. You can imagine the excitement when the bones were verified to be MAMMOTHS. Once a critical fossil skull was unearthed, the site was determined to be a significant find. For us, it was a bit surreal seeing the site intact, frozen in time with the excavations currently taking place. Nothing is replicated, and the site is in a perpetual state of evolution as experts continue to unveil new discoveries. One fascinating tour, and one packed day….again!

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