As a former history teacher, Fred Kush of Lacrosse, Wisc., said he was "blown away" Friday to learn that something as unique and memorable as the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup had been going on for 50 straight years.
"The spectacle of it, to see this huge, majestic things in the meadows by themselves, or to see them charging, it just makes you go, 'wow,'" Kush said after attending the 50th annual roundup held Friday morning. "It makes you think about what it must have been in the 1800s, before so many were killed off, what a sight it must have been."
Kush and his wife were among a record crowd that a park official late Friday estimated at about 21,000 for the milestone event, up 50 percent from the 14,000 who typically attend. The large crowd was split in two, with people seated on opposing hillsides near Lame Johnny Road to watch the annual late September event.
The roundup is held each year to manage the park's bison population, which hovers around 1,200, to ensure the animals are healthy, immunized and to cull the herd for auction when it gets too large for the habitat.
Using pick-up trucks and riders on horseback, the 2,000-pound buffalo that can run up to 35 mph are pushed through a valley and into corrals where they can be handled and cared for. While it is an annual tradition based on principles of herd management, it has grown into a popular spectacle for visitors who come from across the country and world to watch.
Kathie Hedrick of North Carolina and Joyce Brown of Alabama came on part of a tour of the country.
"The excitement of seeing these things that are just humongous in size, and hearing the rumble of the ground as they move...it's not something I'll see again," Hedrick said.
Dennis Harlow and Lois Halvorsen of Minnesota said they traveled with mutual friends from Denmark, all of whom wanted to see the buffalo after they watched "Dances with Wolves," a movie filmed mainly in the Black Hills area.
"We went on a Jeep ride and got to see them up close," Harlow said. "They're huge, but calm, majestic animals."
"Seeing them kick up all of that dust and hearing the sound of the ground, like thunder, it's well worth it," Halvorsen said.
The waits for both the bison and to reach the parking area were long, but the excitement in the air was still palpable as the 50th Buffalo Roundup was underway.
The roundup started around 9:30 a.m. Friday, with thousands of people waiting and watching on the hills for over an hour until the herd finally made its way through the corrals.
For many, the day started earlier, with some leaving their homes in the Black Hills as early as 4:30 a.m. to get a good spot on the hill. Even those who left early had to come prepared to wait in bumper-to-bumper traffic when they got close to the location in Custer State Park. Lisa and David Hoeferkamp of Mishawaka, Ind. said they didn't mind.
"You just find ways to bide the time," David said. "And with a slow drive, you can experience the Hills better, which is great. We read reviews of the area that hyped it up, and it exceeded the hype."
"It's lovely scenery," Lisa said. "Though I also passed the time with a nap. He couldn't do it, but I could."
Kush said he managed to find a good spot even as he and his wife overslept over an hour after their alarm clock didn't go off.
"That's OK," Kush said. "The long wait, the traffic, it's an adventure, and it keeps you young. Or at least it makes you think so."
For most patrons, the wait was well worth it, and with each passing minute, anticipation grew among the crowd. The sound of the animals in the distance, a full twenty minutes before a full view of them was possible, further whetted appetites that couldn't be satiated by the pancake breakfast. Even the sign of a few buffalo in the distance got the crowd cheering.
"It's a teaser," Kush said.
The cheers grew louder as the animals finally made their way over the hill, hundreds of them growing from black-brown dots to a rush over the hills. Followed by cowboys and cowgirls on horses and trucks, they scattered in different directions but gradually made their way over the field.
Within 10 or 15 minutes of appearing in full sight, they had almost fully winnowed in through the gate, with the cowboys pushing stragglers and loners who had broken off from the herd through the gate.
Even as it was over, members of the crowd shared their own take on the awe-inspiring sight.
"The immensity of this, and of the number of people it takes to get it, is incredible," Kush said. "The scene of them coming over the ridge, just poetic. It makes you nostalgic for another time."