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Locals kick off new year with trek in Custer State Park for nationwide First Day Hike

Bundled up in layers, Ryan Walsh, his girlfriend, mother and dog trekked along the snow-covered Creekside Trail at Custer State Park on New Year's morning. 

The group from Rapid City wasn't alone on their sunny but cold hike. They were joined by about 40 others, including about a half dozen children, who participated in First Day Hike, a nationwide program by state parks that helps people kick off the new year by spending the day exercising and appreciating the outdoors on free, guided hikes. 

"It was something social and something different" to do, said Walsh, a 33-year-old carpenter. 

"It's a beautiful day after a blizzard, a new year," his girlfriend, Shawna Retka, added. 

She said she first met Walsh and his dog, Rune, while they were hiking the Stratobowl, and thought it would be nice to take Walsh's mother, Lora Swenson, on a trek while she was visiting from Michigan. 

During the two-mile hike along the creek, Emily Hiatt, a naturalist at the park, stopped to educate participants about the area's wildlife and history. 

Frederick Weishaar, an eight-year-old from Piedmont, said the most interesting fact he learned was that bison like to scratch their backs by rubbing against trees.

Hiatt also shared information about bluebird nests, how woodpecker brains are designed to handle constant pecking, and the history of the State Game Lodge, which once hosted President Calvin Coolidge for a summer. 

Hikers included locals as well as tourists who were visiting the Black Hills. 

Wearing their matching green parkas, Gail and Jeff Harkey didn't have to travel far to the park, which borders their ranch. 

"(I wanted) to get out and do something. I've been a couch potato for the past week," Gail, a 62-year-old sales representative, said with a laugh. "It is a bit cold but as long as the wind isn't blowing, I'm ready to hike."

Gina Lindsey and her husband, Casey, brought their five children to the hike while visiting the area from Bennington, Neb.

"We thought this would be a good (hike) since it's guided and (we could) get to see the wildlife maybe," she said. 

Trinity Lindsey, 8, said she hopes to see deer while her brother Jesse, 6, said he wants to see bison. 

Trinity said children shouldn't be afraid to hike in the cold as long as they wear layers. 

"You should go out, just wear a lot of stuff, so you can see cool creatures," she said. 

"We think (hiking is) important and fun and we want to get them outside all the time," Gina said. 

Hiatt, the naturalist, said she was encouraged by the turnout for this year's First Day Hike. 

"I'm exited that there's just many people" wanting to participate in a cold and healthy outdoor experience, she said. 

Hiatt encouraged the public to take advantage of the park's free snowshoe rental program. The park is also offering a guided beginner snowshoe hike at 10 a.m. on Jan 12. For more information or to register for the free event, call 255-4515.