It’s a sacred place to the Native people of the area. The Lakota call it Mahto Paha..the Cheyenne call it Náhkȯhe-vose. The modern name is Bear Butte and if you’ve been to Sturgis, South Dakota, you’ve probably seen it. It’s a lone promontory rising from the prairie a few miles north of the Black Hills and it can be seen for many miles in every direction.
I started visiting South Dakota on a regular basis about 40 years ago when my wife and I started dating. Her parents are from Buffalo, a small town in the northwest corner of South Dakota and before retiring they purchased a retirement place a few miles south of Sturgis in a beautiful little valley on Elk Creek. And that was about the time I started wanting to photograph Bear Butte.
Over the decades I’ve made several attempts to create a decent image of Bear Butte but for a myriad of reasons I’ve never been successful. Wrong time of day…overcast and flat light….rain….you name it, I’ve never been able to come home with an image of this hill that pleased me.
On the most recent trip, the week of Memorial Day 2013, I was having visions of a night sky shot showing the Milky Way over Bear Butte. I’ve recently gotten the bug to create some night sky shots like the ones I’ve seen posted online by several of my photographer friends but have had limited success. When I started thinking about this trip I clicked in to the Photographer’s Ephemeris to check the status of the moon and was bummed. Full moon on Saturday. Average time of moon rise was 11pm and average time of moon set was 8:30am. Right away I knew there would be no Milky Way shots since the moon tends to wash them out. As it turned out it didn’t matter anyway since it rained and was cloudy every night we were there.
My next idea was sunrise. The southern face of Bear Butte has some rock outcroppings that should look great with low early light. Again, nixed. It was overcast every morning when I peeked out at 4:30. Mid-day was no good. I’ve got several images of Bear Butte in the middle of the day and they all bore me to tears and make me wonder “…why the hell did I shoot that?” Which brings us to sunset…and again I was foiled by the overcast and rainy afternoons. All except one.
Much like the False Kiva expedition a couple of weeks ago, the afternoon was overcast and rainy. But the view to the west from the Rafter T Ranch showed a gap in the clouds near the horizon and I started thinking it might be good. Leaving the family to fend for themselves for supper I headed down the canyon to Sturgis and drove out to find a good composition in case the late light did it’s thing. I found a spot and set up to wait…and wait…and wait…until finally the magic happened. Just like False Kiva, the sun dropped below the cloud deck and gave the wonderful warm light we look for at sunset. And finally!!! An image of Bear Butte that I’m proud of and will be hanging on the wall very soon.