An Afternoon at Rapid City’s Outdoor Campus
In keeping with my pledge to spend more time in nature this year, I made my first visit to the Outdoor Campus – West in Rapid City this past weekend. Run by South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, the Outdoor Campus — West opened in 2011. The facility features a LEED Gold building (one of only eight structures in South Dakota that have attained this level of certification from the U.S. Green Building Council) situated on 32 acres that include two small ponds, a stream, and 1.5 miles of trails.
A footbridge over a pond leads from the pond to the building’s front door. Despite temperatures in the teens and a chilly breeze, I lingered outside on the bridge, looking down at several species of diving and dabbling ducks that paddled about on the unfrozen portion of the pond. There were several gadwalls, lovely ducks that have a sort of understated elegance to them.
There were also two ring-necked ducks …
… and a redhead …
… and a common goldeneye.
It was fun to see both dabbling ducks (mallard and gadwall) and divers (ring-necked duck, goldeneye, and redhead) in one place. I’m more used to seeing dabblers in shallow ponds, where they can tip up and feed on vegetation, and divers in deep lakes where they swim around in search of fish. It would seem that this little pond in front of the Outdoor Campus has a variety of depths to suit both types of waterfowl.
Besides the ducks, I also spotted a muskrat. Weighing in at 2-3 pounds, muskrats sport a thick undercoat of fur which traps air. This serves to keep the muskrats warm and dry in the water, while also helping to maintain buoyancy. Though they’re small, muskrats are mighty; they can hold their breath and stay underwater for up to fifteen minutes!
All this, and we hadn’t even gone inside yet! Entering the building, we found that it was set up with four loosely-divided zones representing the habitats found in the Black Hills, badlands, prairies, and lakes and streams. Each zone showcased wildlife and natural features that occur in those habitats. There were lots of taxidermied animals.
The exhibits had a strong tactile emphasis, with a refreshing lack of technological gewgaws. There were lots of pelts and bones and antlers around for picking up and touching. I was a little disappointed by the lack of labels and text on the wildlife displays, but I should mention that I do not seem to fit the target demographic for the facility; the building and its grounds are geared towards families with children. For kids (of all ages), being able to handle objects is an important part of a memorable experience. I got into the spirit of things, climbing into a hollow log and hanging out with the puppets that lived there.
We admired fish swimming around in the 4,600 gallon freshwater aquarium, then headed outside for a walk on the trails. Once we’d left the building, we had the grounds pretty much to ourselves. There were lots of kids at the Outdoor Campus that Saturday afternoon, but most of them were inside at a BB Gun Basics workshop. South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks uses the Outdoor Campus – West (and its older, companion facility in Sioux Falls) for classes in archery, snowshoeing, boating, fishing, cooking wild game, and track identification, among other topics.
I wish I didn’t live quite so far away from the Outdoor Campus. The class offerings are varied and are geared for a variety of different audiences, including adults with no kids in tow. I’m sure I’ll visit again, though … and if you find yourself in Rapid City, I definitely recommend stopping in for a visit.
Learn more about the species mentioned in this post:
- Gadwall, Anas strepera
- Ring-necked duck, Aythya collaris
- Redhead, Aythya americana
- Common goldeneye, Bucephala clangula
- Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos
- Muskrat, Ondatra zibethicus