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When Magic Awaits
Mar 30, 2016
The day didn’t start well. At midnight, the moment the day turned from Thursday to Friday, March 11, the alarm in my hotel room at Oacoma went off. I’m not sure if it was accidently reset or the previous occupant thought it would be a good joke on the next guy, but needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled about it. I was planning on getting up early. Just not that early.
About 3:30 a.m., I was up again and out the door. My plan was to photograph the Milky Way with a little country church I knew about near Lower Brule. Bleary eyed and short of sleep, I arrived at the church to find that a new structure had been built right where I had planned to point the camera. Plus, there was a home about a quarter mile away with a barking dog that I had awakened. Hoping to not wake the residents, I headed farther down the road to another little chapel I knew of on the way to Fort Pierre. So far, I was 0 for 2 on the day.
Thankfully things changed when I got to Divine Infant Mission Church just off Highway 1806. It was still dark enough to photograph the Milky Way and high wispy clouds began to move in to diffuse the brighter starlight just enough to make them appear larger than actual size on the long exposures. At the first hint of light, I heard the coyotes sing their morning song to each other. The clouds grew thicker so I decided to head into the Fort Pierre National Grasslands to find something to shoot against the predawn sky.
What happened next was one of those magical South Dakota moments. As the dawn light began to paint the incoming clouds on the eastern horizon, I could hear pheasants cackle, prairie chickens boom, ducks quack and an owl call. The morning was alive all around me. At one point I looked behind me and saw a great horned owl calmly at looking me from just 30 yards away. Turns out, the barn I was using as foreground in my photos was also his home.
Farther down the road was an old, one-room schoolhouse. I stopped there to photograph the brighter colors of sunrise. It was one of those mornings when the whole sky seemed alive with a different shade of color.
The rest of the morning I hunted for country churches in western South Dakota for my Prairie Sanctuaries project. The sky was a beautiful, crisp blue with plenty of high, white clouds — perfect for black and white photography. I found a very interesting set of abandoned one-room school houses along the Wicksville road in southern Meade County that caught my eye. I can’t remember ever seeing two sitting that close together before.
Later in the day, I made my way to the Reva Gap campgrounds at Slim Buttes. I had heard from a friend that the pasqueflowers were out early this year due to the warm weather. I was able to find a handful above ground, but none had bloomed yet. Even so, the hearty little flowers are fun to find and photograph.
As the day waned, I drove to Zeona in southwestern Perkins County to visit a church I had not photographed yet. I was hoping for a signature South Dakota sunset. Things weren’t looking promising; the western sky had clouded up significantly. But then there was a break on the horizon and the sunlight started to shine through. Just as I pulled up to the church the sky turned pink, yellow and orange. It was a thrilling way to end the day. And to think, I always say that March is the hardest month of the year to take pretty pictures in South Dakota. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Christian Begeman grew up in Isabel and now lives in Sioux Falls. When he's not working at Midcontinent Communications he is often on the road photographing South Dakota’s prettiest spots. Follow Begeman on his blog.