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The Quest of the Lost Henry Arch

Beth Krueger is dwarfed by the rediscovered lost Henry Arch.


We were lost. Not the kind of lost where you wander around for days trying to get the attention of circling helicopters, or listen for the sound of blood hounds sent to find you. But we were a mite turned around, and had been for a couple of hours.

We were somewhere in the rough country between Black Elk Peak and Mount Rushmore, and after prolonged brow knitting over my map, I guessed we were in the upper Pine Creek Drainage. From the high ridge we had climbed to get our bearings my plan was to keep heading in the general direction of north, and eventually pop out on Highway 244 in the vicinity of Horse Thief Lake. How to do that with the greatest economy of time and effort was the problem.

It was mid-October of 1974, and my kid brother Cliff and I were on the tail end of a backpacking trip in the Black Hills. I had planned for this to be our last day out, and I hoped to quickly find a phone so I could call home. My wife envisioned a world in which husbands didn't do these outdoorsy things at all. I had promised her I would wrap our trip up in a few days, and my few days were up.

But that hope was rapidly fading. The drainage we were in was metamorphosing from a broad, gently sloping basin to a high walled, narrow canyon; its slippery boulders and tricky down climbs would have been trouble to negotiate even without the 60-pound packs we carried.

The route to upper Pine Creek Drainage offers views of magnificent spires.

Still, the difficult descent was not without its blessings. As the hiking got tougher our surroundings changed from scenic to spectacular. There were lofty spires paralleling our route on two sides, interspersed with weirdly shaped knobs and monoliths crowned by formations reminiscent of gnomes who had abandoned the netherworld to sit blinking in the sun.

As we proceeded with painful slowness down the canyon an extraordinary mass of twisted rock began to reveal itself, a bizarre sight even in this alien world. Its form kept changing as we approached. From one angle it was a huge twist of bread, prepared by some long forgotten race of titans; as we came around it showed its face to be a massive slab of granite, with a great Jack-O-Lantern mouth frowning toothlessly down at us.

Even in our haste to find a way out of this place we were riveted momentarily by the sight of this great stone arch. During the past three days of hiking around Cathedral Spires and Black Elk Peak we had seen enough striking geological formations to know we were looking at something special. It would be many years before I came to an understanding of just how special.

We unlimbered our cameras and snapped some pictures before hurrying on our way. The going got rougher, requiring two rappels and lowering our packs by rope at points, as though the spirit of the great arch was punishing us for disturbing its rest by making it well-nigh impossible to escape its domain. By the time we reached the highway it was so late we decided to give up on going home that night. We retreated back into the woods, there to make camp.

In time, the details of this trip lost their clarity and merged with memories of other adventures. But now and then thoughts of the arch would come back to haunt me. I shared my experience with others occasionally, and was usually surprised with the underwhelming response it evoked. It seemed no one could get excited about something as prosaic as a rock with a hole in it. Maybe it was one of those moments you had to experience to appreciate.

I made myself a promise to return and locate the arch when I could take more time to fully savor the experience — a promise I finally kept after 23 years. During that time I saw or was told of other arches in the Black Hills, including one of the better known, a graceful span which holds court 350 feet above the Sand Creek road on the Wyoming side.

The structure my brother and I encountered had none of the graceful attributes sometimes associated with the geological phenomena we call arches. It might be more fittingly called a natural bridge, though from my first look I called it the Pine Creek Arch.

My physical condition would not be the major obstacle in my quest. The real challenge would be finding a place I had been to once. A long time ago. While lost.

Arches are formed in soft limestone or sandstone, which is amenable to sculpting by wind and water. Usually they are in rimrock formations, near the tops of drainages where water finds a small channel in the rock to cut through, a hole which gets bigger and bigger with the march of time. The overlying rock that forms the arch is susceptible to the erosive forces of wind and falling water. Together with the running surface water below, they can enlarge the area under the arch to a sometimes-spectacular size before it finally weakens and collapses.

The Pine Creek Arch, on the other hand, was formed in the bowels of the earth. Countless eons ago molten magmas from the world's fiery core pushed upwards into fissures, faults and cracks in the billions and billions of tons of deposited rock on the old sea floor. There it crystallized and cooled into the spires and shapes we see today, including the arch, but for millennia these formations rested many miles beneath the surface.

Inexorably driven upward by unimaginable forces within the planet, the arch was finally forced into the light of day. Wind and water had been polishing the already ancient formation for centuries before the first humans made their way into the canyon; much later, prospectors might have searched around the hulk for gold. A handful of recreational hikers probably found their way into the narrow cut before we did, and the old arch looked on, unimpressed throughout.

None of which really explains why I became obsessed with finding it again. But over the years I had begun to think of it as "my" arch — The Lost Henry Arch.

Hikers Bob and Peggy Schluening of Sturgis are framed by another arch discovered on the quest.


By the late summer of 1997 I decided that if I was ever going to see the arch again, I had better move ahead. My long-suffering wife, Dorothy, had seen this coming. When I announced that I was going to make a reconnaissance into the upper Pine Creek Drainage before the snow fell, she said nothing, just looked at me as though I had sprouted a banana in the middle of my forehead.

A series of health problems had kept me from attempting anything like that for some time. Though on the mend, I recognized I wasn't half the man I had been in 1974. I hoped I didn't have to be. During those intervening years I had acquired the good sense not to carry around 60-pound packs. Besides, I suspected that my physical condition would not be the major obstacle in my quest. The real challenge would be finding a place I had only been to once. A long time ago. While lost.

I spent some time studying topographic maps, but I couldn't pinpoint any place that fitted my recollection of the lay of the land. Then an unexpected resource emerged in the form of an old friend named Virgil Van Heuvelen, a retired dentist who had been teaching technical rock climbing in the Black Hills for 27 years.

Doc was as knowledgeable as anyone alive about the Pine Creek Drainage, but he had no knowledge of the arch, nor did he know of anyone who might. This was not heartening news.

I had no specific plans formulated when a good friend and strong hiker, John Natvig, by chance blew into town over Labor Day weekend. I had worked with John in the Forest Service for a number of years and shared some backcountry camping trips with him. He is a great navigator, though that was not necessarily a plus since I didn't know precisely where I wanted to go. But I figured he could keep me from getting lost again.

My idea was to try and find the same high, open ridge my brother and I had climbed to get our bearings, and then retrace our route toward Highway 244. When we reached the ridge I had picked out on the map, though, it was anything but open. Great rock outcrops and lofty pine trees didn't allow the magnificent 360-degree view I'd had in 1974. I figured the pine trees might have grown up since then, but I couldn't explain away the rocks.

A notch in a rock wall began to look very familiar — but my God, I thought, had I really led my brother into this treacherous place?

By the time we hiked to where the canyon started to narrow I felt sure we were in the wrong place, and we reluctantly turned for home. On the hike back to the trailhead I remarked that I had snapped some pictures of the arch the day I found it. John, never timid when I have done something less than brilliant, remarked dryly that something like that might have been a help in locating it.

Even though Doc had somehow missed it in his travels, I figured there were people around who knew where the arch was. But I didn't know who these people might be, and they were not advertising guided tours in the yellow pages. Obsession or no obsession, my chances of returning to the Lost Henry Arch seemed to grow bleaker with each passing day.

Then one evening while talking to my brother Cliff, a bush pilot in Alaska, I asked if he remembered our backpack trip in 1974. To my surprise he remembered it quite well, and went on to describe some of the details of the trip that I had completely forgotten. I asked if he remembered the natural bridge we found in that secluded canyon, and his recollections seemed so convincingly vivid I decided to try again — though the irony of someone two time zones away directing me to a spot 60 miles from my front door was not lost on me.

Going into the rough part of the canyon, I wanted at least three people along. If I fell down and broke my leg I wanted someone to stay behind and stroke my brow while the other person went for help. After a couple of weather-related postponements, three friends and I were finally all available at the same time.

The first was Russell Yuill, of rural Sturgis, with whom I had shared a number of memorable climbing adventures. We drove to just north of Black Hawk and rolled my son-in-law, Shawn Kvanvig, out of bed and loaded him in the car. The fourth member of our party, Beth Krueger, met us at the trailhead.

Shawn Kvanvig, Russell Yuill and Phillip Henry savor the discovery of the lost arch.

We set out at mid-morning into the Black Elk Wilderness, climbing toward 6,000 feet, where we would turn across the slope and try to find the correct drainage. I couldn't shake some doubts about my brother's memories, but it was such a fine day I concluded it didn't really matter. All of our little group would want to be here anyway. 

Shawn set a blistering pace that I had no hope of maintaining, so I described the landmarks where he would have to stop and wait for us. I thought Beth and Russell would want to press on with him, but they were content to hang back with me and make idle banter.

After about an hour we left the developed hiking trail and began a steep ascent, paralleling an incredible display of spires and megaliths that now and then looked curiously familiar. As we continued, the hillside steepened noticeably, and the whole affair started taking on the distinct feel of work. We had all packed light, but I had a fair amount of camera gear along, and the pack I carried had a way of reminding me it was there.

Our slow progress gave me time to look about, and I had the distinct feeling we were in the right neighborhood. Armed with the knowledge of where not to go from my last trip, I guided us toward a saddle guarded by towering spires which climbers are fond of calling gendarmes. Once over, we picked our way down a quickly narrowing drainage to a notch in a rock wall that began to look very familiar — but my God, I thought, had I really led my brother into this treacherous place while we were both loaded down with bulky, lurching packs?

Soon the canyon floor widened a bit and became less difficult under foot. We clambered over boulders and leaped a small flowing stream, which I am sure was not there in 1974, and Shawn called my attention to a huge twisted piece of rock coming into view around the bend.

I stopped and looked intently.

"I think that 's it!" I cried, more excited than if we had just discovered the biggest gold nugget in the Black Hills. One by one we came to a halt in a little knot on the canyon floor, the arch looming above us, deep gray and older than time. We stared up in awe, speaking in hushed tones, as if we had blundered into some great cathedral during High Mass.

As I stood there the thought came to me that the arch had stood the 23 years better than me. It was much more impressive than I remembered; if anything, I was more astonished than I had been the first time. Beth murmured that if you were going to find one of these things it might as well be a big one. Shawn summed up his feelings in one word: "Cool!" Russell said something that sounded like, "Wow."

After some moments we overcame our surprise and began to function more normally. I began unpacking my camera gear. Shawn, who takes as a personal affront any attempt by a mere rock wall to bar him from where he wants to be, had already started to work out a route from the stream bed up to the sloping stone shelf where the arch stood. Like a bear cub, Russell was climbing over things, poking, prodding, testing, knowing that no matter what he found there was always more that could be seen. The two found separate routes to the base of the arch while Beth, in her more cerebral way, was taking the measure of the arch, asking silent questions about the how and why of this phenomenon.

While I ascended a steep cleft on the opposite side of the canyon to get a higher perspective, Russell and Shawn were like two gnats buzzing around an elephant as they explored on and around the arch. Beth finally had enough of sitting and looking and joined them.

Later, Russell was kind enough to escort me to a route which he assured me would take me right up to the arch, "without even the need to hang on to anything." It wasn't exactly as easy as advertised. I soon found myself doing an impersonation of a man about to be drawn and quartered, with one foot on a step which was more imagination than actual step and the other somewhere back there on terra firma. Beth and Russell came to my rescue, and finally, after all those years, I was within hand shaking distance of the arch.

It was too hard, cold and impassive to extend even a perfunctory greeting. No matter. After exploring around the base for a while I felt satisfied with the day's work, and decided that I had earned the right to do nothing but rest. We took turns posing for pictures before climbing back down to the canyon floor, and at last there was nothing left but to admit it was time to go.

There were only two practical routes out: the way we had come or down the canyon. I had told my companions the story of our 1974 trip down the canyon — about the rappels, the narrow notches filled with jumbles of wet, slippery boulders and other obstacles. That settled the matter for Shawn. To ignore the challenge would be dishonorable. He would go down canyon.

Russell decided to go along with him. We had already explored one way, after all. What was unknown lay ahead, not where we had already been.

Beth was competent in the art of rappelling, but her rational mind saw no purpose in doing so if a reasonable alternative was at hand. She decided to return up canyon. As for me, I had done all the scrambling about over rocks I needed for one day, and decided to take the easier route with Beth.

It was early afternoon on a perfect autumn day, with a sky too blue to describe and breezes playing tag among the pine trees as we worked our way out of the canyon onto the easier walking above the slot. Soon night would deepen the gloom of the already dark shadows, and the spirit of the arch would return to its slumber.

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the May/June 1998 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.


09:34 pm - Wed, February 26 2020
Heath said:
One of my Favorite spots. So remote. Thanks for your story of it.

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