Sunscreen packed and sunglasses on, the 605 team headed to Garretson to check out one of the area’s more popular attractions that included a historical character in South Dakota history. 

Waiting at the Split Rock Creek dock was local Bruce Rekstad, who greeted us to the Jesse James Pontoon Tours. The afternoon was going to entail everything from wildlife to geography, and some history of the area. 

Rekstad, who is entering his 30th year running the pontoon tours, first got the idea for the tours in 1989 after offering a few boat rides during the Garretson Centennial.

“We just had regular boats, and we took people up and down the river who had never been up there before,” he said.

He started the business a few years later, and since then, he has given rides to all kinds of people, including biologists, geologists, school groups, orchestras, and teams from other media outlets.

“In 1991, I took my first group of fourth graders from Brandon Valley,” said Rekstad. “A teacher had to jump overboard to push it because we got stuck, and I didn’t know where the rocks were yet.”

The pontoon ride started with a short Lakota lesson from Rekstad, teaching us how to say greetings like “Haw kola,” meaning “Hello friend,” and other short phrases.

“[In a] normal summer, I will do two to three rides every day.” – Bruce Rekstad 

Rekstad has also been a teacher for 30 years and teaches Native American studies for schools in Sioux Falls, Flandreau, and the Crow Creek tribal community by Fort Thompson. He incorporates his knowledge of indigenous tribes and culture into his tour. 

Our tour was also filled with jokes and light teasing from Rekstad. Most were aimed at 605’s Alana Snyder, who took his trivia and tongue-twister questions in stride. 

Another draw to the tour was the local wildlife that make homes along the creek and its cliffs. Guests of the tour have spotted animals like turtles, bats, and even a bald eagle or two in the past, according to Rekstad. 

While the 605 team wasn’t lucky enough to spot an eagle, we did find the many cave swallows who make their homes on the short cliff sides along Split Rock Creek. 605’s John Snyder got up close and personal with the swallows using his drone. He had to cut its flight short before the birds mistook the drone for a meal. 

Most of Rekstad’s lessons taught us about the local rock formations and the area itself. The majority of this information was nothing new to 605’s Taylor Hanson, who grew up visiting Garretson, and marketing intern Delton Pease, who occasionally works and kayaks in the area. 

For the rest of us, Rekstad explained the origins of the creek and the cliffs, including what type of rock made up the landscape. 

“We call it Minnehaha County gold,” said Rekstad of the quartzite cliffs on either side of the water. 

Coming from a more central, pancake-flat part of South Dakota and having never been to Garretson before, I was awed by the low hills of the area, the dense cedar trees lining the water, and the beautiful quartzite cliffs along our tour. 

Garretson Attractions

» Devil’s Gulch Park and trails 
» Garretson Area Historical Society & Museum 
» Kayaking 
» Palisades State Park 
» Split Rock Park and Campground 

Halfway through the approximately hour-long trip down the creek, we finally arrived at the small cliffside caves where outlaw Jesse James allegedly hid after jumping Devil’s Gulch

It’s said James and the James-Younger Gang were chased on horseback to Garretson from Northfield, MN, after a failed robbery. As the story goes, the group was cornered when they reached the half-mile-long ravine just east of the creek. James was forced to jump the 20-foot gap to escape before heading north to the caves. 

“That’s where they think [he] holed out in 1876 after their unsuccessful bank robbery attempt,” said Rekstad. 

Though caves are now off-limits to visitors, Rekstad’s tour allows an up-close look at the site. 

For those interested in learning more about the history and geography of Garretson, Rekstad says to call him for more tour information, as he doesn’t have regular tour times. 


Facebook // Jesse James Pontoon Tours on Split Rock River 
Phone // (605) 323-5031 

For more information, visit FACEBOOK.COM. 


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