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The Health of the Land

With the warm temperatures, the December snows are melted off in most places around here. Because of that, some friends and myself ventured into some high areas that are usually inaccessible this time of year.

The Absarokas and elk

The Absarokas and elk

A glorious day in the high 50’s (how strange for ‘winter), we began the hike without snowshoes.  Sometimes we had to venture through large drifts briefly.  Lots of elk sign but no elk visible.  This is an area where I know a large herd of elk overwinter so I expected to see them at any moment.  As we approached the high meadows, about 250 elk moved down into the valley below and up to the meadows on the opposite side.


As we watched, two wolves called back and forth from the cliffs above the elk.  Interestingly, the elk continued grazing uphill in their direction as they called to each other.  Clearly, these elk were not disturbed by the wolves presence.  I have always maintained that wildlife are more in tune with each other than humans are with them.  After a while of howling, the wolves went on their way, making distance between themselves and the herd.  Those weren’t the calls of hungry wolves and somehow the elk knew that.

elk moving up the hillside

We moved on and came to a large herd of over 30 ewes, lambs and young rams grazing.  A band of about eight rams grazed on a meadow beyond.  A second herd of over 250 elk was working their way up the hillside.

Bighorn sheep


Bighorn sheep


Ram group

Ram group

On the way back through the willows, four moose were relaxing and munching.

What a brilliant day and great sightings.  I was especially happy to see all the bighorn sheep we have this year in our area.

Moose mom and male calf

Moose mom and male calf

An afternoon hike in April

The snows are melting, early, and we don’t seem to be getting our usual spring wet dump of moisture.  These spring snows are what the eastern side of the Absarokas depend upon for their real moisture.  The winter snows are dry, while these spring snows put a lot of moisture into the ground.  But the high country still has snow and the rivers aren’t running much yet, so that means the elk are still hanging around.

The other day I took an easy hike up beyond a ridge.  On the way I spied a herd of over 500 elk, fattening up on new grass getting ready to drop their babies in the next few weeks.

Down below a moose and her yearling passed by.

This pond usually has Sandhill Cranes but not today.  I’ve heard them a few times and seen them flying.  Today only Mallards were enjoying the reflection of the snowy peaks.

One of the most interesting features in my valley is old volcanic sulphur deposits.  From my limited understanding of geology, the Absarokas were formed by active volcanism from 53 to 38 million years ago.  The Absaroka volcanics are more than a mile thick, and this volcanic activity is not related to the Yellowstone hot spot which is much more recent.  (Yellowstone’s first eruption occurred only 2 million years ago.)

There are several interesting sulphur deposits, but my favorite has a little creek associated with it.  During the spring, the creek crosses the road, the water turning a cerulean blue.  As you climb towards the area with the deposits, the creek turns milky white and smells distinctly sulphurish.  Unfortunately, the water is as cold as the snow melt that supplies the creek.

Sulphur deposits. Nothing growing

At the deposit area, there’s no greenery on the hillside, and the few hearty trees growing there are stunted.  The hillside also shows evidence of a massive slide in the past.

On this hike I spied something I’d never seen before. Not that they weren’t maybe there before, but there were these unusual ‘lumps’ of raised sulphur (I have no idea what the technical term is).  When the snow recedes some, I’ll climb the hill and inspect them better.  Could they be evidence of something active happening underneath?  I keep hoping for a warm creek to swim in.

Volcanic mounds. Are these evidence of new activity?

East of Yellowstone lies the Absarokas–Crow Country

East of Yellowstone lies the Absarokas, the Big Horn Basin, and the Big Horns.  To the southeast lie the Wind Rivers.  These were the original lands of the Crow peoples.  This is where I live. Below is a wonderful quote from a Crow Indian chief about 200 years ago.  If you stay here, you are in the Center of the Universe.  At the Center, things happen as they should and you will fare well, he says.  Wow,  two hundred years later and this is my experience too!

Big Horns from the Basin


“The Crow Country is a good country. The Great Spirit has put it in exactly the right place; while you are in it you fare well; whenever you go out of it, whichever way you may travel you fare worse.”

“If you go to the south, you have to wander far over great barren plains; the water is warm and bad and you meet with fever and ague. To the north it is cold; the winters are long and bitter and there is no grass; you can not keep horses but must travel with dogs. What is a country without horses?”

“On the Columbia they are poor and dirty, paddle about in canoes and eat fish. Their teeth are worn out; they are always taking fish bones out of their mouths; fish is poor food.”

“To the east they dwell in villages; they live well, but they drink the muddy water of the Missouri – that is bad. A Crow’s dog would not drink such water.”

“About the forks of the Missouri is a fine country; good water, good grass, plenty of buffalo. In summer it is almost as good as the Crow Country, but in winter it is cold; the grass is gone and there is no salt weed for the horses.”

“The Crow Country is in exactly the right place. It has snowy mountains and sunny plains, all kinds of climates and good things for every season.”

“When the summer heat scorches the prairies, you can draw up under the mountains, where the air is sweet and cool, the grass fresh, and the bright streams come tumbling out of the snow banks. There you can hunt the elk, the deer and the antelope when their skins are fit for dressing; there you will find plenty of white bears and mountain sheep.”

Absaroka high country

“In the autumn when your horses are fat and strong from the mountains and pastures, you can go down into the plains and hunt the buffalo, or even trap beaver on the streams.”

“And when winter comes on, you can take shelter in the woody bottoms along the rivers; there you will find buffalo meat for yourselves and cottonwood bark for your horses, or you may winter in the Wind River Valley, where there is salt in abundance.”

“The Crow Country is in exactly the right place. Everything good is to be found there. There is no country like the Crow Country.”

Arapooish, also known as Chief  Rotten Belly around 1830.