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Yellowstone adventures and a close call

I came back a few weeks ago from an advanced tracking class with Jim Halfpenny in Gardiner.  But before the class, I spent a day and an evening hiking around the Park.

Tuesday late afternoon called for a trek up Mt. Washburn, which I’d never done.  They say if you only have time for one hike, Mt. Washburn is your ticket.  Its a great view for sure of the Yellowstone volcano, but what’s more impressive is that during the ice age only 30,000 years ago, Mt. Washburn was the only land not covered with glaciers from there to the Tetons.  The hike is not far but a good uphill and the alpine wildflowers were impressive.  A group descending came bye and told me to watch for a grizzly they’d seen near the summit.

View from Mt. Washburn of the Yellowstone caldera



Gentian close-up

At the top, a ranger is stationed and there’s a free telescope for viewing (Wow, something actually free!).

Wednesday morning after camping at Mammoth, I headed up past the Golden Gate looking for a nice dayhike.  I thought I’d do Solfatara Creek.  I parked at the isolated trailhead.  Not my favorite kind of trail presented itself.  An ’88 burn area, the trail was thick on both sides with young lodgepoles so tight you can’t move nor see ahead.  Essentially, these kinds of trails are like tunnels and I don’t like them because if you come upon a bear there’s no where to go.

I decided to try the trail and see if it opened up.  If it didn’t, I’d find another to hike.  Sure enough, after about 700 yards, the trail opened to meadow and an unburned forest.  As I approached the hot springs of Solfatara Creek, the trail showed lots of fresh bear sign.  The creek was a beautiful and unusual greenish-blue, warm, slow water, but the mosquitos were thick.  Between the bugs and the bear scat, which was thickening in tune with the mosquitos, I decided that since I was hiking alone I’d prefer to find another trail, one more open and less buggy.

I retraced my steps and when I got to the meadows, I noticed a troop of rangers off trail looking like they were doing some kind of vegetation studies.  I figured they must have come through the ‘tunnel’ that was approaching, so maybe they’d scared off any bears.  But just in case, as I always do when I can’t see well in front of me, I took my bear spray out of its holster, uncapped it, and held it in my right hand as I came through the trees.

About halfway through the forest, I came around a corner almost directly into a lone bison bull rubbing its horns on a sapling.  I watched for a moment while debating where to go to get out of its way.  He was coming my direction and I was headed towards him.  If I went backwards from whence I came, I’d be stuck in the narrow thicket of trees on the trail in his way.  I couldn’t slip pass him. Beside me was a teeny, tiny clearing of about 5′ square.  I moved as far as I could into the clearing.  He began to trot on the trail past me, but just at the last second he changed his mind and decided to charge me.  At only about 6′ away, he lowered his head; his horns now directly facing my chest.  Instinctively, I sprayed him with the bear spray I’d luckily been carrying unhinged and uncapped.

Immediately he made a right turn and trotted off down the trail, swinging his head side to side since his eyes were stinging.  I left the trail, totally beefed up on adrenaline and thanking my lucky stars that it wasn’t my day to die.  Bison scar me way more than bears as I feel they are much more unpredictable, way more dangerous, and definitely not as smart.  This guy didn’t seem threatened by me.  For him, it was more like I was challenging him, offering him a chance to have a sparing match. An old lone bull like him is a cranky old man.

Lone bison but not my bison

Grizzly lake, my destination after Solfaterre

On the way back to Mammoth, I got stuck in a bear jam.  Two black bears were feeding on one side of the road and decided to cross over.  What amazed me wasn’t the bears, but that people got out of their cars and ran as fast as they could towards the bears, getting as close as they dared to take photos.  Luckily these bears were used to people, but not all bears in the park are that amenable.

Guy in the white T shirt on left is almost right on the bear

In this one you can see the bear and the lady in front not even paying attention!

Halfpenny always leads a fabulous class, highly recommended.  The mornings were spent in the classroom and the tracking museum.  He has a fantastic collection of plaster casts and other assorted items to help you to learn to track.  The afternoons were spent in the field.  Here is a track of a badger of which I made a cast.  The upper left hand corner contains a coyote track as a bonus.

Badger track (coyote track upper left). Notice long claws

Young bull moose

Ancient Buffalos in Sunlight

I’ve walked this drainage at least fifty times.  Its right next to my property, filled with old dying and dead aspens and young conifers. The forest service plans to cut, clear, and burn here within the next few years to encourage new aspen growth.  Its a narrow cut of a ravine, right next to the main dirt road, but hidden by shrubs and trees.  The moose hide there and deer rest inside its cover.  Basically, with all the dead fall, its a mess to walk through and few people do.

Since its low and north facing, its been full of snow all winter.  I decided to see if I could walk it, just for fun.  I enjoy its secretive quality, just like the animals do.  I needed to stay on the high south facing side to avoid the snow.  Maybe because there has been so much moisture and the slow spring melt heaves the ground, or maybe because a newly fallen tree revealed secrets underneath, I came upon an incredible find.  There, in full view, all above ground, was an ancient bison skull.  You could see it had been mostly buried by the discoloration, but it was laying as if waiting for me now.

I hauled it home, not more than 1/4 mile, but it was certainly heavy, even though it wasn’t complete.  I showed it to my old neighbor, who grew up here.  “That’s an old one.  I’ve found a few, but none with as much horn as that one.”  I told him how I’d walked there many times and seen nothing.  As if in agreement, he said “One time I was working around Spring Creek.  I’d been in this area hundreds’ of times.  But this time there was a horn sticking up from the creek bed.  I pulled it up and there was the buffalo skull.”

These finds are gifts from beyond.  I never go hunting for finds like this.  If you do, you never encounter them. They are given to you, for whatever reason.  Maybe for you to remember, to dream, to respect, and to encourage you to do the work and the magic to protect our inheritance.  I still dream of the day when bison will roam again in Sunlight Basin, even if only on the nearby ranch, replacing those funny looking bovines that reside there now, which the wolf packs in the valley can so easily pick off in the summers.  And I long to get a glimpse in my lifetime of tremendous herds once again on prairie lands.  I believe we all, together, can dream it back into existence.

Back of ancient Bison skull

Ancient bison skull. This is the front all eaten and eroded away

Map of Ancient buffalo drive area on the nearby 2 dot ranch

Our keystone species: Bison and their restoration

I’m reading a book that, for the first time for me, pops to life what it meant that there were 60 million Bison here before the white man arrived.

Bison bison, the survivor amongst many large mammals that became extinct in North America, were tough and well suited for this continent.  Surviving -50 degree winters, summer droughts and waterless days where he could drink prickly pear juice if needed.  They lived long and remained fertile into old age, were sure-footed and could swim if needed.  They lived at sea level, on the high plains, and in the high mountains.   A keystone species, their roaming and fertilizing of the soil conditioned it for native grasses as well as provided food for the bears and wolves that freely lived amongst them.

When the Spanish arrived, they found Buffalo north of the Rio Grande and inward into Florida.  Bison covered the continent from Canada to Mexico north.  Bison were in Georgia, along the Mississippi, in Pennsylvania and along the Niagara.

When spring ice floes began, Bison that had fallen through the cracks while crossing the river drowned and were carried downstream.  Thousands of carcasses floated down western rivers.  One trapper counted over 730 until he got tired and stopped counting. Rivers were a continuous brown flow and these carcasses formed complete dams.  Bodies of Bison flowed day and night in the spring.  Grizzlies waited for these spring ‘run-offs’.

Calf loss of Bison was set around 50%.  With 15 million new calves born each year, that meant 7 1/2 million calf carcasses strewn across the country.  Audubon’s party camped on a low island on the Missouri covered with dead Bison calves.

The Bison were so thick that people didn’t count them by individuals.  Instead they counted them by how many days it took to pass one point.  One trapper counted 5 days before the herd passed a point completely.  One man wrote that while traveling up the Arkansas 15 miles a day and able to see for 15 miles on each side of the trail, in 3 days he’d seen about 1350 square miles of land entirely covered with Buffalo.  The herds were “in such immense numbers as to defy computation.”

"Thick as gnats" was one expression used. Native Americans called the country "one robe".

When the buffalo were reduced to only bones covering the plains, people were making money collecting and selling them for fertilizer or glue or for sugar factories.  Railroad cars filled to the brim operated day and night hauling bones.

A few Bison escaped the slaughter by holing up in Yellowstone National Park.  In the early days of the Park, even these few animals were being poached.  By 1902, only 25 or 30 Bison remained in the herd.  An intensive protective breeding program brought these last genetically wild Bison back from the brink.

Controversy remains today.  Bison leaving the Park are subject to slaughter over brucellosis.  Only 3000  of the once 60 million of the wild herd remains, confined within Park boundaries.  If this isn’t a definition of an American tragedy…

Bison footprint

Memory is short.  I suppose it could be touted as a conservation success story, saving the Bison from extinction, running them through a very narrow genetic bottleneck to pop out with 3000 in the Park in 2010.  But what of the other many millions?

An apology from the government is long overdue to the Bison.  A presidential pardon.   And then a place, a very large place in the mid-west they can call their home, should be granted to them, to let them live again and build their numbers as they please.  This idea isn’t new.  Its’ been floating around since the late 1980’s when Drs. Frank and Deborah Popper proposed The Buffalo Common, an area set aside where dying farming communities are.  The Poppers were given a lot of grief over their ideas, but it seems that, with the shrinking of family farms and many towns in the Mid-West folding up, this idea is now being considered as not only realistic, but money making (the key to everything capitalistic!).

There is not one national park in the mid-west.  Imagine herds of thousands of Bison roaming their old habitat.  The short and tall grass prairies would be restored, the soil would sing again, and tourists would come from all over the world to see these magnificent animals, found no where else on earth,  just as they now come to Yellowstone. 

Poised to be a dreamer for bison

Bison are on my mind.

A tiny slice of what once was

A tiny slice of what once was

There is already a lot written about Yellowstone Bison being hazed, killed, confined and abused. Our last remaining wild herd, a mere 3000 out of 60,000,000! And it is hugely controversial.

Calves and moms

Calves and moms

In my own mind, Yellowstone is not the issue. This controversy is small  (and I don’t mean to minimize it at all) compared to the largeness of what should be being addressed. I suggest the real issue begins with restoration of wild bison to larger tracts of land, rather than the confinement to a zoo-like existence.

I hike the mountains to the East side of Yellowstone and encounter old Bison bones, teeth, and sometimes skulls. This was their habitat—the mountains, valleys, and plains. It’s easy to imagine chance encounters with these beasts in the woods, or roaming the valleys where the summer herds of cattle presently reside. I watch the cows. Their presence doesn’t move me. There is a dim hint of intelligence there and no magnificence.

I move cautiously through a herd of cattle grazing on Forest Service land. Today a huge mama stood her ground on the trail, swinging her head back and forth as if to warn me not to get too close to her baby. I chided her and she sheepishly moved away into the watershed below, a product of centuries of breeding the wild out of her. A bison on the trail would have been something formidable, nothing to mess with. It would have chided me and I’d have given him large berth. Meeting a bison, my wild yet cautious nature, instead of my hubris, would have stepped forth. That is the kind of contact that serves me well, serves my depth of being.

A modern day Bison walking the road

A modern day Bison walking the road

Lewis and Clark talked of seeing 10,000 bison in one glance, at times so unfamiliar with humans that they’d come right up to investigate. One entry noted how a calf was following them back to camp. Our land grew up with bison. The bison educated the bunch grasses. Their wallows were important sources of seed banks. Their tough hides and instincts served them well in the blizzards of the Plains. Their meat fed the peoples, their skins and hides warmed them and were their shelters.

They are adapted to survive the cold of the plains

They are adapted to survive the cold of the plains

When Europeans came here, they brought what they knew, their wheat and cattle. They renamed places to remind them of their homes—New England, New Hampshire, New York. They almost brought the bison to extinction in order to exterminate the Native American population.  One hundred and fifty years later, amazingly, we are still defending our cattle instead of restoring what belongs here, what has evolved here with the grasses, the weather, the wildlife, the watersheds. We spend time, effort and money restoring damaged ecosystems, but fail to include the keystone species of the Plains. After 150 years, I am amazed that we still defend our injustices and our cattle, instead of publicly apologizing and making a way for the bison.


Bison Footprint

Once someone has visited the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone (or even seen a working ranch of bison) and watched the bison, they can’t tell me that they have the same pleasure sitting and watching cattle graze. There is something so primeval, so basic and ancient, in hearing the mysterious grunts and sounds of the herd, seeing a buffalo paw through snow for food, or a herd lined up following a leader making track through deep snow. This is a pleasure that needs to be reinvigorated, expanded. We can begin to make up for old transgressions and reinvigorate our connection to wild nature at the same time. We can begin a new conversation.

Only the wind sang

Yesterday I met Larry Todd over at the Dead Indian Campground site.  Larry is an archaeologist working mostly in the Greybull area.  I contacted him several months ago because he was in charge of the dig in the ’80’s at the Bugas-Holding site, a Shoshone winter campground 400 years old.  I had many questions, and Larry graciously invited me to walk around the Dead Indian site with him after he finished an outing there with Cody Middle School.

Next to a creek and protected by mountains, Dead Indian is a 5000 year old winter campground site that had continuous use.  It is one of three archaeological sites in the Cody area on the National Historic Landmarks, the other two being the Horner site and Mummy Cave.  Larry explained that some areas were early Archaic, some middle, and some late, depending upon the topography.  The lower levels around the creek were the latest periods.  He said that when they began work, the entire area had so many artifacts they had to choose specific areas to concentrate on.  The work was done in the 70’s, before he was around to participate.

Topography of the mountains around Dead Indian Historic Landmark

Topography of the mountains around Dead Indian Historic Landmark

We walked over to a large plateau, an early Archaic period.  Larry painted a picture of a campsite with upwards of several hundred people, living in family groups–a small Wyoming town so to speak.  People living in pit houses that came here winter after winter to hunt the game that was plentiful.  Mostly deer and sheep were killed at this site.  Their tools were made from local materials, sharp and new in the fall, but dulled by spring through continuous retooling.  By spring it was time to gather and trade for new raw materials for arrowheads and other necessities.

Looking into Dead Indian Valley

Looking into Dead Indian Valley

In this early Archaic period, the big game were gone and more intensive hunting and gathering was necessary  for the equivalent quality of nutrition.  People were settling down for longer periods and returning to the same sites. Deer, much easier to herd and more predictable than elk, were the main large food source, along with sheep.  At Dead Indian, large ceremonies were conducted in honor of this food source.

Larry told me that the Bugas-Holding site was like a still image.  It was used for the duration of one winter only.  Here at Dead Indian the story was more like a novel, with many chapters.  He thought Dead Indian might have gone through periods of heavy use and lighter use.  Having been used continuously for so long, probably many different periods of histories and stories had taken place here.

Slot Canyon in Dead Indian

Slot Canyon in Dead Indian

Dead Indian Creek and slot canyon

Dead Indian Creek and slot canyon

Larry talked about the interactions between the land and the peoples.  By the time Lewis and Clark appeared–what we mark as the first interactions with white men in the West–many Native Americans had already been decimated by disease and the landscapes they had shaped were already changed.  The wilderness white people saw at that time was imprinted in their minds as what the land always was. But really it was just a snapshot.   To live winter after winter in these mountains takes an enormous amount of religious, and traditional, training and knowledge.  These practical skills are a cultural phenomenon, passed on generationally.  Thousands of years of accumulated wisdom had been decimated through disease and warfare in a short time.  Larry thought that by the time Lewis and Clark came, enough of that knowledge had been wiped out so that fewer and fewer people could live in these mountains.  The land itself had changed in response. What white men saw as wilderness, was a degeneration of the land through non-use.

Our idea of wilderness is non-use.  Looking east across Yellowstone lake in winter

Our idea of wilderness is non-use. Looking east across Yellowstone lake in winter

I mentioned that in Australia, after 60,000 years of aboriginals working the land with fire, botanists weren’t sure if the plants had adapted to fire because of human intervention or vice versa.  He told me that Bison antiquus was a good example of that here.  Bison antiquus, the ancestor of our modern Bison, was much larger than today’s Bison and died out about 10,000 years ago.  The theory goes that the smaller, lighter, and more streamlined buffalo could run faster, giving them a decided advantage from the top predator, man.

Modern day bison

Modern day bison

As we walked around the site, Larry bent down and showed me how almost every square inch, to the trained eye, contained evidence of habitation.  Chippings from chert, quarzite, chalcedon, pieces of bone, a sheep vertebrae–all this he found within a few square feet.  I hadn’t seen anything until he pointed it all out.  I could feel the vibrancy of the culture once there.  We talked about fire and how it can clear a site. He said that a fire can come through, clear all the duff and topsoil, and the site is exposed just how it was left thousands of years before, including fire pits, chippings and all.

“Its like someone’s found an original map or book that’s going to unlock all these new secrets.  But before we even have a chance to organize and fund an archaeological expedition, the looters are there within weeks, days.  The site is stripped and the information is lost forever.”

We walked back to the road while Larry told me a story about Bison, his specialty.  He said that Native Americans didn’t always use all the meat.  It was common to just take the prime parts after a kill.  One time he was talking with a Blackfoot elder about ancient hunting methods.  When he came to the part about how they left parts of the kill, a student listening nearby said “They wasted parts.”

“Would you take all of it?” asked the elder.  “Would you be that greedy?”

The student replied, “I wouldn’t waste anything.  I’d take it all.”

“You whites are so greedy.  You wouldn’t leave any meat for your brothers–the wolf, coyote, raven.”

I looked back at the site.  Only the wind sang.  I tried to imagine what once was.

Teepee Rings and the Spirit Wind

Someone gave me one of those mid-range expensive weather stations, the kind with an indoor readout that talks with an outdoor unit.  It also talks to a satellite for date, time, and moon phases.  There is a feature on it that tells you a forecast: an arrow up or down, sun or clouds.

This morning I looked at the forecast on the readout.  It featured clouds and the arrow was down.  Ten minutes later W___ called and asked about a hike today.  I looked at the readout and the arrow was up.

Frankly, that about says it all for Wyoming weather.  JB, my 84 year old neighbor, tells me the old saying is “If you don’t like the weather in Wyoming, wait 10 minutes.”  I think my digital weather station feels like its riding a bucking bronco sitting on my window sill forecasting mountain weather.

W___ and I decided to meet down the mountain and go for a hike out near the mouth of the Clark’s Fork river.   The Clark’s Fork barrels down the canyon from the Beartooths, carving a deep gorge over a mile deep in places from the high plateau where I live.  Chief Joseph led his people through here, pursued by the army, fleeing to Canada.  The reason he knew the area so well was because the Nez Perce had been coming here every fall to hunt buffalo.  By 1840, the buffalo had disappeared from Idaho.  The Nez Perce had to decide to either change their diet or migrate yearly to Wyoming to hunt.  They used traditional trails through the park and into the Great Basin of Wyoming.  Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River

Today was incredibly windy.  The winds were traveling at breakneck speed down the canyon.  Sometimes gusts blew me off my feet.  Huge clouds of water blew like ghosts off the river.  W__ said it was a ‘spirit wind’.

We park at the end of a dirt road that once was a Ranch.  W__ tells me that about 12 years ago there was a large drug operation at the ranch, the owners were busted by the Feds, and because it was a Federal operation the ranch became federal property.  Eventually the state took the ranch over.  Now, its just old buildings boarded up.  We walk around in the hurricane force wind.  The main house is all boarded up, but several cabins are still open.  Most are filled with packrat items, but others have old signs and refrigerators in them.  One is filled with rolls of carpet.  The ‘drug ranch’ sits on the flat sagelands, next to the river, with old Cottonwoods surrounding it that some previous owner planted.  Its a perfect movie set.  The story goes that one of the druggies got out of prison early and went back to the ranch in the night to dig up drug money that they’d buried there.  Koda’s running around like crazy after jack rabbit scents.  I humorously instruct him to ‘Look for the money, Koda.”

The river, once roaring and wild, settles down here at the mouth and swings gently along a wide, broad plateau. We walk much further down the old dirt road, off the ranch, and towards the mountains.  W___ points out the numerous teepee rings.  At first I can’t see them well.  They’re old and the rocks are deeper in the dirt than ones I’ve seen before.  I kind of have to squint, unfocus my eyes and let my mind flow.  Soon, I’m spotting them too.  Their openings are to the east.  A few even have old fire rings in the middle.  We’re at the end of the plateau where W___ tells me the rings are large.  I ask him why some of the teepees are smaller and some are larger.  “I’m just guessing here, Old teepee rings.  Can you see them?but my theory is that the larger rings were for families that might have stayed longer; whereas the smaller teepees were temporary hunting parties.”  I like to try and imagine the community spirit that once was here, bustling with excitment and activity for the fall hunt.  Its in sharp contrast to the drug ranch of secrecy and isolation.

Yet all that’s left of both of them are a few signs, a desolate area, and a fierce wind–a ‘spirit wind’.  Newer teepee rings in the Bighorns

Where the Buffalo Once Roamed

I took the research students over to the dead coyote today.  The guys have quite a bit of experience, between their schooling, hunting and trapping, I thought they might know what had killed it.  They had no qualms about touching it (which I had as I am always wondering about diseases I might catch).  Since they touched it, turned it over, felt its coat–I did the same.  They also thought it looked really healthy, and said its coat was perfect.  The guys discussed the coyotes leg for a while and if that could have been made by a trap.  The upper part of the leg was exposed to the bone.  After much debate, the guys felt that neither a trap nor a snare could make that wound.  It was too high for a trap and too low for a snare.

T___ felt the coyotes’ ribcage and noticed several broken ribs on one side.  Since the coyote was lying next to a field where the elk come nightly in large numbers, he guessed the coyote, a male, might have been feeling especially hubristic, trotted through the crowd of elk, and got a good kick where he then bled internally.  The gnawing might have come after he was dead.

I took a walk with Koda in the afternoon up on Riddle flat.  The elk have been swarming around there–laying everywhere, eating everything.  Koda found several stray legs scattered around.  The other day on the flat, I bent down and picked up a buffalo horn, a smallish one, probably a calf’s.  Buffalo haven’t been in my valley in over 150 years.   The horn was so old it looked like layers of bark, peeling, with lichen on it.  But it has a point at the end and, being a landscaper, I know wood when I see it, and this ain’t wood! I thought that was just fine; an unexpected and wonderful rare find.  That was just 2 days ago.

Yet today I backtracked home across the other end of Riddle flat, bent down again and picked up another Bison horn, much more massive than the other one.  J___ was coming over for dinner.  His family homesteaded in this valley since 1915.  He was born on the mountain, his mother trying to get to Cody and never making it.  He’s even shown me the branch of the tree he was born under–he’s got it hanging in his home.  (Note:  Was I ever jealous of that.  I want a tree that I was born under!)  I got home just as J___was walking up to my door.  “I’ve got something to show you” I have to yell really loud when I speak to J__ because he’s 84 and hard of hearing.  I pulled the Bison horn out.  “That’s a Buffalo” he confirmed.  “I’ve found them all over.  They haven’t been here for a really long time.  I’ve even found whole skulls. I found one that had a bullet in it and one that was Indian killed.”  I asked how he knew the Buffalo skull he’d found had been killed by Indians.  “It was hit over the head.  They always took the brains out to eat.”

Bison Horns with matchbook for size

Finding that Bison horn, peeling, almost petrified, was like finding a little bit of left over magic–magic that might be called our North American Dreamtime.