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Moose, wolves, and a false spring

Yesterday was another glorious early spring day.  Some friends came up and we took a drive north towards Crandall and beyond, as far as the road is plowed.  The lonely 11 or so miles between Pilot Creek, a parking pull-out for snowmobilers, and the NE entrance to the Park won’t be open for another 5 weeks yet, but they’ll have a lot of plowing to do.  There is still an incredible amount of snow everywhere.  It will be a while before you can hike the backcountry.

As the snowmobilers raced past us to begin their expensive thrills, we idled along looking for wildlife.  The banks by the side of the road have melted but still an easy 4′ high.  This gave good cover for a moose and her calf just on the other side of the highway along the Clark’s Fork River.

Mama with yearling


Because we could barely see over the snow bank, we quietly got out of the car to take photos.   Mama and baby kept browsing but mama moved between us and her calf.  What a good mother.

Mama Moose moves between us and her calf

On the way back I shot a photo of Crazy Creek, still solidly covered with snow and ice.  This creek, in a few months, will be an awesome volume of water.

Crazy Creek March 2011

Almost back to Sunlight, I asked my friends, who come up regularly on weekends, if they’d seen any wolves this winter.  They are avid photographers and would like a good shot.  They told me they hadn’t.  Not more than two minutes passed when we spotted 2 wolves by the side of the highway.  This was a most unusual sighting.  Almost 11:00, I’ve almost never seen wolves hanging so near the main road.  There were elk up on the hillside, along with deer, not too far away who didn’t seem too perturbed.  Two wolves would be hard-pressed to bring down an elk, so I suspected there was a kill higher up on the hillside, or possibly down below where they were wanting to cross to.  A big grey sauntered quickly up the hill and out of sight.  But a beautiful black loitered long enough to take some good photos.  Wolves I’ve met always seem intelligently curious.  This one certainly was.

After I came home and my friends were gone, I noticed a yearling moose walking back and forth along the fenceline across the road where the horses are.  The fence has a wooden top post and is very wildlife friendly, but this yearling wasn’t that tall and was very uncertain as to whether she could make the jump.  She moved back and forth for over 15 minutes, trying to find a spot she felt comfortable to cross.  Finally, a car drove up the road, spooked her, and forced her into making the leap.  She did clear, but not without her back leg stuck for a moment.  She ran up my driveway, because its the open line in the fence and stood in front of the house for a while, seemingly perplexed.  Where was her mom, I wondered.

Yearling moose will get kicked out before the mother gives birth again, but it did seem a little soon, but what do I know.  I thought maybe she was already on her own.  She made her way through the front meadow, where I’ve taken down some posts for a winter opening in a buck and rail fence of my neighbors.  It was then I saw her mom, who’d been watching the whole thing patiently.  She was standing in the tree line.  Soon mama and baby were united again.  I had to wonder if mother was, as I would be, gnawing worriedly and wondering if her baby could make the jump successfully, or if mom was treating her offspring to just another new lesson preparing her daughter for the big wide world.

Koda bored because he couldn't get out and play with the wolves!

Tipi Rings

I thought I’d do a short post on a few teepee rings I’ve seen.  The other day I was in Cody with some time to kill.  I’d heard there were tipi rings on the north side of the Shoshone river by Trail Creek.  A friend told me the historical wisdom-lore was that many tribes gathered there during the winter months to camp by the hot springs.  Most of those springs are now either extinct, buried under the damn, or on private lands.  In fact, the bulk of the rings, apparently 100’s of them, are on private lands going up the traditional passage of Trail Creek.

Walking along the shores of the Shoshone River (called the Stinking Water River before it was changed due to popular [and probably economic] demand)  you can still occasionally smell sulfur .  The rings are obvious, easy to pick out.  They’re incredibly close together; some even still have fire rings in the center.  Compared to the rings in other places, these looked fairly recent, maybe 150 years old.  Why?  Because the rocks are not very buried.

Cody tipi ring with fire ring in middle

Another view of several rings outside Cody

This is an excerpt from Plain Feather about the death of Crow Chief Sits in the Middle of the Land while Plain Feather was camped outside of Cody:

“About a year after the big battle on the Little Bighorn (1876), a small band of Crows went hunting from the Yellowstone to the Stinking River…The band reached the Stinking River a short distance below where the city of Cody now is located.  Here Chief Sits in the Middle announced that he was going south to a valley where there were still some buffalo left.  The other group decided to follow up the Stinking River to the big mountains where there were plenty of deer and bighorn sheep.

My family was with this latter group.  That evening we made camp at the forks of the river just above the narrow canyon where a dam is now located.  Towards evening we sighted two horseback riders galloping in our direction.  They were messengers from the other group.  They announced that the great chief and his wife suddenly became ill and soon died. They said we were to hasten over there.  It is believed that they died of pneumonia.

Immediately teepees came down and we were soon on our way.  We arrived early the next morning, just in time for the burial.  The bodies, strapped in robes, were taken to the rimrocks of the valley and put into a ledge and then covered up with slabs of rocks.  The burial mourning followed, with men and women wailing.  They recounted the many great things that the chief did for his people for many years.  At that time he was the Chief of All Chiefs, reigning over the two main bands of the Crow Nation.”**

(**Note:  In the late 1960’s, the Chiefs’ remains were relocated from nearby Meeteetsie to the Crow Agency in Montana.)

Now compare those rocks with the rocks in the rings below.  These rings were along the Bighorn River in Bighorn Canyon.  The rings are right beside the main road, which follows the ancient travel route of the Crows.

Another view along Bighorn canyon

Big Horn Canyon rings

Here are some much older rings near the town of Clark.

Clarks fork tipi rings, much older

I spent a few hours walking along the plateau near the mouth of the Clark’s Fork Canyon, an area where tribes traveled for the fall Buffalo hunt.  There are rocks galore there, and although I could pick out some rings, they couldn’t be photographed as they were very obscure and some of it might have even been my vivid imagination.  Most of the rings seemed much smaller, probably no more than 6′ in diameter compared to these larger rings.  But the setting was right–on the table above the river with a wide view of the surroundings.

I love finding these rings.  They spur my imagination and kindle a sleeping spirit.  The very soil emits stories I’m awaiting to hear.

The Moose

My neighbor just had his 85th birthday.  He’s lived in the Valley all his life.  His father homesteaded here back in the early 1900’s.  I love to hang out with him, help with his two horses, and pick his brain for stories.  He knows this country like I might know all the shortcuts in my old hometown neighborhood.  Except his neighborhood is vast, wild, without roads or trails.

I’ve learned over time that, although his memory for details and names is way better than mine, the time periods and placements of events need to be sorted out.  He might tell a tale like it was last week, until I question him more and find out the events took place in the 30’s.  It took me a while to figure out that most of his Yellowstone stories were from the 50’s (when he worked there) rather than just 10 or 20 years ago.

I’d been seeing quite a few moose lately.  One came into my yard the other day, a resident who likes to hang in the marshy willows nearby.  Moose numbers for Wyoming are really low, only 44% of objective, according to a just published Game and Fish report.  I told this to JB and that got him storytelling.

Moose walking down my road at dusk

Moose walking down my road at dusk

Moose in nearby meadow

Moose in nearby meadow

Young bull moose in front yard

Young bull moose in front yard

“It was a snowy winter and I was at the homestead.  I’d feed the cows at the bottom of the pasture near the trees to get them walking a bit.  That’s good for them you know, especially for the pregnant ones.  One day I was down in the timber when I saw a cow moose and three calves.  There were stuck there in a hole and couldn’t get out, the drifts were so bad.  They were real skinny and starving down there.  When the momma saw me, her hair stood on end.”

“So I brought a few bales of hay on my sleigh over.  Every day I’d come to check on them and the cow moose got used to me.  I’d bring them hay, but each day I’d place it a little bit further out of the timber towards the pasture.  Slowly, they came out.  They spent that entire winter in the pasture with my cows.”

Clarks fork drainage near Russell Creek.

Clarks fork drainage near Russell Creek.

“Another time I was way up Dead Indian, you know where the willows are up there?”

I nodded.  I’d seen moose tracks there.  Its about 3 miles or more up the trail.

“I was up there and saw a bull moose.  He’d been shot and was bleeding from the side.  Some hunter shot him but the moose had run off.  He was in real bad shape and the snows were getting deep.  I hauled 20 bales of hay up to him.  I didn’t put it all in one place.  I put it around in the timber where he was at.  Then I left him for the winter.  Come early spring, I went back to check on him.  You know what I found?  He had a friend.  Another bull had come in there and all that hay was gone.  That bull was all healed up and getting around fine now.  I don’t really know how he survived that wound, cause I think he was bleeding on both sides. There had been blood around.  But he made it.”

Dead Indian Creek

Dead Indian Creek

To begin to get a feeling for what’s going on with moose numbers in Wyoming, this is an excellent thesis by Scott Becker.

Chief Standing Bear and Grandpa

My neighbor JB was born in 1924 in my valley down by the Clark’s Fork.  His parents’ homestead is in a unique and beautiful hollow below the main road.  From this hidden depression, you can look out over the meadow where their horses graze and view Bald Ridge directly on.The flats above the gorge of the Clarks Fork

Bald Ridge

Yesterday it was snowing so I went to visit JB.  He told me this story:

My grandfather was born in Nebraska.  When he was just nine years old, he was playing and broke his leg.  His father was a hard man and beat him for that.  My grandpa swore to himself that when he got better he was going to run away and he did, at 10 years old.  He and a friend were catching rides on freighters going down river, going West.  They hitched a ride on a wagon that was attacked by Indians.  The Indians killed everyone in that wagon train, including his friend, but my grandpa hid in a flour drum.  The flour was in 55 gallon drums and he hid behind one.   The Indian Chief and his wife found the boy and the Chief’s wife took pity on him.  They took him back to the tribe and raised him with their own child, which I think was a girl.  That Chief was Standing Bear.  My Grandpa lived with them for 5 years. Chief Standing Bear--I think its this one.

The Indians liked to gamble and compete.  There was one boy the same age as my grandfather who didn’t get along with him at all.  When my grandpa was 15, this boy challenged my grandfather to a horse race.  Grandfather was an excellent horseman and he was winning.  The Indian boy was mad and pulled out a knife.  Grandpa knocked that boy down, off his horse, and I think he killed him.  Or hurt him badly.  No, I think he killed him, but it was kill or be killed.

The whole tribe had a meeting.  Since my grandfather was white, they banished him.  Chief Standing Bear and his wife took my grandpa in the middle of the night, on horseback, and told him he should leave and go far away; far enough away so no one in the tribe would come after him.  The chief told him that he would always love him and think of him as a son, strong, brave and worthy to become a chief, but that now he must go.

Photo of Chief and family from the Buffalo Bill Historical Center

Photo of Chief and family from the Buffalo Bill Historical Center

Grandpa came out to this country and spent time here with the Shoshone as well.  He was working at Pahaska Teepee taking people into the Park when Buffalo Bill came out here.

It is true he had a wooden leg.  He was logging and in an accident.  His leg broke, a clean break right here (points to below his knee).  He knew how to set bones and had set many breaks on other people. But they took him to a doctor who cut off his leg at the knee.  That shouldn’t have been.  He’d wear lots and lots of socks over that peg to cushion it against his knee.  But he could do anything he wanted with that leg.

He lived near the mouth of the Clarks Fork.  One time us kids were down there visiting.  My sister was taking a nap in the house and all of us other kids were down at the river swimming and fishing.  Grandpa was working in his shop nearby.  In those days there was lots of sheet lightening in this country.   My sister had just gotten up from her nap and was coming down to the river, when lightening struck the house.  You couldn’t do nothing.  In an instant, the entire house was in flames.  My grandpa thought my little sister was still in the house.  You should’ve seen him run with that peg leg!

I went to live with my grandpa when I was about 12.  I had a hard time finishing up those last two years of school between the 6th and 8th grades.  I did graduate though.  I only went till 8th grade.  Sometimes I was on the other side of the mountain going to school there.  They had a better teacher.  Sometimes I had to come back home and go to school here.  There were only 3 students here and all that teacher was interested in was the ranch hands. All that back and forth on foot and horseback over Dead Indian.  There wasn’t a real good road in those days, all dirt.  The old road went straight down the mountain.  From Cody it took four stout horses to pull an empty wagon up the hill most of the day. When you got to the top of Dead Indian, a man put a roughlock shoe on his hind wheels which kept them from turning.  Then he cut a tree, left all the branches on it, and chained it behind the load.  Then he headed straight down the hill, praying that his leaders would outrun his wheelers.Atop Dead Indian.  Strap a log behind the wagon to go downhill

Grandpa had really strong hands, all his life.  It was because he had spent so much time driving teams of horses.  You have to hold those reins between each finger and use your hands to hold back the horses.  He drove hay and other goods for a living.  I think he had done just about everything.  He was an excellent blacksmith and made all his tools.

It was a good story for a snowy day.  I thought about how I was just one hair’s breath away from Chief Standing Bear.  How less than a hundred years ago men knew how to do everything in order to survive–how to set a bone, fire and hammer out their tools, drive a team of horses.  I thought how our lives had become so quickly removed from those generations– so flaccid with the advent of electricity, large machinery, computers, phones–and wondered how much lore and skills have already been buried forever.

When I talk story with JB, I can feel him reaching back in his mind.  He has an impeccable memory for details. His stories contain names and dates.  He might have only an 8th grade education, but his powers of observation far surpass many I’ve met with college degrees.  I get him to tell me stories.  I write them down.  I listen.  They need to be re-told.

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