A Lesson from History: the California Grizzly

One of the special privileges of living in the Greater Yellowstone Region is seeing grizzly bears. In the fall, they are hungry preparing for hibernation. Rosehips, chokecherries and limber pine nuts lure them nearer to our homes, where they forage mainly at night to avoid people. In the early spring, when they emerge from their dens, young sprouts in the local pasture is roughage for their systems. 14238317_10207623170481489_6094538779973207194_n.jpg

The presence of grizzlies makes a difference when I am hiking. I see their large tracks or fresh scat and remember to stay alert, awake, and aware. I carry my bear spray ‘weapon’, which I’ve never used on a bear, but have used on a bison, and it saved my life.

Grizzly Bear Print

Print looks even larger because its in mud, but you can see his claws

Yet this rarity of wildness in our modern world carries with it great responsibility. If I want to live, work, and enjoy this last remaining wild place in our country (and also one of the last intact temperate ecosystems in the entire world), then I, like my cousin the grizzly, must make sacrifices and accommodations–small yet important and life saving for the bear. Special garbage cans; no bird feeders; Bar-B-Qing precautions; and most importantly, a tolerance for wildness. The Great Bear himself has been accommodating us humans for centuries, and mostly paying for it with his life.grizzly warning sign in the greater yellowstone area

Probably our best lesson in grizzly history comes from California, where the bear adorns their state flag. And the very best historical account of the Great State’s grizzlies is California Grizzly by Tracy Storer and Lloyd Tevis Jr.  Storer painstakingly poured through every historical documented account of grizzly bears back to the Spanish Missions. He collects them together into an easily readable book first published in the 1950s. My paperback edition has a wonderful foreword by Rick Bass. I would say the only section not fully accurate is ‘Habits of California Grizzlies’, which includes erroneous data such as grizzlies being able to give birth at two or three years of age. Bringing grizzlies back from the brink here in Yellowstone has yielded much new data.

It’s unknown how many grizzlies were in California before the Spanish arrived and brought their cattle in the early 1700s. But Storer estimates California may have had as many as 10,000 bears in the early to mid-1800’s. California during Spanish rule was a different place than when American settlers came out during the gold rush.

During the Spanish period, not more than thirty such [land] grants were made; but after Mexico threw off her allegiance to the crown, the lavish generosity of the new provincial government brought some eight million acres into the possession of about eight hundred grantees. Each rancho, an empire unto itself, grazed thousands of cattle, sheep, and horses; supported hundreds of Indian servants, and was an economically independent, self-sustaining community.

In addition to cattle, wild horses brought in by the Spanish were so numerous that there were recorded herds twenty miles long. This overpopulation of horses depleted the range for livestock so thousands were killed, sometimes driven over cliffs or lanced by vaqueros. There were frequent slaughters of livestock during severe droughts, as well as natural deaths in these enormous herds. Missions and ranches had private butchering grounds, where only the choice meats were taken and the rest thrown in large piles. Grizzlies came at night to the ravines near the slaughter-corrals. Storer reports that in 1834 the missionaries, who anticipated secularization, disposed of 100,000 cattle just for their tallow and hides, leaving the rest for wild animals.


Rancho Cahuenga, near the location of the present Hollywood Bowl, as it appeared in January, 1847, at the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga.

This abundant new and easy source of protein is what fueled an accelerated bear population growth, so by the time early Americans began arriving, grizzly bears were commonly seen in large numbers foraging together.

In January, 1827, Duhaut-Cilly wrote that ‘bears are very common in the environs; and without going farther than five or six leagues [a league is about 3.5 miles] from San Francisco, they are often seen in herds”

George C. Yount, among the first American pioneers in California, arriving in February 1831 [of Yountville fame in Northern California] …said “they are every where–upon the plains, in the valleys, and on the mountains…so that I have often killed as many as five or six in one day, and it was not unusual to see fifty or sixty within the twenty-four hours.”

John Bidwell, in the Sacramento Valley in 1841, saw sixteen in one drove and said that “grizzly bear were almost an hourly sight, in the vicinity of the streams, and it was not uncommon to see thirty to forty a day”

While bears were a problem for the Spanish in the 1700s when trying to grow their herds, by the early 1800s cattle, sheep and horses were sculpturing every hill in the coastal region. The Spanish now viewed these lands as a playground, and grizzlies as part of a new sport.They roped grizzlies for bear-bull fights (another chapter in the book which is fascinating yet hard to read). These animal fights were even commonly conducted right after church in stoutly built arenas. 1393_photoBut although the Spanish engaged in this cruel entertainment, California was underpopulated and grizzlies benefited from the increased food supply. When gold was discovered in 1849, a spectacular invasion of Americans came, and grizzlies were now doomed. In the span of just 25 years after California became a state in 1850, most all the grizzlies were gone. A few stragglers remained until early 1900s.

Storer includes so many fascinating facts about the bear in California. One would suspect that grizzlies rarely hibernated in that warm climate. Although no one was keeping scientific records, grizzlies were seen year-round except in the high Sierras, as evidenced from that above quote in January by Duhaut-Cilly. Probably females denned for part of the winter in order to give birth to their helpless newborns. Before white men cleared the land, grizzlies inhabited dense growths of trees, vines, and cattails that bordered lowland rivers and creeks. They pastured in tall grasses and clovers in the spring and ate acorns in the fall. Along the entire coast, grizzlies foraged on the continuous supply of marine animals that washed ashore, supplementing with berries from manzanita bushes that grew nearby. Tall manzanita thickets were common places for grizzlies to shelter, while place names remain as ghostly evidence such as Bear Valley, Big Bear, or Oso Rio.

What is to be learned from California–a land so rich and blessed with near perfect climate, where once grizzlies freely roamed? It demonstrates how quickly a large population of top predators can be extirpated; or how a dense, rapid growth in human population spells demise for the great bear; how abundant human food waste leads to habituated bears. And reading through the entire account in this book reminds me that Europeans have a very dark history when it comes to wildlife. The wanton slaughter and intolerance for grizzlies is still evident today when we see signs such as this one which seem to have one purpose in mind, without any appreciation nor feeling for the animal itself:


With a bit of mindfulness, we can enter fully into a new legacy, one that values wildness and wilderness, preserves vast lands for top predators like the Great Bear, sees the worth of connectivity between public and private lands, and makes good choices as to how we live with grizzlies in our midst. This is the future I envision for our country and it’s wonderful heritage of wildlife.

My October Surprise – A Wolf Poaching

The following events took place in October 2014, just after Wyoming’s wolf hunt was cancelled due to wolves being re-listed as Endangered.

October in Wyoming has the best weather. It can be raining, snowing, sunshine, or all of the above at once. Blustery one day, then in the 60s the next, Indian Summer seems to come and go until suddenly, one day, it’s winter.

I’m packing up for a work trip to California for several months, but before I leave I want to ‘say goodbye’ to my beloved valley and the mountains that envelop it. Today there are snow flurries off and on, low clouds obscuring the horizon. I’ve got a place in mind to hike to. It’s one of my special, or sacred, spots—an Indian Sheep Eater bighorn sheep trap. I especially like this place because not only is it high up above a cliff edge with a magnificent view of the Absarokas, but also the ‘trap’ is formed from two large boulders running into a ‘V’ shape. The acme of this formation is littered with ancient logs, hundreds of years old, preventing the sheep from squeezing out that end. Native peoples used a system of logs fanning out from the boulders to guide the sheep into the trap. Their dogs helped herd the animals, and possibly people were hidden along the trap line to scare the sheep in the proper direction. Medicine men assisted with the hunt, and I’ve read that male bighorn sheep horns and skulls have been found high up in trees, probably as part of their rituals.

Bighorn sheep

Bighorn Sheep Ewes

The last two years, October was the first month of the gray wolf hunt in Wyoming. Wyoming wolves were delisted in 2012. A ‘trophy’ zone outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks allowed an October through December hunt, while in the rest of the state (85%) wolves were labeled as ‘predators’. Along with several other species like coyotes, raccoons, and feral domestic cats, predators can be shot or trapped year-round, without a second thought. Since my valley lies adjacent to the Park in the Trophy zone, we had lots of hunters looking to kill a wolf. Koda, my ninety-pound Golden Retriever, was forced to be humiliated into wearing an orange vest for those three months.

Koda catches a whiff

Koda, my red dog, enjoys a view

But this year the winds have changed for the wolf. The hunt was suspended just a week before the season was to begin. Environmental groups took Wyoming and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to court over their flawed delisting plan. And on the 23rd of September, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Wyoming’s plan was not sufficient to support a hunt and the wolves were back on the Endangered Species list again. Money for wolf tags was refunded (at $15 a wolf tag, hunters paid a pittance), and the wolves have a stay for at least another year.

collared hoodoo.jpg

So on this blustery day, I drove down the valley to a trailhead. This fall, Koda doesn’t have to dress up. I’m on an outing with a purpose—to say ‘goodbye’ to my valley for the next few months. When I return, winter will have seriously set in and the deep snows will make it more difficult to get to this place. I prepare a small gift of some herbs and flowers held in a small deer hide bag—an offering that preserves my presence in this place while I’m gone, and honors the spirit of my beloved valley.

It’s a Saturday and the parking area is uncharacteristically full. I usually avoid the weekends, but since I’m leaving in a few days, this is my opportunity. The cars belong to hunters, yet on all my hiking in the valley, and even up this trail, I have never seen another person. People just don’t hike in grizzly bear country; so I still have the trail all to myself.

The first mile follows the stream, and then opens to a large confluence where two drainages meet in an open meadow. The narrow right-hand arroyo is what I want. I move up the dry canyon. To my left, the topography is a gentle slope that divides the two drainages. Yet to my right are the steep rocky cliffs that house a mesa high above. I look for an arch formed of broken slabs of limestone near the top of the bluff.


I look for the arch that is my marker

That’s my sign to start climbing the steep sides up near the escarpment edge. Once I get to its flanks, I feel my way like a blind woman along the outcroppings. Then, suddenly, a narrow gap appears, barely wide enough to slip sideways through. I crawl upwards about thirty feet, where I emerge onto an unexpected plateau. It’s a trail known only to wildlife. And in front of me are the two house-size boulders, funneling down into the trap. There’s a strange, numinous beauty to this spot that I love so much. I place my offering on the ground, silently intoning my intentions, and then settle onto the rims to enjoy the view. The gully below ascends into a large meadow, eventually bordering wooded hillsides. I can clearly see the ridge that separates this ravine from the one beyond, colored in the gold and reds of the turning aspens.


Fall colors in October

Time is standing still for me. I have nowhere to go. I snap a few photos and enjoy these last moments before leaving for California. Two figures appear on the ridge. They are dressed in bright orange, and although their origin is not in my view, I know they are coming from an area the locals call ‘Dry Lake’. I look at my watch. They’re deer hunters. I know this because October is open deer season in my valley. That’s the busiest time in this area, with hunters from in and out-of-state looking for a buck to fill their freezer. It’s 2:30 p.m., and a strange time to be hunting. From my vantage point, I haven’t seen any wildlife, and wouldn’t expect to at mid-day. They come over the ridge and appear to be leaving, walking down the drainage. There is no way they can see me, as I’m high up on a rib of rock obscured by trees.


Koda and I watch as the two hunters appear over the ridge line

They sit down for a break and I pull out my binoculars. Yes, they are definitely hunters because I see their rifles. They rest for about ten minutes, and then continue on their route towards the parking area.

After they leave, I scramble down the terrace and take an alternate route back to my car. When I arrive back at the parking lot, I see the two hunters are already back too, and they are parked next to me. And I notice two other things: first they are unusually silent. They are not speaking to each other, nor do they look at me. Wyomingites are friendly folks, and hunters and outdoors people enjoy exchanging information and small talk. Yet these two fellows clearly do not want to engage me.

I also observe they are a father/son pair. I rarely see a father hunting with his son, so their mannerisms and facial features imprint in my mind more than they normally would. The young man appears to be about thirteen, yet he is tall and gangly for his age. The father is balding, about fiftyish. It’s three p.m. They silently load up their gear, then drive off.

In fifteen minutes I’m back at my house, packing to leave for California in a few days. By mid-January, I return home to a landscape blanketed with snow. Attached to my door is a business card. It’s from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Senior Special Agent, Office of Law Enforcement.

           “Please give me a call—hoping you can help with some information”

When I call Officer Rippeto, he tells me there was a wolf poaching the day that I was parked at the trailhead.

“The Warden rode up on horseback on Sunday morning. He found the dead wolf by Dry Lake. He figured it was shot on Saturday.”

I asked how he knew I was there that day.

“A Forest Service ranger drove up on Saturday and took down descriptions of all the vehicles parked in the lot. That’s routine. The warden recognized your car and told me where you lived. I’d like to come up and take a statement from you.”

I ask if the wolf was collared. Apparently, the wolf was a yearling and had no collar.  I tell Office Rippeto that I’d snapped some photos from my view spot. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos of those hunters. But I do have a time stamp on my pictures, which were taken immediately before they came into view. And I relay my description of them.


Yet the one thing I did not notice was what their vehicle looked like (people in Wyoming always identify others by their vehicle) nor did I check to see if their license plate indicated they were locals. Being that it was general deer hunting season, these two people could have been from anywhere. And deer hunting up here is not a limited tag quota. It’s statewide.

Last I spoke with Officer David Rippeto, he still hadn’t found the wolf poachers. I cannot be certain that this father and son were the culprits, but I suspect they were. Rippeto too was suspicious of their conduct, and the fact that they quit their hunt at an hour when they should be about to begin hunting.

I think about what kind of example that father taught his son. He taught him that poaching was acceptable behavior. And he also gave him the clear message that wolves are not welcome here in Wyoming.


Update: October 2016. Wolves are still on the Endangered Species list in Wyoming. Wyoming and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife recently brought the case to court. We have not yet heard the decision of the Federal Appeals court.

 Wyoming continues to refuse to acknowledge that listing wolves as predators in 85% of the state is an antiquated and egregious view of wolves, a relic of the 19th century, when predators were exterminated for the benefit of the livestock industry.


Hoodoo Basin…an Eerie Place and a Story


View from a peak in the Basin

It was June of 2012 when a man approached me on the top of Dead Indian Hill asking for directions to Parker Peak. At first I was perplexed where this Peak actually was. There are a lot of famous Peaks in the Greater Yellowstone that people come to climb. Parker was not one of them. Then he explained it was at the end of Sunlight road in the Park and I knew it was in Hoodoo Basin. He had a strange urgency about him, and seemed driven by an unseen need to get to this insignificant peak. 

The hike to Hoodoo Basin, where Parker Peak and Hoodoo Peak form part of the bowl, is epic. I’ve been wanting to do it for ten years from the end of Sunlight Road., and finally completed it this week. It’s six hard uphill miles and 2500′ gain to the Park Boundary. Then another five miles of high meadows and up and down to the campsite below Parker Peak. The Peak is just a ‘run-up’, nothing special, except this year the only water source was a small pond generated by the last bits of a snowfield. The pond edge was laden with tracks of elk, deer, sheep and bear.

In the shadow of the eerie formations of the Hoodoos, I told my companions the story of the driven man who needed to get to Parker Peak (emphasizing Paaarr-ker said in an ominous voice). Based on some observations at the top of Parker, below is what I imagined his story might be….

See my notes on the Basin at the end of the Story…


Parker Peak

Parker Peak….

I heard it held a mysterious Presence, a palpable vibration, an unmistakeable aura. Where I heard this, I do not remember. But it all began with the dreams.  The first dream was of a mountain made of crystals, a mountain that could heal. On the very summit of the mountain peak I saw, in my dream vision, a large petrified stump. I touched the stump and found its top was broken. I pushed the lid aside to reveal a hole that went deep underground. So I climbed into that dark hole, deeper and deeper, till I was within a maze of tunnels.  Almost spontaneously a little person appeared. I had no fear. It was if I knew this person, yet I’d never seen him before.

“Come, follow me” the little person said. He guided me through the underground passage, and although it was dark, a soft greenish-blue light emanated from his body, illuminating the tunnels. The little man stopped at a shaft of light that shone from an opening above. On the ground before us were bones, big piles of bones. A natural trap cave where animals had fallen inadvertently into from high above.

“Do you know whose bones these are?”

“No” I answered.

“Bones of animals past that once roamed these mountains. You were once here, hunting Short-faced Bears and Cheetahs.”

We continued on till the cave passage opened wide, revealing extensive views of deeply cut valleys and steep ravines.

The little man pointed. “This is the Center of the World, formed by Fire and Ice.”

I looked out over the land. It was dry, smoke was blowing in from different fires. The air was hot.

It was then I awoke in a cold sweat.

Using the Internet as my guide, I came to the conclusion that what I saw that had been formed of Fire and Ice was Yellowstone Park, and my viewpoint was Parker Peak. Parker Peak held a mystery meant for me to solve. Now I had to go there.


June. I packed up my car and drove the twenty hours from Chicago to Cody. From my research, the shortest route to Parker Peak was from the end of a dirt road called Sunlight. It looked easy from the map, maybe ten miles. I planned on a day hike. I’d take some water and a lunch, hike in an out during the longest day of the year so I had plenty of daylight. Now just to find Sunlight Basin. I inquired at a Cody, WY gas station and they directed me to Chief Joseph Highway. The highway climbed out of the high desert into the mountains.

This must be it. I thought as I approached 9000 feet. I turned onto a dirt road near the top of the summit. I knew Parker Peak was around 10,000. Easy climb in and out I figured. The road ended after a mile and I saw a distinct trail. I parked and began my hike. It was then I saw two locals hanging around a sign that said ‘Wilderness Boundary’.

“Is this the Sunlight Road?” I enquired of them.

“No. Sunlight Road is another seven miles down the mountain.”

I told them I was off to Parker Peak from the end of the road for a day hike.

“You have to get past the Bear Gate, but that’s not open to cars for another month. So you’ll have an extra 5 or 6 miles of hiking to the Hoodoos. Why do you want to go there.”

“Just need to get to Parker Peak.”

“Well, you can’t make it in a day hike. Do you have bear spray with you?”

“Huh? Do I need that?”

“Big grizzly area back there. Lots of other peaks around here that are nicer and accessible now. Why don’t you go to the Beartooths? Or climb some other peaks in the Park? Parker is just a walk-up. Not that interesting.”

“Just gotta get to Parker Peak.” How could I tell them. They just wouldn’t understand the magic of this mountain. “I’ll come back in August.”

It’s been three years since that day in June and I still haven’t made it to Parker. But the dreams keep coming and someday, someday, I just know, I’ll get there.


At the top of Parker Peak there is a large petrified tree stump. And the summit has rock striations made of clear crystals.


The Hoodoo Basin is laden with chippings of obsidian flakes everywhere. My friends hiked up Hoodoo Peak, a scramble on talus which I do not like. Then they easily walked the ridge about 1.5 miles to Bootjack Gap, the passage between the Crandall drainage (Papoose trail) and the Park. Large obsidian pieces were scattered all over the ridge. Hoodoo to Sunlight and Miller Creek to Crandall Creek were hard-trodden Indian trails for thousands upon thousands of years. Native peoples traveled to Obsidian Cliff (and other cherished spots for stone to work) in spring to obtain new material for atlatls and later for arrowheads. Just like the deer and elk, they ‘surfed the green’ or followed the green-up, gathering roots and plant material. In the fall, they probably stayed in Hoodoo Basin to gather pine nuts from the Whitebark Pines there.

Today about 70-80% of those Whitebarks are dead, stricken down by beetles. (See photo below). The native peoples are gone, but the grizzlies are not and they are dependent on these nutritious high-fat nuts to make brown fat for the long winter. It was terribly sad to see so many dead trees, and once again made me think about the future fate of the grizzly with a delisting and subsequent hunt so close to being approved.

In addition to obsidian material everywhere, I understand there were at least forty wikiups observed by Superintendent Norris when he visited the Hoodoos or ‘Goblin Land’ as he called it.  These wikiups are no longer standing but still visible. I searched for them but was unable to find any, although I saw one that looked like a possibility. The wood would be down in a pile and very old. According to Orrin and Lorraine Bonney’s classic ‘Guide to the Wyoming Mountains and Wilderness Areas’, in 1880 when Norris and companions explored the Hoodoo area they

…found on the North side of [Parker Peak] a favorite campsite of raiding Indians with its commanding view of all approaches and handy striking distance to the high passes of Crandall Cr. He also found gory remnants of border raids–white folks’ blankets, clothes, china, bedding in & around the 40 rotting lodges. 

In the four days we were in the Basin, we did not see another person. The country was very dry, so this usual summer feedgrounds for elk were barren of elk and deer. Only old scat was around. We did see evidence of one grizzly bear and bighorn sheep. I also had an experience with five Short-eared Owls flying low over my head that rates among my top ten wildlife encounters.

It was an amazing journey. Worth the hard work.


Park Boundary Line. Looking out into the Lamar Drainage


Some of the Hoodoos in the Foreground. Hoodoo Peak in the background


The Headwaters of the Lamar River. Smoke from fires makes the haze.


Dead Whitebark Pines in the Hoodoos

The Mystery of Stockade Lake

Stockade Lake in the Beartooths is along a National Recreational Loop. At over 10,000 feet, the lake is crystal clear and very beautiful. Last year, a new friend 80 years old, a retired Forest Service employee, offered to show me an old stockade that lay in the trees on the southeast corner of the lake. In the 1980s the Service asked him to investigate, photograph and map the ancient enclosure.

Stockade Lake

Stockade Lake

All the Beartooth maps show a trail to Stockade via Loosekamp Lake. But there is an undocumented use trail that’s only a mere 2 miles directly to south Stockade Lake. We took that route and hopped the outlet.

In 1891, Benjamin Greenough, a cowboy from Red Lodge, Montana, stumbled upon this dilapidated wood and stone structure. Surrounded by remnant glacial lakes, the structural remains were assumed to be that of an old stockade. This observation was based on the roughly circular shape of the enclosure, the large, heavy logs used to form the walls, and the ax-cut notches carved into the elevation logs for rifle ports.

Ax cut end

Ax cut end

In 1907 John K. Rollinson, a forest ranger and friend of Greenough, and Harry W. Thurston, the then Supervisor of the Shoshone National Forest, visited the site. His narrative below talks about his discovery of the stockade.

On the way back to my camp I traveled a new route which was previously not accessible, due to old snowbanks. I passed a long narrow lake, and as I had been told of an old log stockade or enclosure there, I soon located it. I do not know what it had been used for. It was quite badly rotted down, but it had been a rectangular affair, about eight feet high, built of a double wall of rather light logs, with an eight- or ten-inch space between the two walls which had been filled in with rocks. Three or four old rock fireplaces had once been in use there. All the ax marks were those of a hand ax or tomahawk, as the cuts showed the tool had had a narrow bit. I concluded that squaws had done the work. On a line running due north and south, through scattered pine timber, all the trees had been peeled halfway around up to a height of about five feet. North of the stockade the blaze was facing north, and south of the enclosure the blaze faced south. Each line ran a distance of about a hundred yards. Some trees had been belted and were therefore dead.

Rollison believed that the structure was likely the remains from a party of white trappers and Indian women who were trapping beaver on the Plateau and had built a defensive structure to protect against a hostile Indian attack. He also felt the structure would date to the late 1860s or earlier based on the level of decay.DSC01354

In 1991, the site was recorded by several archaeologists. They reported seeing five culturally modified trees around the stockade.DSC01352 (1)

In 2009, a group of archaeologists, historians, and members of the Park County Historical Preservation Commission hiked to the stockade and collected tree-ring samples from trees and logs at the site. They located more than a dozen culturally modified trees. Their samples consistently produced two separate dates: 1806-1807 and 1861-1862. After this ‘preliminary’ report, Larry Todd returned the following summer, collected a few more tree samples, and so confirmed the later date, just as Rollinson had predicted.DSC01355

When my Forest Service friend was at the site in the 1980s, he told me the gunsights were visible on the logs, and the log enclosure stood about 3 feet high. But today the stockade is almost fully decayed. You can still see the circular outline and in a few places the enclosure still is two or three logs in height. The ax cuts are visible and young trees are growing in the center area.

Young trees inside Stockade

The stockade sits just a few 100 feet off the main trail, but is very easy to miss. In fact, I encountered two backpackers that had spent the night right near the enclosure and had no idea that it was there.


Koda enjoys the shade near the enclosure

Take a lunch and bear spray (last year I encountered a young grizzly near here at the lake) and enjoy the stockade while you contemplate what happened here 150 years ago.

Trail sign. What does an 'F' mean? Anyone know?

Trail sign. What does an ‘F’ mean? Anyone know?


Muddy Creek, the Beartooths, and Grizzly lore

Muddy Creek is an access trail to Granite Lake in the Beartooth Mountains on the Wyoming side. Although I have done a lot of hiking and backpacking in the Beartooths, I have to admit I haven’t been to Granite Lake, a 228-acre subalpine lake, among the largest in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Most people approach the lake through Clay Butte, which is also a trail into Martin Lake Basin and the Beartooth backcountry. Yet since I heard that Granite Lake is a popular horse, fishing, and camping area, I’ve avoided it. Maybe this summer I’ll do the 9 mile roundtrip hike there.

Muddy Creek is one means of entry, and mostly because of its apt name, I haven’t been on that trail either. This being a drier year, I thought I’d try it for a day hike. This is not a trail description entry, but some observations along the stretch I did. But for those interested, the trail is flat, skirting an extensive meadow, until it reaches the mouth of the canyon to Granite Lake. At that point it begins to gently climb into the narrow drainage. I turned around at the incline point and end of the meadows.

This is a beautiful hike that enters the wilderness boundary in about .08 miles from the trailhead and stays in the trees and shade.


Wilderness boundary. Muddy Creek

Muddy Creek used to be a popular trail in the day. You can see old logging cuts throughout, before the area became Wilderness. I’ve read old records where some old-timers considered Ghost Creek (just south of the highway) and east Muddy Creek (north of the highway where the trail is), their private hunting grounds. In fact, I was going around some downed timber when I discovered, about 2 miles up and on the trail, an old trapping snare.

The meadows, in reality, are a wetland full of willows. Fresh moose tracks are everywhere–prime summer habitat for them. But the real surprise is the amount of grizzly bear scat. I’m used to hiking in bear country, but I’ve never seen so much bear evidence as there is on this trail. In the first mile through forest, I’d safely guess that there was a large pile of bear scat every 20 feet and most of it fairly fresh. In fact I saw the freshest pile I’ve ever seen on a hike, one that was still wet and steaming.


Front foot with claw marks

DSC01336 (1)

Bear scat still wet and steaming

I started looking for bear rubs along the trail and found many. Called rub trees, it’s unclear why they use them. Probably as a way of scenting and getting a good back scratch at the same time. Once you’ve seen a rub tree, you’ll know how to look for them. Most I’ve found are on or near human trails. Bears use human trails too. I’ve found several where a trail blaze is in the tree and a bear scratches or rubs that tree. You know who is The Boss then.

Rub trees will have a smooth side to them and will not have lichen there. Look from the side and you will see the bear’s fur. Cattle especially also rub trees so learn to distinguish the fur. Ungulates, especially elk, will sometimes rub and horses as well. But once you’ve seen bear fur, you’ll know it.

Ungulates have hollow hairs. When bent they are stiff and form a sharp bend. Bear’s have finer fur. Try to distinguish which side of a hair is the root. Then look at the opposite end. Most grizzly hairs will have a light tip to them–thus the ‘grizzled’ look. Here is a good photo from USF&W.


It’s more likely that your rub tree fur will look like this:


Some of the fur I pulled off the tree

View from about halfway up the vast meadowsDSC01325

A few blooming flowers:


New flower for me. Wood Nymph Moneses uniflora


One of my favorites. Thalictrum occidentalis. There are many beautiful Thalictrums in the landscape market.

A real plus for the bears is that I can see this will be a super berry year. Last year all their fall foods were lean and so people were seeing more bears on the edges of the ecosystem. This year my Chokecherries will have a bounty year, and all the flower evidence for Raspberries and Strawberries indicates a boom cycle. In addition, I have not seen any Buffalo berries on plants for many years. But this year the beginning of the fruit is evident.


Shepherdia canadensis. The berries are tiny green now. Red in the fall and I like the taste

And finally, my plea once again for the Great Bear. We are in the midst of a USF&W delisting process for Grizzly Bears which means the states will be managing and hunting them. Walking on the Muddy Creek trail, seeing so much bear sign, is not an indication, as some people have expressed, to be scared and hunt bears so they will avoid people.

Instead, the Great Bear is a mnemonic, a reminder to stay alert and awake. His presence signals I need to hike as a ‘walking meditation’, being fully Present in the moment. Thus, the grizzly is a Spiritual Bear. Let us all honor the Grizzly bear in that manner.


Grizzly Bears are sacred to the tribes. We need to all think about them in this manner.


The Cave Video: A year’s review

Several years ago I came across a small rock cave in a narrow drainage high up near a sheer rock face. There was cougar scat outside in a large cougar latrine. I crawled inside and peeked around. At the very back of the cave, some animal had made a nice bed out of soft debris. You could see the large rounded depression where the animal had rested.

Over the years I sometimes passed by this cave and wondered if a cougar might have used it as a den. I showed a photo of the rock enclosure to Toni Ruth, cougar biologist. She speculated that probably it had been used by many cougars as a resting place, but did not look like a den site normally does.

The cave sits high above a small valley used by many hunters in the fall because of it’s easy access and good game. Yet the placement of this rock site was too steep, and obscure, for humans to pass by. The only reason I happened to find it was because sometimes I hike in crazy and steep places just for fun, and I like to follow deer and elk trails.

After several years, in the spring of 2015 I decided to place a trail camera on the cave. I was deeply involved in a personal cougar study, and wanted to settle once and for all–den or lay. I hiked to the spot in May of 2015, placed one camera, and didn’t return for several months. What I found completely surprised me.

During the summer our elk,deer and bear travel into the high country and the predators follow. The valley is fairly quiet then and so my camera recorded lots of squirrel, pack rat and rabbit activity. In the winter, this particular area is closed to human presence. Before the closure, I hiked to the cave once again, and place my best trail camera, a Reconyx that takes film and stills, at the site. The camera sat till the reserve opened again in the spring.

I put together this short film that documents a year at the rock cave. Enjoy.

A Mountain Speaks. The Sacredness of Naming

This is the first part of a longer essay that I thought I’d share. This essay embodies my ‘beef’ with many European place names for North American landscape features.

A Mountain Speaks

October 2013

I’m musing again over the name for the impressive mountain that looms above my cabin. “It has no formal name, but we all call it Mt. Herman,” a neighbor told me when I moved here. ‘Mt. Herman’ is a placeholder only, a bookmark in contemporary time, a way to name a mountain in conversation. From old records about this valley, Herman Ellsbury was the first white baby born here. He also happened to be the original homesteader of this property and the man who was commissioned to build the cabin I now live in.

Although I feel Mt. Herman deserves a moniker that acknowledges its dominance and, in my opinion, spiritual significance in this landscape, others take the more traditional route. One of my neighbors, native Wyomingite, Park employee, and scientist, feels history is imbued in the name, a visible fossil of the past and it’s deeds. Yellowstone Park history is communicated in the names of mountains and rivers—Norris, Lewis, Washburn, Haynes, Lamar. Names must be consistent, he tells me, so that they can be found on maps and agreed upon by the general public, or even First Responders. Of course, now we have GPS for communicating an actual location he reminds me.

Another neighbor tells me, in jest, that she is renaming Mt. Herman after her deceased husband. I imagine petroglyph graffiti by white people who scrawl their initials with a date next to ancient images of sacred animals. And if she were serious, she could name officially any unnamed mountain, gap, or other feature formally through a legal procedure that goes into the public record and soon onto maps.

The ritual of naming requires more than a nod to someone we loved or considered influential. Places themselves have power and in a name that power is concentrated and expressed.

“A place must be properly named”, says Laurens van der Post in his novel A Story Like the Wind. In van der Post’s book, all the different tribes in an area in the African bush agree: in order to be protected “against all the negative aspects of the forces of magic” in the surrounding landscape, a place name is necessary.

Samyama is a term described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It was an expression used extensively by my former teacher. Samyama involves active listening, studying, contemplation, and intuitive awareness. My teacher also referred to this process as a ‘consideration’. I understood it to mean deep, open awareness, contemplation of an issue or a thing or a person or anything, until you beheld its essence. In other words, you’ve ‘considered’ the object of your attention from every possible angle and have now come to understand it through direct knowledge. Robert Heinlein, in his book Stranger in a Strange Land used the word ‘grok’ –an expression of understanding a thing completely through intuition and empathy. Samyama or consideration is the means by which you come to grok something.


Today’s forces of magic in my little valley might be described as many human disturbances encroaching upon the landscape. With the coming of a finished paved road over the mountain in 1992, traffic has increased. And with the increased traffic have come more powerful machinery such as off-road vehicles in the summer demanding more access through new roads deeper into the mountain terrain; hunting no longer done much on horseback, but on ATV’s that drive up and down the dirt roads; trapping all winter long for pelts sold overseas to Russian and Chinese buyers; incessant noise from snowmobiles using the paved road to head into the Beartooth mountains; January helicopter darting of wolves for collaring and counting; fly-over elk counts in winter; logging trucks followed by individuals who buy the slash-piles for firewood sale; summer cattle trucked up to graze on surrounding forest lands. A year round onslaught of noise and landscape disturbance that, taken together, describes a whole host of negative forces that wildlife must contend with year-round. So maybe the real and true name of this stalwart mountain that guards my valley entrance is necessary to discover.

Shaped like a wedding cake melting off to one side, the mountain rises up in deeply wooded layers. As the soil gives way to pure scree, massive boulders scatter the division between tree and rock high above. The mountain’s uplift is so steep no life can take hold. There, a multi-colored prominence, like the hull of a great ship, leans eastward, framing the rising moon. Colored layers of biscuit, cream, deep reds and grays adorn the treeless buttresses of rock one thousand feet above.

A mountain made of limestone allows water to carve fissures and crevices. Snowmelt seeps into the mountain’s soil. I’ve dug by hand into this earth. Making even a small hole unearths dozens of limestone rock. This is not a mountain made of earth, but of stones. Millions of tonnage of rock creates passageways and dark tunnels where water flows change, move, travel. Near the mountain’s base is where all this water emerges, and not coincidentally, is where wildlife moves through. “From the rock, the mountain weeps” my neighbor tells me. So true.

In that way I began my consideration of my mountain’s name. I’ve admired this mountain for over eight years, but this is the first time I asked it to reveal its true name to me.

Today I remembered a phrase from Aldo Leopold –‘Thinking like a Mountain”. Leopold coined the phrase to mean the interconnectedness of all things. When no wolves live on the mountain, the deer overgraze and overrun it, eventually starving them to death.

How do you ‘think like a mountain’? I pondered this yet I am not sure of the answer. My mountain, like the mountain Leopold might have been referring to, is home to almost all the wildlife in these parts, with the possible exception of mink (who live in the river below that this mountain streams feed), the eradicated beaver, lynx (although they’ve occasionally been spotted here) and fisher. There are badgers in the sagebrush at its feet, and red squirrels, chipmunks, voles and mice in the spruce-fir forests. Long-tailed weasels hunt the meadow/forest edges, while martens prefer to mingle amongst the thick terraced slopes. Bobcats watch for snowshoe hares, cottontails, and jackrabbits. Mountain lions stalk the numerous deer. Grizzly come and go spring through fall, digging for roots, eating berries and rose hips, tearing apart rotten logs for grubs. Moose browse the willows and dogwood where riparian areas hold the mountain’s run-off, and wolves travel through, making the resident coyotes nervous and watchful. I have yet to see a lynx but the snowshoe hares are plentiful enough to feed them, and I’ve caught on camera a wolverine once. Great Horned, Boreal and Great Gray owls are my neighbors, along with Bald and Golden eagles. Chickadees and nuthatches are among the few small birds that brave the winter cold. Many other hawks, warblers, and small birds spend their spring and summer in the shadow of my mountain.

This mountain is a cradle of Life containing all the necessary pieces to make the whole, a complex and complete recipe to feed all the parts. Thinking like a mountain, like this mountain, must have that as a main component—holistic thinking. And yet, a mountain, by its sheer immobility, its impressive features and toughness, implies no thought, only the present moment.   It will take an open, clear-eyed, receptive, intuitive approach—a reverent approach—to receive my mountain’s name. This is not just a mountain, but also a life support system.



Herman Ellsbury built my cabin for Doc Firor. Ellsbury owned a sawmill farther up the Clark’s Fork Canyon. In 1957 Firor, the new owner of the property wanted a summer home. Ellsbury, whose father originally homesteaded this parcel, which was much larger at the time, knew the area well. He knew where the winds blew from and when. He’d studied the arc of the sun during all the seasons. He could map out the path of the game, where the snows drifted into impenetrable mounds, or follow with a pointed finger where shadows would cast during the winter solstice. These secrets of the Land, and many more, were as comfortable for him as a favorite coat might be for a city dweller. Many people come to my property and comment, “Why don’t you build on the ridge above? That’s the best view.” But Ellsbury had the natural smarts that I always advocate to my clients when I tell them “Live in your house for a few years before you create a garden”. He had that wisdom which comes with living close to the land, observing nature’s rhythms year after year. So he built Doc Firor’s log cabin at the base of a bank, not on the ridge above. He faced it east, what people today might call perfect Feng Shui though this idea probably came from ancient tipi rings in the area, whose doorways always faced the rising sun. By this perfect placement, the cabin avoids our fifty-mile per hour winds that blow frequently in winter. The wooded hillside behind provides just the perfect buffer since the trees create a natural snow fence, and an old irrigation ditch testifies to how he used my creek to gravity-feed the cabin. Because Herman Ellsbury was the first white child born here, the locals saw fit to give this mountain his name as a way of honoring their own settlement, the habitation of what they saw as empty country.

Of course these lands were only empty because the native peoples had been driven out before the homesteaders arrived in the early 1900s. The Crows, who once claimed this area as part of their territory, are now living on a reservation northeast of here; and although in the late 1800s it was part of their reservation, the discovery of gold, the creation of Yellowstone Park and the influx of new settlers shrunk the reservation drastically. Sheep Eater Shoshone Indians, who also called these mountains home for thousands of years, lived a nomadic life, traveling between the Absaroka Mountains and today’s Yellowstone Park. The Park removed them, their way of life shattered by the hoards of miners who diminished their food sources and gave them diseases, the few who remained were moved to the Shoshone and Bannock reservations south and west of here.

Clearly, my valley was inhabited for over 10,000 years. Evidence still surfaces, from native dwellings to the occasional arrowhead. The entire spring outflow, and the swamp created by its emerging waters, was a favorite bison wallow as well as a butchering site for native peoples. In my mind, an injustice was being done with place names that told only a white man’s story, barely a hundred years old.

There is a lesson in the Badger-Two Medicine roadless area that sits between Glacier National Park, the Great Bear and Bob Marshall Wilderness Areas, and the high plains of the Blackfeet Nation in northwest Montana. This wild area is sacred to the Blackfeet, and unlike the rest of the Bob Marshall country, the Badger retains its traditional Indian place names. Why? All the country surrounding the Badger has white man contemporary names, but the Blackfeet fought this tradition and, in 1915, sent a group of Blackfeet chiefs to Washington D.C. asking to retain their spiritual names. The names retain the magic of the area, and it’s long history.

There is one other element to naming that might be peculiar to me. As long as I can remember, I’d had trouble recalling the names of people that I do not know intimately or personally. So, for instance, when I try to remember a valley next to mine named Russell (obviously named after Osborne Russell, one of the few trappers who could write, kept a diary, and trapped the Yellowstone in the 1830s), my mind needs to search for a while. The name Russell does not describe landscape features, but sits like a dangling participle, a reference to nothing that is being observed, nor remembered, as the features of the place. Naming a creek or a mountain after a person signifies a complete disconnect from the Earth and its features.

Between this land’s rich human history, and the nourishment my mountain provided for the abundant wildlife, I was certain my mountain had a name of its own. But what was it?