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Cougar Stories

I’ve become fascinated by cougars. Maybe because they are elusive, secretive, more akin to a ghost than an animal of flesh and blood. Which of course, begs the question: How do you get people to care about and protect an animal that they never see, nor probably will never see in their lifetime?

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Mom and six month old kitten

Visitors to Yellowstone National Park can be almost guaranteed, if they are persistent and patient, to view wolves and bears, elk, bison, and bighorn sheep. But only the rare individual will have the opportunity to see a cougar in the Park. They’ve been spotted at Calcite Springs, hanging on the basalt walls and occasionally through a scope from the Hellroaring overlook. Usually the Park sightings are called in by wolf watchers. Once radioed around, tourists hear about it through the airwaves, then flock to those locations. Sometimes the cat might be hanging out, either on a kill or just sunning himself, for hours.

In all my winter tracking I’ve done, I’ve never seen a cougar. In fact, the people I know who have seen cougars, it’s usually from the car when a cat suddenly runs across the road at dusk.

I sat down with Jim Halfpenny for an interview about cougar tracking stories. Jim is a famous tracker who lives in Gardiner, Mt. As a Mammalogist and expert tracker, he has worked all over the West and Canada. His puma tracking includes the deserts of Arizona and Utah as well as the mountains of the Greater Yellowstone.

Jim used to live and work in Colorado. His interest in cougars began in 1982 when the Forest Service called him in to investigate a bear-killed horse within the small town of Nederland CO.  Jim told them “this is not a bear that mauled the horse. It’s a cougar” The Forest Service thought the kill was made by a bear because there were five claw marks on the horse’s neck. If you look at a cat paw, there are four claws and a dew claw high up, like on a dog.  On a cougar print, the dew claw doesn’t show and it’s not bone attached, it’s tendon attached. But Jim knew that dew claw, called ‘the killer claw’, would show on a kill because it wraps around it’s prey. Thus the five marks.  Jim asked himself “What is a cougar doing in a town?” and so began a research project.

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cougar print has only four paws showing. Dew Claw doesn’t show

Cougar print

Big cat print

I asked Jim if he had tracked cougars without dogs and still seen them. “Oh, many times. I’ve hardly ever used dogs. He told me several of those stories but two stand out.

“I got a phone call from a woman when I lived in Boulder. There was some snow on the ground but it was thin, only about 2 inches. I followed the tracks, and soon I was about 50 yards from the back of this cougar. He looked up and his face said ‘Who are you, what are you doing following me?’

That cougar took a few strides and disappeared but I observed he was cutting a big letter ‘C’; so I cut across the ‘C’, and began following his tracks till they suddenly disappeared. I looked around. No tracks. And then I looked up and there he was, in the tree, looking at me. I got some good photographs of him in that tree.  I’ve got more photographs in the wild than anybody not using dogs or set cameras.”

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Puma uses his vomeronasal organ on the roof of mouth to pick up smells better

Halfpenny told me another great story from the Boulder era. “I got a phone call from a woman who said she watched a cougar kill a deer from her window. It was three in afternoon went I got there. I found that deer and chained it to a tree. Then I did a necropsy on it and saw it was pregnant. I walked one hundred steps off the carcass and sat down. Pretty soon that cougar returns. He’s knows I’m there, and begins trying to pull that deer away to a hidden spot. And he’s pulling for all he’s worth, but that deer is chained to the tree. The cougar looks like ‘What! I don’t understand this. I just killed the thing, and I can’t move it!’

“I watched that cat way into the night, filmed and photographed her. After dark, in came mature kittens. Our crew took turns watching from Friday 3pm to Monday 3pm. Over that time we had foxes, coyotes, domestic dogs and the cougar. It was as if all these animals were waiting on the edges to come in. There were multiple cycles of this.”

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Cougar caught on camera

Most of us will never see a cougar in our lifetime, even if they are living right around us. I intend to write more about cougars with the hope that people will know them and feel the urge to protect them.

 

Not a Wildlife Blog today

At a loss for words, these were the words that became my voice today. Maybe nobody will read this, and many will not agree with me, but I needed to post this blog today. It is not about wildlife, nor about gardening, but a personal reflection that needed to be said.

January 9, 2016

Both my grandparents came to the United States to avoid genocide on Jews. This wasn’t the genocide of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. These were the pogroms of the late 1800s and early 1900s in Russia and Eastern Europe.

My father grew up in Danbury, Connecticut where his father worked in a hat factory. Danbury was a hat factory center, and immigrants could obtain low-paying jobs working with dangerous chemicals, like the mercury used to stiffen hat brims. Although Danbury was a small town of many immigrants, mostly Italians, there were few Jews and much anti-Semitism. Being a Jew in a Gentile town, he had no friends. I remember my father telling me how he wanted to play stickball with the other boys in the neighborhood, but they only let him be the water boy, calling him names like ‘Jew-Boy’.

My grandmother on my mother’s side came to the United States from Poland when she was only thirteen, around the late 1890’s, probably on a boat by herself, and then the rest of her large family followed in early 1900. It wasn’t until 1939 that she became a naturalized citizen. Although she worked for years, she never learned to read.

My parents met and married in the 1930s, living in New York City. After the war they moved to Los Angeles where my father started his own business. My father’s last name was Brownstein. My father had not forgotten his earlier struggles with anti-Semitism, and since there were few Jews in California, my parents decided to shorten their last name to Brown, hoping to make it easier on their children in school, and in their new business career.

My parents never forgot where they came from and how hard it was for people to get a leg up. They slowly built a garment manufacturing company from scratch in the downtown Los Angeles area. They hired people of all colors and races including Latinos, African-Americans, Europeans, and whites. Most of their employees with managerial positions were Black women. During the lunch hour, my parent’s office door was always open. Employees would come in, sit down and talk about whatever they wanted. Many times my parents gave loans to employees to help them buy a first home, or bring a family member in legally from Mexico. I remember my mother telling me that if I needed something, to write to my local Congressman. She wrote many letters of requests for visas for her Mexican employees. Their employees, fiercely loyal, stayed for twenty, sometimes more than thirty, years.

My father sold his business at the age of 75, and the New York company which bought him out immediately changed the work customs. There was no longer a lunchtime open door policy. Managers brought in from New York did not mingle with the factory workers. For the first time, the employees unionized. Three years after my father sold his business, which he’d owned for over thirty years, the business went bankrupt. I think it was the biggest heartache for my father. My father died at age 86. Even though it had been over ten years since he retired, 100 former employees came to his funeral, many giving emotional speeches.

My mother used to tell me that “I learned a lot from my employees”. By the time I was six years old, my father had about 100 employees. I remember fondly the times I went to my parent’s factory, racing all around like a happy kid and visiting my adult friends that were of all races and creeds. My parents won an award for one of the first integrated factories in Los Angeles.

Today, with Donald Trump winning the Presidency, after a campaign dominated by hate speech directed at immigrants, people of color, and Muslims, I am thinking about my grandparents and the country they came to in which to escape genocide. I am thinking about what my parents must have gone through as Jews to create a better life for their children, a life that was free of prejudice and where we could worship as we pleased without hatred or bigotry. I am thinking of how my parents gave a hand-up to so many people, how they never forgot their own roots and struggles. This is the America I know. And this is the America they taught me about.

One thing is certain, we cannot allow the hatred and bigotry that this man, now our President, has stirred up, to fester and take over what America stands for at its core. Truly, I am at a loss for words. Maybe that is why all I can think of on this dark day are the hopes and dreams of my parents and grandparents, and what they envisioned for their children. My generation is the beneficiaries of the work of people like my grandparents, parents, and so many others. Let us continue to fight the good fight.

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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hoodoo Basin…an Eerie Place and a Story

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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…

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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Park Boundary Line. Looking out into the Lamar Drainage

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Front foot with claw marks

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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.

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

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Some of the fur I pulled off the tree

View from about halfway up the vast meadowsDSC01325

A few blooming flowers:

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New flower for me. Wood Nymph Moneses uniflora

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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.

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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.

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