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The Sheepeaters

One of the interns gave me a book of Robert Service poems.  Oh, how I like so many of them.  Here’s a few verses from one of my favorites called ‘The Spell of the Yukon”

The summer — no sweeter was ever;
The sunshiny woods all athrill;
The grayling aleap in the river,
The bighorn asleep on the hill.
The strong life that never knows harness;
The wilds where the caribou call;
The freshness, the freedom, the farness —
O God! how I’m stuck on it all.

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I’ve bade ’em good-by — but I can’t.

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land — oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back — and I will

Its interesting how one can feel a place.  Up the dirt road towards Yellowstone, there’s an area that just feels good.  The wolves like to den there, the Bighorn sheep hang on the cliffs there, and the Sheepeaters had winter camp there for 5000 years.  Keep going farther up that road, about 20 miles, closer to Yellowstone, and the feeling changes.  Something about that area always feels ominous to me.  As the valley narrows, the Absarokas close in.  Volcanic in nature, the mountains tell the story of fire and ice with their knife edge ridges and slopes of scree.  I’m always a little uneasy up there.  Its beauty and wildness belie ancient and ominous secrets.  I’m wondering ‘What happened here?’

But my story is about the area that feels good.  Last summer I spent a long time looking for a ‘sheep trap’.  I’d been told about one that was a small cleft in the rock face.

W___ had told me there was a sheep trap up in the timber, yet everytime I looked I couldn’t find where he said it was at.

Sheeptraps were used by the Native Americans who lived around here.  A sub-group of the Shoshones, they were named Sheepeaters because their primary diet consisted of Bighorn Sheep.  They made the finest bows out of horn, used no horses, and went back and forth into the Park.  These sheeptraps were one of their ways of hunting.  Usually placed along a game trail and on the downhill slope (Sheep always see what’s coming from below, but never tend to look up for danger), the traps had drive lines of dead wood that lead to a pen.  Once in the corral, then animals were usually bludgeoned to death.

I spent many days looking for the trap.  My mistake really was to go on W___ ‘s advice.  There WAS a trap he knew about up there, but it wasn’t the natural rock formation one.  He’d only been there once, and since he didn’t know this area well (he’d gone with another person who did) his directions were weak.  One time I hiked way up the mountain through several meadows.  I was tired and it was getting late. Turned out I was only a few hundred yards from the trap in the woods.  But when W__ did take me there later on, I didn’t feel so badly, for I talked with several hunters who’d walked right by the trap and never saw it.

Partially buried sheep trapThe wooden trap was awfully small, but when you looked closely, it was obvious that it was buried deep.  The wood was old and it was amazing the construction was still intact.

I knew that there must be another trap somewhere else.  I decided to walk along the cliffs farther down the meadows.

Fall was in full force and the days were short.  One afternoon I took a few hours and hiked up to the bottom of the cliffline.  I walked its edge.

The view was fabulous from up high and I stopped to investigate a natural arch.  There was nothing inside but packrat remnants.

Farther along the wall, I came to an extremely narrow notch in the wall.  Some unknown force drew me to climb up it to the landing above to investigate.  I hesitated.  The light was getting low, I was running out of time, and this seemed like just a curious sidetrack.  But I couldn’t resist.  I scrambled on all fours through some snow and debris up the cleftt to small flat area above.  Walking around on top of the rock, I noticed a second but larger cleft between two gigantic boulders.  The boulders narrowed sharply and a tree was growing at the base.  It was a curious natural formation.  A few pieces of wood and debris were inside.  I looked around but saw no evidence of any drive lines.

I climbed back down the notch and continued making my way along the wall.  In short order I came upon a dry creek bed and an old game trail that led to the landing up above.  It was then that it hit me–That cleft WAS the pen, just a natural one.  It was so obvious.  I raced back up the ravine as the sun was starting to set.  Sure enough, the game trail passed a few hundred feet above that cleft.Looking from above

And now I noticed random wood above the cleft, probably strewn around for the last hundred and fifty years, once used as the drive line.  The whole setup seemed so ingenious to me, with the minimal expenditure of energy.  The ancient game trail right there, the Sheepeaters waiting in the timber above, the natural pen below.  If you walked from the cliff line below, you’d never notice this pen because of the tree and a good amount of debris placed there to block the exit.

I sat down at the top of the rock and watched the setting sun.  I marveled at how by trusting a feeling I found this place.  And the moment of ‘Ah ha’ that came from the inside out.    It was getting cold now.  But I took a little time to sit and say ‘thank you’ to whatever bought me here.

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One Response

  1. […] over at Bugas-Holding, mostly Buffalo and sheep were found.  The sheep were probably taken in traps right near the site.  The site is on private property but a short jaunt over the hills and there […]

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