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The wickiup

Last week my friend W__ and I hiked up almost to the ridgeline on the steep slopes across the river from my cabin.  That entire hillside used to be owned by Doc Firor, the original owner of my cabin.  Unfortunately, it had been sold after he died and divvied up into  6 acre parcels with cabins on it.

That is the south facing side and is basically granite, which means its mostly treeless down below and there’s very little water run-off.  In fact, over these last 10 years of drought and climate change, many of the springs have dried up.We hiked almost to the ridgeline

W__ had been up there several years ago with a local and found some evidence of Sheepeater houses.  “My friend pointed to some old logs and said ‘these are them’.  I really had to use my imagination.”

The hike is tough and pretty much straight up.  You climb through a series of level meadows followed by steep ascents.  The first 2/3 consists of scattered limber pines and doug firs.  W__ couldn’t remember exactly at what height he had seen the ruins, so we wound up climbing almost to the base of the cliffs.  Several levels below the cliff-line is open forests with stunted trees.  We were right below the cliffs

Most of the time we followed deer or elk trails.  We would stop and inspect a level area, then move on to higher ground.  At one point I spotted a tiny obsidian flake.  I have no idea how I found it amidst all the duff and debris.  We joked that the obsidian flake and the crow feather we found meant we were ‘hot on the trail’.

Pretty soon, after not encountering any sheepeater evidence, I forgot all about looking for ancient artifacts and enjoyed the forest.  The rolling gurgle of Sandhill cranes in the distance, migrating in, spoke of winter breaking.  The views were magnificent as we were about 2,000 feet above the valley.The view was magnificentAfter a lunch break we began heading back.  We descended slightly down to a lower yet still forested level that we hadn’t inspected.   Suddenly W__ spotted some old timber.  In a flat clearing, butting up against the hillside, was a distinct squared off area constructed of ancient logs.Sheepeater hut

Another view

I looked around and noticed that behind me was access to the cliff areas, while in front was a complete view of the valley.Access to the cliffs behind

Site looks over the whole valley

A spring used to run nearby that’s now dry since the homeowners below diverted it for their own use.   Several hundred yards directly east we encountered an opening to a gully that ran east/west.  We walked along the top of the unusual drainage, now full of snow.  It was long and wide, narrowing into a natural boxed trap.  I could almost imagine the Sheepeaters driving Bighorn into the small canyon where they’d easily be trapped and killed.  Probably this dwelling, I thought, was just a temporary shelter used in winter.  The haul of the kill back down the valley to the Bugas-Holding site, not exactly nearby, must have been tough.  The Sheepeaters used dogs with travois to do a lot of their carrying.

The one thing that made me uncertain was that all the pictures I’d ever seen in books had Sheepeater ‘houses’ as teepee style structures, with logs piled on top of logs.  This was definitely a square structure.

When I returned I showed the photos to my old neighbor JB who grew up in the valley.  He further cast doubt on the sheepeater theory as he thought the structure looked more like an old bear trap.

“There’s a tree in the middle with only one exit.  They’d tie a horse as bait for the bear.  I bet that’s what that is. The Indian houses were teepee log structures.”

Somehow I couldn’t imagine those old homesteaders climbing way up the mountain to bait a bear.  “Heck”, I thought, “if I was going to bait a bear, I’d do it in the drainages down below where they usually hang out. And I wouldn’t have to trek way up here.”  W__ thought it was all wrong.  “No”, he said, “the logs are really old.  That’s a sheepeater’s structure.

Several days later I decided to take another look.  I found an easier route from the road.  Although not as much climbing was involved because I started higher up, I had a lot more ground to cover.  Taking another look at the structure, it had absolutely no exit.  There were four complete sides.  And the dead tree inside was too young compared to the timber used to construct the dwelling.  Still I had no way of being certain.  I don’t have the expertise and there’s always the unknown factors.

On my way down the hillside, I ran into some locals.  The woman was from the University of Wyoming extension.  They knew the area and knew of the wickiup.

“Several years ago that was discovered by one of the ranch hands doing some work on the stream.  He called George Frison who came out and looked at it.  Frison said it was the real thing–a Sheepeater dwelling.  It used to be more intact, had more height to it.  It’s deteriorated since we first saw it.”

I had to wonder how the structure had deteriorated so fast over the last 20 years compared to the fact that its probably at least 150 years old.  These are special sites and need to be watched over.  When the ’88 fires came through here, the forest service was cutting break lines.  If it hadn’t been for one of the locals pointing out a sheeptrap to them, they would have cleared it completely.

Fire is destroying the evidence of these ancient peoples.  There is a concerted effort going on to find and GPS as many of these sites as possible before they are destroyed.  Interestingly, although fire will destroy wood structures, it also clears duff and can expose artifacts buried below.  The Boulder Basin site is a perfect example.  It had been explored since the 1970’s.  Although sheep traps were evident, Archaeologists thought that the sites had been cleared and looted because little other cultural evidence was found.  After the fires, the site was re-visited and hundreds of projectile points, bone fragments, stone implements, and other important artifacts were uncovered, some simply scattered above the burned ground.

These are Americas’ Acropolis, our Pyramids.  They stir our imagination and resonant with the collective unconscious of humankind.  I see these old timbers and dream the dream of what it might have been like to be living here so long ago; to be dependent on one’s community and the earth; to be a wanderer, a hunter-gatherer; to be so intimate with the natural world.  These are important places, for us, for our children, for all mankind.

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