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The Wonderful Absaroka Front

This is an area I’d been to several times before.  A trail runs along the Absaroka front, and maintained trails around the Absarokas are unusual to find in general, let alone ones that are marked with cairns.  I was surprised at the height of the cairns, considering this is Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands.  “Why”, I asked myself, “would the BLM go to such great lengths to construct these massive trail markers?”

What is a cairn?  Basically it’s a pile of rocks that one usually sees to mark trails that are not easily visible in the back country.  In other words, they are usually placed at points where one might lose one’s way and are usually put there by hikers.

Last week I hiked this area again, this time with a friend who had heard that there were many more cairns and the cairns were put there by Sheepeater Indians.

Koda has a drink of rainwater from a natural stone bowl in the high desert

So we hiked the trail, which after about 2 miles turns into nothingness, just peeters out and there’s a stock fence one has to cross if you want to continue.  Last time I did cross over the fence, but on the other side is a steep drainage, followed by a series of steep drainages.  Today we stopped near the fence, looked north up into a ‘V’ shaped drainage that was fairly steep.

We hiked up the 'V' shaped valley to a series of cairns

We began the climb up the drainage.  The Cairns appeared, large and numerous. At first it seemed like they were positioned on either side of the valley’s opening. The drainage narrowed as it rose higher, the cairns got closer together, at times steering around hummocks.  I was certain that this must be a Sheepeater’s animal drive, probably for Bighorns.

But then the pattern disappeared and it became very unclear what the purpose of the cairns’ were.  We found altar-like rock formations in two separate areas that were in the center of small clearings.  I insisted we hike as far as we could to see when the cairns stopped.  They stopped at a small flat clearing encircled by steep walls where the drainage splits into two.

We counted over 32 cairns with 2 altars.  Some of these had been already surveyed by the BLM, as they left steel markers beside them.  If you look at these cairns carefully, you begin to notice several things.

First, that they are very well-constructed.  Many of the rocks are quite large, probably weighing over 200 pounds.  Some of the rocks would take 3 people to move into place.  Also, each cairn is incredibly heavy and sturdy.

Second, that most of the rocks in the cairns are placed with their top side (the side that had been out of the dirt) facing the inside of the structure.  I have worked with rocks for many years.  I’ve spent hundreds of hours picking out rocks as well as supervising men to place them exactly how I want them to look.  If you are doing a design for a landscape, you want to pick out a rock with a lot of lichen.  Its also very obvious which side was in the dirt, because it doesn’t have any lichen growing on it and its dirtier.  Also, there is always an obvious line on a rock that marks where the rock was below and above the dirt.   You could still see the dirt line on these rocks, but because they’d been exposed for so long, the ‘dirt’ side wasn’t dirty, just a lighter color.  The darker side, the top of the rock, still had the lichen growing on it.  I had to wonder if this was intentional.  Because the lighter side was the most exposed, maybe you could see the rocks better in the moonlight, or in the snow, or at night with torches.   Light would reflect better off of a lighter surface.  Maybe it just stood out better in the landscape.

Thirdly, these were very large rocks, and the hillside was steep.  You would have to assume that these were rocks taken from directly nearby each cairn.  And if this were the case (it would be a much bigger building effort to carry rocks from a different location up this hillside), then you’d see depressions in the soil from which the rocks were taken.  But there was no evidence of this at all, which suggested to me that these cairns were very very old; old enough so soil had time to accumulate and vegetation to grow.  In this very dry and sparse country, land scars take a long time to heal over.

And lastly, many of these cairns were a work of art and beauty.  Having worked with rock and stone for so many years, I have a great appreciation for these things.  I can easily tell a stone wall constructed by a master mason, or when rocks are placed in a natural and considered manner.  Many of these cairns followed lines of an existing boulder perfectly.  Some were balanced intricately on the steep hillside. These cairns were done by master builders, and were still standing after many years.  They weren’t piles of rocks just to mark something.  They had intention in them.

One of the smaller but beautiful cairns. This one follows the lines of the existing boulder to form a triangle

Tonight as I was driving home,  I remembered that not too far away from these cairns is some private land where the Wyoming Archaeological Society studied a series of cairns that served as a buffalo drive.  I wondered if there was any connection between these two sites, which are so close together.

WY Archaeological Society map of an ancient buffalo drive area in NE WY

All this made me think again about the BLM’s plan for the next 20 years, which is in progress at this moment, though comments are now closed.  There are some factions who would like all our public lands open for drilling, without concern for wildlife, aesthetic beauty or even sacred sites.  There is also a strong movement to keep the Absaroka front off-limits to any kind of development such as oil and gas. Not only is the Absaroka front a very important corridor for wildlife movement, and not only is it uniquely stunning in its natural beauty, but here is living proof that it was, and still is, sacred ground.  These cairns are arranged as a hidden code, with meaning we have not unlocked, but with an intention very clear to their builders.  I believe that this site may have been some kind of animal drive, but it seems to have been more than that, especially since we found clear altar-type rock formations.  This site had sacred and special meaning and is just more evidence of why we need to protect this places and special places like this for all time into the future.

 

 

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3 Responses

  1. Wow this is SO interesting! I am familiar with cairns, as many years ago we hiked the various national parks in Utah, and the park service used cairns to mark the walking path rather than trails. Of course that was the park service. Nothing like the incredible cairns that you described! Having been built by the Sheepeaters, and so elaborate, I wonder if the Archaeological Society has studied the area.

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  2. Nice find! Your perspctive as one who turns stone into art really adds texture and I love your detective work to unravel the mystery. Isn’t it remarkable that in these times when we think we know everything, you discover a site with more questions than answers, a place of mystery, beauty, art, and a rich story. These archeological treasures highlight the importance of keeping the AB Front wild, as it is, for all time. Incidently, I just read “From The Heart Of The Crow Country” by Joseph Medicine Crow and he talked about Piles of stone. He said “Rock piles or mounds of intententionally placed stones appear to have been associated mainly with intertribal warfare.” He went on to talk about how Crow, or Absarok-ee marked places where warriors died on the battlefield with rock shrines. He also briefly mentioned “ego monuments” erected by Sheepherders – clearly this site had a specific purpose; I just found it interesting that I had just read about these rock piles before reading your post.

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  3. Great article..I believe we still have many untold relics of past culture directly in our back yards. Can’t find this in many places in current times. Thanks for appreciating and sharing what many take for granted

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