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An afternoon hike in April

The snows are melting, early, and we don’t seem to be getting our usual spring wet dump of moisture.  These spring snows are what the eastern side of the Absarokas depend upon for their real moisture.  The winter snows are dry, while these spring snows put a lot of moisture into the ground.  But the high country still has snow and the rivers aren’t running much yet, so that means the elk are still hanging around.

The other day I took an easy hike up beyond a ridge.  On the way I spied a herd of over 500 elk, fattening up on new grass getting ready to drop their babies in the next few weeks.

Down below a moose and her yearling passed by.

This pond usually has Sandhill Cranes but not today.  I’ve heard them a few times and seen them flying.  Today only Mallards were enjoying the reflection of the snowy peaks.

One of the most interesting features in my valley is old volcanic sulphur deposits.  From my limited understanding of geology, the Absarokas were formed by active volcanism from 53 to 38 million years ago.  The Absaroka volcanics are more than a mile thick, and this volcanic activity is not related to the Yellowstone hot spot which is much more recent.  (Yellowstone’s first eruption occurred only 2 million years ago.)

There are several interesting sulphur deposits, but my favorite has a little creek associated with it.  During the spring, the creek crosses the road, the water turning a cerulean blue.  As you climb towards the area with the deposits, the creek turns milky white and smells distinctly sulphurish.  Unfortunately, the water is as cold as the snow melt that supplies the creek.

Sulphur deposits. Nothing growing

At the deposit area, there’s no greenery on the hillside, and the few hearty trees growing there are stunted.  The hillside also shows evidence of a massive slide in the past.

On this hike I spied something I’d never seen before. Not that they weren’t maybe there before, but there were these unusual ‘lumps’ of raised sulphur (I have no idea what the technical term is).  When the snow recedes some, I’ll climb the hill and inspect them better.  Could they be evidence of something active happening underneath?  I keep hoping for a warm creek to swim in.

Volcanic mounds. Are these evidence of new activity?

Frank revisited

I’m going to revisit an old post about Frank Hammitt.  In my previous post I told the story of how old Frank really died.  Frank Hammitt worked for the Forest Service even before there were rangers around here.  There’s a nice stone memorial with a plaque by Antelope butte.  Stories abound.  He was in a snowstorm with his horse and couldn’t see.  They fell over the side.  He committed suicide.  On and on.  It’s great, classic folklore around here.

But the real story is that they found old Frank’s body not over Antelope butte, but much further down, on the side of the Clark’s Fork.  “He was pretty ripe” my neighbor said.  No one really knows how it happened.  They just found his horse wandering around and went looking for Frank.

Is this where he fell from? Ledge near the burial site

Well my old neighbor who grew up in the valley told me there was a box, Frank’s coffin, near the cliff.  The box was an old wagon box and they brought Frank up and buried him near the top of the cliff where they found him.  Some years later, some of his friends thought that wasn’t a proper burial so they brought a wagon down to the coffin, collected his bones, and brought him up to where the present memorial is.  The CCC then built the plaque.

Last fall I heard this story and guess what?  A few days ago I found that box, just as my friend Jack said.  I was lucky to run into it.  Although its not hidden, its obscure and I just happened to wander over to a nearby elk skull to inspect when I noticed the box.  The box is about 6’6″.  I thought it was an awfully nice place to be laid to rest; actually much nicer than right by the highway, even though you get signage, a special turnaround, and a plaque of your own.  Frankly, I’d prefer the rock and the ephemeral pond.

Hammitt's coffin next to the boulder

Another view of the wagon box coffin

View of the area. Ephemeral pond in this meadow

Plus, as a bonus, the mountain goats hang around you.  Up by the highway, its too exposed for the wildlife to browse near your gravesite.

Goats near coffin

Goat track

Yes, I’ll take that rock any day.

Frank Hammitt Memorial 1869-1903

I’m here to set the record straight.  And although a page on the Shoshone Forest Service website has it correct, I’ve heard a lot of tall tales since I’ve been here about what exactly happened to Frank Hammitt, one of the first forest rangers in Sunlight. If you see Antelope butte from Dead Indian pass, its an amazing formation.  Perfectly flat, its accessible only from its north side, which is now on private land.  I understand that buffalo were run off its edge by Indians. A friend of mine found a very old skull once in the woods below.

Antelope Butte

The ‘stories’ I heard when I first moved here about Frank were that he 1. committed suicide by jumping off the side of the butte or 2. it was a very foggy night.  Frank was riding his horse on the top of the butte, didn’t see the edge, and fell to his death, horse and all or 3.  he was drunk and fell of Antelope Butte on a foggy wintery night.

another view

My neighbor who was born in 1923 and grew up in the valley told me this story:

“My grandpa and dad knew Frank.  They found his horse wandering around.  Whenever you see someone’s horse, you know you better start looking for them.  They found Frank on a ledge over the cliff on the Russell Creek side near the canyons’ edge.  There was a pile of smoked cigarettes on a rock nearby.  Hard to say what happened.  No one knows.  He was pretty ripe.  Been there a while.  Pretty ripe.”

J___ shows me a photo.  There’s a large box, coffin like, without a lid.  The box is butted up against the side of a large boulder,  wedged between several other large rocks.  A pile of smaller rocks sits to the side. There’s no bottom to the box and some old bones sat inside that looked like an elk pelvis.

“That’s where Frank’s body was.  Its really a wagon box. They covered it and put rocks over the top.  Down by the cliffs on the Russell creek side.  You can still see the wood down there if you can find it.  I was young then and my dad used to say to us ‘You boys just stay away from that box.  Don’t git near there’. After some time, a fellow living on the other side of the road where the highway department is now, well, he decided that Frank needed a more proper burial.  So he took his wagon down there, collected Franks’ bones.  And you know, he didn’t get them all.  There’s still some bones in there.  But he collected them and brought them up in the wagon to the place where the memorial is now.  He buried the bones there, stuck two posts in the ground.”

“That was around 1938, and so the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) was around and they built that memorial that’s there now.  Folks will tell all sorts of stories, they like to talk about Frank dying by falling off the butte.  But that just not what really happened, and here’s the picture to prove it.”

See the flat butte in the middle. From Dead Indian pass

I suppose next summer, or maybe this winter, I’ll just have to go looking around for that old box. The lumber is still around to prove it.  And when I find it, I’ll post the photo for you to see.

Hike into the bowels of the Clark’s Fork Canyon

We are going to hike into that canyon in the photo below.  From this photo you can see the mighty Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone, the only wild and scenic river in Wyoming, un-runnable.

To the left you can make out Sunlight falls, where Sunlight creek meets the great river.  What you can’t see is that just in front of the falls is Dead Indian creek running into the river as well, almost at the same spot but not as a falls.

Some day I’m going to take a raft down to the river and paddle upstream to that meeting place, but the Clark’s Fork needs to be slow and low.

There are a few trails down there from above, most fairly treacherous or extremely steep.  The best runs near Dead Indian Creek from the road.  There used to be signage with the mileage but someone took that down.  Its four miles to the river, but its the last 3/4 mile that’s straight down.

ANother shot of the canyon.  See the little person to the middle right

Its an all day slog, and take water because there is none until you reach the canyon.  Even though it wasn’t incredibly hot, the dog was panting heavily and needed the extra water I took for him.

That’s because its a fairly exposed hike.  And plan to go in mid-August when the river is slower, take a lunch and chill…

Looking downriver

Looking upriver

Chillin’

The hike out is not welcome after the great rest at the river.  Another alternative is to shuttle, leave a car at the mouth near Clark and hike down from the Sunlight Road.  Someday I plan to hike an inflatable raft down there and spend a few days exploring upriver.

Windy Mountain

The hike to Windy is not long, but an uphill climb.  You can drive the 4 wheel dirt road to a parking area, which cuts out a few miles.  But for some reason I hadn’t yet hiked to the top…either there was still snow, or it was too hot, or the bears were using it in the fall.  There’s still White Bark Pines that are living up there and its bear area when the nuts are ripe.

But finally after 5 years I made the trek.  The view is a great 360 and that’s why there used to be a fire lookout there.

Foundations of old lookout tower

The Beartooths still had snow on them.

Beartooths

The most wonderful highlight of this hike, aside from the views, is the old outhouse.  Try imagining going to the bathroom here!  I wouldn’t even get close, though for the ranger there was no clean-up!

Outhouse on cliff edge!

 

Another view

An old crude telephone line still had the poles standing.  Its really quite a ‘hump’ to the top so I can imagine the pack horses carrying all this stuff up there, including the concrete.  Probably built by the CCC I would guess (when just about all the country infrastructure was built).  A surveyor’s marker from the 30’s said ‘Do not remove or there’s a $500 fine’.  That’s a lot of money then.

Old telephone line poles

Telephone line into the distance

 

Although the map shows a clear trail leading north into another drainage called Reef Creek,  the trail was not visible on the way up.  I’ve been trying to find that route from the Reef Creek side so I kept my eyes open.  There was no clear trail, but by bushwhacking a bit, we found the link and several hundred feet away a trail opened up.  I’ll be hiking that this fall!

More BLM thoughts and Jack Turner’s new book

I just love Jack Turner’s writing.  He hasn’t written much, but the stuff he does write is great.  His easy style of writing weaves a lot of good facts, ecological outrage, and story detail.  I’ve just finished his new book “Travels in the Greater Yellowstone”.  Each chapter explores a different area of the ecosystem, either with his wife Dana, or sometimes hiking with a friend.

Turner spurred some additional thoughts on my last entry regarding the Big Horn Basin BLM plans.  The commissioners in the surrounding counties got together and hired, with our tax dollars, a company to do an analysis of oil and gas in the basin; really paying them to turn out a document that would support what the commissioners want.  From the presentation the company gave at the commissioners meeting, they did a good job distorting facts to support massive development as a sound idea.  For instance, they had slides of pronghorn and deer around gas wells.

Now for a pertinent comment by Turner in his chapter on the Green River Lakes, where the Jonah and Pinedale gas fields have taken over the Pinedale area:

“What is the status of sage-grouse populations here?  As usual, none of the interested parties agree about the numbers–counting is political–but no one denies that this basin is one of the species’ remaining strongholds and that it is suffering plenty.  One study suggests that the 1,200 or so sage grouse that live around the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline gas fields will be gone in twenty years.  The government, worried sick that Endangered Species listing will radically curtail energy development, has called for a Sagebrush Grouse Summit.  Nor is it just the grouse that are a problem.  The mule deer population has already declined 46 percent in the area around the Pinedale Anticline field.  They are supposed to be protected in the winter by limits on drillings, but the limits are a farce.  The energy companies can request exemptions and the BLM grants damn near every one of their requests.”

Turner is my kind of guy.  He is no-nonsense blunt when it comes to the environment.  For those who are thinking in support of Plan C, the commissioners drilling dream, here’s another wonderful quote:

So…Wyoming has another energy boom–there have been many.  And when the boom collapses–all booms throughout history eventually go bust–the resources and traditions that could have sustained the state for centuries will be gone.  Who will want to vacation in a Superfund site?”

That is my bold and for good reason, because our commissioners have forgotten what we love about the Cody area and why people come to visit here. They also seem to have forgotten the amount of revenue that comes from tourists.

Big Horn Mountains looking from the Big Horn Basin

At one time, I was going to buy land in the Pinedale area.  This was before the boom.  I’d been coming there every summer since 1996.  I’d stay at the wonderful Wagon Wheel motel, a tiny place that’s been there forever.  The town was just one street with no good restaurants, but a great outdoor equipment store.  It was nice and sleepy and I loved it.  Jackson was an hour and a half away, through the Hoback Canyon, “a canyon that in any other part of the country would be a national park“.  Pinedale reminded me just a little of Jackson in 1972 when I first came to these parts.  I could live here, I said to myself.

But then things changed, almost overnight.  The next summer I arrived and there was an Americinn, charging $265/night vs. my little motel at $50/night, and all the hotels were booked.

“What is happening here?”  I asked.  The Jonah field, they said.  It was the beginning.  From what the townspeople told me, Bush/Cheney more than tripled the amount of lease permits allowed to be issued for drilling per year, pushing them through with little regulations, and nixed the required townhall meetings.  That was over seven years ago and back then the townspeople were complaining about the lights to me…”You can see those lights in the oil fields from up in the Wind Rivers”.  There’s been a lot of growth since then, so much so that ozone alerts occur regularly in the winter.  They have worse smog/ozone in that area than the whole of  Los Angeles.  Needless to say, I was no longer going to buy property there.  I began looking around Cody and the first thing I asked my realtor was about oil/gas development here.

“The oil fields are all old and pretty much maxed out”, he said.  What he nor I didn’t consider was new technology and the nation’s thirst for energy.

Last summer I drove, quickly, through Pinedale up from the south on my way back from a trip through Big Sandy in the Winds.  Miles of tacky housing fills the once open spaces, probably houses for the workers.  The growth in just the last seven years, or degradation of the environment depending upon how you look at it, is amazing.

“Seventy percent of the Wind River lakes that are more than 9,000 feet have low alkalinity levels, hence they are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of oil, gas, and coal-bed methane development upwind in the Green River Basin and Wyoming Range, which will disgorge a cocktail of toxic fumes into the air twenty-four hours a day for the next fifty to hundred years.  The Wind River Range and its three crown jewels of America’s wilderness system have the misfortune to be immediately downwind.  Air standards already are being violated with only 600 wells in operation–and with 10,000 more planned, pollution can only get worse.”

Our last wild places in the lower 48, where grizzlies can still roam, and pronghorn can still migrate, are being chopped up and compromised.  If this is not an outrage, then we are not awake.

Hear ye, Hear ye, Commissioners:

“When people ask what Wyoming should do with those billions of dollars in mineral royalties left over in the budget, I say: Invest them.  Future generations in this state are going to need more than billions to clean up their wasteland.”–Jack Turner

An Open Letter to the BLM

I decided to publish my letter to the Bureau of Land Management regarding its draft resource management plan.  This is the plan that will determine use for the next 20 YEARS!  Twenty years these days is a very long time, and so many changes will happen that are unforseeable.

The Basin is huge, extending from the Shoshone Forest of the Absarokas on the west side to the base of the Big Horn Mountains on the eastern edge, north to the Montana border and south to Thermopolis.  Predictably, the commissioners of the surrounding counties of the basin are only interested in $$, what they can put in their coffers right now to grow and develop and that means oil and gas leases. They envision Wyoming as the Saudi Arabia of coal, gas, and oil, with cowboy sheiks.  But as Jack Turner so eloquently puts it in ‘Travels in the Greater Yellowstone’:  

Well, I reply, go to Saudi Arabia and take a good look.  Saudi Arabia is butt-ugly from energy development.  Do you want the Yellowstone country to look that way?  I don’t.  And I’m not so sure about those cowboy sheiks, either. The energy companies stand accused of bilking the U.S. Treasury out of billions of dollars–that’s our money for developing our resources on our land, and many of those companies are subsidiaries of foreign corporations whose headquarters are in places like Canada and the Barbados.” 

Weatherman's draw is a beautiful place. Shall we drill here?

The Bighorn Basin, as part of the Greater Yellowstone, belongs to all of us and our voices need to be heard.  We need to preserve the few places left for solitude and natural enjoyments.

Pronghorn migrate and live in the basin. Should we disturb more of their habitat?

 I urge everyone, everywhere in the U.S. to give your comments on this plan at this website.  Your few minutes could make a difference for the next 20 years.

Tipi rings, as well as other Indian signs, are all over the basin from 10,000 years of habitation

Below is my letter to the BLM:

Bighorn Basin RMP and EIS

Bureau of Land Management

Worland Field Office

P.O. Box 119

Worland, WY 82401

Dear Mr. Hiner,

The Big Horn Basin is one of the most unique and special areas in the lower 48.  A traveler can walk the landscape and observe ancient seabed fossils or fossilized bones from extinct animals.  A few steps away are arrowheads or petroglyphs from the earliest Americans 10,000 years ago.  And within view are herds of pronghorn, elk, and maybe a coyote or wolf or a golden eagle.

The Basin is essential to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  It provides migration routes, calving grounds, and a necesssary corridor for resident species to maintain contact with their own kind, ensuring genetic diversity.  The Absaroka-Beartooth Front in particular is a critical component of the GYE.  This portion of the Ecosystem is predicted to be among the most resilient to climate change given the intact nature of the landscape and its topographic variability.

The future of these lands is at risk in so many ways.  Between habitat fragmentation and climate change, real estate development on adjacent lands and overpopulation, we need to ensure that our public lands serve the preservation of the limited amounts of wildlife that are left, most of which are squeezed into the GYE and its corridors.

I have been lucky enough to live in this area and view its abundance, even though, as we all know, so much has been lost over these last 200 years.  And that is really the point: What will we do, as a generation, to ensure that no more is lost?   What we will do so that our children’s children do not say “You once could see sage grouse mating here, but they are now extinct”?

The Big Horn Basin and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem face great challenges ahead, Climate change is a large Unknown and an unpredictable monkey wrench.  Add to that the known factors of endangered or threatened species, plants and animals.  With this in mind, Alternative C is a very dangerous and short-sighted plan.   Alternative C is all about money.  Alternative C values only profit, and what can line someone’s pocket.  One cannot put in the bank the emotional and spiritual value of Land, the sense of awe and wonder, and how much it feeds the soul.  Oil and gas development over the entire basin will compromise not only our water and air, but fragment habitat through roads and intensive use.   We will lose, even if so incrementally that people just forget as a new generation grows up, what we have today.  Memory is short, and what scientists call a shifting baseline has already happened in the Basin.  We need to return our lands to a previous, more healthy baseline, not degrade it further with an open hand to oil/gas development.

In light of these concerns it seems obvious that Alternative B would provide the best safety factor for the future of the Big Horn Basin.  We really do not know what our earth, or this area, will look like in twenty years’ time.  We cannot take into account all the rapid changes we’ll encounter.  We are losing species at an alarming rate that nobody could have predicted thirty years ago.

In terms of specifics of what is most important to me in the Basin:  I spend a lot of time in the winter hiking in the basin, particularly around Oregon Basin and the Badlands of Polecat Bench.  In the spring when the area opens up, I love to hike the Absaroka-Beartooth Front, Chapman Bench and the Clark’s Fork.  I relish observing the fossils and finding tipi rings.  In my day hikes, its now easy to avoid oil/gas development areas.  The Absaroka-Beartooth Front MUST be protected as a Management Area (AFMA).  Its abundance of wildlife, habitat quality, and scenery are unrivaled.  The oil and gas leasing restrictions for this area laid out in Alternative D appear to be impossible to manage given their checker boarded nature.  I feel that the best way the BLM can protect the world-class biological and scenic values of the Absaroka-Beartooth Front is by designating the area as unavailable for oil and gas leasing (Record #4080 alternative B).  I support the creation of the Clarks Fork Canyon ACEC, as well as the creation of the Chapman Bench ACEC (Record #s 7105-113 and #’s 7084-83 alternative B).  These areas are special to me.  Alternative B also provides the most protection for sage grouse leks, something the BLM should implement if they are serious about keeping the bird from becoming listed as endangered. (Record #4120 alternative B).

Additionally, Alternative B is the ONLY proposal that restricts grazing on portions of the Basin.  This is very important.  Cattle are extremely hard on the land, the riparian areas and the plant resources our native wildlife depend on.  We don’t need to allow cattle on all of the Basin as suggested in the other alternatives.  That is management out of the early 1900’s when cattle barons ruled Wyoming.  It’s time we think of the future of our land and begin to create a new paradigm.  It also makes no sense the amount of AUM’s it takes in this desert landscape to support a cow compared with more fertile areas in the eastern U.S where the majority of the beef is produced.  In addition, it’s not fiscally sound. Grazing fees do not cover BLM expenditures for operating the program, and they also fall far short of paying for all the environmental problems this kind of land use causes.  I also find it disturbing that the BLM is actually proposing to weaken grazing regulations for areas previously covered in the Grass Creek RMP—I find this unacceptable.  At the very least I feel that BLM should continue to follow the provisions set forth in the Grass Creek RMP for the Bighorn RMP.  This includes prohibiting livestock grazing in elk parturition habitat during the birthing season. (Record #’s 6275-6282 alternative B).

Recently I went for the first time to Fifteenmile Basin.  I was amazed.  As far as the eye could see was unobstructed wilderness.  No cattle, no oil wells.  A window into the past, I could view a landscape as people did thousands of years ago.  This special place deserves special protections.  Alternative B would create a Badlands special recreation management area and impose a NSO restriction on oil and gas development within the management area.  I feel that this would protect the Fifteenmile Basin so that generations to come can experience the same awe upon viewing this unique landscape (Record #’s 6094-114 alternative B).

May we have the wisdom to protect the last of this Specialness for generations to come.   We have an opportunity to do the best we can for our lands, our wildlife, our grandchildren.

 

Thank you,

 

 

Leslie Patten

15 Mile Basin and the BLM Plan

There is a struggle going on over our federal lands in the Bighorn Basin.  The Bureau of Land Management is taking public comments on their new draft-plan.  This plan will set the guidelines for the next 20 years of land use.  And the struggle, as I see it, is between immediate short-term gratification and greed, and open pristine lands for our wildlife and recreational and contemplative uses for human beings.

The politicians and the oil and gas companies would like the entire Bighorn Basin open to development for the next twenty years.  And as we all have seen, once that open space is gone, its marred forever.  An alternative plan of the BLM’s is for a compromise that protects and makes more pristine areas off-limits, but allows exploration in other areas.

One of these fantastic areas is called 15 mile basin, an area that right now is the largest contiguous space in the basin with no oil/gas leases.  I’d never been there and the Wyoming Outdoor Council and the GYC were sponsoring an overnight with a walk the next day with Rick Dunne, a native seed farmer.

Our leader Rick Dunne

Besides a lot of fun and meeting new people, the area was quite incredible.  Rick mostly explained the geology of the region and the Bighorn Basin in general.  First we spent some time in  Gooseberry Badlands Scenic walk-through.  I’d been there once before, but today the river was running, making this a truly magical area.

Gooseberry creek

Then Rick took us on a 14 mile drive on a 2 track near Squaw Teats, with a quarter mile hike to an overlook.  From there the basin stretched in all its colors and buttes as far as the eye could see without any roads, oil fields, or human structures.  Rick told us that this area was probably rarely seen nor accessible because of the hiking and lack of water.  It was strikingly beautiful.

The Basin--millions of years old

Many people don’t even know about BLM lands.  In the early 1900’s, when the National Parks and National Forests were being created, the Bureau of Land Management was sort of everything left over.  In those early years timber was what was of most interest to a growing country and so the National Forests were created to save our timberlands.  BLM lands usually have high and low desert communities.  These lands have their own beauty and solitude, with delicate ecosystems and unique wildlife.  These lands belong to all of us, just like our Parks and National Forests.  They are not the property of a few commissioners nor of the oil and gas industries.

Because you as an American citizen own these lands, even if you don’t live in the area, you certainly can comment on the proposed draft.  In fact, those comments from the public are really what shapes the plan.  I came to live in Wyoming because I spent every summer hiking in the Wind River Mountains outside of Pinedale.  I wanted to move to that area, until the Jonas Field, a massive oil/gas field.  Now the Pinedale area has more ozone level alerts than Los Angeles (where I grew up.  Pinedale, Wy has more smog than L.A.!!??).

Here is a link

15 Mile Basin overlook

to help you see the BLM plan and comment.  We have till July 20 to have our voices heard.

A Pronghorn struggles to find a place to go under a fence that is not wildlife friendly on BLM lands. He will be greatly impacted by oil/gas fields, new roads and fencing for development.

Goodbye to a long Winter

The snows are melting and although Sunlight creek is still not in the spring run-off phase, you can feel the weather breaking.

Last night it snowed lightly, but today its raining.  It’s a slow warm-up, but it’s coming.  My old neighbor who grew up in this valley tells me this was a normal winter in terms of snowfall, but I suspect its still not as cold as when he was growing up.  His wife says that -25 degrees was regular then.  Not now.

Several years ago I helped an elderly woman stage her landscape in order to sell her home.  Her husband had been a great friend of mine and fellow beekeeper.  Once he died Dorothy packed up the family home and moved to Idaho where her kids were. That was the year I bought my cabin in Wyoming and along with so many other strange coincidences, it turned out her father had been the Chief Engineer in Yellowstone from the spring of 1925 through the spring of 1930.  The last two years he was the Assistant Superintendent at Mammoth under Horace Albright  His name was Merrill Daum and the family had interviewed him and transcribed his memoirs. Dorothy graciously gave me a copy of the section from his time in the Park.  Here are a few of his stories of snow in those days:

There were no concessionaires living in the park in the wintertime.  They closed up everything.  We had to go down to Gardiner and Livingston to do our shopping.  We had cars and oh yes, the road was open.  We only had light snow in that country.  We could keep the road from the park open up to Mammoth with our own equipment, but from there on it was generally open.  They had a train running in there every so often, so many days a week, so we had train service at Gardiner.  So much of that country was rough and hot that the snow was not very thick on it.

I don’t know much about Middle Geyser basin.  It wasn’t a good place to stop and just put a road through to yell at Old Faithful.  That’s where we turned off from and went cross country to the Lake and Canyon or kept on going out to West Yellowstone or to Old Faithful.  We had ten cabins about every ten miles on the ranger patrol station because they would patrol all along that area, especially the southern part of the Park because there might be poachers come in to kill the game.  They’d go around in the winter time on skis.  That’s a long trip around that part.  Down towards the southern entrance there might be ten, twelve feet of snow.  I’ll never forget looking at one of the bridges; there was a stream going under and all that snow on top of the bridge.  One winter the bridge just broke.

The wintertime was mainly spent getting ready for the next year.  Then we had to get ready to remove the snow in the spring.  We started at Cody,Wyoming at the entrance.  About thirty miles from Cody up to the entrance.  We got as far as the Park with snow 12 to 15 to 20 feet deep.  We’d blast it out with TNT which Uncle Sam gave us.  That would start it thawing and then we’d take a big power shovel and shovel the stuff so we had a two-way highway through there to the east entrance of the park.  From there on we’d use our own equipment.  The deep snow was right there at the entrance.  That was the high point.  We’d generally try to get the Park open by the 1st of June.  By the 6th of June we were officially open, I believe. But you couldn’t make some of the interior trips that early.  It would be long in July before you could get away from the snow.

Here is a photo tribute to my 2010-2011 winter in Wyoming.  After this long and snowy winter, I think I am officially a Wyomingite!

The Basin in early winter from Dead Indian

This is a wolf howl machine, an experimental device to see if wolves are in the area

Two wolves side trot down the road

Coyotes on an elk kill

A coyote pair waits their turn on a nearby kill

The Yellowstone migratory herd resides in the valley in winter

Black wolf resting mid-day in the sun after a morning elk meal

Moose stands in deep snow

Sunset in a 2011 winter

After a day of skiing, dog tired


The Old Old Road

I’d heard about the route the early homesteaders and miners took into my valley.  Dead Indian Hill, the only way to get to Sunlight from the plains below, is an 8800’ pass.  It took a good two days to negotiate the trail, essentially an old Indian and game route.

The drainage beginning at lower right of photo and moving up to upper left marks the Old Old road.

The pass at Dead Indian forms a huge windswept meadow.  During the winter, up until quite recently, this area was impassible.  I just recently read a book about a forest service ranger in 1956 living in the valley year round with his family.  On valentine’s day they decided to brave the drive over Dead Indian pass for a get-together dance with other forest service employees.  It took them over 12 hours to get to Cody.   At the pass, they repeatedly had to hook up their come-along to wooden fence posts that weren’t covered by snow, and pull their car out of a drift.

At the top of the pass looking down into the valley, its’ a 2000’ drop, pretty much straight down.  The homesteaders would fell a tree at the top as heavy as their horses could drag, with all its limbs and branches, and chain it to the wagon axle before starting the descent.  This kept the wagon from running away.  I heard you could still see the old logs piled at the bottom of the hill.   Indian hunting parties also used this trail.  In those days thousands of pony tracks and travois marks were still visible.

The timeline was still sketchy for me as to all the road improvements, but I understood that around 1905 some of the residents living north of Dead Indian asked the county to help with improvements on the road.  The spring muds made for a treacherous ride.  The money was approved and a passable upgrade, an actual dirt road instead of a trail, was built, mostly by the residents in the valley.  Painter Ranch pitched in with a four-horse team, a breaking plow, and one man, and Al Beam did the same.  Miners who had claims in the Valley helped blast rocks.  By 1909 the new grade was completed, with a series of switchbacks especially on the lower end of Dead Indian.  This dirt road (with improvements added in the 1930’s) was used for the next 80 years until the early 1990’s when a paved road was constructed.

View of improved 1909 old road

I wanted to walk the old old road.  (I began calling the original game trail ‘the old old road’, while the 1909 road was the ‘old road’) The old 1909 road is easy to find.  It’s still in fair condition.  But the trail is a lot more difficult.  Its been over 100 years since it was used.  A good game trail still runs through the creek drainage and you can see the old old road follows it.  But then the game trail turns southwest up into another drainage.  At that point I couldn’t see where or even how a team of horses could go up the steep hillside.  I decided to head up to the old road.   I had to marvel at all the work.  It really was a pretty good road that required cutting into the hillside some, and all by hand and horsepower.

The old road is now what the game use.  The ‘ponies’ of today was the evidence of hundreds of elk and deer tracks.  I rounded a corner and found an old cow elk winter kill.

I hiked up to a large meadow where the road petered out.  This probably was the end of the 1909 improvements.  From here the old road may have hugged close to the paved road of today.  I headed back down, keeping an eye out for where a wagon might have veered off.  Pretty soon, I came to a gently sloping meadow and followed it, leaving the old road.

The meadow ended by a fairly steep slope, but I could see a series of young trees marking the width of a wagon.  Old ruts were even somewhat visible at times.  This was ‘the beaver slide’, where it got so steep they had to use the logs.

Notice the young trees. This is the view looking up of the beaver slide. Imagine a wagon pulled by a horse team, fully loaded, coming down this steep grade, especially in mud!

I hiked down, following a trail of young trees hugged on either side by mature trees.  Wow, I could barely imagine going down this grade with a team of horses.  At the bottom of the slide, a small meadow opened up above a fork in a dry stream.  This was the fork I missed before, where the drainage splits.  I had read descriptions of taking a drink from a crystal clear stream after the beaver slide, where the logs were unloaded.  This must have been that stream, now gone and dried up.  Lots of old dead trees were scattered around the open area.  I wouldn’t say they were piled, but upon closer inspection you could see they’d been chopped with an ax.  Here it was, the logs that had been cut by those old timers to prevent run-away wagons.

Logs cut with an ax to keep wagons from sliding down hillside

I was surprised how much of an impression this hike made upon me.  I felt the history of the place enacted before me…the cut logs holding back the wagons from tumbling down the hillside; the herculean efforts of these men to build a better and safer road with only man and horse power; the old trail used for thousands of years by Indians on foot and later with their ponies.  Though I was the only one walking these trails today, the stories and ghosts of the past walked beside me.