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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.

 

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ReWilding the Beartooths

It’s happening.  Grizzlies are re-inhabiting the Beartooth Mountains.

grizzly warning sign in the greater yellowstone area

Grizzly warning sign in the lower elevations. Now bears are returning to the high elevation Beartooths

In the last few years, Grizzly activity has increased along the flanks of the Beartooth Front, the southeastern base that nestles the community of Red Lodge and the long north and eastern drainages where berries and other fall foods are abundant. Red Lodge is now getting its share of grizzly bears. But still there were few reports of bear activity in the high alpine forests.

Certainly bears have used the lower drainages on the west side of the Beartooths like Crazy Creek,  Soda Butte, or Lily Lake.  These are low elevations that provided a corridor through Cooke City into and out of the Park.

Years ago I heard of a sow who lost her young cub in the spring to an automobile.  She bawled for a week around the Clay Butte/Beartooth Lake area, looking for her cub.  Yet although I’ve backpacked frequently, and spend a lot of time in the summers day-hiking the western Wyoming side every year, I’ve never seen any bear sign–tracks or scat.

The Beartooths still offer bears great habitat.  The excessive moisture brings a lot of plant food opportunities in the way of grasses, forbs and roots.  And they still have healthy stands of White Bark pines.  White Bark pines in the GYE are 90% dead.

Avalanche Peak, Yellowstone.  Dead whitebark pines

Avalanche Peak, Yellowstone. Dead whitebark pines

The exception to that rule are the Wind River Mountains and the Beartooths.

White Bark pines in the Winds.  Healthy stands

White Bark pines in the Winds. Healthy stands

And those Marmots have traditionally been a favorite protein for bears.

Marmot

Marmot

So when I began my hike today from Hauser Lake down to Stockade Lake, I figured that there were no bears around these parts–especially so high.

Losekamp Lake (around 9600′) sits at the base of Tibbs Butte (10,676′).  Grizzly bear watchers will tell you that these bears mysteriously disappear around the 4th of July.  For years no one knew where they went, until a pilot flying over high talus slopes in the mid-80s saw bears congregating there.  These bears were taking advantage of Army Cutworm moths who feed on alpine plants and summer here.  My understanding is that the Beartooths, although high and abundant in these talus slopes, do not have moth sites, although the Wind Rivers does.

Losekamp and Stockade lakes are rarely visited, being on the less popular southern side of the highway.  I was alone on my walk.  Koda and I made our way down to Stockade Lake, where I tooled around for a bit looking for an elusive Sheep Eater trap I was told was once there.

Stockade at stockade lake

Stockade at stockade lake

Stockade Lake

Stockade Lake, Beartooths, WY

With little wind and mosquitos too thick for a lunch break, we headed back towards Losekamp lake.  Koda a bit ahead, went off the trail about 10′ to smell something behind a boulder.  All of a sudden he growled–a sure sign of an animal he got scared of–and I looked up to see a sleepy bear rise from the boulder.  I quickly called Koda back, and grabbed my bear spray.  We stopped for a moment to access.  The bear, surprised and probably a bit scared himself, immediately began eating, displacing his fear to food.  He seemed sleepy and not about to run away, nor be aggressive.  He pondered us.

Young bear

Young bear

Grizzly bear

A young grizzly, probably just kicked out this year, I did wonder if his mama was around.  Lucky for us she was no where to be seen.  I gave the bear a big berth, going off and around the trail, while talking to him gently, apologizing for waking him up.

Most grizzly encounters end this way, with the bear usually running off. A few weeks ago around my area, Koda alerted me to a grizzly that was also sleeping by the trail, awakened by our presence.  Koda kept by my side, and the griz, about 200′ away, pondered us for a moment, then ran off.  Dogs will alert you and keep you safe if they are well-mannered and under good voice control.  A dog that runs all over the hills and is not very responsive poses a grave danger for a person, as the dog might bring the bear back to you in his fear, with the grizzly following.   The best book to read for safety with grizzlies is Hiking with Grizzlies by Tim Rubbert, or watch online The Edge of Eden: Living with Grizzlies with Charlie Russell and observe Charlie’s body posture when dealing with bears and using bear spray.  Stay away from those books about Grizzly attacks.  It’s like reading a book about fatal car accidents instead of actually learning how to drive safely.

Robin egg, hatched

Robin egg, hatched

Upon returning to the car at the trailhead, I stopped at the Top of the World Store to deliver some of my Wild Excellence books.  I told Kristi Milam, the owner, about my bear experience and she told me there’s been a lot more sightings this year than ever before.

One other note on the Beartooths:  it’s becoming an excellent place to possibly see, or hear, wolves.  I’ve been seeing tracks of the Beartooth pack around this same area for weeks, as well as Clay Butte and lower elevations like Crazy Creek drainage.  Wolves were spotted up at Top Lake just weeks ago in the meadows. Elephant's head

With Grizzly Bears and wolves returning to the Beartooths, they are finally re-wilding.  Carry bear spray and be safe.

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.