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Big Horns, Medicine Wheel, and the Pryors

Last week I took off for a few days and went to the Big Horns.  I intended to go for 3 days, but got rained out on the second evening.  I had been to the Pryors a few days before, and was quite taken with the area so I wanted to explore it more.  The Pryors are sacred to the Crow Indians.  Part of the land is on Crow Reservation and not accessible to the public.  Some of the mountains are in Montana, and some in Wyoming, with a section of it reserved for Wild Horses.  The entire area is considered a Wilderness Study Area, which means that it’s pending designated Wilderness.  Rarely visited, its a special place.  There are some old uranium mines there and mining claims.

Since Day 1 was really hot, I decided to backtrack to the Pryors and head first for the Big Horns.  My main intention was to go to The Medicine Wheel.   This is a holy site for many Plains Indians tribes.  Its a place of pilgrimage.

Entrance to Medicine Wheel

Signage at the site notes that some people can prepare for a year before making the trip.  A young Forest Ranger was stationed at the Wheel to make sure there was no vandalism, and if Native Americans wanted to go inside, he had a key.  When ceremonies are conducted, the site is closed to tourists.

He told me that years ago, before there was such tight control, tourists (not Native Americans) would take home rocks from the structure as souvenirs. In fact, he said, the height of the circle of rocks was 2′ or 3′ taller than it is today.

I was reminded that in Uluru, tourists sometimes take home pieces from the sacred site.  There is a large collection of rocks that were mailed back to Uluru because tourists went home and felt they were brought bad luck, bad karma, or whatever, from taking souvenirs from the site.Medicine Wheel signageI circumambulated the Wheel three times and left a small gift at the East facing entrance.  Its a wonderful and mysterious place.  Some say it was constructed by Sheepeaters.

From there I took the Jaws hike down a beautiful canyon opposite the Wheel.  I saw several moose and deer with their antlers in velvet.

The jaws hike

The jaws hike

Along the canyon hike

Along the canyon hike

The next day I went to the Pryors.  It was overcast and drizzling, perfect weather for hiking in this exposed country.  The Pryors were an ancient Indian route through the Big Horn Canyon.  There are many spots right along the main road of the Recreation Area with teepee rings.  Instead of going along the main road, I took a 4×4 track.

Pryor Mountain Wild Horse RangeThe Pryors

Koda matches

Koda matches

On the way out I encountered a mama wild turkey on her clutch of eggs.Wild Turkey on eggs

Wild turkey eggs

Only the wind sang

Yesterday I met Larry Todd over at the Dead Indian Campground site.  Larry is an archaeologist working mostly in the Greybull area.  I contacted him several months ago because he was in charge of the dig in the ’80’s at the Bugas-Holding site, a Shoshone winter campground 400 years old.  I had many questions, and Larry graciously invited me to walk around the Dead Indian site with him after he finished an outing there with Cody Middle School.

Next to a creek and protected by mountains, Dead Indian is a 5000 year old winter campground site that had continuous use.  It is one of three archaeological sites in the Cody area on the National Historic Landmarks, the other two being the Horner site and Mummy Cave.  Larry explained that some areas were early Archaic, some middle, and some late, depending upon the topography.  The lower levels around the creek were the latest periods.  He said that when they began work, the entire area had so many artifacts they had to choose specific areas to concentrate on.  The work was done in the 70’s, before he was around to participate.

Topography of the mountains around Dead Indian Historic Landmark

Topography of the mountains around Dead Indian Historic Landmark

We walked over to a large plateau, an early Archaic period.  Larry painted a picture of a campsite with upwards of several hundred people, living in family groups–a small Wyoming town so to speak.  People living in pit houses that came here winter after winter to hunt the game that was plentiful.  Mostly deer and sheep were killed at this site.  Their tools were made from local materials, sharp and new in the fall, but dulled by spring through continuous retooling.  By spring it was time to gather and trade for new raw materials for arrowheads and other necessities.

Looking into Dead Indian Valley

Looking into Dead Indian Valley

In this early Archaic period, the big game were gone and more intensive hunting and gathering was necessary  for the equivalent quality of nutrition.  People were settling down for longer periods and returning to the same sites. Deer, much easier to herd and more predictable than elk, were the main large food source, along with sheep.  At Dead Indian, large ceremonies were conducted in honor of this food source.

Larry told me that the Bugas-Holding site was like a still image.  It was used for the duration of one winter only.  Here at Dead Indian the story was more like a novel, with many chapters.  He thought Dead Indian might have gone through periods of heavy use and lighter use.  Having been used continuously for so long, probably many different periods of histories and stories had taken place here.

Slot Canyon in Dead Indian

Slot Canyon in Dead Indian

Dead Indian Creek and slot canyon

Dead Indian Creek and slot canyon

Larry talked about the interactions between the land and the peoples.  By the time Lewis and Clark appeared–what we mark as the first interactions with white men in the West–many Native Americans had already been decimated by disease and the landscapes they had shaped were already changed.  The wilderness white people saw at that time was imprinted in their minds as what the land always was. But really it was just a snapshot.   To live winter after winter in these mountains takes an enormous amount of religious, and traditional, training and knowledge.  These practical skills are a cultural phenomenon, passed on generationally.  Thousands of years of accumulated wisdom had been decimated through disease and warfare in a short time.  Larry thought that by the time Lewis and Clark came, enough of that knowledge had been wiped out so that fewer and fewer people could live in these mountains.  The land itself had changed in response. What white men saw as wilderness, was a degeneration of the land through non-use.

Our idea of wilderness is non-use.  Looking east across Yellowstone lake in winter

Our idea of wilderness is non-use. Looking east across Yellowstone lake in winter

I mentioned that in Australia, after 60,000 years of aboriginals working the land with fire, botanists weren’t sure if the plants had adapted to fire because of human intervention or vice versa.  He told me that Bison antiquus was a good example of that here.  Bison antiquus, the ancestor of our modern Bison, was much larger than today’s Bison and died out about 10,000 years ago.  The theory goes that the smaller, lighter, and more streamlined buffalo could run faster, giving them a decided advantage from the top predator, man.

Modern day bison

Modern day bison

As we walked around the site, Larry bent down and showed me how almost every square inch, to the trained eye, contained evidence of habitation.  Chippings from chert, quarzite, chalcedon, pieces of bone, a sheep vertebrae–all this he found within a few square feet.  I hadn’t seen anything until he pointed it all out.  I could feel the vibrancy of the culture once there.  We talked about fire and how it can clear a site. He said that a fire can come through, clear all the duff and topsoil, and the site is exposed just how it was left thousands of years before, including fire pits, chippings and all.

“Its like someone’s found an original map or book that’s going to unlock all these new secrets.  But before we even have a chance to organize and fund an archaeological expedition, the looters are there within weeks, days.  The site is stripped and the information is lost forever.”

We walked back to the road while Larry told me a story about Bison, his specialty.  He said that Native Americans didn’t always use all the meat.  It was common to just take the prime parts after a kill.  One time he was talking with a Blackfoot elder about ancient hunting methods.  When he came to the part about how they left parts of the kill, a student listening nearby said “They wasted parts.”

“Would you take all of it?” asked the elder.  “Would you be that greedy?”

The student replied, “I wouldn’t waste anything.  I’d take it all.”

“You whites are so greedy.  You wouldn’t leave any meat for your brothers–the wolf, coyote, raven.”

I looked back at the site.  Only the wind sang.  I tried to imagine what once was.

Ancient Wisdom

Winter is the most incredible time here in the valley.  There are just a few permanent residents.  Most of the human activity involves the students monitoring elk and wolves.   Sometimes there are helicopter captures and darting.  Yesterday I observed elk being darted for blood samples, fat content, and other indicators.  We’re on the ground calling up to the helicopter the elk locations by radio, while there’s a low flying plane above with the GPS coordinates.  The helicopter deftly flies in, keeping the elk from running either into the trees or into Wilderness areas.  The elk are running like crazy, trying to figure out which way to go.  When they go in one direction, the helicopter swoopes over them and they need to turn around.  They look like a flock of starlings turning in synchronicity.   This kind of work is only done twice a year.  Its tremendously expensive and requires a lot of coordination between many agencies.  The planes are government.  The helicopter is a private company with expert Kiwis, the best in the world.

Elk in my Valley

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The Dreaming

This winter I went to Australia with my son.  Its the perfect place for a California Landscape Designer to explore, as its just one of the five Mediterranean climates around the world.  I use a lot of the plant material from there, and to see these plants in their native environments is interesting and instructive.

I was in Australia for several months over twenty years ago, so this was my second visit.  I planned to go back to Sydney (I almost moved there 20 years ago), then venture up to the Daintree, the world’s oldest tropical rainforest and a UNESCO site (north of Cairns) and then to Atherton Tablelands wetlands retreat in a savannah ecosystem.  My son has a teacher from Australia who said “You MUST go to Uluru.”  I hadn’t planned to go there.  I knew about Ayers Rock for a long time.  It’s a long trek, by plane or otherwise, to see ‘just a rock’ I thought.  Besides, I live in a most beautiful place, surrounded by magnificent mountains and rock features, geysers and wildlife.  I’ve visited many deserts and spent a lot of time in Death Valley and Joshua Tree.  What could one rock in the middle of the country possibly hold for me?

My travel agent also brought up the idea, and since we were in Australia over Christmas and many places were shut down for several days, Uluru seemed like a likely ‘detour’ during that lull.  We were to be there for a day and a half and then drive to Alice Springs.  But the holiday put a wrench in the travel plans…ferries didn’t run, planes had restricted schedules, etc…so we spent an extra day in Uluru/Kata Tjuta area.  It wasn’t till later that I realized things had conspired to bring us there for a fuller experience.

Uluru

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