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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.

Clark’s Fork hike and the vilified wolf

The dump is just up the road about 20 minutes.  Its an auxiliary dump, meaning its for locals and basically a large canister with a locked fence around it.  The whole idea is to prevent bears from getting in, and to help locals with their trash and bear management.  Last year though I did see a horse that was dumped off there outside the bear management fence.  Although the bears couldn’t get into the trash, they sure did get into the horse, along with the wolves.

I really don’t know many people up in the Crandall area yet, nor do I know too many of the hikes.  I hiked with the wolf study gals last fall there a lot, but mostly that was through brush directly to GPS sites where their collared wolf had lingered for more than an hour.

So I stopped and introduced myself at the Hunter Peak Ranch.  Its an old dude ranch that now mostly houses guests and horsebackriding.  The owner, Shelley Cary, was very gracious and I talked for a while with her and her family.  They serve dinner to guests and outsiders with advance notice.  Something good to know for any guests I have.  They also had some great ancient photos on the walls of homesteaders from the Crandall area.  Several names I’d heard of.  One of them, Norman  and Mrs. Dodd, homesteaded in my area.  Apparently people always had to refer to Norman’s wife as Mrs. Dodd.  They lived ten hard miles from the meeting house, which was a one room schoolhouse, and came by a team of mules pulling a buckboard.  Another photo was of the old post office, a long wooden building in disrepair.

I took a short 5 mile hike along the Clark’s Fork trailhead. The Clark’s Fork trail is well marked and well used by horses.  Its in open sagebrush, so if a hiker does encounter a bear, there’d be plenty of room to move.

Geum triflorum.  Prairie Smoke

Geum triflorum. Prairie Smoke

Claytonia lanceolata.  Spring beauties.  Edibles.  Purslane family

Claytonia lanceolata. Spring beauties. Edibles. Purslane family

I’ve been on this trail before and knew of a wonderful secret spot where the river drops into a gorge.

Lunch spot

Lunch spot

I wandered off-trail to the waterfall.

Allium.  Wild onion. Spicy addition to lunch.

Allium. Wild onion. Spicy addition to lunch.

There was plenty of moose sign in the willows around the river, as well as a pair of nesting ospreysKoda and I sat and hung with the fish hawks for a while.  The female was sitting on her nest, although she took some time out to try and scare me off.  The male sat nearby with a piece of fish in his talons.

Female sitting on her nest

Female sitting on her nest

Male osprey nearby nest, with fish in talons

Male osprey nearby nest, with fish in talons

There’s always a plethora of anti-wolf talk in our area.  Besides aggrieved hunters and ranchers, I once talked with a woman whose parents ran an outfitting company.  She was only 16 and hated wolves.  She told me a story about how they had taken their supplies in the fall up to a campsite in anticipation of bringing some hunters up there the next day.  They’d left three dogs with the supplies, alone, overnight, way up near the Yellowstone border.  This was something they were used to doing, for years.  But this year was different.  When they returned the following day, one of their dogs had been killed by wolves.

After lunch, on the way back to the trail, I ran into a fellow resting his horse.  I introduced myself and found out he was a local.

“Find any horns?” he asked.

Horns refers to antlers.  People around here spend lots of time looking for antler sheds in the spring.  They can be worth big money.

“Nope, wasn’t looking for any.” I replied.  “But I did find a pair of nesting ospreys and moose sign.”

“I saw four wolves up on table mountain.  They’ll eat your dog, you know.  Just like that.”

“Yep, that’s why I keep him on that electronic collar.  We have an agreement he and I.  I protect him from wolves and he watches for bears.”

“Those frickin’ wolves, they’ve ruined everything.  There used to be so many bull elk here.  I wish they’d never put them here.”

“I like them.”

“They’re everywhere.  They ran after an elk right through the trailer park the other day.”

I didn’t think he heard me so I said it again.  “I like them here.”

“There’s no more moose anymore.  They’re history.  They’ve frickin’ ruined it all.  Things used to be good.”

“I seem to be seeing a lot of moose this year.  Maybe their numbers are coming back.”

“Oh, where you live maybe, but not here.  Wolves have ruined it all.  Last year we found three bull elk kills up Crandall creek.  They just hone in and kill them.  There’s no more left around here.”

I didn’t bother to tell him that I knew the elk study coordinator had hiked up there this winter and taken samples of the bull kills he’d seen.  He said their marrow was like jelly, an indicator of poor health.  I mentioned all the grizzlies in the area.

“Oh, those grizzlies don’t do much.  Its those damn wolves.”

That’s a typical conversation I’ve had many times.  There is a lot of animosity and anger about the wolf introduction.  These are people who live on the land and know the land, at least in a certain way.  They know where the wolves are denning even though the Game & Fish keep it secret.  They see grizzlies when they’re out. They feel comfortable in the outdoors, but they have been used to not having wolves around for a very long time.  And they resent having to take them into account now.

Its a most controversial matter, wolves.  I tend to be on the side of the wolves, but I also am sympathetic towards the ranchers.  I feel that its’ important to work with ranchers and begin to develop practices that protect their livelihood.   I also know that these large ranches are one of the last ways we can protect the land here.  If the ranches and ranchers are not taken into account, if they loose their land, then those large tracts will be sold and chopped up for development.  That in itself is even more of a death blow to wildlife, especially grizzlies and wolves.  New ranching management practices are critical for wildlife protection as well.  As one of the wolf researchers said to me last year “Something’s got to change. There’s just too much killing going on” in reference to all the wolves killed by Wildlife Services in retaliation for calf predation. (For a video of wolves in my valley, click here)

Wolf on carcass

Wolves on carcass

In contrast, I was reading in the Wind River Reservation Wolf Management Plan about how some of the elders of the tribe view wolves.  There is controversy on the reservation as well, the report says, because many Native Americans have livestock.  But there is magic, wisdom, and most importantly, respect, communicated in their ancient views.   Here is an excerpt from that report.

Traditional views recognize wolves as kin, as strong, as deserving of respect and placed here by the Creator for a purpose. The Shoshone word for wolf means “big coyote.” Wolves lived a long time, were very smart and observant, and listened well. When wolves appeared in a vision, one was to follow what the wolf showed you. The wolf was secretive and special and used to talk with people through telepathy. Wolves were helpers. Wolves were sacred and to be left alone, however sometimes people had to kill them. People were to be careful around them. Wolves could teach virtuous things to people. They were an example of how to care for family members because they took good care of the young as well as the old. The packing behavior of wolves showed people that they should not go out hunting alone. Wolves also showed people to use the entire game animal (the meat, bones, hooves, marrow, skin, etc.) – not to waste any of it. Wolves wandered to wherever the food was, like earlier people did. They did not know boundaries. Now wolves are being confined to certain areas like Native Americans have been confined to Reservations.Gray wolf

Chief Standing Bear and Grandpa

My neighbor JB was born in 1924 in my valley down by the Clark’s Fork.  His parents’ homestead is in a unique and beautiful hollow below the main road.  From this hidden depression, you can look out over the meadow where their horses graze and view Bald Ridge directly on.The flats above the gorge of the Clarks Fork

Bald Ridge

Yesterday it was snowing so I went to visit JB.  He told me this story:

My grandfather was born in Nebraska.  When he was just nine years old, he was playing and broke his leg.  His father was a hard man and beat him for that.  My grandpa swore to himself that when he got better he was going to run away and he did, at 10 years old.  He and a friend were catching rides on freighters going down river, going West.  They hitched a ride on a wagon that was attacked by Indians.  The Indians killed everyone in that wagon train, including his friend, but my grandpa hid in a flour drum.  The flour was in 55 gallon drums and he hid behind one.   The Indian Chief and his wife found the boy and the Chief’s wife took pity on him.  They took him back to the tribe and raised him with their own child, which I think was a girl.  That Chief was Standing Bear.  My Grandpa lived with them for 5 years. Chief Standing Bear--I think its this one.

The Indians liked to gamble and compete.  There was one boy the same age as my grandfather who didn’t get along with him at all.  When my grandpa was 15, this boy challenged my grandfather to a horse race.  Grandfather was an excellent horseman and he was winning.  The Indian boy was mad and pulled out a knife.  Grandpa knocked that boy down, off his horse, and I think he killed him.  Or hurt him badly.  No, I think he killed him, but it was kill or be killed.

The whole tribe had a meeting.  Since my grandfather was white, they banished him.  Chief Standing Bear and his wife took my grandpa in the middle of the night, on horseback, and told him he should leave and go far away; far enough away so no one in the tribe would come after him.  The chief told him that he would always love him and think of him as a son, strong, brave and worthy to become a chief, but that now he must go.

Photo of Chief and family from the Buffalo Bill Historical Center

Photo of Chief and family from the Buffalo Bill Historical Center

Grandpa came out to this country and spent time here with the Shoshone as well.  He was working at Pahaska Teepee taking people into the Park when Buffalo Bill came out here.

It is true he had a wooden leg.  He was logging and in an accident.  His leg broke, a clean break right here (points to below his knee).  He knew how to set bones and had set many breaks on other people. But they took him to a doctor who cut off his leg at the knee.  That shouldn’t have been.  He’d wear lots and lots of socks over that peg to cushion it against his knee.  But he could do anything he wanted with that leg.

He lived near the mouth of the Clarks Fork.  One time us kids were down there visiting.  My sister was taking a nap in the house and all of us other kids were down at the river swimming and fishing.  Grandpa was working in his shop nearby.  In those days there was lots of sheet lightening in this country.   My sister had just gotten up from her nap and was coming down to the river, when lightening struck the house.  You couldn’t do nothing.  In an instant, the entire house was in flames.  My grandpa thought my little sister was still in the house.  You should’ve seen him run with that peg leg!

I went to live with my grandpa when I was about 12.  I had a hard time finishing up those last two years of school between the 6th and 8th grades.  I did graduate though.  I only went till 8th grade.  Sometimes I was on the other side of the mountain going to school there.  They had a better teacher.  Sometimes I had to come back home and go to school here.  There were only 3 students here and all that teacher was interested in was the ranch hands. All that back and forth on foot and horseback over Dead Indian.  There wasn’t a real good road in those days, all dirt.  The old road went straight down the mountain.  From Cody it took four stout horses to pull an empty wagon up the hill most of the day. When you got to the top of Dead Indian, a man put a roughlock shoe on his hind wheels which kept them from turning.  Then he cut a tree, left all the branches on it, and chained it behind the load.  Then he headed straight down the hill, praying that his leaders would outrun his wheelers.Atop Dead Indian.  Strap a log behind the wagon to go downhill

Grandpa had really strong hands, all his life.  It was because he had spent so much time driving teams of horses.  You have to hold those reins between each finger and use your hands to hold back the horses.  He drove hay and other goods for a living.  I think he had done just about everything.  He was an excellent blacksmith and made all his tools.

It was a good story for a snowy day.  I thought about how I was just one hair’s breath away from Chief Standing Bear.  How less than a hundred years ago men knew how to do everything in order to survive–how to set a bone, fire and hammer out their tools, drive a team of horses.  I thought how our lives had become so quickly removed from those generations– so flaccid with the advent of electricity, large machinery, computers, phones–and wondered how much lore and skills have already been buried forever.

When I talk story with JB, I can feel him reaching back in his mind.  He has an impeccable memory for details. His stories contain names and dates.  He might have only an 8th grade education, but his powers of observation far surpass many I’ve met with college degrees.  I get him to tell me stories.  I write them down.  I listen.  They need to be re-told.

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.

The First Peoples here

Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has two premier archaeological sites, both on the eastern side.  One is Mummy Cave located between Cody and Yellowstone; the other is Dead Indian Campground, located along Chief Joseph Scenic Highway north of Cody.  Mummy Cave is a well-preserved site showing evidence up to 9000 years old.  It is well-known and much talked about.

On the other hand, Dead Indian site is difficult to find much information about.  The site butts up against the road, near the Dead Indian Campground.  It was discovered when someone noticed bones and artifacts slumping into the creek and a dig was lead by George Frison of The University of Wyoming beginning in 1969 and continuing through 1971. According to Frison’s Survival by Hunting, the Dead Indian site is around 4000 years old and probably a large winter campsite.

Another premier site nearby is the Bugas-Holding site.  The area is meadow, aspens, and next to the creek.  This site also was a large winter campsite where both Bighorn Sheep and Buffalo were taken.  Bugas-Holding site

In order to find out more about the Dead Indian site, I went to the Cody library and was lucky enough that they had a copy of the Wyoming Archaeologist from the 70’s when the site was excavated.  The local chapter had done the dig with help from Frison.  The frayed paperbound copy was the technical report of the findings.

Walking around the site now, my untrained eye would never know there had been a dig.  The teepee rings are no longer visible.  The only evidence I saw was a single small 1/8″ size obsidian chip.  The area though, is a perfect campsite.  It has a fairly large and flat meadow right near the creek.  It is east enough of the Absarokas that the snow accumulation is less than farther up Dead Indian drainage.  It is protected from wind and has areas for lookouts.  And it is along a major route through the Park and into the desert below.

In the dig they found antlers of mule deer laid out in ceremonial fashion.  A skeleton of a small child was uncovered.  Over 500 projectile points and hundreds of stone tools were unearthed.  It seems that mostly what these people killed and ate were mule deer and mountain sheep.  Even though they lived here during the winter, few elk were uncovered which suggests the populations of  large mammals was very different then.  George Frison thinks hunting was done singly or in a group, rather than using large scale trapping.

Just around the corner over at Bugas-Holding, mostly Buffalo and sheep were found.  The sheep were probably taken in traps right near the site.  The site is on private property but a short jaunt over the hills and there are numerous sheep traps, close enough to bring back kill to the campground.  An easy walk above the site and you can view the entire valley, east to west; a perfect place for a lookout.  Looking up the valley from the siteLarge obsidian flaking sites are around these hillsides.  It seems that this site was later than the Dead Indian and they did use large scale trapping.

George Frison wonders, and so do I, why these peoples would overwinter in and around 7,000′, when they could have easily gone down to the Big Horn Basin at around 5000′ where there is less snow cover.  He suggests the abundance of winter hunting.  You also have to wonder if the climate was different then as well.The creek in winterAs I find out more about what went on in this area east of Yellowstone, I’ll let you know.  To imagine this was a major route through the Park, and a large scale occupation area–well, its very quiet here now.  Few people live here year round; most choose to live in the lower elevations nearby.   People hunt here now, but the people who hunted here in the past also did ceremony to their prey.  When I happen to find a small piece of evidence, like a sheep trap or a piece of obsidian, there is a bit of wonder and mystery about it–and sadness.  Some principal piece that went on here for thousands of years is gone forever.

The Thompson Cabin

A few summers ago,  my cabin’s original owners’ son, T___, came visiting from West Virginia.  He is a surveyor and had some maps of the Clark’s Fork Canyon.Clarks Fork's Canyon with Sunlight Falls

“There’s a box canyon over here”  he pointed out, “with an old cabin sitting by the river.  They call it ‘the Thompson Cabin’ cause old man Thompson lived there in the 1880’s.  Well, that’s the story I heard.  They say he trapped and made moonshine.  That once a year he took his furs on his mules, and went over Dead Indian pass into Cody.  He’d take them to the trading post and while they decided on what to give him, he’d go drink his money away.”

T___ didn’t have time to hike to the cabin, but he gave me a good idea where it might be.  Following his map, the box canyon was easy to find.  The cabin sat on the other side of the river, which was low enough to cross by way of deadfall.  Thompson Cabin

The cabin itself was awfully small.  The windows were gone of course, but the frames were nailed with square nails.  The locals and kids had camped and left bottles there over the years, but a depression still marked the old root cellar.  It was just hard for me to imagine living in such a small little box.  It gave me great respect for those old-timers.Square nails in the window frameDepression at the back is the cellar

Thompson had situated his cabin on the south side of Dead Indian Creek which made sense, because in winter and spring the creek would be hard to cross.  I’m not exactly sure the path he took his horses or mules, but I could scramble up the hillside and be close to the main road.  Of course, there wasn’t a road then, but the road that’s there now follows fairly closely old Indian trails over the pass to Cody or up towards the Park.

I told my friend JB about it.  He’s the old man who grew up in the valley.

“Thompson, I remember him from when I was a kid.  My grandfather used to go visit him.  Thompson would invite him for dinner.  One day he was helping wash the dishes, when Thompson took the dishrag and blew his nose in it. ‘Time to leave’ my grandpa said.”

“Thompson had a big garden there.  He grew potatoes, and carrots, watermelons and lettuce.  Then he’d take his fare up to Cooke City to sell.  Took him two days by horseback.”

Sometimes I run into old cabins.  Once I ran into one in the Beartooths at Stockade Lake, probably an old forest service cabin.  There’s some at the end of my valley that were old mining cabins in the early 20th century.  I know the old ones in Yellowstone are usually destroyed when they’re found.  But the Thompson cabin held an interesting history for me, and at least one that I heard some yarns about.Old miners cabin from early 20th century

I like the area the cabin is in and hike there frequently. Nearby, I found a rose quartz vein and an eagle feather.

On the other side of the river, there’s a small flat open plateau, and that’s where the magic resides.  Its sunny and peaceful.  I like to go over there and explore the cliffs and look under the trees.  Then I heard from another local that the plateau is an old Indian winter campground and he’d found arrowheads there. I supposed I like it for the same reason the Sheepeaters liked it and old man Thompson liked it.  Besides being protected from the wind and snow, having year round water, safety from enemies,  good trapping and fishing, easy trail access– it just has a good feeling.

Coyotes and Communists

Oregon Basin is sagebrush desert surrounded by sandstone formations outside of Cody.  It’s desert hiking with so many things to explore.  I’ve only been there a few times.  Its a maze of BLM dirt roads, mostly used for oil and gas explorations.  One of the oldest oil fields in Wyoming, coal was also mined here from the late 1890’s to the 1940’s.   Old mines and buildings can still be found. But long before all of this, Native Americans camped and hunted in the basin.

On one of my few explorations here last year, a friend took me to a petroglyph site.  We drove through barbed wire gates, mile upon mile of windy dirt roads, past working derricks, until we parked alongside an abandoned coal mine.  We walked around a sandstone ridge to a small box canyon.  Protected from wind, it was the perfect campsite.  That’s where the petroglyphs were, along with a giant rattlesnake.  Sadly, many of the glyphs were defaced and beer bottles and trash was strewn around.Oregon Basin, Cody

I really like exploring the desert and its formations.  W__  spent 20 years hiking the basin and surrounding badlands.  Today we turned off onto a dirt road from the Meeteetse Hwy.  Someone had been killing coyotes and dumping them there.  Two fresh kills  attracted several Golden Eagles that flew off as we drove bye.  More old coyote carcasses were strewn along the way.  Coyotes rank as predator status.  That’s the status that Wyoming wants for wolves, which means it’s legal anytime to shoot the animal on sight.

I asked W__ why someone would be shooting coyotes around the basin.  There’s no sheep here anymore, just cattle at certain times of the year.

“Because its something to do”, he answered.  “Someone is baiting around here, so watch your dog.  There’s traps.  Do you know what a coyote trap looks like.”

I told him I didn’t.  W__said that by law a trapper is supposed to hang a sign, like a rabbit’s foot, by the trap.  We hiked over the hill and alongside a sandstone ledge.  Almost immediately he said “Here, I’ll show you what to look for” and took me over to a small overhanging rock with a 2×4 piece of wood half buried.  Attached to the wood were two wires.  “This is what they wire their traps to.  I stepped in one once.  They didn’t sign it, and it was half buried in snow.  Luckily, it didn’t get much of my foot and I could wiggle out.”  I tore the wires away from the wood and tossed them.

We talked for a while about random coyote killing with no reason.  W__is my philosopher and preacher friend.  “Always gotta have something to blame your troubles on.  Used to be the ‘communists’.  When I first came to Wyoming, everything you didn’t like got blamed on the communists.  When that went away, it became the coyotes.  With the sheep industry mostly gone, now its the wolves.”

I told him a story about my old neighbor, JB.  Only a few days ago we were talking about something contentious, maybe the economy, when suddenly he said “Its the communists.  They’re the ones doing all this.”  I was certainly puzzled.  Then he looked me dead in the eye and asked “You’re not a communist, are you?”  I had to laugh.  I’ve been accused of a lot of things, but that was so ’50’s!

We walked around ledges, exploring all the niches.  Koda kept busy looking for jackrabbits.  Rabbit scat seemed to cover every inch of the desert.

“I’ve found a few arrowheads in the Basin.  Once I found a scraper.  Never found that much though.”  We came across a ‘boneyard’, an area with a large scattering of small bones from jackrabbits, gophers, and mice.  W___ pointed out a ledge that contained a small cave that looked like a coyote had set up camp there in the past.  I found a perfect gopher skull inside.Sandstone formations

With the desert sun warming and the ground was free of snow, we choose a windless large smooth boulder for a lunch spot.  I passed some time picking sticky bentonite clay from my boot soles.   In the distance, a herd of pronghorn lazed and ate.   I’d just watched an episode last week of Wyoming’s Congresswoman, Cynthia Lummis, tell Stephen Colbert that the Pronghorn is the world’s fastest animal.  Colbert made a big deal out of correcting her, saying that the Cheetah is the fastest.  But in a sense they were both right.  Those Pronghorn can sprint as fast as 60 mph and sustain a speed of 30 mph for miles.  Cheetahs sprint faster but flag out after a few hundred yards.

When I first got here, people told me Pronghorn were related to goats.  They’re not.  In fact, they’re not antelope either. They’re completely their own thing.  Antilocapra americana are the sole surviving member of a family dating back 20 million years, which means they’re an ancient animal.  They don’t quite fit into any category.  They have horns that are somewhere between antlers and horns,  that shed and are branched; they lack dew claws, and  can pick up movement 4 miles away. They are super fast and love a good race.  There are many stories of them racing cars at 60 mph and beating them.    At one time they were probably as numerous as the bison, and were slaughtered at the same time.  Today most Pronghorn live in Wyoming and Montana, and probably total around one million.  Male Pronghorn

We  headed back towards the car and I picked up a small old pronghorn horn.  I dropped W__off and did some shopping in Cody.  In the health food store, I noticed at the counter there was notice urging me to call my congressperson about a bill to make organic farming illegal.  The sheet said that Monsanto, the GMO giant, was behind the bill.  I talked with the store owner about it.

“Its’ outrageous.”  he said.  I agreed.  Monsanto are corporate crooks, I added.

“You know who it is, don’t you.”  He looked at me perfectly seriously and said, ” It’s the communists.”

And even I started to think, “Maybe its the communists who were killing those coyotes.”

The bighorn sheep of Little Bald Ridge

The ranch manager told me yesterday that the three wolves who were shot last summer for cattle predation were terribly mangy.  Mange is the latest big problem with wolves in the GYC.  Mange is a mite that burrows into the skin of an animal, causing it to scratch.  It doesn’t kill the wolf, but in a harsh winter they can die with the thin coat.  I heard that mange was brought into this country early last century to kill coyotes but I haven’t been able to verify that.  One of the interns told me he thought that if a wolf can make it through one winter with the mite, he’ll do o.k. after that.  Maybe some kind of resistant or tolerance occurs.

Last summer I did have a fairly close encounter with a wolf.  That black wolf was beautiful and fluffy; no mange there.  I was walking through a lightly wooded area off-trail when my dog stopped about 8 feet in front of me and stared at something in a shallow gully off to my left.  The whole scene took place so fast I barely had time to register what was happening.  I looked to my left and saw a smallish black animal, about the size of my dog but fluffier, about 12 feet away.  I thought it was a small black bear.  By the time I realized it was a wolf (about a millisecond later!),  my dog was gone.  Usually I carry an electric zapper on my dog for just these occasions, but the zapper was still in California from my move.

I think my incessant screaming, and the fact that that wolf was a lone yearling, scared that wolf so much that she ran off, but not before she had thrown up the contents of her stomach which I found later after my dog returned and I had calmed down.  After what seemed like an eternity, Koda came prancing back, with a shit-eating grin on his face.  In the span of those few seconds, I had both surrendered to the idea that my dog might never come back, and if he did come back, decided he was going back to the trainer’s for some additional dog-to-dog training.

Wolves kill other canines in their territory.  Doesn’t matter if its a coyote, another wolf, or a dog.  They don’t eat it, just really tear it to pieces.  Being a dog owner in wolf country means you have to be responsible and watchful.  The ranch hands at a large ranch across the river told me that the winter is really the time they need to be careful.  Although they have wolf activity there year round from the Beartooth Pack, their property is full of elk in the winter and the wolves come down more and the nights are long.  Many of the wealthy ranches here have heated kennels for their dogs.  She told me a story that last winter the dogs were out of the kennel on a cold winter day.  Luckily she was working nearby because she looked over and there was a small pack surrounding their three dogs.  She ran over, made a big ruckus, and scared the wolves away.

Another local told me he was hiking with his five year old Black Lab.  The Lab ran over and behind a large bush where he was attacked by two wolves.  Luckily, the dog lived.  But the next year they were hiking off-trail and the lab started whining and came close to this man’s leg.  In the woods about 50 feet away, several wolves ran through.  Guess that dog learned a lesson.

Yesterday I planned to hike up Little Bald Ridge where there’s always sheep.  As I drove down the dirt road, I could see tracks of two large wolves that had run down the road early morning. Climbing up Little Bald Ridge They always like to use the thoroughfare of that spot in the valley to go between two ridges.  As I drove bye, I noticed one of the cows just had a new calf.

Bighorn Sheep are always up on that ridge.  I tried hiking up there earlier, but the wind and snow got to me.  Today was warm and windless though and some of the drifts would have melted.  As I hiked up to the buttes, I stopped 2/3 up in a small high meadow that looks out over the entire valley below.  No wind, the silence was incredible.  A herd of elk came through the trees farther up and stopped to watch me.  They’re always skittish.  They decided I was something to be afraid of and ran up the mountain and out of sight.

The hike isn’t Annapurna, but its a wind stopper for sure.  Its up, up and up and I hoped that when I got to the top the sheep would be in sight.  As I rounded the bend, there they were.  I kept counting, and then kept counting some more.  There were about 2 dozen sheep.  Mostly young and ewes, but I saw one nice ram.  The ewes kept watch while the ram lazed away–typical!  Bighorn are really ‘cute’.  Every time I go up there, they’re so curious.  Unlike the elk who always just run, the sheep stare and stare the closer you get.  If I didn’t have the dog, I suppose I could almost have walked up to them.

Bighorns depend on their elders to find their wintering grounds.  This small herd is right near the stone sheeptrap that I wrote about the other day.  Of course, to be called Sheepeaters, there had to be so many more sheep around here.  My understanding was that this country was thick with sheep, not just 2 dozen.  The interesting thing is that if you look around, there are plenty of exactly similar buttes right nearby where those sheep could have been.  But every year during the winter, this is the butte they go to.  You can count 100% on finding them there.  To me, this means they have an ancient honing device in them.  They must automatically go to the same forage that their ancestors went to.

I had been wondering for some time what happened to all those sheep.   After some research, I found Bighorns had no immunity to the diseases domesticated sheep carry.  Domesticated sheep grazing on open pastures and private lands were and still are, wiping out the Bighorn population.  And to the Bighorns, domesticated sheep just look like sheep; and being so friendly, Bighorns like to mix it up, unlike wolves.

The Bighorns on Little Bald had several yearlings, but I only saw one baby, at least so far.  After a while they got used to me and Koda, and went back to their business of eating.  The ram finally got curious enough to stand up for me to view him.  The baby ran with his mother.  The yearlings stayed in a small group with some ‘nurse ewes’ who watched over them, nuzzling occassionally.  I would have stayed for hours and watched them, but it was getting pretty cold and windy up there on the ridge.

The Sheepeaters

One of the interns gave me a book of Robert Service poems.  Oh, how I like so many of them.  Here’s a few verses from one of my favorites called ‘The Spell of the Yukon”

The summer — no sweeter was ever;
The sunshiny woods all athrill;
The grayling aleap in the river,
The bighorn asleep on the hill.
The strong life that never knows harness;
The wilds where the caribou call;
The freshness, the freedom, the farness —
O God! how I’m stuck on it all.

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I’ve bade ’em good-by — but I can’t.

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land — oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back — and I will

Its interesting how one can feel a place.  Up the dirt road towards Yellowstone, there’s an area that just feels good.  The wolves like to den there, the Bighorn sheep hang on the cliffs there, and the Sheepeaters had winter camp there for 5000 years.  Keep going farther up that road, about 20 miles, closer to Yellowstone, and the feeling changes.  Something about that area always feels ominous to me.  As the valley narrows, the Absarokas close in.  Volcanic in nature, the mountains tell the story of fire and ice with their knife edge ridges and slopes of scree.  I’m always a little uneasy up there.  Its beauty and wildness belie ancient and ominous secrets.  I’m wondering ‘What happened here?’

But my story is about the area that feels good.  Last summer I spent a long time looking for a ‘sheep trap’.  I’d been told about one that was a small cleft in the rock face.

W___ had told me there was a sheep trap up in the timber, yet everytime I looked I couldn’t find where he said it was at.

Sheeptraps were used by the Native Americans who lived around here.  A sub-group of the Shoshones, they were named Sheepeaters because their primary diet consisted of Bighorn Sheep.  They made the finest bows out of horn, used no horses, and went back and forth into the Park.  These sheeptraps were one of their ways of hunting.  Usually placed along a game trail and on the downhill slope (Sheep always see what’s coming from below, but never tend to look up for danger), the traps had drive lines of dead wood that lead to a pen.  Once in the corral, then animals were usually bludgeoned to death.

I spent many days looking for the trap.  My mistake really was to go on W___ ‘s advice.  There WAS a trap he knew about up there, but it wasn’t the natural rock formation one.  He’d only been there once, and since he didn’t know this area well (he’d gone with another person who did) his directions were weak.  One time I hiked way up the mountain through several meadows.  I was tired and it was getting late. Turned out I was only a few hundred yards from the trap in the woods.  But when W__ did take me there later on, I didn’t feel so badly, for I talked with several hunters who’d walked right by the trap and never saw it.

Partially buried sheep trapThe wooden trap was awfully small, but when you looked closely, it was obvious that it was buried deep.  The wood was old and it was amazing the construction was still intact.

I knew that there must be another trap somewhere else.  I decided to walk along the cliffs farther down the meadows.

Fall was in full force and the days were short.  One afternoon I took a few hours and hiked up to the bottom of the cliffline.  I walked its edge.

The view was fabulous from up high and I stopped to investigate a natural arch.  There was nothing inside but packrat remnants.

Farther along the wall, I came to an extremely narrow notch in the wall.  Some unknown force drew me to climb up it to the landing above to investigate.  I hesitated.  The light was getting low, I was running out of time, and this seemed like just a curious sidetrack.  But I couldn’t resist.  I scrambled on all fours through some snow and debris up the cleftt to small flat area above.  Walking around on top of the rock, I noticed a second but larger cleft between two gigantic boulders.  The boulders narrowed sharply and a tree was growing at the base.  It was a curious natural formation.  A few pieces of wood and debris were inside.  I looked around but saw no evidence of any drive lines.

I climbed back down the notch and continued making my way along the wall.  In short order I came upon a dry creek bed and an old game trail that led to the landing up above.  It was then that it hit me–That cleft WAS the pen, just a natural one.  It was so obvious.  I raced back up the ravine as the sun was starting to set.  Sure enough, the game trail passed a few hundred feet above that cleft.Looking from above

And now I noticed random wood above the cleft, probably strewn around for the last hundred and fifty years, once used as the drive line.  The whole setup seemed so ingenious to me, with the minimal expenditure of energy.  The ancient game trail right there, the Sheepeaters waiting in the timber above, the natural pen below.  If you walked from the cliff line below, you’d never notice this pen because of the tree and a good amount of debris placed there to block the exit.

I sat down at the top of the rock and watched the setting sun.  I marveled at how by trusting a feeling I found this place.  And the moment of ‘Ah ha’ that came from the inside out.    It was getting cold now.  But I took a little time to sit and say ‘thank you’ to whatever bought me here.

A Rant for Wolves

Its hard not to go ‘political’ when I heard about Salazar’s decision to delist wolves in Idaho and Montana (not yet Wyoming). I just need to take a moment to reflect.  Forgive me for putting on hold the post I wanted to write today, which was about the obsidian flintknapping site I found yesterday.

Obama’s penchant for compromise just seems to be getting him in trouble with both sides and no one’s happy.  In this case, compromise isn’t the basis for decision.  And compromise is really just politics.

What wildlife needs here is science melded with stewardship.  To be a steward, you have to be a lover.  As has been said before, ‘you only protect what you love’. One of the wildlife students made an interesting observation.  “I’m afraid it will take the wolf being hunted for it to be truly protected.  Hunters go to great lengths to protect what they hunt to ensure the health of its population.”  Certainly true with elk around here.

In the last few years that I’ve been looking at this issue, it seems to me there are so many areas to be addressed in a ‘delisting’ plan.  Simply putting the wolf on the hunted list with target numbers attached is a copout.

Wolves have a highly organized social system.  Packs in my area are constantly being reduced to numbers that are not viable.  When that happens, without the instruction of the Alpha, inexperienced and outnumbered wolves will go for the easiest prey–calves–in order to eat.  Taking down a larger animal like an elk requires pack coordination and is risky.  Just see my post on the coyote with hubris that was kicked and killed by an elk.  That’s just one factor.

Yesterday I found out a bit more about the calf predation that took place on the ranch down the road last spring.  Apparently, the grazing allotment rotation had been changed by the Forest Service in order to combine two ranches at once.  It was pup season, and the Forest Service told the ranchers to graze in the draw just over the hill from the den.  With the late winter the elk were still around in early May, yet farther down the valley from the den site.  That made it much easier for the wolves to go over the hill and get calves for their pups.  That predation was the forest service’s fault, not the ranchers or the wolves.  But because the forest service wasn’t thinking about the whole picture, 3 wolves were shot, one of them was from the initial introduction to Yellowstone 10 years ago!

A very large ranch over the hill has resident elk on it. In the summer, the elk graze the interface between the forest and the open meadows.  The wolves follow the elk along that ecotone.  All summer long the cattle grazed lower in their valley, while the wolves ate elk.  Then, at the end of the summer the cattle were moved near the interface, and within days some calves were killed.  Next of course came the wiping out of the entire pack by Wildlife Services.  With some responsibility on the part of this rancher, this incident would not have happened.

Delisting should require stewardship of all involved parties.  By simply compensating ranchers with money and killing wolves, there is no incentive to protect their flock, especially since so many of the ranchers in my area are the extreme wealthy looking for a tax write off, or ranching because it sounds neat (there are many ranches here owned by wealthy foreigners).

I don’t profess to understand all the problems or solutions, but I can see a few things:

1.  Requirements for ranchers in wolf areas i.e. shepherding.  I have heard about some ranches experimenting with Shepherding Programs (tourists pay to come out and Shepherd, like going to a Dude Ranch).  That’s a win-win situation.  There are many other methods being experimented with as well.

2.  Open Grazing policies need to be re-looked at.  First of all, they are too cheap. Last I heard it was $1.95/month for a Cow/Calf pair!  Wow, that 1898 prices.  You can’t have your cake and eat it too.  Open Grazing, you’re on your own with the wolves and wolves are protected.  That’s that!

3.  I would like to see some tribal involvement in these issues as well.   I’m not sure what that would look like, but I feel they’ve been stewards here for many thousands of years and the perspective they can provide is unique and in many instances is not obtainable through conventional survey techniques.  One native american said to me a lovely thing “The wolves are herding the elk” and that’s a true observation.  As a plant person, I can see that the effect the wolves have had on the aspen/willow population is only positive.

Wolves are magnificent animals.  I’ve seen them here several times in my valley while hiking around.  They are important in our ecosystem in so many ways, and deserve better.  Since I’ve been here, there is just too much killing going on in my  area of our three packs.  Summer comes, packs are wiped out and reduced, other wolves move in, packs reorganize again and shift around.  Just ‘delisting’ is not a solution.