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Hoodoo Basin…an Eerie Place and a Story

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View from a peak in the Basin

It was June of 2012 when a man approached me on the top of Dead Indian Hill asking for directions to Parker Peak. At first I was perplexed where this Peak actually was. There are a lot of famous Peaks in the Greater Yellowstone that people come to climb. Parker was not one of them. Then he explained it was at the end of Sunlight road in the Park and I knew it was in Hoodoo Basin. He had a strange urgency about him, and seemed driven by an unseen need to get to this insignificant peak. 

The hike to Hoodoo Basin, where Parker Peak and Hoodoo Peak form part of the bowl, is epic. I’ve been wanting to do it for ten years from the end of Sunlight Road., and finally completed it this week. It’s six hard uphill miles and 2500′ gain to the Park Boundary. Then another five miles of high meadows and up and down to the campsite below Parker Peak. The Peak is just a ‘run-up’, nothing special, except this year the only water source was a small pond generated by the last bits of a snowfield. The pond edge was laden with tracks of elk, deer, sheep and bear.

In the shadow of the eerie formations of the Hoodoos, I told my companions the story of the driven man who needed to get to Parker Peak (emphasizing Paaarr-ker said in an ominous voice). Based on some observations at the top of Parker, below is what I imagined his story might be….

See my notes on the Basin at the end of the Story…

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Parker Peak

Parker Peak….

I heard it held a mysterious Presence, a palpable vibration, an unmistakeable aura. Where I heard this, I do not remember. But it all began with the dreams.  The first dream was of a mountain made of crystals, a mountain that could heal. On the very summit of the mountain peak I saw, in my dream vision, a large petrified stump. I touched the stump and found its top was broken. I pushed the lid aside to reveal a hole that went deep underground. So I climbed into that dark hole, deeper and deeper, till I was within a maze of tunnels.  Almost spontaneously a little person appeared. I had no fear. It was if I knew this person, yet I’d never seen him before.

“Come, follow me” the little person said. He guided me through the underground passage, and although it was dark, a soft greenish-blue light emanated from his body, illuminating the tunnels. The little man stopped at a shaft of light that shone from an opening above. On the ground before us were bones, big piles of bones. A natural trap cave where animals had fallen inadvertently into from high above.

“Do you know whose bones these are?”

“No” I answered.

“Bones of animals past that once roamed these mountains. You were once here, hunting Short-faced Bears and Cheetahs.”

We continued on till the cave passage opened wide, revealing extensive views of deeply cut valleys and steep ravines.

The little man pointed. “This is the Center of the World, formed by Fire and Ice.”

I looked out over the land. It was dry, smoke was blowing in from different fires. The air was hot.

It was then I awoke in a cold sweat.

Using the Internet as my guide, I came to the conclusion that what I saw that had been formed of Fire and Ice was Yellowstone Park, and my viewpoint was Parker Peak. Parker Peak held a mystery meant for me to solve. Now I had to go there.

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June. I packed up my car and drove the twenty hours from Chicago to Cody. From my research, the shortest route to Parker Peak was from the end of a dirt road called Sunlight. It looked easy from the map, maybe ten miles. I planned on a day hike. I’d take some water and a lunch, hike in an out during the longest day of the year so I had plenty of daylight. Now just to find Sunlight Basin. I inquired at a Cody, WY gas station and they directed me to Chief Joseph Highway. The highway climbed out of the high desert into the mountains.

This must be it. I thought as I approached 9000 feet. I turned onto a dirt road near the top of the summit. I knew Parker Peak was around 10,000. Easy climb in and out I figured. The road ended after a mile and I saw a distinct trail. I parked and began my hike. It was then I saw two locals hanging around a sign that said ‘Wilderness Boundary’.

“Is this the Sunlight Road?” I enquired of them.

“No. Sunlight Road is another seven miles down the mountain.”

I told them I was off to Parker Peak from the end of the road for a day hike.

“You have to get past the Bear Gate, but that’s not open to cars for another month. So you’ll have an extra 5 or 6 miles of hiking to the Hoodoos. Why do you want to go there.”

“Just need to get to Parker Peak.”

“Well, you can’t make it in a day hike. Do you have bear spray with you?”

“Huh? Do I need that?”

“Big grizzly area back there. Lots of other peaks around here that are nicer and accessible now. Why don’t you go to the Beartooths? Or climb some other peaks in the Park? Parker is just a walk-up. Not that interesting.”

“Just gotta get to Parker Peak.” How could I tell them. They just wouldn’t understand the magic of this mountain. “I’ll come back in August.”

It’s been three years since that day in June and I still haven’t made it to Parker. But the dreams keep coming and someday, someday, I just know, I’ll get there.

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At the top of Parker Peak there is a large petrified tree stump. And the summit has rock striations made of clear crystals.

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The Hoodoo Basin is laden with chippings of obsidian flakes everywhere. My friends hiked up Hoodoo Peak, a scramble on talus which I do not like. Then they easily walked the ridge about 1.5 miles to Bootjack Gap, the passage between the Crandall drainage (Papoose trail) and the Park. Large obsidian pieces were scattered all over the ridge. Hoodoo to Sunlight and Miller Creek to Crandall Creek were hard-trodden Indian trails for thousands upon thousands of years. Native peoples traveled to Obsidian Cliff (and other cherished spots for stone to work) in spring to obtain new material for atlatls and later for arrowheads. Just like the deer and elk, they ‘surfed the green’ or followed the green-up, gathering roots and plant material. In the fall, they probably stayed in Hoodoo Basin to gather pine nuts from the Whitebark Pines there.

Today about 70-80% of those Whitebarks are dead, stricken down by beetles. (See photo below). The native peoples are gone, but the grizzlies are not and they are dependent on these nutritious high-fat nuts to make brown fat for the long winter. It was terribly sad to see so many dead trees, and once again made me think about the future fate of the grizzly with a delisting and subsequent hunt so close to being approved.

In addition to obsidian material everywhere, I understand there were at least forty wikiups observed by Superintendent Norris when he visited the Hoodoos or ‘Goblin Land’ as he called it.  These wikiups are no longer standing but still visible. I searched for them but was unable to find any, although I saw one that looked like a possibility. The wood would be down in a pile and very old. According to Orrin and Lorraine Bonney’s classic ‘Guide to the Wyoming Mountains and Wilderness Areas’, in 1880 when Norris and companions explored the Hoodoo area they

…found on the North side of [Parker Peak] a favorite campsite of raiding Indians with its commanding view of all approaches and handy striking distance to the high passes of Crandall Cr. He also found gory remnants of border raids–white folks’ blankets, clothes, china, bedding in & around the 40 rotting lodges. 

In the four days we were in the Basin, we did not see another person. The country was very dry, so this usual summer feedgrounds for elk were barren of elk and deer. Only old scat was around. We did see evidence of one grizzly bear and bighorn sheep. I also had an experience with five Short-eared Owls flying low over my head that rates among my top ten wildlife encounters.

It was an amazing journey. Worth the hard work.

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Park Boundary Line. Looking out into the Lamar Drainage

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Some of the Hoodoos in the Foreground. Hoodoo Peak in the background

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The Headwaters of the Lamar River. Smoke from fires makes the haze.

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Dead Whitebark Pines in the Hoodoos

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Wind Rivers: Epicenter of Rocky Mountain Archaeology

Rich Adams, former Wyoming State Archaeologist, is rocking the premises of Rocky Mountain Archaeology with his discoveries in the Wind River Mountains of high-rise villages.  In 2006, an ancient village was discovered at over 10,700 feet on the eastern slopes near Whiskey Mountain in Dubois.    This is only one of two high rise villages in North America consisting of forty seven 10×14 dwelling pads, many artifacts including soapstone bowls.

Lake Louise near Whiskey Mountain and Ring Lake

Lake Louise near Whiskey Mountain and Ring Lake

Since then Adams has uncovered over nine high-rise sites in the Winds, with only one or two of them on the western side of the Divide.  But with these sites being over 4000 years old, archaeologists are going to have to rethink their dates of when the Shoshones came here from the Great Basin region.

I spent a few weeks backpacking early August in the Winds (next blog will be on that when the photos arrive) and had the opportunity to hear Adams speak and see the amazing petroglyphs on Ring Lake Ranch.  The villages and the glyphs are Sheep Eater Shoshone relics.  On my second backpack on the west side up New Forks, I met a Bridger-Teton archaeologist who was looking for Indian remnants.  Apparently there is an intensive effort now to document whatever can be found before being destroyed by fires or by humans.

Sheep Eater Shoshones lived in the summers at high elevations around 11,000′.  There are plenty of fairly flat sites in the Wind Rivers at this elevation for making a camp.  And although today this would be above timberline with no trees, thousands of years ago the weather was wetter and treeline was higher.  So these villages would be in a nice sparse forest of White Bark Pine.

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They were into flying spirits

Sheep Eaters were there to hunt the Bighorn Sheep that range high up in summer, and come down lower in winter.  They followed the plant bloom and ate roots.  They could gather berries in August and pine nuts in the fall.  By late fall they’d venture down lower to a place like Ring Lake which has little snow throughout the winter and the sheep are nearby.  Their petroglyphs might reflect sacred burial areas, or vision quest sites.  They knew the Land and the landscape and let it dictate their wanderings.

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Panel with a bighorn sheep

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Lake Louise

The lichen was removed to better reveal these drawings

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Bird like feet

Bighorn Sheep, Sheep Eaters and Soapstone

I’ve been thinking about sheep and the peoples whose diet centered around  them.

For quite some time, I”ve wanted to make an authentic Sheep Eater soup with a steatite bowl .  Since I knew I wouldn’t be able to buy one, the only solution was to make one myself.  Steatite is another word for soapstone, and the Sheep Eater Indians would quarry the stone and make bowls from them.  Few of these bowls have been uncovered , probably because they broke over time.  It appears they were passed down through the women, and possibly made by women as well.  The men might have quarried and shaped the starting blocks.

The bowls, being heavy, were  left at campsites, stashed for use when the peoples came back to the area.  Most of the sites seem to be very high up, above 3000 meters.  That is because these quarries are located high in the mountains.  The bowls were carved right close to the quarries, which makes sense considering how heavy the rock is.

Soapstone, or steatite, bowls were used for cooking Sheep Eater stews consisting of sheep, bulbs and forbs.  The bowls could be placed right in the hot coals.  Once removed from the fire, the bowls stayed hot for a long time.  One of the most difficult items for native peoples in any culture to obtain were containers.  Containers were prized possessions, whether they were constructed of fiber, pine needles, gourd or rock.  I’m sure that is why these bowls were passed down generation to generation.

YNP Archives Sheep Eater bowl

YNP Archives Sheep Eater bowl

Last year I set about trying to find a quarry.  I knew there was one in Dillion MT.  Since I was on my way to California for December, I thought I could find one there.  California has several soapstone or Talc quarries but none of them were operating.  I found a woman in Northern California who imported various stones for carving.  She sold me a block of Brazilian soapstone, warning me that a lot of soapstone has asbestos in it and hers didn’t.

In geology language, rocks are graded on a scale of 1-10 for their hardness qualities, with soapstone being a 1 and diamond a 10.  Since I thought all soapstone was equal, I began work on this block of brazilian stone.  After several months, lots of drill bits, dremel bits, chisels, etc., I had made little progress.  Apparently soapstone itself can have a variety of hardnesses.  This brazilian stone was awfully hard, and didn’t have the ‘soapy’ consistency that is associated with soapstone.  Complaining about my trials to a local friend, he immediately made a few calls and found me an original Wyoming piece of soapstone, quarried naturally from a secret spot out of Tensleep in the Big Horns.  The block he gave me had a strange shape, difficult to cut a piece out of for a bowl, but I managed.

Odd shaped Wyoming soapstone block

Odd shaped Wyoming soapstone block

I’d seen a video where Richard Adams said it took about 30 hours to make a finished bowl.  With the Brazilian stone, there was no way I was going to make a bowl in that time.  I’d already invested more than that and hadn’t come far.  So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began working on the Wyoming block.  But the going was easy, and in about twenty hours I had a decent bowl that I could call finished enough to cook in.

My almost finished bowl

My almost finished bowl

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Requires lots of elbow grease. I learned a lot working both pieces of stone

Here is a photo from the Park achives outside of Gardiner (worth making an appointment to see the new building) of what Adams calls a pre-form, or an unfinished bowl.

YNP archives

YNP archives pre-form bowl

YNP archives unfinished bowl

YNP archives unfinished bowl

Yesterday, after working on my bowl for several hours, I took a hike up nearby Margarite draw.  Last year I found a cougar den up there and I wanted to see if there had been any occupation this year.  As I hiked higher and higher through the trees, I spotted a low saddle and headed for it.  At the ridgeline the view of the Absarokas was breathtaking. Absaroka spring 2013 I saw a few elk grazing down below, but I had a hunch if I glassed these rocky hills I might see some sheep.  Sure enough, a group of ewes was farther along the ridgeline.  With the wind in my face, I figured I might be able to sneak up on them and get some good photos.  What little I know about bighorn sheep is that when spooked they always go higher.  So in approaching a group, if one approaches from higher up, they rarely look up to spot you.  I tried the tactic and sure enough, it worked fairly well.Bighorn sheep Young bighorn sheep

At the end of my several hour hike, I ran into the herd again, now grazing on the other side of the hills.Bighorn sheep

Pretty soon I’ll try out my new bowl.  The green-up is beginning and I saw some Pasque flowers.  Soon there will be Spring Beauties to add to my soap along with other greens.  A friend who shot a Bighorn sheep a while back will give me a bit of mutton to add so I can make an authentic Sheep Eater stew in my homemade steatite bowl.

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.