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Winter Must be Coming as the Muskrats are building their Homes

For quite some time I’ve been fascinated with Swamp Lake, a large swamp off Chief Joseph Highway. Massive Cathedral Cliffs provides not only the backdrop, but all the water from these limestone massifs drain into the low meadows below. Rare plants, birds, grizzly bears and wolves travel through here. But I’ve been interested in the muskrats that live there.

Over 700 acres of wetland lies beneath these cliffs

Over 700 acres of wetland lies beneath these cliffs

Muskrats aren’t rare or endangered, but around our mountains this is the only place I’ve seen them. Rumor has it that a long time ago a man was raising muskrats for their fur in the lakes. These days they live in peace as I’ve never seen any trappers in these swamplands.

Muskrats spend most of their time in the water, and can dive for up to fifteen minutes at a time. That’s why it’s hard to spot them. Last spring, every time I passed a pond on my way to the Park, I stopped and watched for a muskrat. Once I saw one swim to a log that lay half onshore, climb on it, only to scent-mark it. Occasionally, yet rarely, I’d catch them swimming. Here’s a lucky photo I took of one swimming near the road.muskrat

In winter I look for their ‘push-ups’ which are the smaller equivalent of beaver lodges. When you start to see the push-ups appearing, you know winter will be here soon. When I passed by the ponds in mid-October, I saw no sign of little houses. But this weekend, here they were.

Distant pushups

Muskrat house

I counted five pushups in this large pond. The swamp is huge, with myriads of convoluted connector corridors so there are others push-ups, yet I’ve found most of them in this particular area. Which brings up some questions. I understand that muskrats are territorial, so how many muskrats might be living in this pond with 5 houses? And why do I see the majority of push-ups here?

These homes will be added to. Here’s one from two winters ago. They don’t last but one season. You can see on the photo below that it is surrounded by ice. The pond freezes, but not completely solid so the muskrats can use these holes to sleep in and store their food.

Close up of a constructed house.  These don't last more than a season usually

Close up of a constructed house. These don’t last more than a season usually

The swamp lies between the forested cliffs and the highway. The old dirt highway runs at the base of the cliffs. Facing north with little sun in winter, the snows are deep there. I like to ski this isolated road in winter where animal tracks abound. Wildlife use it as a secretive corridor. Occasionally there are even tracks across the frozen lake. Wolves, martens, weasels, snowshoe hare, coyote and deer are the most common tracks.

Here’s a great Youtube video from the 1950s in Idaho. It shows the Idaho Fish & Game live trapping muskrats, martens, and beavers to relocate them. The best part of the video is how beaver were reintroduced into remote wilderness area by parachuting them in little boxes.

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Hike into the bowels of the Clark’s Fork Canyon

 

 

We are going to hike into that canyon in the photo below.  From this photo you can see the mighty Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone, the only wild and scenic river in Wyoming, unrunnable.  To the left you can make out Sunlight falls, where Sunlight creek meets the great river.  What you can’t see is that just in front of the falls is Dead Indian creek running into the river as well, almost at the same spot but not as a falls.  Some day I’m going to take a raft down to the river and paddle upstream to that meeting place, but the Clark’s Fork needs to be slow and low.

Clark's Fork Canyon

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

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

Its an all day slog, and take water because there is none until you reach the canyon.  Even though it wasn’t incredibly hot, the dog was panting heavily and needed the extra water I took for him.  That’s because its a fairly exposed hike.  And plan to go in mid-August when the river is slower, take a lunch and chill…

Looking downriver

 

Looking upriver

 

Chillin'

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

The right thing to do…Niagara falls and Yellowstone

I just returned from helping my son with location scouting at Niagara falls.  Its strikingly beautiful, especially in the winter.  The crowds are gone and its bitter cold, but there are ice floes in the river and parts of the falls are frozen.  The Canadian side still lights up the falls at night and the sheer power and magnitude of so much water flowing (in fact only 50% is allowed to release as the other 50% is used for power) overwhelms and puts us humans in our proper perspective relative to the awesome power of nature.

Falls at night

Power of the falls

But along with my visit to Sedona, Arizona last year, (which also is a natural wonder but not a National Park) what really stood out was its contrast to where I live now, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Although I live next door to a National Park, I don’t of course live within the Park, but within what was designated a few decades ago as its larger ecosystem.  This is an actual mapped area, you could call it a ‘buffer zone’ where its recognized these large megafauna need room to roam to survive.

And, true to its name, I regularly see all the large and small animals that make up this complete ecosystem in the lower 48, which includes wolves, grizzlies, elk, and the occasional bison that is allowed to leave the Park.

So what’s so great about this area  you might say, as opposed to Niagara or Sedona?  Both have the power to overwhelm through their sheer beauty and immense landscape.  The difference are the animals.  Even the Sierras, as incredible a jewel as they are, are NOT a complete ecosystem.  Many animals that were there just 150 years ago are gone forever.

What Lewis and Clark encountered 200 years ago on their journey West is no longer, but a sliver of it can be glimpsed here in the Yellowstone Ecosystem.  Just a sliver, but that sliver is our history, our heritage.  No one would think of selling Monticello to create senior housing or a Walmart!  Why should we not value our original landscapes and the animals that were here before us in the same way?

Everywhere in the United States, with the exception of Alaska, animals have been pushed out to accommodate the biggest and toughest animal–humans.  And that is no exception in the Yellowstone ecosystem.  The controversy rages here too as to who should have primary use of the lands–hunters, atvs, developers, ranchers, oil and gas?.  Wolves are villified for killing elk that hunters could have taken.  Grizzlies are constantly moved around when they get into lands too close to homes or into unprotected garbage.  Bison are not allowed to leave the Park boundary.  Ranches are sold to developers who parcel up the land into lots, crowding out habitat for large animals.  Snowmobilers feel they should have the right to go wherever they choose, including the Park even when the science says differently.  The animals are last on the list.  And when that is how the priorities are set, what becomes of the land is Niagara Falls, Sedona, or at best a ‘safe’ wilderness like the Sierras; at worst we become like Europe, where their natural history is in the so-distant-past that its entirely unreachable in present-time.

Yellowstone and its ecosystem, unlike Alaska, is easily accessible by car to people from all walks of life, rich or poor.  It is an opportunity to view in the flesh our rich natural past.  Any person can do that from the safety of their car, and watch wolves or bears in the Lamar Valley.  Or one can take more risks and venture into the back country.  Even today, with this area protected and the reintroduction of the wolves, thereby completing the ecosystem fauna, the landscape doesn’t hold a candle to the enormous amounts of wildlife that was once beheld by the mountain men in the 1830’s.  Yet, they are all still here, thanks to the enormous efforts of many men and women conservationists through the century.

Black wolf

In the U.S., there are many unique and beautiful areas, but there is no where like this area.  Here we have the Serengeti of North America.  And in my mind, we are not valuing nor protecting it enough, nor are we holding it in the proper perspective.

Our Serengeti

The proper perspective:  This area, as well as more large tracts of contiguous land (Yellowstone to Yukon idea) is a wildlife first policy.  This is our gift to our children and the future.  This is our gift to the wildlife here.

Once we all realize what we have here, a jewel that is found no where else in the U.S. (Do we really want the last place where wild animals roam to be in Alaska, out of the reach of most ordinary folks?), we will change our approach and our views on a daily basis.  No longer will we have on the Wyoming books archaic 1890 laws that allow trapping, an indiscriminate way to kill wildlife.  No longer will we confine bison to the tiny Island of the Park because the cattle industry fears losing their brucellosis stamp.  Nor will people call for the extermination of the wolves because they are having a harder time hunting in the spots they are used to.

We will make new laws to help support the wildlife in any way we can and preserve this area; not for ourselves or for any use we desire today, but because we recognize its’ specialness, and because, frankly, its the right thing to do.

There was a time, not long ago, when out of 60 million Bison that once roamed the entire United States, only 100 survived.  In fact, it was thought that all bison were extinct, and that was what we, as a country, as a government, was trying to achieve.  But in the early 20th century, around 100 Bison were found living in Yellowstone.  An immense effort was made to bring at least some bison back and the bison that you see today living in Yellowstone are the result of that effort–the last pure genetic stand of bison living today.

When you go to Yellowstone, there is a power, a respect, a wordless reverence that wells up in your being just seeing these animals.  Something deep and ancient reverberates in their presence.  Imagine if those bison hadn’t been preserved?  Those conservationists who helped preserve the bison of Yellowstone did an incredible service to future generations.  We, living today, are the beneficiaries of their efforts.

We must make those same efforts today for generations that will be living 100 years from now, just as they did for us 100 years ago.  That is how we should be looking at the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  That is how we should be making our laws, our plans, our actions.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”

Synchronicity: Coming to Wyoming, the final piece

Synchronicity is the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated occurring together in a meaningful manner. To count as synchronicity, the events should be unlikely to occur together by chance. The concept of synchronicity was first described by Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung in the 1920s. (Wikipedia)

“When coincidences pile up in this way, one cannot help being impressed by them—for the greater the number of terms in such a series, or the more unusual its character, the more improbable it becomes.” C.G. Jung

“I know I’m supposed to be here, just give me some time to figure out why.” The Secret Life of Bees

_______________________________

I continued my life working in California, putting the finishing touches on raising my teenage son.  I was used to this life, my friends, my home, my neighborhood.  I’d grown up and lived my entire life in California, and loved all of its varied environments, from the deserts of Southern California, to the Sierras, the coastal redwoods, the wild surf of the Northern California coast.  I’d grown up surfing and swimming in Southern California, and spent my entire adult life in parts of Northern California.

How I love the ocean that I grew up with

I’d planted thousands of trees and shrubs, grown many summers worth of vegetables, picked fruit, studied oaks, madrones and manzanitas, watched baby salamanders clamber out of quiet pools, rare Coho salmon fight their way up Redwood creek, guided school children through Muir woods and Muir beach, and helped with Spotted Owl studies.  All my life-long friends were in California.  I loved my family, my friends, and most of all I loved the land.

My garden in California. I love the land there

Yet strange coincidences started reaching out and tugging me more and more in the direction of Wyoming.

For instance, soon after the purchase, I had a job in California with a wife who was a doctor and the husband a geologist.  In this case I mostly dealt with the wife relative to the design elements.  One day husband Bill and I were talking about my cabin near Yellowstone.  I was telling him about how incredible the geological features were.

“Wait, I have something I want to give you.  Janet can’t stand that I collect these.  They clutter up the house, are big.  I have no where to keep them.”

He came back with a 24×36 bound book of geological maps.  The date was 1898, so this was an original series of maps put out by the U.S. Geological Survey.

“These are original maps of the Yellowstone area.  You’ll use them more than I will.”

Later, upon inspection, I saw that the quadrant of maps he had given me wasn’t Yellowstone at all, but Sunlight Basin and the Absarokas bordering Yellowstone and my valley.  Since my neighbor in Wyoming is the Park Geologist, I gave these prints to him.

Another client gave me a section of her father’s memoirs.  He was the chief engineer in Yellowstone in ’29-‘31.

My son was looking at colleges.  He applied to Pasadena art college, a small school in Southern California.  These small schools usually have an evening get-together for questions and PR.  This was done one evening at a alumni’s office in Oakland, an architect.  After listening to the presentation I was walking around for the coffee and dessert part, when my eye caught a scale model of a museum he designed.

“That looks like the Buffalo Bill museum in Cody”, I asked.  “The Plains Indian wing.”

“It is.  I designed it five years ago.”

One afternoon I was looking at possible storage units in Northern California where I still lived.  When I came out of the 2nd floor onto the balcony, I saw a Hertz moving van in the parking lot blocking my view.  The advertisement on the side said “Visit the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody”.  I have never seen one of these advertisements on a moving van since.

Then there were the persistent dreams.  In the winter in California, I’d have dreams of wolves and elk in the snow in Sunlight.  I dreamt quite accurately about the original owner whom I had known nothing about.  Dreams of native Americans, of new beginnings, of going to live in Wyoming; persistent, insistent dreams.

And then there were the healing forces.  After a series of deaths in my family and close friends over the course of two years, new sorrows seemed to echo old wounds.  I was spent, exhausted, and in pain emotionally.  I had been squeezing in two weeks here and there during the spring and summer, driving the 20 hours back and forth from California.  I decided to take some time off and spend September and most of October here.

Deep present loss can easily echo past losses.  I felt like I had a deep gash in my heart that had been there for a long time, even longer than these family deaths.  I came here and just ‘let the mountain work on me’.  I couldn’t do much but surrender to the Place.  Sometime in October, I had an amazing day.  I took a chair up to a high point on my property, a place with a view to the east of the entire Clark’s Fork plateau.  I sat.  After several hours, a new feeling arose, one that was recognizable yet unfamiliar at the same time.  I felt centered.  I felt my own center.  This Place itself was my center.  How could it be, but it was true, that I’d never felt this before?    I went back to California a different person.  I literally felt like someone had done heart surgery, sewing up a very old wound, healing a condition of sorrow and grief.  I was happy again.

Dawn in Yellowstone. A new day

There is something about Place, and I believe especially about the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a very special Place on this Earth.  Maybe its that giant hotspot underneath us; maybe its because its one of the last places in our contiguous United States where wild is still wild, where large predators still rule the landscape and things are right; maybe its because it was the last and final stand of Native Americans and you can feel the pulse of their history as you walk around.  Whatever it is, its palpable.  The healing power of Yellowstone and my little valley is the Center of the Universe.

Coming to Wyoming part 1

How did you get to Wyoming?

Of course, I am asked that question regularly.  And, there is the short answer and the long answer, but both replies are more full of questions than answers.

Long ago, a few lifetimes in my personal history, I spent several weeks backpacking through the Tetons with two girlfriends.  We were hitchhiking through the West in a summer between high school and college.  After a fine time, with many adventures, we were ready to put out our thumbs and head back to California, when a driver who picked us up asked “Have you girls been to the Wind Rivers?”

“No, where’s that?”

“Just an hour east of here.  You must go.  I’ll drop you off and you can backpack there.”

The Winds, as aficionados and lovers like to fondly call them, have several put-ins on their western front, all at least 10 to 15 miles from the hiker’s main destination—the rugged base of the Continental Divide.  But after several days of being eaten by mosquitoes, (with thousands of lakes the Winds are notorious for their bugs) and never quite making it to the divide, we called it quits.  But you could see those tantalizing mountains in the background and I swore to myself that I’d come back someday.

Flash forward 27 years.  I’m a single mom newly divorced with a nine-year old.  Close friends are going to visit their son in Yellowstone who is a seasonal worker.  They have a nine-year old too and invite us along.  We fly into Salt Lake and drive the rest of the way.  After a week in the Park, I see my opportunity and jump on it.  They drive home with my son and I arrange to fly out of Jackson, rent a car, and put in at Big Sandy for a modest 5-day hike.

In those 27 years inbetween, I’d had some serious back injuries and was not even sure if I can backpack anymore, but this is my first time in years so I pick a fairly easy route.  The hike is about 5 miles to Big Sandy Lake, the shortest distance to the Winds from any trailhead.  It’s a well-traveled route, because its also the quickest way to the Cirque of the Towers, a massive granite glacial cirque treasured by climbers from all over the world.

Mission accomplished, I was able to complete the trip, and so began coming back every summer for a seven day backpack over the course of more than eight years.  During that time I usually hiked about 40-50 miles and eventually completed most of the Highline Trail, a glorious trail that traverses a north/south axis through the Bridger-Teton wilderness.

When my son was about 15, and I’d finished another solo trip to the Wind Rivers, I started to wonder why I was coming home so soon.  Couldn’t I find a summer rental in Pinedale or Lander?  I tried but it wasn’t so easy.  Wyoming isn’t Tahoe and summer rentals are not the norm in these small towns.  Jackson would be out of the question over-my-head expensive.  Rental hunting led to the idea of just buying a small 2nd home or piece of land.

One time while hiking in Wyoming, a fellow hiker asked if I’d been to the Beartooths.

“Where is that?”

“Charles Kuralt called the Beartooth Highway the most beautiful highway in America.  You’ve got to drive home that way.”

But it wasn’t on my way home, and I was always in a time constraint.  So the following summer I decided to hike, with a few friends, into the Beartooth Range instead of the Winds.

It was a rainy experience and crowded, although spectacular.  But I missed my Winds.  So I decided to take a short trek to the Winds from the Eastern side, the reservation side.  This required me to head home via Cody.  I’d been thinking about towns to live in.  Pinedale had been tops on my list.  Little did I know that Pinedale can be the coldest town in America at times.  I’m really not a great researcher of these things.  I was just going on my gut and on my love affair with the Wind Rivers.

But when I drove into Cody, I immediately knew this was a town I could live in.  I was attracted to it.  It felt like a real town.

In the winter of 2005 I contacted a realtor via the internet in the Cody area.  Since I really had only been to Cody one night, I arranged to fly into town in the February break, with my son, and have him show me areas around the town.  Then my son and I would snowmobile into Yellowstone for a vacation.

I had a vision in the back of my head of what I wanted.  Either a place to fix up, or land to build.  It needed to have trees but not be ‘in the trees’;  there must be a creek on or near the property; somewhat isolated but not too isolated.  I was figuring I’d live around town on the outskirts.

My realtor Al showed me the North Fork area, which is the North Fork of the Shoshone, the road that leads into the East entrance of Yellowstone.  Expensive lots and homes abound in this breathtakingly beautiful valley.  He showed me the South Fork of the Shoshone, a massive wide valley that dead ends into trails to the Thorofare of Yellowstone.  These areas all had lots and cabins, but what I didn’t account for was that way back when, when the government was giving out homesteads and people were settling here, the government took the timbered areas while the homesteaders built and farmed in the low, open, praire parts of the valley.  All these homes, excepting the giant ranches, were subdivided 20 and 40 acre lots of bare ground usually with a well.  A housing boom of retired Floridians and Californians who’d made money selling their own homes had changed the valley as well.  The houses were in general exposed to each other, sometimes even with little subdivisions of lesser acreage.  For a million dollars plus I might find something special, but I didn’t have that kind of money.  The image in my mind of what I wanted was just not available here.

“What you want comes up every ten years or so,” Al said.

Al took me to Clark, an unincorporated town on the far outskirts, situated at the base of the Clarks’ Fork canyon, the town was smack in a wind tunnel.  It had a strange displaced aura about it, a town without a town, with stories of transients, drug runners and government haters.

He drove us to the nearby town of Powell, a farming village that felt quite settled and sensible.  Powell was a nice town but not what I had in mind.  I left feeling quite discouraged.

That summer I took my son for the first time with me to the Winds.  The whole experience had changed from one summer to the next.  Cheney had pushed through drilling on public lands without the need for the same limits and waiting periods as previously.  Wyoming was a boom state.  There was not a hotel, motel nor campground space between Salt Lake and the Pinedale turnoff at Green River.  My son and I slept on the side of the road south of Big Piney after driving for 25 hours.  The Persius meteor shower was a brilliant consolation in the clear open desert sky.

Pinedale had transformed itself as well, with large hotels.  The Jonas field was fueling the economy.  Ticky-tacky houses were springing up everywhere.  “Thank God I didn’t buy here” I told myself.

We had a rainy but beautiful adventure in the Winds, and I was reminded how much I love Wyoming, and that I hadn’t heard a peep from Al.  He had never shown me even one house, just neighborhoods.  I called him when I returned.

“Everything that was in the book last February has sold” he said.  “Like I said, what you want comes up every ten years.”

That was August.  In September I got a call from Al.  “I have a house that fell through.  It will be re-listed in a few days and its’ gonna go quick.  I think it’s what your looking for.  There’s 40 acres, a creek, cottonwoods, and an old homestead on it, a new well and electricity.  You better come right away if you’re interested in seeing it.”

I booked a flight to Cody.  Being in a busy work season, I made arrangements to come into town on the 5pm Wednesday flight, and leave the next evening back to San Francisco.

What a disappointment the property was.  Yes, it had all the elements I asked for, but the ‘feeling’ just wasn’t right.  The land was broken, neglected, desolate and tired.

The house on the neglected land

The country around the other house

“Well, I’m here and got a few more hours till my flight.  Is there anything else you want to show me while I’m here.”

“There is one place, up in Sunlight Basin, but its not on the market.  The parents died and the kids now own it.  They’ve been squabbling for over a year as to whether they want to sell or not.  But I’ll be their listing agent if they do.”

“Show it to me in case they ever do.  Where is Sunlight?”

I’d been wanting to be within 20 minutes of town.  Sunlight was an hour northwest, over an 8500 ft. pass.  I was skeptical, but I was here so why not.

As soon as we turned off 120 highway onto Chief Joseph Scenic road, I was mesmerized, hooked.  From Dead Indian pass, you could see the entire country for millions of miles.  West to Yellowstone, northeast to Beartooth Plateau, below to the stunning Clark’s fork canyon 900’ deep, and across into the wide glacier valley of Sunlight.  I’d never seen a landscape more varied geologically, nor more breathtaking that this view.

We got to the cabin—a run-down summer cabin built in 1959.  Cluttered with too many old couches and chairs, a tacked down orange shag carpet brought out from Washington state by the owners when it no longer was in style in their main home, animal heads on the wall, 50’s linoleum that was coming apart, original windows that questionably opened, and the entire back area of the house was unfinished with open joists and studs.

First glance at what would become my cabin...too much furniture

Unfinished ceiling. Warped cheap paneling

the bulging paneling alongside the shower

I stood on the porch and looked east at a massive ridge jutting into the horizon.

“I could die here.” I said aloud.

“I’d buy it if I could,” said Al.

I asked Al what the comps were, and told him to offer just a bit more, and that was my final price.  I was nervous, I was firm, I’d never put myself out on a financial limb like this before, was I making a mistake….mostly I was just going by my heart.  I’d put it out there and see what they said.  The reality was…this house wasn’t on the market and the three children hadn’t decided if they were selling.  The reality was…I’d seen only two homes around Cody, both today.  The reality was…I hadn’t even done any homework about this place, its weather, anything. But I was already in love, and when you’re in love you usually act before you think.

Living and working in California, I slowly fixed my little cabin up to be livable anytime of the year.  I dreamed of coming here in the summer, watching the weather, and when it was good, going hiking in the Winds.  I thought about spending Christmases here in the snow with family.  Oh, but I’d have to winterize it as well as lots of other things.  That meant lots of work and all that cost money, money that I had only bit by bit, little by little.   So that’s how I fixed it up, little by little, over several years.

New T&G bluestain pine with my California crew

Never did I think about moving here permanently.  But once this place was mine, strange coincidences conspired, over and over, to point the way here.  For some reason, this place in Sunlight was calling me, suggesting it was the center of my universe, the place of peace for me.  Over time it became an irresistible urge.  My journey was just beginning.

Mystery of the Sacred

I’d been wanting to see a series of pictographs in the desert nearby.  So the other day my friend took me out to see them.  The hike is about 6 miles round trip.  The trip out there is through flat sagebrush country.  For a long ways it doesn’t seem like there’s anything of interest.  Then suddenly the landscape shifts into deep ravines and rocky cliffs.  Near the top of a series of cliffs, a narrow valley appears.  Walking through this rift in the rocky scape, there is a palpable sense of the Sacred.  The cliffs loom high and they all have excellent writing surfaces on them.  But most are empty.  Curiously, there are natural perfect circles of a different kind of rock decorating the sandstone faces.  These natural shield shapes fool you into thinking they’re manmade.

A few official signs along the way tell you these pictographs you’re approaching are special and not to be touched or defaced.  My friend says 7 years ago there was no trail nor signs.  Since then people seemed to have discovered this place because the trail is worn and shows fresh signs of footprints and horseprints.

View from the valley

The sandstone cliffs

The valley is so quiet.  There is a somber aura here that evokes the sacred.  The high cliffs have a cathedral-like feel.  Finally we arrive at the rock with the pictographs.  My friend tells me they are fairly recent, within the last 500 years.  The rock faces east and is in the shade, which is a relief on this unusual 70 degree March day.  The paintings are very faint but you can make them out.

Look closely to see the figures

An area in the rock is chipped where the people who made these got the red coloring.

Where the red color comes from. Maybe why they chose this rock to paint

Down below, in another rocky outcropping, are a few more well preserved shields that lack the figures associated with the ones higher up.

Another painted rock much less eroded

These pictographs are sacred to the Crows.

Why are they here?  Curiously, there is no water nearby and the paintings are in a place that is isolated and hard to get to.  Although we can never get into the minds of the tribesmen who painted these, its fun to imagine what might have been going on there.  Were there several artists or just one?  Was this part of a vision quest or someone passing time in the shaded side of the valley waiting for game, or fellow travelers?  Was this a signpost or message on a well traveled trail?  I suppose it will forever remain a mystery.

The Eternal and the changeable

I haven’t lived here much time, but it’s confirmed by my neighbors and friends that in the past year there’s been lots of enormous changes in the valley.  When so few people live around you, the impact of just one becomes magnified.  And although we all live different lives, seemingly unconnected, we are connected through the fabric of this Place.

Just in the last year several long time residents (or part-timers) have died.  Others have moved or are intending to sell.  Friends I made amongst the ranch hands have left.  The students I’ve come to enjoy doing the animal studies are closing up shop.  And a few of the older permanent residents have gone to town where there are more health services.

The small forest on private lands next door to me was logged this winter for beetle killed trees.  The left over devastation of debris, tractor compaction, blow down trees, channel-less streams, and icy mayhem seems a good visual metaphor for the human disruption in the valley.  The beetles were moving silently in a natural tempo.  The humans’ business is helter-skelter.

Change is inevitable, but so much is hidden when you live in a city or burbs.  In the bustle of its’ cultural homogeneity, flow and movement is a fast tick-tock.  Life just keeps going without pause and mostly without notice.

Yet in this Place where geological ‘eternity’ records time, every life is noticed, even the deaths of small things.

Weird clouds over Pat O'Hara

Black Bear

Like the lapping of the tides, the movement of mountains exudes a slow rhythm.  The mountains, valleys, and rivers are sentinels, the guardians of this Place.  Any perturbation in that cadence stands out like shouts or a piercing of the fabric.  Every moment matters and its memories are vivid colors.

This tree went through some stuff

I now understand how my 86 year old neighbor, who grew up here,  has such a great memory for details; details like the names of people he knew long ago, or the exact date when he took some dudes out to the Thoroughfare; or the snowstorm on Bald Ridge where he couldn’t see in front of him and had to follow the fence lines.

Incoming summer storm

My memories are more muted, faded.  So much was compressed and the colors were all human dramas against a setting of more human dramas.  There was no eternal, unchanging, larger than life backdrop to hold the dramas within.

While I struggle to find my place again, make new friends, fill or mourn those empty spaces and regain a kind of footing, the mountains remind me of that which is unchangeable.  And even though it’s all illusion–mountains and rivers, valleys and glaciers, do move and change in time–their mere presence connects us with our slowness.

I caught a story on radio last week about the Okinawans.  Their island contains some of the longest living people on earth and have been studied up and down for ‘why’.  The conclusion is not what you’d think.  It’s not diet, or exercise, nor special herbs, or even genes.  It’s their slowness.  No hurry, no worries.  Like the mountains, or the lapping of the tides, or the Bristle Cone pines, they live a long and slow life.

Full moon rising over Steamboats' saddle