Random acts of travel

Wandering the prairie as a grasslands nomad

I drove solo to Death Valley National Park one year and spent the whole trip looking over my shoulder. I committed no crime more serious than extremely distracted driving and hiking in  a rich visual landscape of surreal abstraction and surprise.  I would pull over or wander off trail for unnatural colors, unusual textures, or just a small shrub full of butterflies sitting in the middle of a barren.

And once, passing a coworker and friend on the way into the women’s room, she asked,”Hey, do you want to go on a kayak trip in Tonga?”

“Sure, sounds cool, sign me up,” I replied. “Where’s Tonga?”

That’s my temperament, orientation, and wiring: wandering, curious, focused on nature, taking in the world through my eyes. I think I hailed from nomads, following food across the landscape. It is not the best fit for today’s linear, boundary-defined, man-made world. But it is natural for me to be attracted to grasslands,  where I can wander and find little surprises everywhere.

BrokenHills
Broken Hills Interpretive Trail, Grasslands National Park

For most, this scene disappoints:  no towering mountains or trees, no sparkling azure lakes, no man-made stuff. For people like me, it’s an invitation to explore. What’s more, I have permission from the ranger, who says that Grasslands National Park allows people to roam everywhere. Hilltops welcome after dinner strolls from camps, and tempt you from a track.

FrenchmanValleyEveningLight
Frenchman Valley, as a storm clears and lets in evening light.

And navigation is not challenging here, even without a device.  The land is heavily sculpted by water, with a distinct orientation and flow, and landmarks easily visible from the ridge tops.  On Broken Hills Interpretive Trail, the yellow trail markers guide hikers down a path, but you can roam without fear of wandering up in the wrong drainage, as can happen in my area. Perfect.

GrasslandsAerialWestBlock
You can see in this aerial view how heavily the Grasslands West Block has been influenced by water.  Imagine the flood outflow from two melting lobes of a giant glacier sending water scouring across the land.
GrasslandsAerialBelzaBW
This map illustrates what Parks Canada calls undulating prairie.  These undulations are important for prairie life. And you can see how Broken Hills got their name!
BrokenHills2
Those undulating prairies wander into water-sculpted landscapes perfect for wandering and playing rock/fossil detective (don’t remove anything).

One of my challenges hiking Broken Hills was catching up to prairie butterflies.  They are really petite and speedy.  This makes sense if you think about what they face:  drying sun, a lot of wind, and no shelter from any airborne insect eaters.  Wing size needs to be large enough to absorb heat and fly, but limited to avoid moisture loss and predation.  At least that’s my amateur butterfly scientist hypothesis.

BrokenHillsButterfly
Sorry, haven’t figured these two characters out yet!

At any rate, I know that some butterfly flowers like ridge tops, and they attract butterflies.  This happens in Eastern Washington, and sure enough, it works in southern Canada, too.

I also know the dark side of butterflies, as we humans interpret them. We poeticize them as flying stained-glass angels alighting on nectar-filled flowers.  But they need protein, too, and will find it in carnivore poop, blood, rotting meat, and so on.  Grasslands has its coyotes, as you can tell from night time howling and occasional deposits.  I never find butterflies on the furry scat, but they will land on more moist scat.

BlueButterflyBrokenHills
Lovely little butterflies waiting their turn to access moist poop, lower right.
BrokenHillsButterflyPoo.jpg
Yum. Butterflies extracting needed amino acids and other nutrients from a rich source.

Larger animals and birds frequent these areas.  Wolves and bears that roamed the land were extirpated by settlers who couldn’t imagine coexistence with predators. But smaller herbivores are stalked today by coyotes that spread across North America with human settlers.  Wary, they give hikers a chance to leave, then bound gracefully away.

BrokenHillsPronghorn
Pronghorn antelope
BrokenHillsDeer.jpg
You’ve got two seconds to leave before they’re outta here.

An herbivore that doesn’t need to fear coyotes-and can injure feckless or ignorant humans-is the mighty bison.  I’ve personally seen one stand off a pack of wolves in Yellowstone National Park despite a clearly broken leg.  After awhile, the wolves gave up and ambushed an elk.

IMG_0146
Viewed from Hellroaring Creek Overlook, Yellowstone National Park, 2012.

You can find traces of buffalo throughout the prairie landscape, including poop, laydown areas, and tracks dried in once muddy areas. As a prairie detective, you can take notes on where they sleep and what paths they use.

This buffalo bull at Grasslands appears unconcerned about either the weather or people.

BrokenHillsBison.jpg

People have long wandered these lands; Parks Canada literature says the park includes 12,000 known tipi rings, and drive lines that people used to direct bison (or perhaps antelope) into traps.

brokenHillsTipiRing2.jpg
Tipi ring used by native peoples skilled in anchoring shelter on windswept prairies.

I’m not a good enough prairie detective to determine whether piles of bones are a result of natural death or hunting, or how old they are. This is a harsh environment that can fatally tax young and old animals.

The bone at lower right looks really lacy and weathered, and many appeared cracked.  I could make up a whole pile of stories about these, but really, they could even hail from the previous use of the area for ranching. Note that I moved nothing, and just took pictures.

If it doesn’t work out for an animal (or you), there are always patrolling vultures to clean up the aftermath.

EastBlockVulture

Other random finds on my Broken Hills investigation include a shed antler and various flowers.

Like people long ago, I become nomadic in grasslands. Unlike those resilient, skilled people, I am not dependent on the landscape and its inhabitants. I’m just a prairie detective, with ancient genes directing me to root around for suprises hidden in the grass.

carte-maps_en2.jpg
For a printable maps of Grasslands National Park trails and other invaluable visitor information, visit Parks Canada.

 

Rest in peace, Larkey Skip

I thought I would return from back-to-back trips to Nebraska and France brimming with stories. Instead, I came home to bathe the dead.

I was going to sit down after two disparate but rich trips, one to Nebraska and one to France, and write blog articles about amazing sights, perspective shifts and unexpected connections between the two places.  I have thousands of photographs to sort, dozens of stories to tell.

I did not expect to find myself washing the dead a week after getting off a plane from Paris.

Larkey
Larkey Skip; he earned his first name after a suprise birth late in August, and the second from his lineage (Skipper W).

The namesake of this blog, my last horse, succumbed to apparent catastrophic colic on a sunny May day. I returned home from work on a warm spring evening,  walked to the barn with a cool drink, planned to give him a good bath to scrub off shedding hair and layers of dust that brushes don’t lift. Instead I found him near death, staggering and foaming at the mouth, his eyes swollen shut. I struggled to get him to the barn, then watched him drop onto the ground as I frantically called the vet. My neighbors came to help, but it was too late. I held fingers to his neck as his pulse vanished.

Shock launched my brain into that vague survival space that protects us after trauma. The next day, I numbly wandered with my neighbor around my little town trying to find a heavy equipment operator to move Larkey so his body could be collected.

Livestock disposal is increasingly tough in an area with explosive development. Fewer facilities accept the remains.   Fewer haulers service barns and veterinary clinics. They don’t like to pick up on Fridays and get stuck with carcasses in our legendary traffic. Burial is not an option where I live, right by a river in an estuary and floodplain.

IMG_3305
Brothers: Tigger stands over Larkey while they sleep.

So this is the second time I have lived with a deceased horse over a weekend. People like me still want to touch farm life and buffer ourselves against endless sprawl, condo buildings blocking out the sky, and metastatic subdivisions. People raise everything from urban chickens to llamas, goats, cattle, sheep, and horses. But end of animal life poses a challenge.

To pass time while waiting for help, I anxiously collected Larkey’s supplies- blankets and brushes and first aid and washing supplies. I loaded the truck and drove to the transfer station.  My phone rang as I left the dump: someone in the rental equipment business had called someone else, and he called to tell me he could help me move the horse the next morning.

Back home, I started to focus. Larkey would go away soon, and I would never see him again.  When I lost his brother, the veterinarian had clipped a portion of tail.  A couple weeks later, a braided segment with charms arrived in the mail.

IMG_3426.JPG
Today, this memento is mounted in a shadow box.

This time, there was no veterinarian with skilled hands to help. It was only me, and I have never been “girly”. I’m a hard-wired tomboy, with wash and wear hair and casual dress.  I can do it up if needed, and I own business and formal wear, but my dress up doesn’t extend to hair.

The only time Larkey ever bit me was over my ineptness with hair dressing. It was the first Quarterhorse show we attended together, far from home. As a late foal, he spent his first winter in Idaho fighting with mares for food, and was always defensive about food afterward. At the show, while Larkey watched other horses eat their dinners, I struggled for over an hour to part his mane into segments and braid them. Finally done, I raised my hand to remove his halter and he unleashed his pent-up anger on my wrist. I made enough of a point that it never reoccurred, but I also never again toiled over his hair during dinnertime.

 

IMG_2488So now, 15 years after we left the show ring for a peaceful life at home, I needed to braid again. This time, there would be no biting, no matter how long it took. But first, I needed to wash the mud and blackberry canes from his tail, one terrible reminder of the struggle he went through alone. As I looked at him, I decided I would wash whatever I could reach, especially his bruised face.

 

Before institutionalized handling of the deceased, families and friends prepared the dead for final rest.  Some cultures and religions still call for bathing protocols, perhaps with purified water infused with plum or herbs. For the rest of us, our loved ones are carted away, handled in an approved facility by licensed and trained individuals wearing appropriate protective gear. Our deceased reappear as ashes or as a neatly dressed body carefully made to look natural by a stranger’s hands.

For time immemorial, horses have held powerful symbolic meaning for peoples across the world. The Uffington White Horse was created by Bronze Age peoples who dug trenches up to 3 meters deep and filled them with white chalk.

Uffington-White-Horse-sat
Photo by USGS, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Horse burial was practiced by peoples across the world, sometimes in sacrificial ritual, other times to provide the deceased person with a ride to the next world or life.

Horse_burials_and_artifacts_of_Kostromskaya_Kurgan

A Scythian burial mound in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in Russia dates from the 7th century BC. The mound includes 22 horses carefully arranged. Chariot burials occurred in Rome and China, and the Nez Perce and Blackfeet peoples had specifihorse death rituals.

(Sketch of the Kostromskaya kurgan, or burial mound; public domain.)

Surely some people living on the margin of survival simply ate them; they may still have blessed the animal or performed a death ritual.

1024px-Sacrificial_horsepit_linzi_2010_06_06
Not ever doing this:  sacrificial horse pit, believed to belong to the tomb of Duke Jing of Qi who reigned from 547 to 490 BC; photo by Rolfmueller, Creative Commons, no restrictions.

I would not be following ancient peoples by skinning Larkey and stuffing the hide or creating a frame with his bones. We have regulations about those things.

But I could wash him, and now I understand the power of the bathing ritual.  Running my fingers through Larkey’s tangled tail, now clean and fresh with the scent of lavender conditioner, gently scrubbing the star on his forehead white again- it is what I would have done the night before had he lived.  He would have been tied out after a snack, arching his lip when I scrubbed itchy spots, shifting his feet to pinch off the hose, squirming if the water got cold.

IMG_0820

Washing the scuffed body clean felt like goodbye to my old, reliable friend. It felt like respect for my grumpy old gentleman, who endured my life’s twists and turns and the loss of his brother. Scrubbing his dead body would never cleanse the agony he went through, but it was the least I could do to apologize for not being home to help.

ImStillBoss
Tigger lets Larkey know he’s still boss even though he’s lame and has to graze in hand on a rope.

The braiding part came no easier for my clumsy fingers, but I had time to do it carefully.  Plaits of black, brown, blonde, and auburn wound together slowly.  For once, I was focused and calm as I twisted his thick tail into a tight braid. Sharp scissors sliced the braid clean below the tailbone. I hung the section in the house and unbraided the tail to dry.IMG_3393

Back in the paddock I placed Larkey’s bobbed tail on a clean white sack. I washed and dried his head one more time and laid it on a dry towel. I draped another white towel over his face and eyes. It felt like he went to sleep forever.

Rest in peace, grumpy, loyal Larkey Skip. I hope to forget your final hour, but I will never forget you. I will need to take a road trip, go to the prairie in a few weeks, to watch the sky and reimagine my life after 30 years with horses. And this blog remains a dedication to your companionship for the last 20.

IMG_1237

What’s in a name? Everything.

Why I’m driven to bring a voice and face to the erased.

It’s Thanksgiving and time to be grateful. I’m grateful today for fellow blogger @historyboots for her recent article on the proper name for the big, shaggy creatures that I’m slaving to promote.

I’m in the last lap of this ESRI Story Map package on the North American buffalo. It’s long past the story shaping part that I enjoy the most. Now it’s editing out extra spaces, finding better words (the best words!), trimming sentences and content, checking whether the visuals tell the story.  Shaun is making the pretty maps; I’m helping out entering coordinates, photos and descriptions for the simple ones.

CoverFollowTheTrail

I wouldn’t dare put this on an equal footing with my niece-in-law’s pregnancy, but I have a smidgeon of the same anxiety that something could go wrong at the last minute (with far less consequence, of course).  I obsessively back everything up, screenshot, and capture text. I worry that when I launch it, the photos won’t show up and the links won’t work.  Or it won’t load as a published product. Or no one will care.

This project has become far more consuming than I expected, but I’ve become more determined as this story has revealed itself.  The last lap of this marathon is now driven by listening to Japanese Americans, Native Americans, African Americans, and even the deaf and blind communities talk about “historic erasure” at the National Association for Interpretation conference a couple weeks ago.

Erasure is using semantics in a magic trick that makes people’s histories completely disappear.  Take the term “wilderness”:  poof, and all the footsteps that fell on the land vanish! European Americans did not “discover” anything, really: there were people here already, and their feet touched many parts of the country with only an oral record of their passage.  If you ignore that record, then voila- “wilderness” and “discovery”.

Moccasin,_1225_-_1275_AD,_Promontory_Cave_I,_Utah,_bison_hide_with_hair_turned_inside_-_Natural_History_Museum_of_Utah_-_DSC07295
This moccasin comes from Promontory Cave in Utah, and was worn in the 1200’s, long before white immigrants arrived in North America. Photo by Daderot, public domain.

I even realized how rarely I see people with hearing impairments in communications products like video. This Smithsonian video welcoming two bison back to the National Zoo is an exception, because one of the bison is named after an alumnus of Gallaudet University, established for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

ScreenShotSmithsonianBison
How often do you see someone signing in a video? Captions are great, but better yet, let’s show a real person communicating.

As I’ve noted in an earlier post, I was on a bison road trip , visiting First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park ,when I discovered the story of how three native men and Canada spurred bison conservation in the United States. I recently learned from Harvey Locke’s “Last Buffalo Returns to the Wild”  that the oft-told tale of Samuel Walking Coyote rescuing buffalo calves may ignore an unsung hero:  Walking Coyote’s stepson, Latatitsa. Locke says that a “robust tribal memory” credits Latatitsa, and that Walking Coyote sold the small herd to Pablo and Allard when his stepson was away.

If I have gained anything besides the ability to make gifs and simple maps from this experience, it is the ability to detect, almost by echolocation, discrimination by semantics. And a drive to do what I can to bring voice and face to the erased, whether they be people or great brown shaggy beasts.

BisonPoster

For a great article on the power of words, read Lauren’s blog post (and see the awesome photo of the bison wearing stick bling):

What’s the Difference Between Bison and Buffalo?

You’re in a national park in North America. You see some large hairy brown bovines. Buffalo, right? Or are they bison? Which is which? There are those that will answer, simply, “well, ‘bison’ is right and ‘buffalo’ is wrong. ‘Buffalo’ are only in Africa and Asia.” While technically true (sort of), such an answer ignores colonialist dynamics and a lot of fascinating history. This kind of question is just the one to present to a historian!

 

Coming up for air

Following buffalo down a long and winding trail

SlipperyAnnCamp
This campsite at Slippery Ann Wildlife Viewing Area looks tidy.  But there is a quad cab filled with gear out of view.

It’s taking me forever to unpack from my last trip to Montana. I’m recovering from the fourth trip in a year following bison, North America’s largest mammal. I run one more load of wash, bundle up tent cord, sort bins and stuff sacks, and clean camera gear. I struggle through re-entry again, obsessively returning to my computer morning and night to work on this story map project, tracing the trail of bison from past to present.

And a voice in the back of my distracted head asks why this is happening again.

Part of the problem lies with me. I finally confessed in a recent presentation to a fundamental characteristic and character flaw. Something out of pattern catches my eye, and if it piques my curiosity, I follow it, getting caught up sometimes for years. This behavior can lead either to enlightenment or to despair, if you think about it.

My neighbor from the Conservation District got me signed up for the annual bareroot plant sale 14 years ago (maybe 15).  I was hooked when my red flowering currant became a beacon for hummingbirds. A sort of mad scientist/greedy gardener took over and I spent years buying and propagating thousands of plants to get more wildlife. I became a Native Plant Steward, and volunteered to give workshops and classes to thousands of people. I blogged about my backyard wildlife, gave away plants, took thousands of photos, started making videos.

Blame this chapter on the stoic and infinite bison, and the human history they drag behind them like clattering cans tied to a wedding limousine. Only this wedding, it turns out, is an arranged marriage where the bison might need a divorce from an abusive spouse.

YNPRestingBull.jpg

I planned my first trip to Yellowstone National Park to explore America’s oldest national park and to see grizzly bears. I did my homework to stay out of trouble around wildlife. When a large herd with agitated bulls spread across Mary Mountain Trail, we high-sided the slope, skirting through the woods where grizzlies might lurk. The grizzlies seemed lower risk compared to the snorting, pawing bulls. Whenever we arrived at a new campsite, we waited out the customary giant bull resting in the shade.

SloughCreekValley
Sunset tinged with wildfire smoke in Slough Creek Valley.

The last backpack trip journeyed into Slough Creek Valley. I was comfortable enough around bison to bail out two New York fly fishermen who got pinned on top of their bear box when a big herd took over their camp. One evening, I sat eating dinner on a hill overlooking the valley watching a big herd flow slowly through the valley. The low rumble rolling across the herd and through the valley reminded me of some National Geographic image showing herd migrations in Africa or the Arctic.

YNPBisonMeadow.jpg

Of course, Yellowstone treats visitors to a perspective on co-managing large wildlife and people. I came away realizing how disconnected most of us are from nature:  we view the outdoors as a zoo, a playground, and a fitness trail. I realized how poorly wildlife mixes with roads and cars and our impatience with anything that creates traffic disruption.

YNPBisonJam

During a wolf workshop at Lamar Buffalo Ranch the next spring, it became apparent that bison tolerate us but don’t need us. A lone bison bull hung around the ranch, resting on the shoveled paths and scratching his rear on the cabin railing. He seemed to be taking advantage of what we build, but it didn’t mean he and his brethren need us. On a field trip, I watched through a spotting scope as a bull hobbling on a broken leg stood up to a hungry pack of wolves. Surprisingly, they backed down from the injured bison and ambushed an elk instead. That’s tough.

YNPLamarBison.jpgIMG_0146Then I wandered onto American Prairie Reserve, where the future vision is as expansive as the prairie horizon. APR envisions a 3-million acre fabric of private/public lands for bison, other wildlife, and people to roam free. The bison were boss in the unit I visited. There were no bison jams. I could wander across grasslands on all-encompassing treasure hunts to see rocks, fossils, and flowers. The skies were big, uncrowded. I found peace.

I happily spend most of my free time alone, but I like to communicate. So I wanted to tell about this place, put bison in a natural conext and beckon people to the ocean of grasslands they are missing. A simple story, right?

And then I stumbled on the winding and overgrown trail into bison history. See, I bought into the Yellowstone narrative of a few years ago. The U.S. government saved the remaining 25 bison after twenty years of intense and deliberate extermination. The army helped save them from poachers and founded the National Park Service. Today, they’re doing just fine- almost half a million on the ground.

Then I found out most bison are in commercial herds, and they have leftover cattle genes. Over a century after the slaughter ended, there are only an estimated 8,000 pure bison in the wild.

And there isn’t just one heroic bison savior story rooted in the right intentions.  Profiteering played a role. Then I found out how three men with native blood and the Canadian government triggered the establishment of public herds in the United States. I followed the Pablo-Allard herd to Elk Island National Park in Alberta, but found no Hallmark Holiday Special ending for these animals. Those animals, along with elk and moose, were destined for long-gone Buffalo National Park. When they overran the park, animals were shipped to Wood Bison National Park. Cross-breeding with their cousins and disease almost doomed wood bison to extinction.  Buffalo Park failed after 31 years.  The Department of Defence took over the property and today keeps a small herd in memory of the past.

The Canadian government learned lessons from the past, but has the U.S.?  Elk Island National Park has taken public comment on alternatives to keep bison, moose and elk at healthy numbers.  Meanwhile, America’s National Bison Range is described in a Missoulian article as “popular, poor, and rudderless”.

And those stories just keep surfacing.

Along the way I came across buffalo jumps, the most spectacular form of communal hunting practiced by Plains Indians. I stood at jumps and imagined tension followed by the breathtaking explosion of a stampede. I touched shards of ancient, splintered bone eroding from the old blood kettles at First Peoples Buffalo Jump. I followed the trail to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.  I read Jack Brink’s vibrant book about Plains Indians, communal hunting and this special site.

Buffalo_jump
Buffalo Jump, 1900, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I discovered the tsunami effect of western expansion across North American, and how hubris and profiteering triggered the near extinction of bison. The perspective is chilling given the federal government’s current drive to go back in time.

American_progress
American Progress, by John Gast, 1872.  We still seem to think it works this way today. Public domain, via Library of Congress.

My bedside table is stacked with books and papers. Some chronicle history and others propose strategies to preserve truly wild bison into the future.

IMG_2459
This is before I ordered the next dozen books. Really.

 

Bison don’t need us; they can take care of themselves.  They just need land to grow and roam, and water. Aside from a few large herds, there are 80 bison here, 100 there.  Wild bison survival depends on big herds in big places, shaping the land and being shaped by nature.

BisonOnRange.jpgBison may not need people, but we still need wild bison and wild places.  We need them to remind us there are healthier, more viable alternatives to an urban life dominated by the technology explosion. We’re careening blindly toward a future of self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, and chat bots managing us via social media.  We need to remember we’re not that far from our roots, that we are still governed by nature.  We need bison to teach us some history lessons so we don’t repeat the worst of the past.  We need them to school us in patience and give us peace.

And while I need to come up for air and take care of everyday things, I really need to get this story out. It’s haunting me now.

APRBisonLeaving2

Following the buffalo trail

Discovering the trail is magical; unpacking it all is the hard part.

APRBisonTrail1

My fourth trip following bison tracks from past to present is over.  The unpacking part starts now:  not just camping and photography gear, field sketches and notes, but also new perspectives and stories from people who know bison history and bison from intense exposure.

I followed this trail to inform an artist-in-residence project.  I have met historians, archeologists, geologists, bison managers, rangers, restorationists, communicators, and interpreters.  I have put thousands of miles on my car and truck.  And I have only started.  Bison trails are more straight and true than their historic path from the Ice Age to today.

BisonLoopRd2
Bison or buffalo?  Technically, they are bison, but go ahead and call them either name.  “Buffalo” is so engrained in our vocabulary and history that it works, too. 

It wasn’t until I picked up a book at First People’s Buffalo Jump in Montana that I learned about the Pablo-Allard herd and Canada’s contribution to saving wild bison. It wasn’t until I talked to a historian at Elk Island National Park in Alberta that I learned there was once a Buffalo National Park that failed miserably. At Elk Island, the superb interpreters revealed how challenging it is to manage bison on defined land base within fences. Despite a robust relocation program that most recently airlifted bison to Banff National Park, Elk Island completed public outreach on alternatives to control the population, including hunting in the park.

APRBisonBullBuddies
Bachelor bulls, American Prairie Reserve

One constant is the type of people involved with bison.  They are passionate, committed, and generous with their knowledge. They want people to be drawn to bison, to make them an integral  and eternalpart of our natural heritage. “Bison nerds” are a small but tight international group committed to making sure that these animals don’t disappear forever. They are ecologically extinct — there are no free-roaming herds — but conservation herds shaped by nature still dot the landscape.

Since these large, migratory animals spread across North America, driving grassland ecology, the bison trail leads to a variety of landscapes and places, .  2000px-Bison_original_range_map.svg

MapLegendBisonRange

YNPBison1Plains Indian tribes followed these animals across North America, leaving their own trail, including camps, kill sites, and ritual locations. My first visit to a buffalo jump led to places where I could understand communal hunting, from Madison Buffalo Jump to the superb Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. This World Heritage site is the best preserved in the world with a phenomenal interpretive center.

HSIBJSign3

Buffalo led a huge parade of life in their wake as they shaped the landscape. I caught sight of many creatures that followed bison, but wondered about all the animals that disappeared with wild bison.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Along the way, I have met so many wonderful, caring, and friendly people; walked so many beautiful landscapes; imagined the sounds and sights of prairies once teeming with life. It is hard to unpack it all and assemble the important bits into a story that will inspire others to experience the buffalo trail for themselves. But I will try.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Box Elder Crossing- taking off the training wheels

BoxElderCrossingRemember when you first felt freedom?  Whether freedom is frightening or thrilling, people usually have a “first freedom” story.  We realized we get to make choices about our lives, vote, leave on a plane by ourselves for the first time, walk through the door on our own apartment or house.

I felt my first taste of footloose freedom in the wildlife areas of Eastern Washington. Hiking through LT Murray, I followed game trails and jeep roads past hunting camps empty since the previous fall.  I camped where ever I wanted, not in a numbered, reserved site. This is nothing like Western Washington, where piles of branches cut off social paths, signs point the way, and you are reminded to stay on the trail-always!

To be fair, the impact of too many feet on wet ground is the reason for these restrictions.  The dry side of the state has firmer ground and fewer lug sole boots treading the trail.

But confinement to a path creates a strange geometric mindset.  You hike to a point and back, and hopefully the point has a view, a meadow, or a lake. If you’re lucky, you are on a loop so that you can go in a circle. Signs may point the way. Mountaineering gives some freedom, but you’re probably following a documented route, whether it’s drawn on a map or downloaded on a phone. There is little loneliness to be found:  lines form on some hiking trails and volcano hikes.

You don’t just wander here.

So I felt like a refugee from a land of rules on my first trip to American Prairie Reserve.  I waited to go there until there was an online reservation system to ensure a campsite.  I made sure I had my America the Beautiful public lands pass for Charles Russell Wildlife Refuge.

BoxElderBull

And then I found out about public access in Montana.   Campground full?  There is dispersed camping on public lands, with a few guidelines to keep things clean for others.  A ranger stopped to ask if I was okay when I was walking the road with a pack, not to check my pass. He thought maybe I left behind a car with a flat.  He gave me his map and told me I didn’t have to walk the road and jeep tracks. If I wandered back in the hills, I could see lots of grouse, he said.

Montana felt like freedom writ large.

My first hike on Box Elder crossing was an exercise in removing training wheels.  I stayed on the dirt two track for a way, then saw the smooth black face of a hill with golden grass catching the sun.  Bison trails went that way.  I followed their tracks across the creek and up the hill, and found another hill and another.  A potpourri of rocks poked up from the dirt, inviting examination, sometimes on hands and kness.  I sat on that hill and looked across the prairie landscape and realized I could keep wandering for days.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In May, I made three trips across Box Elder Creek, one to trek across to Reynolds Road, one to just wander, and another to field sketch.  I followed bison trails and wandered off the jeep track.  A couple snakes scolded me from the grass. I tiptoed around the bison bulls but couldn’t avoid scaring the cows.  I found rocks and eggs and bugs. BoxElderMonument

Later in my trip, I met a friendly birding couple in the coin laundromat at Malta.  They told me their freedom story.  They lived in Texas, and had just purchased a home that would be their last.  Then they visited friends in Montana.  When they realized how much freedom there is in Montana compared to Texas, they sold the house without ever having slept a night in it, moved to Missoula, and never turned back.

Sure, wandering around the prairie means you’re watching for snakes.  Bad weather can sweep in when you’re out in the open.  You need enough water because it doesn’t stream off the mountains like home. But you are free to roam, relax, and explore.  When you live in a place like my home- or Texas, apparently, you remember that.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Buffalo Camp

Waking up in a postage stamp picture

CampsiteSomehow I missed that stage in adulthood where people decide camping is too hard, and either stay in motels or travel in trailers with a compact semblance of home.  I hit motels on long driving days, or when I need a shower and a real meal.

The memory of lying at night on a guest bed in my grandma’s screened porch stuck with me. Away from noisy, scorching inner-city Chicago, I watched fireflies in the cool night air, fell asleep with the sound of crickets, and woke to the sound of birds. To this day, I leave my windows open in summer, with birds as my alarm clock.

Buffalo Camp at American Prairie Reserve is my yard multiplied, with bison to boot. When I traveled to the Reserve in May, I woke up each morning to big skies and birdsong. As I was making coffee, a bachelor band of bison would wander by, taking a leisurely breakfast.  Deer often tiptoed behind them looking like spies trying to fade into a crowd. A medley of colorful birds made the rounds, hopping from ground to shrub to sign or platform.  Rabbits hopped, nibbled, and hopped again, ever watchful.

BuffaloCampToMyself
More people need to camp here to protect my car from maurauding rabbits.

Any postcard picture has a few stories hidden behind the carefully crafted image.  During last September’s trip, I woke one night to a terrible thumping under the hood of my car, and found a rabbit trying to turn it into a burrow.  I am told they can eat wiring and hoses in the process, so I was lucky to catch it early.  The trick is to move the car every day, which feels wrong when the stay is meant to be about hiking.

The first night of this trip, I woke in the night and decided conditions were right to view a universe of stars without the light pollution of home.  I strolled to the bathroom without a headlamp, and stood outside afterward to gaze upward. Something caught my ear: the croaking of a bullfrog?  Not quite awake, I thought it seemed odd.  Then another croak, then another.  Suddenly I realized that there simply wasn’t enough water for bullfrogs. Those sounds were grunts coming from bison lying around the bathroom.  I carefully retreated down the path.

APRBisonPeekaboo
A bachelor band of bison bulls camped around me most nights.  Flattened spots around camp came from a few nights before I arrived, when the whole herd sacked out in Buffalo Camp.

A couple nights later, I woke to a grunt and sniff right behind my head.  The only thing between me and the bison was flimsy yellow-green nylon.  I wasn’t worried about getting stepped on since the tent was elevated on a platform. The tent was tied down right on the edge of the platform instead of the middle, so he could stand there and investigate it.  I wasn’t sure what – if anything- to worry about.

I could hear the animal lower himself to the ground, first one end, then the other. He lay right behind me, close enough that I could smell him.  His head moved back and forth like he was grooming, and he leaned back on the tent. He may have been scratching off loose hair with his horns.  Little gurgling sounds bubbled up from the digestive labyrinth that processes and re-processes food.  He seemed to burp.

This was awkward.

APRBisonKestrel6
Downright itchy.  Sorry I can’t help, big guy.

I’m one of those people who can fall asleep anywhere, like crowded train stations in foreign countries where unguarded, you can be robbed or killed.  I’m usually awake and curious, but if I need sleep, I can get it.  In this case, I fell asleep after awhile because I was tired from hiking and had no choice.  I woke to a sigh, the sound of cloven hooves scraping gravel, and one slow step after another as he walked away.

The next morning, as on most mornings I was there, the sun rose on what looked like a scene printed on a historic postage stamp.  Bison and deer, birds in the sage and shrubs and trees, pale yellow willow catkins lighting up in the sun. APRBisonBuffaloCamp

There are no longer herds of bison, deer, and antelope stretching for miles.  And I’m camping, but I have food and water with me, portable electronics and a high speed way to reach a doctor or grocery store if I need to.  I’m housed in hi-tech fabric and poles. I’m sleeping swathed in synthetic fabric, not skins.

But here in Buffalo Camp, I could imagine myself as one of the early foreign travelers  as I stepped out of my shelter to a dazzling variety of life moving across the landscape.

For more views of Buffalo Camp, watch the rough little video below.  To check it out yourself, visit here.