Finding solid ground in Saskatchewan

Sometimes, being a runaway and accepting the kindness of strangers brings you home again.

Filmstrip0001You look up from your breakfast cereal as a 7-year old and your mother tells you you’re a helium balloon.

“You will always need a hand to hold that balloon string,” she says. “Or you’ll just drift away on the breeze.”

My mother knew early on that I would never really be settled. To make it in this rigid world, I would need ties to something solid.  When her steady hand vaporized in a terrible accident, I knew those ties wouldn’t likely be human anymore. I made it on my own, and settled in with what I could live with:  horses, dogs, wildlife, career.

On left are the first horses of my life, strolling through small town Midwest like you do. On right is the last horse, when he and my nephew were about the same age.

I earned my way and gave back a lot of volunteer time. I traveled, learned new outdoor sports, and almost bit the dust a few times. When my first career betrayed me, I found a new one to support my home, hobbies, and animal companions.

Then slowly, I lost one animal after another to age and illness.  After awhile I didn’t replace them; it was tiring being the Noble Queen of Death. Twenty years after he arrived, my last horse died in agony at my feet this spring. I watched him chained up into a truck bed and hauled away. Now it’s just me, the wildlife, my doubts, and my job.

After Larkey died, my unmoored balloon went adrift. The first week, I donned my barn clothes by habit every morning, but there was no one to feed. I didn’t go out to his paddock when I got home from work. There was no one to turn in, and nothing but signs of struggle there.

I was wracked with guilt about the ten thousand lost moments when I could have done something better for him after his brother died. All the times I worked too long, rushed chores, and left him to eat dinner alone. Sometimes I left him alone for my travels.

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I spent the whole first summer at my new house cleaning out and repairing the barn. It is nothing fancy, but I am very blessed as a once poor kid to have a home of my own.

I tried to reimagine the barn. I planted flowers in his feed bins. I left the doors open day and night because closed, it looked like a tomb that might trap him if he ever decided to come back.

LarkeyFlowers07012018Still, nightmares drove me sleepwalking to feed ghosts in the barn. Reassuring daily routines ended. I had failed Larkey. I failed all of them. Everyone and everything.

Before I drove myself crazy, I did what comes naturally: pack up and go. I’m guessing most folks don’t take two back-to-back 1000- mile road trips to Saskatchewan just to get away. But that first drive in June meant hours to daydream, the ghosts disappearing in between the highway lines flowing past the rearview mirror.

IMG_3672And Saskatchewan welcomes wandering souls looking to lose themselves to endless sky and mysterious lands. The northern reach of the Great Plains, southern Saskatchewan is scoured by ancient glacial floods and swept constantly by wind. Where the land is not broken for crops, dinosaurs sleep in shallow soil beneath the bones of bison and the stones of tipi camps.

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I could live there. Frenchman Valley, Grasslands National Park, rainbow after a storm.

On a few high plateaus, forests cluster against potential invasion by the surrounding plain. The Frenchman River bends upon itself in a tight ribbon, winding through dry country on its way to meet the Milk and the Missouri.

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A thousand miles from my house, the Frenchman River winds through a windswept, peaceful landscape.

After storms roll over the land, emerging sunlight light illuminates the rivulets of long-evaporated torrents. After the wind and lightning, sometimes stinging hail, you can step into the low sun and let grief rise on the wind and draw into the retreating clouds.

EastBlockStormLest you think I wallow in drama, know that I am damn good at putting on a face and going through the motions. I made it through college finals two weeks after my mother was killed. I lent a shoulder and an ear to anyone who needed it when a friend shot herself. I’m a pro. I don’t cry.

And I know how to occupy myself while the worst of the hurt fades.

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Need perspective on how trivial your life and cares are? Hold a 65+ million year old fossil.

So it made perfect sense to return to Saskatchewan when a budding Parks Canada paleontologist told me that Grasslands National Park hosts a fossil hunting week in August.  Hunt for dinosaur fossils? Sure, never done that. Never met a live paleontologist.  Hang with the visitors and locals who come for barbecue and music on Saturday? Perfect. I could have fun playing science tourist, put on a face, and forget.

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Familiar beefy butts of ranching horses.

Then my mask got knocked a little sideways when the horses started arriving for the Saturday wagon rides.  These are tourist rides. Not long rides, but long enough to make you wonder how the backs of westward-bound pioneers did not break as their wagons rumbled across on the prairie. At the turnaround point, a young interpreter gives a short talk about grasslands. Other local folk bring their horses and ride along.

A rancher with one arm packed in a sling rode a white horse. No, they don’t need shoes here, she answered.  It’s dry enough that their feet don’t go soft and sag, get bruised by rocks and then abcess. And shoes would be terrible fire hazard, with metal spraying sparks from rocks. Of course, I said. She knew what rain rot is, and why our West Coast horses wear blankets when the skies cry all winter.

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Left to right, a Clydesdale, Percheron, the dun horse, and a good ol’ fashioned bay Quarterhorse. Oh, and really uncomfortable people on a wagon.  There is a reason pioneers were often seen walking beside wagons.

Then there was the dun horse.  I know what dun is: a gene that dilutes the hair color but leaves a pattern of dark hair in a dorsal stripe and ear tips. Tail and legs can be dark, with a “primitive” zebra pattern on the lower legs. I know this from books, but I’d never met one. It’s a different color, subtle, maybe not flashy enough for some of the more chrome-conscious horse folks I’ve known.

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The dun horse on right- you can see the leg striping.  I forgot to ask why everyone cuts tails short- we spend a lot of time and money on tail bags to make them long. Lots of folks here talked about riding rodeo, where long tails could be a problem.

I asked Mr. Norris if he was raising his horses, but no, he said they were bought. The family had given up on horses and used ATVs. He still rode. He asked me if I had horses.

“No, lost the last one. Likely bad colic, couldn’t do anything by the time I found him. You know how it goes.” I looked away at the hills.

“I’m so sorry,” he said.

We got back from the short, joint-wracking ride with time to spare before the barbecue. I sat on the porch of my rental tent cabin and watched the wagons and riders leave again. After they returned, a jackrabbit thought triggered me to grab my camera and go down to the gathering place.  I found Mr. Norris and his dun horse.

“Do you mind if I take a photo or two of your horse?” I asked. “I do some art, and I’d like to sketch your horse.  I’ve never seen a dun before.”

I couldn’t tell him I lacked the heart to put my own to paper or canvas.

He helped me get the horse’s attention, because a horse will always back its ears up and lay them flat when it sees a camera.  They’re not like kids today, who spring into a pose when a lens appears. It’s beneath horses to clown for cameras.

Then Mr. Norris handed me a rein and just said, “Here, hang on to this.” He walked away.

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Study of the patient and helpful dun horse.

I wouldn’t get on someone else’s horse unless expressly invited, but I wondered anyway. Instead, I did post duty and held the horse, carrying out what even the most outwardly polite, well trained horse appreciates: ear scratching.

“Getting on that widow maker?” asked a wagon driver.

I smiled and rubbed the horse’s neck, watching for the eyelid droop that signals a polite horse is grateful.

When Mr. Norris came back, I handed the reins back and thanked him.

He swung up into the saddle for the next ride along and said, “You know what Winston Churchill said, right? The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man. Or in your case, a woman.”

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You can see the park fire danger sign behind these Percherons- level at “extreme”. There is a reason these big guys aren’t wearing shoes!

And it finally stopped. The bleeding inside, the catholic guilt. Something closed up, something quieted down. Without meaning to, Mr. Norris and his dun horse rode off with my ghosts and buried them somewhere in the sunburnt grass, the dusty ancient floodway, lying out there with the dinosaurs and the bison bones.

I went to the barbecue, and sat peaceful for the paleontology talk and music by local folk. It was like being back in small town Midwest again, only with science.

When I drove into my yard a few days later, the barn stood peeling in the sun. It was just a messy, neglected building needing painting and a good cleanout. Barn swallows, garter snakes, and bats ruled it all summer. Mud nests bulged from rafters. Occasional domes of guano ate at the concrete aggregate in the aisle. Feathers drifted in puffs of breeze.

Dusty water buckets and empty brush bins leaned unsteady in crooked stacks. The tarps still laid balled up on the floor from that last numb run to the dump with blankets and halters.

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It was just a barn again. Labor Day was coming. I could start cleaning it then.

I closed the doors.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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!
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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.

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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.

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Lovely little butterflies waiting their turn to access moist poop, lower right.
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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.

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Pronghorn antelope
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Following the buffalo trail

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

The richness of barrens

They are only empty of people and our stuff.

RoadTrip13Disasters aren’t disasters without images of people’s damaged belongings. After a flood, our screens scroll images of drowned livestock, crushed barns, mangled cars, crumpled roads and bridges. Earthquakes shear highways and splinter houses into junk piles with people trapped underneath. The awful feeling wouldn’t be there without us; it would just be an event.

Through our people-focused lens, the prairie is a vast nothingness. Farmsteads are few and far between down dirt roads that take the gloss off a car and wear on tires. Towns are small and spare, with trucks and trains roaring by. The wind seems endless sometimes, scouring uncertain settlers from homesteads. Ranch kids leave for something else and the population is declining. The people that remain are durable. They shoulder the weather and poor livestock prices without newsworthy anguish.

RoadTrip12The speeding automobile smears the landscape into a monotonous panorama stretching for hours. We grow stiff from sitting and it seems endless. But speed did not create this impression of the prairie. Even settlers who rumbled along in wagons or on foot didn’t see the complexity of the landscape. There seem to be more books about hard life than prairie songs on the shelves.

KippSnakeSignInnocence is the culprit, aided by fear. Powered by animal or fuel, we travel the prairie as if in a foreign land. It looks different from our homes. The sky looms larger, with a hundred-mile view of circling weather and no hint what it means to us. Cacti lurk on the ground and rattlesnakes in the sage. The prairie has a different rhythm that enchants the curious or unnerves the timid.

PrairieFalconEach journey to dry country fills my eyes with the richness of seemingly barren land. This trip is my first as an artist to American Prairie Reserve. As a hiker, I experienced the wealth of life and that occupies that flat, apparently empty space. This time I examined the land as an artist seeking themes. I found a vast history underground as well as underfoot. I imagined the northeastern Montana prairie in three rich dimensions.

But first…..

A long drive comes before imagination takes over. I like these drives to separate from my daily life. This time, that regular life followed me down the road a way before falling back.

I traveled from First People’s Buffalo Jump toward American Prairie Reserve.  I knew I wouldn’t make the whole drive in one day, having spent over half the day at the state park. I camped at James Kipp Recreation Area as a squatter in the empty float camp by the river, hoping that no rafting parties would show up.

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The campsite was surrounded by trees and full of birds, including a flock of goldfinches that hopped among the grass and picked dandelion seeds.

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The campground paths were a good place to walk off hip stiffness caused by mannequin-like activity required for work.  Whether I sit or stand, I am tethered to a keyboard and don’t move enough.  I have a lot of meetings and a long commute. The stiffness wore off  through the trip, but required attention and anti-inflammatory topical gel at first.

KippBenchMy car also displayed the damage of regular life.

A few weeks before my departure, an inebriated young woman injured my car- though not me. With the addition of crash wrap and gorilla tape, my Subaru was fit to travel. We fit in just fine in a state with vehicles commonly held together with tape or baling twine.

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Doesn’t look bad from the back, and black gorilla tape blends in a little on the front.

Back at home, insurance investigations and legal actions were in motion. The activity caught up with me the next day on the final leg of my journey to the prairie.

As I traveled Dry Fork Road to American Prairie Reserve, my phone rang. I glanced at the number, wondering where those cell phone towers lurked. Since the area code was my own,  I pulled over and answered the call. It wasn’t my neighbor with a sick horse call, though. I found myself talking to my county’s prosecuting attorney. He called to explain the restitution letter I had questions about. He let me know a subpoena to witness was in the mail, and a trial date was set. In a soft accent from somewhere else, he politely explained the process.

Parked on a road in open range country, my car attracted the attention of a fine-looking herd of cattle. They drifted closer and closer as we talked. Finally a drooling bull shoved his head into the window and bawled.

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“Uh, I should probably explain where I’m at,” I said.

While the PA was apologetic for interrupting my vacation, I told him it was a good time to have that talk. I knew a trial could happen, just like it did when my mother died in pretty much the same circumstances. And I was going to a magical place where I could let the terrible irony roll off me.

APRDirectionalSignIn the end, he wished me a good vacation and I continued my journey to Buffalo Camp. I set up my tent and sat down for dinner, watching the sun set over rich barrens ripe for exploration.

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