September 2016- People would feel foolish standing on the deck of a boat looking out over the ocean and declaring that nothing could be living underneath the water simply because they couldn’t see it. Yet the same people drive past expansive grasslands and open country saying that “nothing’s out there” because they can’t see it.
Grasslands are like the ocean, with a sea of life swimming past. The land undulates like waves, hiding animals from view. The frothy grass heads washed windward mask a multitude of little things. You just have to wade through the grass and find these things.
The easiest to find are the birds because they will rise above the waves of grass. Harriers swoop low over the land, trying to scare up rodents. Falcons, hawks and owls perch on fenceposts and in trees by creeks to scan for meals. Even doves and meadowlarks use whatever they can find as a singing platform.
Then there are the mammals that can move through the grass, but use it for shade and cover. Deer, pronghorns, bison all eat the grass, bed down in it, move through it. Deer have a way of appearing suddenly out of grasslands, invisible until you get a white flag flipped in your face and see slender legs bounding away from you.
Prairie dogs live under the sea bottom, and coyotes hunt at the bottom. Black footed ferrets, rabbits and badgers keep the dogs company, while the real canids sniff around looking for a rodent, berry, or insect meal.
And then there are the really little things- bugs and bones, plants and fungi, rocks and flowers. Even geologic monuments installed long, long ago. Finding all the interesting living and non-living things in a grassland sea even a mile square can take you hours, from dawn to dusk to catch them all.
September 2016- On my first day at American Prairie Reserve, I decided to walk the road to the Buffalo Jump by Jones and Telegraph Creeks. I loaded up a pack with water, lunch, snacks, clothes, and binoculars, brought two cameras, and set off on foot, using the same mode of transportation as the Plains Indians to approach the site hundreds of years ago.
Why walk? It’s a decent gravel road. Trucks haul trailers on this road. People drive and mountain bike it. Walking the road is unusual enough that a USFWS ranger stopped to ask if I needed help.
I could have gotten there in my car and then added on a whole lot more to my day, but there are many reasons to walk. First, because I can. As a young-in-life owner of a fake hip joint, I know what it feels like to hobble in agony 1/3 mile down a flat road to the mailbox. I know how small the world becomes when everything is about managing pain, how you lose peripheral vision and fight discouragement. Walking for me – and many people- is a restored blessing, and I don’t take it for granted.
I wanted to take it slow, look at the landscape, find the little things. I couldn’t do that from a car or bike. And finally, I’m so sick of sitting in a cubicle, a car, a train, a bus that I could run screaming. I wanted outside, sun and wind on my face.
After a mile or so past camp, I passed the Enrico Science Center, a remodeled ranch home. The vans you see parked there were assisting the 2016 Transect, an 11-day trek across North Central Montana hosted by APR. I ran into the group and APR staff at the Buffalo Jump and was instantly converted by their sunny friendliness (shocking, as I live in the land of the notoriously unfriendly “Seattle Freeze”).
On my trek to the jump, I found butterflies, prairie dogs, and of course, bison. I flushed upland birds (probably grouse), took pictures of tracks and scat, and put one foot in front of the other, mile after mile.
The road traverses into Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, and eventually crosses a bridge over what I believe is Jones Creek. By that time I’d met the ranger, who sympathetically gave me his NWR map, saying I would need it, and recommending a trip to the elk viewing area on the auto tour road (later post on that).
The road wound upward to the top of a hill blanketed with clumps of yellow-flowered brush perhaps marking where long-ago tipis would have stood as the First Peoples prepared to herd bison to their death below.
Buffalo jumps may seem gruesome to us today because we don’t see our food die. Unless we’re farmers or hunters, harvest occurs in slaughterhouses far away from our tables. For all we know, steaks are made in a factory and shrink-wrapped in plastic and styrofoam.
First Peoples used suitable natural cliff formations in an organized effort to harvest an animal that at the time, was far more dangerous to hunt on foot. Buffalo jumps are full of secrets from long ago: no one seems to have a good handle on the dates they were used, and conventional wisdom about their use falls all the time. The only thing that seems sure is that Plains Indians stopped using the jumps when horses became available.
Like me, the Plains Indians would have reached the jump on foot. Unlike me, they were supremely fit, trained, acculturated, and prepared for a dangerous effort critical to their survival.Experience and ritual guided a highly coordinated effort.
Buffalo jumps are sacred to Native Americans even though all known jumps have been excavated, sometimes for bones to be used as fertilizer and other times to either steal or preserve the past. Out of respect, I ate my lunch across the road from the jump, where I met the friendly people on the APR Transect.
I didn’t really know what to look for at these sites until I later visitied the Madison Buffalo Jump. There, I was enlightened by excellent, informative signage, and could imagine the drive up a ramp behind the jump, and the massive processing occuring near a creek below the jump. I’m glad there isn’t signage at APR- it would have stood out by a mile in the landscape- but I will go there again with wiser eyes after having done some reading.
On the return trip, I passed two little snakes in the road, enjoying the heat of day. One was a Western rattlesnake, the other I can’t tell (looks like a prairie hognose, but doesn’t have the upturned nose- so much for pictures on the Web).
Snake on road, id unknown
…even when they are something we need to watch for
I thought about all the perils the Plains Indians faced just trying to survive. Weather, starvation, predators, snakes, childbirth, and on and on. If I had lived then, I would have been among the women processing bison for hide, meat, brain, sinew, bladder. One of the women working for the survival of my people. And yet, the only thing I have in common with those brave, strong women was that I came to the site on foot.
I have returned to Yellowstone National Park a half dozen times. I’ve backpacked, hiked, taken classes and certification training at the park. I’m a member of Yellowstone Association and a monthly donor to the Yellowstone Park Foundation. But after my trip to the solitude and freedom of American Prairie Reserve, my visit to Yellowstone made me feel like the child of an unpredictable and inconsistent parent.
Yellowstone is having a rough year during the centennial celebration of the National Parks. Record numbers of visitors arrived at the park. One hundred years after the military got poaching and illegal mining and logging under control, the 22nd death in a hot spring occurred. Some decided to ignore the many signs around hot springs: six people caught on video off trail, four Canadians strolling on Grand Prismatic Spring, and tourists who bundled up a baby bison in the back of their car to bring it to warmth, leading to its being put down.
And YNP has a controversial image as wildlife stewards. The park was under fire again after they announced a huge cull of bison under a controversial agreement with Montana to ostensibly reduce potential of brucellosis transmission to cattle (which has never happened, and oh yeah, elk carry brucellosis too, but let’s not talk about that). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem, likely under pressure to show success of the Endangered Species act, and coincident to applications for trophy hunts by Wyoming and Montana. YNP had to tiptoe around that during public comment periods in 2016.
So you can hardly blame YNP rangers and the Park for being worn thin. When I drove into the park, a grizzly kill site at Dunraven Pass had created an obstinate parking lot of vehicles on the road with people running toward the site saying, “It’s just like you see on TV!” The crowd was blocking a fuel tanker truck trying to mount the hill and pass.
But after politely stopping for a bison herd that stepped into the road (one hoof was on the yellow line, but no bison in my lane), I found a ranger screaming up the hill, honking his horn furiously to send a young calf out of his way and waving at me to continue. It was complete ranger road rage, and this after we passed several temporary flags warning us to be patient with extensive delays for wildlife on the roadways.
Yellowstone is sending mixed and soft messages that don’t speak clearly or directly to tourists. “Wildlife are dangerous and unpredictable” blames wildlife for being- well, wild. How about, “You can get yourself killed by wildlife”? That puts blame where blame belongs. How about being specific about how to drive around a bison herd? I wasn’t sure whether moving on would send the animal into the car it was passing or start a stampede.
And the YNP ommunications folks want your pictures for social media, which encourages you to take more interesting and unique pictures, that just get you into trouble. This effort to get people to avoid taking selfies with wildlife is- well, just dumb. Do you think people really will skip the picture with the live bison to get a selfie with a giant stuffed toy? And why give it a name that flies in the face of trying to convince people wildlife are wild?
Even the tour operators aren’t following rules. I saw a Yellowstone yellow bus tour stop and let people out to chase this grizzly for a picture. (Note to Ranger: I snapped his photo with my Canon HS60-XS superzoom from a pullout down the road and decided to change my hiking destination from a nearby nature trail).
I sat at the Canyon Village Fountain Grill counter eating a salad and listening to four women talk about how that ranger shouldn’t have been yelling at one of them. “I was sensible,” she said. “I knew what I was doing.” A few minutes later I realized that her tour bus had stopped to watch a grizzly sow and cubs, and she had separated from the line of people out of their cars on the road to come up behind them for pictures, effectively hemming them in. No, not sensible, but remember, she was on a tour. Tour operators may have to sacrifice a tip to keep their customers in line- I saw it happen in Costa Rica, so it can happen here.
Yellowstone, you need to be a better, more consistent parent with clear rules, and stop blaming the “kids” for- well, being kids. Understand the temptation to reach a hand out of a car and feel a bison passing by with your fingertips- no, not smart, but these magnetic creatures suddenly feel within reach and touch.
And you need to be willing to call out deliberately ugly or dangerous behavior. There are great photographers, but legions of amateur long-lens photographers who bait and harrass animals for photos. There are people who throw food and objects at animals and feel entitled to camp anywhere they want. The Park Service might want to consider some good old-fashioned shaming for punishment, not just standing nobly silent or saying obliquely that rules don’t allow you to step off the boardwalk onto the thin crust of a boiling hot spring.
And prioritize safety, not natural wonder. Your Web is organized to require someone bedazzled by images of thermal features and wildlife to click on a section called “Safety”. Do you really expect people to do this? Maybe recharacterize the whole park as the Serengeti of the U.S. with boiling acidic cauldrons waiting to eat you alive. Yes, there will be people who step into the cauldron or reach out to pet the wild animal, but it won’t be the majority who are now encouraged to “Marvel. Explore. Discover”.
I know we visitor people make honest but dumb mistakes or can be stupid (okay, the baby bison incident was beyond the pale). Sometimes we’re just bedazzled and tempted by the marvel of nature that we increasingly only know in electronic form. It’s happening all over the world, and will only going to get worse as we are more isolated in cities, and tempted to sin by more new technology (drones are already a problem and virtual reality is next). You’re going to have to sit down as “parents” of the park and have a tough love conversation about what you need to do to protect people, wildlife, cultural resources, and the environment.
Maybe it’s not communications that will fix the problem. Maybe it’s confining people to ranger-led tours and shuttles. I would pay for it, and go with you. But honking and yelling at people who are trying to do the right thing, and soft-balling risk while asking people for cool images- well, you’re kinda asking for what’s happening.
September 2016- As I kid I lived in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, along Marine View Drive. Wealth didn’t afford us a view of Lake Michigan living across the street from Margate Park. No, our benefactor was a lawsuit-driven housing equity program for low-income families.
The neighborhood was much different then than now. The Skid Row of Argyle Street was slowly being transformed by Asian immigrants opening stores. Shop owners emerged every morning with brooms to perform a daily ritual of sweeping up garbage around sleeping drunks. Walking to school involved crossing Sheridan Road to avoid the stench of stale alcohol and the lurking men at the strip club. As kids, we stopped at the Jewish deli to fish crunchy, cool dill pickles from a big barrel. There was a butcher shop with meat hanging in the window.
Away from the parks and beaches, a potpourri of skin colors and languages flourished in apartment buildings small and large. I didn’t speak the language of the Hispanic family receiving a ceremonial suckling pig on holidays, neatly tucked on its back in a cardboard box delivered to their door. I didn’t share the religion of the Irish family who seemed to grow despite hosting intermittent, boisterous wakes. The quiet Chinese family who walked my classmate Kathy back and forth to school was more polite and reserved than my big, rugged family could ever pretend to be.
What we did have in common was school. We all trudged to John T. McCutcheon Elementary School every morning and learned to write in cursive, speak proper grammatical English, perform basic math functions, study geography and history.
Decades later, as I stand in the restored Prairie Union Schoolhouse at American Prairie Reserve, the view is so familiar in a place so faraway that I find myself tumbling back to my youth. It doesn’t seem likely that I would have something in common with a child sitting at a desk in a one-room schoolhouse in what would have been outer space to me back then.
American Prairie Reserve’s restoration of the Prairie Union School includes an audio interpreter. It’s a little jarring to press a button and hear a human voice over a speaker when you’re in the middle of what you hope is nowhere. But the narrative, the objects in the room, and the view tell a compelling story that is more relevant today than ever. As I listened to the narrator, I looked at the prairie expanding away from the window like a growing universe. I glanced back at the map of Asia, wondering what a ranch kid felt like looking at the exotic planet beyond view.
When you live in the inner city of a massive city and your family is poor, the schoolroom is a place that will make or break your future. You have no more access to services and benefits of the developed world than a ranch kid living 100 miles from a town. You have no wealth, power or authority behind you. Your only hope for any kind of future is to get a good education and move upward and out.
Like any ranch kid, you have to be able to gaze out the window and dream of a different place to keep studying. You have to learn to walk a gauntlet to school- maybe it’s prairie weather and rattlesnakes, or maybe social problems and crime that plague cities.
Today, this schoolroom looks quaint, a well-restored photo opp if you’re a hurried and thoughtless tourist looking to populate social media pages. Stay for awhile, though. Think about your life past and present. Listen to the story the building and objects and view are telling you. Think about the state and role of education today in our electronically-entangled world. And know that now, as then, to kids all over the planet, education means everything to our future.
The best kind of graffitti- temporary and beautiful. This signature includes what I believe is balsamroot flower.
September 2016- Visiting the buffalo jump at American Prairie Reserve was a little like falling down a rabbit hole. I’m positively the worst for spying something new (to me at least) and following it where ever it goes. I already heard about buffalo jumps a couple years ago from a state park employee and fellow workshop trainee. After my first visit to the APR jump, the rabbit in the waistcoat appeared, and after him I went.
What’s a buffalo jump? For thousands of years, Plains Indians staged complex, collaborative efforts to lure bison toward a carefully selected cliff, then trigger a stampede that would send them running over it to their deaths. Runners were trained from youth, like Olympians. Their hunting life may have been equally short.
Buffalo jumps hold their secrets. Maybe the practice started with bison, as legend tells it, or perhaps early humans hunting woolly mammoths figured out it was safer to trick them into plummeting over a cliff than hunting them on foot.Use of North American buffalo hunts supposedly ended 1500-1700-ish, when horses allowed year-round hunting of bison, but there is at least one later account that involves horses and guns. Earliest hunters used less of the animals than later groups, and there is evidence of “gourmet butchering” at an early Folsom site.
The details will be worried over by academicians and tribes, but you can skip the intellectual discussion, visit the places and fire up your imagination. I was lucky enough to find Madison Buffalo Jump State Park completely abandoned on a September Tuesday and spent a few hours hiking and imagining the dramatic hunt.
Montana State Parks did a great job with the language on the signs: one walks through the entire process, from pre-hunt rituals to buffalo runners luring grazing bison forward, running them into drive lines with buffalo “frighteners” on either side, then causing them to stampede over the cliff to a slope below. The front runners would have to leap to safe places on ledges below. The bison that survived the fall would be finished off and then a mass effort to process commenced.
It’s obvious in this Google Earth aerial what made the Madison Jump a good site, but I suggest going there and walking it to imagine the logistics and danger involved first hand. After all, the Plains Indians didn’t find the site on the internet, and neither should you.
And if you’re blessed to find yourself without other people distracting you, the lonely site is a perfect place to walk and imagine you’re wearing a buffalo runner disguise. You can hear the bison herd vocalizing in low rumblings that drift in from far away.
Your walk begins at the end of the hunt. As you hike up the old buffalo trail leading around the north side of the cliff, look at the processing area and imagine groups of women killing bellowing, immobilized bison after they’ve fallen. Imagine a staging area for processing, with the same women energetically removing hide, meat, organs, sinew for housing, clothing, tools, and food.
Farther up the trail, the grazing and driving areas start coming into view. You can see the natural ramp that winds toward the jump and imagine runners luring the animals forward, careful not to start a stampede too soon and lose the whole herd. Rock cairns along the way would guide the animals and hide “frighteners”. The animals would be restless, unsure, but move forward warily. They would be twitchy, ready to bolt and turn the whole herd into a boiling mass of big brown bodies, horns, and hooves.
And then toward the top, on the last rist to the cliff, the frighteners would make thunder happen. Runners disguised by wolf hides would leap out whooping, yelling, scaring the animals into a blind stampede. Runners up front might have to leap to ledges below and out of the way as the pounding herd ran straight for the cliff edge and over. As you stand with a bison’s last view, you understand. You can feel your blood pounding in your ears, hear the bellows and people shouting and grass and insects and dust kicked up into a storm around you. You hear the thuds below.
It would be quiet afterward once the last animal bled out and expired. The hunters would be drained, completely spent from exertion and adrenaline. Maybe some would be injured. Maybe part of the herd balked, peeled away, and stampeded away to safety, or ended up in the forested bowl below the other side of the cliff.
I sat on the cliff and drank a bottle of water, gazing at the expansive view as the imaginary hunt faded in my mind. A few hunter-leery deer tip-toed into view before they caught sight and scent of me and bounded away. The loud rattling calls of sandhill cranes rose from the river snaking through the Madison River Valley past green crop circles.
These jumps were abandoned long ago by native hunters, and then excavated for bone to use as fertilizer. I’m sure artifact pilfering has been common.
But the feeling of the place is powerful enough that it will draw me back. I’ll read some books, look for documentaries, research Native American perspectives on the jumps. I’ll go to First People’s Buffalo Jump in Ulm the next trip. I’ll walk where the bison walked, be the animal next time, and not imagine myself as a specatator of a movie in my head. It’s that crazy rabbit hole again.
Speeding away from a busy life to peaceful prairie that’s all sky and wildlife.
After speeding away to a special assignment that includes social media, my life and my blog have been left in a dust cloud, pressed flat in the gravel like dehydrated roadkill. I worked my old job and my new job for five weeks until my work got transferred. Days never really ended. I forgot things. I needed everything to slow down. I needed a break.
And there is the crazy, polarizing presidential campaign, the racism nightmare, terrorism. The national stress level is crushing on top of too little sleep/too much work.
Thankfully, I had long ago set up a trip to Montana to visit American Prairie Reserve and Yellowstone National Park. After the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, I wanted to visit some refuges to – you know, take public land back. Back from those cowboy hat Trojan horses funded by the resource extraction industries. The next few posts are about this trip.
What with my work-squashed neurons, I did a marginal job packing, and had to fill in a few things at Missoula. Mostly, I had enough or maybe a little much. Why I brought 3 pounds of cheese is a mystery. Simple math and consideration of cheese’s gastrointestinal effects would have fixed that.
I relax driving long distances and watching scenery slide by. It’s meditation for a former Midwestern road tripper. By the time I reached Buffalo Camp at APR’s Sun Prairie unit, my brain had emptied, and I’d heard enough farm radio to forget about the world. And I agreed with the greeting on the sign. It was good.
On cue, the Welcome Wagon bison showed me the location of my tent platform. I didn’t ask him to stay and fluff my camp pillow, but he seemed willing to linger.
Of course, the first thing I decided to do was to cut my wrist with a knife. Because too much crazy going on. For the first time in my knife-wielding life, I reached one hand over the other to grab something and neatly sliced my skin with the upward pointed tip.
The wound wasn’t terrible, though it was a bloody mess and will leave a scar. It doesn’t really look like I tried to off myself: I would get a D- for the effort. But if that tip had been 1/4 inch lower and an inch to the right- well, that would have been pretty dicey so far away from help. I’ve been there, long ago in northern Minnesota, with knee slices, broken ankle, appendicitis, and nearest medical care 45 miles away. This one was easy, something pressure and gauze could fix once I decided to quit dripping blood on the tent and do something about it.
Finally, after setting up my temporary abode, I could stretch my legs walking out to the prairie dog town across the creek. I could watch the prairie sunset and moonrise and curl up well-insulated in my sleeping bag, ready to start exploring the next day.