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In a nation where-yes, even now in 2016- many of us still have choices in life, you might be wondering why someone would make this choice.  Why anyone would sign up for this.

Maybe the house knows the answer. It has been standing since 1908, watching people come and go, live and die. The house has stood through flood, massive windstorms, and earthquakes.  It was perched on piles before being placed on a foundation and surrounded with fill from the abandoned Northern Pacific Railway line. It was abandoned at one point. The house survived the local dike wars and soldiers leaving for two world wars and the Vietnam War.

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Before my time- the 1995 dike breach in front of my gate

Every November, I wonder if I’ve lost my mind, or maybe lost the courage to face one more flood season.  I obsessively watch the weather for the trifecta:  A typhoon near Asia, warm winds coming up from Hawaii, and the jet stream pressing down on us.  Add an unconsolidated snowpack in the Central Cascades, and voila! You have an atmospheric river, and a major  flood in the Snohomish River Valley, overtopping farmer engineered dikes and sweeping across the fields.

I’ve been through two major floods:  the Great Pumpkin flood of December 2006 and the January 2009 flood.  Now, the locals said neither of these should have happened. Once you get past Thanksgiving you’re okay, they said.  Ya sure, as we would have said in Minnesota.  Ya sure.greatpumpkinflood2

I watched the 2006 flood from across the valley, my horses safely ensconced in a boarding barn atop the hill.  The flood hit at the end of pumpkin season, before they were tilled into fields.  I would walk to the bottom of the hill and peer across the water, trying to see if my foundation was still dry.  The first night water filled the valley I stood and listened.  I could hear fins and tails slapping through the waters:  salmon on their way to spawn swept into the fields with no way out after it was over.  The pumpkins bobbed along illuminated by the neighbor’s farm light, with dark blobs on top.  When my eyes adjusted, I realized the blobs were rodents riding the pumpkins like rafts.  Then I saw the owls. I counted eight-great horned, screech, barn- swooping down to grab rodents from the pumpkins.

When I returned home after the storm swept away, I drove past a pack of coyotes stretched out on the dike in the sun, bellies round with rodents.  Waiting for the rising waters to run rodents toward your waiting jaws is a risk, but if you’re a coyote, maybe you’re a born gambler.  A muskrat was in the barn, with the water line not very far behind.

The 2009 flood was harder.  My hip was deteriorating and getting horses out and sandbags down was no joy.  I had a little help, but preparations were slow and I drove out as the water was slowly starting to pool on the road. It’s the first time I heard the river’s voice change.  It started out high-pitched as water splashed and spilled over tree limbs bobbing in the water.  Then octaves tumbled as deep, rolling boils swirled like watery tornadoes.

This flood threatened to be worse than 2006, and I wasn’t sure the dikes would hold.  I stayed in a hotel. My neighbors, who ride these events out at home, walked the dikes and sent reports.

The dikes held, with some calving, caving, boils, and piping. Julie got some great photos flying the river in Bunky’s float plane.  More than the post-breach picture of Mary posing at the gate,  Julie’s photos cemented my resolve to leave in large floods.

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The barn and house are left, located between overtopping dikes and inundated fields.

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Overtopping behind barn, horse paddocks at right.

Because I’m the downstream property, I get everyone’s debris: plywood, power poles from a replacement project, prescription bottles, dead pigs, and this unfortunate victim:

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Cleanup reminds me why I live here, as I watch a young heron slowly stepping through the pooled water behind the house, catching worms.  The raptors have arrived in droves, and I watch a bald eagle and hawk lock talons and roll in the sky. The County piles up road debris 8 feet high , and as I’m walking by at night, I see a dozen owls perched on the mound, waiting for more rodent meals.

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I moved here for nature and privacy.  It’s obvious why this area doesn’t get developed, and I’ve got nature at its most rhythmic and normal, oblivious to whatever stuff we put in its way. The river is a voice thousands of years old reminding me that belongings are transitory, along with human life.  It’s about living in the moment, feeling the place.

Sure, I’d rather trade the growling bass tones of a rising river for the gentle honking of trumpeter swans, the barking of snow geese, the spring chorus of frogs. But they wouldn’t be here if the river wasn’t here, and the river owns this valley once in a while. Maybe it’s a good reminder as I face another winter that we are ephemeral, no matter how mighty and eternal we believe we are.

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A terrible day in a terrible year

Trigger warning:  

This entry isn’t for everyone.  My horse dies.  His downfall and demise was a learning experience, but not really for the faint of heart.  It’s really meant for friends, family, and people who can face up to how we as humans can’t leave well enough alone. It’s a tribute to a good horse and a plea for us to do better by animals.

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The first peregrine falcon I’ve seen here arrived on a terrible day in a terrible year. This bird is probably just chasing thousands of snow geese that arrived in my valley. I’m thinking it’s a portent of change- at home, and nationally, no matter how the destructive and polarizing presidential election turns out.

The words for horse parts are an exercise in medieval language.  Middle English, German, French.  Fetlock, pastern, cannon bone, croup, coronet, hock.  Navicular hails from Latin.

While equine anatomical terms are not intuitive, the words that describe what we’ve done to horses through breeding are encased in a fortress of acronyms:  HERDA, HYPP, SCID, GBED, MH, PSSM1, JEB1 and 2, WFFS.  And on and on.

And then there is the apparently hereditary disease that took out Tigger- renamed from DSLD (Degenerative Suspensary Ligament Desmitis) to ESPA (equine systemic proteoglycan accumulation). Researchers needed new alphabet soup when they learned that the dropped rear pasterns we see in these horses are the symptom of something happening throughout the body.

These diseases can be vanquished in a single generation, of course: we just wouldn’t breed the ones that have the bad genes. But that requires clear-eyed commitment to animal health. Breeders have always come up with sometimes bizarre and certainly unscientific rationales for their programs. I’ve heard said a good stallion can “fix” a problem mare, something calling attention to the need for biology education. Sterilizing mares and gelding stallions means loss of income.

And show ring judges can actually select for defects, like the HYPP gene passed on by one stallion to over 55,000 foals.  Halter class judges gave high scores to the huge muscle on Impressive, which resulted from a problem in muscle cells that caused unregulated muscle contractions. Since breeders cross fathers and daughters, foals with two defective genes resulted, and those would experience paralysis and seizing up of their diaphragm under exercise, sometimes suffocating them.

The Impressive line was worth so much in the show ring that the American Quarter Horse Association only reluctantly admitted the problem years after it appeared. Today, if I told Tigger’s breeder that he had DSLD, apparently heritable, I doubt that they would change a thing.

Tigger was always different- suddenly growing to 17 hands, an abnormally large size for a Quarter Horse.  He had a flat croup like a Thoroughbred and big wide chest.  A new vet came on Thursday because no one else was available when he hit crisis stage. She made a common mistake after reading his file describe a Quarter Horse. She came in the barn and headed straight for my other horse’s stall. “I looked at Tigger and thought he was a draft, not a Quarter,” she said.  Everyone does. At six feet, I at least had the leg length to ride him.

It wasn’t just Tigger’s size that made him different.  On the positive side, he had a quiet, cheerful temperament, learned quickly, and was just a little lazy.  He has never done a bad thing to me.  I trained him myself, and he would respond to light rein, light leg, and voice.

He was a comeback kid. As a young foal housed in an airtight and humid show barn intended to keep its residents free of that unattractive winter coat, he developed one respiratory infection after another. When another boarder told me to throw him outside and found me a 5 acre pasture for lease, he healed, and never again got sick.

Tigger developed a rare odontogenic tumor that became an experiment in the effectiveness of bleomycin at WSU Veterinary Hospital, and then a surgery.  He pulled out.

But he was never going to pull out from this one.  It’s fatal for all horses. He and I, along with two vets, have wrestled with it as he has progressively faltered, stabilized at a reduced level, then faltered again. I knew this year was likely to be his last.

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The leg that got a diagnosis and finally gave after it couldn’t support the other one. Fourteen months later, that left hind fetlock was nothing like you see here.

With DSLD, their suspensory ligaments turn brittle like old rubber bands and start to give.  Their hocks straighten and drive pressure to the fetlock, and the fetlock drops.  The “good” left hind you see in the picture above turned large and hard as the pastern angle became more horizontal.  And then the crisis in the other foot occurred because it couldn’t compensate anymore.

The vet was due 4 pm on Thursday, but one crisis after another delayed her.  She arrived after dark, too late to do anything but call it, hand out a sheet with numbers for pickup services, and schedule the euthanasia for Friday afternoon.  She injected Tigger with a morphine-like drug to help get him through the next 24 hours.

Friday morning involved macabre calls to pickup services. Their voicemails tell you to leave a message with “TriCounty Dead Stock Services” and “Rawhide”.  They all called back right away, but not a one would pick up that day. They didn’t want their drivers stuck in our notorious Friday traffic on the interstate. I decided that I could manage a carcass over the weekend far better than I could deal with the episodic bouts of pain Tigger was experiencing.  The clinic told me how to deter coyotes over the weekend.

The hours dragged on, and the vet was delayed again.  I just kept feeding Tigger, carrots and apples and rich green alfalfa. I cut him fresh grass.  I gave him bute paste and powder, probably enough to kill his kidneys over time, but enough to get him through this day.

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A relatively okay moment on the last day.

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This is what hurt looks like.

The vet finally arrived, confirmed the bad foot was swelling and it was definitely time, to reassure me most likely. I knew. We led him to the lawn, she sedated him, put in a catheter, and some minutes later, when he was dozy, she hooked up two big blue syringes of relief. He dropped very suddenly, took two breaths- and peace. Finally, peace. No pain. The horse everyone loved for his superb temperament and affection toward people was finally free.

Throughout the long history of human domestication of horses, our understanding of their behavior has been fogged by cultural filters and biases. I was always told that a horse should never see his fallen buddy- which is a little stupid, if you think about it. In the wild, no one covers their eyes and leads them away when a herd mate dies. But I believed it.

I was surprised when my vets said that instead of sedating Larkey and keeping him in the barn, I should be prepared to lead him out to see the body. He would get closure, they said. Most horses sniff their buddy, then move on to eat grass. Sometimes they nibble an ear.

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But when you are herd mates for 19 years, that’s not always how it works.  Larkey didn’t want to leave the area, so I had the vet assistant hold him while I wrote a check.  After the truck left, he wanted to graze in the area, but would pull when I tried to lead him toward the barn.  I needed to cover Tigger as the afternoon was waning, so I pulled Lark into the barn.  As I dragged out tarps, he started to cry.  I put him in Tigger’s stall, hoping that would help.  I could hear him crying again.  Then came the bang of the stall door slamming into the wall as he flipped the latch and blew out of the barn.  He made a lap around the lawn, screaming, then skidded to a stop by his fallen brother.  I didn’t want him to bolt, so I waited and watched as he stood sentinel for a few minutes, then suddenly pulled the tarp from Tigger and started nudging his legs.

That was enough for me.  I brought apples and got a halter on him.  He dug in and wouldn’t budge, so we stayed there until dusk and cold fell. Suddenly, Larkey’s head dropped, and we trudged disconsolately toward the barn in the dark.

I hope someday we will do better as people. I hope we will stop playing God or Dr. Frankenstein, breeding animals for one trait or another, and ignoring the whole and the healthy.  I hope we will stop lying to ourselves that inbreeding is okay, blaming animals for genetic defects, and staying the course when we shouldn’t.

For now, it’s about getting Larkey past this, finding him a new normal in a smaller herd of only one horse and one person. And getting myself past the terrible loss of the best and kindest horse I’ve ever known. I’ll send a donation and card to Dog Mountain in Vermont, and see if they can put a memorial card for Tigger in the chapel with the thousands in his company. I’ll write this post and hope the bleeding inside stops.

Driving it off

Okay, this wasn’t a crazy road trip like some.  I’m not Lisa Nowak, the astronaut who drove for days to allegedly kidnap and/or murder a romantic rival.  We’re the same age, but- well, we have slightly different priorities in life.

What we have in common is the marathon drive instinct, she for a much more exciting reason. Despite a summer torn apart by too much work, I was determined to co-present at the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association annual conference in Bend, Oregon. I couldn’t attend the whole 4-day conference, so I would drive down one day, give my presentation, and drive back.

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Sure, this wasn’t an audition for a shot at fortune and fame, but it meant something to me.  It meant telling the story of surviving- and succeeding at- a project shot full of wild and whacky stories.  At one point, an agency peer emailed only a subject line: “You will get a call about a dead whale.” I wasn’t fazed. After the endless carnival that proceeded that email, no big deal.  A dead whale. Next crazy card in the spinning Rolodex.

I wouldn’t include the suicide in my presentation.  That was too hard and too personal.  It’s not the first time by far I’ve been a bystander, a stranger and witness to someone else’s tragedy, and it cut deep.  “Why me again?” ran through my mind for as long as I could hear the man’s voice in my ears: a voice hesitant and soft, no longer demanding. His voice asking about my life and my future.  Only a few days later, I understood the changed tone, the questions about a tomorrow that he would never see.

I almost quit then, but remember, I’m the boring one, not the one who makes hell-bent-for-leather road trips to stalk a competitor in a high stakes romance. I soldiered on, hollow inside, until the voice faded,  and then dutifully filed all his correspondence for the project record.

No, my road trip was a day driving myself numb through white knuckle weather, sheeting rain and road spray obscuring big rigs that would suddenly emerge dark, huge, and very close.  Bands of blinding sun streaming in from the west would puncture the storm clouds to turn the spray waves from speeding trucks into eye-burning glare. The parade of semis and monsoon clouds cleared as I drove east over the mountains, but then the road started to twist and wind around itself.

Finally, I dropped into eastern Oregon, much like eastern Washington: out of the storms that stall over mountains and into expansive and sunny drylands spinning away from me.  I relaxed, but felt oddly anxious and disappointed, because I couldn’t keep driving.  What I usually do on road trips is keep going, camping and staying in motels for the occasional shower, unwinding and forgetting who I am, day after day.  Long road trips are in my genes. This was only one day.

bridgesOregon has few wayside rests, so I was relieved to find Peter Skene Ogden Viewpoint.  After hours of focused driving, I needed to stop looking at a road whipping past.  I needed to walk.  I immediately encountered the most disturbing warning sign I’ve seen yet, before the overlook that has killed “many dogs”, graceful retired bridge, and a historical kiosk. Looking over the cliff, I could almost hear the barking of ghost dogs.cliffsign

The conference presentation went well, as expected.  Unlike many who rank public speaking right below disease and divorce on the Agony Scale, I enjoy it. I attended the rest of the last day, which ended at noon.  I had decided to stray east a little more and visit the Painted Hills Unit of John Day Fossil Beds.  I didn’t have my good camera- I’d stupidly put my hand on it at home, then decided it would just disappoint me not to keep traveling and really use it. But I had a phone, and it would do.

The excursion would add several hours onto my trip home, but it would let me stretch the down time a little.  As I was driving through Bend, a project member called because a reporter needed something.  Patching through meant sitting in the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant on one phone call after the next, with people staring at me like I might be a jilted and deranged lover, or a woman on the verge of divorce.

Over an hour passed before it was settled, and I should have driven straight home.  I should have done the sensible thing, but I just couldn’t.  I drove east away from the busy Redmond/Bend corridor down a wonderful lonely road to John Day.  As expected, almost no one was there- me, and of course, a couple other guys by themselves.  It’s always that way for me.  I walked every trail I could find, knowing it was foolish and the time was passing, but lured on by the scent of juniper and sage, and color and rocks and fossils.

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The rest of the drive home was just plain long, and sometimes hard.  I didn’t realize the road that drops to the John Day was designed by a crazy, drunken miner for impatient, balletic mules- or something like that.  It felt like those car commercials where a stunt driver demonstrates power and control you will never need crawling in city traffic. With dusk settling, little deer herds everywhere tried to kill me and themselves by leaping forcefully into the roadway on hairpin turns.

People in Oregon are wildly friendly compared to Washingtonians, making you feel like a vulnerable and paranoid refugee.  They pump your gas in Oregon, so you have to remember to smile, and not to hide your wallet as if the guy approaching you wants to cop a five or rob you.

The smiling, cheerful lady at the gas station took me on a tour of the candy and energy bars, and even celebrated my purchase of a gooey-sweet mocha from the coffee machine and a bunch of bad chocolate.  She gave me a complimentary extra candy bar for the drive home. That sugar and caffeine helped when I hit rain at dark crossing the Columbia River Gorge and drove the rest of the way through increasing downpour as the clock ticked toward midnight.

Finally, I reached home.  I crawled into bed and curled up under soft, thick blankets, waiting for the feeling of motion to fade.  I wasn’t in custody, ragged and running on adrenaline, with that chewed up, wild-eyed realization that my little adventure had changed my life forever.  No, I was home, quiet, with a sprig of fragrant juniper on the nightstand as I drifted off to sleep listening to the soft hooting of a great-horned owl, with red-streaked hills in my dreams.ph3

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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.  prairieschoolclassroom

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.

prairieschoolmapWhen 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.  

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My prairie selfie:  Looking outward to a world as far away to a ranch kid as it is to an inner city kid.

 

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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.

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Diorama of a buffalo jump

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.

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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.

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From a park sign

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Resting buffalo head rock- you see it, right?

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This has to have been a ritual stage- I would make it one, anyway

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Blessed to see some fresh fall flowers…

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But the faded ones have their own rich beauty.

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These rocks look like they calved from the cliff and tumbled in a line down a ravine, but they’re so- well, orderly.  Your mind starts to see the imprint of ghosts everywhere.

 

 

 

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Elk and bison feeding on dry grass in late fall along the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park.

Even when you’ve been a veterinary student, a scientist, a pet and livestock owner- even then, and maybe especially then- it’s hard to watch animals suffer in the wild.  You should know better, right?  Animals live, animals die.  Even without the hazards humanity poses for wild animals, a host of potential killers lurks behind every rock and bush. Weather, predators, disease, childbirth, battles with competitors, broken bones, rotten teeth, wildfire, and the list goes on.

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We always want to see them cross to the other side of winter and make it to spring

My trip to Montana coincided with the cooling fall winter that heralds subzero temperatures and snow to come.  Winter drops a curtain between the robust and the weakened or just weaned.  On one side of the curtain, animals move on into the next spring. On the other, they become food for everything from insects and mice to birds, wolves, and bears.

In Yellowstone National Park, I saw for the first time in several trips young bison calves in late fall.  I have a pasture-bred horse that was born late August in Idaho, which isn’t optimal.  His mother likely “threw” the first fetus and rebred too late the previous year.  He made it, and is 20 years old now, but these young bison calves may not. They will  not benefit from human intervention in the way that my horse did.

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This frost isn’t a spring morning, but late September- a bad time for a little red calf to be puttling on weight.

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This calf isn’t far behind the one above, just shedding the last of the baby fur.

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This calf is taller, older, and in good weight.  It still may not survive, but has a better chance.

On a trip to Red Rock Lakes Refuge, I found a decent herd of pronghorn antelope leaping around the grasslands crossed by the road.  When one that was lying down stood, I gasped to see its condition- no body fat, and a withdrawn look that says the animal is giving up and preparing to die.

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Protruding bones and sunken eyes- it just hurts to see it.

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Healthy animals that will be able to cope with winter.

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At a pullout on the Madison River, a crowd of us watched this young elk cow lying in the grass, seemingly contented to chew her cud while other cows browsed nearby.

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The cow occastionally made a peculiar, grimacing expression.

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When she stood to eat, it became apparent that she’s walking on a very tender hind foot. This could make her vulnerable to predators, getting bogged down in snow, or reducing her ability to keep her weight up.

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These elk look healthy, but the young one on left kept fighting to follow the herd, getting caught in barbed wire cattle fencing.  Elk calves can get hung up in fencing and struggle to death within 15 minutes according to a USFWS Refuge ranger. 

Something different happens when we’re out wildlife watching.  We want to see animals frolicking wild and free in nature.  We want to feel hope for wildlife.  It’s hard to watch suffering and death.  Maybe the sympathy we want to feel for the sometimes hateful human race gets subverted as we gaze on sick and injured animals.  Maybe it’s the same gut-wrenching sadness we feel when children, the elderly, and disabled people suffer.

At least with wildlife, we can take comfort knowing that there is a circle of life.  The emaciated pronghorn will feed the food chain.  Wolves and bears may survive the winter on bison too young and too old to make it through.  It’s not the end: the rest of the herd, and the beneficiaries of death will make it through to the other side.

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Lest my rant give the misimpression that my September 2016 trip to Yellowstone National Park was an exercise in tourist frustration, I enjoyed a quiet room at the new Canyon Lodge and some peaceful day hikes.  Sometimes enjoying the best of Yellowstone happens when you park your car and use your feet.

On a lovely but cold morning, I drove Hayden Valley drinking hot coffee looking for wildlife while the sun rose. Many folks have clued into this:  drive at dawn and dusk, watch for other cars stopped, and voila, wildlife.  I stopped at a pullout for this lovely view of the river.  Apologies to the gentleman taking pictures of a bald eagle.  I have a nesting pair by my home, and while I don’t take them for granted, their Wyoming cousins don’t have the unique attraction of a pretty sunrise on a foggy river.

I decided to day hike to Sentinel Meadows after perusing the Jake Bramante map over morning coffee.  It was a great choice for solitude. I veered off the common road to the Fairy Falls/Imperial Geyser trail, which everyone else was taking, and ended up with the place to myself.

The trail starts by a thermal, Ojo Caliente, which could be morphed into, “Oh no, super caliente!” if you were so foolish as to enter the steaming pool.

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The trail leads past this  thermal through wide meadows with fresh bison patties, wood debris and enough trees to provide perfect habitat for cavity nesting, insect eating mountain bluebirds.  These busy little birds find perches in meadows to hunt, then dive to the ground to grab their meal. They also hover, which is fun to watch but hard to catch without a great camera.

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The trail winds past the Queen’s Laundry, thermal features that apparently people- well, used for laundry at one time (doh!).

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The trail climbs a small hill, winds around a corner through another small meadow, through some trees, and then drops into another meadow.  In this case, a meadow filled with bison and thermal features.

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There were lots of bison sacked out, and spread out over a wide area.  A couple trailing groups approached them in a line.  The orange trail markers indicated my trail crossed their path, so I sat on my pack to eat lunch and waited for them to cross. Or not.

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Two cows suddenly felt the need for a siesta, and plopped down right by the trail.  A giant bull stood sentinel over them, killing my plan to have a short lunch while the parade rear guard moseyed past. It was going to be a really long lunch, or a detour.

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Not passing too close to this big guy, for sure…..

After awhile, I decided it was a detour. With the thermal features in the area, I was cautious about picking a route.  There was a social path blocked by a tree limb that I used (sorry, YNP) to head down valley from the bison.  I swung wide across the valley, watching for bison trails and picking a narrow part of the marshy stream to hop across.  After the stream, I followed more bison paths back toward the trail.

The whole time I detoured, I kept an eye on the bull even though I was well distant from him and his girls.  He turned his head a couple times, but never lifted his tail, so I figured I was paying appropriate respect.

The trail passed small thermal features before crossing a stream on limbs and entering a forest. Then it crossed back to a connector with Fairy Falls and the common gravel road again.  I walked the road chatting with a couple from Seattle who had made a last minute decision to visit Yellowstone to hike since he was nursing a bad ankle.  We passed one more group of bison on the way out, and then reached our cars for a cheery au revoir and off to our evening destination. All in all, a peaceful pleasant day in a super popular national park.

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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.

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YNP, try to understand the natural temptation to reach out and touch nature.

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?billythebison

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).

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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.

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Don’t worry, Ranger- this picture was taken from the safety of a car in a pullout at a great distance with a small superzoom camera. 

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”.ynpweb

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.

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So what exactly am I supposed to do when I’m pulled over safely in my car with the windows up and the bison decides to start shoving it out of the way?

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”). dsc_0681_edited-1

browneyedsusanOn 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.

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Prairie dog- notice the ear bling indicating tagging and perhaps vaccination.

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.aprflowersbelowjump

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).

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.

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The unwitting subject on top of the jump gives a sense of scale.