Sometime soon, maybe in early July, snow in the Big Horn Mountains will melt enough to accommodate campers. Let’s hope it isn’t so fast to cause additional flooding. As widely aired on national news, in recent days flooding has devastated Yellowstone Park, which as the crow flies is not that far from the Big Horns.
Soon, I have opportunity to cook for the Double Rafter Cattle Drive operation, now in its fifth generation who have been good friends to the Crows, Cheyenne and the mountains. They lease a good part of the mountain, paying considerable money to do that and in the meantime run a “City Slickers” operation, giving the dudes opportunity to play cowboy. I get to play cook.
Our tribal ancestors traveled to and from those ranges on horseback. We still do, but now tend to haul horses in a trailer to the various trailheads (starting point to access the Forest). The Big Horns have been favored territory for tribes who traditionally lived in this area including the Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Arapaho, Shoshone, Sioux from the South Dakota area, and even the Blackfeet sometimes showed up. There were and still are many reasons for this.
There grow great stands of lodge pole pines, the best for tipi poles. In mid-summer berries grow wild if you know where to look, perfect for picking, drying, berry soup and fresh treats. Sage, cedar for ceremony and blessing and wild plants used for teas are prolific. Summer is the gathering time. You can even find wild onions, turnips, mushrooms and, if very lucky, wild asparagus.
There is always a profusion of game, especially in the fall during the rut and before they head to lower elevations. There, high mountain breezes and cooler temperatures are perfect place for drying meat. And, in the summer, the fishing especially in the Little and Big Horn Rivers is unequaled. The mountains also provide lush grazing, life-giving water, and clean air for a multitude of other life such as insects, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, birds, deer, moose, elk, coyotes, wolves, the occasional badger, wolverine or mountain lion and now in contemporary times, domestic cattle, and sheep. Another benefit: is not too many snakes, elevation too cold. Rattle snakes, otherwise prominent in this area do no like such cold climes.
Besides offering substance for physical being, the mountains offer spiritual refreshment and solace to our souls. Most often mountain camps are quiet except for nature’s symphony. Soft breezes flowing through the pines do talk, especially when whipped up for a storm. Sometimes pinecones drop, in popping noise. If camped by a creek or lake (necessary for water), those bodies softly burble or tinkle. Birds begin the day with song just as the dawn arises over the tops of high spires. Chipmunks chatter and the voices of coyotes and wolves often punctuate the night. My favorite is the soft nickering or snorting of horses and their footsteps, usually grazing near the camp or sometimes right in it. Second favorite sound is a hawk screaming when sailing through blue skies far above us. Upon rare occasion at night the snuffling of a large animal comes through tent walls. I personally do not investigate that sound.
In those high elevations, sometimes up to ten thousand feet, we are literally closer to the Creator. Thus, it is good place for fasting, vision quests, Sun Dance etc. The famous Medicine Wheel of Wyoming rests its holy head in the Big Horn country. A benefit of mountain camp cooking is taking a break to watch the sunrise – a sacred time, good time to smoke and pray.
As very public lands, these wild places are easily accessible to many, the majority dragging a well-equipped RV: house on wheels with modern convenience. In those situations, campfires are more for ambiance, conversation and drinking beer rather than cooking and warmth. Battery powered T.V.s, lights accessed with the flick of a switch, hot and cold showers, an in-door “can”, video games, etc. are still options for them. Different from camp in tent.
Some wilderness areas such as the Teton National Wilderness, WYO, and Denali National Park, Alaska, where I both worked, are protected from vehicular traffic. But other public forests are not. On one hand, well-maintained gravel roads, horseback riding and hiking trails provide access to camping sites and far-flung reaches. Visitors are encouraged to keep to these thoroughfares, so as not to further degrade the pristine landscapes.
Four-wheelers, in my opinion are another matter. With equipment designed to navigate treacherous terrain, 4-wheeler enthusiasts do that. Often traveling in caravans, they will often zip through a campground or campsite at top speeds, intent upon reaching high tops, raising dust and generally interrupting the mountain calm.
Throughout the Big Horns, for example, there are hundreds of miles of new rutted off-road trails made by 4-wheelers. Often these contribute to erosion, unsightly mars on the landscape. While generally not in favor of more government regulation, I think some basic U.S.F.S. rules should be adopted regarding 4-wheeler travel. Perhaps, not a popular opinion, but one important to an old horseback traveler who prefers quieter transport. Yes, it is true that there are well-traveled and, in some cases, rutted horseback and hiker trails. However, these trails generally follow the natural terrain, most often old game trails which have been used for centuries.
With this weekly gripe, I bid another temporary adieu to regular readers. Soon, I will be back in the mountains, cooking in a wilderness tent camp for visiting tourists required to throw a leg over a horse to get to those locations. And yep, sometimes we must transport food, tents, tourist duffle and other supplies via 4-wheeler mules, sticking to the main established routes. Hopefully, other 4-wheeler off-road enthusiasts won’t find most of our tent camps.
After dabbling for years as a journalist, often required to write stories about dreary subjects, I am in serious need of a little spiritual refreshment, quiet times and getting away from the day-to-day news which is increasing negative and discouraging. Be forewarned, come September and maybe during an occasional break this summer, I’ll be back. In the meantime, thank you to the wonderful and faithful readers who often give a cybershout for my ramblings. Clara Caufield can usually be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Except, not this summer. Also forget about cell phone contact not available in the mountains. However, if you are familiar with smoke signals, give that a try. I might be able to get the general “drift” of those messages. If the wind is right.
P.S. Heal up fast as you can, Tim. It is hell to get old. God willing and the cricks don’t rise, I will be back at you and readers in the fall.