by Rick Lamplugh
Dec. 23, 2015
We rock hop across the middle fork of Rose Creek, jump across the west fork, and stop to turn our faces toward the sun, finally rising from behind Druid Peak. The August light blesses the Lamar Valley and plays on Specimen Ridge.
After leaving from the bunkhouse of the Lamar Buffalo Ranch, Mary, Karen, Leo, and I are heading for a particular knob just west of Druid Peak. Karen wants to take us to this special spot where she has come for solace during each of the eight busy summers she has worked at the ranch. She is just finishing her presumably last summer (this place is hard to leave) and asked the three of us to join her as she says goodbye to this passage in her life and this valley she loves.
We start our climb up the side of Ranger Hill, adjacent to the ranch, following a narrow bison trail through the high, golden grasses that adorn the hillside. We make a wide detour around a bison resting in the trail.
As Karen and Mary continue on, Leo and I stop to admire Druid Peak. He points to a distant ridge and says that’s where he imagines wolf 10M howling, imploring his mate to leave the Rose Creek pen in the winter of 1995.
The Rose Creek acclimation pen still stands about a mile from here, hidden on a forested slope. It was one the first pens built for the controversial release of wolves back into Yellowstone. Three wolves, 10M, the alpha male; 9F, the alpha female; and 7F, a pup, were carted from Canada and housed in the pen so that they could get used to Yellowstone—and not feel compelled to run toward Canada once released. The pen was opened on March, 22, 1995, according to Yellowstone Wolf Project records. Two days later, 10M and the pup walked out. Four days after that, perhaps with 10M’s howling encouragement, the alpha female ran out and the trio began their passage into this valley and beyond.
Prior to that release, armed guards protected the pen from afar, since death threats had been made against the wolves. One winter, while Mary and I were staying at the ranch, I snowshoed to the pen with a man who had worked as one of those guards. He had not returned to the site in the sixteen years since his passage here as a wolf guard. When we reached the pen, tears came to his eyes, and he confessed that guarding those wolves was one of the most meaningful jobs he had ever had.
After years of neglect, the pen is now just a ten-foot high, chain-link fence that has been bent and pushed sideways in a couple of spots by fallen trees. I have accompanied a number of groups to that historic and deteriorating enclosure, and when people enter, many fall silent as though stepping into a place of worship. Some have cried, just like that guard. Such strong reactions showed me how important wolves are and how powerful our need is for these symbols of wild freedom.
Leo and I catch Mary and Karen and we hike past a series of bison wallows, connected with an animal trail like so many dark gems on a necklace. We hear the purr of sandhill cranes from somewhere in the valley now well below us. Captivated by their almost-prehistoric sound, I stop and study the valley floor, hoping to spot these big birds.
The floor curves gently up to Specimen Ridge on one side and Druid Peak on the other, forming a wide U, the signature of the passage of glaciers through here long ago. Back then, everything that makes this view so captivating—the sage-speckled valley floor, the Lamar River, Specimen Ridge, Druid Peak—all of it was buried beneath ice.
The glaciers formed near present-day Cooke City and grew slowly, maybe an inch a year, as more snow fell in winter than melted in summer, They flowed down the Lamar Valley and Yellowstone Valley and finally stopped within fifteen miles of today’s Livingston, Montana. The glaciers widened and ground and flattened. When the climate changed and the glaciers melted away about 15,000 years ago their passage left behind this valley floor covered with soil that retains water only to a shallow depth, according to the Atlas of Yellowstone. Trees don’t like that soil. But grasses do. And those grasses draw the grazing wildlife that make this valley famous—and full of predators.
This verdant valley also drew humans, who followed the natural trails the glaciers left behind. Native Americans hunters, made the first passages, arriving on foot maybe 12,000 years ago.
By 1840 the Shoshonis and Bannocks who lived on the Snake River plain in today’s Idaho came here out of necessity. The local bison that they depended upon for food, clothing, tools, and shelter had been hunted to extinction, writes Aubrey Haines in The Yellowstone Story. Desperate, they followed what is now called the Bannock Trail into Yellowstone. They forded the Yellowstone River near Tower Fall and passed through this valley. From here they continued east to the Great Plains of Montana where bison still roamed. But by 1883, according to Harold Picton, hunters had exterminated those bison too, removing forever the treasure at the end of the trail—and a way of life.
After the Native Americans came Euro-Americans. One of the first whites to pass through this valley was John Colter, a former member of the Lewis and Clark expedition. At the young age of 35, he had enough skill and daring to make a 500-mile circuit through Yellowstone in the winter of 1807. He was alone, carried a thirty-pound pack, and covered fifteen to twenty miles a day. Historian Haines describes how Colter followed part of the Bannock Trail, using the same ford of the Yellowstone. Then he snowshoed right up this valley, searching for Indians who would provide furs to be sold elsewhere.
He was the first of the trappers that swarmed through here from 1822 to 1840, seeking beaver pelts that could be made into coveted hats. They found few beavers here, but trapped the animal almost to extinction in other parts of the West.
Another of the trappers was Osbourne Russell who first visited this valley in 1835. Like so many later visitors, he fell in love with this place and returned four more times to what he called “Secluded Valley.” A different sort of trapper, he was literate and wrote about his passages. His writing provides valuable insights into a time and people long gone.
Russell presents, for example, a different view of the Sheepeater Indians who lived in this valley. Though many later sources would describe these people as stunted and miserable and barely eking out an existence in this harsh land, Russell found the band that he met and described—about two dozen men, women, and children—to be healthy and thriving. They had about 30 dogs that were, according to the Atlas of Yellowstone, “large, robust, wolf-like animals” that even mated with wolves. These working dogs carried and pulled loads and drove into traps bighorn sheep, which the natives used for food, clothing, and to make bows. The Sheepeaters so loved these dogs that they fed them before taking food for themselves. “A dog was often sacrificed when its owner died—so the two could be buried together.”
After Russell and the other trappers were gone, prospectors began their passage. In the summer of 1870, A. Bart Henderson and four others explored the Lamar Valley, named Soda Butte Creek, just east of here, and made the gold strike that soon developed into the Cooke City mines.
Just two years later, this valley became part of the world’s first national park, a great concept that no one knew how to implement. Neither philanthropists nor the government offered money to protect the park’s wildlife; poachers proliferated. Much of the killing took place on the floor of this valley. Miners passing through here on their way to Cooke City took wildlife. So did the squatters who lived illegally in the park, while hoping that the government would come to its senses and release some of this land to settlers.
By 1875 park superintendent Norris was appalled, writes Haines, by the slaughter of elk, deer, antelope, and big horn sheep. In June 1880 the park took a step to stop poaching: Harry Yount was hired as a gamekeeper and stationed alone for the winter in a cabin on the eastern edge of this valley at the confluence of Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar River. This was tough duty; he lasted one year. In his resignation he wrote that one lone man could not possibly protect all the wildlife in and near the Lamar Valley.
With little protection, bison also fell to poachers. South of this valley, on the other side of Specimen Ridge is Pelican Valley, where the last remaining wild bison had come, probably to escape from hunters. These bison had become collector’s items: a head could fetch $300, the equivalent of about $8,000 today. That money drew poachers, and by 1901 fewer than two dozen bison remained in all of Yellowstone. To reinvigorate that decimated population, bison were brought to the Lamar Valley and a captive herd was raised in the same way as cattle are raised on ranches. The ranch hands ate and slept in the bunkhouse. Though no one sleeps in the bunkhouse now that the Lamar Buffalo Ranch is a teaching center, that historic building is still the heart of the ranch.
When Mary and I made our passage through this valley, living and volunteering at the ranch for three winters (two of them with Karen), only six of us stayed all season—four volunteers, the ranch manager, and the district park ranger. When the ranch was free of seminar participants, our small group often congregated in the bunkhouse to enjoy communal dinners, board games, or to view photographs of someone’s recent adventure. Simple living and a sense of companionship made fast friends of perfect strangers. I wonder if the ranch hands who lived here a century ago felt the same way.
Researchers were the next group to pass through this valley. One of the first was Adolf Murie, who in 1937 collected and analyzed more than 5,000 pieces of coyote scat. He found that coyotes ate twelve kinds of large mammals; twenty-four different small mammals; twenty types of birds, fish, and snakes; four kinds of bugs; as well as grass, pine nuts, rose seeds, strawberries, mushrooms, blueberries, and Oregon grape. When I uncovered that list while living—and cooking my own meals—at the Buffalo Ranch, I laughed out loud: Murie’s coyotes ate better than we did.
As the four of us continue our climb toward Karen’s knob, we pass a stand of willow; the shrubs near the edges have been browsed by elk. Those in the center—a more dangerous place to dine now that wolves are back—are taller. We reach a field of wildflowers in beautiful bloom. Passing 8,000 feet of elevation, we enter whitebark pine territory.
When we finally reach Karen’s knob, the sky has filled with thick gray clouds and though this is late August, the temperature has fallen. A wind strong enough to shake us with each gust chills us. We dig into our packs, snuggle into jackets, pull up hoods, and seek shelter behind some pines. We settle down to eat and share stories of favorite moments while living and working at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch and making our individual and group passages through this valley. Our chatting and laughter mixes with the chortling of a couple of ravens circling overhead as we share in Karen’s goodbye.
After lunch, full of food and warmed by friendship, we make our way down a steep slope toward the ranch, tiny in the distance. I lag behind and as my friends and adventure partners move away, I reach for a nearby sagebrush and place between my thumb and forefinger a couple of the tiny gray-green leaves. I rub and squeeze them like worry beads, feel them give up their scented oil. I bring the fingers to my nose and inhale, hold my breath, try to keep the scent of this valley within me. Then I exhale until my lungs are empty. I repeat this several times, and each time I feel more connected to this valley. To all the people who have passed through here before me, searching for sustenance, riches, or knowledge.
I think again of Osbourne Russell, that literary trapper so smitten by the Lamar Valley who wrote, ”For my own part I almost wished I could spend the remainder of my days in a place like this where happiness and contentment seemed to reign in wild romantic splendor.”
A feeling similar to that propelled Mary and me—after three winters living in this valley—to leave our home, friends, and family in Oregon after 35 years and move to Gardiner, just outside Yellowstone’s north gate. That was as close as we could get to living where we hope happiness and contentment will always reign, as we experience many more passages through this secluded valley.
Rick Lamplugh lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is the author of the Amazon Bestseller In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter’s Immersion in Wild Yellowstone. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from the author.