Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Remembering The Sand Creek Elk

A herd of elk and moose that wintered along the back of our ranch as I was the age of my grandsons now suddenly emerged from my memories as my daughter and I traveled a southbound-return stretch of my cross-country trip last month.

After ascending the narrow, green, tree-lined Beaverhead River Valley that morning as it contours around sage covered mountains, we had stopped for breakfast in one of those ma and pa diners for which we’ve always shared an affection, at a ranch town called Lima, Montana, population 220, one of several across the country to pronounce it “Leema.”

My elk reverie occurred to me as we continued up through a pass between two mountain ranges that form the Continental Divide along the border with my native state of Idaho because just after the crest, if one turns east through the mountains instead of dropping down into Spencer and follows the route along the southern edge of the Centennial Mountains for a total of 50 miles or so you reach a cutoff to the backside of the ranch homesteaded and assembled by my great-grandparents and grandparents.00369_p_10aeuyf6sw0502_b

The route follows a stretch of Old Highway 22 past the Camas Meadows formed by a creek where less than thirty years before they homesteaded, Nez Perce Indians had defeated three companies of pursuing US Cavalry.

Here, a few miles before the path to the ranch cuts southeast toward Bishop Mountain is where my grandfather and I would occasionally search for arrowheads and other artifacts.

There the route arches around Big Bend Ridge, a thousand feet below where it cradles the lava of the Aspen-covered Yellowstone caldera, past where creeks named “Sand”, “Cold Spring” and “Snow” spill briefly out through the grassland and sagebrush steppes before the waters find their way down into the Henry’s Fork and then the Snake River Plain another thousand feet below.

Legend also marks this stretch as the site of a climatic battle between the encroaching bands of the Blackfoot confederation from across the mountains to the north and east and linguistically-related Shoshone and Bannock bands of Native Americans.

The far eastern part of our ranch embraced a bend in Snow Creek, a mile west of the Henry’s Fork and stretched west almost to where Sand Creek passes through Lemon Lake along a 17 mile stretch of public lands cobbled together for wildlife management after a small herd of elk was discovered to winter there the year between when my father returned from WWII and I was born.01568_s_aaeuyfyqe0229

There are now 3,000 elk, 1,500 mule deer and 400 high desert moose wintering there before migrating back nearly 30 miles east across ranchland - such as that of my youth, where we ranched as many as 500-head of cattle - circumventing tiny settlements such as Ashton, Marysville and Warm River, to summer in areas such as the Bechler Meadows in the southwest corner of Yellowstone Park and where a pack of grey wolves have since been reintroduced.

According to recent reports, the elk leave behind, in their winter home, animals such as beaver, mink, marten and muskrat along along with grouse and shorebirds such as loons, western grebes, trumpeter swans, snowy egrets, sandhill cranes, willets and long-billed curlews as well as the occasional osprey or bald eagle.

The wetlands where the elk summer form below the steep forested cliffs of a 70,000-year-old lava flow, Yellowstone’s most recent, known as the Pitchstone Plateau which stretches southeast from Old Faithful Geyser and Shoshone Lake.  The elk’s lush summer habitat is fed by spectacular 250-foot waterfalls that plunge, cascade or horsetail down into this relatively remote Idaho corner of Yellowstone.

My great grandparents, Hyrum and Margaret Bowman purchased 360 acres more than 105 years ago between Snow and Spring Creeks in that Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho so their six sons, including my grandfather, and three daughters could have an opportunity to surrounding homestead ranches.

One April their family caravan left their mid-Cache Valley spread along the Uinta Mountains near the Utah border with Idaho, taking horses, including three teams of four each to pull three iron-wheeled wagons and a buggy, along with saddle horses to guide the starter herd of 100 head of cattle.

It took them 15 days to make the 200 mile trip.  The first image shown in this blog shows the family, including my grandfather in the hay wagon, taken around my great-grandparents’ home.

Though three miles from the ranch house in which I spent my early years along Snow Creek, the house in the image, then deserted, was the site for days of solitary exploration that not only fueled my imagination but forever embedded a respect for my roots.

On a return visit while I was in law school, I snapped the second image shown in this blog from one of the window frames as a reminder of what that old house meant to me and what it still means to me nearly 60 years later, even though satellite images confirm it is long since gone.

After collectively “proving up” on or assembling approximately 2,000 acres of ranchland including spaces to grow crops of hay and grain to feed the livestock, everyone except my grandparents and great-grandparents eventually departed for other pursuits including jobs on the railroad or in the city or on farms further south.

My grandfather reassembled nearly all of the ranch after it was dissembled in the wake of my great-grandfather’s death without a will, complicated by his re-marriage after my great-grandmother died in the 1918 pandemic flu that killed tens of millions worldwide.

My Bowman great-grandparents are both buried in a very small county cemetery carved from the ranch on a hill above the Snow Creek house.

The homes on the various homestead parcels were recycled.  One was moved to Saint Anthony when my grandparents retired there after the war giving my father and mother the opportunity to run the ranch.

Several decades before my grandparents had moved into the sawed-log house on Snow Creek that my great-uncle George had built.  That is the house where my father was born and in which I lived my boyhood.  As singer-songwriter Neil Young writes, “all my changes were there,” or at least many of them.

For most of my adult life I’ve been a moderate Independent but possibly not that far from my the rock-ribbed, ultra-conservative Republican upbringing, evidence of how extremely far to the right that party has shifted.

As partisan as my parents and grandparents always seemed, they never dismissed the indispensible role that government played in my family’s emergence into the middle-class.

Things such as the elk preserve along the back of the ranch and the homestead act that enabled it and the incentivized dams and electrical cooperatives that brought it power, are all emblematic of many things made possible by a country that understood the “common good.”

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