Scouting along the Electronic Trail

Beauty and peril endure across Wyoming; meanwhile, the governor hopes to sell off public lands, and today's explorers twitter from the wilderness.

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Capt. William Clark is my friend on Facebook. Yes, that Capt. Clark. He gazes over my left shoulder as I visit his page, his red hair tied back, the white ruffles on his shirt collar the result of a good show with the starch. Maybe he approved my “friend” request because he knows I am his descendant, many generations hence.

Clark was co-leader with Meriwether Lewis of the Corps of Discovery, seekers of a convenient way to travel to the Pacific Northwest overland, by water. They proceeded to find a way, “convenient” if one didn’t mind portaging around that wall of towering mountains striping the western third of the country.

Now more than 200 years later, Capt. Clark busies himself sending his friends electronic dispatches from the trail. Just the other day, he posted this: (June 20, 1805). While Cpt Lewis is admiring the river scenery, my party has been hiking overland, combatting musqueteers and worse. The feet of the men with me So Stuck with Prickley pear & cut with Stones that they were Scerseley able to march at a Slow gate this after noon!

Was there something disdainful in his tone about his companions “admiring river scenery”? Hard to tell. Regardless, I posted back that his adventure sounded a bit like the hike I’d just taken with my husband and dog along the Snake River just outside of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in Grand Teton National Park.

Julianne Couch
A racoon in the Snake River near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, checks out dog Archie and his traveling companions: a recent encounter in Grand Teton National Park.

We spent a few hours wandering up and down the riverbank, in view of almost no one, consorting with a raccoon and trying to make noise to alert the native grizzlies. Just a few days before we’d read that a cabin holder up the way in the Yellowstone area had stumbled upon a bear who’d been temporarily anesthetized by researchers. When the researchers completed their study they packed for home, taking their Warning sign with them. The bear was waking up just about the time the man ventured out for a hike. The result of their encounter was the man’s death by grizzly that day, and that grizzly’s death by man a few days later.

That’s why on the day of our hike along the Snake River, snapping photos of the Teton Range, our grizzly alert dial was set to 10. Our bear spray canister poked helpfully from the outer pocket of my husband’s backpack. As we moved along the bank I spied something large and dark brown just across the other side of the river. It was moving slowly through the trees 50 yards away.

I called my husband and dog in my Not Fooling tone and after a few seconds my husband’s superior eyesight was able to identify our fellow river scenery admirer: bison bison, the American buffalo. Not something you want to provoke but usually not something to charge, or even bluff charge, across the riffles of the Snake. Not if you are lucky.

We kept our eyes on the bison and our ears on the willows and forest along our side of the river. We made lots of noise in case any of the wild creatures didn’t by then know humans were in their midst. One cloud of biting flies was glad for our company. By the time we left there my neck was covered in large, hard, itching welts that lasted days. As Capt. Clark would have described them, “Terribul.”

Most of the time we do our adventuring closer to our home in Laramie, in southeastern Wyoming. It’s an area where one can see for miles, without the hindrance of predator-harboring trees. There are lots of public lands for the adventuring, even outside of state forests and national parks. For starters, the Bureau of Land Management oversees vast areas of public land, mostly of the desert and sage scrub variety.

Wyoming Trust Lands, commonly called “school sections,” are dotted throughout the state. Revenues from surface and mineral rights on these lands have funded the state’s public school system, but Gov. Freudenthal has proposed selling the sections or swapping them for federal property.

Other public lands, known as a school sections, are checkerboarded among private lands. The official name for them is “state trusts lands.” That means that the state owns these 640 acre sections and leases them out, typically to neighboring ranchers who are glad to have the grass for livestock grazing. Whatever earnings come from leases go to support public schools.
 
One of these school sections is a 45-minute drive from our home in Laramie. It isn’t so far away but the roads are gravel and lightly traveled, so it takes awhile to get there. I won’t provide a fuller description of this location because it is Top Secret, at least to us. We wouldn’t want the GPS coordinates to show up next week on WikiLeaks. Let’s just say the section is one of a piece with the thousands of acres of open range grassland that surround it.

My husband and I pack a picnic dinner and bottle of wine, load up the dog and drive out there about once a month, weather permitting. We sit high up on a group of smooth boulders, munch our dinner, and wait for the curtain to rise on Antelope Theatre. The opening act commences when the herd, who’ve seen us coming for miles, strolls toward us from a rise about 200 yards distant.

Each year, pronghorn (a.k.a. “antelope”) migrate for 150 miles in Wyoming’s upper Green River Basin. Biologist and photographer Joe Riis collaborated with writer Emilene Ostline to document their whole trip.


Antelope see very well but are curious enough to want to come in for a closer look. Two or three split off and move our way, and then they bark at us with a yap that sounds part crow and part sight hound. They bark, we wave, they come closer. They move slowly down to the draw that separates their hill from ours, and then they show us their flanks, with no thought of the target which that view could present to the wrong party come hunting season. Then they glide up the draw, toward the road hardly anyone else takes except some seasonal sheepherders. The antelope bark over their shoulder one last time. Then they are gone.

State school sections are scattered around Wyoming, even in places like Grand Teton National Park. Our governor, Dave Freudenthal, has made news lately by threatening to sell those school sections to the highest bidder. He wants those sections to bring in higher revenue than what the state can earn through grazing leases. He says he’s tried to talk with the boys in the federal government about a land swap, giving the feds state land in Teton Park in return for the feds turning over to Wyoming some of the land they own around the state. The feds have offered some relatively worthless BLM land, but “Gove Dave,” as he is known in these parts, is holding out for land sitting on extractables, like oil or gas.

The outcome of this drama will likely be someone else’s to write, because Freudenthal is wrapping up his second and final term. In Wyoming, election campaigns actually don’t start until the year of the election. No other members of Gov. Dave’s party, the Democrats, even mentioned that they planned to run until just a few months ago. Now we have two Democrats and four Republicans headed into our August primary with a chance to win. Like Capt. Clark, some of them are on Facebook, and a few post regularly from the trail.

One of them, state Rep. Colin Simpson, is the son of former Sen. Alan K. Simpson, and the grandson of the late Gov. Milward Simpson. He’s a well-liked and capable member of a very popular fifth-generation Wyoming family. On the same date that Capt. Clark posted on Facebook about his overland hike through Prickley pears, Simpson posted this, with a photo:

Colin at Fetterman Monument near Banner, WY. Colin’s great, great grandfather, Finn Burnett, ran the Sutler’s Store at Fort Kearney, 3 miles away from the massacre that occurred on December 21, 1866.
 
Just like Capt. Clark and his great-to-the-nth-power granddaughter, a likely future governor sends dispatches via electronic journal. We are all bound together by bits and bytes, and even bites, proceeding hence along the trail.

 

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