I first explored the Absaroka/Beartooth Wilderness in the mid 1980s. At that time -- at least to my untrained, 25 year-old eyes -- the Absaroka Mountains seemed far from Leopold's "world of wounds": the sweeping high basins, lush river valleys, and spring-fed lakes appeared untouched, a private, hidden paradise. This was a few years before the great Yellowstone fire of 1988 roared up from the park to scorch thousands of acres of what used to be known as the "asbestos forest," before the hot, dry summers that followed brought severe drought conditions, insect blights, and a series of catastrophic fires. On my first, two-week backpack through the wilderness, not one day passed without rain, nor did I see one tree that had been damaged by fire or insects. What I did see was wondrous: a grizzly grubbing through downed timber against the pink sky of dawn, alpenglow in bold golden swathes across the eastern flanks of mountains, a half-eaten snowshoe hare, rock and ice, water and trees.
And I saw sheep. Historically, the Absarokas were grazing ground for the big sheep herds that wintered around Big Timber, Montana. In June when the snow melted off the mountain passes, the sheep would be driven south in enormous herds -- a thousand or more ewes, each with a lamb in tow -- along the Boulder River and then up into the mountains. When Congress declared the Absarokas inviolate under the original Wilderness Act, sheep grazing was grandfathered into a Montana clause. Twenty years later, the powers that be were attempting to buy out the remaining grazing permits, hoping to make the A/B Wilderness "sheep-free by '93." Three Big Timber ranchers -- Norwegians, all of them -- stubbornly clung to their grazing rights.
As an Earth First! environmentalist, I was fully cognizant of the damage that sheep (aka "range maggots") wreck on a natural habitat. But I was raised in the Midwest -- which means always being polite and respecting my elders. So when I ran into 3000 lambs and ewes, three border collies, and two men on horseback, instead of launching into a tirade decrying erosion and sheep berries, I helped chase the stupid beasts (the sheep, that is) across Hellroaring River. And for my efforts, I was rewarded with copious quantities of cowboy coffee, barbequed lamb, and several hours of Montana sheepherder's yarns.
Sheepherders back then (and probably the few that are left today) didn't look like Heath Ledger or Jake Gyllenhaal: Red and Stump (the later missing his left hand) were scrawny, broken-down cowboys who seemed to survive mainly on coffee and snoose. I learned later that most sheepherders in Montana are recovering alcoholics: a summer in the mountains surrounded by nothing more sensate than sheep would undoubtedly dry out even the most confirmed alcoholic -- at least until he got back into town in September.
Red and Stump were thrilled when I showed up in their camp, almost boyish in their excitement to be entertaining a member of the fair sex. I don't know how much veracity there is in the Montana sheep buggering clichés ("Come to Montana where the men are men and the sheep are scared!") but during my evening with these two sheepherders, I was feted and coddled like a princess. The men fell over themselves feeding me, making me comfortable, and trying to impress me with their tales.
Which brings me to my favorite story that I was told that night:
Red and Stump had cut their sheepherding eye teeth in the Absarokas, but left the area after the war (I assume this was WWII although it might have been Korea) to explore, only returning to Big Timber a little more than a year ago. They'd signed on with this herd, contracted to graze the other side of the Boulder Divide around Independence Mine and Sheepherder's Peak.
"But things had changed around here," lamented Stump, hacking up a gob of snoose-brown spit.
"Uff-da," agreed Red.
It seems that what had once been open grazing land along the Boulder River was now usurped by summer homes -- expensive ones with lawns and caretakers who shrieked and threatened lawsuits and made more noise than a thousand sheep when they realized what the wooly horde was doing to their manicured grass and landscaped yards.
"An' once we got up into the mountains, we had four months to think about how loud those pansy-assed Californicators were gonna whine when we brought those sheep -- a whole lot bigger now than when they went up in June -- down along that road in September. All we could think about was that one of 'em told us he'd have the sheriff on our tails sure as shit if even one sheep ever got on his lawn again. I ask you as an educated person -- how are we supposed to keep a sheep off the greenest grass this side of the Yellowstone?
"We were really dreadin’ that trip back into Big Timber, I can tell you. But ya know what? The first house that we passed last September when we come down from the mountain -- the first one that had anyone in it, that is -- it was that big log house with the blue roof -- you saw that when you were comin' down here, didn't ya? There was a lady there -- wasn't much older than you, I'd say -- she come out just as nice as could be. Brought us water an' everything. In two glassed and with ice, no less. Said she loved sheep -- couldn't get enough of 'em. Brought a camera down to take pictures, she liked 'em so much. Even took pictures of us -- us two dirty ol' sheepmen, if you can believe it. An' all that time I was tryin' to keep my tongue inside my mouth -- hadn't seen a woman in months, and here she was about the prettiest one I'd seen in my life. Turns out she was some kind of famous actress or something. What was her name? She had a funny first name."
"Somethin' like 'Creek' or 'River'."
"Brook -- that was it. Her name was Brooke Shields. Ever hear o' her?"
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources