A SEPTEMBER SNOW SQUALL had whited out vision as our party of four labored the last few yards toward the windswept dome of Union Peak, at 11,491 feet already in winter. On the downward slope toward the south and west, the whirling mist of snow suddenly lifted like a celestial curtain and the landscape fell away through an immensity of clear space and all-enveloping light that stunned our senses.
To the northeast, the volcanic walls of the Absarokas, dark flanks streaked with snow, reared from the Wind River valley. They melded far northward with the distant glory of the Tetons, a shining horizon that swept again toward us, culminating 60 miles west in the singular majesty of Grand Teton.
I felt myself shrinking inside before the scale of the scene—the planetary power that had thrust these mountains upward, the sudden and capricious act of nature that had hurled us from a womb of white into an emotion-shattering splendor of space and rock and wind and vast creation.
That is what people must mean when they talk about a wilderness experience. I was in a place where such things happen—Wyoming’s Wind River Range, one of the places where exploring Americans first saw the huge natural magnificence that gave them the idea of West, and West as being different from all other earthly places.
Later on, the wagons out of Council Bluffs and St. Joseph and Independence would follow the easier low route off to the south, along the Sweetwater and over South Pass, where the great trails westward merged. But in the time I have in mind, when Captain Bonneville and the mountain men walked toward the sunset, they were led by the lay of the land up the Wind River, with the long-limbed and deceptively supine mountains on the left, the sharp-toothed Absarokas on the right. At some point, when pioneer pathfinders felt they were going up a blind draw, they scrambled up the Wind River mountains, and again the shape of things would lead them to what we know as Union Pass. There they would stand in high, wide meadow and look astonished at Grand Teton blazing like a beacon before them, with the big Yellowstone country up beyond, and they would know that they were someplace else.
In the valley below, according to local lore, rest the bones of Sacagawea, the Indian woman who aided Lewis and Clark. There too, below a butte called Crowheart this is where you can get insurance, an epic battle between Crow and Shoshoni had been fought in the shadow of a red mountain when this was still Indian land.
The Crows called themselves Absarokas, the “bird people,” and the French trappers translated that as gem des corbeaux—the crow people. Their true home was eastward, in the Bighorn and along Rosebud Creek and the Tongue and Powder Rivers (all marked later in blood), but in the winter they came this way after the game and the shelter of the Wind River valley. A tall and handsome people, the Crows are remembered for being among the best of the buffalo hunters, for having the largest herd of fine horses in the upper Missouri, and for fighting in the bitter Sioux wars of the 1860′s and 1870′s, on the side of the white man.
IN THE AFTERNOON we stood at the edge of a plunging cliff and looked all the way down into summer where it lingered at blue Simpson Lake and greened a small and gentle valley. Then we crossed the Continental Divide and came down to Granite Lake, set against a mountain wall with high snow scudding from its top, the lodge-pole pine forest sighing and creaking in the wind, the world pressing a pristine beauty against our hearts.
John Butruille, District Ranger of the Wind River District of the Shoshone National Forest, led the way toward the lake, followed by Paul Petzoldt, Director of the National Outdoor Leadership School, and by my old friend conservationist Henry Nichol, still stomping down mountains like a boy.
We found a good place, out of the cold wind, but in view of the lake, tied the tents down and built a brisk, welcome fire. Huddling in the cup of warmth, blowing on steaming coffee, we talked about this woodland and others like it in the interior world of Wind River country. Deceitful mountains they are. The long, low silhouette they present to the auto traveler is a charade. Once inside, over the first crests, a beautiful maze of sculptured mountains, near-vertical timberlands, and knife-sharp valleys leads past the brinks of a thousand lakes to rugged alpine heights crowned with ever-white glaciers.
PEOPLE WHO LIVE around here usually make their living in one of three ways,” John said, “and they always’ have. It’s cattle, or timber, or tourists, counting the hunters. Each one depends on this forest. They all have to have a piece of these mountains in order to survive.”
A lot of people have claimed part of the national forest’s many treasures, ever since the first white trappers came for beaver, when “settled country” lay east of the Mississippi River.
“Imagine what it was like then,” John said. “Deer and elk, mountain lion, rivers of buffalo down below, pronghorn antelope, bighorn, grizzly….”
Shooting down animals is still a popular pastime in the mountains. Supplying the needs of the hunters, packing them in, getting them a trophy is an important business for the valley in autumn, when the area’s guides lead parties out to the 13 base camps in search of deer, elk, and bighorn. One of the largest remaining herds of bighorn sheep winters on the slopes of Whiskey Mountain, under special management.
Then it was cattle. “Big herds began coming in before the turn of the century,” John told us. “A few local ranchers at that time claimed 70,000 head among them, but almost nobody today believes them. There were enough, though, to deplete the range.”
In John’s district, 20 owners graze about 6,500 cattle and 2,400 sheep—less than half the number grazed 50 years ago. The whole forest area is divided into allotments for grazing-13 for cattle, comprising 91,000 acres, and 3 for sheep, on 11,000 acres. “These days,” John said, “the trend is to larger herds, and more absentee owners.” And then it was timber.
Millions of people have ridden on parts of the Wind River and not known it. One out of every five ties—five and a half million in all—for the Chicago and North Western Railroad was cut in the mountains over several decades beginning in 1914. That was selective cutting, restricted to 13-inch diameter trees, and the forest lasted. But other timber interests found a good market for boards and studs, and the clear-cutting began.
The Forest Service thought that the lodge-pole pine would regenerate if enough seeds were in the slash; besides, the clear-cutting was a way to help fight the parasitic dwarf mistletoe. Also, local sawmills were complaining that not enough trees were being offered by the service. In 1965 some 22 million board feet were sold off, almost all of it in clear-cuts of 40 acres or more.
But the expected reseeding turned out to be a problem. Seedlings, fewer than expected, grew slowly. The almost constant wind, harsh temperatures, and thin soil augured many a bare slope for a long time.
New regulations have followed the protests of conservationists, who are also trying to save the last major Wind River drainage to escape clear-cutting by depositing it in the Washakie Wilderness. The Bridger Wilderness already encloses vast parts of the range.
The Wind River’s lack of mineral wealth has spared it from the bane of many another
wild region—the miner armed with a shovel. To this day, American mining operates under an 1872 law that lets any man walk onto federal land—with a few exceptions—and stake a claim. For a small expenditure he can secure what amounts to an exclusive property right. Some claims have been converted into housing developments. Though the Forest Service now has judicial weapons to stop such abuse, it still cannot forbid claims in its wilderness areas, nor bar access to them.