Snow, Mud, and the Search for Cloud: A Pryor Mountain Adventure
Dear Cloud and Pryor Wild Horse Friends,
Paula Todd King, ace Communications Director for the Cloud Foundation, and her intrepid husband, Ron, join me for a challenging adventure in the Pryor Mountains. For those who have only come to this spectacular wild horse range in the summer, you need only visit in winter to appreciate just how daunting this mountain can be with its endless, snow-clogged canyons and wind-swept ridges. Paula said it best when she compared hunting for horses here to looking for the cryptic, hidden horses in a Bev Doolittle painting.
The wide vistas are dotted with sage, trees, rocks of every shape and size, and snow. Add to this, the horse family we want most to find has two nearly white members—Cloud and his little daughter, Encore.Questions fly through my head one after another. Where are you Cloud? Do you still have your family? He is the oldest band stallion on the mountain now, and I have lingering fears about how long he can hang on as a band stallion.
Our time is split between trying to drive the UTV to places where we might find horses, hiking to high places where we might be able to glass successfully for horses, and then glassing through binoculars and spotting scopes until we think our eyes might fall out of their sockets.
Some horses are easier to find than others. The dun mares, Seneca and Hightail, and their young red bay stallion, Hickok, are visible near the entrance to the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area along the paved highway.
Yet, even these mares go missing when Hickok seeks out male companionship. It is nearly dark when we encounter him racing behind the black bachelor, Chief Joseph. Snow and hooves flying, Hickok catches Joseph, biting him in the butt. The two rear up and paw the air, but Joseph spins away with Hickok in pursuit. They disappear over the ridge. We think this is a serious fight until we see the two less than an hour later, calmly grazing together like best of friends alongside Issaquah, another young bachelor.
We find two other bachelor stallions, Jesse James and his companion Inniq, foraging on sage near the Red Buttes at the bottom of massive Sykes Ridge. Even though the area looks nearly devoid of any plants that could maintain animals as large as a horse, these two look fat. Between nibbles of blue-green sage, the stallions gobble up snow.
On distant ridges we spot bands of horses, some of whom we can identify, like Galaxy’s band with Cloud’s sister, the beautiful red roan, Electra. They are foraging on a moonscape-looking mesa surrounded by sheer drop offs.
We can only identify some bands by comparing the colored “dot horses” in the spotting scope with our horse list. “I'm pretty sure it’s a dun with a back boot,” I say to Paula. “Back right or left back?” she asks while leafing through her eight-page list. “Left, I think,” I answer. “It’s Sequoyah. She just turned around and I can see her blaze!” We know we are seeing Flint’s band on a mid-ridge of Sykes. This is the way our days go. Hours of driving, hours of hiking, hours of glassing. Evaluating body condition is impossible from afar but we can see the horses moving around and eating. That’s a good sign.
Casper has seven in his band, down by one. Cloud’s daughter Jasmine is missing but her mother Aztec, who joined Casper’s family to be near her youngest daughter, is still with the family. “I wonder if Jasmine went back with Jackson?” I mention to Ron and Paula. We had seen pictures of Jackson’s band several weeks before and the normally robust coyote dun stallion looked thin. This is one reason I knew I had to make this trip. I feared that the bitter cold with heavy snow might be taking a toll.
If Jackson looked bad, what is the condition of the other horses? And how is Cloud faring at nearly 19 years of age?
On all of our hikes we’re able to walk on some barren ground, then find ourselves in snow and punching through deep drifts. This is certainly the case on our rigorous hike across a snowy canyon to a ridgeline east of the Mines. As we crest the steep hill I can see a few horses on our ridgeline only 100 yards to the southeast. “It’s Doc,” I whisper while looking through my binoculars.
He is with his coyote dun mare, Broken Bow. But, Doc’s other mare, Demure, and her son Mandan are nowhere to be seen. Instead, we notice a flaxen-maned horse. These two had been with Diamond’s family until the young Forest Service stallion, Hernando, stole the band, which included Cloud’s mother Phoenix.
We continue to sit and watch and wonder, eating our lunch and expecting Demure and Mandan to appear, but they never do. Where can they be?
We glass across massive Big Coulee to Sykes Ridge, hoping to see Cloud on one of the many finger-like ridges. Instead, we are rewarded with a view of Bolder and his entire family. Through our scope and binoculars we can see Echo with his doting mother, Cascade. Echo and Bolder begin to play and when the play gets rough, Cascade tries to break it up, kicking out at Bolder! The two stallions end their play session with Echo nibbling on his father’s mane. When will the play turn serious? I wonder. And does Bolder risk losing Cascade if he kicks Echo out? I anticipate these questions will be answered before years end.
As we begin hiking back down the hill, horses appear to our left and down the ridgeline. It is part of Jackson’s band. “Oh my,” I exclaim. The narrow back and pronounced withers of Cloud and Aztec’s coming five year-old daughter, Jasmine, shock me. Jackson’s other young mares and his grullo and brown roan sons look thin as well. We watch, but Jackson remains hidden behind junipers as does his oldest mare, Brumby, and Cloud’s oldest daughter, Firestorm and her filly daughter.
Despite our strong recommendation that the horses be allowed to reoccupy their legal herd area at the base of the mountain where there is less snow cover, the BLM Administrative Pasture gate remains closed. Might opening this area have helped the Jackson band better cope with the harsh weather? We will never know now. Spring cannot come too soon for this band. I make a vow to remain vigilant in 2014, to do all I can to get this gate reopened and to offer help to BLM in taking down the whole, unnecessary barbed wire fence line of the Administrative Pasture. Diamond was born out here in 1994 and this was the first place I saw him with his family, led by the stunning band stallion, Raven, twenty years ago this month.
On two occasions we go up lower Sykes and hike out on Dead Indian Mesa to glass across Turkey Flat. Then we turn our sights on Sykes, hoping to spot Cloud. It is a fascinating area believed to be the burial ground of an ancient Indian culture. Many types of lichen that have a remarkable ability to survive heat, cold and drought, cover the predominantly limestone rock formations. Limber pines remarkably set down their roots in eroded fissures. And small animals take cover in the many small caves eroded away in the limestone walls.
While our primary mission is the search for wild horses, we enjoy everything that nature offers in this starkly beautiful area of the Pryors.
On the fifth and final day of our five-day journey, I think all three of us feel a bit desperate. This is our last chance to see Cloud. So, we drive down a rocky trail that clings to the side of a cliff face on Sykes. We tried this on day three, but turned around because of a huge drift on the narrow road. It has been warm since we tried this and we reckon that the drift might have melted enough for us to pass over. Wrong. The drift is still three feet deep. Undeterred, we dig through it, using our shovels for the first time on the entire trip. We make a passageway just wide enough for the UTV to slip through and we drive down to the bottom. When we curve left the sight of a totally drifted road for as far as we can see dampens our spirits. “Well, we tried,” I say. Dejected, we start back up the trail.
It is amazing how a close encounter with a beautiful wild horse can instantly lift one's spirits. When we round a corner, not fifty feet from the road, is the beautiful apricot dun bachelor, Jemez. It is our second encounter with the curious four (nearly five) year-old and we take lots of pictures. He pretends not to notice us, busily nibbling on sage but he is watching our every move. We travel back up to Dead Indian Mesa and once again hike to the end and glass with no success.
By the time we are back at the UTV, it is mid-afternoon and we have only a few hours if we are to see Cloud. Back down Sykes we go, load the UTV on the trailer, and drive to the base of Tillett Ridge. We turned our clocks forward last night, so we have another hour of daylight which gives us time to unload the UTV and drive back up to the Mines before it gets dark. Once at the Mines, we hike around the hill on the alternately snowy then muddy road. To the west we glass out to the Hell ‘n Gone. When this produces no sighting of Cloud we decide to climb the Mines hill (for the second time). The snow is still deep near the top, but we slog our way to the summit. By this time the sun is dipping low over the faraway Beartooth Mountains.
Through binoculars we scan across Big Coulee and see no horses. By now it is five o’clock. Last chance, I think to myself as I get out the scope while Ron sets up the tripod in a snowdrift amongst the boulders. I peer through the glass and see a white horse almost immediately. Before I say a word, I focus in on the tiny white shape.
It's Encore! I announce. To her left is her brother Mato Ska and to the right of her is Ingrid and Feldspar. I keep panning right and see Cloud! Look, you can see them all, I say. First Paula and then Ron look through the scope to the distant ridge and Cloud’s family. It is high fives all around for Team Cloud as we call ourselves.
Above Cloud and one ridge over, near the Sykes Ridge Road, are Flint and his family and below Flint are Bolder and his band. How wonderful to see them all and so close together. When a group of four Bighorn Sheep Rams travel down the road, Flint’s family goes on high alert, sticking their necks in the air like giraffes and prancing around in circles. Of course, we can’t hear them from miles away, but I know they are snorting an alert. In time the rams pass by and start grazing within what looks like only 100 feet from the band.
Before we start back down the hill, I pan the scope down and to the right to get one more look at Cloud, but he and Feldspar, Ingrid, and Encore have disappeared over the ridge into a canyon. Only Mato Ska is visible grazing. Then, he too drops out of sight.
We drive back down the mountain in a euphoric state, laughing in joy and relief. Funny how things work out. If we had been successful in getting through those drifts on lower Sykes we would never have seen Cloud and his little family. And my friends, I would not have been able to report to you that, from a distance, they look fantastic!
Happy Trails! Ginger
P.S. Please consider making a donation to preserve our wild horse families still living in precious freedom.