Unless the weather was completely unbearable I left the tent door partially unzipped so I could sit up and look out. My theory was if a polar bear was calling, I wanted to see it before it pounced. Of course, zipped into my sleeping bag, I looked like a puffy seal and an easy snack for a bear (granted in the photo above, out of my sleeping bag, I look like a puffy upright seal).
Sometimes while I slept people would stop on the island. They would pull up their boat, walk to the tent, see me buried in my bag, and leave again. Occasionally, I awoke to a plate of donuts or fresh fish left by unknown visitors.
When you live alone in a tent on an Arctic Ocean island you might expect heightened senses and light sleep. Hearing a boat approaching the island or a bear approaching your tent would be a good survival skill.
I took this photo after a good night’s sleep. I crawled out of the tent to find that the Arctic Ocean had moved thousands of tons of ice into this massive wall less than a hundred yards from where I slept.
It’s amazing I survived at all.
[This is a scan from the original slide. From film. Some of you may remember that stuff.]
Long ago and far away in a land often forgotten, a biologist spent long days hiking. Uphill. Downhill. Cross slope. Through Ponderosa pines, over talus fields. Through native grasses, and evil invasive cheatgrass. Many miles were covered daily.
Every day was an adventure. Rattlesnakes, elk, buffalo, and pronghorn were regular companions, coyotes, badgers, bears, and bighorn sheep fond acquaintances. Mountain goats were a special treat.
Finding elk and mule deer antlers was common. Occasionally, a dead animal was found. Sometimes the animal was partially covered, cached by a bear or a mountain lion.
One day the biologist stumbled upon a skull. It was intact, and it was beautiful. The bone was bleached white, the teeth all in place, and the horns undamaged. It was a bighorn sheep skull. A ram. The full curl of the horns had heft and weight.
As biologists are wont to do, she collected the skull. Pulling the horns off the bony sheath allowed the skull to fit into her backpack. The horns though had to be carried by hand; they weighed a ton.
The biologist knew that possessing a bighorn ram skull was against the law. Undeterred, she packed the skull uphill, across the flat, down the slope, up the draw, finally arriving at her truck. A U.S. government issue pickup.
The skull, now unpacked from her backpack, rested neatly in the extended cab, under a blanket, where it spent the night. Ending her work day an hour after everyone else had its advantages.
Starting her work day an hour before everyone else also had its advantages. In the morning, the biologist parked her car next to the government truck and transferred the skull and the horns.
A long day of hiking passed slowly. The anticipation of setting the skull in its new home was a bit overwhelming. Finally, the work day ended, and the biologist drove home.
“Hi, honey! You’ll never guess what I found?”
“Hints? Wait. Where is it?”
“In the trunk of the car.”
“Take it back.”
“Take it back.”
“You don’t know what it is.”
“If it’s still in the trunk of your car, I know what it is. Without a plug, you’ll be arrested.”
“Who’s going to know?”
“I will. Take it back. ”
The next morning, the biologist, drove to work and, arriving an hour ahead of everyone else, moved the pieces, with great reluctance. She reassembled the skull, the jaw, and the beautiful full curl horns on a desk at the US Department of Interior Fish and Wildlife Service, National Wildlife Refuge headquarters.
And acted as if nothing had ever happened.
It was just a skull. Imagine if I had roped a T. rex on the range and taken it home.
You never really know what you’re going to get. Central South Dakota is not exactly a hotspot. I blew through it a few times on the interstate. If you can call five and a half hours blowing through. It was just a necessity of moving from point A to point B. They raised the speed limit to 80 recently. That helps.
For a month one autumn I drove around in circles in central South Dakota. I wasn’t lost or stuck. I was looking for migrating birds. I didn’t find what I was looking for. And that was a good thing. It seems I was the one who should have been migrating.
One evening there was a horde of Franklin’s gulls, on Crow Lake. Naturally. It was dusk, the light was beautiful. In my endless circling, I saw the flocks, pushed by the wind, accumulating in the southern bay. In the air and on the water, they were everywhere.
I took this photo for the light, the motion, and the fluidity of the scene. I returned at dawn, better prepared to photograph the migrating mass, but, in the air or on the water, there were no birds anywhere.
There were two signs on the front of the building. The more prominent sign did not declare 2 7/8 as the name of the bar, but, rather, said, “ZERO TOLERANCE TO FIGHTING ON 2 7/8 PREMISES.” Welcome to fracking-boomtown North Dakota. I drove by.
That evening a massive thunderstorm piled up along the horizon, clouds towering above open plains, building strength, collecting moisture. Until, in the deepest dark of a moonless night, they had enough and let loose.
The Great Plains create some pretty vivid thunderstorms; this was a beauty. Lightning exploded across town in so many consecutive flashes I could see the length of the main street clearly for several seconds. Not just the blink of an eye that leaves you blinded and wondering if the light had been there at all, these flashes lingered. Clearly jumping from cloud to cloud and ground to cloud, there was constant light. The thunder kept pace, a steady rumble in the background with skull-crushing claps in between.
Then the rain came, pounding on the roof two stories above. The parking lot under my window disappeared behind the downpour, truck tires several inches deep in standing rain, as the drains overloaded.
The storm raged for what seemed hours, eventually tapering off as it moved across the open landscape. I fell back into fitful sleep for too few hours.
Many places become entirely inaccessible after a storm like this. Dirt roads turn to what we called Gumbo in Montana. Red dust, yellow dust, brown dirt, it’s all the same after a night like that, bacon-greased ball bearings. The collective hangover of too much.
Enter, the fracking industry, with its heavily graded and graveled roads that go everywhere, and took me where I needed to go that day. I don’t recall what I was surveying, plants or birds. I remember the landscape, wet and misty from the night’s excess. And, I remember repeatedly scraping mud from the bottom of my boots as I slid through the morning’s work. I took this photo when I realized I was wearing a large chunk of North Dakota. With my newly established fashion sense, I might fit in at the 2 7/8.
Three riders moved slowly across the landscape, deliberately but unhurriedly they paralleled my path in the opposite direction. I watched the horses with some envy as I continued on foot.
It was July in the Pueblo Mountains. It was hot. I had been walking since dawn; it was midday now. I was out of water, out of food, and out of patience with the shadeless glare of sun-soaked sagebrush.
From a long way off I could see the horse. Even from a distance, I could tell it was a big horse. The rider was just a red dot. Eventually, the red dot became a person, a boy. He rode a few loops, lazy figure eights. He backed up the horse, made it stand and side step. Then he just sat and watched me approach.
“Where’s your horse?” the boy asked with unaffected curiosity and genuine concern.
“I don’t have one.”
“How far did you walk?”
“I don’t know. Several miles. I started at sunrise.”
“That’s a long time without a horse.”
“Yes.” We stood a minute, he on his horse, me looking at the ground. Then, diverting him from my obvious failing, “That’s a big horse.”
“I know. 17 hands. My dad told me I had to grow enough to get on him by myself before I could ride him. I’m only 7. I can’t grow that fast.”
“But you’re riding him.”
“Yup. I told my dad he better build me a ladder.”
“I saw three riders earlier. Was your dad one of them?”
“Yup. And my mom and sister. They said I wasn’t big enough to muster so I had to sit here and wait for them to push the cows to me. Then I can circle and ride them down the hill. We’re moving them to water.”
“You’re not big enough to muster but you’re big enough to sit this giant horse out here by yourself for however many hours it takes for them to come back?”
“I know. That’s what I said. But I lost that argument. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have anything to do.”
“You need a book.”
I had miles yet to cover and parted company. He sat his horse and watched me walk on.
Later in the afternoon, I watched from a slope above as the cows came, moving ahead of the three riders. The boy rode to meet them, swinging far to one side of the cows and then falling in with the other riders. He waved as he passed below me. And I took this photo of him, his mom and sister, the dust, and the cows, a scene of the west.
For too many years Hart Mountain was out of my line of travel and added just enough extra time and miles to the trip at hand that I by-passed it. This spring I made the effort to go there, just there, and was well rewarded. It is a long slog from anywhere, the roads can be quagmires, the dust invasive, the heat crushing, and the mosquitoes draining. May it always remain this way.
It is already true that one can be dropped on any commercial strip in the USA and have no idea where they are. Each is so much the same, so not unique, that Chattanooga and Bakersfield look much the same. We have eradicated the prairies, slaughtered the forests, and filled the wetlands, must we also quash the individuality of the national monuments and make them conform to the ideals of capitalism, consumerism, and corporate expansion? What of calm, contentment, and courage to step outside of the box, to appreciate the subtle realm of time, space, and light that is not under our control? Where will we go for peace when we have used up all that is wild?
You have seen my photos over the last year. Many of those photos were taken in national monuments (including the two on this page). If you enjoyed my meager attempts at conveying the intensity of these landscapes, you will enjoy this (free ebook) photographic journey through the national monuments by exquisite landscape photographers