Fogged In

Late October in Cloud's Home

I’ve written about the Pryor Mountains being a mysterious and spiritually powerful place. Well, it doesn’t get much more mysterious than our last trip to the mountaintop. Cold temperatures coupled with fog and intermittent rain and snow descended over much of the high country. Wave after wave of clouds rolled up from the Bighorn Canyon and over lizard-like Sykes Ridge, descending onto the open ridges and into the forested canyons.  Despite the poor visibility, we were able to spot 86 horses—but it wasn’t easy.
Can you see who this is?
Before we made our mountain ascents, we scouted the low country, spotting a familiar foursome near the gate of the horse range.  In the high reeds behind still golden cottonwoods we could just make out the mares, Hightail and Seneca with Seneca’s son, Jesse James, and the young red bay band stallion, Hickok. Five year-old Hickok inherited the mares when their band stallion, Admiral and his yearling son, Climbs High (Kapitan) were killed last year by a drunk driver in the middle of the night along the road near the gate. Click here to see the ruling on that case. 
We spotted Blizzard, the stunning, but irresponsible stallion with two mares he had won and lost (or abandoned) several times. He is truly the playboy of the Dryhead. The grullo, former band stallion Fiero was also along the paved highway alone.  I would go into how he lost his family and the role Blizzard played in this split up, but it is just too complicated. Lauryn calls it “the drama in the Dryhead.” 

the central character in the "Drama in the Dryhead"
Blizzard with his mares, Bakken & Cascade
After sunset, we neared Cottonwood Spring and saw Sitting Bull and his mare Cecelia for the first time this year. They have a newborn colt—a cute little grullo with the tiniest snip. This poor quality picture (link) was taken when it was nearly dark. Can you see his white snip?
So much for the easy part of this trip! Now, for the hard part.

As the sun was coming up, we began the drive up Tillett Ridge “road” and down Sykes Ridge “road”. I do NOT recommend this route to anyone who values their SUV. Our UTV was in the shop, so we were forced to subject the Durango to these tortuous trails. On the first day of two, we ascended Tillett, spotting the chunky dun stallion Casper and his family near the long red hill below the mines. The band includes Cloud’s palomino sister Mariah. All looked in great shape. 

A bit higher, Lauryn spotted a lone horse on a ridge to our right below the mines. The small bay foraged amongst the junipers across a narrow canyon. When he turned his head we saw the big blaze. It was Starman! The flashy, old stallion had been left on the Forest Service side of the huge fence (which we are endeavoring to get taken down with our lawsuit) atop the mountain when it was repaired. Forest Service workers knew they had fenced the old horse on the wrong side, but closed him out anyway.  BLM opened the gate into the horse range a few weeks ago and coaxed him back in. Thanks Ryan! Without this effort, Starman would most certainly have died in deep snows this winter, the reverse of what befell beautiful Cabaret and his family in the winter of 2010-2011. 

On the mid-ridges of Tillett, we saw the former band stallion, Chance, walking downhill. He looked better than in the summer, but was still on the lean side. We watched, expecting his band to appear with their young stallion, Gringo, who stole the band in June. Ever since the theft, Chance has dogged them, hoping to win his family back.  
We stopped to briefly glass across Big Coulee to Sykes and were shocked to see Gringo and the band.  A smart move on the part of Gringo, I thought. Chance will never find you there

We didn’t spend much time glassing, which we would come to regret. Instead we crept upward. Just past the old trap on Tillett, we spotted two members of Duke’s band—Aurora and Madonna. They disappeared into the trees. And although we searched, we couldn’t find them, but assumed they joined the rest of the family.

Gringo & his band staying far away from Chance. 
 As we approached the mountaintop, the fog set in and snow had accumulated, but not enough to turn us back. We noticed fresh tracks and hiked, following what looked to be hoof prints of four adult horses. They traveled to the spring-fed waterhole, turned and walked back out on a different route. It was eerie seeing fresh tracks but not the horses that made them—even eerier in the fog. We stopped and sat, listening, hoping to hear them. All we could hear was the unrelenting wind.  
We drove on through fog that lifted a bit at Penn’s Cabin. The sweet little place looked so lonely. It has endured 87 winters and I expect it will be here in the spring. I owe much to this humble refuge that has kept me warm and dry dozens of times over the years. I think of it as an old friend.
Speaking of old friends, when we descended into the limber pines at the top of Sykes, we saw Winnemucca with her stallion, Custer and his young mare, Felicity. Winnemucca is one of the two oldest mares in the Pryors at 24 years young. All three horses looked wonderful but skittish. They trotted into the trees before we could get pictures.

We continued downhill, through several deep, forested canyons and then to the ridges of Sykes. The lower we traveled, the denser the fog became. Not surprisingly, we saw virtually nothing, except a few little juncos.

Only short breaks in the fog allowed us to see the spectacular views 
Then, around a curve leading down toward Cougar Canyon we saw shapes in the fog and stopped.  Horses! Finally, I thought. A head came up and we recognized the dramatic star and light forelock of Bolder. Behind Bolder's band was Morning Star and his family foraging in the frost-coated grass. 
A very frosty Bolder
We filmed as Bolder passed, followed by the family. They casually stopped to graze, then walked uphill.  Frost clung to the needles of the limber pines and the manes and tails of the band. Echo’s eyelashes were thick with frost. He looked plump—just what you want to look like going into a Montana winter. Cascade, his protective mother grazed at his side. What will Bolder do if he sends the precocious colt packing? Would she choose to go with her only offspring?  Time will tell.
White on white Echo
Echo, Bolder, & Cascade 
Lobo, Echo's younger half-brother
Bolder's band (above). Frosty Cascade (below)
In the thick fog, we saw the black bachelor, Inniq, and imagined there might be other bachelors with him. Mescalero’s band appeared in the same general area. Who else was there, veiled in the fog? Eventually, we made the hard decision to venture downhill into Cougar Canyon. The trip involved moving boulders, sawing off limbs, and hoping we didn’t have a flat or bottom out up on rocks.   

Below Cougar Canyon, on the High Road near an isolated new water catchment, we caught a fleeting glimpse of Hidatsa, the very striped up grullo bachelor. As the wind whipped around us, he lept into the air and bucked, disappearing into a canyon. At least he thought the gale force wind was fun!

The next morning we started even earlier, heading up Tillett Ridge Road in the dark. In the dim light we spotted horses beyond the water catchment. Between junipers, we could see the coyote dun band stallion, Jackson, and one of his mares, Galena, with Firestorm’s colt, Maelstrom. Confident the rest of the band was in the dense junipers, we kept going, determined to find Cloud

We drove through the open meadows of Tillett, into the Douglas fir forest and up into the limber pine forest near the mountain top, then across the snow-covered, intermittently foggy high meadows. Fresh hoof prints again led to the waterhole but we never saw the horses that made them. So, down we drove onto the open ridges of Sykes once more. Discouraged at seeing absolutely nothing, we turned around, heading uphill again.
Luckily, we stopped and looked back. On a long ridge near the highest water catchment, we noticed movement. An intermittent ray of sunshine shone on a pale horse. It was Cloud’s granddaughter, Jewel, the pale buckskin filly, with her handsome, young dun stallion, He Who, and his lieutenant stallion (Cloud’s brother), seven year-old Fiddle

Jewel & He Who
There was no way we were brave enough (or stupid enough) to drive down Sykes again, so we drove to the mountaintop in fog, through intermittent rain and snow, and welcome but fleeting moments of sunshine.  Once back on Tillett we couldn't miss Mateo and Winnemucca’s son, Doc, and his family. They crossed the road in front of us.   
“Hello, Doc,” I said, gratefully. His mares, Broken Bow and her grulla daughter, Demure, as well as Demure and Santa Fe’s son, Mandan, looked plump. In the process of stealing the young mare, Adelina, Sante Fe lost his mares. Then sadly, he lost the filly during the bait trapping operation. 
From left: Mandan, Broken Bow, Demure
Near Doc was the new band stallion, Galaxy with Cloud’s feminine half-sister, Electra, her yearling filly Limerick, and little Maia with her mother, Hera, and Bolder’s mother, Pococeno. The stylish, black mare is turning grey around her muzzle but looks wonderfully fit. These was Prince’s family, but after a series of injuries, the gallant stallion finally lost his band this year to young Galaxy. Now Prince is missing and I am fairly certain he is dead.
Maia, the darling daughter of Prince and Electra
Down a bit farther on Tillett, we set up the spotting scope and began glassing. In no time at all we spotted horses. It was Cloud with Mato Ska and the band.  All were accounted for except Dancer, Cloud and Sitka’s blue roan daughter. We watched for an hour or more as the band traveled up to the high water catchment on Sykes. Cloud left Mato Ska and his mother, Feldspar, behind when they went to water.  About 20 minutes later Feldspar realized that she and her son were alone and they started uphill, joining the band just below Red Raven and Flint’s families. What’s with this, I wondered. Is Cloud so cocky that he knows he can get Feldspar back from whoever tries to steal her? Or is he just teaching the flashy mare a lesson: pay attention or get left behind?
If you look real hard you can see horses!
And what of Dancer? Is she with someone else or is she dead? There were many horses we did not see, so I am not counting her out just yet.
We watched Flint and Red Raven’s families interacting. Red Raven had Flint’s mare, Sequoyah and she was not happy, kicking Red Raven in the chest repeatedly. Flint made a few half-hearted tries to get her back, but backed off when Red Raven came at him. He sure has you buffaloed, I whispered. Somehow, I don’t expect Red Raven to hold on to the strong-willed lead mare. I can imagine her continuing to challenge him in her attempt to return to her family.
Glassing on other finger-like ridges we spotted the fun loving son of Feldspar and Flint, Jasper, and his buddy, Indigo Kid, Electra and Prince’s blue roan son.
It was frustrating to watch the horses from a mile or more away across impassable Big Coulee. In retrospect, we should have spent more time glassing on Sykes the day before. Then we might have had time to access Cloud and the others from Sykes today. But, hindsight is always 20-20. And there will always be a next time. A new adventure awaits.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! We are thankful for you and your support, which allows us to continue to fight for these precious wild families on the Pryors and throughout the West.  Three roundups have been cancelled this week and this would likely not have happened without the persistent outcry of wild horse champions like yourselves.
Happy Trails,

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P.S. If you have not seen the account of my Election Day encounter with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar here is a link to our press release on the topic. 
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