Thursday, October 26, 2017

Too personal

On seeing a kayak at the farm store:

J: "Why would they sell kayaks at the farm store?"

M: "The same reason they sell kayaks anywhere else, for boating. It's a one-person boat. A personal boat, you might say. [Faltering.] A one-personal boat."

J: "How about a tandem kayak? Would that be two-personal?"

M: "No, we can talk about that."

Wednesday, October 25, 2017


Mule deer near Van Tassel, Wyoming. Photos by Jessa.

Is it just me, or do muleys look like kangaroos from the neck up, especially in profile? They're ecological equivalents, anyway. Gorgeous critters...

Monday, October 23, 2017

Keep your fish

Our recent trip to the Pine Ridge region of Nebraska was not primarily a fishing trip...but to the extent that it was a fishing trip, the Pine Ridge, with its skinny water and hyper-spooky fish, left me soundly defeated.

The draw here, apart from stunning scenery, is salmonid diversity not available elsewhere in Nebraska. Rainbows and brown trout can be found in other waters, but for cutts and brookies, the Pine Ridge is the only destination.

Soldier Creek was going to be my primary spot, but the section I happened upon was largely choked with cattails. The few open stretches were narrow enough to step across, but only if one could manage to negotiate the steep, heavily vegetated banks without falling in. Not counting trees and bushes, of which I hooked plenty, I got one strike (and no hookup) in an hour or two of trying.

The White River was much more conducive to casting, a beautiful stream with clear banks and no overhead cover, just blue western skies and towering sandstone bluffs. Unfortunately, fish were few and far between, and no takers among them.

I had access to a very short stretch of Sowbelly Creek, a tiny sluice with one pool, where five or six brookies lay finning in gin-clear water. The moment I spotted them, they spotted me, and that was more or less the ballgame.

Because it was closest to our lodgings, and because intermittent reinforcement is a powerful motivator (I hadn't forgot that single tantalising strike), on our last morning I rose before the sun to have another go at Soldier Creek. I did find better water, but that's as far as my luck extended.

Jess reminded me that I've caught four indisputably wild trout this year, and assured me that given adequate time I would figure out these streams. And whatever frustration I experienced at least took place in glorious weather amidst some of the most striking scenery Nebraska has to offer. Still, it helped that we stopped at Grabel Pond, over by the old Red Cloud Agency, before leaving Fort Robinson. Catching and releasing a bunch of rainbows was a salve for my confidence.

And really, who really needs brook trout in their extravagant autumn colours? What's so special about a silvery cutthroat pulled from a coldwater creek, anyway? You can keep your fancy fish, Pine Ridge. I just have one question...

May I please come back next year?

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Horses of Fort Robinson

I'm not certain if the horses at Fort Robinson State Park are descended from Army horses, Indian ponies, or ranch stock. I'm not even sure it makes sense to ask the question; it seems likely that they are a mix of all three, that such distinctions may not even be grounded in reality, as those boundaries may have been fluid for individual ancestor horses.

What does seem clear is that this is a fine place to be a horse. Watching the herd in this landscape, I was reminded of two quotes from Dan O'Brien's novel The Contract Surgeon. O'Brien is a man who knows and loves both horses and this country, and Fort Robinson is the primary setting for the book.

The first: "To a horse the Great Plains must seem an endless, luscious banquet, a land of equine dreams that touches his two dearest desires: his need to eat sweet, fresh grass and his passion for unfettered movement." And it is true that the horses here have good grazing and plenty of space.

But the second passage resonates even more strongly, when I consider a life lived completely in the elements...endless sun, wind, rain...sometimes to be endured, sometimes to be reveled in. O'Brien evokes "a climate that renders you powerless, punishes you at will, yet nourishes you by supplying what you need in doses small enough to make you grateful."

A damn fine place to be a horse.

[Photos by Jessa and Mark Farrell-Churchill.]

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Old Fort Rob

Because it is so sad I don't visit Fort Robinson, Nebraska, very often. But since it was on my way I decided to drive past. It was a pilgrimage I did not relish, a little like a Christian going alone to Calvary, complete with the outrage of a senseless murder but without the neat justification that it was done for our salvation. Fort Robinson is the place Crazy Horse was murdered. In the latter 1870s it was a military post, established to protect whites moving into the Black Hills. It was also a depot for gathering and shipping the Indians to reservation compounds. The beauty of the land where the fort stands hides the shame of its history.

—Dan O'Brien, The Rites of Autumn

Quietly, his blanket folded over his arm as though he were going to his lodge between two friends, Crazy Horse let himself be taken past a soldier walking up and down with a bayoneted gun on his shoulder and in through a door. Only then did he see the barred windows , the men with chains on their legs, and realize it was the iron house.

—Mari Sandoz, Crazy Horse: Strange Man of the Oglalas

While Fort Robinson was an active post through the Second World War and served numerous purposes (cavalry post, quartermaster remount depot, artillery base, K9 training center, POW camp), it is best known for its role in the Indian Wars. The oldest portion of the fort lies to the east of Highway 20 (this stretch is designated as Crazy Horse Memorial Highway). Some of the buildings here are original, though their appearance has changed over the years; others, including the log buildings depicted here, are reconstructions based on archaeological information and sited where the originals stood.

The building in the foreground is the guardhouse, outside of which Crazy Horse was bayoneted. ("Stab the son of a bitch! Kill him!" screamed Captain James Kennington, officer of the day. "Not a hair of your head will be harmed," the charismatic Lakota had been assured by another officer shortly before.) In the middle is the adjutant's office, where Crazy Horse died under the care of post surgeon Valentine McGillicuddy. In the background is the cavalry barracks, which a couple of years later was used to house/imprison the Cheyennes who had left their reservation in Oklahoma to return home but were captured by the Army.

Inside the guardroom. In the foreground is an empty rack for rifles; behind the wall is the prison room.

Interior of the adjutant's office.

Parade ground, with officers' housing beyond. Dr. McGillicuddy's house, I believe, is the one at far left. Colonel Luther Bradley, post commander, occupied a larger house, no longer extant, to the left of that.

O'Brien isn't wrong about the beauty of the land, though...

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The pigeons of Carhenge

I think we've solved the mystery of Carhenge. Jim Reinders' kitschy automotive replica of an ancient Druidic monument is really a dovecote, cleverly disguised as a kitschy automotive replica of an ancient Druidic monument.

Or maybe not.

But engine bays, wheel wells, frames, and suspensions have certainly been co-opted by the rock dove, one of the most commensal species mankind has known. The birds' grey plumage nicely matches the matte grey of the cars, while the iridescent greens and purples, accented by the bright orange jewel tones of their eyes, make for a pleasing contrast.

The entire pigeon experience is on display at Carhenge: rivalry, courtship, mating, brooding, feeding, fledging, and dying, all amidst the carcasses of Detroit steel on the high plains north of Alliance.

So maybe there is some spiritual value to be found here; maybe it would not be such a bad idea to stand amongst the "stones" on an autumn day, under a bright blue sky, to feel the breeze as it crosses the continent, and to contemplate the mystery and miracle of life on this bright blue marble we and Columba livia call home. The birds are our neighbours, our relations, our fellow citizens...

Just be sure to wear a hat if you linger long here. They are, after all, pigeons.

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