Lauryn Wachs and Catherine Stokes, our Cloud Foundation interns, accompanied me on their second journey to the Pryor Mountains. It’s always an adventure and last week was no exception.
According to people who live in the area, this winter has been the worst in 50 years—not only lots of snow but sub zero temperatures for extended periods. It’s a hard fact that winter often selects out the youngest and the oldest in all wild species. This is nature’s way of keeping populations in check and allowing only the fittest to survive and reproduce. So, we really didn’t know who among the wild horses might have died during this stretch of unusually challenging weather. Yet, some things never change and we were thrilled to witness the mating behavior of sandhill cranes on our drive out to the horse range. The male leaped in the air and danced around the female, paying no attention to our car and cameras eavesdropping on his display.
Once on the range, our first discovery of the trip was a wonderful surprise. We had been told that the grullo foal I named Koda Wakan (sacred friend) on the day of his birth last June, as well as his mother, were missing. When we saw them in the bitter cold of January, the young mare looked awful and we knew she might not live. If she died, we knew that Koda had little chance to survive.
As we crawled up the muddy and intermittently snowy road on Tillett Ridge, we spotted a small band on a low hill—a dun stallion, dun mare, dun foal and another foal—a grullo. Through our binoculars we studied the group and the oddity of one mare and two foals. Then it struck me. The second foal was Koda! He was foraging with the others and the mare allowed him to eat beside her. Through my scope, I could see that Koda had lost all the hair on his neck –a result of stress and starvation? The colt was one of my favorites of 2010, spirited and striped up, small but feisty. Last summer he was fond of breaking into a sprint, bucking and spinning. His love of life was so evident; he never failed to make me smile. I pray his spirit will carry him through this tough time and he will once again experience warm weather, green grass, and a good run across the meadows atop his mountain home. Time will tell.
Snow fell over night so we kept to the paved highway, finding a lovely bighorn sheep ewe near Devil’s Canyon Overlook. Farther down the road we watched the drama of the apricot dun stallion Blizzard and his revolving door of mares. The flashy horse had a different set of mares on each of the three days we saw him. This is beyond odd in my experience.
On the morning of our third day of searching, the mud was somewhat frozen, so we tried Tillett again, determined to drive higher in order to access hiking areas leading to overlooks where we could scan Sykes Ridge. I believed that this was our best chance to see Cloud, Bolder, and Flint’s families. We were stopped by snow but shoveled our way through it and patched up a washout along the way where we could have slipped off the mountain. We made it to a valley that led to a good vantage point of the mid-ridges of Sykes. Near the edge of Big Coulee we set up our scopes and began scanning one ridge after another.
Identifying the shimmering dark dots that were horses was nearly impossible, but when I panned the ridge nearly straight across on Sykes I spotted a pale horse. Cloud I said excitedly to Lauryn and Catherine. He and his family were grazing together and there was a new dun filly in the band—the small three year-old, Ingrid. Aztec and Cloud’s foal, Breeze had survived winter and looked fine from afar. Dancer was there and the Black, but Velvet was missing. Then a blaze-faced grulla mare and her foal appeared at the edge of the forest. It was Flint’s mare and foal, Feldspar and little Agate. I watched, waiting for Flint and Jasper to appear, but they never did—not in the hours we watched. Neither did Velvet. It seemed every band we spotted had some addition or subtraction to their numbers. Was the social unrest of the previous Fall continuing into Spring?
We got a brief, long distance view of Bolder, Cascade and Echo—the pale colt slipped behind a huge rock outcropping within minutes and was gone. Echo is truly Cloud’s legacy—a mirror of Cloud in looks and personality. So far, so good, I thought. He and his mother were the only members of Bolder’s family we saw, though I believed that others were hidden behind numerous rocks and trees—at least I hoped so.
There was no way we could access that part of Sykes to look for them. It is hard enough in summer to get onto Sykes and impossible at this time of year. Should we just go home? I doubted we would see much more than we already had and rain was predicted. When the next morning dawned with only broken clouds we decided to give it one more shot.
After checking for horses along the paved highway, we drove toward Tillett and stopped to glass back onto the faraway flats near the mouth of Big Coulee. In the sagebrush were dark horses and one that was light colored. It seemed impossible, but it was Cloud! He and his family had come all the way down into the desert. Quickly we made a plan as we drove back around to the red buttes at the bottom of Sykes. From there we began hiking.
Within an hour we found Cloud and his family still foraging in what appeared to be only sagebrush. On closer inspection we could see that there was green grass peppered about the sage. For the first time on our trip, it began to feel a bit like spring. For most of the afternoon we followed the band. They nibbled up the green grass and went to eat snow in the shelter of the hillsides and in the deep gullies. Feldspar and Agate were still with them, and I wondered where Flint and Jasper were? Something tells me they’re fine and the “Flintstones” will somehow reunite.
Velvet was still mysteriously absent, and I wondered where she was. She and Cloud have been together for eight years and she has never been welcoming to newcomers in this tight family. I’ve seen her lay her ears back at every new mare Cloud brought into the band in the past five years. She is not alone in this. Brumby, Jackson’s lead mare, has left him on numerous occasions in the past year or so after Jackson brought home young fillies, including Cloud and Velvet’s daughter, Firestorm. I hope Velvet will return in time. It doesn’t seem the same without her.
Cloud looked a little rough, his ribs were showing under his pale coat, but he was alert and in charge. When Aztec led the band up out of the sagebrush and onto Turkey Flat, he snaked Feldspar up the hill to keep everyone together. Both Aztec and Feldspar are thin but their foals look fine. When we left them they were all grazing peacefully.
Late in the day we drove back up on Tillett for one last time. Jackson’s band was foraging near the road. They too showed the results of the remarkably bitter winter. Even burly Jackson looked uncharacteristically lean. Firestorm was very thin but her foal, Lady Jane, looked fine and fuzzy.
As the sun was setting and we were getting ready to leave, we saw something glowing in the valley below. Through our scopes we identified the bright palomino horse. It was Cloud’s mother, Phoenix, with her family. The lovely 20 year-old mare wandered through the junipers and onto a small rise. Winter had not claimed her, or her son, or her grandson, or her great grandson and great granddaughters, and for this I am thankful.
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