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Adventures in the Wilderness That Once Was

By: Randy Tucker

The statute of limitations has long expired on adventures my enrolled friends in the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone Tribes and I shared long ago. But, adventures they remain --- in my mind at least.

My friend Pat was a big blonde-haired kid, who later grew a red beard after we graduated. He wasn’t an iconic image of the Shoshone people, but he had enough ancestry to be a member of the tribe. There are quite a few enrolled Shoshone who share his physical appearance.

Cubby was adopted by a white family, but was 100% Northern Arapaho.

When we got together near the tiny Wyoming hamlet of Crowheart, it was always to do a little fishing, explore the far reaches of the Wind River Reservation, or maybe shoot a little pool at the fire hall east of Crowheart.

Pat’s dad had a place on Willow Creek, a shallow stream that ran year round and was full of brook, rainbow, and a few cutthroat trout. It was in the area of the reservation where you could buy a non-tribal permit to fish, but in those days, it was much easier just to keep a lookout for the overworked game warden and hide in the abundant willows if he happened to drive by.

One afternoon, about a mile from the house, we were having a great day fishing. Sure enough, a warden’s truck stopped on the road above the creek, a man stepped out, and we watched him raise his binoculars towards us.

Pat’s blonde hair, and my close resemblance to a teenaged Opie Taylor, caught his attention. There was a bridge across the creek about seven miles downstream. The warden gunned the engine and headed towards the crossing.

We picked up our stringers of trout and started running towards the house. Three teenagers running a mile can easily beat a pickup truck bouncing down a gravel road for a 14-mile roundtrip. And we did.

We reached Pat’s house a good 10 minutes before that same truck pulled into the yard. His dad was working on a tractor engine and didn’t even know we were back.

We watched the warden talk to him from behind the curtains in the house. After a few minutes, he drove off and we, meaning me, had escaped capture. Capture in those days for a teenager meant a $10 fine at the worst, most likely it was just a lecture for me and a threat to call my parents, since I was fishing with two tribal members, and just a kid.

Later that summer we decided to explore the area below Black Mountain.

The Wind River Reservation was originally created in 1868 for the Shoshone, but in 1877, after the capture of their traditional enemies, the Arapaho, the reservation became home for both tribes.

The Arapaho were split into two groups by the U.S. government, the Southern Arapaho in Oklahoma, formerly known as the Indian Territory before statehood, and the Northern Arapaho in Wyoming.

In 1906, a large section of the reservation was purchased for white settlement. Part of the original agreement was that the area must be improved, i.e.: agriculture or industry taking place on it.

By 1938, the area around Black Mountain was still largely undeveloped. There were a few homesteads, an isolated cabin, and some small irrigation projects started, but not nearly enough to fulfill the original agreement.

The land went back to the tribes.

That’s the area we wanted to explore. My grandfather had homesteaded on an area east of it on the Bar Gee Ranch back in the 1920s, working for a Shoshone family who owned the land, but it, too, went back to the tribes.

We set out late one summer morning, crossing the Wind River on the bridge near Crowheart. As we pulled up the ridge above the river, we encountered the largest sand dunes in Wyoming just a few miles north. They looked immense, a bit of the Sahara on the high plains of the Cowboy State.

The road changed from a well-maintained gravel surface to a rutted dirt road, and finally a series of two-track trails. The area was closed to non-tribal members without a special permit, and we obviously didn’t have one.

I had to sit on the outside, as the newcomer. The middle seat is highly valued in rural Wyoming. You don’t have to drive, and you don’t have to get out to open the many wire gates you’ll encounter.

The problem was that every time we passed a vehicle going the other way, I had to duck down below the dashboard of the truck. That made Pat and Cubby look like they were sitting next to each other, couple style.

It wasn’t a time when a rumor like that would be very popular. After we passed the second vehicle, Pat stopped the truck, I moved to the middle, and Cubby opened the gates. Passing vehicles then saw a couple of teenage boys sitting on opposite sides of the cab after I ducked down.

The area we reached was a trip back in time at least 50 years. There were still standing cabins, but the roof of each one was compromised. Old bottles, tin cans, and rusting hulks of cars and equipment dotted the yards.

Ground hornets had taken resident in a couple of the old homesteads; we were careful not to step in any of their nests, since it would quickly ruin your afternoon.

As we departed, we dutifully opened and closed each gate. Gate decorum is one of the biggest issues in cow country. You always leave a gate the way you found it. Open or closed doesn’t matter, if you pass through, leave it as it was.

Recently, I had a friend who was a tribal judge and told him this story. I’ve purchased many reservation fishing permits over the years, but they don’t allow you to fish north of the Wind River, the area we explored as kids.

The judge told me if I ever wanted to go back, he’d write me a pass, but he moved on to the other camp a few years ago. I never took advantage of his offer when he was with us.

Someday, maybe I’ll return to the wilderness that once was.

Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at ratucker@wyoming.com.

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