Student-run media of Black Hills State University. The Jacket Journal / KBHU-TV / KBHU 89.1 FM & KJKT 90.7 FM "The Buzz".

BHSU Media

Student-run media of Black Hills State University. The Jacket Journal / KBHU-TV / KBHU 89.1 FM & KJKT 90.7 FM "The Buzz".

BHSU Media

Student-run media of Black Hills State University. The Jacket Journal / KBHU-TV / KBHU 89.1 FM & KJKT 90.7 FM "The Buzz".

BHSU Media

Family, fun, fear: what the Absarokas mean to me

There are many different ways to pronounce Absaroka. It is derived from the Native word Apsáalookěi meaning ‘children of the large beaked bird’, used by the Crow and Dakota groups as a name for the Crow people. Nowadays it is most famously used to give name to a fictional Montanan County in the television show “Yellowstone.’’ Ignoring the shows’ very phonetic pronunciation and many other odd ways of saying the name, the people inhabiting the area within and around the real-world Absaroka Mountains of Wyoming take on a seemingly French approach to the word- by not pronouncing half of it.

Absaroka, pronounced ab-zohrka, is the name my peers and I use for what I consider the most special place on Earth.

I first visited that rugged mountain range as a small child; unable to grasp the magnitude of awe that those peaks would later fill me with. My whole family, even my baby brother Zane, had made the trip to restock our dwindling stack of firewood.

All I remember from that day was how much fun I had, throwing snowballs and playing tag with my older sister Rose, and learning that unless I wanted to be covered in sawdust I shouldn’t stand behind my dad and his old Stihl chainsaw. I vaguely remember a campfire and hotdogs, Gatorade bottles and dogs sprinting around. It was nothing short of pure happiness for my little mind, and it stayed that way for years to come.

The moment that the Absarokas became something else is one that I will never forget. I had just left home for my first ever elk hunt at twelve years old, and made the journey with my dad up the foothills and small ridges I had grown familiar with. Then we kept going. Up and up, higher and higher we climbed until, after what felt like an eternity, my dad finally put his truck into park. That drive was long for a kid like me, but has grown shorter every single time.

What I saw when I stepped out into the frozen air burned itself into my mind’s eye like a hot brand on a calf in May. A clear night sky with a moon so bright it blocked out all but the brightest stars. Frosted corral beams glistening in the dappled snow. Steam rising from the horses quietly sifting through the alfalfa in the troughs.

The thing that really stuck with me was the mountain itself. Our camp was nestled at the bottom of a valley, two ridges on either side and a misshapen peak directly ahead. The sight of that peak flipped my world into itself, this was it. This was all, everywhere, everything, the sum of existence. The moonlit granite had become more than a mountain, it had become an entity. A being of old, made up of stories, sights, life, and the bones of the Earth. It had experienced more than comprehensible, more than any human could hold a flame to.

I didn’t shoot an elk that year, but the experience meant more to me than any ivories or antlers ever could. Testing the limits of my abilities horseback riding, hiking, caring for my rifle and fighting the weather in an attempt to not freeze in my sleep. As I got older that rough style of hunting became easier and more exciting, especially after I became good enough at stalking to actually start shooting bulls.

Sometime later, after a couple years of hunting and hiking in the Absarokas, I found myself on the other side of the country. My extended family had invited us Wyomingites to join them on a short vacation on the Gulf Shores of Alabama.

After a week on the beach we drove with the family back to their home in Indiana. On the way, we drove past the highlands and hills of the Appalachian mountains and I came to learn how that beat-down range was once just as tall and majestic as my own Rocky Mountains.

I was hit with some sort of existentialism, a second wave of realization and thought that changed the Absarokas for me once again. Even though those masses of stone and ice seemed permanent, every good thing must come to an end. They may weather any number of storms, any challenge from the heavens, but eventually they will fall to the unstoppable march of erosion.

Absaroka had taken on yet another form in my eyes, but its newfound ephemerality was not the last shape it would inhabit in my mind. The mountains were yet to tap into one final emotion of mine; fear.

Holding my own against the elements had given me a false sense of security during my time adventuring. I thought my dad and I could handle anything the wilderness threw at us, from extreme weather to the packs of wolves that we sometimes happened upon, or happened upon us.

Foolishly, I assumed bears were a non-issue. Stay away from them, they’ll stay away from me. There had always been a plethora of grizzlies in the area, I’d seen more than I was entirely comfortable with from a distance. Then one year, when I was about fifteen, I was charged by my first sow.

There were three of us hunting that day, my dad and I were accompanied by a man I consider my uncle. His name was David Lynn, and he saved us all from getting mauled. We had tied up our horses in a forest at the bottom of Piney Creek, and I was following my dad up a slope that we expected an elk herd had inhabited for the day.

About halfway up, on a steep patch of ice and melting snow, my dad suddenly stopped. He said a very deplorable word and gestured up the way towards a lone juniper tree about 50 yards away. There, standing with the terrible presence expected of such a brute, was a sow grizzly and her two cubs, each roughly a year old and already almost as large as their matriarch.

Within seconds of our spotting her, the beast launched itself down the incline, slipping and clawing at the patches of grass poking through the frozen blanket. She came to a stop almost immediately, having already cleared most of the distance between us. As she waited on her cubs to catch up, my dad and I started backing down the hill.

We made it to the trees before my dad told me to turn around and alert David. My dad slowly set down his rifle and readied his .44, prepared for the inevitable. The sow was still distracted, and I spun around to find David already on his way, rifle in hand.

The three of us were in a line, David and my dad slightly ahead of me. I was completely petrified, and stupidly didn’t have my rifle at the ready. The cubs had finally joined their mother, and she seemed to decide that there was no time like the present. She charged us, barreling directly at the center of our group, which happened to be me. David fired a shot before I knew what was happening.

The sow stopped and turned to face him. He had already reloaded and looked ready for anything. Just then, like a case of divine intervention, some other hunter a drainage over fired a shot. Grizzlies will always go for what they assume will be the easiest meal, and will run toward a gunshot like a moth to a flame. The three bears took off, leaving us confused and scared, but unhurt.

I later asked David if he had hit her with his shot. He laughed and admitted he didn’t, he was halfway hoping that he wouldn’t kill her to avoid trouble with the Game and Fish Department. I wasn’t too sure how to feel about it at first, but I know deep down that if it had come to him firing a second shot he wouldn’t have pulled any punches.

That was not the last time any of us had an encounter with bears in the area. Since then, I’ve been charged once, stalked about a dozen times, and even tracked a boar by the name of Volkswagen just to catch a glimpse of the supposed ‘biggest bear of the Rockies’. My idea of what the Absarokas were had undergone another change, becoming a more well-rounded element of Wyoming. One filled with danger and fear, but balanced with joy, excitement, wonder, and a love of all things natural. Brimming with flora, fauna, geological wonders and the chance to experience such an accomplishment of Earth, no matter how you pronounce the mountain range’s name.

About the Contributor
Austin Graft, Business Manager