Medium 9781574415278

Morning Comes to Elk Mountain

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Organized as a series of monthly journal entries, Morning Comes to Elk Mountain is Lantz’s response to ten years of exploring the rough and unexpected beauty of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. A combination of memoir, natural history, Native American history, and geology, this book is enriched by 20 color photos and a map to appeal to the seasoned visitor as well as the newcomer to the refuge. The national wildlife refuge that’s the focus of the book was among the first established by President Theodore Roosevelt. He helped save the Wichitas from miners and land speculators, and instead the harsh yet scenic area became the nation’s first bison refuge, established to keep this American icon from slipping into extinction. Today the refuge hosts more than a million visitors a year, most of them coming to hike the trails, climb the rocks, photograph bison and prairie dogs, or simply commune with a beautiful, wild area that remains a spiritual landscape for the Kiowa and Comanche Indians who call it home.

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January

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January

Charon would want his overcoat this morning, or more appropriately, a buffalo robe drawn tightly around his burly shoulders as passengers lined up near his ferryboat for a final, dreaded ride.

Actually the stream is shallow enough during a dry January that

I can cross in high-topped boots. The boatman’s price for passage, a coin on the eye of the dead, would need to be negotiable.

Charon, for those unfamiliar with Greek mythology, is the fierce character who, according to legend, carried the souls of the deceased across the river Styx and into Hades. The artist Michelangelo portrayed him as a rugged old giant with fiery eyes and tangled hair and beard. This massive hermit in his coarse robes was said to beat the reluctant with a stout oar until they submitted and climbed aboard for a rendezvous with the not-so-distant underworld.

None of the above has much to do with a cold morning in a rocky canyon in America’s heartland. But then this gash in seemingly impervious rock is, according to the map, Styx Canyon. The surrounding jumble of boulders, rock slides, and slick canyons is

 

February

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February

Last night striped skunks were on the prowl, evidenced by the number of carcasses along the roads leading into the refuge. It’s skunk breeding season and the animals haven’t learned that a glandular chemical defense system won’t deter a charging automobile.

Those that survive great horned owls and vehicular carnage will be responsible for a new generation of young skunks in about two months’ time. But, for now, a striped skunk roadside rendezvous oftentimes results in crow carrion.

February in the Wichitas is a month that can’t quite figure itself out. It’s as if winter is frantically straining to keep the door closed as spring shoves from the other side. Generally by mid-month the first tiny bluets and spring beauties can be found pushing up through oak leaf litter. Early in the month the upper branches of wild plum, bois d’arc, and willow show a flush of awakening in tones of dark purple, lemon yellow, and orange. The frog chorus increases in both numbers and volume as February melds into March and birds start chattering about nesting territory.

 

March

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Morning Comes to Elk MouNtain

to begin the serious business of mining pollen and serving as sex surrogates for the first wave of flowering plants.

Crab Eyes seems like a good spot to choose a boulder as big as a mini-van, settle back out of the wind and ascertain if a few low notes from a small wooden flute I’ve tucked into my day pack can blend into the wild ambience of the place. However, my music doesn’t impress the skinny old buffalo bull lounging unseen in the tall grass on the opposite side of the boulder. The bull leaps to his feet, nimble as a startled deer, also startling the flute player in the process. After a few hops the massive animal appears to regain his composure and walk regally, albeit a bit stiffly, down to the little stream for a few nerve-reassuring mouthfuls of green grass. When

I manage to hit a few high notes on the flute, the visually agitated old bruiser heads for higher ground, doing whatever necessary to bring a merciful end to the open-air talent show.

By late in the afternoon the clouds are breaking up, the weather warming and a small herd of bison cows are feeling frisky as they move across the mesa top where the early morning elk fed. The cows are headed somewhere at a trot, and they buck, joust, and attempt to mount each other in the sort of play most people don’t expect from that solemn animal gracing the face of a buffalo nickel.

 

April

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April

It’s April, a time of both natural and spiritual renewal in the

Wichitas, and therefore a perfect time to seek seclusion in the refuge’s Charon’s Garden Wilderness: a rugged, exposed jumble of granite boulders, water-carved canyons, and small streams bouncing over slick stairways of small waterfalls. This morning a fierce sun illuminates a haze of heavy, humid air, a gift from the Gulf of

Mexico arriving from the Texas coast. It’s that time on the plains when warm south winds drape themselves over the low mountains in soft, luxuriant currents, breezes that explore the recesses in each little canyon and cling to granite outcroppings, eventually coaxing the growing season out of the rock.

Yet even now, in the season of rebirth, a chance of a late frost or even a hard freeze persists. However, native plants are generally prepared for April’s weather moods and use their own adaptive chemistry to survive cold fronts that slide down from the north, slam into warm Gulf air currents and erupt into violent thunderstorms. Days following these seasonal weather confrontations oftentimes feature cold winds and bright blue, high-pressure skies.

 

May

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May

Most of the time May in these mini-mountains is a month of rainfall, of storms and high winds, hail and tornadoes, water sometimes descending in torrents. During May the refuge averages around five inches, a little more than two inches over the average for April and about an inch more than the average for June. By July the monthly rainfall average has dropped to some two inches while the average temperature has climbed to 95 degrees, and the pulse of the growing season slows accordingly.

Therefore May, with its ample moisture and balmy average temperature range of a high of 81 degrees, is prime for producing herbage for herbivores to eat. May is a grass-growing month, a good thing for a refuge established to nurture bison.

Some contend that averages don’t mean much in a climate where the average annual rainfall of nearly 33 inches once swelled to 57 inches in 1908. . . then dipped to 15 inches two years later. The weather rule of thumb here is simple: forget all the rules. This is a region that once recorded a high temperature of 116 degrees, and once watched the thermometer drop to a low of minus 21 in what must have been a truly rugged winter.

 

June

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June

If the rains have been generous, June in the Wichitas is generally a time of plenty. Each day the sun hangs over the land a little bit longer, edging towards the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year arriving around June 21. Wild fruits borne on April and May flowers are ripening, grasses are growing lush and small herds of buffalo cows graze to provide nourishment for the orange-colored calves at their flanks. It’s a serene scene, yet one that does little to calm the bulls. They are edgy now, shunning the communal comfort of bachelor groups, ready to test the air for the scent of cows in estrus.

The lumbering animals paw and roll in prairie dog towns, but the rightful tenants ignore their massive buffalo presence and continue to mimic activity you’d expect to see on a school playground. Prairie dog pups are as energetic as kittens on a country porch, scrambling, wrestling, and interacting in ways that teach prairie dog etiquette and communication. Soon midsummer heat will dominate, and life on the refuge will turn nocturnal. But for now, prairie dog pups and buffalo calves think of little other than the sheer joy of a lazy June morning, while their mothers watch life-giving thunderheads build on the horizon and lash the mountains with lightning and thunder.

 

July

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July

It’s a hot July day in the Wichitas, and a buffalo bull, sleek, fat, and the color of a chocolate brownie, has retired to the shade of a solitary oak for a siesta. The afternoon high temperature will reach the mid-90s, and the time for grazing and strolling to water was much earlier, with the sunrise. Midday summertime on the

Southern Plains is made for drowsing and maybe watching the wind encourage wildflowers to dance. Sons and daughters of white settlers still work through the heat of the day here, but the indigenous people followed the example of the wild creatures around them and were active when the shadows were long. July is a time to appreciate the sun and also respect it. Common sense says life should be placed on hold at its zenith; activity resumes when the sun’s angles are less overpowering, or put off entirely until the intense red orb drops below the edge of the Earth.

A visitor wouldn’t need a calendar to ascertain that July has a grip on this land of orange rock and sweeping, blue-tinted grasses.

 

August

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August

The view from atop the refuge’s Mount Scott takes in a large slice of the Southern Plains, with most that meets the eye rolled out as flat as the proverbial pancake. The exception is this jagged backbone of granite rising over 2,000 feet in elevation in places, a stark contrast to the lowland prairie below, much of it composed of rubble washed down from the mountains over millions of years.

West of the refuge the Wichitas continue to pop up and out of wheat fields and cattle pasture in a dimpled march toward the setting sun. The outcrops come to an abrupt end at Quartz Mountain

State Park north of the city of Altus. Beyond that, the eye strains to encompass seemingly endless miles of gouged and eroded prairie, some of it brown and level, some sliced up and red as a rooster’s comb, some with exposed layers of white gypsum rock. More than anything else as this August morning ebbs, the wind-whipped and heat-drenched grassland seems parched and in need of a drink. The effect intensifies under a furnace blast of sunlight that, at midday, robs the landscape of shadows and color.

 

September

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September

Tarantulas are on the move this morning. These large, hairy brown spiders, some with leg spans reaching four inches, most likely have left their burrows to search for female companionship.

Males in a mating mindset seek out lady tarantulas in their bachelorette digs, make the appropriate moves to break the ice, and then, after breeding, leave the premises before becoming supper.

Female tarantulas generally are larger than males, and, other than a handy snack, have little use for the opposite sex past deposition of sperm. No time for an obligatory post copulation cigarette when tarantula love is in the air. Best to make tracks and live to tell about the conquest, rather than end up consumed by it.

It seems to be a fine day for tarantula amours. According to the weatherman the temperature will struggle to exceed 80 degrees today. The morning has been more like May and soothed by strong south winds. There’s a sense that a brutally hot summer is losing its grip, and creatures on the move range from tarantulas to turkeys.

 

October

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October

Where the majority of monarch butterflies went in autumn, and why, was a mystery until 1976. Then, following nearly 40 years of pursuit, Dr. Fred Urquhart revealed in the pages of National Geographic Magazine that millions of these insects wintered in the highlands

of Mexico’s Michoacan. Monarchs reaching their wintering grounds congregate in mountainside trees at elevations around 10,000 feet.

Here they remain mostly inactive, protecting fat reserves needed for the spring flight back to the U.S. And, while the Sierra Madre overwintering habitat can be chilly due to elevation, the monarchs compensate by clustering. Tens of thousands may roost in a single fir tree, creating their own self-heated microclimate.

Some of these butterflies travel 3,000 miles or more to reach the Michoacan uplands, with many passing through the Wichita

Mountains on their unparalleled autumn flight. The butterflies ride both thermals and the north winds arriving with October cool fronts. Refuge grasslands welcome these intercontinental travelers with flowering sprays of pale purple asters, each spray an excellent refueling station for butterflies that migrate like birds.

 

November

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November

According to legend, Spanish explorers were in the Wichitas, known then as the Sierra Jumanos, as early as the 1600s, searching for gold. The same legends have it that lost treasure is scattered throughout this jumbled granite uplift. My guess would be that the gold in question, and maybe the impetus for all that misguided searching, is the way the rocks and pebbles at the bottom of November streams glow like manmade jewelry. The clarity of both water and light, coupled with the angle of the sun’s rays, make streams here seem paved with gold at times. Maybe that’s what some of the Indians were alluding to when they told Coronado that gold was plentiful in their homeland. If so, it was a communications error that brought about torture, terror, slavery, and loss of life and limb for tribal people who couldn’t grasp the lust for precious metals driving the invaders. The natives found out about

Old World cruelty the hard way when the Spanish discovered that the “golden cities” they’d been seeking were only dusty villages comprised of grass huts.

 

December

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Morning Comes to Elk MouNtain

parents provide care throughout. They’ve been known to scoop

Junior up in their stout mandibles and move to a safer sanctuary.

Overall, Ma and Pa Bess beetle appear to meet the criteria of the region’s often espoused family values.

Bess beetles head for the shelter of a rotting log when winter descends with a more virulent bite, but for now there’s insect business to attend to here in the vicinity of the buffalo trail. Yet other than traffic here on the beetle interstate, there’s not much happening on this chilly gray morning that portends more of the same.

When the sun finally decides to shine about midday, a buffalo bull walks out of the oak grove windbreak and soon slumbers in the open, eager to soak up some winter rays. The massive animal is so relaxed that he doesn’t even open his eyes when I amble past on my way back to the trailhead.

Six days later, the weather is 30 degrees warmer and sunny, yet with a strong north wind. It seems to be the sort of winter day that invigorates canyon wrens, or at least the one I’ve disturbed that keeps up a scolding chatter from a dead post oak tree.

 

Conclusion: A Last, Great Place

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Conclusion: A Last, Great Place

A spring day, cool and party cloudy. A morning in the mid-forties that’s morphed into the seventies by mid-afternoon. Rain fell the week before, and the Wichita Mountains grass is green, flowers bright red, blue, and yellow, buffalo calves a playful reddish orange, prairie dog pups the color of pale sand and as frisky as little terriers.

A perfect day, basically, to be in one of the nation’s oldest managed wildlife refuges, and visitors have descended in droves.

The parking lot is full at the prairie dog town bordering the main east–west road through the refuge. A camera club from Oklahoma

City, represented by maybe a dozen members, stalks the lively little rodents, tripods poised like shotguns in the hands of trap shooters.

The prairie dogs are cooperating mainly by their sheer fecundity.

New pups seem everywhere. One burrow holds three, heads out, scanning the crowd. Others either wrestle with littermates or cling tightly to their mothers. It looks like a good year, population-wise, for the prairie dog colony, but members of the photo club are worried. “Where are the mothers,” one concerned woman asks a fellow photographer. “All I’m seeing are little pups.”

 

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