29 November 2009

Day One: Project Niitaowahsin

III ) llllllllll Project Niitaowahsin (28Nov09)

I’m very excited. Piipiiaakii and I have decided to commit to a change in our relationship to food, and everything else we put into our bodies (solid, liquid, or gas). It’s the next logical development in the trajectory our life has taken, particularly in terms of being true to Iiyaohkiimiipaitapiiyssin.

Ksisskstaki Amopistaan, the Beaver Bundle, is a living reminder of the social contract we’re responsible for upholding in relation to our environment and its diverse inhabitants. There’s a reason why this most ancient and dynamic of bundles originated at Paahtomahksikimi, the place now known as Lower Saint Mary’s Lake. This body of water sits directly below Divide Mountain, from which flow the headwaters of three of the largest river systems in North America - the Saskatchewan, Missouri, and Columbia. Paahtomahksikimi itself is the physical connection point between the Upper Saskatchewan and Missouri drainage basins, the two geographic lodges that comprise kitawahsinnoon, What Feeds Us, Blackfoot Territory. The treaty that occurred here between human beings and other animals, culminating in the transfer of Ksisskstaki Amopistaan, clarified our role relative to the wider eco-social environment of the two watersheds. The animals agreed to help us benefit from their greater experience by teaching us how to live adaptively within this local system, while we in turn agreed to coexist with them in a manner respectful of our dependence on the vitality of their communities.

We human beings, all of us living in kitawahsinnoon, are no longer fulfilling our end of the treaty that brought Ksisskstaki Amopistaan into being. Most of us blame this circumstance on historical developments of the last century, but it began long before that. Something happened a long time ago in Europe, something so terrible that its origin has been mostly repressed from social memory, and is now simply referred to as the Dark Ages. Whatever sparked this era, it seems to have involved an organized and militarily-enforced shift in spiritual practice and engaged knowledge, directing people away from anything anchored in their connection to local ecosystems, and toward a conceptual disengagement-with and perception of ascendancy-over nature. This movement left a huge European population disoriented, and a significant number of these lost people sought escape in other parts of the world. Eventually, some of these drifters came to kitawahsinnoon and, with the only tools they were then aware of, began recapitulating the same history they or their ancestors had fled. These colonizers leveraged incredible violence, coercion and cruelty against niitsitapi who adhered to a way of life bound by an understanding of ainna’kootsiiyo’p – respectful coexistence among all species sharing the upper Missouri and Saskatchewan watersheds.

Perhaps the most devastating blow delivered by the colonizers, in their attempts to mould this “new” and “wild” territory and its constituents into a more familiar likeness, was their purposeful extermination of the bison. Hardly more than a century ago, iinii comprised the largest herd of land mammals the world has ever known. But once the decision was made to eliminate them, it took just a couple decades to accomplish. The diverse grassland once populated by this herd has now been biologically neutered. Large tracts have been stripped of indigenous plants and animals, and either sown with monoculture crops, or repopulated with domestic animals that feed a global trade network and an exploding rise in human populations unparalleled in the history of our species. We who have been made dependent on this economy have all but lost our applied sense of connection to place. Most of us have forgotten that territorial lines were once defined in terms of watershed ecosystems, and that we have responsibilities within these drainage basins - not as “caretakers” of the land, but as managers of our own behaviours relative to those we co-inhabit these places with, and on whose lives ours REALLY depend. The effects of similar homogenization and memory loss worldwide have been tremendous, and today we are collectively coming to grips with the fact that our actions have lead us headlong toward a major ecological crisis that could very well bring our existence here to an end, every bit as rapidly as we brought the bison to theirs.

The question is, are we willing to do anything about this? Will we take responsibility to slow-down our procreation, detach ourselves from a dependence on global trade, and reconnect with our eco-social roles relevant to local watersheds? Will we reorganize ourselves politically? Will we start making decisions and manage our use of technologies based on long-term sustainability? Will we respond to this impending ecological crisis at all, or are we just going to talk about it until the death arrives?

Through aatsimoyihkaan, we call upon Naato’si, Ko’komiki’somm, Iipisowahsi, miiksi Sspommitapiiksi, Ksaahkomitapiiksi, Soyiitapiiksi, ki Naatoyiitapiiksi. We speak to them as if we’re deserving of the alliances we have with them, as if we are living up to our responsibilities as best we can, given our circumstances. But we are not. There is much more we can do to make amends with them and to manage our behaviours. We choose not to, and for this reason I feel hypocritical. At some point, we need to ask ourselves - as individuals, and families, and communities - what are we willing to do? When do we begin changing our negligent lifestyle, and how rapidly can we implement that change?

Piipiiaakii and I have discussed this, and we are ready and eager to begin. What we’ve decided to do is change our relationship to food, everything we put in our bodies. We are giving ourselves one year to adjust our diet to where we are consuming only those substances that originate in the Old Man River watershed. This is our home, our bodies, and our life. We have been complicit participants in the global trade network too long now, at the expense of our health and our responsibilities. We need to better attend to the relationships inherent in Iiyaohkiimiipaitapiiyssin, and we need to do our part to help bring about the change necessary in order that our grandchildren can enjoy this life and place as we have. I intend to document our journey here.

24 November 2009


I Oyiiyiistsi (16Nov09)

1423 Spopiikimi - with just a couple hours of daylight to work with, I'm taking a break from lecture prep to visit the pond, intent on continuing my survey of bird nests, now that the leaves have fallen and everything is so exposed

1425 Unfortunately, I'm on my own for the afternoon. Piipiiaakii's under doctor's orders to rest up and stay out of direct sunlight for a few days. But since I'll be on the road teaching and presenting most the week, I wouldn't feel comfortable missing this opportunity to check in on what's happening out here

1427 I walk straight from the parking lot to where I can look out over the water midpond. Even though it's somewhat warmer now than it was when we visited two days ago, there's still a thin layer of ice over the surface. The only open pools are those in front of the entrances of the ksisskstakioyis, and the main mi'sohpsskioyiistsi

1431 Where I stand to look out over the pond, there is a wood ant nest at my feet. Like so many other such hives this time of year, it has been dug-out on one side. The wood ants and their carpenter ant slaves are hard at work fixing the damage. I still don't know who's responsible for this, but my strong suspicion is mi'kaniki'soyi (flicker)

1437 I know there are probably some kingbird nests in the trees overhanging the north end of the pond, not to mention the blackbird and coot nests amidst the reeds, but for all of these I will wait until the pond freezes solid enough to hold my weight. Today I'm going to start my survey of nests in the forest east of the wet meadows

1444 On my way there, I stop to look at the river. I'm expecting to see lots of geese and ducks, but the only one present is a single miisa'ai (common merganser). The others probably were chased off by someone with a dog earlier, no doubt they'll be back

1456 Once dropping down into the forest, I don't have to go far before I find my first nest. It's in a large bulberry plant, a cup-shaped nest woven of three distinct layers: grass and thin buckbrush stems on the outside, hair-like cream-colored roots on the inside, and a very nice plastering of old, weathered and lace-like cottonwood leaves in between. I don't know who made the nest, but since we dutifully recorded all the birds who lived here throughout the summer, I'm hoping it will be just a matter of elimination to find out. This nest, like others I've been surveying in the past week, has scat evidence of being used by a mouse, and is full of newly fallen cottonwood leaves

1508 The next nest I come to is set high in an extension of the same clump of bushes, except that these birds chose to place support it in the branches of one of the very few black birch trees at the pond. It too is a cup-shaped shelter, made almost entirely of grass, with what appears to be a few wide strips of both outer and inner willow bark woven in. This bark is part of the exterior of the nest, along with some cottony material (possibly milkweed) and a bit of stolen tissue paper. The cup has a layer of fallen birch leaves deep within, covered over with a secondary layer of narrow willow leaves. There is no sign of mouse use. Since I do not think I can place this nest back up at the height from which I took it down to examine, I'll bring it home with me for further study

1520 Moving still further around the same clump of brush, I find one more nest, this of obvious robin production. It is a classic grass and mud cup, and I don't even bother to pull it down. I do however peek inside, under the usual array of fallen leaves, to find that the mice have definitely been using it

1527 At the next patch of brush there are three more nests. One I recognize as having been here several years, a very low-set magpie fortification that, two seasons past, hosted the egg of an eastern kingbird. Another is a robin's deep cup set somewhat high in a clump of diamond willow. The last is another of the grass-woven, shallow cups, with cottony material and willow bark on the outside, set just below eye-level in bulberry. This nest looks older, like it may have remained from more than a year ago

1537 The next nest I find, moving over to another brushy patch, looks to be a variation of the one I found previously, the three-layered cup. This one has grass inside, and old leaves as the next layer, but rather than gathering woody material for the shell, these birds have made use of the very dense but thin bulberry branches within which the nest is situated. They've woven these branches around the nest as its final shield

1549 The next four nests I come across are of the same make as those I've already seen today: two robins nests, a grassy ones with exterior fiber and fluff, and another tri-layer. All of these are older nests, from a prior season. I don't find another nest made just this past summer until I come to a russian olive tree on the outskirts of the wet meadows. Here is a nest set in one of the lower branches, about eye-level, that is cup-shaped and grass woven. There are some strips of what appear to be poplar cambium material, the fibrous rotten inside bark that has the consistency of weak paper, wrapped here and there both inside and outside the grass. I do not think this is the same as the other three types I've seen today

1610 I feel like I have a lot to consider, with the three or four different nest designs I've come across today. That and my hands are now fairly bloody from reaching into the thorny bulberry thickets. So I wander down across the wet meadows to the ksisskstakioyis. It's very impressive now, easily standing six feet above the water. Their storage of bulrush stems is massive, weighed down on top with several hefty logs. I wish the family were out already this evening, but they're not, so I am on my way back to the forest

1616 As I move toward the forest, a flock of sixteen aapsspini come honking low overhead. I squat down in the grass right away. The geese circle around the pond's south pool and split into two factions. A group of nine wing away toward the river, but the four others make a wide round and come right overtop of me, very low, obviously checking me out. I must not be too big a threat, because they then continue their descent and land somewhere near the old natal island of the gosling family. I wonder, just a little, if they ARE the gosling family

1643 I've had my fun and gone back to the truck, picking up the grassy-woven nest with fluff and fiber exterior that I was unable to put back in the birch, and taking along one of the tri-layered nests as well. I've been thinking about it as I walked along, and it does little good to say a nest is made of "grass"... what kind may actually be important. This is what prompted me to collect the second nest as well. I'd like to have a really good look at them and see what they can teach me both about their designers and about the relationships these birds have with the different grass-like plants

III ) llll Big Rub (22Nov09)

1000 Akaiinissko - it's a cold but windless morning, the Sun hidden behind a blue veil of cloud cover. I've come with the intention of taking a long, sunwise walk around the forested floodplane here, to continue my nest survey, check in on the ksisskstaki, and perhaps add a few more logs to the aapi'maan I'm building

1028 As I walk along the coulee rim, I can see that the river is floating a film of slushy ice. The water looks green today, and the area immediately around the ksisskstakioyis is already frozen-over. I hear gunshots, hunters, somewhere upriver

1039 Almost as soon as I drop off the coulee rim, to begin making my way down one of the ravines, I stop on a high ledge to take some pictures. Here there are two grass species that I want to learn about. One is probably a canary grass. It's yellow in color and grows in clumps about five feet tall, seeming to prefer small dips along this high slope. The other may be a rice grass. It is low to the ground, no more than ten or twelve inches high, with thin stalks and white seed heads that look soft and feathery from a distance. Someone has recently brought a small couch out here. It makes for a nice place to sit and look out over the valley

1056 My next stop is just a bit further down the slope, where I notice a porcupine has been gnawing the bark off one of the sumac bushes. There's a number of these plants on this steep part of the slope, so I look around at a dozen or so and find no other porcupine evidence. I do, however, enjoy a few of the remaining berries - bland on the outside, with a citrus taste like sour candy around the pit

1113 As I walk down through the ravine, I find the tumbleweed stem of ma's (prairie turnip). Something small, I'm thinking mouse-size, has been chewing pieces off one side of the stem near the base, and I see that this is also where the plant has decided to drop some of its seeds. I take two of the seeds it’s deposited - one to try and grow at the house, another to just learn the appearance of, so that I might be able to recognize them among rodent food caches down the road. Right around the same area, I'm also seeing dry prickly-pear fruits that are dumping their seeds. I'll take one sample of this as well

1122 The prickly pear seeds are very interesting. Almost every seed that has dropped from the dried fruits have been eaten by what I assume are mice. A little hole is gnawed on the side of the casing, and the seed itself removed. Turning one of the fruits upsidedown in my palm, I manage to get a few seeds out. None of the ones from inside the thorned fruit have been touched, although it seems like they would be easy to access, given that the fruits are open at the bottom

1145 I take my time moving down the ravine, stopping to peek into any suspected rodent burrow, and to photograph the sandy mounds dug up by pocket gophers and the dry remains of eveningstars. Most of the seed pods of the latter are still sealed, with the exception of those located near the terminal end of the stalks. While I'm looking around here, aapsspini pass by low overhead, first a flock of twelve, then an other of ten, then a third group of twenty-three, all making their way off the coulee tops and moving downriver. From somewhere upriver, in the vicinity of where I'd heard the gunshots, there's an occasional odd trumpeting whistle, as unnatural as can be

1213 Coming onto the floodplain, I skirt around the edge of the forest downstream and enter into the willow thickets. Just at this transition, I find an area where the bucks have rubbed a substantial number of willows raw with their antlers. My count is thirty-five willow stems all in one tight group, about at third of which have been so abused that they're broken clean through. There are also many other willows rubbed along the paths through this grove, but no locale quite so thoroughly affected as that initial site

1229 I soon pass out of the first stand of willows, onto a grassy meadow. Another flock of thirty-three aapsspini pass over, followed by a smaller group of eleven, all moving along the same trajectory as those from earlier. I find, woven within the weeping branches of a small narrow-leaved cottonwood, a wonderful magpie nest, complete with a thick mud bowl

1235 As I enter another patch of willows, on my way to the ksisskstakioyis, I find a loosely-woven cup nest that appears to be made almost entirely of clematis vine and that grassy plant with the small aster-like flowers. There is just a small amount of yellow grass lining and softening the inside of this cup. Also within this growth, though still some distance from the ksisskstakioyis, is a massive series of well-trodden beaver trails lined with their cut willows

1253 Arriving at the ksisskstakioyis, I find that their winter food cache, which had been rising quite a ways out of the water during my last visit, is now pressed down, with some already bark-stripped logs thrown overtop. There is also plenty of evidence that they are still brining fresh mud up to reinforce the roof of their lodge, despite that its perimeter is now closed in ice. Using one of their sticks as a prod, I find that the ice is not so thick that they couldn't easily push through it at this point. I think perhaps I would like to bring a sketchbook down here, to map the drag-trails they've made in the willow thickets all along this riverfront

1319 A little ways upriver from the ksisskstakioyis, I cut in toward the forest, cross the thick sweetclover brambles, passed through the treeline, and arrived at the meadow housing my survival shelter. As usual, there are mule deer here. They stood up in caution at my approach, but have since laid back down. There's also a couple magpies in the trees here, watching me and giving their staccato five-tone call

1335 I promised myself I'd put at least a few more logs on the shelter each time I came down here, though for some reason today I'm not really into it. My attention is much more taken with the deer and the magpies. One of the large does is grazing not far from me, well aware of my presence but hardly concerned. The magpie seems to be picking something out of the trees, then gliding over to a particular snag poplar with a large horizontal branch, and there depositing whatever it is he's gathering. Unfortunately, I would not be able to climb up there safely to find out what the magpie's collecting

1358 Eventually the magpie, fed-up with my gazing, departed to the other side of the forest, and I was left with no option but to get to work gathering and placing a few logs. Four was all I added today, though two of them were of considerable size. The shelter's still a long way from what I'm envisioning, but its construction really gives me some respect for the labor necessary to put up something decent. I don't know that I'd be able to bother with something so large in a real survival situation, and the sweat the runs when building it would be very dangerous if I were not going home

1433 Before making my way out, I made one last stop to check on The Twin, who seemed to be asleep. Then I climbed almost straight up the coulee side, huffing and puffing to the truck. I really can't wait to get some snow days out here. I miss the opportunity to follow tracks

20 November 2009

Journey To Billings

III ) l Journey To Billings (19Nov09)

I'm so glad to be home. Last night this time, I was exhausted, looking longingly and baggy-eyed at a thick matress in Room 2213, Holiday Inn, Billings, Montana. I had no idea who'd slept there last, and I didn't want to think about it. My plan was to sleep fully clothed above the bedding. Like so many other aapi'maanistsi I've briefly inhabited, Room 2213 combined aestetic appeasement with brute functionality. There were two framed pieces of unintrusive art on the wall, some lamps with curls and softness, others with strong geometric lines. There was laminate furniture that looked eligant while hiding a pressboard foundation. The area near the door was most hideous, with its wall-hung ironing board and tacky white paper map of the fire escape plan that no guest would ever bother to study. The television, that remained silent throughout my stay, was a boxy monstrosity for anyone used to the now more commonplace thin plasma monitors. And while I was grateful for the appearance of cleanliness and order, I would've forfeited it all of that for a bedside jacuzzi. I like my late-night baths.

We drove to and from Billings, Ki'naksaapo'p ki niisto, along a route historically traveled by those with ambitions to raid the Crow. We could have taken the more expedient and boring freeway, but what would be the fun of that? Our course was beautiful. It began at Piina'pohkatoyiss, the highest non-mountainous site in North America, and from there wound south past Aamsskaapakaapioyi (Fort Benton) to the Judith Gap, and beyond. We saw yucca, which I knew to be indigenous to kitawahsinnon, but had never actually encountered before. They were on the coulee rim above Aamsskaapakaapioyi, and nowhere else. We passed herds of antelope, and mule deer, and even buffalo. In the valley between Harlowton and Lavina, we tried to spot each of the dozens of odd, wooden red-headed woodpeckers that someone had carefully mounted on the trunks of roadside trees. And then there were the stories Ki'naksaapo'p told to carry us through. He talked about Aamootsinotsskoyim, a horse that was raced around a butte in the coulee Fort Benton occupies. He recounted testimonies of the last buffalo hunt that took place between the Musselshell and Yellowstone rivers. Of course there were crazy tales of the infamous Peter Buggins. But my favorite story of the journey was about Ksikksinopaa, one of the last warriors to follow the very route we were traveling...

As Ki'naksaapo'p remembered having heard it, a bundle that had been placed on a tripod outside someone's lodge was stolen by a Crow Indian who snuck into camp. Ksikksinopaa decided immediately to travel south to Issapoiksaahko to reclaim the bundle and get revenge. There were a lot of young warriors who wanted to go along, but Ksikksinopaa reminded them, "You know I go alone."

So he set off south through what is now called the Judith Gap, and eventually came across a large encampment of the Crows. For several days, Ksikksinopaa kept himself hidden nearby, studying the people and their routines, searching for any sign of the bundle. Then late one night, he styled his hair like a Crow and walked in amongst the lodges. Most of the people were asleep and snoring. But in one of the tipis, there was a group of men visiting. They spoke in Issapoi'powahsin, but they were also using sign language, and by watching their fire-lit silhuettes against the lodge walls, Ksikksinopaa could make out every detail of what was being said. One of the men inside was recounting an expedition to raid a Blackfoot camp, and when he described the appearance of someone he'd killed, Ksikksinopaa recognized that this Crow was the murderer of one of his relatives. Wasting no time, Ksikksinopaa put the barrel of his rifle right up to the man's head and pulled the trigger. Hearing this shot, the whole camp was soon in an uproar. Amidst their panic, Ksikksinopaa calmly walked away until he was out of sight, and then hurried to put some distance between himself and the angry Crows.

Ksikksinopaa ran from his pursuers until daybreak, and then layed down to hide. Soon the Crows came passing right by his position. One of them was very close and seemed to be looking right at him, but then kept going.

By the time Ksikksinopaa got back home, word of what he'd done had already reached the mounted police by telegraph. Fearing arrest, Ksikksinopaa took some of his horses and went to stay with Jerry Potts. The mounties came looking for him, but Potts wouldn't give him up, so they took the horses instead. When Ksikksinopaa found out about this, he suggested that Potts go somewhere to create an alibi for himself. That night, Ksikksinopaa stole his horses back from the mounties and then disappeared. Years later, at a ceremony in Siksika, some visitors from Kainaa were asking the hosts if they'd known about Ksikksinopaa. An old man stood up near the door. It was the aged warrior, still alive, never having been apprehended.

17 November 2009

Shore Cache

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllllll Sa'aiksi Aamsskapooyaa (10Nov09)

0902 Too nice a morning to pass up a survey of the canal on the way to work

0909 Between the 509 and Innokimi, we first encounter three magpies on the bank of the canal, who fly off as we approach, landing briefly in nearby willows, but then moving on to the BTAP stubble-fields. Then we come across about a dozen grey partridge, who were high on the bank above the access road, but flew to the other side of the canal all the same when they saw us coming through. On the road itself, there were two horned larks. And when we arrived at Innokimi, far back toward the distant shore we can see six or seven swans. No doubt there are plenty of ducks down here too, but the lake's surface is nowhere near as covered with fowl as it was last week

0932 Between Innokimi and Mookoan Reservoir, we find more magpies feeding in the stubble-fields. No owls today. Both Piipiiaakii and I suspect the kakanottsstookii we found dead on the 509 yesterday morning was the one who normally hunts the canal

0939 As at Innokimi, the waters of Mookoan Reservoir are virtually empty of birds. We find just six trumpeter swans: a mother with her three grey-colored young, and a single mature pair. I'm surprised to find so few birds here overall. Hard to believe that those we saw last week represented the peak of this year's migration. I hope not

1634 Sspopiikimi - The Sun is already fallen from view when we arrive, lighting just the tops of the east side of the coulee. There's a cold wind this evening, making the water on the pond choppy. All the dried plants are drab shades of yellow, grey and red, the colors of the earth from which they emerged

1652 It's just a quick walk to the ksisskstakioyis and back. The wind is too cold, and Piipiiaakii isn't dressed for this weather. In any case, far fewer sa'aiksi on the pond these days. North of the ksisskstakioyis there are just four mi'ksikatsi, seven american wigeons, and a lone aiksikksksisi. These birds are fairly spread out. Two male mallards and three wigeons hug the east shore near the bulrush tufts behind the muskrat lodge. The lone coot is out in the middle of the pond, diving for milfoil, with a wigeon lurking just above, waiting to steal a meal. South of there, also along the east shore, are three more wigeons and a mallard couple. I suspect it won't be long before all but a few of these birds clear-out for winter

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllllll Oyiiyis (11Nov09)

1056 Alexander Wilderness Park, Sikoohkotoki - Today Ki'naksaapo'p and I join one of our students, Charleton Weasel Head, at his chosen study site. I've never been down this part of the coulee before, so I'm excited to see what's here. I'm the first to arrive to the parking area at the bottom of the access road. The skies are clear, but there's a bit of wind, and it's a chilly day, though nothing like what's in store for us later in the season

1103 I decide to poke around on the cliffs near the parking lot while I wait for them to show. There's a fat, but young, four-tine mule buck grazing the cliff opposite that which I'm climbing. It doesn't seem at all concerned about my presence. Obviously it knows it's in a protected area. When I get to a high shelf of the cliff though, three whitetail does jump out from some brush below and run toward the river. The whitetails’ reaction is quite different than that of the mule deer buck, who's now staring up the draw along the entry road

1118 The buck continues to stare for about five minutes. Then I hear the sound of a dog barking from that direction, and this scares the buck into making a short run to get further up the side of the coulee. Ki'naksaapo'p and Charleton are pulling up. I'm going to meet them

1139 The three of us make our way down the established path toward the river. Along this route, Ki'naksaapo'p points out important features: the layer of alkali-topped glacial till on the cliffs, how our agricultural projects are having a similar alkali-lifting effect, and the Blackfoot names of some plants. I direct our attention toward siiksinoko (creeping juniper) and talk about Soaatsaakii, the okaan, and the use of juniper in vision questing

1148 Some of the words and other things Ki'naksaapo'p introduced that I wasn't aware of before: kaaniiksi (deadwood), ipoyikaaniiksi (standing deadwood, preferred firewood), use of dry maanikapi flowerhead as sponge for enjoying soup, iitsiki'tsiisaokii (prairie in the coulee bottom)

1156 As we explore the brush, still moving toward the river, a bald eagle passes overhead. We stop to look at and talk about all the different berry plants, as well as flicker cavities and a bald-faced hornet nest

1219 On the river there's a large flock of perhaps four-hundred mi'ksikatsi. I suspect ma ksikkihkini (the eagle) is hunting them

1243 Walking back up the path to our vehicles, Ki'naksaapo'p speaks about having a relationship to all these plants and animals. About half-way up, we come across an ant hill that has been dug out. I see no footprints to indicate what animal had done this, but the ants were hard at work putting their lodge back together. I'd have liked to sit there and watch them, but we were on our way

1445 Akaiinissko - Nitsitsskoo my familiar kawaahkoyi. This morning's hike was enjoyable and informative, a kind of Blackfoot inventory of Charleton's study site, an important first step in learning from a place. But for me, it was like a teaser in the opportunities passed. What might we have learned if we'd sat a while and watched the sa'aiksi, or ksikkihkini, or the ants? I feel compelled to get right back out to my winter site, which I'm visiting more and more often as the season shifts, to search for more lessons. I'm a learning junkie

1450 I've left my heavy camera backpack at home, opting for just my fanny-pack with a few tools: an elph camera, a knife, a small flashlight, my flip mino. It's a trade-off for mobility purposes, given that I have only a couple hours of sunlight left to work with. But not knowing what I'll encounter, there's no telling if the decision will be regretted

1458 I have a few objectives in mind, though I don't know if there'll be adequate sunlight left to fill all of them, and I'm never so firm in my agenda as to not respond to important happenstance encounters. But just in case, I would like to start surveying the birds' nests down here, those used over the breeding period of niipo and now abandoned, this in hopes of learning more about what was hidden while the leaves were out. I'd also like to check back on the rodent nest in the hollow stump, to visit The Twin, and to rack a few more logs on the side of my lean-to

1504 Most of what I'd like to see this evening is in the coulee bottom. So I hustle down the shallow-incline trail that leads to the upriver end of the flood-plane

1512 Toward the bottom of the slope, as it transitions to sagebrush flat, my path crosses with several of those rust-brown fuzzy caterpillars. Always, when I see them, they are just inching their way across my trail

1521 Soon I'm by the forest, scanning the buckbrush, saskatoons, chokecherries, and low poplar limbs for bird nests. The first I find is the relatively loosely-placed grass platform of a mourning dove, waist-high in the branches of a bulberry bush. Among the grasses used for this project, I recognize the seed heads of blue gramma. But there are others as well, including the spindly tops of a plant that seems to have the dried remains of tiny aster-like flowers

1539 Stopping off at the rodent hollow, nothing looks to have changed since my last visit. And peering in with my flashlight, I find no residents at home. Moving on, I follow the outer-most line of poplars and cottonwoods, running parallel to the river, but with a sandy willow flat separating them. About twice my height above, I spot what looks like it must have been one of this-year's downy woodpecker cavities. It's fairly recent and unweathered, but too high up on an almost branchless stump for me to be able to look inside. There are a lot of candidates for who may have lived there once the woodpecker originally excavated

1600 The next two nests I find are set in the crooks of narrow-leaf cotton branches, where the branches meet their respective trees. They would have been well in a different season, as both trees are supporting tangles of mature clematis, wound so tight as to cinch many of the lower branches down. These two nests are cup-shaped, made of grass and thin, dark roots (the latter look to me very much like some of the roots exposed on the sand and rocks nearer the river). The cups are not entirely symmetrical, which may have more to do with their placement among the constricting clematis, but they are mud-walled on the inside, which makes me think they belong to robins. One of the nests is out of my reach, but the other I pull down. Its bowl is filled with fallen (or placed) cottonwood leaves. When I remove these leaves, I find there's a grass lining that has been laid-down on the bottom, over the mud wall. I see some rodent droppings in there as well, but it does not look warm enough to be a rodent nest. More-likely just a safe stop-over when a mouse has something it wants to sit and munch on

1614 Moving on, I come to a poplar stump about my height with a natural cavity just below eye-level. I peek in with my flashlight and see that about eight inches down from the cavity entrance there's a platform of grass and fiber from the inner bark of poplar. And just a bit further along there is a similar sized stump with three entrances leading to what seems a single central cavity. One of the entry holes is the familiar, small circle of a downy woodpecker. The other two, though, are somewhat elongated

1648 Checking nearby for other such cavities, I find a tree that has, in the past, lost one of its lower limbs. The bark has healed, but there is still an exposure to the inner wood, and this is thickly encrusted with some kind of whitish-orange fungus or sap. It's powdery when crushed between my fingers, which makes me think fungus. But the crust is greater at the lower end of the wound, which makes me think it's a pool of sap. In any case, it looks to me as though something has been eating this substance, perhaps a mouse, as such sign only exists near where there is bark to stand on

1641 While I'm looking over the stumps and cavity nests, a flock of about thirty aapsspini passes, coming from downriver and moving up over the top of the coulee rim to the south. Four mule deer does watch me from the mid-forest meadow as I observe the geese. From here, I can also see my lean-to across the meadow, reminding me that I intend to add a little more to its walls before I leave. And in the canopy heights of one of the poplars near my lean-to, there's a sizeable hawk nest. No sooner do I notice this nest than I hear the cry of a redtail nearby. I search the trees and skies in the dimming light, but don't see it. Then the bird emerges, crying and flying straight at me. It banks suddenly about twenty meters in front of me, and quickly disappears into another part of the forest

1658 Just after the strange hawk encounter, one of the mule does begins walking straight toward me. I stand perfectly still as she proceeds, a few steps at a time, taking an opportunity to scan for danger with all her senses at every pause. This goes on for about ten minutes before she is very close to me. I'm surprised, the wind must be carrying my scent right to her. Eventually she does catch it, and there's a moment of startled recognition before she hops away across the meadow. But it doesn't end there. Just as she’s leaving, two of this year's fawns approach, this time from upwind. And as with the doe, they don't seem to notice me standing there. What they do notice is another deer snorting on the opposite side of me, very close. I slowly turn my gaze to look for the snorting deer, and it emerges from the trees as I do. It's another adult doe. I am flanked by deer now, all at fairly close range. I start to wonder if they're coming toward me for a purpose. Do I smell good? Are they going to speak to me like in the old stories? Or is it just that, standing still amidst this line of trees, I appear to be part of the forest edge zone to them?

1720 As I wait to see what will happen with these deer, my fingers and face begin to chill. There's a pair of great horned owls singing to one another from across the river. My nose is running from one nostril, a cold liquid flow down my upper lip, but I don't dare sniff or wipe at it. I just wait as the three come closer and closer. The doe continues to snort on occasion, and a thought comes to me that perhaps these are her two fawns, and I just happen to have come dangerously between them. At this thought, I decide to move just a bit, to let them know - calmly and quietly - that I am here. I use my arms, slipping gloves over my hands. This is enough for the deer, they take a few hops away. And since it is getting so dark and I know Piipiiaakii will be expecting me home soon, I decide it's enough for me as well

1730 I walk slowly across the meadow to the lean-to. The deer are not surprised, they move away, but not beyond the meadow's perimeter. I realize I need to spend a full day down here to really get the survival shelter whipped into shape. All the same, I take a moment to collect a few more logs and fit them in place before I leave. I have to move carefully to get out of the forest in the dark. I can see the deer trails enough to follow them, but I don't want to step in any holes. Finally I arrive to the sagebrush flats, and from there move upriver to the trail that will take me back along a gradual slope to my truck

1745 The coyotes begin to howl when I'm about half-way up the coulee. They're singing and barking from the other side, across the river. After about five minutes, they stop and all grows quiet again. It's too dark to see much of what's around me. Between the coyote chorus and the time I reach the truck, I daydream of what it will be like to spend a few cold, snowy sleeps out here this winter, observing the drama at the open crags of river-water by day, tucked away and listening to all the nocturnal sounds from the wooden shelter by night

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllllllllll Shore Lodge Upriver (14Nov09)

0833 The magpies of Riverstone are busy with their house to house morning search for grub caught in spiderwebs

1458 Sspopiikimi - big changes since our last visit. With exception of small pools on the south side of both the ksisskstakioyis and the mi'sohpsskioyis (muskrat lodge), the pond surface has now completely frozen over. All of the mallards, wigeons, and coots have moved on

1518 Five aapsspini fly overhead when we first arrive. The iced surface of the pond is white with the dusting of snow received this morning. We hike straight along the west bank, me pushing Piipiiaakii in her chair, making our way toward the river. As we pass by the bulberry thickets and high coulee slopes of the south end, we stop at the twittering sound of a small bird. If we knew all our songs, we might be able to identify it. But as things stand, we scan the environment around us, hoping the bird will emerge. A magpie seems to laugh at us from the forest across the pond. For a few minutes, we think maybe the bird has gone. But then I hear it again and start moving toward the sound. Eventually I trace it to a patch of buckbrush, and as I close in it begins to sound like two birds. They're close, and I scan the brush intensely in search of them. Just then, a large flock of geese erupt from the river, probably three hundred of them, and a plane passes overhead. With all the noise, I start losing track of the smaller bird. I begin to think maybe it's gone again, that it’s used the sound interference as cover to flee. But then there's a hint of movement in my peripheral. I look over just in time to see two birds, one after the other, emerge from the buckbrush. I only get a few glimpses as they move from branch to branch away up the side of the coulee. They're small, warbler size at best, and bluish-grey in color, with flashes of white and yellow. One has a distinct yellow stripe on its head, reminding me of a yellow-rumped warbler. But I can't be sure. They move too fast and too concealed in the brush. Before I know it, they are up the side of the coulee and away

1548 I return to Piipiiaakii, who's been slowly making her way up the gradual hill to the high levee that runs between the pond and the river. She's upset that I disappeared in search of the little bird, leaving her to find her own means up the slope in her chair, although I thought she'd known what I was up to. In any case, by the time we reach the river, a cold wind picks up, and Piipiiaakii's feeling sore and tired. Temperature shifts really affect her condition, so after a quick peek at the half dozen mallards sitting on a block of ice beside the still largely unfrozen river, we turn to head back

1546 We are almost to the truck again when Piipiiaakii catches a flash of wing movement from a bird who's just flown below the cutbank on the north end of the pond. I walk to the edge of the bank to check it out, and though I don't see anything at first, a red-shafted northern flicker soon darts out from below and comes to land in a nearby poplar tree. We watch the flicker, hoping it will come back down to continue whatever it was doing. I want to know if these birds are the destroyers of ant hives, and I know there are some nearby. The flicker, for its part, watches us for a bit, and then gives up and dives out to another area in the absinthe field. We slowly pursue. But again, when we get near, and before actually relocating the bird ourselves, it notes our approach and flies to land in a neighboring tree. This time, the flicker begins making a repetitive, one-chirp call that I take to be alarm or agitation. And after a few minutes of this, it flies away

1603 We are very close to the truck now, and Piipiiaakii is ready to retreat to its promise of warmth. But we spot an exposed nest in a bit of chokecherry brush, and I'm sent in to confirm our suspicion that it had belonged to a robin. Indeed, this must have been the case. The nest was a classic symmetrical, grass-woven, mud-lined bowl. Inside, there were a few dry chokecherry leaves, and beneath these two cherry pits that had been gnawed into from one side, likely the work of a deer mouse

1609 That might have been the end of our visit, had another nest not appeared to us from within a low clump of young bulberry on the outskirts of the parking lot. This one was different. It was a loose, shallow bowl, woven with grasses and other plants, as well as fluff from cottonwood seeds, and who knows what else. This nest would require a closer inspection, so I lifted it out of the branches and brought it to the truck with us. We intend to look at it at home and try to identify some of the other plants used in its construction, along with who might have made it. But we probably won't take it apart to do a count of how many stems were collected. I don't know what would be gained by doing so. Rather, we'll return the nest to its place when we've looked it over, and put a little food offering in there for any mice or others who might be using it

1621 As we drive away, Piipiiaakii and I start discussing something that's on both of our minds - the need for an alternate site conducive to her phenological study no matter the weather condition. In other words, someplace we could park the vehicle, where she could remain inside as need be and yet still be able to conduct some interesting observations. The most obvious place we can think of to do this is also the closest to our home

1639 Popson Park - we've driven down to test this place as a winter alternative site for Piipiiaakii. Here we can pull up to the end of one of the roads, situating her in a grove of poplar and willow, close to and within sight of the river. There are also paths that start from this point that she can wander, when able, while still being near shelter

1646 While Piipiiaakii sits in the truck, I get out and walk a path downriver. There's much to explore here, and if I were to walk in the opposite direction, I would eventually follow a bend in the river and come to my regular winter study site, Akaiinissko

1650 With daylight quickly receding, I want to hustle downstream to where this path meets the coulee cliffs, and work my way back from there. I'm not looking around too carefully. This is just a cursory survey, to find out if there's enough here to keep me occupied and learning. The path I'm taking is on a high shelf of the flood plain that runs just above a single line of poplars. About halfway to my destination, two flickers fly along this tree-line, heading back toward Piipiiaakii. The one in the rear is making a raccoon-like warbling sound

1701 I've come almost to the cliffs and, though there's not much for forest here, there's still plenty to see. I can't wait to come back in fuller daylight. I've noticed lots of old nests in the brush as I've come along and, cutting down below the tree line, into the willow growth closer to the river, I'm seeing signs of beaver activity

1705 Pushing my way quickly along trails through the willows, I've located the ksisskstakioyis of this stretch of the river. It's a shore lodge, without much obvious construction, but there's a massive winter food cache laid atop and beside it. All of this wood - mostly diamond willow - has been laid on shore, with very few stems hanging into the water. Now this is curious. But the river flows pretty fast and shallow here, maybe this beaver family has a lodge entrance that opens above the waterline. I won't know until we visit again, as it's too dark to really see at present

1715 Back at the truck, Piipiiaakii doesn't have much to report. Still, the site is promising. We may come back tomorrow with a food offering that can be left within view of the truck

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllllllllll Shore Cache (15Nov09)

0630 Dottie wakes me before dawn, just as I'd requested. Outside, heavy wind gusts are battering the synthetic siding of the houses of Riverstone. Should I get dressed and go to the coulee anyway? Yeah, I'd better. I'll regret it if I don't

0758 When I arrive at Minii, my stalking grounds, Naato'si has already lit the coulee with an indirect day-glow. I could see, driving in, that much more of the river has frozen overnight. Though sheltered by the coulee cliffs, the wind is still gusting strong down here. I drive to the same upriver site Piipiiaakii had last visited, park by the bulberry thickets, and begin walking in

0815 Though all the leaves have fallen in this forest, the well-trodden cattle and deer trails through the underbrush are wide enough that the wind has cleared a lot of the debris, at least enough that I am able to move quietly. I wind through the bulberries, passing under the old hornet nest set high in a poplar, eventually passing into an area with saskatoon, buckbrush, and red osier. There, I locate the fallen tree whose still bark-covered trunk will serve as my blind, and I sit down beside this log to wait and watch

0825 The massive poplars and cottonwoods are swaying almost as limber as the prairie grass in this wind. Twice already I've heard loud cracks and crashes as parts of the canopy have been snapped under the pressure. I feel secure beside this massive log, which should act as a breakfall for anything that comes plummeting my way. Right in front of this log, overlooking the midforest clearing, is a wonderful mature cottonwood, with a trunk that forks about twelve feet off the ground into three sturdy, close-set, rising limbs. It looks like this would make a great host for a tree-stand

0830 The first deer of the morning have entered the clearing. They are three whitetails, a doe and two subadult fawns. The doe is in the lead and she senses my presence, but can't see me. This is both a benefit and an obstacle, because she's relatively close to my position, but fairly obscured by a clump of saskatoon brush. I draw my arrow anyway and hold, hoping that she will move into a better position, or that any shot I do take will not be deflected off the brush. I wonder if she can intuit the rising danger. It seems as though she can, because she is looking at me, or for me, through the brush, jutting her neck out, raising and lowering her head. She turns and I can see her profile. She may be turning to leave, this may be my only opportunity. I release, "Thrum!" The doe takes a leap away and halts. I wonder if she stopped because I hit her? No, she's taking a few steps back this way now, even more cautious to learn what's back here. I quickly ready another arrow, draw back, aim, exhale, and release, "Thrum!" Another miss. The doe turns and dances away, the subadult fawns following. It's no shocker to me that I've failed. The shots were not perfect and clear, and I’m dealing with heavy wind. No doubt the saskatoons thwarted my efforts. I should have waited, I should have had more patience

0845 Luckily, it doesn't take me long to find the two arrows, their bright white and yellow fletching easily seen against the earthy-orange leaves covering the ground in the clearing. I hope my five minute scour of the area to locate these arrows, in addition to my failed shots a few minutes earlier, have not sent all the nearby deer into high alert. I sit back down at my log and wait

0910 It’s been almost forty-five minutes since those first three awatoyi passed. I'm wondering if they've told others, if this clearing is now to be avoided for the rest of the day. I decide to get up and take a walk. I'm cold, one of my legs is asleep, and I'd like to see if I can find another good location

0931 I'm walking a meandering, sunwise path through the forest, following the deer trails. On route, I pass two niipomakii flittering between a clump of saskatoon and an old, partially eroded log. I'm seeing plenty of deer sign around - dung, both fresh and old, as well as scrapings against saskatoon stems that remind me there's at least one resident buck. As I make my round and start heading back upriver, I catch sight of a large doe leaping away from me in the distance. She'd be going toward my truck, so I continue on in that direction

0956 My path has brought me full circle, back to my log, and to the realization that this is probably one of best sites in this particular forest at which to encounter roaming awatoyiiksi. I sit back down and am prepared now to pass one more hour here before returning home. A downy woodpecker is digging for grubs in a deadwood limb of one of the trees beside me. I sense that my opportunity may have passed for this visit. My only hope is that the resident buck, who to my knowledge has not seen me, will take a stroll through

1105 The hour has passed quicker than expected, and no sign of anything else approaching the clearing. The deer probably won't return there till dusk. I've packed up, hiked back to the truck, and driven downriver to the island proper. On the short route through the forest in between these sites, I caught the wagging tail of that large doe, again dashing away. I also saw a few magpies gliding between the trees. At this point, I should go home, but I just want to quickly check the beds where the awatoyi often seem to lay with the pheasants

1115 No luck. I've walked out to the bedding area in the bulberry brambles on the island, and nothing scared up. Heading out to pick up Piipiiaakii and Sheen for lunch, and see where the afternoon takes us

1334 This wind blows

1352 Popson Park - Piipiiaakii and I returned to her new alternate site. When we first pulled in and parked, we waited while a woman walked her dog nearby. Below us, in the river, we could see groups of aapsspini and chunks of ice drifting by. We wanted the woman with the dog to leave so that we could put a food offering out by the river, within view of the truck, that Piipiiaakii could watch while I went out to explore. No doubt the magpies would feast, and it might even draw an eagle. But as we waited, who should pull up and park beside us but Pat Twigg, off to do a couple hours of coulee visit for the research methods course Ki'naksaapo'p, Cynthia and I are teaching in the MEd program

I rolled down my window to acknowledge Pat and offer a few pointers on the assignment. After we got to talking, it seemed the best thing to do was just take a walk through the area together. So after setting the offering out by the river for Piipiiaakii, and despite the lingering presence of the dog woman, that's what we did

Pat and I moved downriver along pretty much the same route I'd followed last night. As we went along, I pointed out different plants and features, gave their Blackfoot and Western common names, and talked a bit about their qualities, traditional applications, or natural histories. We covered all three species of a'siitsiksimm, as well as aaatsistaotsipiis, clematis, broomweed, asparagus, sweetclover, buckbrush, hairy golden aster, aahsowa, awnless brome, absinthe, moss phlox, ninnaika'ksimo, aakiika'ksimi, and akspii. I pointed out robin, northern flicker, and bald-faced hornet nests, talked a bit about the aapsspini on the river, and led us over to the ksisskstakioyis. There, I shared what I'd recently learned about beaver winter food caches, and why this particular beaver family's habit of storing their food on shore was odd. My suspicion was that they had a lodge entrance located somewhere on shore that would allow them access to their resources once the river froze

We didn't have to look far to confirm my suspicion. There was a well-used slide coming up from the river's edge beside their shore-lodge and continuing to the top of the bank above it. No doubt this slide is used to drag willows down to the water, but it's still wider and more defined than other such slides, enough so to make me suspicious that it's used for other purposes as well. Following the slide up the cutbank, we came upon a large sinkhole, on the side of which was an entrance leading down into the lodge. My thinking now is that this sinkhole must be the collapse of a previous lodge chamber, and the family just adapted by repositioning their main dorm further down the bank (an area now covered with chewed wood, mud, and rocks, ending in shallow water). Yet they kept their old tunnel open above. Have they gone around normal beaver protocol to so so because of how this tunnel allows them access to land even during the thickest ice-overs? Or is it because the water is so shallow in front of their lodge that they fear getting trapped completely inside? Is it a combination of these factors? Aren't they concerned about the coyotes who, no doubt, will find this secondary access route and enter their lodge?

Right now the beavers don't appear to be coming and going from their shore entrance. The area around it is far too littered with leaves and other debris, and the slick trail from the river's edge up this slope tells me they're currently using an underwater access. Still, I'm going to hypothesize that they begin coming and going from the shore entrance on top of the cutbank once the river freezes. Even if they do though, it may not resolve too much in terms of my understanding. Like any good mystery, locating the shore-entrance I'd expected to find brought only more questions. Do other beaver families with similar cave-ins or shallow waters near their entrances do the same? If they are able to access land even when the river's frozen, then why cache food at all? Or why not cache it by the shore entrance? Obviously they're aware that they needn't store their food in the river. Do they place the cache by the river because, when at all possible, they intend on accessing it only by the underwater lodge entrance, so that they can stay near their aquatic safety zone?

Lots to learn here, and I'm glad Pat was on hand, both to give me practice articulating these thoughts, and because what we did in just the simple matter of checking the area for this second entrance and asking questions is precisely the kind of inquiry-based engagement with these places that we're trying to teach his cohort to do

After visiting the beaver lodge, Pat was wondering if there were any sinopaa (fox) dens around. I told him that I'd never seen any sinopaa on this stretch of the river, which didn't mean there were none, but what I had encountered many, many times were aapi'si (coyote). We then went up the coulee slope a ways further downriver in search of possible coyote dens

As we climbed, our conversation turned toward my slithering friends and their habits. Pat had been reading my blog, and was wondering what kind of micro-habitat was best for their hibernacula. I told him that the ones I knew of were on south facing slopes, about half-way down from the coulee rim, within sheltered dips or shelves of land. I pointed to some possible hibernaculum locations on the slopes a little further above us, not mentioning that I actually suspected there to be a den somewhere in this area. But my precautionary withholding didn't make a difference. That there were possible areas conducive to hosting hibernacula above us was enough to convince Pat we shouldn't walk up that way. He felt he'd had enough of a cram-course in Old Man River coulee ecology for one day.

We walked back to our vehicles, had a smoke, and Pat went off to the university to write-up his experience. It was an important lesson for me. Several students in Pat's cohort had been struggling with how to conduct their required, weekly inquiries outdoors. Perhaps, as Pat pointed out, and as Cynthia had originally planned, we should have taken the whole group on a walk to start-off the semester, and give them a little guided experience in what it was we expected them to do

After Pat left, I jumped back in the truck with Piipiiaakii. The food offering we'd brought was still laying out by the river, untouched, though almost three hours had passed. Piipiiaakii explained that right after we'd walked away, two women had come in separate vehicles to take their dogs for walks. Both had gone to stand beside the offering and let their dogs run on the riverbank, while keeping an eye on their vehicles. The dogs had immediately chased away all the geese and, at one point, Piipiiaakii dozed off for forty-five minutes, only to look up and see the women still there. She was frustrated, and I don't blame her