The Baffling Mystery of Our Dying Lambs

An entire community faces a tyranny of options.

SheepRidgeThey call it Sheep Ridge, the one you can see from the main street in Dubois, but no bighorn sheep have grazed there for a long time.  The herd is still around, but its population is plummeting. Why?

Back in the 1870s, I’ve heard, hunters could find a bighorn sheep in these mountains any time they wanted. Most bighorn sheep in the West came from that original herd as transplants, moved out by the hundreds to other regions of the Rockies during the last century.

Some of those relocated herds have been threatened by the same basic problem, but have bounced back. Not so the bighorns that stayed here.

It’s not that there isn’t any explanation. There are too many. That’s the problem.

Our high school sports teams are called the Rams, and you see their image on logos all over town, but the rams themselves are fragile.  Local taxidermists say some of their skulls are too light to hold screws, and the curly horns are no longer as big as before.

Unlike the herds in Cody and Jackson, Whiskey Mountain sheep keep their weight stable in the winter, but lose weight when they move up to summer range. Is there something wrong with the local wild grasses, forbs, and brush that are central to their summer diet?

Predators like wolves or eagles might play some role in the animals’ deaths. But in those cases they may be only the final blow — not the root cause.

Sheep060816_3The greatest concern is that these bighorns are extraordinarily prey to respiratory infections common among sheep. They harbor a half-dozen strains of the relevant bacteria, while wild sheep elsewhere in the West seem to be hosts to only two or three. Enough lambs are born to this herd each year, but only a handful reach maturity. Many of the ewes live on, chronically ill, to infect again and again.

The infection traces to domestic sheep, which were raised here for four decades starting in 1890, but dwindled as the cattle ranchers prevailed. In 2015, the US Forest Service formally banned domestic sheep from the local bighorns’ range—decades after their decimation began.

It can’t go on. But what to do?

About a year ago Sara Domek, executive director or the National Bighorn Sheep Center in town, approached two experts (wildlife biologist Daryl Lutz of Game & Fish and Steve Kilpatrick, head of the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation) to plan a strategy. The outcome is a series of summits now under way in Dubois, where absolutely anyone who is interested is welcome. I didn’t take an actual count, but scores of my friends and neighbors, have turned up, bringing with them an astonishing wealth and depth of knowledge on the subject.

The biggest challenge is the complexity of the problem. “You came up with 170 issues, so we had a lot of fun categorizing them all,” said Jessica Western of the University of Wyoming at the last session. A soft-spoken, genial person, she is shepherding a large flock of biologists, land managers, outfitters, hunters, environmentalists, ranchers, and other interested residents, toward recommendations to help the Wyoming Game & Fish Department decide what it can and should do next.

BighornDrawing_croppedThe Wyoming Game and Fish Department has won grants from four organizations to support the summits, and commitments of time and expertise from bighorn sheep specialists all over the West. One of the grants brought a panel of eight specialists on the bighorns to Dubois last month, where they shared their knowledge, listened to ours,  and brainstormed.

They brought insights about  bighorn sheep and their habitats in Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington (the state) and, of course, Wyoming. The scientists truly seemed to enjoy themselves, having a rare opportunity to hide away in the wilderness as a select team asked to learn from each other and contribute to a poignantly good cause.

It’s not that nothing has been tried. At the latest summit, held early this month, Game & Fish habitat biologist Amy Anderson described many  efforts to improve the forage in the wilderness, including fertilizers, herbicides, selective cropping, and “range pitting” (dragging an implement across the ground to disturb the ground and encourage growth of new grasses).

Follow-up studies analyzing the forage (quantity, species composition, protein content, and relative food value) found that these tactics didn’t seem to make any great difference, compared to untreated areas, “so I don’t know what we bought with these treatments,” Anderson said. “We’re not necessarily seeing improvement” in the varieties of grass the sheep prefer.

So what’s the problem? Is it the climate? Minerals in the soil or the salt licks? Air pollution coming from Utah or even farther west?

Prescribed burns have been tried in parts of the forest, not only to encourage growth of grasses but also to deny hiding places to predators. Local hunter and taxidermist Lynn Stewart pointed out that Sheep Ridge itself, visible from the middle of town, was bald a century ago. Today it is blanketed with evergreens and sheep won’t go there.  Another prescribed burn is planned for this summer in a spot where conifers now cover a bighorn migration route between winter and summer ranges.

beckiart
Painting by Becki Neidens

Immense interest centers around University of Wyoming biologist Kevin Monteith, who has been pursuing an intensive three-year research project on this herd. His team has implanted monitors like IUDs in ewes, which  send a signal when they give birth. A member of the team will spend this summer camping in the remote, rocky Whiskey Mountain region, waiting. After a signal, she will race over the treacherous ground to find its source, hoping to reach the lamb and attach a motion sensor. This should allow her and others to locate some of the lambs that die and  learn what happened.

At the latest summit, the facilitator Jessica Western assigned us into breakout groups. Our task was to arrive at a consensus about which of those 170 issues she compiled after the previous session deserve the most attention for the future. Inevitably, we also pondered some recommendations. Some of them are controversial, and some unrealistic.

Why not cull the entire herd and start again with healthy bighorns, descendants of the transplants from the original herd? (They’d inevitably get infected too, because the microorganisms do persist in the soil for some time, and anyway, what about the forage issue? Besides, the transplanted sheep wouldn’t know the local migration routes. Studies elsewhere show that sheep lacking this knowledge tend to stay in the winter range all year round.)

BighornStatue2No solution will emerge quickly. We’ll remain in the dark about the root cause of the die-off for at least three years, while Montieth’s team completes its research.

Meanwhile, in June after the workshops are over, the Game & Fish Department will sort through all the recommendations and decide what it can try, what it can’t, and why not. Whatever it eventually does will also take time, as well as funds and personnel. And the clock is ticking for the herd.

Sara Domek of the Sheep Center closed the last summit with a plea for help from all those people with furrowed brows who were sitting on the folding chairs in the audience.

“This is the time for citizen science,” she said. “People want to help. Let’s do it.”

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com .

Amazon CEO: Dropped NYC? Date Dubois!

Can you see past the superstars?

Lower Manhattan skylineDear Mr. Bezos:

I hear that you decided to dump the Big Apple. Sounds from your sad little blog post on Valentine’s Day (how poignant!) like you’re not planning to open a different HQ2 at this time. You sounded a little broken up about the break-up.

But you didn’t sound nearly as grief-stricken as Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal last week. She mourned not only the loss of those 25,000 jobs, but “all the construction, and the signs and symbols of a coming affluence … the sidewalks busy, shops and restaurants humming, hiring.”

I understand about falling in love with NYC, Jeff. I actually got a bit choked up about it last week while driving across the reservation on my way to Lander. The theme from the movie “Arthur” came up on Sirius XM. You’ve probably heard the chorus:

When you get caught between the moon
and New York City
the best that you can do (best that you can do)
is fall in love.

That brought it all powerfully back: The lights, the buzz, the sounds, the gorgeous, cosmopolitan, purpose-driven people. It was all so thrilling!

But I got over it too, eventually. Believe me, I can understand. All those spats about how she was offended that you wanted a few accommodations in exchange for moving in could totally kill the magic before you got to the altar.

Here in remote little Dubois, we hope for the same pleasures whose loss Peggy Noonan was lamenting: busy sidewalks, shops and restaurants that are humming and hiring. And not just in midsummer.

Downtown Dubois, WyomingDon’t get me wrong, Jeff: I’m not suggesting that you consider Dubois for your next engagement. We couldn’t sustain another 25,000 jobs, even if we had the workforce.

We certainly wouldn’t want to balloon our population by 2500%. It would utterly destroy us: our magnificent environment, our way of life, and our beloved small-town character.

All we’re asking is one date. Surely among the other educated, skilled people who seek a new life in our truly remote (and tax-free) location, we could spare a place for a few, or a few dozen, who qualify for those “remote” jobs that you regularly post online.

Why do companies like yours always gravitate to the big cities? Working on our flawless Internet here at the edge of wilderness in Dubois, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering that.

According to a recent article in the New York Times titled “In Superstar Cities, the Rich Get Richer and They Get Amazon,” you want to be in locations where there are already lots of tech workers, because you think that grouping innovative people in one location will stimulate more innovation.

Admit it: You guys are always seduced by the divas. Maybe you just can’t help it.

“It’s just absolutely hard-wired into technology economies,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in that article. “It’s not just a sort of interesting thing that happens — it’s inherent to the technology.”

But at least one other person — Dartmouth University’s online education expert Joshua Kim — thinks there may be some superstars who actually don’t want to live in “superstar cities.” In an article titled Corporate Welfare, Superstar Cities, and the Tyranny of Geography,  he wrote: “I have a hard time believing that all the best talent wants to live in Seattle or NYC or Northern VA.”

DTECoils2Besides, is it all about “superstars?” Countless successful people aren’t superstars (including many of your employees), but are productive and vital to our local and national economy  nonetheless.

I know some people like that, right here in little Dubois. They work on our Internet, which never fails. They come here partly for the fiberoptic power that comes right to their door. But that’s not the only reason.

Some of them are very unusual telecommuters, people who want to find mountains and wildlife outside their front doors rather than art-film cinemas and Starbucks. In their spare time, these people who spend all day at their keyboards want to hike, rock climb, snowshoe, or go fishing rather than hanging out in bars. They prefer the shadow of the starlight to the glare of city lights.

Maybe some of your own employees dream of raising their children in a safe and very healthy place where class sizes are small, college acceptance rates are high (because small-town Wyoming is under-represented in their mix and  also very interesting), and scholarships actually go begging.

Can you help us find some of those people, Jeff, and tell them that we’re here?

Thanks sincerely,

Dubois

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com

 

 

 

 

 

Skip Ewing Gets to the Heart of Dubois

The famous song writer could live anywhere. He moved here.

What’s the force behind the magnet that draws people to Dubois and holds them here?

It’s no challenge to capture part of it:  the spectacular wilderness landscape. Photographers capture that all the time, and scenes from this valley are  all over Instagram. Another pull is the history, from the tectonic collisions to Indians and cowboys and Butch Cassidy, from mountain men to homesteaders and lumberjacks.

But there’s one special pull which is nearly impossible to describe. You have to feel it for yourself. Tourists responding to a survey last year said they liked the people, and called Dubois “friendly.” A hiking buddy told me that she retired to Dubois because the people here had grabbed her and held her close.

Skip Ewing, the country singer and songwriter, calls it the “heart.” He should know, because the heart is his business, and his passion.

Skip says he felt that tug most strongly in 2004, during his benefit concert for the new medical clinic. He decided to auction off a shirt that cowboy Ty Murray was wearing when he won a rodeo championship. Skip suggested that people in the audience might pool their bids and donate the shirt to the clinic, rather than one lucky bidder taking it home for bragging rights.

rodeo shirt
Ty Murray’s shirt
hanging in the clinic.

Together, for no personal reward, people gave away $5,000 for the shirt to benefit the community. It now hangs in a frame in the clinic.

“That gave me a sense for the kind of heart, the generosity of people here,” he said. “That’s the same kind of heart Dubois had when I first came here.”

“If we can be part of that heart,” he added, “I’m about that.”

So Skip and his partner, photographer Linda Gordon, have settled down in Dubois.   They’re in a position to live anywhere in the world they want to, Skip told me. And they’re here.

Skip doesn’t throw his credentials around (which wouldn’t gain him many fans here, anyway). But they’re impressive: Five of Skip Ewing’s country love songs have placed in the top 20s on the country-music charts. In 2000, he was named Songwriter of the year by Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), and he’s won the Country Music Association Triple Play Award for three number 1 songs within a year.

They’re the kind of love songs that somehow grab you where it hurts a bit, like “Love, Me” and “Little Houses.” (The announcers wouldn’t credit Skip, the songwriter, of course. They’d mention the singers, names like Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, Kenny Chesney, and Reba McIntyre. )

I ran into Skip and Linda at the Perch coffee shop sometime around Thanksgiving. He looked vaguely familiar, and I was puzzled to see him chatting with the locals as if he knew them (which he did). I felt I ought to recognize him, but I didn’t (it’s my failing to have a poor memory for faces as well as names). Someone introduced him as Skip Ewing and, city girl though I used to be, at least I recalled his name.

Probably about a decade ago, I had heard Skip at a concert in the back room at the Rustic Pine after one of his retreats for song-writers. But I had no idea that his was the creative mind behind some of the songs I liked best, after I began listening to country music on the radio.

The workshops (he called them “Horse and Writer” retreats) brought would-be songwriters to the Lazy L&B Ranch up East Fork, which he first visited when he wanted to give his five-year-old daughter a good place to ride horses. They went on for about a decade. I never saw Skip after that one concert, but he had been coming back to Dubois, whether there were retreats or not.

Skip Ewing and Linda Gordon

As the child in a military family and then a country singer, Skip Ewing has traveled widely. Quite a while ago, he sold his home in Nashville. He and Linda had multiple homes and were traveling a lot when Linda got a job offer that made them consider settling down somewhere.

They asked themselves whether that was what they really wanted. Skip had this dream that involved horses, which he isn’t ready to talk about yet. Eventually, they decided to settle here.

Grandson of a thoroughbred rancher, Skip learned to love horses as much as he loved country music. “The more time I spend on horses, he says, “the happier I am.” He hints that horses will have an important part in the next phase of his life’s work, but for the moment he intends to use his music to help the town.

Just after I ran into Skip and Linda at the Perch, they began shooting the first of five videos about Dubois that he has posted on Facebook. They are long, leisurely conversations with people in the town.

“This is Dubois, Wyoming, my home town now. I love it here,” he opens in the first one. “I love it here!”

From Skip’s first Dubois video

He was already booked for his early December Christmas concert at the Dennison Lodge, which attracted fans from as far away as Texas, Utah, Louisiana, and California. His goal seems to be not so much self-promotion as planting firm roots in this new ground.

Skip told me that, when he first visited Dubois, he knew he’d come to the right place almost as soon as the plane landed. This brought echoes of one my Skip Ewing favorites: “You Had Me From Hello.”

“… Your smile just captured me.
You were in my future far as I could see
And I don’t know how it happened but it happens still.
You ask me if I love you, if I always will.

Well, you had me from hello…”

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com

Saturday Stalkers in the Snow

A happy morning exploring and pondering puzzles.

I chuckle inside whenever someone says: “Wyoming! How can you put up with those brutal winters?”

Sure, once in a while there are days when we really prefer to stay indoors. But often, like today, it’s clear, bright, windless, and we yearn to be outside. Wear the right layers, and you’re perfectly comfortable when you go out exploring. Soon you’ll shed the hat and gloves.

One of our favorite pastimes is pondering the puzzles that hint at stories in the snow. The image above is my trophy. Some friends gasp a little when I show it.

“You got a bird print!” You can clearly see the marks of the wings. Is that a head and a beak at the center? And if so, why did it come down sideways?

This isn’t as prized, however, as an imprint of a bird nose-diving into the snow to catch its prey.

What happened here? The tracks at the right went nonchalantly past, either before or after the bird alit. But a few yards away, on the other side of those willows at the upper left, I found clear signs of a scuffle. Alas, the dog tramped all over them before I got there, so I was never able to decipher what kind of creature this bird might have stalked and then caught.

That was a while ago.

On a day like today, how could I resist when a friend texted with an invitation to join her and two other women on a snowshoe trek? We arrived to find the surface clean and newly groomed by the volunteers with DART.

I was glad for sunglasses. The sunshine was almost painfully brilliant. Not a cloud in the sky.

Squirrels chattered overhead, and we could see their tiny tracks everywhere, crossing and recrossing the trail. I recognize the rabbit tracks in my driveway, but in the woods, in general, I don’t know what I’m looking at.

Unlike my friends, I’ve not yet joined an excursion with naturalist Bruce S. Thompson, who can read the animal tracks like a book. He’s the founder of an invitation-only Facebook page, Togwotee Trackers Exchange, where members pursue what he calls “foot-writing analysis” based on images of what they have seen on the ground.

We’re just discussing the shapes of tracks when K turns and points her pole at these strange hourglass-shaped traces of a passerby. “Snowshoe hare,” says K_, who has been practicing this for a while.

“Right,” says A_. “Not a weasel. They’re shaped more like a dumbbell.”

“I wonder why they call them snowshoe hares,” I say, looking down at my own boots clamped into cumbersome contraptions.

“Perhaps because they can walk across the top of the snow,” says A_, who is an amateur naturalist in her own right. “Or maybe because their feet stay white all summer.”

The conversation drifts to tales of other creatures we have seen while trekking in the winter. Meanwhile we peruse the field of white for other signs of life gone by. Someone mentions a sage grouse. “In the winter?” I ask.

“Come back this way!” K_ calls out, and we trudge back up a slope. “What’s this?”

There you see it, at the far left next to the shadow of a branch. Something has landed in a splotch, and then headed off to the right. The tracks are three-toed, and slender.

“Good for you!” says A_. “I think that must be a grouse.”

She turns around, and we can follow the traces on the other side of our own trail, up the slope and off toward the cliff and the fabulous long vista over the valley, which is carpeted in pines and blanketed with snow.

K_ leans over and grabs a shot with her IPhone. No doubt she will post it on Bruce’s invitation-only Facebook group, where we share puzzling and amusing tracks and debate what they might be portraying–or just document what we ran across.

“Why did the chicken cross the road?” drawls A_. “To take a look at the view.”

Many yards later, after navigating over several downed trees, we stop for a long chat with our Forest Service rep L_ (who’s out on Nordic skis on Saturday checking the trails, government shutdown or not). A_ recalls the time that she was out with another group on a day just like this, also standing around, yakking.

Suddenly, in the middle of their circle, a weasel pops up out of the snow. It looks around amazed, left, then right, and pops right back down again.

As we near the highway and the parking lot, K_ calls out again, “Come back!” She points with her pole to something beside the trail.

“Oh my gosh,” says A_. “I think that’s a weasel. What else could it be?”

K_ whips a small measuring tape from her pocket, spins it out beside the track, drops her glove next to it for perspective, and takes another shot with the IPhone.

Another post for Bruce, no doubt.

But then A_ calls us to turn around. “There’s the hole back to his burrow,” she says. “And this is on a cattle guard. Perfect.”

It’s the dark image in the center of the picture below. The slots in the cattle guard, now buried in snow, offer easy access downward for a small, slender critter.

Beneath our feet, A_ says, lies a world we cannot see. It’s called the subnivean zone, an open layer between the surface of the ground and the underside of the snowpack. In that vast chamber, beneath that roof, small animals like voles and mice live out the winter protected from the cold, from predators, and from noisy interlopers like us who crunch deafeningly overhead on snowshoes. (Who knew?)

We trudge back to the car. Two and a half hours. Maybe a mile and a half. Who bothered to click that app on their Apple watch? Who cares? (We stopped a lot.) We’re pleasantly tired and happily edified. Lots of vitamin D through our faces. Clean, fresh air in and out our lungs.

Back in the day, back in the city, I might be sitting in a bistro on a beautiful Saturday like this, lazily downing eggs florentine and a mimosa, talking nonsense.

That never gave me this kind of buzz.

© Lois Wingerson, 2019

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com



Dubois Enters a New Year, and a New Era

As our national government writes, Dubois passes the mantle.

The first business day of 2019 dawned bright and clear, with one of those impossibly blue skies above the blinding white of the snow. The cold snap has eased. We headed into town for the investiture of Dubois’ new mayor, John Meyer.

As our national government writhes in conflict and dysfunction, how does little Dubois handle such a solemn occasion? I was curious what would transpire, as the mantle passed from the mayor of eight years’ tenure, Twila Blakeman, to a man who served a brief stint as a substitute in the Town Council a while ago, but who has kept a modest profile in town until he stood for the recent election.

After two terms in office, the former Mayor didn’t take an active role in last fall’s mayoral campaign, intending (she told me) to leave the outcome in God’s hands.

God and the town citizens had chosen. When we arrived at Town Council chambers, Twila stood cheerily at the side, waiting to call the proceedings to order.

Only about two dozen people were in attendance, including two newly re-elected Council members (Pat Neveaux and Bruce John Thompson) who also needed swearing in, and a handful John’s friends from out of town. The incumbent opened the meeting promptly at 10 AM, ready to swear in the new Mayor and give him the keys to the town.

John Meyer, looking entirely the role of a Western small-town mayor in a black vest and white shirt, stood up to read the pledge of office, which mostly attests that he didn’t engage in any dirty shenanigans during his campaign.

There was a smattering of applause as he signed it, and John reached over to embrace Twila. Then he reminded her that she still needed to hand him the keys to the town. Everyone chuckled, and she did.

Next the new Mayor swore in the two re-elected Council members. One was wearing jeans, the other a Volunteer Fire Department sweatshirt. Councilman Thompson raised his hand and began to read the statement. He stumbled over a few of the words.

“I forgot my glasses,” he said quietly. Mayor Meyer handed him his own, and we chuckled again.

Thompson handed the glasses back, signed the document, and that was it. “I just want to say thanks, that I appreciate your support and that I look forward to serving the town,” said the new Mayor. “There you have it.”

What changes will this bring? I have heard many people speculate. John, always amiable, has been silent on the question, except to repeat his campaign pledge to work for economic diversity.

Mostly, as far as I can see, he has been listening: Attending Town Council meetings, cosponsoring a Town Hall meeting at the Library with our representative to the State legislature, holding private meetings with Mayor Blakeman to learn the many details that are involved in running even a town with a population of a mere 1,000.

During the past eight years, among many other routine activities, Mayor Blakeman has arranged the EPA cleanup of a brownfield site on the location of the former sawmill, which has been converted to a new town park; the erection of a Veterans Memorial, achieved using only local funding; the repaving and restoration of water lines beneath several streets; and the repair of a bridge with a $240,000 grant from the state government.

What new ideas will the new Mayor present to Dubois? And how will he fare in trying to accomplish them? Eagerly, calmly, and in solid civic order, we await the coming year.

©Lois Wingerson, 2019

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Escape from the Jingle Bells

The strolling tourists depart. Town is quiet, the summer houses are dark and empty, and the Thanksgiving turkey is all gone. Nighttime sets in during late afternoon.

I resign myself to the thought that the slow, sleepy period has begun. Then, with surprising speed, another busy season is upon us.

Back East in the city, it arrived like an invasive weed. At some point,  and far too soon, I’d be aware of background music with the sound of jingle bells. Before long, it was everywhere on the shopping streets. The sound made me literally agoraphobic: afraid of the market. Shoppers seemed stressed out. Carols intended to make me reverent made me want to flee.

The holidays are also busy in Dubois, but with a notably different feel. This is, after all, a town of 1,000 permanent residents with a reputation for friendliness, and about 50 nonprofit organizations, many of them devoted to charity.

My first sound of the season this year was the barely perceptible strain of classical background music in the Opportunity Shop (which raises many thousands of dollars each year, all of it given back to the community).

“Oh, yes,” I thought. “Christmas is coming.” And then quickly forgot about it.

Songwriter Skip Ewing, who used to hold workshops here and moved to town last spring, took it upon himself to open the season formally with a concert in the Dennison Lodge on December 1.

I wasn’t in the spirit at all when I bought tickets–not to celebrate the season, but to listen to Skip.

The Dennison was decked out for the event, and was packed for both performances. Here, we are waiting for him to start the first one.

Skip began by saying that he had brought us there to get us into the Christmas spirit, and warned that eventually, like it or not, we would all be singing too. After a long series of his county favorites (some of them top of the charts in their day), he segued into his new holiday songs — some silly, some sentimental, others solemn.

“In the meadow we can build a snowman,” he croons,
“and pretend he’s Santa bringing toys.
When he asks us ‘Are you naughty?’ we’ll say No, man,
’cause everybody’s nice here in Dubois.”

His last was “Silent Night.” Skip began simply and quietly, and sure enough some of us began to sing along. Gradually his voice grew softer and ours louder, until all that came through the microphone was the sound of his guitar. Then that fell away too, leaving nothing but our voices–and the spirit.

It’s the season of open houses now, at the bank, the phone company, the museums and the community centers. There’s no need to go far to find Christmas cookies.

People don’t speak of being stressed out by the shopping. We can gift shop online, of course, and the FedEx and UPS guys are visibly busy. We can find Western-themed gifts at Olsen’s, or a handmade item at the Christmas extravaganza in the Headwaters or at Anita’s shop, Wyoming Wool Works. Or we can treasure-hunt at the Opportunity Shop, which is actually fun.

The other day I sat on a stool in Superfoods wearing a silly elf’s hat and now and again ringing a little bell. At that very moment, some unlucky folks were certainly standing in front of Bed, Bath, and Beyond next door to my former office building in Manhattan, ringing their bells without a pause. In that context, it was another irritating noise of the season.

Just one particle in a floodstream of pedestrians, I used to pass by without paying them any attention at all. They rang like automatons, and looked cold and miserable. I didn’t know them or the people they helped. I supported other causes.

Superfoods graciously allows us to sit indoors next to the shopping carts. Most of the Salvation Army bell-ringers here are volunteers affiliated with other nonprofits.

This year I’m ringing on behalf of the Dubois Museum. Shoppers pass me one by one as they enter the store. I greet them all, and many are personal friends.

About half of the people drop something into the bucket on their way out, and now and again a rather large bill. I love their generosity. Almost everyone greets me again upon leaving the store. A few apologize for not contributing, or say they donated last time.  The sum of donations seems to increase every year.

As the sign beside me says, all the funds remain in Dubois. I know the person who runs Salvation Army here, and I have met some of the people that it quietly helps: Cross-country backpackers who have had a turn of bad luck in this remote location. Travelers stranded after a breakdown without enough funds for a motel. Impoverished old folks without the skills to navigate the social networks.

My favorite part of this gig, other than the obvious charitable benefit, is watching the banter and chatter that goes on in Superfoods.

“The way you mumble and with my hearing problem, we could probably start World War III,” jokes one guy.

“Let’s leave that to the oligarchs,” says the other.

Fortunately, the oligarchs are very far away. What we have is peace on this small part of the earth, and plenty of good will to go around.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018

You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.


The Appalling Case of the Diligent Scout Master

Joe has no idea who reported him. It’s difficult to imagine anyone in town doing that. More than likely, some well-meaning visitor to the campground saw the empty kayaks floating downstream, and called 911.

As everyone in town knows (who has not been comatose, away all summer, or boycotting Facebook) that incident led the Boy Scouts of America to suspend our long-time Scoutmaster, Joe Brandl. The BSA has now denied his appeal.

It was a routine outing last May, a typical outdoors training exercise for the troop that Joe headed for many years. The Wind River was predictably high with the late-spring runoff of snowmelt, and some of the boys were tipped from their kayaks.

None of the scouts was hurt or even (in the other sense of the word) upset. This had happened before, and was hardly unexpected. Thanks to Joe’s guidance, they already knew what to do. In fact, they probably saw it as an ordinary part of the training.

But the Sheriff and the volunteer fire department showed up, and somehow the BSA got wind of it. Although the local Sheriff closed the case without further action, the Wyoming State Council decided that Joe’s outdoor activities were “reckless and endangering.” He was suspended with a threat of dismissal, which has now been carried out.

Nearly everyone here likes Joe Brandl, who exemplifies the characteristics most of us admire and hope to emulate: Courage, good sense, good humor, open-mindedness, honesty, selflessness, an industrious temperament and an independent spirit.

He delights us with his imaginative Facebook page, updated at least daily. Sometimes he dresses up and poses as a Mountain Man, a homesteader, or an English gentleman. Next he shows us the buffalo moccasins or rawhide neckties he is making (he’s a tanner by trade), or he posts a quote by a philosopher with an image of the mountains. It’s worth joining Facebook if your only friend there is Joe Brandl.

Joe has been sharing his outdoor survival skills for many years, with everyone, in every medium: Public workshops and treks for all ages, article series in the local newspaper, posts on Facebook, and of course his tireless efforts with his Boy Scouts.

His appearance a few years ago on the reality show Naked and Afraid was just a lark. His “life devotion,” Joe wrote recently on Facebook, has been his work with the scouts.

“I love the old scout ways and believe more now than ever that the Scout Oath and Law is 2nd only to the Ten Commandments,” he said. “I hold in high regard the Scout Motto of ‘Be Prepared’ and the Scout Slogan, ‘Do a Good Turn Daily’.”

“We live in an environment that is shared with grizzlies, wolves, mountain lions and ornery moose.,” Joe wrote in his letter of appeal to BSA. “Our rivers are wild and our mountains are steep and rugged. This is our backyard to explore. In the past 30+ years our scouts have challenged themselves in severe weather, high water and rocky cliffs, I have always maintained a commitment to safety while pushing my scouts to take on these activities. While I have not always stressed the use [of] safety videos, I have instead put them in the water and on the mountains in all types of weather conditions. Each scout has grown to respect the outdoors and to deal with their fears. In all the years of scouting, I have never had any scout seriously injured.”

Joe’s Facebook post announcing the failure of the appeal has generated 166 responses and 94 comments to date, including:

“So you were teaching boys to become good men. Teaching them to be brave and prepared in tough spots ? Dang you!”

“You can be our son’s Boy Scout leader anytime! Where do we need to move to?”

“Let’s see: trustworthy loyal helpful friendly courteous kind obedient cheerful thrifty brave clean and reverent. They’ve mangled and broken several of those scout laws in the way they’ve treated you, Joe…
clearly a kangaroo operation.”

Many comments mentioned the fact that neither party named as signators to the letter (Brad Bodoh, CEO of the Greater Wyoming Council, and Shane Calendine, regional director of BSA’s Western Region) actually signed it. This was seen as demonstrating a lack of courage or conviction.

Joe says that the Boy Scouts in Dubois continue strong, and that parents have stepped forward to help. Forbidden himself to volunteer as a Boy Scout leader, to wear their uniform, or even to take part in troop meetings, Joe continues to hold well-attended meetings in which he trains boys and young men in survival and independence, according to the tenets of Robert Baden-Powell. Three days ago he was teaching them to make snowshoes from willow branches.

“I am not shocked by their decision, but just baffled by it,” Joe wrote on Facebook after sending his futile letter of appeal to the BSA.

Baffling, indeed. In an era when priests and public officials are vilified for the most distressing of indiscretions, our Scout leader has been stripped of his rank for the offense of teaching independence and survival skills to young men who enjoy, and many of whom hope to find a way to continue living in, this wilderness.

For whatever it’s worth, Brad Bodoh lives in Casper and Shane Calendine lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. Neither accepted the opportunity to comment on this blog before posting.

The action they chose is another testimony, and this a very sad one, to the fact that Dubois is unique, challenging, close-knit, wonderful, and extremely difficult to describe or to understand from a distance.

In order to get it, you have to be here for a while. Not very many have that privilege.

 ©   Lois Wingerson, 2018   

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