The trick of the quiet: winter on the northern prairie

ASC’s newest staff member Mike Kautz joined the organization in September after several years working in Yellowstone National Park.  Last week he spent two days on the American Prairie Reserve preparing for the February start of the Landmark wildlife survey.  As he describes below the prairie is a landscape that rewards those who make the journey to visit.

From Mike:

Is it not likely that when the country was new and men were often alone in the fields and the forest they got a sense of bigness outside themselves that has now in some way been lost…  Mystery whispered in the grass, played in the branches of trees overhead, was caught up and blown across the American line in clouds of dust at evening on the prairies. 
               -Letters of Sherwood Anderson
My first night on the prairie the thermometer dropped to nineteen below.  By the time I’d made coffee, loaded my pack, and layered up the sun had risen and the temperature had almost doubled to twelve below.  When I stepped out the door of the ranch house that serves as Reserve headquarters the air was dense and still.  I planned to walk two transects in a day, sixteen miles, and I already wished I’d packed a warmer coat and a facemask.  However, even small adventures like a walk on the winter prairie are only possible if you’re not sure you’ll succeed.  


I set off across a plain of grass backlit gold by the rising sun and bristling with frost crystals.  Almost immediately I ran into three bull bison lazing at the edge of a coulee as if it were the Jersey shore in summer.  They eyed me warily, their noses shagged with ice from their breath, frost thick on their shoulders.  As I moved by they stood up and shook more frost from their coats and the shaggy foreleg hair known as pantaloons.  Cowboys who don’t like the French tint of this anatomical term also refer to the hair as chaps.      

I wondered briefly at the bison’s ability to weather winter out on this unsheltered landscape.  But my thoughts mostly focused on the necessities of walking quickly and staying warm.  A gentle but persistent wind began blowing from the south and though the air was warming it did not keep up with the windchill.  Looking into the wind my eyes occasionally teared, then froze shut at the lashes.   

Cresting a hill I caught a flash of movement ahead.  A pronghorn leapt from a grass bed and began an easy lope.  Suddenly an entire patch of the prairie flinched and leapt to follow.  A herd of eight pronghorn stretched behind the leader in a line.  They moved with the wind, heading north in a straight arrow.  They cruised easily at 30 or 40 mph putting a quick mile between themselves and my silhouette on the horizon.  You could have balanced a wine glass on their backs as their legs churned beneath them.  Once they were out of sight I followed their tracks back to their beds.  The grassy hollows were still warm and the snow had not yet turned to ice.  I recorded the sighting in an all-weather notebook and took a GPS location.


Shortly after the antelope I jumped three groups of mule deer.  The mule deer move in an elastic four-legged bounce called “pronking.”  Their leaps look as if they are subject to a lighter force of gravity than the rest of the Animalia kingdom.  Most of the groups were does, but on one far hillside I spotted a buck through my binoculars.

Between these sightings I walked steadily to stay warm.  I wished again that I had grown a beard, or packed a facemask, the wind rasped like sandpaper on any exposed skin.  When I stopped to take a GPS coordinate and photo of a coyote track or antelope fenceline crossing the silence was striking.  Standing on the winter prairie illustrated how rare it is now to experience the complete absence of human-made sounds.  I could not hear even distant jets, motors, traffic roar, dogs, lawn mowers or cell phone alerts.  Even the mountains of southwestern Montana where I spend much of my time are noisy by comparison.  

As I neared the halfway point of my hike a coyote flushed from a creek bed ahead.  He ran full tilt, moving like a missile with his tail out straight and his nose into the wind, swerving around sage and hurdling between two barbed wire strands with perfect precision.  In country where coyotes are shot for both sport and necessity the survivors are wise to be wary.

Around midday I reached the border fence of the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge.  The discomfort of walking into the wind quickly disappeared as I turned my back and hiked home north.  Climbing rolling hills back to Telegraph Creek and Reserve headquarters I shed one layer and then another.  After spending much of my outdoor life hiking to summits, lakes, or ridgelines often on trails it was a novel feeling to simply ramble open ground.

On the final mile home I picked up two trail cameras I had set up the day before in a snowstorm.  On the night that dropped to -19 the cameras picked up several mule deer and a whitetail moving through the weather unperturbed.  

The prairie is a landscape that reminds you to pay attention, of the need to look closely.  From afar the grasslands look uniform.  From up close you see that they are as complex as a deep forest.  From afar the coats of deer and pronghorn camouflage them perfectly.  Only with close looking can you pick out the twitch of an ear or the dark outlines of the eyes.


The sun was starting to set again by the time I made it to the center of the Sun Prairie and the warmth of headquarters.  I sat by the ticking woodstove, tired, content, and thawing out.  I considered the toughness of the wildlife preparing for another winter night on the plains, deer hidden in the hollows of the hills and the coyotes trotting through the coulees.  The prairie is a haunting and spectacular place, a quiet reservoir of open space, wild animals, and sky.

I am old enough to remember tales that strengthen my belief in a deep semi-religious influence that was formerly at work among our people…  I can remember old fellows in my home town speaking feelingly of an evening spent on the big empty plains.  It had taken the shrillness out of them.  They had learned the trick of the quiet…  -Letters of Sherwood Anderson

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