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Home Wild Word Remembering a Close Friend in the Pryor Mountains
Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Dec 01 2015

Remembering a Close Friend in the Pryor Mountains

For centuries, the Pryors have offered silence and serenity

Exploring Montana, Featured

After a couple hours grinding north up the slope of Red Pryor Mountain, I topped a knoll and paused to take in the view. Cold air rushed towards me through fits of light rain as I stood at the rim of Bear Canyon. Clouds danced down from the Beartooth Plateau, pirouetted across the valley of the Clark’s Fork, and swept up the Pryor’s western flank. The sky, though overcast, felt dynamic and crisp.

I saw no one, heard no one. The peace of wild solitude welled within me. But at the same time, I felt I was not alone.

Earlier that week, a friend of mine passed away while attempting a solo summit of Longs Peak in Colorado. Spencer Veysey embodied a drive for experience, and embraced the wilder parts of life with disciplined joy. Moved to explore, as he would have, I clambered up a sandstone bluff and gazed over the edge and into the canyon.

Before me lay the broad basin of the Bighorn River, with the Bighorn Mountains on the horizon to the southeast. South and west, the Beartooth Plateau rose up like a fortress wall, guarding the highest peaks in Montana. Scattered sunlight broke through the clouds, illuminating the remarkable landscape.

In my mind, I was sharing that view with Spencer. We appraised the grandeur of the mountain and prairie in humility, acknowledging the power of the landscape with our silence. A simple nod between us would have said it all: this is good, wild country.

The Pryor Mountains are an unsung gem, not only for their sheer beauty and opportunities for solitude, but also for the rare plant communities and species that call them home. Over the eons, the valleys of the Bighorn and the Green Rivers in Wyoming have formed a corridor, allowing migration of Great Basin plant communities northward from Utah’s canyon lands. This unique geography means over thirty cold-desert plant species like Utah Juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) and Mule’s-ear (Wythea scabra) call the Pryors and Northern Bighorns their home - the northernmost edge of their range.

The Pryors, therefore, provide critical buffer habitat for these plant communities - a place for otherwise immobile life forms to retreat if climate change makes their traditional homes inhospitable. What’s more, the Pryor Mountains are a hot spot for endemic plants. Eight species, including Bighorn Fleabane (Erigeron allocotus), and Pryor Bladderpod (Physaria lesicii) occur in the Pryors and surrounding areas, but nowhere else in the world.

The one-of-a-kind ecology of the Pryor Mountains extends beyond its unique flora. Bear Canyon, designated an Important Bird Area by Montana Audubon, also provides a home for more than a dozen bird species of conservation concern. For the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, the canyon comprises the full extent of their Montana range. With a rare mingling of desert, grassland, shrubland, and conifer forest, the area is also home to as many as twenty species of reptiles and amphibians.

It's no wonder that such a singular landscape holds a deep spiritual significance for the Apsaalooke (Crow) people. A portion of the Pryor range lies within the Crow Reservation, where they continue traditions, from countless generations past, which honor their covenant with the Little People (Awwakkule, or spirit dwarves in Crow lore) by seeking ceremonial permission to enter the sacred Pryor (Arrow Shot Into Rock) Mountains. Baahpuuo Awaxaawe, the Crow name for the mountain, is intrinsically worthy of reverence and respect as an important site for fasting quests and a source for useful herbs and sustenance for the Apsaalooke. (You can learn more about the cultural significance of the Pryor Mountains here and here.)

For centuries, people have regarded the Pryor Mountains as a sacred landscape. As I hiked down towards my car, reverence for the spiritual power and beauty of the place lightened my steps. Autumn sagebrush and juniper consecrated the air. Short breaks of surprisingly warm sunshine found me smiling at the wildness all around, rejuvenated by silence and serenity. I felt blessed to share these gifts with the vital memory of a courageous friend.

The Pryor Mountains are wild in the truest sense, and we want them to stay that way. In 2016, the Custer-Gallatin National Forest will begin revising its forest plan providing a once-in-a-lifetime chance to protect the sacred Pryor Mountains and the communities that depend on them.  Stay tuned to wildmontana.org for ways to get involved or contact csmillie@wildmontana.org to learn more.

- Charlie Smillie is MWA's Eastern Montana field director. He writes from his hometown, Billings, MT.