Rock fins and flinging at Raymond Mountain
Guest column by Julia Stuble
— September 16, 2014
Twisting and scraping, I coaxed the spade’s edge under the sunken rock and helped Josh McNary lever it up from the earth. Once free, he rolled it to the bank of Raymond Creek and spun it down into the water. I bent down to another and shifted it loose, then heaved it away in the opposite direction. Wiping my forehead, my work gloves left sooty black streaks.
It was an overcast, almost humid morning and we had one more fire pit to dismantle after taking apart three already. The process was simple: randomly fling the rocks away, sort through the ashes to remove mangled nails, trash, and twisted shards of steel cans, and scatter the ashes.
We had arrived at the Bureau of Land Management’s Raymond Creek Wilderness Study Area, north of Cokeville, earlier that morning. Under rain-threatening skies, agency officials detailed the day’s work plan. This was an early celebration of National Public Lands Day, an “all hands-on-deck” volunteer effort hosted by federal land agencies. Around the nation, Public Lands Day events often include trail construction and maintenance, trash clean-up, removing invasive weeds, and planting native vegetation.
This year’s National Public Lands Day is September 27, but Wyoming events are distributed throughout late summer and early fall. The Kemmerer Field Office organized this event at Raymond Mountain Wilderness Study Area (WSA) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964.
Wilderness study areas are managed to maintain wilderness qualities pending legislation that could grant them Wilderness Act protections or determine other management. Across Wyoming, the BLM manages 577,504 acres as WSAs. Twenty years ago, the agency recommended that less than half (240,364 acres) be added to the National Wilderness Preservation System. Undoubtedly, since that report, conditions have changed, and because the WSAs have been maintained for wilderness qualities, many could have been “re-wilded” in the intervening years. Field inventories — and community member visits and other forms of participation — are necessary to determine eligibility for a wilderness designation.
After a safety talk, we assembled into work crews. I grabbed gloves, spade, and tree branch trimmers — “loppers” — to do trail maintenance. In consideration of wilderness characteristics, we would enter the study area only with human-powered locomotion and tools. Just outside the study area boundary, our crew came across a parking area littered with shotgun shells and excessive fire pits. Josh and I literally dug in, maintaining the best pit and dismantling the others.
I reveled in the digging and rock-flinging; the movement helped me stretch and fully wake up. Having slept along the Green River the night before, with a superb night sky but with raccoon-consorting dogs, I had arrived at Raymond Mountain blurry-eyed. We should have banished the canines to the car. Our other bad decision: what was deemed a healthy and virtuous, but actually moronic choice to leave the coffee at home. The green tea we brewed was woefully inadequate for the hour-or-so of driving to the trailhead.
But I wasn’t half-awake for long. The trail winds into the wilderness study area between two looming fins of vertical rock and up a lush drainage. The rain-wet grasses and shrubs smelled sharply of late summer. The air was cool and invigorating. And the complex vertical fins of rock streaming down the steep hillsides captured my attention.
What were once horizontal layers of marine sediments deposited in the Jurassic (between 200 and 145 million years ago) had been twisted and folded underground, like pulling taffy, then extensively thrust-faulted. These faults created the steep uplifts of overlapping mountain ranges that characterize western Wyoming’s Overthrust Belt. That uplift brought up older rocks, too — the tailings and crumbling shafts of an abandoned phosphate mine alluded to the Permian’s Phosphoria formation — laid down 299-252 million years ago.
From the tailings, I picked up a seemingly plain rock — innocent-looking, but one that could speak of mystery and catastrophe. The Permian ended with massive extinction events that wiped out 90 percent of all marine species and 70 percent of all land species. Theories abound, but the innocuous rock in my hand didn’t help me better understand them or picture that shattering loss of biodiversity.
We dismantled more fire pits and lopped off willow seedlings intruding on the trail. A mile or so up the drainage, we caught up with the crew.
Federal agencies report that National Public Lands Day events in 2013 were supported by 175,000 volunteers. That morning, amongst a crowd of 20 who largely introduced themselves as agency employees, somebody asked, “Are there any volunteers here?” Few hands were raised, but regardless of low volunteer participation, there were plenty of hands ready to work.
Our crew cleared the trail with horse packers in mind — this remote WSA near the Idaho border draws visitors on horseback. A permitted hunting outfitter could bring in about 20-30 hunters yearly, reported Wally Mierzejewski, the recently-retired BLM recreation planner who was our crew leader. Few other recreationists visit Raymond Mountain for hiking, fishing, or snowshoeing.
As we worked, ruffed grouse periodically launched themselves overhead with thundering wings. Golden-mantled ground squirrels and chipmunks (differentiate them by facial stripes: chipmunks have them and the ground squirrels do not) skittered underfoot, hurrying toward berry bushes. I followed. Golden sweet-tart currants were at the height of their ripeness and the bushes were bursting. The squirrels, birds, and I were not the only ones feasting; the muddy trail told us about the passage of a black bear.
Convening at a meadow, we put down the loppers for an abandoned stock fence. The posts were stubborn, but with some pushing, pulling, grunting, and creative dance-club moves (grab post, gyrate with whole body), we were able to loosen, lift, and stack them for later removal. Rain clouds continued to darken the sky, but there was more work to be done. The crew split up when the trail forked; Josh and I hiked up a thickly vegetated tributary to Raymond Creek, calling out “Hey bear” as we tried to make the trail more passable. After the sky opened up, we sloshed our way back down it, meeting up with the rain-jacketed crew, and headed out.
Will Raymond Mountain remain wild — wild enough for a wilderness designation? The narrow creek channel, the steep slopes with scree fields and the rock walls could all help protect it. But those very rocks — the Jurassic Twin Creek Formation, which often serves as a rich reservoir rock for oil and gas, and the Phosphoria formation — could also entice development.
Exiting the WSA by slipping through two rock fins that constrict the trail, I glanced back. The lush stream bank and forbidding fins were also enticing for my kind of adventures and only the thought of instant, hot, noodles at the car made me postpone turning around to disappear within its wilderness again.
Access Raymond Mountain WSA by traveling north on Highway 30 from Cokeville to Border Junction; at the junction, turn north on Highway 89 for four miles. Turn right onto Raymond Canyon Rd. and travel one mile to the WSA parking area.
The Kemmerer Field Office is hosting a photo contest focusing on the Raymond Mountain WSA. Find more information here.
And consider helping out at other National Public Lands Day events, with more details here.
— This story was modified on 9.17.14 to correct two photo credits.
— Julia Stuble works on public land campaigns for the Wyoming Outdoor Council. She holds an undergraduate and graduate degree from the University of Wyoming and a graduate degree from Prescott College. She recently researched and wrote about Pinedale, community identity, and diverse responses to natural gas development.
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