The Wichita Mountains
There's a point in the night where I reach my palm out into the night air. Frozen stones bounce off my fingers, confirming the sound I'm hearing is hail bouncing off the rain tarp. In my primitive, little campsite the wind is fierce and the rain heavy despite the density of trees in the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge's Doris Campground. Occasionally, like when a storm blows through, sleeping in a hammock is a decision favorable to those who miss the feeling of being rocked in a cradle by someone on powerful drugs.
Still, at least this whole "crazy storm every night" thing is only at night. And come morning, evidence of any foul weather is mostly gone. Forgetting to eat breakfast, I walk around the lake that borders the campground. The night's remaining clouds are on their way out, and I can hear the refuge coming alive again.
Back at camp, I get ready for the full day here in the refuge- new time afforded by racing the sun to here the day before instead of pacing myself. It looks like a critter made their best effort to dig into my handlebar bag in the night- maybe I forgot a small morsel of food inside? The chew marks just add more character to this weathered bag, with only my sun shirt, spare socks, and guide book suffering from sitting exposed to the night's downpour. The clothes get thrown up on a line, and I pack what's necessary for a long day in the refuge.
It's early. The main road that cuts through the preserve is all mine, with ten miles separating me from my first destination. Only getting a few moments of sunlight in the preserve last evening, I'm excited to see all the wonders this refuge protects. Coming over an uphill bend, I see the first star of this land.
A stoic male grazes just uphill from the creek that runs behind him here. He's my first encounter with the celebrities of the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge- a heard of over six hundred bison. He's alone, just trying to eat some local produce in peace, and has a scent just strong enough for the wind carry. I completely, entirely, relate to this dude.
As I'll come to find out the bison here are pretty well used to automobile traffic, but they don't have the first idea what to do with someone on a bicycle. He strolls as confidently as any animal his size might, strolling across the road in front of me.
It should go without saying, but bison are huge animals that don't really express themselves well. This guy is in the middle of his spring shedding, and maybe he's alone because he feels a little self conscious about it. Getting close is a terrible idea, so maybe if you want to ride your bike near one and take pictures, bring a telephoto lens? And, of course, compliment them as you ride by.
"YAAAAASSS, WORK IT. SLAY, BISON, SLAAAAYYY."
There's only so much of the morning I can spend harassing a bison, I guess. But I leave him to his breakfast buffet and continue the last stretch to the trailhead for Elk Mountain.
Elk Mountain sits on the northern end of the refuge's Charons Garden Wilderness. The trail to the summit is barely over two miles, and super well groomed. I'd say an active body could run up the trail without issues, as long as that body wasn't attached to a head that wants to stop and take pictures of every flower, cactus, shrub, and tree growing on Elk Mountain's northern face.
Views From The Top Of Elk Mountain
TO THE NORTH
Rolling hills leading to bison-filled prairie, bordered by the protected portions of the range within the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge.
TO THE SOUTH
The boulder fields of Charon Gardens Wilderness, punctuated by Mount Lincoln, with the towns Lawton and Indiahoma in the distant prairie.
My guide book tells me a sprawling network of trails lead through the boulder gardens, taking one to caves, abandoned mines, and to rocks shaped like other things. With a half a bottle of water left, I figure I can roam for an hour and with limited chances of suffering heat stroke.
This whole mountain top is covered in wild garlic, covering every meadow and growing in boulder wedges that retain soil and water. It makes everything smell amazing, and bums me out that all I have up here to eat is two granola bars. Some will be making its way back down with me for dinner.
An accidental selfie while I was throwing my camera on top of a boulder. Much of these boulder fields are best explored with a mix of hiking and bouldering techniques. Pulling yourself up the sides of boulders and shimmying through holes the size of your torso will take you into small, mountain streams, to lizard dens, to snake holes, and gigantic rock arches. You could also not risk falling into rocky pits or having a gigantic rock crush your pelvis and still have a totally awesome time up here walking around in sandals.
This hole is exactly as wide as my shoulders, but crawling through allows a fantastic view of the Rock Arch. One can also just walk along a trail to this interesting formation, but one would miss this good look at the entire rock.
Out of water. Time to go. It only takes a half hour to make it back down the mountain to my bike. I guzzle down my spare bottle of water- hot from the sun. Looking through my quickly-falling-apart guide book, I decide the best compliment to a morning on a mountain is an afternoon in a canyon. I head back out on the road, pedaling towards the trailhead for Narrows Canyon.
Look who finally came out! The place is lousy with bison. They lay in the mid-day sun, getting up only to eat or poop. I can catch glimpses of the new calfs- the red dogs, with their bright rust coats. I want to stop, just to watch them lounge, but the sun directly overhead might be my best hope for canyon photos where much of the walls- which my guide book suggests has some of the best climbing in the midwest, with routes rated up to 5.12c. I don't know a lot about climbing, but the internet tells me this is a really difficult rating.
The Narrows Trail is mostly flat, following along the Cache Creek for a mile until you reach the canyon. Such little effort is required on this trail, it tempers my expectations for the canyon though the guide book won't shut up about how beautiful it is. But walking up a small hill, the creek drops suddenly into a space that defies logic. I think I actually uttered "what the hell?" in disbelief. It looked like god took a dagger to the otherwise flat, rocky ground, twisted the blade, and upon removal left the earth with the Narrows Canyon.
Cache Creek is calm, with the occasional eddy along the banks of the canyon. There's very few ways to make your way down the canyon without using your hands and having hella grippy shoes. The feeling of privacy down here is intoxicating. That such an easy trail delivers you to this pretty, little oasis only makes it feel crazier that I'm not bothered once by other folks looking to enjoy this oddity. At the trail head, there's a fairly large sign saying not to swim in the canyon. I recommend adhering to the rules. Stripping off your clothes and jumping off a rather flat sunning rock into the warm water of the creek, and sinking down into the deep, chilly bottoms carved in stone is not worth the risk. Whether the rules are in place to protect the creek ecology or protect visitors from injury/death, I'm glad I didn't take advantage of the privacy for a mid-day cool down in the hot, humid weather.
I'm totally okay with this canyon.
Okay enough with the completely unexpected canyon in Oklahoma. The trail back, once away from the canyon's mouth, turns back into the predictable, hardscrabble terrain. Leaving the trailhead's parking lot, the only the wildlife refuge's residents see me. I come across a longhorn steer, a boring lizard, a lone hare, and a set of turkeys. They're less impressed with a canyon than they are with the grass and bugs in that grass.
Back out on the refuge's main road, I can see in the distance that even more of the bison herd is relaxing in the public space. Cars slow, an arm sticks out the window holding a cell phone, and then they drive away. Getting closer, two men step out of a stopped car to get a closer look at the animals.
I hear one snort out of the bison and the men decide that, yeah, they're definitely too close. From a safer distance they take pictures, and as I roll up the older of the two heads back to the car to grab a real camera.
The younger of the men wears a belt buckle for a rodeo circuit in the Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas area- with the year 1992 written to commemorate. His hat is in the old west style, with the original Buffalo Soldiers emblem accompanied by a long, orange feather. I want to ask him what bird the feather's from, but we mainly talk about the herd in front of us for the few moments he and his group stay. Everyone loves bison. The muscle car's engine in their party carries off in the distance as I pedal past the sleepy herd.
"Don't ever go alone" written at the Treasure Lake trail head and southern entrance to Charon Gardens Wilderness isn't an inspirational quote or metaphor written by Dr. Phil Mitchell. It's a warning to others, not end up dead, alone in rocks, which is how Dr. Mitchell was found in 1992 after a weekend climbing trip. Such a strange year to see stamped in metal in twice in one day, with such very different reasons for marking the year. I have heavy guilt pangs for passing this very plaque to go wander the rocks alone.
In the far corner, at the boundary of the refuge I'm squeezing one more hike in for the afternoon. My guide book suggests Post Oak Falls as a unique location and the only waterfall in the refuge. A well defined trail takes you to an oak tree at the edge of a small lagoon, the sound of water splashing nearby. On this trail I finally come across a park ranger with a film crew, doing a piece on the park. He takes an interest in the past few days I've had of traveling. Impressed, he shakes my hand for knocking out two mountains, a canyon, and now a waterfall in under twenty four hours. But my favorite part of our interaction comes when discussing the nightly storms. He doesn't recall them, but then again he was sleeping inside the past few nights. I describe the storm intensities, and he waves them off as not being that severe. Oklahoma being smack dab in the middle of Tornado Alley, he offers an insight on the little storms I've slept through.
"At least you survived them."
I hear two people talking from by the falls. They go silent once they hear my wading in the lagoon, and a second later they walk by to collect their things without talking or making eye contact. I feel bad for ruining their privacy, but I'm also kinda happy to have my own.
Such a small creek, one my book says only gets enough water now, in the spring, to form a waterfall. But it's steadiness carved an entire room out of the rock. I swim under the fall, and let my body sink below, but a second or two of sinking only leads to colder water and no bottom, so I swim back up. If I was more into caves, I might consider investigating underneath this waterfall. But as it is I'm happy to sit and get a free shower. For a time I follow the river up creek deeper into the wilderness.
I've come to appreciate how inviting the terrain is to wandering, even off trail. There's a nonchalant vibe to the land, which explains the reminders posted at every entrance that despite appearances these mountains are dangerous, and lots of folks have died in them, and you might be next if you run out of water. One is a guest here, a welcomed guest at that, but the refuge is a rough and wild place first and foremost.
I take one last look at my guidebook, flipping through its pages for one last suggestion as to where I might spend the evening. There's still plenty more to see here in the refuge, but looking around it's clear where I want to be so I put my book away and shift my attention to the prairie and all the bison in it. The sun hangs in the evening sky, and I decide to sit and watch the herd enjoy its last few hours of daylight.
What a babe.
I don't need to regurgitate the same story about the U.S.'s past with bison. We all know how bad it was, and how we learned our lesson, but this country could still stand to learn quite a few more lessons. But, the pleasure in watching a herd of bison is much simpler than all that. I'd invite you to enjoy the animals just for their existence.
Red Dogs At Play
I think I've already mentioned this, but bison calfs are called red dogs- an apt nickname for their new, light, rust-colored fur and playful rambunctiousness. Here they are melting my heart during an amazing sunset in the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge.
This... this is just fine.
Adolescent bison, who've yet to develop their prominent brows or shoulders. They lack a nickname, but I would like to formally suggest Teen Dogs as the nickname for adolescent bison.