I am haunted by disappearances. A seeker by nature with an innate drive to find things, the idea that something can simply vanish, swallowed by the relatively finite confines of this world, runs completely contrary to my sense of order. I’m not sure why I’m thinking about it this morning, a day after I’ve first noticed more light in our late-January sky - the opening salvo of a far-off spring - but the life of a nature photographer is nothing if not solitary, providing ample time for contemplation.
Perhaps my thoughts turn here because I’m heading to Yellowstone National Park to photograph bison, an animal that, for all intents and purposes, has disappeared from its native range. Or, maybe the snowed-over cat tracks that I saw in the alley by my truck before dawn stirred memories of my childhood pet, Lynx, who disappeared about this time of year almost forty years ago, the same recognition of a slightly longer day igniting his urge to wander. Whatever their origin, these thoughts of the lost are unsettling, and disperse minimally when a gust of wind catches me off guard on top of Bozeman Pass, shivering my pickup toward I-90’s passing lane, tightening my grip on the steering wheel. As I crab into the wind and let off the accelerator, allowing gravity to roll me along between mountains still in night and a prairie hinting of day, they return full force.
Nelson Powers was a bull of a man, crashing through life like the proverbial china shop. He lived at the tail end of Northern Vermont’s reign of “characters,” unique personalities as varied as the March weather, whose collective whole made the Northeast Kingdom, where I grew up, a paradox of wild and fragile.
Nelson had no qualms about walking into downtown Newport’s traffic, with all the regard for oncoming cars of an Essex County bull moose, to flag down someone he recognized – or thought he recognized – to see if they had an extra five-dollar bill on them. He might call my father who, before he began writing full-time, worked for a social outreach organization charged with helping people like Nelson secure, and more rarely hold, employment, in the middle of the night to ask him if he’d heard a new song by the Doobie Brothers. Or, on less frequent occasions, might spend a few nights in the county jail for slapping his father, a perpetually-tired and frail-looking man, around the house.
“Can you tell me why you did it?” the local judge would ask, accepting Nelson’s answer of, “No, but I’m sorry,” as equally valid statements, then trying to weigh the pained expression of the son against the bruised face of the father to come up with a fair sentence.
Each summer my dad would bring Nelson to our Irasburg home a few times to stack wood, and I’d sometimes help, mindful to work toward the other end of the pile, where I was less likely to be struck by flying pieces of white ash, yellow birch, and rock maple, hurled end over end by the hulking man in cut-off jean shorts and canvas sneakers synched to huge, sockless feet. We talked while we worked, or more accurately Nelson talked and I listened, soaking up details of his exploits, none more likely to have occurred than any of the Greek myths my dad read to me, none remotely appropriate to share with a twelve-year-old boy. Sometimes in the middle of a tale, usually involving a “lady friend,” he’d pause and say, “Hey, hey, hey. Go get me a glass of that lemonade.” I’d do it as quickly as I could, eager to hear the story play out, but as often as not, after rivulets of liquid had poured from both corners of Nelson’s mouth as he drank, he’d switch gears to music or late-night TV. If I asked about the previous conversation, he’d shake his head and narrow his eyes, signs of agitation building toward anger, as though whatever he’d been talking about was locked behind doors he could never quite open up again.
We’ve had a largely open winter here in Montana this year, and after two tough ones I’m ready for a reprieve. The Yellowstone River Valley, between Livingston and the entrance to the park in Gardiner, is mostly bare. The deer and elk that I saw here last year, driven down from higher elevations by deep snow and record cold, don’t line the highway this morning, allowing me at least ten miles an hour faster progress.
Across the river, beyond the Absaroka Mountains, the sun is feeling for the horizon, the sky rushing through shades of metallic grey, tinged along the edges of darker clouds with pale pink. By the time I reach Emigrant fifteen minutes later, all signs of night have slithered over the Gallatin Divide on the opposite end of the celestial dome, banished for two full minutes longer today than yesterday.
At the mouth of Yankee Jim Canyon, where the Yellowstone is pinched between high walls of igneous rock, I spot a pair of trumpeter swans, tucked out of the current in a backwater. The sun is almost to them, their feathers glowing a soft, bluish-white, the color of snow cornices above them in the Absaroka. It would make a pretty picture, but, weighing the likelihood of getting close enough against the much greater possibility of spooking them, I continue driving south, reminding myself that all things I see in the wild are worthwhile whether or not I photograph them.
In Gardiner, a quiet town this time of year compared to its summer self when thousands of park visitors pass through each day, a young bull elk has flopped down in the yard of a motel. It surveys the town with regal expression, another decent photo that again I opt not to pursue. I’ve got bison on my mind, and still the disconcerting thoughts of the disappeared.
Nelson lived with his parents in a small house whose side yard ended in alders along the edge of one of Vermont’s northernmost brooks. Fed by Canadian spring water, it tumbled out of the foothills along the Quebec border and had, for the past ten thousand years or so, been home to brook trout. My dad and I were never sure whether it was simply this stream’s proximity to Nelson’s home that drew him to fishing or whether in that pastime, while immersed in the wild, he’d found a prescription for natural therapy – a measure of relief from a world whose fringes he danced with but whose inner workings never allowed him much solace. Whatever the origin of his love affair with angling, he pursued it with a passion that bordered on the obsessive, something both my father and I could fully relate to.
The three of us went fishing together on an early-July day in 1985 when summer had secured its hold on the Northeast Kingdom, dairy farmers racing to get their second cuts of hay in before evening thunderstorms, black flies filling the woods in a voracious search for blood, the cold waters of the trout streams I grew up on dropping lower.
Brook trout aren’t a sophisticated fish. Their haunts, free from ice for less than half the year, aren’t overflowing with food, dictating that when opportunity for a meal presents itself it can’t be ignored.
“You can do almost everything wrong as long as they don’t see you,” my dad used to say,“but if they catch so much as a glimpse of your shadow the jig’s up.”
It was gospel truth, one of the few hard and fast rules of brook fishing, an edict we followed by crawling on our hands and knees nearly as much as walking upright. We would sneak, sometimes on our bellies, up to within a few feet of a promising-looking pool, then carefully lower a worm from the end of our long fly rods, rigged with monofilament, into the water. Thousands of times, on dozens of brooks, we were successful.
Nelson approached fishing with the same wrecking ball blitz and disregard for the norm that he employed against the rest of the world. In shorts and sneakers, he slipped and splashed down the middle of the stream, using a stunted spinning rod to whip his bait out in front of him, sometimes mere inches ahead of his feet. He seemed impervious to the discomforts of biting flies, wet clothes, and the scrape of dead spruce limbs which, where he was forced out of the brook by log jams, he crashed through in splintering shows of brute force.
At the end of our two-hour fish, Nelson Powers, who had defied every ounce of wisdom that my father and I had come by over our considerable time in the woods, had at least as many brook trout in his creel as we did. As we walked up a gravel road toward my dad’s car a mile away, I watched tiger swallowtail and white admiral butterflies dip across our path while water and mud sprayed from Nelson’s sneakers and he talked about wanting to see Chicago, a lawn mowing job he was considering accepting, and how the sun, even when it vanished behind clouds, was “still right up there in the sky.”
Where the road hooked around cedar trees ringing a stagnant bog, we interrupted a blue heron’s search for frogs. It flapped up over our heads and for a moment Nelson stopped talking, followed it with his eyes, and then spun toward my dad and said, “What do you think of Jesus Christ?”
“I think he had a lot of good ideas and would have liked seeing that heron,” my dad said.
It’s slow going inside Yellowstone National Park, creeping along a narrow road shouldered by the Gardiner River, then crossing that flow on a high bridge where I head due south into the deep shade of mature fir whose limbs shield the highway from sun, ensuring winter-long snowpack. On the horizon of the Blacktail Plateau, I spot the first groups of bison, cows and calves in small herds standing dark against a background of blowing snow. The bulls I seek will be further inside the park, another testament to an easy winter, so I keep driving.
There are more bison on the flats by Tower Junction, and the smell of sulfur channels down the Yellowstone River cut, wafting strong into my truck. Climbing away from the Yellowstone toward Lamar Valley, I notice the depth of roadside snow increasing. Here, in one of the coldest places in Wyoming, winters are always hard.
At the downstream end of the valley, before the land opens into seven miles of high, rolling sage, I pull over, strap on snowshoes, and set my sights on a spear-shaped opening on a ridge a couple of miles off the road. A favorite feeding place for lone bull bison, it is crisscrossed with tracks, evidence that I’m headed in the right direction.
It’s still near enough the end of a successful elk season – many miles with heavy packs behind me - so that the weight of my Nikon with its attached 500mm telephoto is comfortable. I’ve got it riding tight to my back in a form-fitting, padded case, a solid tripod ratcheted to the outside. Somewhere overhead a pair of ravens croak, but apart from their throaty calls there is no other sound, save the crunch of snow under my shoes.
There were once 30 million bison in North America. We took care of that in short order I think, as my progress slows up a steep, finger ridge. The juggernaut of westward expansion reduced them to a single herd remaining right here in this park, the eradication of the Plains Indians, who relied on them for food, clothing, and shelter, in lockstep with their demise.
Under a dead white bark pine, a victim of modern climate change, I think about the ten years I spent working with Crow Indians on their reservation coal mine and the sobering words of Harold Male Bear regarding the bison.
“Imagine what would happen if tomorrow morning nothing that requires electricity – nothing from a cell phone, to a television, to a house light, to any type of electric motor, including car engines – ever worked again. That’s how it was to us when we lost the buffalo.”
Leo Good Luck explained that the current Crow Reservation, like many others in Montana, is a fraction of its original size, whittled down through varies “treaties,” none of which benefited its residents. The road I drove earlier in the day, where I saw the pair of swans, more than 200 miles from where Leo and I had talked, was once part of the Crow world. Probably more recently than when this dead white bark burst from its parent’s cone as a seedling.
Before I continue my upward trek, I reflect on some of the saddest stories from my time working with the Crow. The Little Light family whose car broke down on a remote stretch of road one winter night and whose bodies weren’t found until the spring thaw. Men who were struck by vehicles on Interstate 90 that never stopped. Children whose dreams – whatever they might have been – morphed into steady drug use to cope with a world devoid of hope.
It’s segregation under the guise of sovereignty, I think. Saying you can have your own nation, where you can make your own rules, until you misappropriate some federal funds and we come put you in jail.
I start walking again, wondering if I know the first thing about loss or disappearances.
My dad and I took a circuitous route home after we dropped Nelson off following our morning of fishing. “Riding the roads,” we called it, the ubiquitous, rural-America pastime of putting on miles. We talked about Nelson’s approach to fishing, my father recalling a story from his youth about watching a moose cross a stream in Quebec while fishing with his own father. Their Abnaki guide told him to cast right in as soon as the moose reached the far bank, and when my grandfather suggested the trout had probably spooked said that the fish aren’t frightened of moose. A hefty catch on the first cast was proof enough for my dad, and he reasoned that Vermont’s brook trout likely viewed Nelson more similarly to a moose than an otter.
As we cruised slowly along the web of gravel roads in Brownington, the town where I was born and spent my first four years, we both noticed that more pasture had been lost to first-generation woods. In one meadow, its piles of glacial stone, stacked five feet high by Depression-era farmers clearing space for grazing, were barely visible through tall meadowsweet, woody-stemmed asters, and flowering black-eyed Susan. Further along, another field already sported osiers and alders, a sign that no dairy cows had trod that land for five years.
“It’s all changing,” my dad said as we summitted a height of land overlooking Lake Memphremagog’s South Bay. “I’m afraid that the world we’re headed for won’t have room in it for people like Nelson much longer.”
“What do you think will happen to them?” I asked.
“They’ll disappear,” my dad said. “Drift away into history. In your lifetime, I doubt many people will remember the time when they existed. They’ll go the way of the eastern catamount, the sap bucket, and the small, family farm.”
Later that evening we played baseball together on the common in the center of Irasburg, my dad pitching balls to me until it was too dark to find all the ones I’d hit. I was thirteen years old, and he was throwing faster to me, the balls I connected with traveling further. The infield was laid out to Little League specs, the pitching rubber 45 feet from home plate, so I’d moved 15 behind it, closer to the chicken-wire backstop, to approximate the distance from the mound in Babe Ruth, the league I’d graduated to that summer. More than once, as chimney swifts, nighthawks, and then bats tested the air overhead, I understood that I’d never again stand at home plate on that field.
The bison I’ve come to Yellowstone to photograph is grazing his way toward the top of a small knoll, brushing snow from buried grass with his prodigious head. He swings it back and forth, clearing the ground below, and has about as much interest in me as he would the game of baseball. He is capable of running almost 40 miles an hour, a fact I’m mindful of when I set up my camera a safe distance away, but this morning all he wants is an extended breakfast. In fact, he’s so intent on eating that I find any type of shot is impossible. He refuses to so much as glance in my direction. Well, I’ll do what I do a great deal of the time when I’m shooting wildlife. I’ll wait.
As clouds and sun dance above and a pair of five-minute snow flurries coat my hat, I stand behind my camera, patiently watching the bison’s advance toward the top of the hill he’s working his way up. My thoughts are a mix of change and loss, the images they produce in my mind a collage of dilapidated Vermont barns and flinty arrowheads I’ve found in Montana, the soundtrack to them snippets of conversations with my grandparents. I see the size of the Northeast Kingdom’s brook trout radically drop from necessitating that they curl in the bottom of my dad’s wicker fishing basket to something not much larger than a big minnow. I see twenty-year-old maple trees and their crimson leaves in autumn standing where my friends and I once stacked hay bales, the only clover growing there now relegated to the center of a tractor road cut through this new forest. I see sprawling subdivisions hungrily devouring the land all around Bozeman, Montana.
As the bison finally comes into position, training an eye blue with the reflection of snow and sky on me, I take a single photograph and see Nelson Powers pedaling the 10-speed bike someone gave him shortly after our fishing excursion, going for all he’s worth up Route 14 in Irasburg, racing a thunderstorm dropping over Lowell Mountain. He can’t outrun it any more than I could this bull bison.
Nelson disappeared two years after our fishing trip. He left his bicycle and also the epilepsy medicine he needed each day at home, clues my father was certain pointed to an unintentional departure. It was an opinion he and his parents shared, but not one that gained any traction elsewhere in Northern Vermont. The local police were tired of his panhandling, quick to accept a rumor that he’d finally made a break for Chicago. For days, while my dad entreated law enforcement to organize a comprehensive search, and we walked the banks of brooks near Nelson’s home calling his name, there was no sign of him. No midnight collect calls, no word that he’d almost been run over crossing the street in some village, no evidence he’d purchased a bus ticket from the local station. I remember how small his mother looked one morning when my dad and I stopped by to tell her that we had no news beyond what we had a few days earlier. She was standing by a plain, metal kitchen sink, her knuckles particularly pronounced as she knitted her fingers together and squeezed.
“How can no one care?” I asked my dad as we retraced some of our route from the morning we fished with Nelson, driving along the edge of Brownington on our way home from his parents’ house. He raised a hand from the steering wheel, started to point at a collapsed barn, then drew in his breath and shook his head.
The extra light I sensed a day earlier in Montana is evident again as I drive north out of the park in the early afternoon. Whether we always see it or not, I guess the sun is up there doing its thing. I can see it now, off my left shoulder, shining brightly enough to melt a bit of snow plowed out of a fishing access along the Yellowstone, a tiny drip of water seeking the big river. I pull in and stare out over the water at the Absaroka Mountains and then, wanting some fresh air, roll down my window and swing my passenger door open.
A DJ from a local radio station announces that a three-week search for Salina Not Afraid, a 16-year-old Crow girl missing since the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, when she walked away from a group of adults at an I-90 rest area, has come to an end. Her body has been discovered in the prairie a little over a mile away and it appears that she succumbed to exposure.
It took longer to find Nelson. It was late summer when two young boys discovered his remains lying in a brook scarcely larger than the trickle of snowmelt by my bumper. Perhaps he’d had a seizure, perhaps he’d fallen and struck his head, and while there wasn’t enough water to hold a trout there was enough, when he landed face down, to drown him.
Unlike any efforts to find Nelson, the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Montana State Police, and the local sheriff’s departments were all active in the search for Salina. They’ve had too much practice I think as I shut off the stereo and continue staring blankly out the windshield. Too much experience searching for people who vanish on these reservations.
I’m not startled by much, but when an enormous raven lands in the middle of my passenger seat, I jump. I’ve got an open bag of Lay’s potato chips there, and this obviously isn’t his first go-round with that type of snack. He turns his head sideways, watching me with one dark eye while he thrusts his thick beak into the bag and brings out a chip. As it crunches, half going down his gullet and half shattering across the fabric, I remember Irvin Afraid of Bear telling me that a more accurate translation for the name of his tribe would be Raven, not Crow.
As this raven continues to eat, I notice the two federal Fish and Wildlife aluminum bands above his feet, mementos of his trusting nature and our need to leave our mark on even creatures of the sky. When he’s had his fill, leaving a tattered bag and a handful of crumbs for me to clean up, he hops out onto the ground and climbs the low pile of snow near where I’ve parked. With afternoon sun split by my shadow, he poses for a photograph. And then he takes wing, soaring over the Yellowstone, where I imagine Nelson would have enjoyed fishing, somersaulting in the air – because he can and enjoys it – disappearing in the tree line of the Absaroka, land Salina Not Afraid’s ancestors once called home. For almost as long as Vermont has been home to brook trout.
** Photographer's Note**I have seen everything that my dad predicted would happen to Northern Vermont come to pass. Hundreds of family farms have become thousands of acres of woodland, and few people remember the eccentric men and women who were once fixtures along the streets of Orleans County. They’ve disappeared like candles in the windows of hill farms, flaming into incandescent light when electricity arrived after World War Two, burning out to darkness with the elimination of an entire way of life. My dad said that even the Northeast Kingdom couldn’t hide from the 21st Century, and he was right.