Category Archives: Portraits of the Real Wyoming

“In the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense: and have no other preliminaries to settle with the reader, than that he will divest himself of prejudice and prepossession, and suffer his reason and his feelings to determine for themselves that he will put on, or rather that he will not put off, the true character of a man, and generously enlarge his views beyond the present day.

-Thomas Paine,  Common Sense (1776)

For Wildlife’s Sake, Take Your Kids Outside

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Photo credit: Cindy Hayford

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Bighorn sheep from the Hayford family’s winter trip to Whisky Mountain near Dubois, WY. Photo credit: Cindy Hayford

Wyoming has a big problem to address. We’re losing our wildlife and most people don’t seem to care.

I will argue that Wyoming’s abundant wildlife is one of the core traits that set our state apart from most. Talk to a tourist traveling across the state or ask a rancher what makes this place special, and our wildlife will undoubtedly be a prominent factor.

Despite this, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has been underfunded for years, and several statewide ungulate populations have lagged significantly behind the department’s objectives. A 2014 report showed bighorn sheep, moose, mule deer, and pronghorn populations 20 percent, 32 percent, 34 percent, and 19 percent below their objectives, respectively. The rapid decline of sage grouse has been widely publicized, but support falters for the type and scale of conservation efforts many experts consider necessary.

At the same time wildlife groups continue to suffer dwindling memberships and struggle to engage members.

What can we do to reverse these trends? Get your kids outside.

Research over the past two decades demonstrates that childhood experiences with nature correlate with a sense of environmental stewardship and responsibility as adults. Intuition and experience tells me this is accurate. The National Wildlife Federation’s beloved Ranger Rick magazine is predicated on this idea.

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A short-tailed weasel near Vedauwoo. Photo credit: Cindy Hayford

I recently spoke with a friend and fellow wildlife enthusiast, Cindy Hayford of Lander, for a more personal insight into why it is important to get our kids outside. We spoke about her interest in wildlife, her remarkable photos, and why she spends her free time watching wildlife with her kids. It seems she is always accidentally finding herself in the middle of some amazing wildlife experience, but I suspect it isn’t always accidental.

“The kids still talk about the golden eagle attacking the antelope,” Hayford told me.

She described pulling off the highway suddenly last spring for a “National Geographic moment,” witnessing an eagle attack a young antelope. Just as the antelope made a break for it, a coyote “came out of nowhere” and took the antelope down. The whole scene was encircled by a murder of crows waiting for its chance at the kill. A Wyoming Highway patrolman stopped to check on Hayford and her kids after seeing them yelling and jumping around on the side of the road.

“He didn’t seem to understand what we were excited about.”

Hayford’s passions for photography and wildlife began together at a young age. She credits both to her father. “Growing up, on drives he would always look for wildlife rather than watch the road,” she explained. They often went on hikes to practice photographing wildlife and landscapes at Camp Grace above their home town of Wheatland. She affectionately describes her father as both the biggest fan and biggest critic of her photography today.

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Layla and Aidan observe moose on their spring break trip around Yellowstone National Park

Cindy attended the University of Wyoming where she met her husband Kendall Hayford and had two children, twins Aidan and Layla, now 8 years old. Both share their mother’s love of wildlife. It wasn’t intentional, she explained. It just kind of happened naturally. “It was just how I wanted to spend my time.”

As young parents and full-time students, spending time outdoors photographing wildlife was a way to play that didn’t cost anything. The family spent many days out hiking near Vedauwoo — a popular hiking, climbing, and biking destination near Laramie — pointing out moose and other wildlife.

Layla is more interested in all wildlife while Aidan has been more interested in insects recently. Both kids now have digital cameras and they share a pair of binoculars. “It helps
to keep them interested and engaged,” Hayford said.

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Elk on the move near Lander, WY. Photo credit: Cindy Hayford

Their recent family trips have included a drive to Whiskey Mountain near Dubois, where they waited for several hours until a herd of bighorn sheep surrounded their car. More recently they watched elk sparring near Lander and Red Canyon.

“It [wildlife watching] helps to teach them patience and quietness. If you wait, you see more.”

I spoke with Hayford a few days before the children’s spring break, and she excitedly told me she was taking Aidan and Layla for a camping trip in Yellowstone to look for wildlife — their ultimate goal was to see wolves. Five inches of snow  greeted the first morning of their trip but they went on, undeterred. They found their wolves on the west side of the national park.

I asked Hayford if she had any concerns for the future, for wildlife and for people in Wyoming. She replied, “My biggest concern is that the caring stops.”

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Layla’s sketch of a wolf from our interview.

That’s my concern, too. I met with Hayford in the Lander Bake Shop, which coincidentally was hosting the Lander Art Center’s Red Desert Audubon art exhibit featuring wildlife art. Layla interrupted our conversation several times to show me her sketches of the wildlife art. She explained she was drawing them to show me, “how much she loves wildlife.”

I think Hayford is on to something here. For their own sake, and for Wyoming’s wildlife, get your kids outside.

 

 

 

Special thanks to Cindy and Layla for the interview, wonderful photos, and artwork, and to Dustin Bleizeffer and the staff of Wyofile for copyedits. This Portrait will be featured as a guest column on wyofile.com. Keep an eye out for more collaborations in the near future!

On the job. Photo credit: Andy Altepeter

NOLS Instructor, Mudlogger

I met Andy Altepeter about a year ago when we ended up on a job site together. We were working for Creative Energies, a renewable energy company that began in Lander, WY and has grown to open offices in Salt Lake City, UT and Victor, ID. We met on a large photovoltaic (PV) project being installed over a brownfield in Salt Lake City (which is a pretty great use of a brownfield if you ask me). The long work days and repetitive tasks required to install over 3,000 solar panels lent to a lot of introspection during the day, and drove enthusiastic conversations over beers in the evening.

The large crew for the project was, though common for Creative Energies, atypical for a construction crew. The crew was composed mostly of current and former National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) instructors, professional outdoor recreationists that have forsaken toilet paper for rocks and sticks, and chosen to teach outdoor skills and lead adventures over a decent paycheck and a drab 9 to 5 office job. Although all are well-intentioned folk, I’ve found NOLS instructors to be a bit cultish at times- and maybe understandably so for their shared experiences and lifestyles- which made conversation with the more reserved Andy Altepeter a welcome respite. Andy, also a NOLS instructor, struck me right away as honest, open, and modest. He, like many of the other NOLS instructors, was filling in downtime between month-long NOLS courses with Creative Energies to supplement his NOLS paycheck. I quickly learned that he had worked several years as a mudlogger, an on-site geologist of sorts for oil and gas drilling operations. Seeming a little discordant with his current occupations, I wanted to learn more of his past and perspectives.

We met up a few weeks later in Old Town Coffee in Lander to delve a little deeper than noisy bar conversations usually allow.

Andy’s path out West at first was not too different from the typical 20-something outdoors enthusiast you might run into at the trailhead or ski slopes. He went to Whitman College in Washington where he majored in geology and enthusiastically took part in Whitman’s Outdoor Program. (Aside: I need two hands to count the number of Whitman graduates that I’ve met totally at random throughout the West, two whose wedding I recently attended, most of which were members of the geology and/or outdoor programs, and all of whom are motivated, accomplished, and all around good and interesting people. Something’s going on at that school…)

He graduated with a degree in geology and promptly moved to Whitefish, Montana to live with his girlfriend and get serious about his outdoor recreational interests. After spending a year living the life in Whitefish, Andy’s girlfriend decided to go to law school. Between a rock and a hard place, working for the petroleum industry suddenly seemed like it might be a pretty good option. The flexibility of schedule and high pay rate would fund his rambling, adventuring outdoor lifestyle when not on the rig, and allow him to visit his girlfriend for longer spans of time. On top of that, he could pay off his student loans while putting money into savings, and if he wanted to pursue a career in geology, industry was the fastest way to do so (much more so than academia). How does a young guy say no to that? Andy figured he could go work on drill rigs for one or two years, put in his time as they say, and be in a much better place for it.

Andy put in long hours on drill pads for a year and a half, with blocks of time between drilling operations filled with outdoor adventures and visiting his girlfriend. As his career with industry continued on into a second year, Andy was looking for a change. He took a NOLS Instructor Course, the gateway into becoming an official NOLS Instructor. When he and NOLS mutually found his skills and character suitable for the task, he spent the next year splitting time between the well pads and leading wilderness backpacking trips for NOLS.

Heavy packs, but one hell of an office. Photo credit: Andy Altepeter

Heavy packs, but one hell of an office. Photo credit: Andy Altepeter

Fast forward to today, and Andy has spent several years as a NOLS instructor and living the good life. Lately he fills the time between courses with a mix of relaxation, adventures, and work with Creative Energies. I’d guess that installing solar panels is a little more in line with his lifestyle and personal philosophies, but Andy readily admits to missing the money of the oil fields. It was really the money he saved from the oil fields that enabled him to live comfortably for a couple years as a “full time” NOLS instructor. He confessed that he still gets calls to work in the oil fields that sound increasingly more tempting of late.

More recently, he’d gotten a few calls inquiring whether he’d be willing to go work at a proposed oil and gas lease in Dead Horse Point. Andy, an outdoor recreationist through and through, visibly wrestled with the idea. “From a recreation standpoint, it would be an awesome place to work, but a terrible place to drill for the same reason.” He expressed, though in his more subdued way, the almost maniacal enthusiasm many feel with the opportunity to explore Moab’s outdoor playground of public lands.

As we discussed the many proposed developments throughout the Greater Canyonlands area, Andy explained, “Places like Indian Creek and Dead Horse Point would be dramatically impacted by oil and gas development.” He went on to say, “Their ability to develop remote places is frightening. You can drive deep into Colorado’s West Slope- many miles from any town- and find a city of housing, rigs, and developments.” Andy expressed, and many would agree, that such access roads and their traffic are one of the greater, or at least most obvious, environmental impacts of the development. The workers, machinery, and deliveries to these remote sites can generate almost constant traffic to and from a site, often in places that had never before born the marks of any vehicle.

The temptation to go back is always there. Admittedly scraping by with NOLS and Creative Energies, the allure of the oil money can be great. “There are moments when I think how nice it would be to have a small house in town and be a little more comfortable. The energy industry pays good money and rewards hard work,” but he expressed that he has a great sense of community at NOLS- something he never really had in the oil fields. Andy said he had more than a few “why am I here, and how did I get here” moments with industry, and often thought that it was not a lifestyle he’d envisioned for himself.

This line of thought led me to ask, “Do you regret it?” Andy was quick to reply in the negative. He went on to say, “Could it (the career choice) have been more aligned with my beliefs? Sure. But I don’t regret working in the petroleum industry.” He explained that he sees it as a valuable life and work experience, and it has given him a broader perspective. Andy found that these insights even help him as a NOLS instructor when interacting with new, idealistic NOLS students. He said that his experiences allow him to provide alternative perspectives, and even shed some light and a dose of realism on the issues.

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Still on the job, but in a slightly different setting. Photo credit: Andy Altepeter

My meeting with Andy was admittedly quite a while ago now. Where is Andy now? Back to the oil fields to bank some money for another adventure? Lost in the snowy woods teaching kids how to, well, poop in the woods? I’ve run into him a few times around town since then, and last I knew, he had recently purchased a Dodge Sprinter van that had been used as a construction vehicle. He was in between NOLS courses and, quite literally, working to deck out the van (with tongue and groove pine flooring) and make it a ‘luxurious’ home on the road for car camping, road tripping, and exploring the West.

Regardless of personal finances or modern measures of monetary wealth, Andy seems to be living what many would call The Dream.