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Lions and rattlesnakes and bears, oh my!

Editor's note: Greg Sellnow is out of the office this week. We though you might enjoy this best-of "I'm Just Saying" column from 2003.

My rancher friend Irv Clark loves to tell stories about dangerous critters.

My brother, Tim, and I hadn't spent more than two minutes with him after arriving at a cattle camp in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains last week when he launched into one.

"So, you're here to gather some cattle?" Irv asked in his Wyoming lilt.

"Yup, lookin' forward to it," I responded in my best attempt at cowboyspeak. "And the weather's s'posed to be good, so …"


"Well, next year could be differ'nt," Irv interrupted. "There's grizzly bears headed this way."

"This isn't grizz country," I said. "Aren't they all up way northwest of here?"

"Used to be," Irv said, pausing a while for effect. "But they found one just over here a piece. Now how do you figure he got all the way from Cody over them mountains and down here? I'll tell ya somethin' I heard — they say them bears take to perfume and deodorant. Can smell it for miles. Hope you're not wearin' any."

When I tried to start a discussion about the weather, Irv read my cue and changed the subject. He commenced to talking about mountain lions. "They're thick as thieves out here," he said, rubbing his chin, squinting his eyes and scanning the sage-studded hills on the horizon. "Keep your eyes peeled."

During the next four days, Irv told stories about everything from vicious rattlesnakes to rank bulls "that'd just as soon kill ya as look at ya."

I'm not sure why Irv likes to tell us about mean animals. I thought at first he was trying to scare us. He knows my brother, who is a college professor in Fargo, and I are not exactly mountain men. We've been coming to Wyoming for the last five years to help round up cattle owned by our dad and a few other ranchers in central Wyoming. It's not our livelihood, though, and southeastern Minnesota and the Red River Valley aren't exactly known for their man-eating varmints.

But I think Irv, who's a peach of a guy, just likes to talk — and he's learned that the subject of fierce creatures is pretty close to the top of the list of conversation starters.

I've caught a brief glimpse of a retreating rattlesnake in Wyoming, but I've never seen a grizzly or cougar. From everything I've read, though, they generally allow us humans a pretty wide berth. And, thanks to Dad, I've learned over the years how not to get hurt by a cantankerous bull or horse.


Don't get me wrong, I have a healthy respect for poisonous snakes and large, four-legged beasts. But there's something I have even more respect for when traversing the high country of Wyoming — the weather.

In one eight-hour period last Friday I rode through three Wyoming seasons. When we left camp, which is at an altitude of about 6,000 feet, it was summer. The temperature was in the high 60s, the sun was shining and I was wearing jeans and a lightweight long-sleeved shirt. Two hours later, after we'd climbed to 7,500 feet or so, black clouds began to roll in and the temperature went into a freefall. It was autumn.

An hour after that we were riding through the clouds, smoke-like wisps blowing around and through us. Then the clouds started spitting needles of sleet. We'd put on rain gear, smashed our hats tightly onto our heads and tugged on our gloves. But our faces took a battering.

By the time we got back to camp, winter had arrived. Plump, half-dollar sized flakes were settling on the ground as we retreated to Dad's school bus, which has been converted into a mobile bunkhouse.

It was about 25 degrees and we were soaked to the bone, cold and shivering. Something was wrong with the propane stove so that it produced only a low flicker of flame. Dad started the bus and turned on the heater. A few minutes later it began filling with smoke. Turns out a packrat had built a nest in the engine and it was smoldering. So much for that. Seven of us huddled together under blankets, and poured down some hot tea and coffee.

We'd survived the day and another rancher, Pete Cameron, celebrated by reciting some of his poetry.

It wasn't long, though, before Irv had the floor again. I believe the subject was wolves.

Postcript: Irv Clark lost a long battle with cancer, which included several trips to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, in 2007.

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