Roaring Silence in Wildcat Hills

Though the winter snow lays heavy and silent across the landscape, beneath the veil, Wildcat Hills is abuzz with life.



(This story originally appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)


 

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BY VOLUME, the Wildcat Hills of the Nebraska Panhandle region make up a miniscule portion of our state’s total acreage.

But when measured in terms of sheer cliffs and sheer beauty, these silent, stoic, jagged escarpments more commonly attributed to rockier locales such as the foothills of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains or the Badlands of South Dakota, scream out louder than the night calls of the predatory bobcats that these hills are named after. 

South of Gering, Highway 71 bisects the scenic area into east and west. With a fresh layer of wet snow clinging to the pines and a sheet of ice covering the road, the morning rush north toward Scottsbluff is a slow and hazardous commute for work-bound motorists. But in the nearly 1,100 acres that make up Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area, everything has frozen to a complete halt, crystallized in the calm, silently and scenically in winter’s first tenuous grasp of the season.  

It is only after the morning’s first rays silhouette nearby Chimney Rock and paint Scotts Bluff National Monument’s rocky ledges in shades of purple and pink that life begins to stir in the Wildcat Hills.

Before retreating to their burrows for the day, a chorus of coyotes call out to one another, their actual locations obscured by the echoes. Turkeys fly to the ground after a night spent roosting in the relative safety of the trees. Bull elk, using their massive antlers as shovels, brush aside the snow to reveal the grasses underneath. The cow elk use their muzzles for the same as red-tailed hawks soar high above, watching the ground for the small rodents that will have to seek food, eventually.

Leaving their snowshoe-like tracks in the otherwise unblemished powder, eastern cottontail rabbits bound from thicket to bush and back again. Moisture is always at a premium here on Nebraska’s western edge, where an average of only 14 inches is delivered in a “normal” year. The Wildcat Hills plant community takes full advantage of the moisture that does rain down from the clouds and runs off overhanging ledges. Incredibly, more than 450 varieties of plants exist here in this Great American Desert – a unique garden salad tossed with greenery from both the western mountains and the short-grass prairies.

In spring, showy wild roses bloom in pinks from rock fissures and on trail sides, and prairie goldenpea shoots its golden flowers skyward from grassy knolls between the rocks. Dotted gayfeather, as if raising a flag, adorns its stalk with purple flowers; and the thistle-like prickly poppy – as if trying to improve its thorny image – displays the most fragile of blooms in yellow and white.

Yucca, also known as the bayonet plant, are common here and have evolved sharp blades and points to protect their long, moisture-filled leaves from the jaws of mule deer. Little is off-limits, however, to the whitetail deer that encroached on the area, expanding outward from the North Platte River Valley between here and Gering. Even the spring leaves of poison ivy can’t escape the whitetail’s rugged palate.

The American Indian tribes who first inhabited the area knew that the yucca’s massive taproot, when dug up, would provide a bounty of life-giving water. The green yuccas fare well in this brown, gritty soil; and on this winter morning those bayonets expand up and out through the snowy crust, ready to thrust meltwater back toward the heart of the plant to store in its lengthy roots for the eventual leaner times to come.

The Wildcat Hills State Recreation area is one of several publicly accessible properties in the Nebraska Panhandle where adventurous outdoor enthusiasts can hike through these wild and rocky islands at any time of the year. While the much better-adapted wildlife of the Wildcat Hills are taking advantage of the human pathways, this morning the trails, with the exception of an ill-prepared team of frostbitten photographers, are void of human activity. But if bold adventurers were to pull on their winter boots and then push through the snow in this frigid vault, with each step they could travel back through time to a hidden frontier of breathtakingly scenic vistas that show little influence, if any at all, from the weighty and often destructive hand of man.

Eastern red cedar trees spread through even the rocky areas when destructive but ecologically important wildfires are kept at bay. Ponderosa pine and Rocky Mountain juniper tenaciously cling to and cover steep canyon walls, their snow-covered cones waiting patiently to plummet to the ground and jettison their seeds to usher in the next generation.

A new generation of bighorn sheep were released in the Wildcat Hills in 2001. These reclusive animals, perfectly adept at scaling the rocky buttes and ledges, are majestic at any time of year. But the hoped-for appearance of such a graceful creature silhouetted on a snowy ledge at daybreak is a rare sight not to be taken in this cold morning.

Even more rarely seen, the mountain lion stalks the ridges and canyons of the Wildcat Hills and much of western Nebraska. Revealed most often through tracks or the occasional deer carcass, the mythology surrounding Nebraska’s largest cat outweighs the feline itself. Like a hike into the Wildcat Hills on a winter morning, those blessed with the sudden and fleeting glimpse of America’s greatest cat are left with a primal memory they aren’t likely to soon forget, if ever. This usually solitary cat often seeks its prey under the cover of darkness. Like the mystical spirits the Lakota believed embody the powerful animal, the cougar magically disappears into the shadows, existing on the edge of daylight out of range of the human eye.

Long shadows retreat as the sun climbs in its reduced arc of early winter. As the rugged landscape warms ever so slightly, snowflakes join to become droplets and begin the march slowly toward the ground.

Several feet below, in a protected den insulated by rock, soil and ultimately the added layer of snow on the ground, dozens of prairie rattlesnakes ride out the worst of winter’s fury for months on end, awake in the total darkness with only the occasional rattle. The cold-blooded serpents slow in the lower temperatures. For half of the year there is no need to eat, no need to exercise their famous fangs or waste precious venom with a strike.

Back above ground, the winter breeze picks up with a sharp bite of its own. A new layer of snow begins to fall, this time from the trees, the large wet chunks splattering the rocky ground below with loud plops.

The roads are now open, and the snow is retreating fast.

The Wildcat Hills are beautifully silent. And that silence is deafening.


(This story originally appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

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