Eugene Buchanan: An environmental science outing deep into Vermillion Basin |

Eugene Buchanan: An environmental science outing deep into Vermillion Basin

It’s not exactly the Hilton.

We’re 20 high school students and five chaperones on Charlie Leech’s Environmental Science field trip, pulling up to the homestead of Jan Roth, a rickety, barnwood abode on the fringe of desolate Vermillion Basin. Steer skulls top every post, sheds harbor animal skins and ranching artifacts and bleached bones lay scattered. Picture Mad Max meets Clint Eastwood.

It’s afternoon one of our three-day field trip, studying the local ecosystem. This is stop four and our camp spot for the evening. The students unpack, take slugs of water and find shade under an aspen tree.

Heading out of Steamboat Springs at 7 a.m., stop number one included a discussion about the former coal mining town of Mount Harris and a quick hike to view rock art. Pictographs are painted and petroglyphs are pecked, taught Leech, and why would people carry shields? Additional lessons ensued in butt-sliding, cactus un-pricking and fence-ducking.

Stop number two was at the TS Jost Ranch, where self-proclaimed “craniac” Nancy Merrill, president of the Colorado Crane Coalition, enlightened us on the oldest living bird species on earth, hundreds of which took flight as we arrived. The birds can reach heights of five feet with eight-foot wing spans, she said, and live to be 30 years old.

Of special interest to the kids: the males are arguably the best dancers in the bird kingdom, wooing partners for life; the chicks can grow an inch per day (like the teens we had in tow); and they inflate red skin atop their heads to express emotions.

With the kids expressing their own emotions by fidgeting, stop number three was at Carpenter Ranch, where manager Betsy Blakeslee discussed the Yampa’s globally rare forest (narrow leaf cottonwood, box elder and red-osier dogwood) and the history of ranch namesake Farrington “Ferry” Carpenter, the “Father of the Bureau of Land Management.” It was interrupted by a flurry of bobolink blackbirds readying for their migration to Argentina.

“That’s a long road trip without any video games,” uttered one student, gazing skyward.

Students getting a bird lesson from “craniac” Nancy Merrill of the Colorado Crane Coalition. (Photos courtesy Charlie Leech)

From there, after another “cultural” stop at Craig’s Los Jilbertos burrito stand, we meet Roth at his home. While the kids roll their (some of them pierced) eyebrows as we drive in, any misgivings are quelled as soon as we met him.

He’s the real deal, Leech said earlier, a biologist with true western panache. With a full gray beard matching hair wafting beneath a black bandana, he saunters up wearing worn jeans and cowboy boots and a tan, leather vest. Around his neck hangs a homemade bear tooth necklace; we’d learn he got its amulet by whacking a grizzly in the mouth with a hammer while working on a powerline crew in Wyoming.

Roth doesn’t know his exact age — he estimates 78 or 80 — but his grandparents moved to Sunbeam around 1860. He was born in no-longer-existing Mt. Harris and is far smarter academically than his mountain man looks foretell.

He discovered a knack for science after winning a statewide science fair in high school in Clifton. A PhD from the Smithsonian Institute led to a teaching position at Harvard before he returned west to settle down.

Students at a Ute Indian “buffalo jump” in Vermillion Basin. (Courtesy photo)

The walls inside his home are as eclectic as his past, cluttered with animal mounts and skins, homemade wood carvings, dusty books and awards. Family photos are interspersed with rattlesnake skins and animal skulls. A taxidermy certificate hangs next to his Smithsonian degree.

His dog Frisky is blind thanks to a rattlesnake, a family of which lives under his house.

“You have to give them room, but we’re all compatible,” Roth says, adding he once shot a pack rat inside his living room with his .22. On a wall hangs the skin of a spotted skunk that was “his friend until it started getting a little too friendly.”

Outside, freezers harbor intact coyotes, possum, birds, snakes, chipmunks, squirrels and more. A large steer skull crowds the bottom of a white enamel bathtub by an old sweat lodge.

After an archaeology chat from Roth, a geology talk from the BLM’s Gary Collins and a discussion on grouse by biologist Brian Holmes (the males leave right after copulating, he says, prompting several “Deadbeat dad” comments), we dine on chicken soup courtesy of Freshie’s. Later, Roth shows everyone how to chip chert into Clovis points and hand-knives for skinning game.

Cindy Wright of Wild Horse Warriors discusses the group’s role in caretaking the region’s more than 750 wild horses.

In the morning, we leave the land of skulls and skins to soak in Juniper Hot Springs, where Utes and Fremonts once bathed. While the students cannonball, Roth earns further respect by backflipping into the pool wearing his jeans.

In Maybell, we learn about Browns Park’s cattle barons, outlaws, tough-as-nails ranchers, like Anne Bassette, and bounty hunters like Tom Horn. Then we head north, crossing the dried-up Little Snake River.

Next stop is meeting Cindy Wright of the Wild Horse Warriors, a nonprofit helping caretake the region’s 750 wild horses. We see a few during the drive and throw a shoe ourselves when a piece of chert — what we chipped last night — blows a car tire.

Flat fixed, we drive to the top of Lookout Mountain, leaning into the wind to take in views of Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, home at one point to everything from dinosaurs to Indians.

Students inside the ranch of Jan Roth west of Craig.

Later, Roth leads us into a serpentine canyon that served as an Indian buffalo jump, and Wright leads a wild horse discussion; with this year’s drought, they’re trucking them in 3,400 gallons of water per week.

We camp in a meadow beneath a cliff brushed with magenta alpenglow. Roth points out a pond that he’s never seen dried-up before. After dinner, we gather around a lantern to Roth’s yarns about “liver-eating” Jeremiah Johnson and the killing tendencies of the Fremont. Afterward, he sleeps on top of his rusty, door-less Jeep Cherokee, head on the luggage rack — Snoopy returning to his Sopwith Camel.

In the morning, the students close their eyes and listen to the wind. Then they journal, jotting down thoughts and drawings of cranes, rock art, Indians, outlaws, arrowheads, horses, hot springs and more, including mankind’s intrusion on the area.

Leech implores them to take home the long view — a sense of where they live, its ecosystem and what they can do to help sustain it. The pages fill before the students pack up and drive home to a more conventional week of school — knowing they’ve learned far more than they would from any chalkboard.

Mount Harris circa 1950.

To reach Eugene Buchanan, call 970-871-4276 or email

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