Sixty-five miles south of Casper--where uranium companies once etched roads and built company towns into the expansive tawny landscape--the prairie stands empty. There are no trees but for the few ornamentals planted by miners who fled in 1992 when the companies went bust. Today, you’ll find more antelope and ravens than people. And wind, always wind.
Walker Jenkins Lake is a former uranium mine that has filled with icy, turquoise water. It’s one of my favorite places to fish. Shortly after ice-out, the cutthroats and rainbows patrol the sandy coast of the lake. Walker Jenkins is a huge impoundment, and there are bights and coves to explore, more than you can cover in a day. The fish are gullible for scuds and nymphs floated below an indicator, gullible for streamers, and gullible for big dry flies in the summer.
This past week I stayed in the 1920s restored sheep wagon owned by the Heward family. The wagon features a comfortable bed, a cast iron stove for both cooking and heating the space and all of the cookware you’ll need. There is a fire pit overlooking the Little Medicine River, and a portable outhouse. Even better, the sheep wagon sits in the prairie, just a stone’s throw from the lake. I quickly dropped my cooler and personal items at the wagon and made for the lake with my four weight.
I walked the sage and wild grasses along the shoreline. At my feet were chunks of petrified wood polished by eons of sunlight and wind. The day breeze was up and the chop confused the usually crystal clear waters with a bit of sand and foam. I tried to spot fish cruising the obvious drop-off, but the visibility wouldn’t allow it. I was surprised when I happened upon an angler returning from a day on the lake. He had that look about him that said he had put in some serious hours. His face was sunburnt, but he was smiling. We paused in the sage and talked about what flies were working: the tan scud, the prince nymph, the hare’s ear—all of the usual suspects. He advised me to fish along a decrepit fence line that ended in the lake. I told him I was in no hurry, I was staying in the sheep wagon. He asked if it had a heater.
“I stayed in my camper in the parking lot, and man, I mean to tell you. Once that sun drops over those hills the temperatures race in the wrong direction,” he said.
I found fish coasting along the sandy beaches on the opposite side of the lake. They sprinted forward to chase my streamers. Most were Yellowstone cutthroat, with a few rainbows thrown in here and there. The trout were chunky and spirited. Usually, I associate Yellowstone cuts with blisters on my feet and uncomfortable hikes. A beautiful fish, they live in secluded places that seem to double their value. But these live just an hour’s drive from Casper.
I didn’t work over the same pod of fish. Rather, I walked several miles, stopping here and there to cast. Almost every spot yielded a strike of two. I was by myself so there was no real way to get a decent picture of just how brilliant these fish are: ruby red gill plates, golden bodies, sparse speckles running their stout dorsum. For a while I lost track of time. I watched a pair of bald eagles fishing at the far end of the lake. Upon the rise, I could see my truck and the sheep wagon. I realized I was exhausted. I headed back for dinner: a baked chicken from Albertsons, some applesauce and a few loose beers.
One of my friends told me that there was going to be an amazing light show. Meteorites were supposed to fill the southern skies. The moon had other ideas. Moonlight was so pervasive and complete that the meadowlarks continued their songs all night. The geese went up and down the Little Medicine as if it were noon. I read two books in bed, one on sheep wagons and one on hiking the Medicine Bow Forest. The Hewards have a profound appreciation for their relatives and there were framed black and whites on the walls that showed grandparents and other relatives from a bygone era. In one photo, Aunt Agnes posses with her prized ewe “Blondie”, and a newborn lamb. I went to bed thinking about the landscape, all of those windswept acres that have seen so many enterprises come and go.
The next morning I met Chad Heward to take the ranch tour. As much as I love fishing, I also love history and seeing how people connect with the landscape.
I jumped in Chad’s truck and off we went into the 65,000 acres that now comprise the Heward Ranch. First we looked at some of the hay meadows and talked about homesteading. Chad explained how his grandparents emigrated from England in 1907.
“First they went to Medicine Bow for two years. They were farmers and miners in England, and they did that when they first got here. But agriculture was the big draw,” he said.
Chad explained a little about the Homestead Act and how it didn’t quite fit the Wyoming high country. The Shirley Basin sits at 7,000 feet elevation, and there isn’t a month where the temperatures don’t drop below freezing. In order to “prove up”, participants had to grow and produce on the land.
“Homesteaders, in those years, weren’t making it. They couldn’t survive,” he said. The Hewards each occupied a homestead parcel, but the going was slow. Isolated in the Shirley Basin, it was difficult to get supplies. Chad explained how his uncles used to ride their horses all day to reach their mother’s cabin at the far southern end of their operations. This put them one day’s ride to Medicine Bow where they could buy supplies. All around them, neighbors were going bust and selling out. The Hewards, when they could, bought those spreads, and pretty soon the ranch was a sprawling property, most of it not high quality grazing. At the height of his father’s sheep operation, Chad says the family owned eight separate sheep wagons. Sheep and sheep herding was his father’s passion. When the sheep market crashed in the 60s, the Hewards sold most of their sheep and switched over to cattle. But Chad has resurrected two sheep wagons and designed a unique hosting experience through Airbnb where you can come and relive a part of history that is often unseen. Sheep wagons are uniquely Wyoming, Chad explained.
“The design comes from Rawlins. Some were made in Douglas, but I believe ours came from Rawlins,” said Chad. As we continued along a two-track Chad pointed out two strange objects on the skyline. At first I thought there was someone up on the rise watching us.
“Those are what they called ‘Stone Boys’ or ‘Stone Johnnies’. It’s a tradition that came over from Europe,” he said. Sheep herders built rock towers to help pass the tedium of watching flocks all day. He said it was a Basque tradition, but other sheep herders picked it up.
Chad drove me up a rise so I could get a good look at the Stone Boys. He told me that, though these monuments are impromptu, he has often found his bearings by looking up through the slanting snow to locate these rock piles. This rise is also where he finds lots of arrowheads, knives, and scraping tools. He calls this spot “The Arrowhead Factory.” One can see easily why someone would want to sit here and work—the views are expansive, the rolling prairie goes on and on. Chad has an easy and likable way about him, but I could tell that he holds the ranch and the landscape close to his heart. He said his favorite thing about having guests is when they bring their children and the children get to experience the freedom of the land. We could see distant rims where banks of snow still held on, the first stands of spruce trees racing up the flanks of the Medicine Bow Range. To the south I could see Elk Mountain.
Chad reminisced about the recent eclipse. He said that there were people all over the ranch. An astronomer from Colorado rented the sheep wagon. She picnicked with the Hewards during the few minutes of totality. He said he learned a lot from her lecture in the sage. Even though the Hewards enjoy sharing the ranch with others, he and his brother were nervous about so many visitors.
“But the next day I drove around and there wasn’t a single mess, no garbage, nothing. Those people took care of the land like it was their own,” he said.
On that note, we hopped back in the truck. He had a whole plateau of teepee rings he wanted me to see. He wanted me to see that this was once a great rendezvous area for migrating tribes. I had thought about going back to lake for a few more trout, but after standing in the midst of dozens of teepee rings, I felt that the day was full. When I passed Walker Jenkins there were three trucks in the parking lot. I wondered if those fishermen realize that access to the lake was through Heward land, or if they knew the Hewards had worked with the game and fish to ensure the lake was stocked. I thought about the one hundred-plus years the Heward family has struggled to exist here, and the unknown people who came before them.
I made my turn on Highway 487, and headed straight into the wind.