Friday, May 27, 2011

A Mystical Prairie Refuge

There are few places in Oklahoma as full of mystery and myth than the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Lawton.  The almost 60,000 acre refuge was established in 1901 and it abounds with Native American lore, stories of Spanish gold mines, lost graves, and hidden treasure. Legends say the James Gang hid stolen gold here.

It was refuge for the Comanches, the Wichita Tribe traces its origins to the mountains, and legendary Kiowa Chief, Lone Wolf may be buried there in an unmarked grave.  The mountains themselves are among the oldest in North America-possibly 500 million years old.  The rocky peaks are rounded by wind and time, huge bouldered stacks more than anything else.
My own fascination with the Wichita Mountains began when I scarcely knew anything else about Oklahoma.  I was living in Wichita Falls, Texas and a visit to the refuge was a welcome diversion from the flat, monotonous landscape of north Texas.  I camped at the base of Mount Scott and climbed the mountain all the way to the top, oblivious to the rattlesnakes I knew inhabited the boulders. The view from Mount Scott is one of the most spectacular in the state.  I wondered at the bison and longhorn cattle that wander unimpeded through the range and visited the prairie dog towns.  I thrilled at the occasional glimpse of the elk, once numerous on the plains, that now, again, inhabit the area.
The refuge is vast and rugged and you can easily lose your perspective in the vastness.  It is worthwhile to take pause from time to time to examine the small things that also add to the tapestry of the Wichitas.  A wonderful place to do that is on the Dogwood Hollow National Recreation Trail.
The trail winds through a very accessible part of the refuge, past meadows and ponds, over rocks and through the woods, encompassing an elegant slice of the ecology of this anomaly of the prairie.  This is where you have a chance to see the little things, the wildflowers, the grain of the rock, so like ribs of the earth.  This is where you see more of the refuge than you will ever see from the window of your car as you pass through.  You can quickly realize that, beyond the grandeur of rocky peaks, the massive bulk of the bison and longhorn, and the vast open meadows, is a smaller world, just as fascinating and just as intricate.  The ecology of the refuge is staggering; 50 mammal, 240 bird, and more than 800 plant species, call this place home for all or part of the year.  You will see many of these creatures and plants on your hike.
Come to the Wichitas to hear the treasure tales if that is your wish  but stay to discover the real treasure, a chance to experience the beauty and mystique of a preserved area of ecology and history that has no equal in Oklahoma.  
All photographs by Ron Stahl
Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge 

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