Commentary: Wyoming’s Massive Rock Arch and a Medicine Wheel Mystery

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Those of us who have lived in Wyoming for a while know that many mysterious wonders  cover our state. During my recent book research, the most amazing “wonder” that appeared is one of the largest natural rock arches in the world. This amazing edifice is hidden high in the mountains west of Cody.  Photographer Dewey Vanderhoff sent me photos and a story about this amazing place. Then there was a heretofore-unknown medicine wheel, which was another high point of my 2012 journey of discovery in learning about the wonders of the Cowboy State. The big arch is known officially as the Blackwater Natural Bridge. Vanderhoff calls it the Throne of the Mountain Eagle since the gap under the arch is in the unbelievable shape of an eagle’s head with a snake in its beak.

 
Vanderhoff writes: “I have had the good fortune to photograph this amazing wonder many times since the early 1970s. It has been a lifelong source of aspiration.”
 
He includes a photo of a young woman in the foreground looking at the arch.  Vanderhoff continues:
 
“The photo shows Deb Hayber during an October day ride.  She sojourns on the next ridge over from the volcanic window rock gazing on what is almost certainly one of the five largest natural arch formations in the world.
 
“She is nearly a mile away from the arch in this scene, across from one another at 11,000 feet deep in the Washakie Wilderness of the Shoshone National Forest.
 
“What is the size of the Blackwater Natural Bridge? The question begs, since it has never officially been surveyed or measured.
 
“Another photo shows the sun in early September passing behind the arch from 4.23 miles  (22,440 feet) away and 4,000 feet below, according to Google Earth. Given that the angular diameter of the Sun is 0.53 degrees and the arch is skewed away at an angle of about 42~45 degrees in this aspect, some basic trigonometry says the arch spans 285 feet wide with a thickness of ~ 40 feet. The aperture is about 250 feet tall.”
 
Vanderhoff points out the formation is unique among all the world’s large arches because of high elevation and its composition of volcanic rock, not sandstone or limestone. “Technical climbing skills would be required to measure the arch directly,” he concludes. “The volcanic rock is also very rotten.”
 
Someday I would like to see this arch, but it might be from an airplane.  According to Vanderhoff, it is tough slog by foot or horseback.
 
Dewey has also had some interesting medicine wheel experiences, which brings me to my second subject.
 
During my visits to places around the high plains of Wyoming, my guide Jim Smail of Lander showed me what he thinks is one of the biggest medicine wheels in the world.
 
As most folks know, “America’s Stonehenge” is the Bighorn Medicine Wheel high in the mountains above Lovell.
 
That wheel is of unknown origin with some folks thinking it pre-dates the modern Indian tribes that have roamed Wyoming and Montana in the last few centuries.
It sits on top of a mountain ridge at 9,300 feet with wondrous views in all directions.  It was not hard to be emotionally affected by the loneliness and grandeur of this old, old place of worship.
 
My friend Jim was guiding me around the prairie looking for photo opportunities when he mentioned a larger and unpublicized medicine wheel he had discovered some years ago.  I asked him to show it to me.
 
If what he showed me really is a medicine wheel, it is gigantic. It may be the mother of all medicine wheels.
 
The Bighorn Medicine Wheel is 80 feet in diameter. This one is over 260 feet across. It is almost the length of football field from one cairn (pile) of rocks to the other side.
 
There are clearly marked cairns of rocks around the circle plus one in the middle.
 
The Bighorn Medicine Wheel has cairns that mark the summer solstice dawn and sunset plus the rise of the bright stars Aldebaran and Sirius.
 
Not sure what Jim’s medicine wheel is designed for.
 
Recently, Jim went out and put posts with flags in every cairn to more clearly mark them. That night he had a nightmare about the wheel and became somewhat superstitious about it.
 
The next day, Jim removed the flags and made me promise to keep its location a secret.
 
So now his secret is out.
 
So where is it? I’ll never tell.
 
Check out Bill Sniffin’s columns and blogs at www.billsniffin.com.  He is a longtime Wyoming journalist from Lander who has written four books. His most recent book is “Wyoming’s 7 Greatest Natural Wonders” which is available at www.wyomingwonders.com.
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