The bones of a 16-foot tepee stand tall in the grass outside the Craighead home in lower Miller Creek.
For years this is where John Craighead, one of the preeminent scientists and conservationists of the last century, hung out every day, winter and summer, usually with a fire crackling inside or out.
It’s naked of its worn canvas cover, but a couple dozen people naturally gravitated to the tepee last Sunday to mark Craighead’s 100th birthday.
“This is first summer the tepee’s been down in a long time,” son Derek Craighead remarked a few days later. “This winter he didn’t get out. I mean, we brought him out when it was a sunny day, but he could no longer get in and out of the tepee.”
The canvas skin that for so long gave this urban oasis a certain grand allure was coming apart anyway, said Johnny Craighead, Derek’s brother, who lives in a home on the other side of the tepee and is full-time caretaker of his parents, John and Margaret.
The birthday gathering was “pretty informal,” noted young John. “It was never planned to be a party so much as just everybody was coming over, a bunch of the grandkids, and both Derek and Karen were here at the same time.”
At 62, Johnny is the youngest of three Craighead “kids.” Derek and their sister, Karen Haynam, try to get back as often as they can to lend a hand from their homes outside of Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
People were asking about the birthday, and eventually the quiet gathering on the lawn grew to include a few of John's friends, colleagues and former students at the University of Montana. In the quarter-century Craighead spent at UM, he elevated the wildlife biology program to national heights. An endowed chair in his name is one of just three at the Missoula school.
Beer was involved at the birthday celebration, and lots of food. Hayman prepared a seafood plate and a couple of cakes were on hand.
“The dog jumped on top of one,” Derek said.
Craig George flew down from Alaska. He’s the son of John Craighead’s late sister Jean, who authored more than 100 children’s books, including "My Side of the Mountain" and Newbery Medal-winning “Julie of the Wolves.”
A senior wildlife biologist on the North Slope, George was in the Anchorage airport heading home to Point Barrow when he called to say he’d changed his ticket for Missoula.
“He arrived here at midnight (Saturday), spent the day, got on the plane at 6 o’clock the next morning and went back,” Derek Craighead said.
John Craighead uses a wheelchair, and he hasn’t given an interview in years. His hearing is shot and macular degeneration has ravaged his eyesight. It takes great effort to move or to speak.
So it was a touching moment Sunday when he recognized his nephew.
“That’s a long way to come,” he said to the delight of all.
“That’s the kind of thing you say, 'Wow, he was really doing good,'” said Johnny.
Morris Hornocker of Boise, the world’s foremost mountain lion expert, tried but couldn’t make it for his former professor’s 100th.
“He called and one of the things he said was, ‘Your dad took a farm boy from Iowa and changed his whole life,’” Derek recounted, his eyes shifting to the horizon.
There is pride and love when the Craighead kids speak of their father.
John and Frank Craighead, identical twins, were born on Aug. 14, 1916, in Washington, D.C. They spent the young years of remarkable lives roaming the banks of the Potomac River, investigating nests and honing their love and instincts for nature.
Their father was an inspiration. After retiring as an entomologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and even as his sons were fitting the first radio collars on grizzlies in Yellowstone in the early 1960s, Frank Sr. was launching a second career, this one in the development-threatened Everglades of south Florida. On the wall of John’s Missoula home is a plaque presented to his father in 1976 dedicated to the “Scholar of the Everglades.”
The twins were 19 when they co-wrote “Adventures With Birds of Prey” for National Geographic. It was the start of a long association with the magazine. The Craigheads remain best-known for their groundbreaking 12-year study of grizzly bears beginning in 1959 in what they, and then everybody else, came to call the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Their science was brought into the living rooms of millions by a series of National Geographic television specials.
But the bear study only scratched the surface of the remarkably diverse achievements of the former star wrestlers, both of them Penn State and Michigan grads who were described in a 2007 Washington Post story as “dashing, handsome, intrepid, scientifically minded and athletically built.”
As Navy lieutenants during World War II they trained Navy pilots and wrote a manual on outdoor survival skills (see related story in Territory). Advocates for land and water conservation, the wording of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 was taken almost verbatim from the Craigheads’ writing.
Thirty years later John received the 1998 Aldo Leopold Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Wildlife Society. That same year the National Audubon Society named the Craighead brothers among the top 100 conservationists of the 20th century.
Frank Craighead died of Parkinson’s disease 15 years ago. He lived much of his life in Moose, Wyoming, where he and John built identical log cabins and started their families some 70 years ago, and where Haynam, 69, lives today.
Derek, 65, lives in nearby Kelly. He’s executive director and senior scientist for Craighead Beringia South, a wildlife research and education institute at which his nephew, Trapper Haynam, is a research biologist.
Johnny Craighead is former president of the Craighead Wildlife-Wildlands Institute that his father founded in Missoula in 1958. Besides looking after his homebound parents, he’s responsible for archiving his father’s research and personal work as acting program director of the John J. Craighead Archive and Publication Program.
All three Craighead children went to Missoula schools and to the University of Montana. Theirs were childhoods unimaginable to most.
“Looking back it was the most idyllic life a kid could ever dream of,” Derek said last week as he smoothed a blanket on his father’s lap near the tepee ring.
“Even as a little grade-school kid he’d pull me out of school and go up to Flathead Lake. We’d spend a couple of days on a motorboat netting the Canada geese and banding them and putting dye in the eggs. Then we’d go up and count the young geese when they hatched.”
Come summers, Dad and Uncle Frank involved their kids in grizzly and elk studies in Yellowstone.
“They were always sending us off for 10 days at a time out into Yellowstone to look for marked elk or something for them,” Derek said.
In high school, Derek and a cousin took Nikon cameras provided by National Geographic and spent two or three summers photographing golden eagles out of Livingston.
“They just told us Geographic wanted to do an article on the eagle research they were doing,” he said.
Interesting people were always stopping by the house in Missoula to visit. They were some of the top conservationists in the country: the Rockefellers and Olaus and Mardy Murie; Hal Webster and Morley Nelson, the famous falconers; National Geographic photographers and writers.
“Dad’s graduate students would take us out on weekends to go rappel off cliffs to look for hawk nests,” Derek said. “We didn’t want to leave home. It was like, this is too exciting.”
People brought birds and beasts to the Craighead doorstep – robins, eagles, even bears and lions.
“We kept a pair of mountain lions in that shed right back there for three or four months until they got big enough,” said Derek, pointing across the yard. “We took them to Morris Hornocker down in Idaho. He’d built a great big enclosure for them and raised them down there and, I think, eventually released them.”
It’s almost second nature these days. Inside the Craighead home on Wednesday, Karen placed a slice of leftover cake, grabbed a fork and guided a bite into her father’s mouth. Then she helped Margaret, 96, with her piece.
Earlier in the morning Johnny wheeled John to a shady spot for what might be one of his last photo shoots. The brothers alternated patting down his hair, straightening his shirt and making sure he was comfortable in the hot sun.
They moved close to his ear to talk to him and paid rapt attention when he spoke, halting as it was.
“You look like a spring chicken,” John Craighead quipped as the photographer snapped away.
Last year Erika Larsen came to Missoula to visit Craighead for National Geographic. The tepee was still up, and it turned into more of a photo session than an interview. Inside, Larsen captured the great white-haired scientist seated on a low bed, shoes on the earthen floor. Above him the head of a hawk is clearly discernible, painted on the outside.
The image appeared in a fitting place – the magazine’s special issue on Yellowstone in May.
“Why don’t we go down there?” the elder Craighead said last week, to no one in particular. “Fire in the fire box. Doll up the tepee.”
Derek Craighead explained.
“He’s telling the photographer where he ought to be to take his picture,” he said. “It’s something he’s done all his life with us. He always had a good eye for pictures."