Big Horn Canyon’s man of many talents retires

Chris Finley has kind of been Big Horn Canyon’s renaissance man – a man with a variety of life skills that has given him expertise in everything from archaeology and cultural resources to engineering and water systems – even ranching and heavy equipment operation.

After nearly 10 years working at the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Finley, 66, did his last bit of archaeology work as a full-time employee last week – clearing off his desk upon his retirement as the cultural resource program manager for Bighorn Canyon NRA.

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area Supt. Jerry Case presents retiring archaeologist Chris Finley (right) with a blanket and other gifts during the dedication of the Two Eagles Interpretive Trail on Oct. 20.
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area Supt. Jerry Case presents retiring archaeologist Chris Finley (right) with a blanket and other gifts during the dedication of the Two Eagles Interpretive Trail on Oct. 20.

Finley came to Bighorn Canyon in early 2003 as a visiting professor from Northwest College to perform an analysis on the Hillsboro and Lockhart historic ranches for compliance as National Register of Historic Places sites. He performed a detailed analysis of each individual structure on the two ranches.

After the work that included the analysis, a detailed scope of work and a construction plan, he still had about 40 days left on a 130-day assignment. Then Chief of Resources Rick Lasko asked him if he wanted to finish the 40 days with other projects.

“From that point on we just kept doing different things, so here I am (10 years later),” he said with a grin.

By the time he got to Big Horn Canyon, Chris Finley had a lifetime of experience to call on to carry out his work. Raised on a cattle ranch in the Book Cliffs area of western Colorado near the border with Utah, he lived in a house with 18-inch logs and a concrete floor, “so I know a lot about log structures just by growing up,” he said. “I grew up in a building just like the Lockhart Ranch.”

Finley said Big Horn Canyon has a climate, vegetation, geography and cultural resources just like the area of Colorado he grew up in, “so I felt at home from the very beginning,” he said of his time in the Lovell area.

“The Colorado River ran right through our ranch,” he added. “It’s a huge prehistoric occupation area. I decided I was going to be an archaeologist when I was 6 years old. I hunted arrowheads with three widow women. Everyone thought I was the weirdest little kid in the world.”

Nearby lived a retired college professor, Hatton Edgerly, and young Chris leaned a lot about archaeology from Edgerly.

After his graduation from De Beque High School in 1965, Finley went to engineering school in Denver, then served three years in the U.S. Army, where he learned about structural steel, then worked in the steel business for 11 years, constructing buildings.

Finley returned to his true love, archaeology, in the early 1980s when he started doing site testing during the oil boom for Exxon Oil via the University of Colorado and Western Wyoming Community College. A CU professor urged him to return to school, so Finley entered the University of Wyoming, where he studied under the legendary archaeologist George Frison.

“George was my mentor,” he said. “I still work with George. He’s the guru of paleo-archaeology in the entire world.”

Finley’s career in archaeology has taken him to work for the U.S. Forest Service, private contractors and the Wyoming State Archaeologist’s Office, where he did a lot of work on historic structures. He had also done historic structures work for the Forest Service, for instance finding 120 structures in the Medicine Bow National Forest in the Sierra Madre Mountains while doing a project researching tie camps.

“I got real good at documenting historic sites and evaluating historic structures,” he said.

To the Basin

Finley developed closer ties to the Big Horn Basin while doing historic restoration projects at historic ranches in the Basin, and he settled up the South Fork near Cody, working on the restoration of the Bobcat Ranch for Alan and Ann Simpson. He helped rebuild Buffalo Bill’s original log house on the T.E. Ranch on the South Fork.

Later, Finley was asked to start a New World archaeology program at Northwest College by Prof. Doug Nelson, who was a Middle East archaeologist. He started the program with son Judson and wife Vicki Finley, also an archaeologist.

Finley soon started the NWC Field School and two years after he hired on at Bighorn Canyon NRA brought the school to Big Horn Canyon in 2005.

“It took me two years to get my feet wet here and figure out how to incorporate it into Bighorn Canyon (NRA),” he said.

Finley started involving the Crow Tribe in 2007, working with then Crow Tribe Cultural Director and current Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Burdick Two Leggins and others.

Over the last five years, Finley, son Judson and others have worked closely with the Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribes in the Big Horn Canyon area to teach members of the tribes, especially young people, how to survey for and study and protect cultural sites, including a major project to survey and help develop the Two Eagles Interpretive Trail near the Ewing-Snell Ranch.

The site contains more than 100 stone circles and/or teepee rings.

“The Crow call me the Lord of the Rings,” Finley said with a smile. “I’m proud that I ran this program for 7½ years using students and professors to accomplish what I needed to do for cultural resources.”

Proud of his crew

He talked glowingly about his “crew” who has worked with him over the years in historic restoration, guys like Tyler Ennis, who started training with Finley when he was 22 years old, school teacher Mike McArthur, Doug Butler, Ryan Felkins, Bill Pickett and others. He’s happy to see Ted Preator taking over as exhibit specialist for historic structures.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have a good crew to run the historic restoration of the ranches,” he said. “I’m proud of the field school and proud of the fact that I’ve been able to guide and advocate for many young people in their career paths.”

The field school has evolved over the years under Chris and Judson Finley, growing from NWC to incorporating the University of Indiana and St. Cloud State.

“We needed a bigger student load to support the program,” Chris said. “We incorporated Little Big Horn College five years ago.”

The field school has continued to evolve into the Tribal Heritage Preservation Training Program, Finley said, noting that the tribal field school has received national recognition and will soon appear in a National Park Service quarterly publication.

Finley’s last official day was oThursday, Dec. 13, but he’ll still be around helping to finish up some projects and helping new people on the staff become familiar with the park.

“I’ll still be working with the tribes a little bit, and I want to dedicate more time to NWC,” he said, noting that he has been teaching a class every spring for years.

Finley’s rich and varied life has included being adopted by a traditional Crow family – the Hill family – who are direct ancestors of Chief Grey Bull and annually sponsor the Lodge Grass Sun Dance, he said. He lives with his mother, Inez, age 88, in a passive solar home near Deaver that he designed.

He has three children: Judson, a professor at Utah State University in Logan; Christi, a psychologist in Colorado Springs; and step-daughter Erin King of San Francisco, who works in computer animation.

Will be missed

Bighorn Canyon and its staff will certainly miss Finley, with his knowledge of archaeology, cultural resources, ranching, historic structures, heavy equipment, water systems, water law and engineering.

“I don’t know that I’ve enjoyed working with someone more than I have with Chris,” said Bighorn Canyon Supt. Jerry Case. “His sense of humor, his ability to speak honestly with me about the most sensitive of issues and his support of the mission of the National Park Service are what I appreciated the most.

“Often, Chris would come into my office and say, ‘Boss, I need to tell you something.’ Just that statement would produce a huge smile.”

Case noted Finley’s “excellent relationship” with the Crow Tribe and said that relationship has contributed significantly to the relationship Bighorn Canyon NRA has had with the tribe.

“Chris worked hard to bring the Crow people back to their homelands in Big Horn Canyon, and I’m sure the tribe appreciates his efforts.”

Finley’s knowledge of structures and engineering has helped, as well, Case said.

“Chris and other staff have shown the National Park Service that Bighorn Canyon can design and build contemporary sustainable facilities,” Case said. “Chris was instrumental in designing and constructing a state-of-the-art maintenance shop and offices that can function totally off the grid, but connected to the electrical grid this facility produces more electricity than it consumes, thereby reducing electrical costs to the park. Chris’s legacy will live on for years.

“Chris has taught me much, and I consider him a close friend, and always will.”

Finley said the key has been teamwork.

“We’re a cohesive group,” he said. “It’s a rare thing to have a group of people with so little conflict. The team made all of this work. This has been my family, and they have made it a pleasure to be here.”

Asked of which he is most proud, Finley thought for a minute and replied, “The thing I’m most proud of is influencing so many people in how they act and how they think. I’m always for the underdog. I was an underdog as a child. I have helped people grow. My life experience has rubbed off on a lot of people.

“I’m still going to be around and helping out. This place has been my passion.”

By David Peck