A cross between John Colter and William Clark, with a voice echoing James Earl Jones, a biologist, a beekeeper, a conservationist, Ken Sinay is one of the most passionate and colorful Yellowstone guides on the planet. Coming from a background in wildlife biology, he has studied the nuances of animal behavior, and thought deeply about the lifestyles and interaction of the wild creatures we so cherish in the Yellowstone region.
An excursion with Ken, whether it be a deep-winter wolf viewing expedition to the Lamar Valley, or a Lewis & Clark float trip on the Jefferson River to the Three Forks of the Missouri, is like a trip back in time. Ken brings into sharp focus the early exploration of the west and the ever-greater pressure on western wildlife since those early forays.
Ken is a throwback from the harrowing days of the fur trappers, or the Lewis & Clark expedition. Traveling with Ken through the wild is like reliving the lives of adventurers and explorers of days gone by, with periodic diversions as he points out the swirling menagerie of wildlife in every micro-environment.
Following is a partial transcript of Ken guiding an early summer float on the Jefferson River:
“The next time we hear about John Colter, it’s a year later and again coming upstream is Manuel Lisa’s fur trapping party. With Lisa is George Droulliard, the famous hunter of the expedition and John Potts, another member of the expedition, and… I hear a kingfisher chatter crossing the left side, a belted kingfisher, of course… and so, of course, Colter encounters his buddies and I don’t doubt that they did a lot of back-slapping and hand shaking, and these guys probably said, Colter, what did you see up stream, did you see a lot of beaver… yeah we saw a lot of beaver… why don’t you come with us back up stream and trap with us again. So, again, John Colter turns around, he’s on his way back to civilization, but he turns around… pelicans overhead… and comes back upstream with the Manuel Lisa fur trading party to trap beaver. Now Lisa’s group went up the Yellowstone and at the junction of the Big Horn and Yellowstone Rivers they establish a fur trading post. Lisa names it Fort Ramone after his first-born son, though today on most maps it’s referred to as Fort Manuel Lisa, or Lisa’s Fort, actually. In any case, they build a fort there, and Lisa says to everybody else, guys we’re going to go back to St Louis and get some trade goods now. We’ll leave some guys here at the post, but Droulliard, I want you to head south and east, make contact with all the Indians you see, let them know we have a trading post here, bring their furs in the springtime and we’ll trade with them, blue beads, mirrors, steel knives, things like that. Colter, I want you to head south and west. And, this is when Colter, in the winter time of 1807-1808, made his famous foray into some part of what is now Yellowstone National Park.”
It’s as if Sinay was there with Manuel Lisa and John Colter. In his mind’s eye, he was, and he has relived their adventures time and time again, spinning the yarns and tall tales.
In his well-rounded Bachelor's and Graduate Studies, Sinay focused on wildlife, but also studied soils, range management and entomology. It all led to an early career in wildlife management and conservation with a variety of organizations. He has worked for Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, US National Forest Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Montana Nature Conservancy, Museum of the Rockies, and an eight year stint with AMAX Coal Company as a reclamation coordinator. During many of those periods he was a seasonal wilderness outfitter.
His experience working for Amax Coal Company left him with mixed feelings. His job was to reclaim the devastation of strip mining. "I worked for Amax Coal Company for 8 years, first as a revegetation technician, and later as an environmental engineer and reclamation supervisor," said Sinay. Of the people he worked with at Amax, he felt that, "in most cases, people try to do the right thing, but at the same time, it took eons to create our balanced ecosystem and once you disrupt it, it will never be the same, it will never be back to the way it was." One positive outcome from those years was that it financially allowed Sinay to start his guiding company and to share his respect for nature with many people. "I created Northern Rockies Natural History in 1991 to share my love of our wildland heritage with others," says Sinay. He changed the company name to Yellowstone Safari Company in 2001.
Another of Sinay's connections with the natural world was as an apiarist, a keeper of honey bees. For nearly 14 years, while living in Arizona, Sinay made beekeeping his livlihood, husbanding multiple products including honey, beeswax, royal jelly, polen and propolis. "There is a lot to learn through the study of the biology of honey bees," he reflects. "You learn a great deal about other insects and the natural world in general. It's interesting that a worker bee lives for an average of 18 days, but the queen may live as long as 5 years, yet the egg for the worker and the queen are identical. This is largely due to the addition of royal jelly in the queen's diet. It's a product that humans will pay a great deal for in the quest for longevity." Continuing his Wickipedia-like oratory of bee facts, he observes, "You know, it is almost the epitomy of intimate nature when you consider that the delectible honey that we savor has passed through the stomachs of perhaps hundreds of thousands of bees before we eat it." Thanks for that, Ken.
"Honey bees are not native to America," he says, "and their presence along with any kind of agriculture threatens native bee species." As to the disturbing decline of bees in recent years, Sinay is particularly concerned about the use of nicotinoid pesticides in agriculture which, he says, gravely affects both honey bees and native species.
Sinay has been a hunter and hunting guide for much of his adult life. When asked about his justification for taking a wild life, he pauses to collect his thoughts. "It's a question I am often asked, but the answer is not a simple one. Many of the early conservationists were hunters. Hunters make the largest contribution to conservation and management of wildlife of any social group. Personally, hunting brings me close to the natural world. Hunting leads to an intimacy much greater than, say, ice climbing or mountain biking, partly because you're taking posession of a part of nature. More than picking up a rock or feather you find along the trail, you are taking a life and there is a responsibility there." He talks of the process, including the acquisition and butchering of the animal and the utilization of every part. "Another aspect is why do we want to do this? Fundamentally, it's a part of our psyche. We are drawn to nature. We go to nature for all life processes. It's why we get married outside. Each hunter has his or her own perspective on why they hunt - some for social reasons, some to get in touch with their inner selves. When I hunt, I experience a stream of consciousness that I don't find in my fast paced daily lifestyle. If I want to sit down for a couple hours and take in the landscape, that's OK. It begins to get perverse when the goal is only the kill (or the profit) and not the experience. It allows an introspection and a peace that we don't find in our everyday lives." Ken talks of wanting to see management changes on public land outside of national parks such as Yellowstone. "If you eliminated hunting in certain areas, for example, you would most likely soon be able to see bears moving into that area." He is all about watching, and understanding, and living with wildlife.
All in all, Sinay is pessimistic about the future of the natural world. "It's a known progression that every organism will multiply and expand until it is over using resources, usually followed by a precipitous collapse. There is no reason why this won't potentially happen with the human species," he gravely states. "The only way to ultimately avoid that outcome would be through utilizing our unique intellectual capacity. But there is no indication that we will be able to overcome our extreme political differences to come together to accomplish a common goal, regardless of whether it might mean the salvation of humanity."
Ken's knowledge, enthusiasm and experience have made him one of the premier guides in Yellowstone National Park. A devoted conservationist, his stated personal goal is to provide guests with the most rewarding experience possible, resulting in lifetime memories of the wildlife diversity and rich history of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
"I am particularly interested in the human/natural environment connection. As a business, Yellowstone Safari Company facilitates people accessing pristine nature-based experiences. As an economic entity we hope to justify conservation through demonstration of economic values."
Sinay wants to teach people to live with nature...
Editor's Note: Since 1991, Yellowstone Safari Company has been providing private Wildlife Safaris, Backpacking Trips, Llama Treks and Special Interest Tours through all seasons in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. In addition, they offer River Safaris and other unique tours in Montana. They provide year-round personalized guide service to individuals, families, groups, and organizations using custom vehicles and boats equipped for wildlife observation. Biologist-guided educational and recreational tours present wildlife, natural history, and cultural history expeditions in a safari-style format as well as on treks on foot into the backcountry. Their stated goal is to facilitate nature-based experiences that provide enjoyment of and appreciation for the natural world, promote the idea of conservation and provide lifetime memories.