Friday, September 9, 2016

To the Headwaters of Camp Creek

Last weekend we trailed cows and calves to the head of Camp Creek on the Nature Conservancy. We're leasing range there for a few months before we head to the canyons for the winter.

Dave, Andi, Mike starting the day

We were lucky to have Dave and Andi's help getting the cows gathered and started. Mike and Dave sorted off the bulls and Mike hauled them to the valley, while Andi and I trailed the cows down the road, for many many hours.  The 46 road is pretty popular and we had bow hunter and tourist traffic off and on all day.
South on the 46 road

Andi took the time to talk to people who stopped with their windows rolled down, usually to ask, "What kind of cows are these?" With their long and varied types of horns and their spotted and striped coats in various shades of white/red/brown/black/tan our cattle are a colorful bunch. Andi recognizes the opportunity to connect people to agriculture and pastoralism. Even if it is only one brief conversation, they will leave with a story of a friendly rider and a herd of beautiful cattle.
Andi doesn't want her picture taken

I didn't interact with folks much. I was usually too busy keeping hold of my horse and three energetic dogs who thought that a stopped vehicle was tantalizing, especially if there was another dog in it.
Chester, Sara, Ruby on first day

We overnighted the cows near Findley Buttes and Mike and I picked them up in the morning and trailed them the rest of the way to the new pasture.  I think the cows wondered if we were actually going to the canyon already, taking some kind of new route. Hopefully they will enjoy a few more months on the prairie before leaving for the winter range.

Weston's cow Clarabelle with her nice calf

It only took a few hours to reach the pasture, although there were many gates along the way. At the head of Camp Creek we rode past the old ranch house and the enormous barn and corrals, where Mike and I lived and worked when the kids were little. So many memories and stories of our life in this place.

Looking at the Seven Devils over in Idaho, Mike and Bird

It  was a little strange, experiencing our old home as now-tenants of an international non-profit organization, but we had a friendly greeting from the volunteer caretakers. Retired professionals with a hankering for open space, they encouraged us to stop for coffee on our way back.

Down time while fencing

There was plenty of feed and plenty of water in the pond at the new pasture, but the fence needed attention. Mike spent a few hours repairing the four gates, and tightening up the low top wire in hopes our athletic cattle don't decide to head for the canyons on their own.

A storm was building to the south over the mountains and I lazily admired the cloud formations while Mike worked.  At different times they looked like poodles, racing horses, bears, and old men with hairy eyebrows and long chins.

Lunch time sandwich from the saddle bag

We finally finished up and headed for the ranch house to load our horses in the trailer and drive home to the valley. The dark clouds were gathering and a welcome rain wasn't far off. As we rode down the hill I felt the old stirrings of a familiar road underfoot, a familiar trail behind me. And I felt the differences, like discovering a family photograph left behind on the shelf in a house where other people now live, and I realized I was looking forward to that cup of coffee.

Summer headquarters at the Buttes

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Monday, August 29, 2016

Away to Me

"Away" is the command we give the dogs to travel counterclockwise around the cattle. It's short for "away to me." Last week Mike returned home after a month in Kyrgyzstan and I found myself willing him toward me. Almost as if I could gather him in. As if some part of me were silently calling 'away to me, away' as his plane hurtled west around the globe. 

Krygyz gelding

And when I finally picked him up at the airport in Walla Walla, at 2 am in the morning, I could relax."That'll do," I thought. The command we give the dogs to quit working, the job's done.

Mike discussing invasive Caragana

After a month of workshops and trainings and management plans, Mike was coming home to a whirlwind of ranch work. I was hoping he'd have a few days of relaxation before jumping into moving cattle, monitoring pastures, harvesting beef and making deliveries. 
Buying koumis from Kyrgyz herder family 

Weston and I made plum, pear, apple galettes as a welcome-home treat. Wes is happy to demonstrate his knife skills, including telling me the first one I gave him was "too sharp." He got to take a gallette home to share with his dad. 
Wes cuts pears

As much as I wish I could give the command to 'stay' I know I'll be sending Mike back across the ocean again soon. His work in Kyrgyzstan isn't really done. In October he'll head off again, making another circle in the big pastoral rangeland world.

Mike,  Wes and Dawson in their Kalpaks (herder hats)

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Adventures with Vehicles

Bell, Ruby and Punch tied in
Our truck has been in the shop quite a bit recently, so I borrowed Gabe and Cammie's truck to head for the prairie and check on the cows. The dogs are used to being in their travelling kennel on our flat bed and I had to improvise a cross tie so they wouldn't fall out or jump out of Gabe's truck and get squashed. 

Dawson organizes snacks for Wes

Dawson and Wes were good company. They have had to put up with several vehicle episodes lately.  Their reward for long waits at the mechanic was extra-long swimming at the lake with friends, many many library books, and fun snacks from M Crow and Co.
Cows happy on the summer range

The cows, calves and bulls were doing good with plenty of grass and plenty of water in the ponds. The boys and I got to see the effects of a late spring cloudburst and gully washer. Along the two-track access road, there were a few big holes that were interesting to navigate, but nothing four-low couldn't handle.

Four bucket picker - don't spill! 

Blackberries have come and gone and I'm glad I made it to the river for some excellent picking with Cheryl. We also tried out a few of our favorite swimming holes after getting super hot in the hundred degree weather.

Swimming hole at old bridge abutment

Unfortunately, on the way out of the canyon, my car overheated and my brakes and automatic transmission both stopped working right. (And that was after we had to change a flat tire.) Luckily we made it through the last few hairpin turns on the steep dirt road and I got the car stopped at the pavement by using the emergency brake. After a cool down, it was driveable again, but now is headed for the shop. 

Cows near the lower pond

Since the truck was still out-of-service with an electrical problem, Patricia drove me out to the Zumwalt to see the cows again. We had a storm on our heels and saw some fantastic lighting bolts and rain curtains on the way home.

Storm behind us

I'm so glad I have friends who know what a cheater bar is, know how to kill a rattler, love hyperactive working dogs, aren't afraid of hairy roads, like to keep an eye on cows, are willing to help lug irrigation pipe, check on a colicky horse, fix plumbing problems and drive me back and forth to the mechanic. 

It's a good thing Mike is coming home soon. I'm half a partnership and barely holding up my end. 

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Off to Montana to Throw the Hoolihan

Many hours of this view - Dennis driving
The lyrics to this old time cowboy song come to mind when I think of our recent road trip across Montana and into Saskatchewan . Believe it or not the hoolihan is one throw I actually got okay at. It's a loopy overhand throw, and I've used it on horses. I don't know what kind of roping was going on in the song, but on our road trip we weren't off to do any kind of cowboying. 

North Central Montana

Dennis and Marcy and Mike and I were headed to Saskatoon to the International Rangeland Congress, where Mike and Dennis were presenting. Mike gave an oral presentation in the ecosite descriptions and ecoregion classification session. His paper was titled, Developing Ecological Site Descriptions on Mongolian Rangelands to Enhance Monitoring Condition and Trend. Dennis and colleague Dal presented a poster session on the results of their condition and trend monitoring in Mongolia. 

Marcy - girl power accomplice

It was four days of driving and we had a lot of fun getting lost (briefly but regularly), stalling the truck at the border crossing (half in US half in Canada), Dennis getting across the border with his expired passport (grabbed the wrong one), and having a marble-sized chunk of something smash a bullseye in the windshield at 60 mpg (passenger side). I especially enjoyed getting to spend more time with Marcy, telling stories and seeing new country, across the plains and then home through the Canadian rockies.

Mike preps for his presentation
There were about four hundred delegates at the congress, which lasted a week and is held every four years. I think 2020 will be held in Africa. 
Fort Carlton, restored Hudson Bay post

Mike did an excellent job with his presentation and had some great questions from the audience. He presented on the morning of the first day, so after that we were both able to relax and enjoy seeing some old friends and meeting new ones. I especially liked the sessions with a social component, such as the work of Maria Fernandez-Gimenez, the Colorado State University professor who recently won Mongolia's highest civilian honor - the Order of the Polar Star. 
Mongolian delegates and a few US colleagues

Mongolian colleague, Dal, now working at the University of Saskatchewan, hosted a barbeque one evening. There were many many toasts in Mongolian and English, including a nice one by Mike where he concluded by honoring all the women in the world! I think he learned that toast from the Armenians! 

On the banks of the Saskatchewan river

Spending the week with people from countries around the world was a wonderful reminder of our commonalities and our ability to communicate in spite of language barriers and cultural differences. It was a good segue to Mike's departure for Kyrgyzstan (flying through Istanbul just after the coup attempt), reminding me of the good in the world.  

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Friday, July 15, 2016

Out of the Canyon and off to Kyrgyzstan

We're out of the canyon now. We topped out with the cattle in early June, trailing the cow herd up to the Zumwalt Prairie from the Imnaha Canyon. Everything went smoothly and the cows were happy to be on the summer range. Cammie, Dawson, Wes and I helped trail on the last day.  

Day two of the cattle drive

Day three, not much farther to go

Sara and Weston with Chester

While Prairie was home for a visit, Harlan, now eight months, got to spend time with the cows. Like the horses, he was very interested and happy to be with them, but didn't want to get up close and personal. They are big animals!

Happy to be on the prairie

Picnic with the cows

Once all the cattle were on the summer range, we made a trip back to the river for salmon season ,  Gabe caught several nice salmon. Dawson got up at the crack of dawn to fish everyday and caught several trout, but no salmon this time.

Early riser

A keeper

We had a tremendous mulberry harvest this year.  There are a few trees scattered along the riparian area and the fruit was perfect for picking while we were there. We ate as many berries as we could and froze some for Prairie to take back to Portland. 

Jon and Prairie pick mulberries


As part of our conservation and restoration projects, Mike did some annual monitoring in the canyon. Measuring the type and quantity of plants in certain rangeland sites helps us get a sense of how well we are doing at managing our use of the range. Some of our goals are encouraging healthy native ecosystems and nudging historically degraded areas toward an improving trend.

Monitoring plot

Mike says rangeland management is just "gardening on a very large scale." As a rangeland ecologist, he enjoys studying the natural world, especially the canyons and prairies that have been our home for over thirty years. I love how he can explain things and I drive him crazy with questions sometimes.

Canyon dinner, my favorite way to cook

Mike will be headed to Kyrgyzstan soon to consult on a community-based pasture management livestock project. It will be his first trip to Kyrgyzstan. I have some fears about him travelling so far away to people he's never met. But I know he will share his best science and his practical experience raising livestock to help the Krygyz herders answer questions and think about new management tools. He will learn a lot. I hope he makes a few good friends.

I'm going to miss him while he's gone. 


From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Merry Month of May

Licorice vanilla is how the locust blossoms smell, at least that is how someone once described them to me. I agree. But they also smell like something else I recognize, something ephemeral at the edges of memory, from my childhood in Germany perhaps, something that was not a locust blossom. And I find myself wanting to compare them to that evanescent fragrance, a smell with velvet texture, like these sprays of locust blooms jostling the wind.

Black locusts
Lushness has invaded the river bars. We let the cows and calves come down to the river to graze after several months spent mostly on the benches. 

Mike shared some of the results of his recent utilization monitoring. He said the quantity of plants consumed by the cattle was less than he expected. The monitoring is part of our conservation efforts and helps us tell if our management decisions are accomplishing our goals.

My favorite rangeland ecologist
Monitoring quadrat

There is a reason this story has a picture of an onion, well, three onions to be exact.  The reason is that here it is May and these onions have been hanging in the basement waiting to be eaten for eight months and they are still beautiful and delicious. The last of the onions.  

Amazing Spanish red onions

It's easier to understand why there is a rattlesnake in this story. I uncovered the first snake of the year while mowing the yard. Heath stopped by soon after I found the snake (by mowing over top of him) and did me the favor of pitching him in the river to swim away. Encounters like these motivate me to mow the yard frequently.

Snake uncovered by mower
Great weather for the branding
We branded the last Sunday of May and had a great crew of helpers.  Mike's dad and step-mom came for a visit and it was their first time ever at a branding.

Pete ready to keep the cows on the road.
Gabe bringing in the last of the cows

Nice bull calf
Amalesh, Mike, Mike, Paul and Luke
Back with mom

The branding went smoothly and it was nice to get in a lot of visiting before most folks made the trek back to the valley. We had plenty of time for feasting, water fights and laying in the hammock. 

Mike, Paul, Justin, Annie

Wes, Cammie avoiding the water fight
Water fight! 
Barb relaxes at the fishing hole

Dawson talked us into letting James spend the night. They spent the evening fishing at the bridge abutment, swinging in the hammock, roasting marshmallows and threatening various accidents involving flaming sticks, followed by baths to remove numerous layers of stickiness and filth before going to bed.

James, Dawson and Wes, three peas in a pod 

All in all, a very good and mostly merry month of May. 

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef