Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Epizoodic and Goodbye to Zeke

After branding, Mike came down with the Epizoodic, as Sam Loftus our old boss used to say. It's a bad sickness, like the flu, and in this case it turned into pneumonia. Yuk.

Herd coming in before branding day

I went to Seattle to spend time with my 92 year old mother, and the 'cowboss' back home didn't do so good at following the doctor's orders. Resting was mostly at night and not enough. Days were already full of work.
Always weeds to dig

I pestered and badgered Mike over the phone, but I could tell he wasn't resting. The minute I got home I started pushing fluids, had him deep breathe through a straw and ordered couch rest under threat of bodily harm. He responded by saying "You have no control over me," and then he went to lie down.

After a few days treatment by 'nurse' Sara, we headed to the river to bring out the last of the horses. The canyons are nearing a hundred degrees and the river is high, but the river bars are still subbing and there is still a lot of green. A few high apricots have ripened and fallen. I found four on the ground that were good enough to eat. They will be in full swing after a few more of these hot days.
Canyon thunderstorm building

I'm afraid I'll not pick mullberries this year. They are peaking and I didn't have time to both mow and pick berries. Mowing is essential. Fire protection and snake detection.

Bullsnake inside water shut-off box

With all the windows open at night to catch a breeze, the sound of the river flowed through the house from all directions.  And I remembered long ago nights on the Yukon, the fizzing rush of the river beneath the wooden deck of our raft and sleeping pallet. A bed of water travelling beneath us as we slumbered.
Always the rushing river

This time of year makes me think of Sam, and wildflowers, and topping out at the summer range, the smell of tarweed and yarrow, the far teeth of the Seven Devils in the east, somebody telling a bad joke and somebody telling a good story.
Indian Paintbrush

I missed the trip to the summer range. Up in Seattle, I was helping Mom up and down stairs, sharing meals and games, staying up late with Udderly Chocolate ice cream and british mystery series on public TV.

Sara's Mom, Lorry at 92, ready for a walk

I thought about Gabe and Mike and Cammie and the kids trailing the cows and calves from the canyon to the prairie. Dawson riding his dad's horse and helping Grandpa herd. Abby in a front pack, when Gabe and Cammie took the cows the last stretch into Alder Creek. I wasn't there, but I could imagine it. All of it going smoothly and safely, I hoped.

Wes, Dawson, Gabe, Abby, Cammie, lunch break

Later, Gary and Gabe helped haul the steers out to their summer pasture. I was a little worried about that endeavor. Mike said it went fine. Then he said Gary had a heavy load and exploded a trailer tire on the narrow steep switchbacks and there were tourists who had to back up to get out of the way. But it worked out.

Gabe, Dawson dig wild onions

Then he told me all the dogs got cheatgrass in their ears and had to go to the Vet, twice. Punch had one taken out of her abdomen, luckily it was just below the skin. After that, Mike gave the dogs another hair cut, this one a close shave. He did a thorough job and when I came home they looked a little scalped.
Cows on their way to summer range

In Seattle I said goodbye to Zeke, headed off to Colombia where he'll be spending at least five months teaching English.  We'll miss having his help on the ranch.  A few days later, I was glad to hear that he arrived safely, albeit without his luggage. I'm looking forward to hearing about everything, his work in the city of Monteria, the people he meets, his neighborhood, the brutal heat and humidity of the lowlands, the cattle operations. And I'm thankful for Patricia, who took him on his first day to see Bogota, to share a meal and meet her family, to converse with him and understand his nascent Spanish. It is a precious gift to have friends in far away places, a role we play for those who make the trek to visit us, and one we cherish in return.

Prairie and Harlan say goodbye to Zeke

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, Home of Bunchgrass Beef

Friday, May 26, 2017

Words on Paper, Words Inside

No bigger than a breadbox
Funny how we use words to make things. And funny how the words we make into things can remain silent inside our minds or be turned into sounds or symbols to mirror or unravel our selves. Words to describe worlds, to make war, to figure, to forgive, to boast or fail. I like the way our Magpie sign does its job, the way no giant standard can. 

River restoration project. 

Funny how traipsing can be purposeful, like a kind of time travel. When I follow the driveway across the river and past the restoration project, I see fifteen years of burning, seeding with a rangeland drill, and weeding, all reflected within the bursting green.  

Like a painting repainted layer upon layer, and one of the layers would show the old feedlot with its hundreds of cows crowding the feedbunks, knee deep in manure. Ground grubbed and trampled, a century worth of annual weed seed ripe for germination. I prefer the grassy thickness with it's rabbit lairs, its thrum of insects, its darting birds.  

Bluebird Canyon above old feedlot
There were up to six feedlots in use between 1960 and 2002, three on the west side of the river and two on the east side.  One lies beneath the box canyon we call Bluebird, where an ephemeral stream splatters down the rock face in a sparkle of water mostly hidden in clumps of currant and thickets of hackberry. This is where friend John took his first walk after being confined and sick. Where his wife Debra saw the year's first bluebird and thought John might survive his cancer. And he did.

This can be a place to reconcile with death.  Where predators and accidents and disease subsume life on a daily basis and leave behind a puzzle of scattered bones or rawhide twisted corpses, or the transient peculiar smell that Dawson, now eight, describes as 'kind of good and kind of sickening'. I pass two dried-out toads, one upright and mostly whole; the other grotesque and interesting, supine, with legs splayed and part of its head missing.

Dessicated Western Toad
Why not describe what they have given up by dying?  Those words are much harder for me to come by. Not knowing what they loved in life, their favorite smells, their easing into the water to lay their eggs, the best insect catch they ever made. Nor what gave them spite or fear. 
Second toad mummy

When we arrived at the river, the 'big boys' had been there for a bachelor party. I was greeted by a new message on the chalkboard at the back door.  I thought it was the perfect decree for a man about to marry. Then I realized it was also the perfect decree for me. And I gathered the doubts at hand and set them in the past and walked inside.
Abandon all DOUBT Ye who enter here

All kinds of words have been left at the ranch: accounts, directions, instructions, brags, musings, confessions. From the scribbles of a one year old to the measured cursive of a ninety year old. Mongolian, Greenlandic, Arabic, German, Spanish, Dutch, French. Words carried here inside a real person, and left behind as a small part of each one.  I appreciate the words even when I can't read them. I admire the way they climb the paper in columns, or march from right to left, their forms both strange and lovely.

Last year Dawson made his first solo entry in the ranch journal. I found it later and was surprised and pleased. Drawings and words! A richness of meaning recognizable in any language.

Dawson's first solo entry in the ranch journal

When Mike saw my illustration of day two of the bridge redecking, he said it reminded him of Harlan Hubbard, and I almost cried. Of course, my drawings are mostly not this accurate. But I cherish his comparison, which makes me think of Shantyboat, and how I longed while reading it, to be back on the Yukon Queen with Mike. Sufficient with little, our homemade wooden raft calmly riding the vast fizzing opaque boil and suck of the Yukon. And at the end of each day, the hard pulls on the sweeps to get us a half a mile to shore, nestling up to the bank and tying off in the twilight of a midnight sun. 

Bridge work, Day 2, seen from Witch's Hat

Mike's few journal entries tend to be practical, where you can look back and find stuff.
Like what day we branded two years ago, or when we put that new gate in upriver, or how many stays and posts we used fencing off the toe slope. Still, his practicality doesn't stop him from using words like 'winter wonderland'.

January 31, 2017 entry by Mike

How different from today, when nearly everything seems green. I know this tropic lull will parch into brown soon enough. Spring has been longer and colder than normal, and so very welcome after the oppressive snows we struggled through last winter. 

Columbia Spotted Frog habitat

In this moment of abandoned doubt, I wave away the raging flood, the wild fire, the dangerous trail. And open my arms to acceptance and courage. 

From Sara at Magpie Ranch home of Bunchgrass Beef

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Oh Green World - Hallelujah!

Mists of May

The mists of May settled into the canyon this week. All across the benches, the cattle are enjoying the delicious spring range, perfect nutrition as we round into the last half of calving season. Most of the calves are born now and all the cattle, from mother cows to yearlings to two year olds to bulls, are looking slick and healthy.

Grass happy yearling
Hallelujah the new bridge is in! Well, it's just new decking on the bridge, but it still feels incredibly good to get this big and much-needed job finally done. This bridge was put in only 15 years ago and has a sturdy steel railroad car chassis for the span, but the quality of the decking materials was lacking. (The previous bridge, located further downriver washed out in the 1,000 year flood of 1997, after 40 years of service.)

Sad old bridge
Mike had JZ Lumber mill the new bridge material and Gabe and I treated it last summer when it was still in the millyard. The new material is heavier and thicker and with the treat, the new bridge should last many many years. We hope. 
Work starts on new bridge

 A break in wet weather allowed for two big trailer loads of material to be hauled to the site. The river was running high with spring run-off and I told Mike his most important job was 'safety manager' for the five man crew.  The crew worked two full days to put the deck on, and Mike finished up the running boards in another day. There were two casualties and both were wrenches.

Half a new bridge

Now we have only the railings left to build. We wanted to get this done a year ago, so I am thrilled to finally have a safe sturdy bridge to drive over, walk over, ride over, or haul trailers over.

Only the railing still to do

Prairie and Jon and Harlan came home to help out for a few days. Harlan is really getting around now. He enjoyed the dogs, the horses, the cows and the cousins! 

Prairie, Harlan and Jon checking out the range seeding

Harlan and Prairie

We had yet more rain and the river was bankful, with many areas subbing along the river bars. We watched good sized logs and tree limbs careen downriver through the rapids. Harlan didn't have the opportunity to enjoy the river this time, as all the beaches were underwater and it was too dangerous to let him even get near the water. Instead, he enjoyed the puddles and the mud.

Harlan puddling

As we start to think about branding and turn-out and all the spring-to-summer chores, it's good to remember we'll have help. Gabe came down and shod horses, taking off the sharps and putting on the summer shoes. We hauled the heifers to town and will be putting most of them up for sale as replacements.
Abby checks out the heifers in the corral

Harlan and Abby will each get a heifer this year to keep with the herd. Their mom and dad get to help them pick one out. It's hard to choose, because there are so many nice ones!

Heifers out at the valley

Gabe and Cammie and Mike and I headed out to Luke and Callie's to help brand today. The kids rampaged about and roping horses were passed around so anybody who wanted could take a turn. It was a good day to be together with three generations of friends who are like family. Gabe, Luke and Buck grew up together, and now their kids are growing up in the same community.
Mike helps out at Luke and Callie's

Hopefully when our branding day rolls around in about a month, it will go as smoothly as it did today out on Swamp Creek. It's a lot of work to organize and prepare, and you never know if the weather will cooperate with the plan. But it's comforting, having your friends and neighbors show up to pitch in on the day's work. Keeping calm, paying attention, problem solving, teaming up.

Gabe and Mike horseback, and Luke on ground crew 

And afterwards, when we're feasting and enjoying a job done well, there's the telling of challenges and dreams. Somebody's in the hospital, somebody's going back to college, someone's getting married. We come together thinking calves and cattle and we go away thinking lives and loving.  

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Saturday, April 8, 2017

It's Really Over

The benches and even the rims have cleared of snow now. Spring squalls bring rain and sometimes hail, but the trails are open and the cattle are ranging farther as the green-up spreads across the canyon
North toward the Snake

Mike has finally been able to pack some salt out, and also some protein block for extra supplement. It feels good to get out on the trail after being confined so many months.
Packing salt
Even though the river has been really high, reaching low flood stage a few times, Dawson still got in some fishing. The steelhead run is low this year. Not sure why exactly, but we knew the counts were down and only a few fish have been caught so far this spring. 
Grandpa and Dawson setting up for fishing

Weston isn't all that interested in fishing, but he finds plenty to do on the river bank. Such as building forts out of driftwood. 

Getting fort building materials

It was a treat to have Zeke home for a visit and to have his help with some of the jobs around the ranch. Mike was harrowing the fields, doing some burning and getting ready to drill seed into the restoration areas on the river bar. 


I was glad the roads finally dried out enough to haul the tractor down. It's so handy for cleaning the corrals, harrowing and other jobs. We finally found a good used trailer that works well for transporting the tractor from the valley to the canyon and back. 

Good ear protection Mike! 

It was even dry enough to light some burn piles and also burn some of the standing kochia we wanted to remove before seeding.

Burning Kochia

Zeke and I hiked to the bench to check the fence and look for cattle. We found a few head on the neighbors so herded them back with the dogs.
Zeke and Punch headed home

Evenings, we managed to get in a lot of music playing and even a few games of dominos. It was a joy to be together, engaging in varied conversation in various languages, preparing meals, reading and translating poetry. I love it that Zeke and I both like poetry so much. 

Banjo and guitar

With sunshine that actually felt warm, and the stirrings of the trees and grass and shrubs, we let ourselves be lulled toward the lushness of spring. Many more birds have arrived and the geese are nesting, flying up and down the river with their persistent honking.

Old dog Newt sunbathing

The horses are shedding like crazy. Old Zeb got so hairy this winter he looked like he was part wooly mammoth. Must be his mustang blood. He's not going to let a tough winter do him in, even at nearly thirty years of age!
Hairy old Zebulon Pike just gets hairier with age

Mike is heading off to Kyrgyzstan again, his last of three trips. I will miss him. But I know I'll find solace in the solitude of the canyon, with the greening and growing and rising and flowing. A good place to reflect on all of life's changes.
A peaceful place to rest

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Friday, February 10, 2017

Crossing to Ice

Load supplies, chain-up, haul, unload, chore, fix, shovel, load, haul, un-chain. Repeat. We've had about as much snow in the canyon as in the valley, a real bear of a winter. We've had to chain up for two months now, first time in the thirty-six years we've lived here. Yes we've had big storms, or severe cold, and had to chain up for brief periods of time. But this year the conditions persisted, turning thirty miles of narrow steep dirt road into sheets of ice, sometimes made worse by freezing rain or thaw. 

Loading supplies in the valley

So far, the frozen river has gorged twice, leaving behind about four feet of ice clogging the water gaps. When Mike said we had to dig it out, I said, "There's no way we can remove all this ice. We'd need dynamite!" But he was right. There were interstices of air and snow between the thick slabs and with shovels and a digging bar, we were able to leverage and tease the jam apart like a giant ice puzzle. As we freed each slab, we launched it onto an ice shelf and over the edge into deeper water where it floated away downstream like a mini-iceberg.
Sara teasing apart ice slabs in water gap

After ice removal

Most of December and January had severe cold. Periods of thaw melted snow on the river bottom, but the north slopes stayed frozen and icy. We switched from slick ice to greasy mud, then back to ice again. Mike kept an eye out for slide marks, where cattle had lost their footing and skidded down the steep canyonside. Then he hiked to the location to look for injured animals. So far anything that slid has made it out okay.

I was grateful for Mike's skillful driving during the horrid conditions. From close encounters with elk hunters driving too fast, to having our steering go out, he kept us safe. Luckily, the steering failure occurred on a flat place without drop-offs. And wonderfully, one of our two downriver neighbors in twenty miles came by within ten minutes. Just as we were getting ready to hike 4 miles, carrying truck tire chains, thank you Beth!

Chains, a pain to deal with, but life-saving

Right before weaning, the hay stack flooded. Mike relocated it and then Gabe and Cammie came down and helped us get the calves in and on hay for a month.   Nearly all the calves were probably naturally weaned already, but the separation from the herd completes the process.

Snow melt flooding hay stack

It's interesting how the calves bond, forming their own little herd. After turn out, they often stay in bunches, venturing off alone or grazing with the other cattle as they see fit.
Calves in weaning pen

A break in the weather gave Mike and I a chance to ride for cattle that strayed to the neighbors. We saw a few of the thousands of elk that have been driven to the canyons by deep snow.
Elk taking refuge in the canyons

When we crossed the river, the usual trail was blocked by ice jams. The cattle found several spots to climb out and pushed through the thorny brush on the far side. With horses, our choices were more limited. I decided to try for a low ice shelf, with a patch of open ground on the bank above. I thought I could get off there and break trail through the brush.
Sara and Bird, a 'balmy' day

I was relieved when Bird agreed to jump up onto the ice shelf. With a big 'crack' it broke under his weight, but he kept his feet under him and we made it up onto the bank and through the hawthorn, alder and blackberry.

Shirt sleeve weather! 

With some of the snow melted, Mike and I took advantage of open ground to hike up spring draw and check fences.  It felt good to make it to the bench, to get out and hike after the confinement of treacherous conditions and the demands of freeze and flood.

Steers on the bench

We hiked home on the main trail, down the west face of the bench and across the toe slope above the barn. I was happy to get back before dark and out of the windy cold.

Thanks Gary! 

I'm thankful that Gary cut and split a bunch of box elder when he was here feeding calves for a few days. The wood pile was running short and we hadn't had time to cut more during the severe weather.

"Made in USA"

The hot fire and a new wool rug made the house feel cozy and welcoming.  After much practice in negotiation, Mike and I had finally picked out a rug.  We ordered samples four times before agreeing on what to get. It was nice to see it in the living room for the first time.

We celebrated the warmer weather and good rug decision with a hearty stew, and fizzy beverages of Horse Creek plum syrup, fresh ginger and lemon. And that was a good thing, because, as it has been doing for months, the snow soon arrived again.

Winter back porch shrine

Yard, orchard, downriver

From Sara, mother of Prairie, at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef