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

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Windy Hell

I trudge north along the Zumwalt road trailing cattle in an unrelenting wind that brings the chill to single digits.  It's day one of four days winding our way north and down into the canyon to the winter range. In my mind I hear the name Windy Hell scattered in the talk of three tired men huddled around the stove in cow camp. Their jeans are slick at the knees, their necks wrapped in stained silk scarves. Coats heavy and stiff in canvas, buckskin, wool. Hats cinched on with stampede strings. Above the stove, sodden gloves and mittens steam. The stink of wet gear fills the room. 
First day, Sara ruminates on the windy walk north

The cow camp is in the bottom of a canyon. Cow Creek?  Pumpkin? The men have come in out of the weather after hunting cattle off the ridges, bringing them down to safer ground. The snow has arrived quicker and fallen deeper than expected, the springs and seeps have frozen solid, the trails packed to ice chutes in the rims. 

                                     Day two, headed east toward the breaks

I am awed by their going out in the dark and their coming in again in the dark, alive. I love the horses who manage to stay on their feet, sharp shod and still sliding. I love the cattle who struggle to safely pick and wade their way down. I crave leaving the cabin and the small children asleep in the attic.

Dropping off the top with Andi

I'm not sure where Windy Hell is, because I've never been there. But that doesn't stop me from naming it in my mind as I trudge north inside the furry warmth of my winter hat, flaps down, fuzzy neck warmer pulled over the tip of my nose, collar up on my parka. 

                                                     Into Log Creek

Any place with a hell of a wind can take me there, invoking the relief of shelter, the offering of a warm fire, a hot meal, fresh water. And I hear cowboy voices recalling the bad spots, the sting and bite of driven snow, the slide and crash of a fall, the incredulity of a finding new calf waiting out the storm with its mother in a high sheltered basin. I hear the naming of Windy Hell and conjure a landmark lurking far above me in the stormy dark. 

Headed to the bench

I used to think I needed to go to all these places, Windy Hell, Rheumatiz, Jakey, Sleepy. In case I needed to know the way. In case I had to go out looking for someone who did not come back.

Day four, nearly to the Hall Place

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Sunday, November 6, 2016

On My Own

Abigail Marie - two days old
Granddaughter Abigail Marie Hale arrived just before Mike left again for Kyrgyzstan. It was so good for him to meet her before starting his journey, sharing in the joy and relief that this beautiful little girl was now safe and sound in the arms of her family.

The short month Mike was home had flown by.  Beef harvests, deliveries to Portland, trailing cattle on the Zumwalt. Before I knew it he was leaving again and I was on my own holding down the ranch. Still, I took advantage of having the cattle settled and headed to the river with Gabe and the boys for a day of harvesting walnuts and fishing.

Dawson uses his hat to gather walnuts

Last year I missed the walnut harvest and the turkeys got them all. This year Dawson and Wes helped gather nuts onto a tarp and cavorted about, climbing the broad limbs of the walnut trees, building train tracks in the house, exploring the river after what felt like a long absence.

Looking north from the Salmon hole

It was turning into a beautiful evening when we headed down to the salmon hole. Gabe and Dawson hooked several fish right away. Weston and I wandered, sneaking around in the willows, following the twists and turns of an imaginary quest.

Canyon rattler

The biggest adventure was Weston finding his first rattlesnake. We were hiking back to the truck, holding hands as we walked through the bleached grass, when suddenly Wes jumped sideways against my legs. "I thought I saw a..." and there it was coiled and camouflaged next to the trail.

The first time a child of the canyons finds a rattlesnake on their own, it's a relief to know they will have the heart-pounding instinctive reaction to move away as fast as possible. At three years old, Wes was right on schedule.

Early morning checking cows on the Zumwalt

After the river trip, I got busy. The cattle needed checking, and there was fence to fix and steers to move. My dawn trips to the Zumwalt were rejuvenating. I sped over the gravel road, riding the familiar washboard and watching light sharpen the peaks of the Seven Devils and creep across the canyon.

Cows coming to see me on the prairie

The solitude was good for me.  Meadow larks singing, coyotes yipping, hawks screeching, and cattle calling in the invigorating chill. I listened, breathed, absorbed.

Enjoying the morning 

My list of chores was growing. When Mike and I skyped, he reminded me to harvest the great basin wildrye seed, check on the bulls, take more salt to the cows, treat the bridge planks, clean out the barn, get the hay delivered, doctor the horse. I made myself start early and work until dark.

Clipping great basin wildrye for seed

Stubborn gate fix

At the steer pasture the fence repair I thought would be a half-day job turned into three days. A cowboy pastured his horses there last year in trade for fixing the fence, but he never got around to it so the job fell to me.

Once into it, I was discouraged by the number of broken wires, rotten posts and busted gates. There seemed to be no end to the tangle and mess. Stretch, splice, pound, repeat. I managed to scrounge enough material to get it all to where I thought it would keep the bulls and steers in.

A mess on the ground, now up looking like a fence 

It was a relief when Zeke came home for a few weeks and pitched in. Splitting and stacking wood, hauling protein and moving cows, keeping me company, talking about the world.

Zeke putting out salt

Pairs in the new pasture

Hunting season arrived. Gabe was siphoned off on a pack trip into the Minam with Luke. After getting his elk he came home to haul the bulls and steers to fall pasture and helped me put treat on the new bridge material. We got all the planks treated on one side and I followed up a few weeks later to treat the running boards. I feel intimidated when I think about the job of redecking the bridge at the river. I try to take one step at a time and not let myself think too much about all the work ahead. I try to picture us at the river when the bridge is already done.

Many boards to be treated

It's an old habit of mine, leaping ahead in my mind to the other side of something I want behind me. As a kid walking home in the rain, I'd say to myself, now I'm at the top of the hill and in a little while I'll be down by the corner thinking of when I was back up here.

Rotten bridge deck

This month, when I bogged down in my chore list I pictured myself at midnight in the lobby of the Walla Walla airport. Watching the weary travelers straggling in from the tarmac, watching Mike walk through the glass doors.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef