Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Bridge Building

We've been building a lot of bridges lately.  I was glad Zeke could take time away from his business to help Mike make repairs to our bridge across the Imnaha river. We will have to replace the entire bridge deck before long, but the new treads will get us through for now. 
Zeke planking on the new planks

Some of our bridge building has been social. Mike was able to spend a few days helping Marcy and Dennis trail cattle while their kids were on vacation. A few friends pitched in to make up for the 2 adults and 4 grandkids who were off looking at castles in Ireland and learning family history. Dennis and Mike have worked together in Mongolia and Dennis has helped us on the ranch many times over the years, so it was nice to reciprocate.
End of the day at Dennis & Marcy's

I'm still pinching myself that my Mom and her sister, Vera, now in their 90s, were able to come stay with us again in April. Last year we had a great visit and this year was even better!
First night's walk on the bar

Race for the bathroom, Vera wins!
We played a lot of Scrabble, Aunt Vera read about a book a day, and Mom went rock hunting and admired the fauna and flora. Since having her cataracts removed, Mom loves seeing everything clearly again. 

Mom writes in the ranch journal

Dawson and Wes in the ash bank
The two of them also had a fine time with the grandboys. Weston calls them Great Grandma and Great Vera.

Vera, Prairie, Mom

Prairie was able to come home for a short visit. She ferried the 'oldsters' on the next leg of their journey. It was wonderful for all of us to get to spend time together.

After the oldsters, our next guests were the lucky winners of a Magpie Ranch stay from the Zenger Farm fundraising auctionZenger is the educational farm where Prairie works in outer SE Portland. 
Matt, Kerry, Sara & Mike

It was fun to team up with guests, Matt and Kerry, to support construction of Zenger's new classroom and commercial kitchen. Before they arrived I warned them that rain was in the forecast. I also said that after a horribly dry spring, we were looking forward to some precipitation. 

A hike downriver with ranch-stay guests
Matt and Kerry did indeed bring the rain from Portland. We celebrated the moisture together, enjoying the downpours and sun breaks over several days of hiking, cooking, storytelling, and admiring our healthy longhorn cattle. 

It was another kind of bridge building, so necessary to understanding our differences and recognizing our similarities. 
Multi-aged herd, two year old steer, calf and mama cow

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


Evening light

We've had a lot of grey lately. Fog and low clouds hemming in the canyon like an old blanket thrown over top of us. So we're extra glad to see blue sky, to glass for our cattle, to enjoy the changing shadows and colors of light moving through our world. 

The grandboys stayed with Mike and I for a long weekend and helped us take a break from fencing. The romp and wrangle of meals, snacks, forts, trains, stories, drawing, singing, and sword fights wore us all out in a good way.

Pastels, snacks and races

Feeder fort

Every morning at the feeder, the boys 'tamed' the calves. Slowly getting close enough to touch their horns or their wet noses. Dawson comes into the house for breakfast after feeding with Mike, "Grandma, I touched FIVE calves!"

2014 calves in the weaning pen

We finished weaning the calves and turned the steers back into the herd.  The heifers came out to the valley where we'll pick some to keep and some to sell for breeding stock. 
Sun bathing and cud chewing

Downriver, our new fence is up, cutting off steep norths where a few cattle liked to trail down to the river, and across Horse Creek to the neighbors' range. Parts of the fence were tough to build and Mike used more steel than usual, hoping to make it last through our frequent wildfire cycle.
Gate support

The pounding of building fence takes its toll. Lugging heavy fence material and wire across the steep slopes, and working while balancing on a greasy north make it more challenging and tiring.

View downriver from the fence

Finishing that fence was a relief. I enjoyed the reward of sitting back in the tall grass, gazing north at the ridges and benches beyond our current range, thinking of people and places downriver, and the many cow camps where we've lived and worked during our lifetime.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Winter "Work"

Weston's heifer
Weston has a heifer. Mike and I picked her out last spring after Dawson announced that he wanted to give Weston the calf from his cow Betsy. We liked this heifer better and hopefully she will grow up to be a good cow for Wes.
Setting posts for temporary feedbunk

We set up the feedbunk around the hay stack in the weaning pen. Mostly it's soft ground and the posts are pretty small, so setting the posts doesn't take too long. We'll have the calves in the corral for about a month, after which they will be turned out to rejoin their family groups.
Mike runs the tamping bar

Over Christmas, we spent a lot of time in the valley with our special visitors from Kentucky. Our son-in-law's family spent the holidays with us. In a four day period we celebrated two birthdays, Hanukkah, and Christmas!

Pat making slaw

Ready to roast

We celebrated with games, hikes, music, story-telling and vegetables. Many delicious vegetables, including Jon's mom's famous cole slaw and roasted beet, brussel sprout,carrot, sweet potato,onion veggies. And there were treats, Lebkuchen-German honey cookies, and our traditional chocolate covered coconut bons bons.

Prairie clouds out north

Southwest, sun setting behind Wallowas

Pat and I had a pre-Christmas-dinner mother's walk in the afternoon. We caught a beautiful sunset in the snowy cold landscape. It felt good to be out of the hot kitchen, where the wood cookstove and the electric stove were roasting, stewing and baking.
Mike surprised Prairie with a new old banjo, that he had restored for her.  I love that playing music is a regular occurrence around our house. Which also inspires much dancing, especially by the six and under crowd (and me).
Stays and posts

We're making progress on our fencing projects. Cammie, Gabe and the boys have been coming to the river and helping out a lot. We got all our wood stays and posts cut at a local family mill. Mike is also building a section of mostly steel fence for one difficult steep pitch. Wildfires come through pretty regularly and he wants to try and get more longevity out of that difficult section.

Dawson casts

Last week, we gathered the cattle and sorted off the calves. While we're feeding them for the next month, as long as the rest of the herd stays where we want them on the range, we can take advantage of some down time. There is always fencing...but what about fishing and exploring?
Wes visits Ellie's Fairy House

Dawson has the fishing bug and is following in his dad's footsteps in that regard. Gabe used to fish for bass in the Snake River when we worked at Dug Bar. He was almost six years old and I said I would cook any bass he caught, but he had to gut them.  Weston is mostly interested in cows, herding cows, looking for cows, mooing like a cow, bugling like a bull, anything cows.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Friday, December 19, 2014

Dark nights, bright lights

I tried to observe the Geminid meteor shower at the river last weekend, but the night was overcast. Later on the nearly full moon came up and a diffuse light shown through the floating clouds making the sky overhead look like a puffy silver-blue quilt. It was every bit as thrilling and beautiful as watching meteors.

Morning mist

In the morning, wraiths of mist flowed down from the canyon breaks as the sun lit rocky spires above. A magical way to start the day's work.

Mike has been packing salt. I haven't been able to help much as I've been on the road teaching workshops for people who want to move some of their investments out of Wall Street and into businesses in their own communities.
Mestizo packing salt and tubs

He packs blocks of salt to several salt-grounds spread out along the bench.  The salt provides the cattle with extra minerals and is also an incentive for the herd to utilize different parts of the range.
Chester and Mestizo rest after climbing to the bench.

We're gearing up for winter projects.  Mapping and estimating costs for a new drift fence above the river to keep cattle from dropping down and crossing the mouth of Horse Creek to go visit the neighbor's herd. Getting ready to wean our calves, hauling hay and setting up the feeder in the corrals where they will spend three weeks before being turned back with the herd.
Sara headed home from bringing a few cows back from Rye Bench

We need that new fence. A few bunches of cattle keep wanting to head up Horse Creek, toward the Pumpkin Creek range, when we're not ready to go yet. So we ride and hike to bring them back, a few here a few there. Luckily the trails haven't been too greasy. After weaning, we'll take the whole herd to Pumpkin Creek, but that won't be until the end of January.

Bell, ten months old
Bell, is just starting to work a little bit. She still thinks its a game and our goal at this stage is to give her a taste of herding. Safe and easy little jobs that will have a positive outcome.

Head down Punch works, head and tail up Bell plays

A jackpot or bad experience at this age can ruin a dog for work. Bell has plenty of confidence so she can take a firmer hand than most border collies. I say she's a little bit 'coyote', meaning independent minded and tough. And she has a tendency to bark, so she's learning to use her body and not her voice most of the time.

Newt, in retirement
Newt is going on eleven now, and retired. He helps out occasionally, but his old injuries from being run over - at about the age Bell is now - sore him up if he climbs around the canyon too much. So Punch and Ruby do the heavy lifting and Bell is coming up to take on more of the load in year or so.

Mike takes a break after morning herding

We have to fit our many tasks into the short daylight hours. Still we try to make time to rest, write, paint, draw and practice music to share on Christmas eve. And in the afternoon, when darkness suddenly descends, we light the many Christmas candles, honoring hope, love, life and a little good cheer in 'the bleak mid-winter.'

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Seeing the Good

I love pumpkins.
Maybe because I was born on Halloween, or the fact that this time of year gives license to making art from vegetables, putting on your fanciful and spooky, and even connecting to the souls who have crossed the veil before us.

Mr Mean

Or perhaps because I love food that you can grow and put in your basement after harvest and bring it up months later for a delicious meal. And that the seeds scooped from their fleshy nest hold the promise of next year's garden, waiting over the long winter to be planted again.

But there was an extra special pumpkin that arrived one fall in our early years of starting Magpie Ranch. It had been a decent year, with plenty of challenges. Mike was dividing his time between ecological site inventory work in Southeast Oregon and running the ranch. I held down the down the fort at home as best I could when he was gone.

Rangeland drill - restoring an old feedlot

We both felt stretched thin, trying to lay the foundation for a new enterprise, with so much infrastructure still to rebuild, fencing, corrals, water lines. And riparian areas that we hoped to help to recover from long use as winter feedlots.

That fall, a friend had gotten cancer and was fighting for his life. We organized a benefit dance, took extra time to stay in touch.

Waiting for 2 babies 

And two babies were waiting to be born in our extended family. I was far from the mothers, but made the special chord we all tied around our wrists or ankles, to hold them with us day and night until the babies had arrived.

When my birthday came along, Mike decided we should celebrate at the river. After many repairs, the house was finally livable enough to host a gathering. The afternoon of the party, we drove down into the canyon. As we approached the bridge crossing over to the house, I caught a glimpse of a small bright globe atop the rock abutment. How sweet I thought, someone's come down ahead and left a pumpkin to welcome us. Who could that have been?

Dancing with Pam

Soon our children and friends began to arrive. Did you bring the pumpkin I asked? None of them had.

I finally ran back across the bridge to get the pumpkin and bring it to the house for the festivities. That's when I realized, to my amazement, the pumpkin had actually grown there.

Sometime in spring, a seed had traveled more than seven miles downriver to be swept upon a gentle wave into the rocks of the abutment and left behind at the high water mark four feet above the ground. And just enough flotsam had washed up with the seed to keep it moist, let it germinate and nourish its roots atop the rocks. And just enough rain had fallen over the summer to keep it alive during the hundred degree days of July and August, when a single flower blossomed and then bore fruit. And no freezing frost had nipped either the tender shoot or the maturing fruit, so that there in a nest of withered vines sprawled across broken black basalt, one small pumpkin rested in it's fullness, having grown and filled itself with seeds and the promise of another year.

The Very Special Pumpkin

It's moments like that, years like that, stories like that, which help me remember to look for the good, to look for it and to see it. To marvel at it, and be glad.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Saturday, October 4, 2014

There's more to it

It seems simple. In principle. Handling cattle.

Trailing down from Pumpkin Creek

When there's a jam, I see it like a branch that catches in the crick, and if you don't get it out right away, all the stuff coming down the crick piles up behind it until its wedged so tight you can't budge it. But if you just ease out one little willow slip, then something else shifts and you can pull out a bigger piece, and everything flows smoothly again.
Sara and Newt

And the way your horse moves, kind of like a dog sometimes. Quietly threading the prairie behind the cattle, sometimes flanking, and sometimes heading, shoulder for shoulder with a heifer, as you turn and lope together back toward the herd.

And when, after the cows have gone through the gate, two riders race across the prairie to try and stop a huge black bull that has appeared on the horizon, determined to get with the cows. He's trotting fast, now running, and you're running and you don't think either of you will get there before him. And at the last second, both mares spin, butts to the gate, blocking him and the bull slides forward, shifting his weight and leaning away from you, his hooves plowing ground, fat and muscle rolling toward you, his sweat and slobber flinging into your face. And you guess this might never happen again in your life. This pas de deux.

Ruby, Bird and Gabe headed upriver, March

And in winter, when two trails present at a fork, and you know that one goes well for a while, but then turns bad in canyon rims, a judas trail. And the cattle hesitate, strung single file through the pines, and you see the lead a ways off in the head, and you will and pray she remembers and steps with a swish of her tail onto the good trail.
Mike herding off the top to the winter range

We're still learning. Sometimes it seems we've never made it out of Kindergarten. And other days, it feels like we're almost to a PhD.

Old days - taking a break from herding Snake River, Hells Canyon

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Leaving the Prairie

This weekend we hope to bring all the cows and calves and bulls in from the prairie.

View from the Southwick place

There's still enough grass, but the ponds are getting lower and muddier. It's time to go. And the Southwick place is calling us, with it's tall pines and grassy meadows.

The yearling herd has been at Southwick's half a month already, and Mike brought in one bunch of pairs from the prairie earlier this week.  I'm glad Paul was there helping out. Mike said everything went fine.

Paul and Bird and Punch gathering off the prairie

Later, I heard Chester exhibited his equine snake-killing maneuver. Mike stayed on.  It's like riding a pile-driver. One enormous leap with all four feet off the ground, rearing position, and then front feet extended on the way down and hammered into the ground like a battering ram. A big bull snake slithered away unhurt. Paul said, "Maybe if I hadn't of pointed it out he wouldn't have reacted."  

At the beginning of the month, we delivered to Portland, where we met our customers at Jon and Prairie's house. It was a pleasure to be introduced to new folks, reconnect with friends, and have this big trip off our list for the year. 
Portland delivery day - Yay we're here!

We learned more about what the people who buy our animals are interested in, as we shared stories and wrestled a lot of boxes of meat.  That evening we had a yummy dinner with delicious grapes, tomatoes and beans from Jon and Prairie's garden.

Sara enjoys visiting with a customer

I'm sad to see the days growing shorter. I miss waking up to the long early light, and the evenings with their balmy languor. Still, there's a quickening and we gather as much squash, as many onions and apples as we can. Laying by what will keep for the winter months ahead.   
We only grew two kinds of winter squashes, but we got 16!

There's a lot to do still, to get ready for winter. We haven't cut a single load of firewood yet. And our hay still needs to be delivered and stacked in the barn. But the basement larder is filling with jars, and bins and braids. And every day it seems we get another call to come get apples. I think it's going to be a heck of a cider year. 

Apple pear galette with dried red and yellow cherries and pear syrup

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef