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



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
Galettes







































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