Tuesday, June 22, 2010

It Takes a Village

Or a family, at least. In our group effort, we safely trailed the cow herd from Horse Creek on the Imnaha River to the Zumwalt Prairie in three days.

Day one, Cammie and visiting niece, Maddie, brought the herd up the road and along the bench to Log Creek. Dawson even did some "herding" via stroller, the first time I've ever seen that attempted!

Zeke and Mike spent the morning clearing the Log Creek trail with machetes and hand saw, whacking through a jungle of blackberry, alder, and poison oak. Luckily Brian and Mike had done a major job of brushing out the trail last year so this June the job took significantly less time. Gabe and I got the herd started up the narrow draw and through the first gate where we left them overnight, hoping they would continue to climb up on their own during the afternoon and evening.

We all returned to the ranch house for a yummy barbecue, relaxing in the warm afternoon, playing horseshoes and fishing in the river. Except for Mike, who spent the evening resetting shoes on horses, getting them ready for the next day's work.

Day two, Mike and I took over, making our way up Log Creek. Travelling mostly on foot in a steady downpour, we slogged through shoulder high wet brush and up saturated side hills so slick even our horses had trouble keeping their feet. Finally the rain quit and a bit of sun even came out as we reached the cows, who had indeed continued up the draw and were now lounging near the last steep pitch. The weather was something like I imagine Ireland to be, and the canyon below unfolded in a stupendous light show of clouds, sun and shadow.

Our job was made somewhat easier since Mike had already hauled most of the steers to our other summer range near Hurricane Creek at the foot of the Wallowa Mountains. This left us with fewer animals to push up to the ridge top.

Nevertheless, the last pitch was brutal. Leading Mestizo and Bird, I would scramble up about ten yards at a time, then perch between the two horses as all three of us caught our breath for a minute. I thought, well I guess if it's hard for the horses, I shouldn't feel bad about it being so hard for me.

Mike was up above me, handily working the dogs on foot as he switch-backed the herd up and threaded them between a couple small rims of rock and topped out into the timber of the canyon breaks.

Hallelujah. I was so happy to be able to get back into the saddle, and so thankful to have my horse under me for the rest of the day.

The cows travelled well along the top, in spite of the occasional traffic, wood cutters, noisy motorcycle riders, rigs hauling trailers, gawking tourists, etc. The ominous weather had drawn closer, with pitch black clouds off to the east. We were accompanied by thunder and lightning for several hours and the temperature turned cold, but fortunately we did not get dumped on by any of the numerous downpours all around us. We finally passed Thomason Meadows and soon the Steen Place came into view. I was flooded by memories of the many years we lived and worked that range, living in the historic two story log house, reclaiming it each summer from the pack rats and mice.

Now part of a vast private hunting preserve, the abandoned house, barn and corrals sit unused beyond new locked gates. As we rode past the huge holding pasture west of the barn I remembered how Mike, then the "new man", used to wrangle the horses out of that big pasture every morning. We were living in a wall tent in the yard as the house was getting some repairs and at daybreak, our foreman would holler out the door of his camp trailer, "Hale! Get those horses in!"

I remember filling in for Mike a few times, escaping motherhood in the soggy tent for the back of a horse. It was always a bit hairy, as the pasture was so large and the horse herd was often at the far end. As I approached the herd, my saddle horse would get all riled up and then the herd would stampede past. Since I really couldn't hold my horse back, I just tried to stay on as we flew over the wet rough ground, dodging hidden badger holes and leaping little washes alongside a rumpus of bucking and farting horses.

Now the meadows were silent as we trailed past with our bunch of longhorns. I gave thanks, drinking in the smell of a place that was so much a part of our lives, our growing up as parents and our learning how to live and work.

As we reached the corner by Vance Knoll, Gabe and Zeke met us with a thermos of hot coffee and some dry clothes. The cows were tired and it was getting colder, so we decided to call it good for the day and dropped the herd for the night.

In the morning on day three, we took the cows the last little bit up the road and turned them down across the Four Hundred Acres and through the gate onto the summer pasture, right where they belonged. As we rode back to the truck, I couldn't help looking across the prairie where the dark fingers of timber met the green swales of grassland, remembering our new neighbors, the wolves, and hoping that our tough mother cows with their substantial horns would do well to remind the wolves that there was other better prey on the range.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef