Friday, December 31, 2010

Ending the Year at Pumpkin Creek

Above the Rye Bench, looking north
The three of us, Mike, Zeke and I, gathered the last of the herd out of Pumpkin Creek this week and trailed them to the river.

Old rock flume at Pumpkin Creek
We gathered on foot, crossing Horse Creek on a slippery downed alder tree just below the cabin, and climbing high into Pile-Up where I’d spotted about nine head on a narrow strip of grass between the north rims.

The norths were thawed in places, with steep patches of greasy mud that stuck to my boots. I was glad for my staff. We threaded a little bunch of cattle off the narrow end of the ridge between rock outcrops and switchbacked down to the drift fence. They wanted to grade out but we managed to hold them. 

Once through the gate, they took off in a wild run crossing back into the draw and through the brush before galloping downslope all the way to the creek.

Down the Pumpkin Creek road
The next day Mike and I rode and Zeke shuttled the truck over to pick us up at the river place. Our neighbor had driven up the creek that morning to tell us where he’d spotted some cattle, and to let us know he’d already cut a few of our stragglers out of his cows and put them through the gate. Nice.

We picked up another fifteen head trailing to the river. The weather held off for the five-mile ride and the cattle trailed willingly across the bench. Almost to gate on the Rye Bench, we reached the funky drift fence at Walking Cane, with its long weak stretches, rotted material and awkward corner gates.

Trailing north
A bunch of the neighbor’s cows were scattered below on a finger of bench ground. Mike suspected our cows would go running over there as soon as they could get through the fence, so he rode ahead, off the slick side hill and onto the flat. Sure enough as soon as a big red steer found a hole, he high tailed it toward the flat with a string of cows behind him. Mike’s determination and some fancy footwork by Zip finally got the best of the steer and turned him back. When an old cow took the lead towards home, the rest of the bunch soon followed. 

Mike brings west-side stragglers across the river
Past the home place
We reached the river, met up with Zeke, unloaded supplies and turned the horses out. Mike and Zeke drove up the road to Crazy Man to gather a few steers and heifers who climbed out of the river pasture earlier in the week. They trailed the tail end of the stragglers through the driveway gate just as the snow started to fall. The temperature was dropping fast and the wind was picking up. We ate the last of the pies, swallowed some hot coffee and headed for the valley.  

Zeke drove us out to town, over the ice and snow and into a blizzard squall.  We were wedged into the front seat with the heater cranked and the familiar smell of wet dogs wafting up behind us. Mike took a swig of water and summed it up, “Well, we accomplished everything.”  It was a good way to end the year.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Cow Camp at Pumpkin Creek

Pumpkin Creek cow camp

We've lived in cow camps ranging from a place to pitch a tent to a two-story house. At the Steen Place on the edge of the Zumwalt Prairie we summered in a 100 year old log house with walls that bore testament to some of the previous residents via initials carved into  the front porch. There was also a barn, extensive corrals, and out behind the kitchen, an enormous multi-chambered root cellar in a state of collapse. The cellar had a log front and thick stone walls that birthed boulder-sized rocks, pushed out by the settling hillside. Even though it was our summer place, we stayed there into December while the cows were in the breaks of the canyon, and we were thankful for the enormous barrel stove and the thick logs insulating us from the cold. 

At Pumpkin Creek, the accommodations are simple. A roof overhead and all the basics you appreciate at the end of a long day and a steep trail. 
"Fully equipped" kitchen

A "real" bed

Last weekend, Mike installed an old cast-iron dry sink for the kitchen, an improvement I'm looking forward to using. While he built the sink stand, I hiked the steep norths above the narrow bench to gather cattle and move them up Pumpkin Creek. I had to work two good dogs while keeping a pup and a big slobbering Labrador out of the way, which proved interesting at times. 
Mike builds stand for the dry sink
Narrow trail on a steep north

Frozen spring shedding ice in the sun
The sun was brilliant and the ground still frozen as I side-hilled along, gathering up little bunches of cows and heading them south. At one point, I came upon a spring flowing out of the ground above a rock outcrop. The rock face dripped with moss and a few stalwart icicles clung to the basalt, while the ground below was strewn with chunks of ice fall, collapsed in the sun after the night's frozen temperatures. 

Looking north toward the Imnaha

It was nice to have most of the snow melted off after the last storm, to have open ground for the cattle to travel in. Looking  back toward the Imnaha River, I saw the high snowy rims of Haas Ridge, and was reminded that winter has a long way to go yet. 

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Poets and Storytellers

Last night was poetry and story-telling at the neighbors. "Come back any time," the old-timers called as we left, and I felt like I could.

Somebody read a family story of the hired gun "range detective" who simply shot people when they went out to chop a load of wood or saddle a horse, because their neighbors asked them to quit the country and they didn't.

And we heard the brand-new story of two sheepherders at Christmas on Pony Bar and I laughed so hard my belly hurt at the part where the sheepherder's hat flew off and stuck on her face when she was getting bucked off her mule in the middle of a race. And funniest of all, the old timer reciting the one about the girl who found herself dating a cowboy and his dog and ended up liking the hairy kisses of both.

We did talk a little politics, a little craziness we see going on right here, with people not wanting to share, with people not having to work a place to own it, not needing their neighbors. And we pulled ourselves in with a soft-feel, like horse-whisperers, as one cowboy reminded us, "What would Tom Dorrance do?"

Ice along the Imnaha
I didn't share the poem I wrote, but I like it better since I heard the poetry and stories last night. The questions  and emotions about where we live and how we can talk to others when we hear them out in the world saying, this is what the local folks think and do, and it's not.

There is so much that we learn from the places we live in. And often not with words. And we have to learn to tell it, to look at the other animals in the room and ask ourselves: Where is the life energy? Where is the fear? How much pressure should we give? When to release?

Here is the poem.

December, Dug Bar

What matters
is not the time or date, but the light and wind and chill,
the snow clouds blotting out the trail.

After dark, I hear your packstring
clump in on the frozen ground,
and I go to the barn so I can see you alive, unsaddling the beasts, their breath fogging the air.

It feels like we are in the bible,
flood and famine, whatever God writes.

I’m saying I think I understand this grass
this water, these gates and trails.

I’m saying I can see the locust grove
swinging in the basin high above us,
the place we rest sometimes, as if our graves lay there.

SI Miller 12 10 2010
Mike headed home ahead of the storm

From Sara at Mapgie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas Missive

Winter finds us here on Prairie Creek, east of the stubble field, beside the ancient row of lilacs hugging the ditch-bank. The farmhouse has enriched our lives not only with shelter, work and gaiety, but kinship.

The farm is a life shared with us. It holds not our mothers’ childhood. Nor did our grandparents, uncles, aunts, make these fields or carve these waterings, raise these barns and sheds, corrals and bunkhouses. This is another family, now interwoven with ours, far flung, and rich in their own lives.

I see their summer photographs, the stubbly lawn bathed in full sun, the meager slips of lilac either side of the footbridge, new and ornamented white with gated archways. And in the yard, beside a tall slim woman, a toddler in bloomerish attire, toddling as my own have done in this very place.

Only now, the elms are tall and the lilacs overgrown. The buildings, once stark and construct, are settled and aged among a scattering of fattened cottonwoods and tall windbreak conifers. I am thankful for this sharing.

This winter morning, the fields and pastures, still farmed, are licked with fog. I wait for the sun to break through, to light the ice and set the fields with crops of tiny rainbow prisms.

There are other houses that have grown out of these farms, and left aside the farmers. There are houses whose people have lives elsewhere, with other professions and means. I would like to know them, I tell myself, and feel the urge to knock on their door, bearing jam and potatoes. I think I want to hear their stories, to tell my own, but then I remember times when the story is unanswered, and I doubt.

Sometimes it takes getting past, like wading through hawthorn thickets in the bottom of a draw. Last week moving cattle, I drug my horse into the middle of a thicket, thinking I’d find a hole and ended up clawed from every side. My horse’s head against my back, I wrestled spiny branches, wishing for a machete, until I found the fire-killed sumac that I could break, and we pushed through.

Mike said he cut the trail out once. But it will take cutting out again, for as long as someone is bringing cattle up that creek on foot or horseback. And I think of all the trails that have felt the arc of his machete. And I think of the hands before us who knew and wanted to keep open the way to that range and to the cabin at the forks.

Sometimes our stories can be told, even miles apart, to people we rarely see, and they might remember this same trail, even if they have never set foot there. I will knock on the neighbor’s door again this Christmas.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thanksgiving's Work

Friday after Thanksgiving, the sun comes up with an intensity that sharpens the facets of the mountains' snow-covered cliffs. Zeke says the mountains look taller with snow on them, and they do.The golden light tips wheat stubble and tall-grass fence rows, a perfect morning for a march across the field with Dawson and Prairie. At the creek we stomp ice, poke our faces into the culvert - trying to see each other on the other end. The dogs run crazy and we practice Punch, now five months old, on 'heel', and 'here', and 'sit', 'behind' and 'stay behind'.
Dawson looks at Prairie
South End of Culvert

In the afternoon we load supplies and horse hay onto the flat bed. Mike leaves for the river with two hours of daylight, hoping to spot the herd above the Imnaha.. Prairie and Jon and I  finish packing another load and head down in the dark. We arrive to a fire in the stove and a light on (yeah solar system!), but no water. It's 40 degrees and the wind is in a steady blow down canyon.

Saturday morning, just as the horses are saddled, Gabe, Cammie and Dawson pull up and Zeke is with them. Mike and Prairie are headed upriver toward Basin Creek, where Mike spotted some of the herd, about six miles away. Gabe and Cammie ride out toward Walking Cane to open a gate on the drift fence.

 Gabe, Prairie, Cammie on the Rye Bench

Zeke and I stay behind to work on the water line. As we hike up the steep draw to the spring box, Dawson scrambles over the trail, fending off the claws of wild rose and hawthorn branches with one arm, the other firmly held in my grip. There's water in the springbox, and a wet place where the line might have a crack. We  poke around in the muck, then decide to head back. Nap time and we need a shovel. Dawson scrambles down slope with equal enthusiasm, "leaping" off rocks and stomping through an icy mud hole. At the bottom, Zeke and I spot where the pipe is apart. We walked right by it on the way up.

Back at the house, I look out the kitchen window upriver, clouds are rolling toward us like dense smoke, the snowfall obliterating landmarks from sight. The temperature is dropping fast and the wind is picking up.  Dawson looks out the window, "Storm's coming Grandma." I'm wondering how far the riders and cattle have made it, where on the canyonside they will be when the storm hits.

Storm clouds descending
Headed home ahead of the storm
With half an hour of poor light remaining, the four riders snake down off the hill, but Jon, who headed out for a hike this morning, is nowhere to be seen. We get the horses put up, still no Jon. A few of us hike part way to the bench in the failing light, no sign of Jon.  The snow is really coming down. Hunger battles concern, dinner's ready and it's pitch black outside. Then we hear Zeke's voice on the porch and Jon's answer. Thank God.

Sunday morning the snow has stopped. Mike and I saddle up and head out to gather the cattle off the Rye Bench. It's a slick climb, the horses are sharp shod with caulks, but the four inches of wet snow ball up under their hooves, making them slide a bit on the steep north. On the bench, the cattle are scattered in three bunches and it takes longer to gather than we hoped.

A solitary elk calf is in with herd and we wonder where her mother is, or the rest of her family. All day she follows along, sometimes wandering off a ways, then trotting back into the cows with long bouncing strides. As she stands fifteen feet from my horse, I realize I've never been this close to an elk calf before, and I admire her thick coat, her large dark eyes, how tall she is, the mewing noises she makes as she scans the canyon behind us.

In the afternoon, Mike spots a herd of elk high above us on the canyonside, and the elk calf leaves us to find her own kind. We drop down, cross the creek and turn the cattle through the gate onto the Horse Creek road.  My feet are soaking wet, we've clawed through thickets of hawthorn, I'm hungry and my horse is tired. I'm looking forward to meeting the rest of the family at the Pumpkin Creek cabin, where lunch will be waiting.

The cows have other ideas. They would rather head up the other side of the canyon and onto the east bench, than trail up the narrow road. It's the hardest part of the day, but we finally get them lined out, and I swear the trick is that I start whistling "B-I-N-G-O". They seem to have an aversion to it, and want to move, so I keep whistling until my lips cramp up. Finally we're through the last gate and can let the cattle settle and scatter. I'm hoping Gabe has finished the rock jack on the drift fence, and plugged any other holes that would make it easy for the herd to head back toward more familiar territory.  It's been four years since we had cattle on this range. It will take a while for them to make themselves at home.

By Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef