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