Sunday, December 30, 2012

Winter Ranging

Mike scythes a path for the new fence upriver
Winter work is lining out for the year. Upriver along the bar, right through a big patch of poison oak is where we are building the new fence. The old fence, was across the river. It worked pretty good, but the neighbor took it out for fishing access. Mike crossed the river in waders and spent two hours with his custom hand scythe brushing a path through the poison oak .I will be really glad when that fence is built and it is easier to keep the herd where we want them to be.

Jon and Mike crossing back for another load of steel posts

Mike and Jon Rombach ferried the steel posts over using a guide rope and Jon's pontoon boat. It took both of them to keep the boat from swamping in the current.

Jon ferries a batch of posts to the lower section
They got the posts across in one day, which was good because the next day the river rose to 3,000 cubic feet per second, flood stage.
Cammie and Gabe packed out salt

After Christmas, Gabe and Cammie, Dawson and Wes surprized Mike and I by coming down to help for a few days.  It was Weston's first trip to the river. He reminds me of Mike's brother Bill.
Weston looks like he has Uncle Bill's dimple

Cammie and Gabe rode and packed salt while Mike and I took the boys upriver to work on gates. The cattle were glad to get the salt and it will help encourage their distribution across the range.

There was time for a fishing lesson, but Dawson soon took up exploring for snails, empty snake holes, bones and rocks. Gabe and Mike didn't catch anything either.

Dawson on the old bridge abutment
Fishing below the bridge
In January we'll be weaning calves. Herding cattle. Building fence. There are already green sprouts in the sheltered places, and the cold doesn't seem as cold as usual. Will it be a mild winter? Will we see spring earlier than usual?

I love winter in the canyon, because I love being in the canyon. This year, it feels different. I find myself wondering already about summer, remembering the drought we just went through, and not wanting it to come again.

By Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Fire and The Wedding

In late August, as the drought set in, a hot wind picked up flames from a lighting-strike on the Snake River. We were worried about Ramsdens out north and then we heard how they had fought it in the beginning, when it seemed they might contain the flames. Shoveling, beating the smoldering grass.
But then one acre became a hundred and then a thousand and then ten thousand. They lost their winter feed, evacuated cattle from their summer ground. It brought back memories I don't like to think about.

Years ago, when we were working at the Steen Ranch, we'd been surrounded by a fire. I remember opening gates, trying to find horses and cattle in the thick smoke, praying the wind would shift. And in 2007, a fire burned our winter range, threatening the house and barn. And afterward, we struggled with the expense and toil of finding replacement feed, of having to hold cattle in the valley,  feeding hay and chopping ice during the long dark months.

Fire-burned spring, 2007

Now as Prairie's wedding approached, the Cache Creek fire shifted east and south toward the Imnaha. The Forest Service closed the road to the ranch. The fire had already burned fifty thousand acres and Prairie and Jon had to face giving up their wedding in the canyon. We irrigated around the ranch house, mowed fire breaks and watched the smoke boiling towards us up the river.


Jon and Prairie at the River
As luck would have it, the winds shifted and our winter ground was spared. We gave thanks while at the same time grieving our neighbors' losses. The road was still closed, but the Forest Service let us bring Jon's family in for a sweet little gathering alongside the river.

It all worked out. The next afternoon, in a golden swale at the foot of the Wallowa mountains,130 of us shared a community vow at Jon and Prairie's wedding. Afterward, we feasted and danced the night away in our barnyard under a blue moon.

Late night revelers, Cammie and Dawson

Prairie and Jon's All Homemade Wedding Menu

Slow-braised Bunchgrass Beef
Whole Grain Rolls
Spicy and Sweet Barbecue Sauces
Sheepherder Beans
Local fresh crisp veggies
Erin Donovan's famous Green Goddess Dressing
Vinaigrette Cabbage Salad
Aunt Sissy's Texas Cole Slaw
Our Guests' Best Salads
Blackberry-Peach Cobbler
Vanilla Ice Cream

Gabe swings the bride

  From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Sustainable Livelihoods - Sustainable Friendships

Naran 4 months old, June 2012
When I think of Mongolia I think of vast open space, the bright colors inside a Ger, the dust and heat and interminable jarring of jeep travel across the Gobi desert. I also think of the smiling faces of our friends, Ene and Aza and the video Mike took of their daughter, Naran, on his trip to Mongolia this past June. In the video, Mike and Naran (which means sun) are in the dining room of Ene and Aza's new home outside the capital of Ulan Batar. I can hear Ene and Aza talking in a room nearby. I feast my eyes on the images of Naran who I haven't seen before, but it is Mike's voice, whispering and cajoling, making the funny sounds grown-ups make to get babies to laugh and smile, that captures my heart. As I watch little Naran's hand grab onto Mike's enormous finger, her sparkling eyes and the gurgle of laughter that spills from her round face, I'm reminded of the precious nature of friendships across the world. 

Arkhangai Province, Mongolia, 2006

In June, Mike was hired to work on Phase III of the Sustainable Livelihoods Project. He first met Aza while working on Phase I in 2006. That year, Mike spent two months travelling the country and learning about the livestock production methods and products of herder households. He was part of an international team sharing information about management tools and market opportunities that herder groups could use to improve their standard of living and the health of the rangelands they rely on. Aza was just 22 years old, and working in the SLP office in Ulan Batar.

Aza and Ene, dominos at Magpie Ranch, 2010
Three years later, Aza applied to graduate school in the US and Mike wrote a letter of recommendation. Before long, we heard that Aza and his fiance had arrived in California, crammed into the apartment of a distant relative while discovering how difficult and expensive it is to find housing is in San Francisco. By spring of 2010, they were ready for a much-needed trip away from studies in the big city. They borrowed a car and drove north to Wallowa County and the Magpie Ranch. They joined in fixing fence and herding cattle, with evenings of games, good meals, storytelling and toasting. 

Mike and Aza fencing

Ene on KP at the ranch
Over the next four years, Mike will be making the long journey to Mongolia on a regular basis. He will see Naran grow into a toddler and then an adventurous little girl. The unfolding lives of Ene and Aza will remind us of our own children and grandchildren. The goals of the sustainable livelihood project will also remind us of  our work at home. Though the landscapes are different, as part of a pastoral system, we share common ties to the land and face the common challenge of adapting to a changing world. We seek profitable markets for our products and strive for the knowledge, skills and relationships needed to sustain both our way of life and the natural systems that we are a part of.

Just like we rely on our neighbors here in Wallowa County to help us out when we need it, I take comfort in knowing that on the other side of the world, Mike has friends to call on.  Whether, stranded, sick or just wanting someone to share a song or story with, I'll know he's in good hands.
Sara, Mike, Ene, Aza

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Out of the Canyon and Off to Mongolia

Yay. The cows are on the summer range. It's always a good feeling to make the transition from Horse Creek to the Zumwalt Prairie and have the herd turned out for the season.

Dawson Hale, almost four

Dawson, Mike and I took the first leg and got them started up from the bottom. It was a warm day, but the cows still travelled pretty good. We walked a lot, bringing the pairs up the road, and then Dawson rode for while.

I said, "Do you want to ride double or do you want Grandma to lead you?" "I don't need you to lead me. I can ride by myself," he said. "Mama says if I don't hold onto the reins I have to get off."  Good advice.

When we got to Log Creek we left Chester and Bird with the horse trailer and hiked up after the cows to the first gate. We cleared trail as we went. Mike cut brush and poison oak and thistles with shovel and machete and I attacked the blackberry vines with a pair of loppers. Dawson "whacked weeds" with a stick.

Coming back down Log Creek

Our original plan was for Mike and I to push the cows on up the next day, but then Mike got an offer to do some more work in Mongolia. By the next morning we were saying goodbye in the Walla Walla airport before I headed back to Joseph.

Gabe and Cammie and Dawson met me in the driveway with truck and trailer, horses loaded, ready to finish the job. We drove out to the canyon rim and Gabe and I rode off the top, gathering the herd out of the basin and pushing them back up. We lucked out with cooler temperatures that made the climb easier for the cows and calves.

Once we topped out, Cammie took over for Gabe, the two of us riding the next four hours to the road pasture. The weather took a turn and within an hour, the temperature had dropped and it was spitting rain. Dawson rode double, first with Mom and then Grandma, before the cold and rain drove him into the warm pick-up with Dad.
On top, Sara, Cammie and Dawson

We continued to make good time and reached the road pasture well before dark. Gabe said he thought we could make it all the way in a couple more hours. He was right, the cows probably could have made it, but I couldn't.

My gloves and boots were soaked through and my face was frozen from the last hour of wind-driven sleet. "I've got to get in the pick-up and warm up," I said, teeth chattering. We called it a day and drove home through the storm.

Last day, Gabe and Bird with  Kodee on the Zumwalt

The next morning we had an easy few hours ride to the pasture gate. Gabe and I finished out the job, avoiding McClaran cattle that had just been turned out in the 400 acres.

"Hidden" elk calf
There were cow elk all over the place and we rode right by one calf, folded into the grass below the trail.

Punch - "We did it!"

It was really nice to close the gate after the last cow, knowing the herd was settled for the summer. Even Punch seemed happy.

As we rode back to the road, I said I hoped it would rain when we needed it, that the ponds would last, that the storms, when they came, wouldn't burn up the prairie or the canyon.

And I thought of Mike on his long flight west to Mongolia. Come home safe I thought; the cattle made it to the summer range.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Conservation Legacy

Spring rains and sunshine have turned the canyons from gold to green. It is a world of fecundity, from the lush ribbon of trees along the river banks to the verdant folds of the grassy benches. A world that hums and flutters and slithers and splashes. A world of osprey and cliff swallow, gosling and merganser, butterfly and bumble bee, bull snake and river otter.
Balsamroot Sunflower

New calves are popping up everywhere. Their mothers emerging from sheltered draws and thickets with wobbly offspring. The calves soon to be cavorting across the benches with their peers.
Heifer nurses her first calf hidden in a draw

We've been helping the neighbors brand. A bunch of good ropers from upriver waded into the herd and a ground crew of young and old wrestled and worked the calves. The more experienced hands razzed each other over missed throws and hollered encouragement to the kids when they dallied on a calf. From young to old, everyone had a job, and if you didn't know how to do it, somebody showed you.  It renewed my appreciation for the skills and muscle that get the work done, and afterward, for the stories and food that reward our labor. 

Next generation getting the job done
Time for a little wrestling 
At the end of the branding, the rain started up again and the narrow steep road got slicker and greasier. I'm glad a few of the cowboys threw their chains on before hauling their horses to town. It's a reminder to take care, to think things through, to use the tools we have. 

Later that day, I cozied up with Rangelands reading a review of the book Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy, about the ranches that won Aldo Leopold awards. 

It says the most important tools are planning, partnerships, teaching, sharing and hospitality. It says to steward our resources we need multiple generations. Cattle bred to fit their environment. Adaptive management and enterprise diversification. I'd have to say, it sounds just like what we do. So I guess we're reflective of Leopold's agrarian ethic. We are thankful. 

Dawson riding home with Daddy

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Turning the Corner - Wedding Ahead

Jon and Prairie will be married at the ranch at the end of summer. We toasted their engagement over Christmas dinner and have been making big plans since. The canyon will be hot and dry by the wedding and we have many to-dos on our list before then.

To-be-weds Jon and Prairie, British Columbia, March 2012

One task is fixing up an old bunkhouse, which we are now calling the Honeymoon cabin. It hasn't been used in many years and the skids beneath it have rotted and settled into the ground. Resurrecting it means jacking it up, nailing it back together and cleaning up after the pack rats.
"Still Life" - circa 1980s - in the Honeymoon cabin

We've turned the corner on spring. The temperature in the canyon hit ninety this week and each day brings more flowers, brodia, phlox, mustard, and sunflowers scattered across the greening hills. The pollinators are out in force, buzzing and lilting among the blooms. 
Jaume scythes tall grass in the yard

Along with the fat bumble bees there was a moth working the lilac bush. It looked like a hummingbird moth, but smaller, with a delicate beige and brown striped body, extra long antennae and a bright yellow stripe across its back. With its wings fanning the air in a blur, its whole body seemed to vibrate, hovering among the blossoms.

Spicy fragrant blooms on the lilacs

The heat has brought out the first rattlesnakes of the year. Jaume and I were hiking up the ridge above the old driveway when he spotted a baby rattler, about ten inches long and red as the rock, with darker reddish-brown diamonds down its back. Later that day, Mike saw two more snakes near the house. One was unusually aggressive. Most are shy and will soon slither away, but this one remained coiled and ready to strike, showing little interest in leaving.

Stubborn snake by the house
It was a stark reminder of the care that we need to take with three year old Dawson who is in the habit of rampaging about. The last few weeks he has begun asking me, "Grandma are the snakes out?"  We know he knows they are there, in the tall grass, in the rocks and crevices. What we hope is that he will be able to see them and stay away.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Friday, March 9, 2012

Literatura y Espanol

Mike and Jaume Up River

I should be writing this in Spanish, but no voy a hacerlo.

Jaume, one of the exchange students, came down to help Mike for a couple days last week. Jaume's family is from Murcia in Southern Spain.

Jaume and Mestizo

One evening Jaume and I read a Borges story out-loud to each other. It was El Jardin de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of the forked paths ), from one of the books his parents sent him.

The language of the story was dense, with sentences like tree roots grown together. It was also savory, the sounds meaty on my tongue.

Standing there in the kitchen, I had to tell Jaume this house was where I fell in love with Spanish.
Watching the three dogs cross the steers over the bridge

Thirty years ago our friend Little Duke Phillips moved here from Old Mexico with his library of books in Spanish, some translated, some not. Mike and I spent a month in his house, working on contract to build a big hay bunk out of railroad ties. In the evenings, after the kids were in bed, I'd go through Little Duke's books.

It was Neruda the Chilean poet who got to me. Even the translation was achingly beautiful. I knew the original poems on the opposite page were better and that made me sad and a little angry, because I couldn't read them.
Boots off at the end of the day
Now, after years of study, teaching, reading, dreaming, my Spanish is lonely. It's mostly books that keep it company. 

Jaume and I didn't speak much Spanish while he was there, but when he read, I could hear in his voice a tremor of heat, dryness, a little dust. And when I read, my voice carried the hint of warm currents rising upward along the Andes.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

New Horse

Mike has a new horse. Winchester, or Chester or sometimes Chet. 

Glassing for cattle

Chester is a tall horse and a rock or an uphill side is handy to get on from. Shorter horses are nicer that way, but so far we have found Chester to be  mostly kind, active, and he stays on his feet. All good attributes in a coworker. 

I'm still riding Mestizo, the pack horse-turned saddle stock. He is sweet natured, catty, and herd bound. He's getting better, but he still gets nervy (Lippizaner style) when he loses sight of his pals.


We had a good ride to gather cows off the bar upriver. Chester hesitated at the river crossings, but Mestizo, the old hand, marched across and Chester followed gladly.

Near Magpie

Coming home in the near dark, I felt the comfort of a well-fitting saddle and my horse, knowing his way home, but not hurrying too much.

Almost dark

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Weaning Time

Weaning time has come and gone.  Last Sunday we opened the gate and turned our 2011 calves back out to join the herd on the winter range. 

Loafing in the barn
The calves spent nearly the whole month of January in the corrals eating hay and we were fortunate to have mostly dry weather. During the few storms that dumped rain or snow, the barn provided good cover and Mike faithfully cleaned the bedding. 

Look at their eyebrows Grandma

Baling twine lariat
Dawson enjoyed being inside the feeder, helping pitch hay, or practicing his roping skills. He pointed out the calves' eyebrows and eyelashes to me and we admired his big black and white spotted heifer calf.
Ruby at the corral

Ruby spent most of her time down at the corral eyeing the calves. She never seemed to tire of watching their every movement, hour after hour.

Early in the month, Mike and Gabe helped the neighbor gather a few more head out of the breaks, hiking into the high basins and trailing them down on foot.

Already a good hiker

Dawson tagged along one day, staying in the bottom of Log Creek with Grandpa, while his dad climbed up to bring down a few cows. On the way home, they trailed some of our cows back from the Hall Place.

Trailing part of the herd back from the Hall Place

 It was a good January. Yes, there were times when it snowed, and blew, and rained and froze. But the sun was out an awful lot, and there were green things, little forbs poking up their first leaves, and ground cover sprouting a lacy bright carpet in the box elder grove.

We've turned the corner into February, the so-called "dying month", but for now, everything feels like it's about to come alive.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef