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

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

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Adventures with Vehicles

Bell, Ruby and Punch tied in
Our truck has been in the shop quite a bit recently, so I borrowed Gabe and Cammie's truck to head for the prairie and check on the cows. The dogs are used to being in their travelling kennel on our flat bed and I had to improvise a cross tie so they wouldn't fall out or jump out of Gabe's truck and get squashed. 

Dawson organizes snacks for Wes

Dawson and Wes were good company. They have had to put up with several vehicle episodes lately.  Their reward for long waits at the mechanic was extra-long swimming at the lake with friends, many many library books, and fun snacks from M Crow and Co.
Cows happy on the summer range

The cows, calves and bulls were doing good with plenty of grass and plenty of water in the ponds. The boys and I got to see the effects of a late spring cloudburst and gully washer. Along the two-track access road, there were a few big holes that were interesting to navigate, but nothing four-low couldn't handle.

Four bucket picker - don't spill! 

Blackberries have come and gone and I'm glad I made it to the river for some excellent picking with Cheryl. We also tried out a few of our favorite swimming holes after getting super hot in the hundred degree weather.

Swimming hole at old bridge abutment

Unfortunately, on the way out of the canyon, my car overheated and my brakes and automatic transmission both stopped working right. (And that was after we had to change a flat tire.) Luckily we made it through the last few hairpin turns on the steep dirt road and I got the car stopped at the pavement by using the emergency brake. After a cool down, it was driveable again, but now is headed for the shop. 

Cows near the lower pond

Since the truck was still out-of-service with an electrical problem, Patricia drove me out to the Zumwalt to see the cows again. We had a storm on our heels and saw some fantastic lighting bolts and rain curtains on the way home.

Storm behind us

I'm so glad I have friends who know what a cheater bar is, know how to kill a rattler, love hyperactive working dogs, aren't afraid of hairy roads, like to keep an eye on cows, are willing to help lug irrigation pipe, check on a colicky horse, fix plumbing problems and drive me back and forth to the mechanic. 

It's a good thing Mike is coming home soon. I'm half a partnership and barely holding up my end. 

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Off to Montana to Throw the Hoolihan

Many hours of this view - Dennis driving
The lyrics to this old time cowboy song come to mind when I think of our recent road trip across Montana and into Saskatchewan . Believe it or not the hoolihan is one throw I actually got okay at. It's a loopy overhand throw, and I've used it on horses. I don't know what kind of roping was going on in the song, but on our road trip we weren't off to do any kind of cowboying. 

North Central Montana

Dennis and Marcy and Mike and I were headed to Saskatoon to the International Rangeland Congress, where Mike and Dennis were presenting. Mike gave an oral presentation in the ecosite descriptions and ecoregion classification session. His paper was titled, Developing Ecological Site Descriptions on Mongolian Rangelands to Enhance Monitoring Condition and Trend. Dennis and colleague Dal presented a poster session on the results of their condition and trend monitoring in Mongolia. 

Marcy - girl power accomplice

It was four days of driving and we had a lot of fun getting lost (briefly but regularly), stalling the truck at the border crossing (half in US half in Canada), Dennis getting across the border with his expired passport (grabbed the wrong one), and having a marble-sized chunk of something smash a bullseye in the windshield at 60 mpg (passenger side). I especially enjoyed getting to spend more time with Marcy, telling stories and seeing new country, across the plains and then home through the Canadian rockies.

Mike preps for his presentation
There were about four hundred delegates at the congress, which lasted a week and is held every four years. I think 2020 will be held in Africa. 
Fort Carlton, restored Hudson Bay post

Mike did an excellent job with his presentation and had some great questions from the audience. He presented on the morning of the first day, so after that we were both able to relax and enjoy seeing some old friends and meeting new ones. I especially liked the sessions with a social component, such as the work of Maria Fernandez-Gimenez, the Colorado State University professor who recently won Mongolia's highest civilian honor - the Order of the Polar Star. 
Mongolian delegates and a few US colleagues

Mongolian colleague, Dal, now working at the University of Saskatchewan, hosted a barbeque one evening. There were many many toasts in Mongolian and English, including a nice one by Mike where he concluded by honoring all the women in the world! I think he learned that toast from the Armenians! 

On the banks of the Saskatchewan river

Spending the week with people from countries around the world was a wonderful reminder of our commonalities and our ability to communicate in spite of language barriers and cultural differences. It was a good segue to Mike's departure for Kyrgyzstan (flying through Istanbul just after the coup attempt), reminding me of the good in the world.  

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Friday, July 15, 2016

Out of the Canyon and off to Kyrgyzstan

We're out of the canyon now. We topped out with the cattle in early June, trailing the cow herd up to the Zumwalt Prairie from the Imnaha Canyon. Everything went smoothly and the cows were happy to be on the summer range. Cammie, Dawson, Wes and I helped trail on the last day.  

Day two of the cattle drive

Day three, not much farther to go

Sara and Weston with Chester

While Prairie was home for a visit, Harlan, now eight months, got to spend time with the cows. Like the horses, he was very interested and happy to be with them, but didn't want to get up close and personal. They are big animals!

Happy to be on the prairie

Picnic with the cows

Once all the cattle were on the summer range, we made a trip back to the river for salmon season ,  Gabe caught several nice salmon. Dawson got up at the crack of dawn to fish everyday and caught several trout, but no salmon this time.

Early riser

A keeper

We had a tremendous mulberry harvest this year.  There are a few trees scattered along the riparian area and the fruit was perfect for picking while we were there. We ate as many berries as we could and froze some for Prairie to take back to Portland. 

Jon and Prairie pick mulberries


As part of our conservation and restoration projects, Mike did some annual monitoring in the canyon. Measuring the type and quantity of plants in certain rangeland sites helps us get a sense of how well we are doing at managing our use of the range. Some of our goals are encouraging healthy native ecosystems and nudging historically degraded areas toward an improving trend.

Monitoring plot

Mike says rangeland management is just "gardening on a very large scale." As a rangeland ecologist, he enjoys studying the natural world, especially the canyons and prairies that have been our home for over thirty years. I love how he can explain things and I drive him crazy with questions sometimes.

Canyon dinner, my favorite way to cook

Mike will be headed to Kyrgyzstan soon to consult on a community-based pasture management livestock project. It will be his first trip to Kyrgyzstan. I have some fears about him travelling so far away to people he's never met. But I know he will share his best science and his practical experience raising livestock to help the Krygyz herders answer questions and think about new management tools. He will learn a lot. I hope he makes a few good friends.

I'm going to miss him while he's gone. 


From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef