Friday, February 10, 2017

Crossing to Ice

Load supplies, chain-up, haul, unload, chore, fix, shovel, load, haul, un-chain. Repeat. We've had about as much snow in the canyon as in the valley, a real bear of a winter. We've had to chain up for two months now, first time in the thirty-six years we've lived here. Yes we've had big storms, or severe cold, and had to chain up for brief periods of time. But this year the conditions persisted, turning thirty miles of narrow steep dirt road into sheets of ice, sometimes made worse by freezing rain or thaw. 

Loading supplies in the valley

So far, the frozen river has gorged twice, leaving behind about four feet of ice clogging the water gaps. When Mike said we had to dig it out, I said, "There's no way we can remove all this ice. We'd need dynamite!" But he was right. There were interstices of air and snow between the thick slabs and with shovels and a digging bar, we were able to leverage and tease the jam apart like a giant ice puzzle. As we freed each slab, we launched it onto an ice shelf and over the edge into deeper water where it floated away downstream like a mini-iceberg.
Sara teasing apart ice slabs in water gap

After ice removal

Most of December and January had severe cold. Periods of thaw melted snow on the river bottom, but the north slopes stayed frozen and icy. We switched from slick ice to greasy mud, then back to ice again. Mike kept an eye out for slide marks, where cattle had lost their footing and skidded down the steep canyonside. Then he hiked to the location to look for injured animals. So far anything that slid has made it out okay.

I was grateful for Mike's skillful driving during the horrid conditions. From close encounters with elk hunters driving too fast, to having our steering go out, he kept us safe. Luckily, the steering failure occurred on a flat place without drop-offs. And wonderfully, one of our two downriver neighbors in twenty miles came by within ten minutes. Just as we were getting ready to hike 4 miles, carrying truck tire chains, thank you Beth!

Chains, a pain to deal with, but life-saving

Right before weaning, the hay stack flooded. Mike relocated it and then Gabe and Cammie came down and helped us get the calves in and on hay for a month.   Nearly all the calves were probably naturally weaned already, but the separation from the herd completes the process.

Snow melt flooding hay stack

It's interesting how the calves bond, forming their own little herd. After turn out, they often stay in bunches, venturing off alone or grazing with the other cattle as they see fit.
Calves in weaning pen

A break in the weather gave Mike and I a chance to ride for cattle that strayed to the neighbors. We saw a few of the thousands of elk that have been driven to the canyons by deep snow.
Elk taking refuge in the canyons

When we crossed the river, the usual trail was blocked by ice jams. The cattle found several spots to climb out and pushed through the thorny brush on the far side. With horses, our choices were more limited. I decided to try for a low ice shelf, with a patch of open ground on the bank above. I thought I could get off there and break trail through the brush.
Sara and Bird, a 'balmy' day

I was relieved when Bird agreed to jump up onto the ice shelf. With a big 'crack' it broke under his weight, but he kept his feet under him and we made it up onto the bank and through the hawthorn, alder and blackberry.

Shirt sleeve weather! 

With some of the snow melted, Mike and I took advantage of open ground to hike up spring draw and check fences.  It felt good to make it to the bench, to get out and hike after the confinement of treacherous conditions and the demands of freeze and flood.

Steers on the bench

We hiked home on the main trail, down the west face of the bench and across the toe slope above the barn. I was happy to get back before dark and out of the windy cold.

Thanks Gary! 

I'm thankful that Gary cut and split a bunch of box elder when he was here feeding calves for a few days. The wood pile was running short and we hadn't had time to cut more during the severe weather.

"Made in USA"

The hot fire and a new wool rug made the house feel cozy and welcoming.  After much practice in negotiation, Mike and I had finally picked out a rug.  We ordered samples four times before agreeing on what to get. It was nice to see it in the living room for the first time.

We celebrated the warmer weather and good rug decision with a hearty stew, and fizzy beverages of Horse Creek plum syrup, fresh ginger and lemon. And that was a good thing, because, as it has been doing for months, the snow soon arrived again.

Winter back porch shrine

Yard, orchard, downriver

From Sara, mother of Prairie, at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef