It was like Sherwood Forest down there. As far as the eye could see, tall cottonwood trunks stood with rustling leaves above, providing continuous shade over the thick grasses below. An occasional 100 year old and failed homestead log cabin, now rotting into the ground provided the only break in the continuous trunk procession across the bottoms. The quiet movement of water over rocks echoed from the riverbank that bordered the forest. The beeves either had their heads down in the thick green or laid down in the shade, some 20 degrees lower in temp than the hot desert range above. The green alone had great contrast to the cured out ranges the cattle just came down.
They would go nowhere tonight, I thought.
I thought wrong. I forgot about Fat Boy.
The next morning, Clint, Leslie, Jake and I showed up on horseback to gather. After about an hour in the green forest, Jake said, “I feel like we’re missing some here. Seems like we’re quite a few head short.” I had been watching tracks on the trail into the cottonwoods: none there. I cast a glance across the broad and swift Salmon River. There: in the cottonwoods that forested the other side of the river, about 100 yards distant, I saw black yearling cattle. They had to be ours.
I nudged Ginger down to the swift and cold river. It was over 50 yards wide here, and even though it was clear water and I could clearly make out the rocky cobble bottom, I couldn’t see how deep it would go further out because of the current riffles across the surface. It looked pretty deep. I figured the beeves made it OK. It had to be good for us as well. I pumped her sides with my legs and clicked my tongue, leaving the sandy beach of shoreline behind us.
As the bottom dropped underfoot, the current hastened. Leslie followed on her mount.I was glad Ginger and Leslie’s Dexter horse were part long legged Thoroughbreds. A short quarter horse would get quickly swept away if it got deeper, as their body would get slammed by the swift current. Even as it was, my cowboy boots filled to the brim as the snowmelt water drifted over my knees. We were drifting sideways badly in the flow. Ginger and I were both mesmerized by the boiling water that sped around us. It was almost disorienting.
I got ready to bail, moving my feet back in the stirrups to my toe tips, and readied to swim. If Ginger lost her feet, she would instinctively swim, and needed me to get off. I recalled the time I didn’t get off in time in deep water. Mare and I went completely under, and got separated in the black water. Pulling on the reins could drown her. What I needed to do is grab her horn to stay with her powerful swimming instinct while I swam alongside; it was a sure way to get across without getting swept away.
But just as I got ready to swing a leg over and get off, Ginger footed a rocky bar on the river bottom and heaved herself through deep water to shore. We gained ground on the sandy beach, as did Leslie and Dexter. Within minutes, we were riding through the forest on the other side, and found many Alderspring steers, apparently led by wayward and homeward Fat Boy in the night, mixed up with 100 head of our neighbor’s cattle in the bottomland forest.
Fat Boy had positioned himself as leader of the herd that summer. This was his second year on the range, and he was sure he knew the way home better than us. He had actually headed in the right direction; he just didn’t know there was a very well-built tight fence between him and home. He and his band of followers were stuck.
We grabbed a small contingent that was handy, figuring we could sort the rest before dark that night and trailer them home from the neighbor’s ranch corrals. We herded them back into the river, and in the deep water, they lost footing and had to swim. Range fattened Angus steers do float fairly well, and are good swimmers, I will attest. They ended up swept downstream, but Clint was ready on the far side, and handily gathered them despite the rock cobble and tangle of river bank debris and placed them with the rest of the herd.
We were finally off on the final leg of the 35 mile trail back home. The rest was a matter of trailing them home the 7 miles up the valley to the ranch. Part of the trip was in the Salmon River Canyon, trailing on the twisting 2 lanes of US highway 93. It was a narrow passage; the river was on one side of the shoulderless highway, and a cliff on the other. Semis and tourists used the artery through the Central Idaho highlands to move freight and enjoy the scenery.
It was the day after Labor Day, and I thought most of the tourists would be gone. My second time wrong in less than 24 hours. There were lots of tourists.
And there, in that canyon, all of us on horseback became famous for a moment for the many tourists who stopped to film and photograph us while we herded the beeves the old fashioned way up the 2 lane highway. Many people asked politely: “do you mind if I take your picture?” Another RVer yelled from the window as she passed through: “My first cattle drive! I got the whole thing on film!” In the narrows, and in curves, traffic stopped to a cow’s pace. Occasionally, traffic stopped, and for some of the passers-by, time stopped too, as they realized they were part of something unusual these days: the timeless and ancient tradition of animals being moved at own their pace, not an expressway or internet pace, in a migration for new grass.
It was kind of an appropriate ending to a season on the range. After all, we had lived the beeves for the entire summer up there, and it wasn’t easy. The days were long, and sometimes exasperating and exhausting, but there was satisfaction as we watched the beeves gain and settle into life in wild country. There were rewards in seeing big snow-capped mountain country under a color crayon sunsets, and inhaling the intoxicating breezes laden with the pungent scents of sage and pine forest.
But these people, along the road, taking pictures and movies of us, well, that was actually a thing for them too. And in a quite unexpected way, it validated what we set out to do. We brought the beeves all home, healthy and well and fat. We cared for the high mountain ecosystems and enhanced them while we were there. We grew food this summer: perfect protein from the mountain wilderness.
It is what we do, and we have succeeded in husbandry of the beeves, and we left only footprints. The tourists were right; we were rock stars in the Rocky Mountains. To my amazing crew, who put up and prevailed with all that nature could dish out, you are famous in my eyes. Thank you for doing your part in growing the best beef in the world. It has been an honor to ride with you.
Happy Trails to you all.
PS: We found them all; the beeves that is. We brought them all home, and they are fat…and happy to be back.