There’s an old saying among old cowboy packers—those wizened hands who knew the craft of moving camps and gear on horseback in wild country—that if you’ve packed for 40 or 50 years of your life, you’ve actually only done half that. It’s because the other half you spent looking for lost horses. I was concerned that was going to come true this week as Clint and Leslie headed up to Skull Flats Camp to get their steeds and found that they vamoosed.
“They’re gone, Glenn.” Clint’s voice crackled over the satellite phone (Skull Camp was far out of cell phone service). “I’m not cutting any tracks on the jeep trail in, either to the new camp or back to the old one…” His voice drifted out, being cut off by something between him and Com Sat orbiting high above Earth in the dark vacuum of space. “…we got up to the new camp and told Melanie and crew that we can’t take over…I feel bad ‘cause they looked disappointed and little worn out from their stint.”
It’s because the days can be really long in the saddle, as long as 18 hours or so, especially this time of year when daylight can stretch until 10:30 at night. I hoped Melanie’s crew had enough food in camp to make it for another day or two while Clint and Les covered the country looking for their wayward steeds. They could be anywhere on 70 square miles. It could take days to find them, and we may need to take to the air with a scouting aircraft. Just the day before, Clint took his plane up and found the horses where they were supposed to be as he scouted out the next piece of country to where we would trail the herd to graze.
They had left 6 horses up there in Skull Flats when Anthony and I a few days earlier packed up the camp and trundled all that gear to the next one: Camp 5, or Big Hat Camp. Melanie, Linnaea, and Jake had already mustered the cattle herd in the early morning and were long on the way further up the trail when we arrived to pack camp up in the late morning. I checked the hot wire fence around Clint’s horses as Anthony set up some water for them. The steeds seemed pretty secure up there for the few days they’d have to stay around, so Anthony and I proceeded to load camp; tents to break down, hot wire to roll up, the water tank to empty, pipeline to roll, and kitchen to pack. After about 3 hours, we were ready to move up and follow the herd to Big Hat.
But there was one last thing to do, and it was to check the ground. For anything. A bottle cap. A piece of paper. A matchstick. Anything that would tell some other visitor to this pristine country that we had been there. It was important for us to leave no trace, except for footprints and cowpies. And those would easily be erased over a few months when the fall rains settled into the high country.
Anthony looked across our former camp as we moved out. “It’s hard to believe that a couple of hundred head of cattle, several horses and people lived here for 2 weeks.”
I nodded. Just like I was hoping: leave no trace.
It took a few hours to get up to Big Hat. We spotted Melanie and the herd high up above the track we were on, grazing their way across a table far above the willow and aspen tangle of brush that defined the creek bottom. She had wisely picked the high route to Big Hat and avoided the brush and beaver swamps that choked the bottom. There were no trails here except those of elk and ancient bison, and she was running on only the dead reckoning she had from spending every summer in the saddle up here since she was 10. The two hands she had with her were shaping up very nicely, but they had never been here before. It was all new territory to them, but there was no map other than the one in Melanie’s mind that could guide her through the jumble of timbered canyon, creek and mountainside here in this Idaho wilderness landscape.
And the Big Hat camp had no indications that it was a camp. It was just an arbitrary place we picked in the shade of some old-growth Douglas-fir trees. We could pipe water from a bubbling cold water spring 300 feet away to a temporary stock tank we placed in the night corral that we make of temporary hot wire. We would drink from the same spring the cattle would. In fact, the cowhand crew drinks from nearly every spring source of water on the range. There’s simply no way that the water could be contaminated in such wild and pristine country.
The Big Hat camp would be our night home for the herd and cowhands for 2 weeks, providing a much needed safe haven from wolves in bedding ground for beeves tired of walking all day as they grazed. They needed rest much as we do.
She would find the camp; I figured she would remember the spot. We had spiked out just below it several years earlier as a pack of wolves howled on the ridges above us. After just parking the entire herd of 350 head in the canyon below camp that chill October night, we pulled our gear, took care of our horses, and built a little cook-fire. We had long learned that the Native Americans had it right; small fires were much easier to cook on. After a quick meal, we slept lightly, boots next to bedroll under the pines as the top of the food chain predatory canines carried on in their howling revelry under the full moon on the ridge above.
Back to Anthony and I: we showed up at the Big Hat camp late. It was already 7PM, and we had hot wire to string, pipe to unroll and the portable tank to deploy before 200 plus thirsty beeves rolled in to their bedding ground. Then, we could set up the kitchen, cook shack fly, and lantern light by which to cook by after the sun set behind the thick trees. It would get dark quickly in the valley bottom. We set to work.
The most brutal chore to tackle was setting the water. Anthony and I snaked 300 feet of plastic temporary pipeline through thick brush and downed aspen logs as pileated woodpeckers, the stewards of old growth and ancient forests drummed away on the big ivory barked trees we worked under. As evening breezes touched the treetops, aspen leaves rustled with the trembling that typifies them, even in their scientific namesake: Populus tremuloides, or the trembling aspen. Occasionally, one of the giant woodpeckers would call out with a jungle bird shriek as if to alert the rest of the forest residents. The lute-like and ethereal call of the hermit thrush offset the din by the woodpeckers (see the links below to hear both of these calls and even the drumming of the pileated). The thrushes were like old friends to me as they always heralded the peaceful setting of the sun after a long day and introduced the long shadows of a lowering sun in thick forest. Thrushes were plain to look at, but their song is beautiful.
Deerflies found us, and happily started butchering our faces and arms as we crawled through the dense underbrush. I remarked to Anthony that the irony is that we technically work in a desert, and now we worked in a temperate rainforest created by the springs that emanated from the unseen cracks in bedrock below us. Underfoot was moisture and cold loving sphagnum moss, the live version of peat moss, found over the entire arctic and subarctic worldwide. I grabbed handfuls of the moss to seal in the pipe in one of the many trickles coming down the spring. Water rushed down the pipe, and our beeves and we would enjoy pristine and icy spring water 300 feet away in the dry Douglas-fir understory. I had set the watering tank in an area nearly devoid of vegetation, but mulched with a thick duff of pine needles and cones. Our watering beeves would do no permanent damage to plants or soil.
As the low remaining sun was measured through the trees, we started stretching the temporary hot wire that would make the night pen for our beeves. They wouldn’t even test it; it could even be cold because I think they even found refuge in it. Wolves, canines as they are, hate electric fence. Thinking of which, I let out a high wolf howl; it echoed through the darkening timber and up the canyon. Melanie would recognize it as our usual way to penetrate the broken and forested landscape. There was a reason why wolves so favored their call; it carried like no other. We stopped work for a second and listened for a response. Nothing but the hermit thrush. I wondered if my daughter would remember how to find camp…
Over the next hour of now greying and dusky light, Anthony and I set up our home away from home. As the first stars broke through the deep azure, we stopped work to try to make out the distant voices of the crew as they spoke to the beeves in the thick night air. We could hear them quietly bringing the herd over Big Hat ridge, about a half mile away. I could make out a few lead steers guiding the bunch into camp. They were here last year, and also remembered the way in as they got close into familiar territory. In another half hour, the rest of the cattle quietly single-filed into camp, tired and full bellied of what they think is the best grass on earth. Beeves grabbed a drink, laid down, and two hundred plus sets of eyes watched us from just 20 to 100 feet away as the crew pulled gear off their horses and started dinner cooking by lantern-light. The beeves were part of us. We lived with them, and they were comfortable with that as evidenced by their trust. Camp 5 was established.
It had been 2 days now that Melanie and crew had been living at Big Hat as Clint was looking for his missing horses. I was at headquarters, waiting for the “unavailable” origin phone call that was the trademark of Clint’s satellite phone. I had sent Ethan up to the far side of our grazing country to look for trespass cattle angling in on our grass, 12 miles away from Clint and the crew, and was wondering if I needed to send him a text message that he may pick up on a high ridge about coming back to turn around and look for lost horses.
My wondering halted when the phone rang. I picked up and heard the broken and static voice of Clint: “Glenn?…It’s Clint. I got ‘em; all of them. They were just up shaded up a nearby draw from where we left them. It looked like they ran out of water, and pushed their way out to find some. So Les and I are good to go. We’ll ride up and relieve Melanie and crew.”
Perfect. At least half of Clint’s life over the next few days wouldn’t be spent looking for lost horses. And the incumbent crew will get spelled. Somehow, things always work out.
I stopped on the way back from Big Hat cow camp 2 days ago. It was a 65 mile long ride on rocky roads with a motorcycle to get to Big Hat and back, and my rear was pretty sore in the heat of the afternoon. It was a good place to stop, because there was 18 head of wild bighorn sheep grazing in the meadow 50 yards away. Bighorn sheep were almost extirpated from the Rockies, but there are several wild strongholds that exist. Hat Creek is one of them. There were new kids (not lambs on wild sheep) romping around their moms. They looked up at me and watched back. I had been by enough now that they were used to me. Most continued to graze, but some just stared, not out of fear, I think, but curiosity.
We exchanged glances for a few minutes and I thought about our time up here. There’s always an occasional time just like this where a body needs to just stop, breathe deeply and reflect. I think I know what you are thinking; it seems like a lot of work to have Alderspring beeves traipse through wilderness for the summer grass season. Many other grazers of the public lands that comprise most of the land in the Rockies just turn their cattle loose for the season, gather them in the fall, and ship the calves to feedlots in the Midwest. They’ll kill wolves rather than coexist with them, degrade and sometimes destroy fish and wildlife habitat, and fail to recognize that they work on lands that can create beef of exceptional flavor and wellness. To some of them, the wild lands of the West are wastelands; good for nothing as no-one claimed them as a homestead. It was a place for them to dump their cows as they made hay on their private lands over the summer.
Caryl and I have always loved wild landscapes. It is what brought us to natural resource careers, and then to tending these wild lands as regenerative ranchers. These wild lands we care for are beautifully linked to producing exceptional beef that blesses human health. It is a truly sustainable ecologically based agricultural system. It’s more than coexistence. It’s husbandry. And what we are able to do is walk in beauty and awe as we live and work up there as part of and in concert with the wild. It’s hard work, but we are thankful we get to do it.
I hope I’m able to convey those gifts to you on these pages. Thanks for being a part of our work and life and helping us take care of both land and cattle while we serve you.