The fall colors on the Range had waxed and waned; the cold began to seep in, first imperceptibly, then, with abandon to where it was hard to keep warm in the saddle. An Arctic breeze would snake its way down from the rocky tundras of the highest part of our summer Range. Every so often, when we broke the crest of a ridge, we could see the brilliant white of the snow crusted massif called Taylor Mountain. At nearly 10,000 feet, the peak’s long ridge line that reached above the limit of trees sported an unbroken, winter smooth patina of frozen white.
Tim and I had been riding horseback for days trying to find 2 Red Angus bulls. Bulls are valuable, especially when they are young and well-bred as these were. I was starting to lose hope. Last week, we found the last of the cows, and carefully guided them across frozen creeks down the rocky trails to Little Hat Ranch. This was late November, and I was starting to get concerned that perhaps the wolves somehow cornered them and put by some grass fed beef in their own preparation for winter.
I recalled back to last October when I climbed with the kids through the new snow to the summit of Taylor Mountain. As we trudged through the drifts near the peak, we encountered a well-worn and packed trail through the snow: huge paw-prints of wolves that had been working the long ridge back and forth for weeks, perhaps months. Their trail was a trench in the snow, 2 or 3 feet deep, worn and packed by frequent travel.
Evidently the pack had been cruising the ridge this year as well, just like Tim and I were. Ridges give good views. The wolves did us better because not only were they good at seeing game, they could also hear and smell better than we. The ridge line was a sort of cafeteria for them; here they could check out many alpine basins in a given day, looking for what looked tasty, whether it be elk, moose or deer. Perhaps, even the scent of bull or lone cow would waft up from the deep alpine valleys that bounded the ridge.
It was those kind of thoughts that kept us hard at the search at hand.
We pushed our horses over the frozen ground to cover more miles in the ever decreasing daylight. Thankfully, our mounts were in really good shape. We’d been riding since May, usually 3 days a week, and toward the end of the summer, we were clocking some 35 mile days. The horses were hard and sinewy; even their feet were hard despite the fact that this was their third set of shoes. In preparation, we had taken to arc welding little hard-faced carbide dots on the steel of their shoes to give a little more purchase on slick creek ice or frozen ground. It worked.
The clock was ticking not so much because of the snow or the wolves. It was the little seeps and creeks that were my biggest concern. Several old-timers had mentioned it to me over the years with quips like “cows don’t take to well to ice skating” or “good luck trying to coax a cow over black ice.” There was almost nothing you could do to get a cow to cross a frozen creek, and we had 55 miles of them on our 70 square miles of summer pasture.
The Red Angus bulls were bosom buddies. I had purchased both of the year before from Jay, an old-time Angus and Hereford breeder in the next valley that still retained some of the old bloodlines. These were ancient lines that pre-dated the ubiquitous feedlot and corn-fed genetics that dominate both breeds today. Not only were the bloodlines of his cattle old-time grass eating genetics, but Jay was old-time as well. He was a late 70s gentleman, who had a little trouble getting around, but his spirit and demeanor was as a 20 year old’s. Especially when you got him talking about bulls. I think somehow he suffered a blood transfusion that got some Red Angus or Hereford genetics mixed in his own blood; perhaps a freak accident in the corrals where their blood blended. That was how passionate he was. The bulls treated him like one of their own; he could readily walk up to any of them and give them a back scratching, but if I tried, they’d shy to the other side of the pasture.
Tim and I rode elk trails, ancient bison ways across the rugged topography that defined the Salmon River Break country. We dodged in and out of thick and dark forests that held snow to still-open sunshiny meadows, facing south that made you feel winter was a long way off, but the feeling was short lived. Perched on top of rocky crags with our steeds in the wind it was tough to hold the binoculars with bare hands, as we strained for a sign across the broken landscape, searching for a track or anything that would give us a hint as to their whereabouts.
I was thankful my mare was “hairing up”- growing the dense soft hair coat that would keep her warm even at 20 below zero. The only sign that the horses were wincing a little from the cold was in their faces; they would occasionally turn away from the brisk breezes that blew over barren ridges. Otherwise, over the rest of their body, they were warm to the touch. I wondered if they were grateful for blanket and saddle to retain heat even better. I could feel the heat coming off of them, and I relished it.
We were in the 4th day of our dedicated bull searching and running out of time. Tim and I agreed to separate, describing exactly where we were each going to go, and setting a rendezvous. We were careful to plan our meet up for a time long before daylight’s end; that way either of us could go look for our fallen comrade if need be in what was left of day. Cell phones are impossible over much of the range, as are radios; the topography renders them useless. We both knew that the cold could turn what was a small injury of horse or rider in the summer into life threatening with the onset of hypothermia in minutes.
Ideal situation is to stay together at all times, but the clock of winter was ticking loudly. We each carried some heavy rain gear for thermal conservation, a lighter for starting an emergency warming or signal fire, and a flashlight for signaling in the cover of night. Each of these had to be on our person. I recalled when one of our cowhands came off his horse in the middle of nowhere and had to walk five miles before he caught up with her, finally, at midnight. If he never caught up, it would have been nearly 20 miles on foot before he got to Drop Point 2, where the truck was parked.
I was glad we split up, because at only midday, I stopped on the high ridgeline of my search area to glass the country. After inventorying the miles of canyon and meadow viewable from my perch, I fixed on a spot of color in the otherwise gray of aspen trees in the narrow canyon below me. I spotted them, I thought, two vague red splotches, unmoving, barely visible through the gray of leafless trees in the very bottom of the rock-strewn Park Creek, some 2000 feet below me. I held my ground and grabbed some jerky from my saddlebag and dropped my mare’s reins. She stood stock still, even as I walked 50 feet to get a better view; to this day, she was the best ground tying mare I’ve ever had. I’d often siesta for a few minutes during the summer in the shade of an aspen grove. She was always there, waiting for me to simply pick up her reins and mount.
The red splotches did not move. As I improved my angle, I could definitely make them out as the lost bulls in the partial sunlight of the leafless canopy in the canyon bottom. But through my binoculars, they looked odd. They were both prostrate, stretched out, unmoving. They looked dead. Their heads were down on the ground. One was cocked into an awkward, almost grotesque looking angle. Occasionally, you’ll see one cow or bull in weird positions, but not two of them.
I watched them for about 20 minutes while chewing on the jerky, and nothing changed. They were most certainly quite dead, probably by wolves who lurked nearby, who were likely taking a break from the feast. I fingered my .357 magnum revolver, holstered on my belt. I never had encountered wolves in this situation before. I had friends who encountered bears near their prey, and they were attacked immediately. One, Chris, was treed up a small douglas-fir tree, and the bear attempted to follow, with jaws slapping just inches from his logger boots in an attempt at a pull down.
Chris climbed higher. The bear followed. Finally, the bear backed down, and waited for him at the bottom of the tree. Several hours went by, and eventually, bear got bored, and began to wander. Chris made a run for it, but never returned back to that piece of Idaho forest again without a weapon.
Now I’m no wanton killer, and have no macho “have gun will travel” mentality. Most of the reason I carried was if something went wrong with one of my charges—horse or cow. Just the year before, I had to mercy kill a cow with a broken leg, caught in a jungle of down timber. One shot. She never knew what hit her. Peaceful. I was grateful I carried my tool to do it right, with absolutely no stress for her.
From this distance, and in the partial shade, I wouldn’t be able to make out the blood on their red hides. I turned toward Missy, still obedient mare, and climbed on her back for the long trail to the canyon bottom, making lots of noise as I descended. I had to see what happened, and didn’t want to surprise anyone enjoying a noontime meal in the warm sunshine.
I got closer, and noted that the bulls were indeed bulls, and were yet motionless. Still dead. I finally arrived in the bottom a little upstream from them, and Missy and I started crashing through the downfall in the creek bottom. I wanted to be heard above the rush of the creek waters.
I could see their carcasses now, through the white boles of the aspen trees. They maintained their prone positions, lifeless in the sun. I stopped and surveyed the situation. No blood apparent. I broke out of the trees and said “HEY!”
Two one-ton leviathans came to life instantly, and jumped up to their feet, and stood at attention, staring agape with surprise at me. They hadn’t seen a human, after all, for probably 3 months. Everything a bull could dream of was here; done with the breeding season of those cows, they found a vacation spot with abundant grass, water, shade, and sunshine. It was the bull equivalent of a beach in the South Pacific, and I had interrupted their sunbathing.
I spoke to my mare, and we got them moving on. They turned and started heading down the trail obediently back toward home and Little Hat Ranch, where the rest of strays awaited. Every now and then they would look back as if to say, “Where have you been? It took you long enough.” Tim and I would get them all tomorrow with a trailer trip from the headquarters ranch. And we would be gathered.
I was grateful. We were done on the range for another year. We call it gathering here, and it’s a ritual that all of us who ride on wild ranges have to do. The words of a song we sing at the Thanksgiving table speak to it, probably unknowingly by the writer, but very appropriate for us:
Come ye thankful people come;
Raise the song of harvest home.
All is safely gathered in;
Ere the winter’s storm begin.
We’re grateful of work done, of another harvest season behind us. We’re thankful for safekeeping, that both riders and their horses ended the season unhurt, and all of our cattle are back from the wilds without harm.
But most of all, we are thankful to you, our partners, that keep us on the land by your continued patronage and trust, in allowing us to stock your table this year with our version of wild wellness.
May you all have a lovely Thanksgiving.
Glenn, Caryl, Girls and Cowboys from Alderspring.