Finally, I have a forced sit-down. I’m sitting in the Salmon, hospital ER, at 16-year-old daughter Maddy’s bedside. She’s reading a novel on her phone, waiting for the doc. I figured I might as well write a novel…to all of you.
I think we might be here for a while.
Her backcountry horseback herding crew found her afoot last evening, wandering around in a thick fir and aspen forest, off her Sunny mare. Tears welled up in her eyes as she literally re-gathered consciousness and her thoughts, getting over the shock of a nasty blow to her head. Immediately her compadres surveyed her situation as they had been trained to do in Alderspring’s backcountry first aid course and encouraged her to rest on the forest floor while crew boss Jake declared a potential emergency over the satellite device he always carries attached to his belt.
Maddy has no remembrance of what happened. That part of her memory is gone, at least for the moment. She thought maybe her mare jumped over one of the many down logs, and perhaps whacked her against a tree in the process.
Thankfully, I intercepted the satellite call immediately. I had dropped Maddy off only an hour or so earlier in our remote Park Creek camp to switch with Annie. I was only about a half hour down the very rough and steep road and was able to make it back to her in 10 minutes, driving much faster than usual over the rocky and brushy track.
When I got there, range rider Ben was at her side keeping her company and making sure she was comfortable. The rest of the crew had gone back to tending the cattle on the steep mountainside. After I extensively checked her out, I decided that her situation wasn’t worsening, and we had time to transport her the 2 hours to primary care without a helicopter. But you never know about head injuries; there could be brain bleeding or cerebrospinal fluid leakage that can cause subsequent problems.
It’s why we’re in the ER. I look at her, and she is bored. Hurry up and wait.
Maddy is can-do. Just several hours before her crash, she and I were crawling our way up the rock trail two track of Big Hat Creek in the f250 four-wheel drive. We came up a steep creek bed draw in the thick cover of a conifer forest, broke onto a park-like Douglas-fir tree studded flat, and noted two free black horses in the sun dappled shade.
“It’s Bo and Flick,” Maddy observed.
“They must have broken from the pack string,” I thought out loud.
Maddy nodded. We both knew that Sara, our 19-year-old two-hatted camp cook and cowboy packer had passed through this very valley with 7 or 8 head of horses packed heavy with camp gear, making the move from Big Hat Camp to Park Creek camp. She had a range rider named Montana with her, willing and able, but just learning about packing.
I hoped the experience wouldn’t overwhelm him. The way to the next camp was trail-less, and over a high mountain range partially cloaked with thick forests.
Although Sara was young, she packed a lot of trail horse and pack experience in her heart, soul and mind. But when stringing a lot of horses through broken and trail-less country, there was a sack full of things that could go wrong.
I stopped the high clearance F250 range truck and turned toward Maddy in the passenger seat. “Maddy, you got all your riding gear in the back? I mean you have a saddle and bridle in this truck?”
“Sure do.” Her face cringed a little, partly with a smile, because she probably knew what I was thinking.
” I’d like you to make the trip over to Park Creek with these two to catch up with the crew. You’ll have to find the way by yourself, riding one of these and leading the other, but I think you can do this. I’ll make the 7-mile trip around on roads with this truckload of gear, and I should be able to meet you there in the next valley.”
I sketched a little map in the dirt at our feet showing her where Park Camp was and the route to get there, and she stoically accepted the info. There was a job to do, and she would do it.
She grabbed the older, more recalcitrant gelding named Flick (“he isn’t gonna lead well,” Maddy calculated) and started throwing gear on and tossed me some scraps of rope off the truck. “Can you just tie a halter together outta them for my lead horse?”
“Sure can.” As I tied the knots for the makeshift halter, she finished tacking Flick. Mounting up, I went over the way south again. “Just work your way up that ridge all the way until you hit the pass. Then pick the first canyon you see and take it all the way to the bottom of the valley.”
She nodded, then half smiled, and headed off into the trees. I breathed a quick prayer…partly for safety, but also of thanks that our 16-year-old kid, and all our daughters, are resolute enough in the backcountry to be comfortable in a wild place complete with every major top-of-the-food-chain wild predator native to North America. There were lions, wolves, and bears. She had no trail to follow, only my directions and a few subtle landmarks.
I trundled my own way up the steep mountain track, bumping and brush-popping through thick sage and timber openings as the truck clawed ever upward. Mirrors bumped and folded themselves in on narrow wooded sections as tires rattled over rock and root.
In about an hour, I rolled into Park Camp. It looked like Sara and Montana had just arrived with their horse pack string, and I spotted a light dust in the air high up on the next mountain where Jake and crew grazed the herd, way up in a patch of fir forest.
No Maddy yet.
But as I worked on the water tank for an hour or so for the cattle that would be coming in for a drink in a few hours, I heard the jingle of spurs and equine footfalls before I saw them. I looked over the next rise, where there was a spurt of volcanic ash dust ejecting skyward. It was Maddy, horseback with another in tow.
She smiled at me. A little proud. But that was OK with me.
Annie, her older sister by a year and a half was behind her. Apparently, Annie had spotted Maddy coming off the broad pass from a distance. She had left the rest of the herding crew to come down and switch places with Maddy. (Annie had a music commitment with our family band-she’s our pianist- and Maddy had agreed to take her place herding on an extra-long stint.)
In another hour or so, Maddy was up on the mountain with her crew, taking the cattle into the cool Douglas-fir for the rest of the afternoon. I knew they would done early; they had started early to climb over the mountain bringing the cattle from Big Hat to Park in the coolness of the morning, well before sunup, and both crew and cattle would be ready to bed down early.
Little did we know then that Maddy’s stint would only last a few hours instead of several days.
The days are all long at this time of year. We end up letting the cattle decide when to stop grazing. They are diurnal, so that means that as long as it is not too hot, they’ll go out and forage if the sun is up. And that can mean a really long day for a human. It’s why nearly all our crew members are under the age of 30.
I’m just not sure older folks can put up with the punishing length of days. I know it is hard on my 59-year-old body. I can’t do the back-to-back stints anymore; 4 or 5 days is plenty long enough for me.
But such is the life when we live on the land and make our living on it. We wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s not exactly risk free, either. As I brought Maddy into the ER, I thought of how many of our own family have been in there from range and horse wrecks. I’ve had my share of wrecks, but generally am too stubborn to go to the ER, despite many broken ribs and a couple of concussions.
But the kids are my kids, and I worry more about them than I do myself, so here we are.
I’m out of the ER now, with Maddy. They kept her under observation for most of the afternoon, but the doc considered all the information she gathered and thought that it was unlikely that there was anything besides bruising. She thought that would heal up in a couple days.
“You’re going to have to give yourself some brain rest,” she explained to Maddy. “Try to stay off things like social media and texting. And no riding on the range for a period of at least 5 days.”
“And no video games.”
Maddy looked over at me. She wasn’t ready to smile, but I knew she was inside. I don’t think she’s ever had the time to play a video game. None of our kids have.