Our summer range in the Salmon River Mountains is moody as a mare in heat. Ethan, Abby, and Melanie have been up there for 3 days now on their rotation, and have seen nearly the whole gamut of weather our wild mountain country can dish out. When they started on Tuesday, the weather was hot and dry in the Deer Gulch country. Clouds of volcanic ash dust would rise up behind the herd as they trailed them up to the high ridges where there were verdant meadows of green, waving like the ocean under a tradewind breeze. In the basin centered by Magpie Springs, the hub of that part of the range, the desert range was beginning to show its summer colors of hot, dry and browning, a veritable frying pan because of the basin’s southeast orientation.
It’s like one of those solar reflective cookers when clear and dry weather hits, and if you are still there in midsummer, you feel like you and your horse become pan fried sirloins in a giant’s kitchen. It’s why cacti are so abundant down there, and I could often see those mirage-like heat devil lizards skittering away like sparks in front of my Ginger’s hooves. Even the snakes take cover in the heat of summer. Cowboy Patchin spotted a big rattler coiled up on a flat rock in the sun as he rode by; it wasn’t hot enough for him yet to seek cover, but us warm blooded critters had just enough.
A few days of that kind of weather convinced me to move the herd to higher elevations and cooler country. The heat wasn’t bothering the beeves, as there was plenty of water (besides, it was only in the mid-80s), but in just a week or two, the low elevation grass would become dry and brittle. And along with the moisture loss in the grass, much of the great nutrition for those steers would evaporate.
It’s a summer rhythm for us: as the temps rise, so do we. Four thousand feet of elevation gradient gives us a leg up on many beef producers, as we can always keep the beeves on green and growing goodness by following the retreating snowline ever higher. All we have to do is elevate the beeves every week or two. So the move from Deer Gulch to verdant, cooler and breezy Bear Basin happened on Wednesday of this week. The ride wasn’t that long, only about 8 miles. The only problem was summiting Big Deer Mountain on the way there.
Big Deer is shaped like a giant sleeping doe on the landscape, and forms a sloping 1500 foot wall, separating high and perched Bear Basin from the low and brittle Magpie country. There is a way around Big Deer through the formidable Pig Creek canyon, but the rocks, brush, and rattlesnakes make it pretty undesirable to bring the beeves through, especially if it starts cooking in canyon-bound heat. To make matters worse, Pig Creek has no good water, and the added mileage going around Big Deer makes Pig Creek a brutal trek. But it still is tempting to avoid the big climb over Big Deer Mountain, and take the low route around.
We fell into that temptation last year, on a rapidly warming June day, when I sent cowboys Josh and Colin on horseback through Pig Creek Canyon with the herd, instead over Big Deer. They were on the right track when I rode down there to check on their progress, but both they and the herd were bone dry after trailing uphill all day. Now, they had finally hit Pig Canyon bottom and the sun angle was just right to turn on the cooker. I knew the boys might be out of water, so I brought a liter down from camp in Bear Basin. Their parched and almost panting faces said all as I handed them the cool canteen that they quickly gulped empty. I knew the herd was the same way, and after one look at them, I made a decision to abort their further climb up Pig Creek through the canyon. They turned the herd to follow gravity back down canyon instead, 2 easy miles to our Little Hat Ranch, where there would be abundant creek water, shade and lush grass for the herd to stock up on for a day or two until a cooler trek up the canyon could be made. The range schools us hard through her siren call of temptation to what we think is the easier trail; an attempt and often failure then sear into our minds that what first appeared harder was actually the easier path.
My mind has seared in it many lessons the Range had taught me. There had been many close calls, and some real disasters as we learn the hard-knocks lessons of landscape. I recalled when cowboys Josiah and Jess took 200 mama cows and their babies over the shoulder of a peak we call the Beaverhead one summer day instead of fighting the wiles of the brush and beaver swamp in the Moose Creek bottoms. It seemed like a good idea to avoid that wet and marshy canyon, especially when I recounted the family of black bears that descended on the front of the herd and caused gridlock on the tight canyon trail the year before.
So the cowboys took them high, headed for the shoulder. The cows moved compliantly, in spite of the pack of wolves the boys sighted on the horizon, awaiting a straggler. Jess and Josiah rode wisely, keeping the herd in a tight group, and had no problems until Josiah’s Kelpie dog, Rustler, bored with the slow work of how things were going, drifted back behind the herd to do some exploring on his own.
The wolf pack descended on him before the cow concentrating cowboys could react and defend. Thirty pound vicious Kelpie was no match for 140 lb wolves, and it was over in seconds. The king of canid is a jealous one—and they live by the maxim that any other canine in their territory must die. It’s why we keep dogs close at all times, and the call of coyote is few and far between. One peep from coyote pup could mean death to the den. For us and Rustler, it would have been safer in the Moose Creek beaver brush, in spite of black bear gridlock. It was a hard day for the cowboys, and all of us. Our dogs are working dogs, and close partners. We both respect and love them, and it was hard to lose one. A hard lesson.
So Big Deer Mountain was it for today. The day dawned beautifully cool for the waterless 8 mile trek through thick stands of bluebunch wheatgrass. The beeves would graze their way over Big Deer, and would be full by the time they reached Bear Basin. And it went very well, until, while spilling into the Basin, the tempestuous range dished out a cold front of wind driven icy rain. I should have known it would happen, as even the foothills of the high Pahsimeroi were blanketed with new snow on this June morning.
As the crew descended into the 15 square miles of rolling green, they pointed the herd toward the only stock tank we had in the basin. I had it plumb full in preparation for their arrival with spring water, piped 6 miles over hill and dale from the spring at the foot of Table Mountain, the highest peak in these parts. It was good, sweet water, as good as any bottled mineral water you and I drink.
But then, horizontal rain and wind hit hard, blowing water even up under the buckaroo’s thick leather chaps, and soaking their saddle bound seats. Our slickers and chaps are pretty bomber in rain and snow, but when the wind turns precipitation into driving horizontal, well, there is not much a cowboy or cowgirl can do except dream of a lean-to fire in the shelter of aspens, with cup of coffee in hand. The crew got soaked, and the temp was now in the low 40s. With the blasting wind chill, it was likely in the teens. Just yesterday, they had been living the dream in the heat of Deer Gulch, and they were ill-prepared both materially, emotionally and mentally for the extreme emotional shift of that tempestuous cycling mare we call The Range.
The beeves and steeds couldn’t care less. They were happily tight-bellied with grass when they arrived, and came bucking into the spring water tank, now gushing with pressure as the float valve kicked in. After a drink, they were ready to rest, and the steers laid contentedly down and chewed cud.
The crew fired up the camp cookstove that I had ready in the nearby camp that Josh, Daniel and I had moved for the crew while they moved the herd. It was here they finally found respite: warm, dry clothes, hot liquids and a shelter from the unrelenting wind and driving rain. We humans have to work hard to survive these elements of outdoors, but the beeves rarely blink. They are here, in their element, nonplussed, simply chewing their cud, perhaps reflecting on the beauty of their new ranges around them and watching the grass wave in the brisk wind.
This they will enjoy, and eat their fill of, while entrusting the shepherding to their husbandmen and women. This is native grass from virgin volcanic soils, the foundation of our wild protein, and it is some of the best grass on the planet. But they need our husbandry and care to find it, because it is not easy to get there. And where their palate finds deep satisfaction in these wild grasses, so will yours. Thankfully, partaking in the goodness of Bear Basin and Big Deer Mountain is quite easy for humans with our 21st century foraging capability: online shopping and shipped to your door by Big Brown.
On the highways and byways of modern life in America, each of us who husband these beeves through the summer ranges will be questioned by those who hear such stories: “Why do you do it?” The answer is because it makes beef the best it could be. In fact, for us, this is beef defined. And if given the chance for achieving the best and defining beef, why wouldn’t we?
Glenn, Caryl, Cowgirls and Cowboys of Alderspring.