The Salmon River is running chocolate milk, and I think it saved us. I had been clattering on the rough cobble of the rocky shore, threading my way through downfall and impenetrable willow brush with my mare, Sunny, tracking a couple of steers in the early morning light as more rainclouds scudded across the short-lived sun. I scanned the steep bank of the other side of the roiling and deep rapids, about 50 yards away.
I never thought I would be thankful that they found gold at California’s Sutter’s Mill in 1849.
You see, my mind works in the lexicon of cause and effect. Everything is connected in my linearly thinking thoughts. Sometimes, on horseback, I’ll connect dots over centuries or even millenia. And that’s how yesterday, I could be grateful for gold at Sutter’s Mill.
It’s that time of year where we bring cattle out of the high country, where, for 90 days, we have been grazing the incredible wild plant diversity of the Rocky Mountains (550 grazeable species in all). In previous years we’ve come down in the fall, as August comes to an end. But this year, even before the current drought factored into the equation, we were thinking of coming down earlier.
The problem is that we usually get very little rain in August even on a good year. This means that on the range, most of our grasses “cure out” (dry out and brown in the sun and lose nutritional value). This year especially, the grasses have cured out faster than ever thanks to the dry heatwave that has hit a good portion of the country, our range included.
Cured out grass means lower weight gains. And that, in turn, affects fine marbling. That’s that intramuscular fat, those spider-web like sprinklings of wonderful pasture marbling in the otherwise lean portion of a ribeye. Less fine marbling means less liquified fat when the cut of meat is cooked, which means less moisture.
And less moisture ultimately means less tenderness and a drier mouthfeel. Which in turn affects flavor.
Because the fat is in the flavor, right? Wrong. The reality is that fat is the vehicle of flavor. It is the pick-up truck that delivers it. Because without the liquid presence of steak juiciness, there is nothing to cover your taste buds with the phytochemicals (plant compounds) that carry flavor.
I know that is more meat science than you wanted to hear, dear reader, but it actually all rattles through my mind when we make decisions about how and when to graze the wild country we bring the Alderspring herd to.
Back to the muddy waters of the Salmon River: it comes from a monsoon rain spin. Unusual for us, but common for the desert Southwest. This particular weather pattern was forced up all along the Rockies to Canada by high pressure air masses over the Midwest. And it smacked us with a few torrential downpours this week.
One of those dumped right into Malm Gulch with all of its rainfall fury.
Malm Gulch, some 30 miles up the Salmon River, is still covered with several hundred feet of volcanic ash resulting from ancient cataclysmic volcanic eruptions near the tiny present-day town of Challis, Idaho. That ash killed all many thousands of years ago, before humans, in a moister and warmer climate when primeval forests of a redwood relative and oaks covered the low hills.
But now, that ash turns out to be the incredibly rich mineralized basis for some of Alderspring’s soil.
Back before 1849, beautiful grasslands covered Malm Gulch, vegetation of a dryer mountain-steppe climate. Although there wasn’t much in the way of drinking water up the gulch, the Salmon River was only a few miles away. And herds of buffalo would wander up there to imbibe of the lovely grasses of the Gulch on occasion.
But then, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California, and a human tide resulted that coursed across the West. When the gold ran out in Cali, miners back-tracked east to the Rockies and found gold there. And when they did, they colonized mountain valleys like those around Challis, Idaho, through the 1850s and 60s.
And they got hungry. For beef and lamb when the abundant game ran out. And so, the common procession of ranching followed the boom and bust of mining, going after the abundant grass that the game had lived on. And the low hanging fruit of places like Malm Gulch was grazed first. It was pretty close to the boom towns of Challis, Custer and Bonanza. Beef and lamb would find a close resting place in the larders and bellies of homesteaders and hungry miners.
And Malm and other low country like it was harvested indiscriminately and continuously. The native plants didn’t fare well; they had adapted to the very sporadic and occasional grazing by bison and other wild game. Never before had it been continuous. For many, it was the end of their verdant existence.
And now, Malm found itself stripped of vegetation, now desert, and exposed and naked to runoff events like torrential downpours. It became a wash—a western desert term for many overgrazed and then quick eroding dry creekbeds—and a conduit for ancient volcanic ash to pour into the Salmon River.
The river was clear last week. We boated a whitewater section with the crew, and you could easily see the bottom at 7 feet. Migrating salmon could be seen in deep holes.
But due to torrential downpours by a few monsoon onslaughts, chocolate now, from Malm’s belching of mud, her outpouring of liquified ash into the pure waters of Salmon.
Melanie, Jeremiah, Jake, Steffanie and Ethan started the herd on the 8 mile trail down to the Salmon River on Wednesday. It was a dry trail, across rangelands that bloomed and greened with the onset of spring months ago. There were abundant and verdant grasses all through that low country just weeks earlier this May, and Alderspring beeves were working it uphill at that time, heading up from the ranch to their early summer grazing grounds.
But now, it was dry, and the beeves were being guided back to the abundant grasses of home on Alderspring’s headquarters ranch. It was too far to make it it one day, so we set up a stopping point for an overnight stay in the thick and lush bottomloand forest alongside the Salmon River at the very foot of our range.
And I was concerned. There were almost 440 head of yearling cattle that would be camping overnight in that grove of cottonwoods. In years past, many decided that the other bank of the river, across the clear low water flow of late summer, seemed really intriguing. After all, in a bovine’s mind the grass is always greener on the other side.
Almost every year, this would mean that we’d have to swim horses and riders across the river, retrieve and sort cattle out of our neighbor’s herd across the river, and convince the runaways to come back to our herd.
It doesn’t always go well, swimming horses and riders across the river. I know it sounds like fun, but often, it is a near wreck.
I recalled one time I was swimming a bunch back with Melanie; I was on Missy, the Morgan mare; she, on Shippy, the thoro-quarter. I was leading, with about 12 pairs of cows and calves, heading across the wide river. Calves found themselves quickly swept away from their moms as they lost footing in the deepening river. Then cows, shorter than us on horseback, swept completely away as they lost footing as well.
I thought we could make it on our taller horses…and then, Missy plunged to complete submergence in a deep hole in fast water. And I went under with her, came up next to her when she bobbed back up snorting, and we both swam for shore, me startled, yet holding on to saddle horn. Melanie took the shelf of rock further up after seeing our fate, and managed to not nearly drown as Missy and I had.
The willing and able Morgan mare of mine obviously inhaled and swallowed some water on that one. It took awhile for her to clear it all out. Horses are desert steppe adapted. They are fairly non-amphibious.
Anyway, not fun, and I think I had a little too much post traumatic stress associated with crossings like that one. I didn’t want to repeat it.
But today, as I tracked steers in the disturbed cobble of the shore, I gratefully saw only an occasional hoofprint oriented toward the other bank, as if checking out the possibility of passage. Who knew that you could read bovine thoughts in footprints? Necessity taught all of us riders that; keep one eye to the ground at all times.
My bovine mind read? I think they checked out the foreboding flow of chocolate, and decided not to risk the impossible. They wouldn’t even be able to see their feet, or the rocky bottom before them. There was no telling substrate until they felt it—or didn’t feel it. It didn’t even look like water. It certainly didn’t taste like it, with all of its gritty sediment load.
And so not one steer made passage that night. We had all 440, our very own birds in hand.
It would be an easy gather to head home, after all. Sometimes nature…and even the course of human history works out. Gold rush worked in our favor, 172 years later.