It’s been an eventful (full?) week with long days (often into the night), tumultuous weather, and a new summer horseback crew learning the ropes. Yesterday, a couple of aspiring range riders inadvertently overloaded the fenced corridor that led to the ranch’s livestock scales, causing a cattle surge into the alleyway. Cheyanne and Mason stood at the end, safely behind a gate…they thought. I think for a moment, they believed that they could dissuade the bovine flow.
Kurtis, our long-time farrier, happily dropped the hind foot of the watchy (not-quite-trusting-wide-eyed) paint range gelding he had been working on, formerly named Waco. Linnaea was holding the gelding with a halter and lead rope to keep him focused and calm in case he tried to take a piece out of Kurtis. We actually thought might actually be named Wacko, as on his last ranch he had the notoriety for bucking a well-seasoned 70-year-old gal skyward.
As things developed in the Alderspring corrals, horseshoer was now looking now at a nice break that he knew would be better than any on prime-time television. His lifetime of experience with cattle and horses in the remote valleys of Idaho and Montana gave him an instinct about the good stuff about to happen when inexperienced young people meet highly experienced and more than a little wild livestock.
He was not disappointed.
The mass of beef flesh compressed against the steel panel gate like a crowd at a rock concert, squishing the 1000-pound lead heifers to the gate that bent and creaked under a combined pressure of 20 tons or so of cowflesh. There were too many for the 12 foot wide space to hold, and they began to press on each other to where a poker card wouldn’t slide in between them. Had a human been above them on the fence, it would have seemed akin to a walk in the park to cross their backs afoot, had the animals not been a moving, seething and undulating mass of black-hided cow.
Melanie and Linnaea saw it coming, but it was too late.
The light stainless-steel linked chain that held the gate strained and twitched under the pressure. And then it blew, the weakest link succumbing to relentless push of cow-mass and the panel shot forth with a crack. Thankfully, Cheyanne realized what was happening and jumped out of the way, her own Colorado ranching background saving her. Mason was luckily clear from the swing of steel, but not from the throng that nearly blew him over.
It was a good thing his athletic background created enough muscle memory to reflex out of harm’s way. Unfortunately, human athletes he formerly competed with never mastered the practiced kick to the side that a 1200 pound bovine is capable of.
His new crafty bovine charges had practiced said stroke on each other from time to time, and Mason offered a square and clean parting shot at his crotch to a passing steer. Steer took the golden opportunity for payback time and never looked back. Mason likely won’t offer that opportunity again.
It took all of Mason’s strength to not crumple, but somehow, the possibility of being trampled into the dirt by a stampeding herd of half-ton cattle caused him to regain the ability to move quite rapidly, albeit blindly, for the nearest gray and worn lodgepole pine fence—too close to the mare Robin, who happened to be tied where Mason sailed towards her head in his hasty flight over fence.
Quarter-horse mare went wide-eyed at the sight of airborne human and the bovine rush. She’d already had quite enough of the stress from cow crowding potential. Now she instinctively and purposefully reared back from the fence she was tied to, snapping her lead rope and flipping over backwards in the corral dirt. She recovered quickly, scrambling to her feet and beelining for the nearest pasture.
Kurtis cracked a grin on that one, and went back to shoeing his own quite calm gelding in comparison after a few quiet strokes on the paint geldings neck. When pressure in the corral released, and cattle quieted once again, all was still as humans and cows settled back into the work at hand. Dust rose into the air, quietly, lazily, and the “clink, clink, clink” of farrier tending to his craft with hammer and nail over iron shoe punctuated the silence as if nothing unusual happened.
Kurtis had little to say as he shaped his next iron shoe. He held it up to his practiced eye, looking down the edge before putting it on the anvil for a few well-placed strokes in shape adjustment. He glanced at Linnaea with a wry grin, and speaking slowly and purposefully, simply said, “Came to shoe. Stayed for the show.”
But today, it’s the calm before a much longer storm—at least for humans, that is. After an incredibly demanding week, I gave the whole crew today–Friday off. Mason and Wesley lay sprawled out on couches, half catatonic, half reading. Many of the gals went off for a final hiatus to town to get last minute supplies—victuals for the range and clothing items. Matt and Will, returnees from last year, headed out on the town to take in the latest “Top Gun” installment at the Salmon River Cinema and grab a chance to eat at the local grease, carb and beer joint.
It was cattle process week. Sort and re-sort, tag and weigh. Nearly 700 head needed decisions: this one to the range, or stay at home on headquarters rich finish grasses? So the fat and thin extremes get that; the fats get fatter for pleasant, flavorful and wellness eating on the plate, and the thin to fill out and grow, getting the very best grass has to offer.
Those in the middle go to the high ranges. There, they will also gain weight, but not as much. Instead, the range builds their health with its rich diversity profile comprised of 2000 species. And this year, we counted out 470 of them that fit that bill. They will start their journey tomorrow.
And that’s where we come in—this Alderspring crew of range riders. Tomorrow at noon, we’ll saddle up 16 horses and head out on the long ride. The cattle, and some of the horses won’t be back to the ranch for over 100 days. When they return, the summer will have gone by, and we’ll be heading into the cool of fall. And us humans will be their traveling partners and guides for their 700-mile walk.
For the cattle, they’ll line out in a long thin line over a mile or so as they stretch out on the hike to the range. Many of them are seasoned veterans, and know the trail westward from headquarters, down along the Pahsimeroi River and across the snowmelt-swollen Salmon River. There, they’ll start their graze in low elevation (4000 feet is low for us) cactus, lizard and greasewood country that is just turning spring, and follow the green wave as it climbs and courses over the high peaks of the Salmon River mountains.
The high country of 8 to 11,000 is still snowbound, but come June and high summer, that pack will melt, leaving behind a carpet of green instead of white. Our trail will take us there in another month, and there we will find some of the greatest grass on earth.
It’s going to be a long summer trail, but so worth it. The beeves won’t find stress—instead, they’ll find culinary delight, as we lead them to the best grass while keeping them safe from harm by the likes of wolves and lions, cliff and canyon. We’ll live with them, sleeping in camps as they journey in our care.
They are made for wild grazing country. Humans, on the other hand, not so much.
Don’t get me wrong, we all love this part of our lives, but it is simply exhausting to stay on task with them as they graze the entire day, horseback. Then it’s about caring for your horse and then creating and maintaining camp along the way. Meals are fast, sleep is fleeting, and the work never ends; what is a wonderful and diverse grazing existence for the likes of cow becomes quite arduous for the human after days on a stint in backcountry where the weather becomes recalcitrant and one day you’ll freeze in a June blizzard, and the next you’ll heat stroke in Texas-like heat.
But it’s worth it. Living in wild country for the summer is full of beautiful gifts. A horse comes into trust with a particular rider; We ride with eagles, bears, wolves and lions. I’ve been horseback, hooved footfalls thumping on the deep pine needle duff, riding through old growth Douglas-fir conifer forests whose crowns slowly sway to the silent music from the caress of a breeze above. We’ll break a ridge and the sun is setting afire with alpenglow endless mountain country where not a human habitation can be seen to the horizon.
Where these mountains deliver grassy goods to the cattle, they also bring real refreshment to humans by quenching a thirst in our souls for wild places. We are serenaded by the music of the spheres, if we would just listen.
And so, this year, we’ll go back to the range. There’s a song I often find myself singing at this time of year:
Take me back to the range and the campfire;
Let the night wind mourn over me;
At the set of sun the work is done and the coyotes start their howlin’
Let them whine: Take me back to the range.
So yes. There’s a storm coming. But it’s a good one. Happy Trails.