“I think I found an orchid,” I stated as I strode into the kitchen, back from a body-torturing 54 mile dirtbike ride across the high foothills of the Rockies. Don’t misunderstand—I am much more of a horseback guy than a dirtbike guy, although for a 62 year old, I can give most 20 somethings a run for their money on remote single tire tracks (actually cow, elk and wolf trails) that they would call “just too sketch.”
Photo: Just a few of those many miles that Glenn covers on a dirtbike in a given day
My only reason to get on the contraptions on a grass scouting mission is because pickup trucks or UTVs take forever to negotiate those rock trails, and my back would fail being cooped in one, and when two track turns to cow track, those vehicles stop (I keep going).
Besides, 54 miles is too far for a horse in a given day.
On the bike, I can look a piece of country over quickly before we bring the cowherd into it. I’ll spot wolf sign (and put the crew on alert), measure water yields on creeks that we’ll borrow water from with firehose and pump, and find good crew camping locations and good horse pasture for the string.
Upon the floral mention, Caryl didn’t even look up from her coffee. It’s what 38 years of marriage in the outback will do. There’s a sort of jaded-ness response to some of my often wrong outbursts. Instead, she asked me the quite expected question: “Did you bring an Inreach?”
Now, an Inreach is not an orchid, or even any kind of plant, which you would expect from a PhD botanist and lifetime lover and celebrator of lowly plants that few others even register in their visual reconnaissance of a natural area. In fact, her question had nothing to do with my proud pronouncement of my possible find.
Instead, an Inreach is a pocket-sized GPS device that pairs to your phone. It tracks your position in real-time, and if and when you need to reach out with a message, you can text through your phone to anyone, anywhere. If you are in trouble and are unable to text, or your phone is toast, you can pull a plastic guard section off the unit and hit the 911 button. It will then beam a message immediately to local rescue authorities with your position and state that this is a life or death situation. She knew I occasionally had bone breaking wrecks up there on the bike, and there were a few times that I almost didn’t make it out.
Photo: here, one of the InReach GPS devices is clipped to Linnaea’s belt. Someone on the cow crew is always carrying one so they can send an emergency text or SOS in a crisis. The InReach also drops a waypoint every few minutes so that at the end of the summer we can generate a map of every location the cattle grazed.
“No. I forgot it.”
She looked up and flashed her disapproving eyes.
They were beautiful.
“So what about this orchid?” she asked.
“It was in a tiny fen, and slightly quaking and perched sphagnum bog.” A fen is a wetland caused by a spring welling up underneath the vegetation, offering unlimited water. They can be bottomless if you walk on them, as the vegetation sometimes literally floats on the surface of the waters, hence, “quaking.”
With this she perked up. Fens were unusual in our mountain rain-shadow and somewhat dry part of the world, let alone manifested as quaking bogs. Plant life there can take on otherworldly attributes, and often harbor rare or unique specimens.
But Caryl was often skeptical of my plant possibilities, mostly due to the fact that I, unlike her, was a megaflora follower. I got along quite well with trees. I knew them all, and distinctly recalled exact geographic locations of certain specimens with striking characteristics all over the continent. Things like a 53 inch diameter yellow birch, for instance, that I’m still hoping stands with a stately pose on the peninsula of land between Osewagatchie Flow and Dead Creek Flow, Cranberry Lake, Adirondack Park, New York State. Or a Sitka Spruce, 114 inches in diameter, Indian Creek, Southeast aspect, Ecola State Park, Cannon Beach, Oregon.
She was the same way with a penchant for obscure sedges, those grasslike plants usually occupying wetlands. She would find them in the high sage in unlikely and surprisingly xeric locations. In addition, she was a habitat sleuth. Earlier this summer, while we clambered around some cliffs on a pre-grazing scout trip in McDaniel spring canyon on our Hat Creek Ranges, she had this uncanny sense that in this particular aggregation of rock, sage, cliff and cactus, we might locate a plant she had been on a quest to find, a plant recently described and well named Polemonium elusum (or elusive Jacob’s-ladder). It had been recently described and she had not yet seen one. But through her esoteric botany contacts and recreational research, she had put together a mental picture of the habitat needed to support the plant.
As we wandered down the canyon, me looking at grass and forb densities and diversity to maximize a grazing tour up here (we haven’t grazed up this canyon for 4 years, and vegetative expression in this wet spring was full on), and she just looking, she stopped.
I turned around and saw her at the base of a cliff. I’d seen this look before, and I knew she had filled a void in the botanical catalog in her mind. It had thousands of species in it, and this one only had a placeholder with the name Polemonium on the tab.
And now, there it was, expressed beautifully through the gift of abundant spring moisture. Cream colored flowers festooned beautiful specimens adorned this place in God’s own rock-garden. Lichen dappled rocks and curl-leaf mountain mahogany complemented the display of this rare flower. Botany sleuth struck beauty.
“You saw a fen up there?”
“Yup.” I nodded and smiled. Now I had her attention. It wasn’t easy. After 38 years of marriage, a guy starts to learn the right words. “It was in the middle of a Douglas-fir sorta savannah at around 7300 feet.”
She knew that meant dry forest with a grassland underneath it. The mental mind map and rolodex were spinning. It was intriguing enough for her to say, “We’re going up there tomorrow.”
The road up was about two and a half hour drive from Ranch headquarters. Even though you can see the high country where our cattle summer from the ranch, the roads up the mountainsides are serpentine and always climbing over ridge and canyon in the broken Salmon River Mountain landscape. After we crossed the Salmon River, the road immediately began to gain elevation, and in about 45 miles of two track, we made the 3300 foot difference between River and Range.
There were no maps. Most of the tracks up there don’t show on Google. Instead, we all have that country sort of branded on our minds. There’s close to 100 square miles we get to know, mostly on horseback. My kids may get lost in a city, but not up in those mountains.
Miles of broken country out here, but our family knows every inch of it.
Finally, I pulled the four-wheel-drive up a brush filled logging road, and after a mile or so, pulled off. “This is where we start walking, Sweetie.”
It wasn’t far. There was an ancient, falling down wood-and log fence around the spring in the absolute middle of nowhere. And in the middle of that was the bog.
It occupied just about 3 ping-pong tables of space. A tiny refuge in 47,000 acres of forest and range. And there, scattered through the vibrant green of the sphagnum bog, was about 50 beautiful cream-colored flowering spires of elegant beauty.
“You were right. They are orchids.”
We stood silently—in sort of a quiet awe and reverence. Sometimes the beauty and diversity of the wild country we get to work in unsettles us to the point of wordlessness.
The gift of it all sends me to an emotional fringe.
We carefully stepped over the graying poles of fence onto the bog to get a closer look.
“Why the fence?”, Caryl inquired.
“I think Duane, the previous grazier up here in the 70s put it up. I think he was hoping the spring would generate enough water to pipe to his livestock.” Even he understood cows don’t belong in springs, fens and bogs.
Caryl knelt down by one of the orchids, and carefully examined it. “It’s Platanthera. It isn’t actually super rare, but rare for here in our dry country. It’s beautiful.”
After she was satisfied that there were no other possible plant surprises there, we climbed back into the truck, and went to find the crew. They were still about 2 miles away with the cattle. We soon crested a ridge and saw the cluster of wall tents that marked camp in the valley below. They were out of propane, and a trip by us was critical because the agencies just declared a full-on fire ban due to extreme fire danger in Idaho’s forests.
That meant no more Dutch oven cooking. The crew was saddened over that proclamation, but was happy to see us.
Twenty-year old daughter Annie met us first. She’d been up there for going on 7 days, sleeping on the ground with cattle and horses. She emerged from the cook-shack tent, cowboy-hatted and spatula bearing, as she was elected camp cooky for today. As she came up to embrace us, I noted the the stain tracks of sweat and blood on her that was typical of life on horseback in the brush. I’d been there many times. Riders in the timber get kicked, scratched, torn and bucked.
Annie riding in the timber on her mare Reba
I spotted Melanie and headed down through the waist-deep grass to meet her. She was down among the white-barked quaking aspens with a sorrel mare named Jolene.
“I’ve been with her all day, keeping her from rolling.” She looked exhausted. We’d received a satellite GPS text early that morning. Jolene looked like she was colicking, and for horses, that can be fatal. It usually has to do with something impacting or impeding intestinal flow; it could have been something she ate in the night, or even how she laid down. If left alone, they’ll often roll in a desperate attempt to deal with the pain of a twisted gut. The problem is that they can easily exacerbate an already dangerous situation with further gut twisting.
The only way that’s provided a consistent solution for us is what Melanie had been doing. Walking the mare all day, preventing a roll, and keeping her moving can often rectify whatever ails. I had brought some anti-inflammatory (also anti-pain) medicine by Melanie’s request that morning.
“How’s she doing?” I bent along the purebred Morgan mare’s smooth and a little sweaty side and put an ear to her abdomen to listen. Gut noises are the norm in horses, and though not a boiling cauldron, Jolene’s was active.
“Much better.” Melanie pointed down the trail a ways at a green pile. “She passed that out, and everything changed.”
I still gave her a shot of the anti-inflammatory, and looked her over one more time. Her eyes were quiet. In a horse, that’s everything.
In a few more minutes in the gather of darkness, the rest of the crew rode in horseback through the tall sage. There was Lily from Florida, brought up on a raw milk dairy in Florida, and Webb, from California, studying equine science and range management. Evan rode in next, and began to pull his leather gear. He’s from Saskatchewan, and was brought up on a cattle and grain farm there, and will be attending his second year of Bible College in the fall. I looked over and Cat was graining her horse after getting the leather off. She’s from Minnesota and is passionate about horses and the soil they walk on.
Here’s the crew unsaddling in front of the cook tent in the last fading light of the day. They get the cattle into the night pen every night around nightfall in order to maximize daylight grazing hours.
Daughter Linnaea tried to ride in, but her mount decided to get overly rambunctious with the onset of dusk and got a little nervous in a tight spot.
She took her back out of camp to give her a little pace, then had her walk back in more quietly.
And for some reason, despite the relentlessly long days and short nights, these young people—I mean the cowhand crew—keeps coming back. There’s a reality here for them. A meaningfulness that I think is missing in so many vocations today.
For them, there is a lot at stake. There’s the beeves, of course, and keeping them on the best grass and forbs-to gain weight, and grow great beef. They’re aware of the health they deliver when we send a steer out. After all, more than 50 percent of their diet while on the trail is our beef. They know it sustains.
They’ve all packed orders with us on Monday. They carefully set steaks and grind—sustenance–in insulated boxes with dry ice, and send it to places all over the country. They read customer’s comments on the order—and understand that delivering that beef to a customer is the final step in the journey for us.
Here’s Lily getting dry ice ready to go into boxes to keep shipments cold.
Simply put, the crew grows, stewards, husbands good food for those people—our partners. There’s no middleman, feedlot, or 5000 head a day packing plant.
The food is them, the cattle, and the wild lands they share. That’s it. Pretty clear connectivity.
Then, there’s keeping the cattle safe from predators, like wolves, bears, or mountain lions. We share the country with all of them, and human presence ensures safety for all with no lethal encounters for either side.
And then, there’s the land itself. It’s about native habitats, and ecosystem function, from the sweep of Rocky peaks with snow still on them to spruce and fir ringed alpine lakes, beaver dammed creeks and desert lands complete with cactus, scorpion and rattlesnake.
And in that all, there is even a tiny fen with 50 orchids worth caring for.
Happy Trails to you all.