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Archive for May, 2013

Last year only a little over seven inches of rain fell on the ranch, the driest year since Don’s great granddad put the property together and they started keeping records. This past winter there was not as much moisture as usual although a blizzard in late April added some but it came during calving season and some calves were lost. Don just shrugs recounting this, normal in the long list of things to just deal with in the ranching life.

“There is no such thing as an average year,” Don tells me. “Every year brings a different set of problems to cope with. May is supposed to be cold and wet but this year it’s warm and dry.” Again he shrugs.

Today the forecast, the early morning start is always with the TV turned to the weather, is for temperatures in the nineties, possible record highs. All the pastures are brown and dry, even the meadows in the valleys are late to green and grow.

Don and his crew cut out forty heifers from the two hundred he saved as replacements to be bred this year. It was necessary because he’s not certain if there will be enough rain this year to provide enough good quality hay and pasture to take all of his animals through next winter. He has several hundred yearling steers and heifers to be sold late this summer and will cull any cows and heifers not pregnant after the breeding season. He can’t feed cattle over the winter if they are not going to produce a calf next spring.

While we were driving across a pasture Don called the sale barn in Valentine, sixty miles from the ranch, to arrange for their sale. We are in one of his three-quarter ton flatbed pickups with a large hopper on the bed filled with “cake”. The cake is a pellet form of protein supplement made from corn and soybeans with minerals and vitamins and other ingredients. He has a small calculator in the cab that he programs to run an electric motor attached to the hopper that turns a conveyer belt and meters out the cake. We are going to feed the culled heifers to put some additional weight on them before they are sold. The hot weather that is forecast for today and tomorrow should help them shed their patches of rough winter coat. He thinks they’ll do well at the sale and on the phone is helping the sale barn manager flesh out the sales pitch. Pass Ranch has a good reputation for quality commercial cattle and he’s confident that whomsoever wins the bidding will get good value.

Yesterday, Sunday, I went with Don to do “chores”, feeding cake. We went to three different pastures. My job was to get out of the truck at each barbed-wire gate we came to and to open the gate. Don drove through and waited until I closed and secured the gate then we continued. He has the cattle divided into several groups scattered in various pastures.

We pulled into the pasture holding several recently purchased young bulls. He pulled a knob on the dash and a siren wailed, telling the animals he is here with “treats”. He got out of the cab to open the trap door so the cake could be released then we sat and waited until all the bulls ambled over. When they all arrived, some rubbed themselves on the truck, giving us a ride resembling one of those mechanical devices outside the grocery store. After they were all in attendance he drove in a circle metering and spreading the cake on the ground. When the prescribed amount was deposited he got out, closed the trap door and we were off to the next group to be fed. He alternates feeding the groups so the cake is fed to about half the animals on the place each day. The groups not fed cake are still fed hay that day because of the lateness of the grass this spring.

The first time I visited the Pass Ranch, Thanksgiving holiday in 1954, we loaded large sacks, probably sixty or seventy pounds each, maybe more, into the bed of a pickup then drove to the pastures, honked the horn to call the cattle then had to open each sack and walk with it to meter out the cake. Some of the cattle would push and shove the person with the sack, difficult to maintain balance when it was still full. This way is a lot easier.

For those unfamiliar with barbed-wire gates this is what they look like:

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Sunday afternoon we did upkeep and maintenance chores on Don and Susie’s house, originally built in the early 1900’s and remodeled several times. I never thought much about it previously but think of how much work it takes to maintain your own home. The ranch has two nice, but old houses their son’s widow lives in the newer one about a hundred yards away. There are two manufactured homes about a mile away that the families of the hired help live in, there is a old bunkhouse, now unused except for storage, two large metal barns for equipment and workshops, an old frame barn, a three-car garage with a woodshop, a large calving barn, untold miles of barbed-wire fencing, cattle guards, pens for working the cattle, corrals. All the buildings except the equipment barns are wood siding and in the extreme weather of the Sandhills need repainting on a regular basis.

Oh yes, all the pastures and meadows have at least one windmill and stock tank, the large ones more. The newest innovation is to pipe water to tanks, no windmill or well needed. I have no idea how they get it all done on top of working and caring for the livestock, including a dozen or more horses. The same place that Don’s grandfather operated with as many as twenty-five or thirty cowhands, depending on the season, he now runs with a man and wife team and one other hired man. Huge expenditures for equipment make this possible, but equipment also needs to be maintained and repaired. His newest tractor is about twenty years old.

This afternoon Don is working a large tractor with a blade in front and an earthmover behind.

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I met Don in 1954 in Green Hall where all freshmen at what was then Colorado A & M were housed. He had a room across the hall from mine and neither of us cared much for our assigned roommates. I have no recollection of how we managed it but by the second term we were rooming together.

The short, slight rancher’s son, who grew up in the wilds of the Sandhills of Nebraska and the tall Jewish swimmer from Phoenix, Arizona were an unlikely pair. We were nicknamed Mutt and Jeff, of course. However, we found an abundance of common interest. We both grew up with fathers who rarely talked unless they were giving instruction or needed to say something important. We both loved our dads and were comfortable being with them all day without talking. With that background Don and I were never uncomfortable being together without talking and that persists to this day.

After that first year we shared an apartment with two other friends and the third year, my first in veterinary school, we shared a small house with two third year veterinary students. In all that time together I cannot recall a single argument between us.

I was far from home and the ranch was only a long days drive from Fort Collins. Don had a car and he invited me to spend Thanksgiving at the ranch. His folks were warm and welcoming, especially his mom. The holiday was memorable as my first experience on a working commercial ranch. I was invited and returned for several years and always felt welcome. I felt then and still do today that it is my second home.

Years past and we stayed in sporadic touch. Don graduated with a degree in agricultural economics and returned to the same ranch his great-grandfather started and his grandfather and then his dad continued to operate. He gradually took over the operation of the ranch from his dad. He got married, I got married and miracle of miracles Susie and Rosalie became close friends.

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The first of the ranch houses are in the distance, top left.

When we lived in Montana they visited us, and after we moved to Phoenix several times, then in Illinois. We visited them at the ranch or sometimes met someplace convenient to all of us. Each time we got together we picked up as though we had been together the day before, despite the passage of years.

Charlize is in heaven. She stays close to me in the house but outside has thousands of acres to roam and hundreds of wild critters and cows, calves, steers and bulls to discover. She hasn’t wandered far as yet, keeps looking back to make certain I haven’t left without her.

Here’s a view from the house, mother cows with their calves on the hill pasture. They were brought downs to the hay meadow in the foreground the next day prior to being moved to another pasture.

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It never occurred to me that it would be so difficult. In my book ANIMALS DON’T BLUSH I recounted the combined camping, honeymoon and travelling to my first veterinary job in Sidney, Montana. That was the first week in June of 1960. Rosalie and I spent two days in Yellowstone Park during that trip. I always considered our experiences an adventure. Rosalie used other, less positive, descriptors

This time I drove in from the town of West Yellowstone appalled at the destruction and amazed at the recovery following the forest fires of 1988. Almost eight hundred thousand acres, more than three thousand square kilometers, about thirty-six percent of the entire park were engulfed in flames.

I arrived early in the day, it was only seventy some miles from Ennis, Montana to West Yellowstone. Once in the park and driving along roads that were significantly wider and better paved than they were in 1960 I kept glancing at the stark skeletons of once proud trees, interspersed with a few fire-charred survivors, all them engulfed in a sea of uniform height young trees crowding for space.

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Some experts knew, many did not, that the Lodge pole pine, dominant in Yellowstone, drops mostly closed pinecones that do not open to release their seeds until stimulated by intense heat.  The forest floor was covered with these closed cones accumulated over many years and the fires must have moved swiftly enough to expose but not consume the seeds. Those seeds found conditions ideal for germination and the result is thousands, maybe millions of seven to twelve feet tall trees obviously started at the same time that, in the not too distant future will have to cull themselves for the required space and light to survive.

In 1960 I set up the old canvass umbrella tent that had served my family for years. Rosalie and I were two of very few occupants of the old Madison campground characterized by gravel roads, a hand pump for water, outhouses and in-the-ground garbage receptacles that did very little to discourage bears. Charlize and I set up Frog in the seriously enlarged, updated and improved Madison campground, now featuring paved roads, heated restrooms with running water and flush toilets. We arrived during the first week in May and some of the roads into the park were still closed, but the campground was at least a third full.

After Frog was situated I disconnected Old Blue and Charlize and I went to visit Old Faithful. The amount and character of new development and the number of people present, some arriving in busloads, was astounding, and depressing as I remembered our previous visit fifty plus years previous.

Rosalie and I always made a habit of not revisiting places we had been to, thus no return to Yellowstone for nearly fifty-three years. There were always new places to visit and explore. New places were more interesting and we did visit a lot of places in the U.S., Mexico and Europe. Those trips made great memories and travel disasters always make the best stories.

One of our wedding gifts was an eight-millimeter movie camera. We took endless footage of scenery, “wild” animals, geysers, steam coming from the ground and bubbling cauldrons of mud on that trip, but rarely looked at those movies. I was worried about losing those films to age so I had them converted to videotape and some years later to CDs. They are painful to watch but not nearly as painful as revisiting those places without my bride. So I gave up.

Charlize did not enjoy Yellowstone at all. They now have rules, lots of rules about dogs. Dogs must be on a leash at all times when out and cannot be taken out of the confines of the campground or parking lots. You cannot leave them alone tied up. Naturally you have to pick up after your dog. I understand the need for all those rules, too many people with too many dogs and the dogs could get into trouble with wild life and cause other types of ecological problems, but the last time I was here with Rosalie we were accompanied by my first German Shepherd dog and he was a hero. (Read the book to find out). He was always under voice control.

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Charlize’s demeanor tells it all.

Because of all her energy consuming appliances Frog sucked her battery dry by nine in the evening. The Madison campground still lacks electrical and water hookups, but I presume that will come, eventually. The smoke alarm beeped once a minute to let me know the battery was low, but had enough juice to keep the damn thing beeping until one or so in the morning. I got into bed when the power gave out at nine but, of course, the beeping didn’t let me get to sleep until it finally ran out of juice.

I woke up at six AM, got my clothes on in the freezing cold, no power no functioning furnace in Frog, and made a dash to the heated restroom. Our two sons and I used to do a lot of backpacking, frequently in cold weather, but we were equipped and dressed for it. With all the comforts of home in Frog, when the power goes out a warm restroom with a flush toilet on a cold morning does have appeal.

I returned to take Charlize for her walk then hooked Frog back up to Old Blue so I now had power from the truck’s battery. I boiled water, made coffee and some instant oatmeal, fed Charlize, took her for another walk and by seven AM we were on our way to the east gate.

The sage that said you couldn’t go back was correct. Too much change, too many memories, going back to Yellowstone was a mistake. Tomorrow I will arrive at Pass Ranch in the Sandhills of Nebraska. That will be moving forward.

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Matt called as promised, about six PM. I had half-a-day of his time reserved for the next day and we agreed we would go out when it was most propitious. He checked with his fishing guide buddies who had been out that day and decided the afternoon would be best, it might be possible to get into a Mayfly hatch and do some dry fly fishing, the most exciting. We agreed to meet at eleven the next morning and did so.

He drove us upriver where he put his float boat in the water and got all the rods and other equipment ready. He watched me cast a few times on the bank, made some corrections in my “technique” and we took off, Charlize with us. We talked about the wisdom of taking her in the boat with us but he assured me he took his own dog with him when he fished and he was certain Charlize would adjust. It was not to be. The first time I cast my line Charlize was out of the boat and into the river after it. Matt had rigged my rod with two different flies and an indicator.  We called indicators bobbers when I was a lad. He explained that with the strong wind and swift current the indicator would carry the bait downstream faster and I would be better able to mend and control the line. OK, whatever, he’s the expert. But Charlize was convinced that the bobber was her ball and she was determined to retrieve it

The charade continued, Matt and I taking turns hauling Charlize back into the fast moving boat. Finally I used her leash to snub her to the swivel chair I was sitting on so her movements were very limited. Every time I cast she barked incessantly and managed to swivel my chair enough to lunge at the cast. I lost patience but Matt was more understanding. After about an hour she finally responded to my repeated corrections, or just got tired, and settled down.

Matt told me where to cast and how to “mend” the line. Before long I hooked, and Matt netted, a ten-inch long whitefish, cousin to the trout and native to the Madison. The next fish netted was also a whitefish, then a nice rainbow, maybe fourteen inches long and heavy. We took a photo and let the rainbow join the whitefish back in the river. Then I landed two or three small rainbows, new plants, didn’t even need the net for those. They were also put back in the water to grow. A nice sized German brown trout, also native to the river was netted and photographed, then another rainbow. Amazingly when I was fighting to bring a fish in, or when it was netted, Charlize seemed uninterested, even bored. Matt told me his dog goes nuts when he brings a fish in.

We reached the pullout after almost five hours of sun, fun, fast water, and memorable fishing. A compatriot of Matt had retrieved his vehicle and trailer and parked it at the pullout site. My face and hands are sunburned but it was a fantastic day on a world-renown river, spectacular scenery and damned if I didn’t catch some fish and I have the photos to prove it. Excuse the finger, I was really excited.

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I bought a couple of beers for both Matt, and myself at his favorite watering hole, and we rehashed a day I will consider outstanding and he considers about average. After we said goodbye I returned to the RV Park where I met up with Dan.

I connected with Dan at the park the previous evening when he was walking his Miniature Schnauzer and I was walking Charlize. We learned we were both recently widowed after long marriages and were both trying to figure out how best to manage on our own. We agreed to go out for dinner the following day after I returned from fishing.

We went to the local bowling alley where he had been told the food was very good and to my surprise it was. We talked for some time over dinner and discovered we were kindred spirits, exchanged e-mail addresses and agreed to stay in touch.

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Here is the German Brown trout I caught. Check out the river and mountains in the background. Spectacular!

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Our second day out we made some serious tracks. After experiencing the Lewis and Clark Scenic Highway we turned south to follow the Bitterroot River flowing north. We continued south past Sula then turned east to cross over Chief Joseph Pass at 7200 feet elevation. We were at the northern edge of the Bitterroot Mountain range where the Corps of Discovery suffered. I let Charlize out at the sign that marked the continental divide and I believe she peed on both sides… good dog! We pressed on to the Big Hole National Battlefield site. This is where the Nez Perce tribe fought the 7th Infantry Regiment led by General Oliver O. Howard on August 9 and 10, 1877.  This was the largest battle fought during the five month-long so-called Nez Perce War.

The tribe had made treaties with the U.S. government in 1855 and again in 1863 that ensured they could stay on a small portion of their original lands located in parts of three states. The much smaller parcel of land they were promised was in the Wallowa Valley on the Grande Ronde River in northeastern Oregon. In 1877 General Oliver was instructed to attack the tribe if they did not relocate to an even smaller reservation in Idaho. Chief Joseph reluctantly agreed but three young braves, enraged by this action of the U.S. government, massacred a band of white settlers who were moving into what was the tribe’s original homeland.

Chief Joseph decided to move the tribe to Canada to avoid further problems but they were intercepted at Big Hole and fought a day and a half delaying action allowing as many women and children to escape as possible. By some accounts at least ninety of the tribe, mostly women and children, were killed. The U.S. forces lost twenty-eight dead and forty serious casualties. The action allowed many of the tribe’s members to escape and continue their trek but they were caught again in October, only forty miles from the Canadian border and safety. They were starving and exhausted and Chief Joseph surrendered to save those who had survived the terrible ordeal. About one hundred and fifty tribal members did make it to Canada prior to the surrender.

This history lesson was the depressing culmination of our full day. We found an RV park in Wisdom, Montana, not far from the battlefield. There was nobody in the office. There were two trailers parked, but no occupants and as long as Charlize and I were around we didn’t see another person in or around the place. A sign instructed prospective patrons to fill out the form on one of the envelopes provided, leave $30 and enjoy the facilities. There was an electric service box and we plugged in, but the water was turned off. No Wi-Fi, no cell phone service, no cable TV, and the door to the restroom/laundry was locked. The good news was that less than two hundred yards away was Letty’s bar/restaurant that did have a few patrons, a good sign considering the lack of human activity in the town otherwise. Two glasses of drinkable, not memorable, red Zinfandel washed my meal of salad, a chewy steak, baked potato and a roll down, but I left half of everything but the Zinfandel for Charlize. I cut up leftovers and mixed them with a cup of her kibble and she again abandoned her normally dainty eating habits.

Gave up and went to bed early so was up at 4:30 and we were on the road by 5:00. The sky was starting to lighten casting a red-tinged gray light on the mountains to the east. As we drove mostly east the increasing light reflected off the rock-induced waves and ripples of the fast running Big Hole River that we were following. Just as sun peeked over the mountaintops and I started to lower Old Blue’s visor a cow moose loped across the road in front of us. I touched the brakes but she was safely distant and unconcerned. She made an effortless hop over a four-strand barbed wire fence heading toward the river. Charlize, riding in her new home in the bed of Old Blue, protected by the canopy, was very excited when she saw the moose hop the fence and barked her appreciation of the effortless feat.

It was before noon when we arrived at a very nice, full service RV park in Ennis, Montana. I shelled out another $30 a night for two nights stay but everything was provided and the restrooms and showers were new and immaculate. After setting up Frog and detaching her from Old Blue I checked in with the Madison River Fishing Company where I met Matt, the fishing guide I had reserved for the next day’s adventure. I told Matt that since it was so early in the day I might want to do some bank or wade fishing. He told me where to go and sold me some flies he thought might be productive.

Charlize was a pill. She considered my attempts at casting as playing retrieve with her. She followed the line into the water, barking her excitement. After repeated stern warnings to cease and desist she completely ignored me increasing my irritation by snapping at the line or my fly rod. I gave up and put her in Old Blue. She obviously didn’t understand the reason for her imprisonment but considered it unfair.

I tried all the flies Matt sold me, plus some of my own tying but only managed to snag some twigs on trees and in the water, and a few rocks. The water was moving fast and the rocks were slippery, so after a half-hearted attempt with my bum ankle I gave up wading and walked, actually limped, the bank with equal non-success.

With the nonsensical optimism of a true amateur I decided I would do better the next day, with Matt’s tutoring and guidance. You’ll have to await my next post to find out what transpired.

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As we pulled out of my driveway I caught a glimpse of the sound and the sun glistening off the brilliant white snow topping off the Olympics. I waved goodbye for however long it would be until Charlize and I returned home.

We travelled the roads previously on our trip to Lake Lenice, catching the 405 then I-90 going east. Not much traffic at seven on Sunday morning. After crossing the Columbia River we found highway 26 and were in interesting new territory, lots of irrigated farmland, sprinklers moving sedately in huge half circles blowing mist on green fields and fruit orchards already past the bloom, greening up. The traffic going west was heavy on the two-lane road, parents returning to the Seattle area from their offspring’s graduation at WSU. Most appeared to be happy, smiling faces, a few frowns, maybe too much celebrating? What was in store for those graduates?

Made a bad choice for lunch in Colfax. I chose a breakfast scramble with potatoes, sausage, ham, onions, green pepper, cheese, and some other stuff I couldn’t identify. There was too much quantity, too many different ingredients, and way too much grease. I choked down as much as I could and took the large amount that remained in a take home Styrofoam container out to Charlize in the back of Old Blue. My normally dainty eating dog wolfed the stuff down, fast.  What was that about?

I had planned to stop in Lewiston, Idaho but the weather was beautiful, the roads were mostly ours and it was early. We pressed on to Winchester Lake State Park arriving about four in the afternoon. The lady at the gatehouse was very pleasant, gentile, apologetic. She explained the fee system. Since I didn’t have an “Annual Motor Vehicle Entrance Fee Sticker” for Idaho, the one I have for Washington didn’t count, that would be $40, even though I was only going to stay one night, but… “it will be good if I decide to return to any Idaho State Park during 2013”, she explained. There was also a $10 surcharge and $23.32 for a site with water and electricity but nothing else. The place was nice, but not almost $75 nice. I decided to press on. The nice lady said she completely understood. We drove to Grangeville, ID and found another RV Resort.  That night I sat in Frog’s little dinette and looked west at a series of green pastures stretching to the mountains. Two horses were grazing in the nearest pasture, a healthy looking paint and an emaciated sorrel, bony hips, ribs showing, who appeared to be very old. Charlize, sitting next to me on the bench, and I watched the sun set beyond the mountains backlighting them into a dark purple. A rose hue framed the stark peaks in silhouette. Charlize leaned against me then lay down and put her muzzle in my lap, expecting to be petted. She manages to mirror my mood.

The next morning we made our way to the Lewis and Clark Highway travelling northeast following the Clearwater River through what my map declares to be a “wild and scenic river corridor”. It is all of that and much more with the addition of numerous historical markers describing events from the Lewis and Clark expedition. There were also landmarks of the Nez Perce tribe who claimed the environs then and now and provided so much aid and comfort to the explorers and mountain men who followed, only to be repaid by horrendous crimes perpetrated against them, more of the effects of Manifest Destiny that I wrote about in my book MAN HUNT.

DSCN0456Charlize is not happy. I just called her back from taking a dip in the Clearwater River. I didn’t think she could handle that fast water.

 

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