Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas! or The Desert sheds its water!

Eight inches of rain per year is about all we ever get around this dry desert. But this week, we got nearly 13 inches of rain in just 4 days--causing the second "100 year flood" in just 5 years.

We rode into the Goblin Pots above Snow Canyon today, knowing we were going to see some water. The sun was out and the rains had finished with us a full day earlier. But we didn't expect it to be THIS spectacular! Watching the desert shed 13 inches of rain from the Kayenta overlook was the chance of a lifetime.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Fort Pearce Wandering

Raiding parties of Ute and Navajo horsemen travelled in and out of the St George basin along the Fort Pearce wash during the Utah Blackhawk-Indian wars. The wash provided excellent cover for men on the sneak and was a source of water, although an unreliable one--especially during the warmer months of the year. The only dependable water along the Fort Pearce Wash upstream from St George is found in a brackish, spring-fed puddle about 15 miles away from the center of town.

During the 5 year war, which wasn't more than a series of raids, Mormon colonists built a stone fort overlooking the spring. Perched in an easily defended position, it gave the settlers a tremendous advantage against raiders during the summer months and other times of the year which saw extended periods without precipitation. Like most typical desert washes, it is dry until rains fall somewhere upstream, and then, it becomes a raging river, taking out everything in its path. Upstream for the Fort Pearce Wash includes a large portion of the Arizona Strip--so the flash floods can be substantial.

We decided to ride the old Ute raiding-trail to the fort today, leaving from home and working our way past the new airport and new highway that has gotten between us and the wilderness. It was 20 round-trip miles of linear contrast...nature verses progress, old pathways next to shiny new ones, and quiet hoof beats plodding against the fresh whine of tires on blacktop mixed with the frantic efforts of heavy equipment... crossing the trail of the ancients.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

True Grit

The Eastern sky was just turning gray as we left the pavement and nearly all signs of civilization at the Arizona border Friday morning. Pulling heavy horse trailers full of livestock, Dan Snyder and I were headed South to his remote ranch on the nethermost reaches of the Arizona Strip. 78 miles of primitive dirt roads separate his summer pastures in the upper forested elevations above the Grand Canyon from the comforts of home in St George. It is a bone-jarring, equipment-eating drive that he makes nearly every weekend, to an inhospitable land from which generations of his family have scratched a living.

From the upper summer pastures of Pins Valley, Dan's grazing allotment runs another 10 miles South or so, as the crow flies, to the lower winter plateaus along the rim of the Grand Canyon below Molly's Nipple. But, we aren't crows, and the terrain turns 10 beautiful air miles into 30 punishing saddle miles. Getting there ain't easy. No one, in my humble opinion, runs their cattle in a more inaccessible corner of what is now the Parashaunt National Monument, than Dan Snyder.

I marvel at Dan and the others like him, who raise their cattle on the edges of the Grand Canyon. Water is the real rub. There isn't any, or so it seems until you realize that these gritty cattlemen can turn a seep on a distant ledge into a drip that flows through miles of plastic pipe to fill a tank for their cattle. Without those tanks and those little trickles of water, vast stretches of the Grand Canyon would be worthless to the tenacious cowboys of the Arizona Strip. Keeping the pipes flowing, and the tanks full is a constant battle. One vandal's bullet could drain a tank and kill an entire herd of cows; and nature lives to plug the piping that carries life's water from spring to tank. Dan often has to follow miles of shallow buried pipe, digging it up at intervals to find the source of blockages that dry his tanks. And patching leaky tanks is a herculean job because sand and mortar have to be hauled in, a little at a time.

They call it the Dan Sills trail, and it defines the grit of the man who moves his herd in and out of his winter range by pushing his cows down this very difficult, single file trail, and then, impossibly, back up each year. But Dan does it, often by himself. I've been there in the spring to help punch them up the hill, and getting the tired lead cow to start moving again way above you, from far below the lazier cows in back is futile. One long stretch of it is so steep, a man needs both feet and both hands just to negotiate the trail. This weekend, we came along to help him get his cows down to the Mud Springs cabin at the bottom of the Dan Sills trail. Later, he'll go back and push them further South to the next water tank on his allotment at the edge of the canyon. Denice Hughs who runs a bigger outfit that adjoins part of Dan's allotment, actually owns 40 private acres along the Dan Sills trail and often threatens his boys that he'll bequeath that 40 acres to them if they marry Dan Sills-women (or daughters-in-law that he doesn't like).

Brother Mike's wife decided that she wanted to go on a cattle drive and talked my wife and her son's girlfriend, Jessica, into going along with us. Three fairly pampered, and pretty girls riding some of the toughest country a person can ride made me a little nervous, but I'm always up for sharing the adventure. So they came, along with young Preston who usually does anyway. No offense, Dan, but that was the best trip down the Dan Sills trail I've seen yet. The sun was brighter, the air crisper, the birdsong prettier, the campfire warmer, and the prickly pear sweeter than I ever remember. In fact, I'll be picking the cactus spines out of my hands, lips, tongue and roof of my mouth for days to come.

Earlier this fall, after spending two days with Dan, repairing the water flow into one of his tanks, I watched him lean over, sweep some of the bigger floaters out of the way, and plunge his face down to his ears into the tepid water. Straining through his teeth and mustache he sucked up a belly full of the brackish water that had long been standing in the metal tank. It wasn't the first time I had seen him drink from his tanks--one day he did the same thing in a tank that had a dead rat floating on the far side from where he drew his drink. Seeing my grimace, he offered this thought in his uniquely gentle way, "Those water bugs swimming about down in there tells me the water isn't poison. If they can live on it, I can." Just call it True Grit.

Thanks Cindy for the great photos!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Silver Light of the Moon

The trail was barely visible beneath our mules feet as we rode through the thick darkness of starlight. We watched night steal the red from the canyon walls and repaint them in shades of black and white, as if we were riding in an old western movie. We were climbing out of Hop Valley late Saturday night after a day of riding through the narrows of LaVerkin Creek. A warm breeze changed the Day smells into night smells and hooves falling on rock echoed off the cliffs above us as we swayed in our saddles, without visual reference to help us maintain perfect balance.

Emerging from the canyon to the terraced table tops of Smith's Mesa, we could see a brilliant white blanket laying over the desert savannah far to our west. Our trail disappeared in the sage and scrub oak while our muted sense of direction caused us to wonder how we would find that one gate in the miles of barbed wire fence standing in our way. But the mules knew and we let them pick their own way across the landscape. Suddenly Molly stopped. Like an apparition, the gate came into dark focus just inches from her flaring nostrils.

The white blanket to our West seemed to be moving closer to us. Brilliant as a hard frost in the dead of winter, every tree, bush and towering sandstone rock sparkled with a cold, white luster. The view caused an inevitable sensory conflict with the pleasant warmth of the gentle draft. As we neared the trailhead, we stopped and turned with fascination to face the advancing silvery frost. A distinct line separated our blackness from this faux winter and it began to hasten until we were on the verge of being overtaken by its chill. Abruptly, we were in the light of day as the nearly full moon peaked its edge over the hill whose shadow had kept us in the dark. The world, still painted in shades of gray, was promptly in full view and our mounted silhouettes cut a sharp moon-shadow below our feet... And that physical anticipation of feeling winter's cold was warmly unfulfilled by the silver light of the moon.

Friday, September 3, 2010

WindRiver Wolves

She trotted along the boulder-strewn clearing, parallel to our trail which hugged the treeline above Upper Silver lake. With a hunter's instinct and canine curiosity, she monitored our progress as we coldly made our way back to camp. August's end in the WindRivers is a confusing time for the weather. Summer is showing her age and winter intrudes, fighting for turf and hoping for an early kill. It had just rained an icy-hail as we climbed out of the Washakie river, and the sun was throwing rainbows at the stiff wind that had us burrowed into our oilskin coats. Jim suddenly stopped. "Is that one of our dogs out in the clearing...?" Appearing out of some low brush, she turned to face us as we peered through the trees. Tall, gray, and fitted with a massive head, she stood in the open, staring for a moment. Knowing she had been seen, she casually loped over a rise and out of sight into a shallow ravine.

It is the talk of the town. A morning earlier, we sat in the only cafe-slash-saloon in Boulder, Wyoming, having our traditional last-chance breakfast before penetrating the wilderness. One table away, a lone, weathered cowboy sat nursing his breakfast. Hearing our meal-talk, he glanced over his coffee and peered wistfully through the brim of his trailwise hat, "The wolves have come back. They are up there. Damn shame too. We sure went to a lot of trouble getting rid of them the first time. Just last week, Buster Johnson's crew had a whole pack trailing them as they pushed their cows off the mountain just North of here."

We spent the next 7 days exploring and fishing. Winter advanced in the battle with summer for the first six of those days, one storm after the next. Summer struggled to melt the frozen darts that were thrown, but returned some clear skies and warmth on the day we came back out. Jim, Landon, Brother Mike and three of my kids racked up nearly 88 miles of saddle sore, much of it with heads bent into the wind, rain, and snow. It felt like we were traversing hallowed ground, and a distinct sense of the Divine pierced the biting air inside the peak-ringed basins of Middle Fork Lake and the Bonneville.

On day five, at first light, I stood shivering in my long-johns at the edge of Raid Lake, casting my Jake's spin-a-lure repeatedly while everyone else slept. Preston finally woke and came to be by Daddy's side. Suddenly, my ultra-light pole bent in half, nearly being yanked from my hands. I had spooled it up with that fancy Fire-Wire stuff that won't break no matter how hard you pull on it. The drag on my reel screamed for about three seconds while the power of a submersed giant pulsed all the way to my core--then SNAP!.. About 40 feet of line and lure gone. Preston and I just stood and stared at each other, mouths open, in total dis-belief. Nothing in my life's experience of catching fish in high altitude lakes prepared me for this--I didn't think fish could get that big all the way up here. I'm sure no one believed my story, until later that evening when Preston came back to camp with more fish than he could carry, and it was just ONE fish. "Dad, I think I snagged a rock, can you help me get it unstuck?" Just a minute kiddo, wait til I... OH MY GOODNESS, THAT'S NO ROCK! Hang on... reel it carefully...don't force it...easy there...wait wait, don't drag it out of the water yet, let me grab it...

10 pounds. She fed all eight of us that night, and made one little kid feel like King of the Day.

Each night, laying in that fitful sleep that only comes in a sleeping bag, while straining to hear the comforting sound of cowbell, and hoping that our livestock will be fine by morning, the wolves howl. Somewhere nearby, in the thick blackness, they watch our camp, and the dogs growl. The hair on the back of my neck raises. It is an emotional debate. My heart goes out to the stockmen whose livelihoods are threatened by wolves and I understand the naturalists' thrill of sharing the wilderness with them--it sure made our trip extra meaningful. After growing up on Jack London wolf stories, I feel awfully alive laying here in the dark with wolves circling our camp... and awfully glad for the cold magnum steel under my pillow.