Sunday, October 22, 2017

Water Sports

The Mammoth Pond
I was so excited about the ponds on the ranch until I met them. They're murky, clay puddles, and any disturbance creates a nasty appearance that only appeals to livestock. But it's water in the desert, so I can't really complain.

As the tide rose this spring, there were numerous jokes about kayaking in the Mammoth Pond, and then the lower yard, and then every pond in nearly four square miles of sagebrush. Eventually, they weren't really jokes anymore. It became a sardonic complaint. "For goodness' sake, when will we be able to do anything out here?" Not funny. Not at all.
Maestro in the willows

So it was quite a surprise in June when my father, Maestro, brought the kayaks up and offered to take me out on a pond or two.

Now keep in mind, I've never been kayaking. He bought these things as a way to connect with his sons-in-law several years ago. Some of my sisters have been out. Munchkin grew to be pretty good at it in her several trips to local lakes with her grandfather. But me? Nope. There's always "this much to do." But being a fish, I've always been jealous.
Around the farm truck

And so Maestro taught me to kayak in the Mammoth Pond. How many people can say that? I learned on my own land! How cool.

But there are drawbacks to this. Kayaking requires balance, and most training involves purposely flipping the rig to learn how to escape safely. I was not interested in that in these mud holes. Being very careful, I was able to keep upright and non-muddy. Yay! What a relief. Even Munchkin wouldn't kayak in the nasty ponds.
Rounding the truck

We started in the Mammoth Pond, and progressively moved north. We did several circles around the tules, before beaching ourselves and hauling the kayaks over the fencelines. That was probably the deepest pond of the day; we estimated it at 12' deep this year.

"I don't understand..."
Next, Maestro took on the lower pasture. By now the water was pretty low, just barely enough for a kayak to glide over the growing grass. I knew I didn't have the arm strength to pull myself along with an oar into deeper water, so I watched in amazement as my father did. Out into the willows, around the farm truck, and up into the lower yard... Not something I imagined I'd ever see. The dog had the same thought -- she was very perplexed by the whole ordeal.
Lower yard, note house to right

We loaded up and headed out to the Big Spring and the overflow lake. The Big Spring is the main year-round water hole for the larger of the cattle operations. It's an artesian spring, and only dries up when the cows fill the hole with mud as they slosh around in it. It's muddy and nastier than the ponds by the house, but this year it's the perfect kayaking lake. We snuck the kayaks into the water between the yarrow, wild irises and other flora, and headed out on the water, maybe a third of a mile to the Big Spring.
Big Spring overflow lake

It was so peaceful. Wild ducks told us exactly how offended they were at our presence. Little flowers that reminded me of a cross between fish-tank plants and lily pads floated in clumps around the far bend. I took note of a patch of noxious weeds we needed to pull in an area we never inspect. And the cows made a good show of being brave, but eventually gave in to their fear and stampeded away. These were not welcome, the talking blue creatures invading their drinking fountain.
Big Spring and angry cows

By the time that trip was over, I was an old hand at this kayaking thing. So, with the sun heading for the horizon, we headed out to find just one more pond. We ended up on the southeast corner of the ranch, in the water hole for one of the ancient homesteads -- a bit smaller and definitely shallower than the Mammoth Pond. Nothing exciting, but representative of the many puddles found everywhere this year.
homestead pond

Thanks to Maestro for the great, once-in-a-generation experience! At least we hope it is... there's still "this much to do."

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Spring of Our Discontent

1940s, Old Man Apple just left of middle

When we last discussed the weather, it was a far-too-long season of cold and ice and whining. If we only knew…

Sometime at the end of March and beginning of April, the white stuff began to melt. Nothing unusual at first: the typical ponding, the muddy slush, the rivers flowing through the yards and across the driveway. But as time wore on – months beyond normal – it became clear this was no normal spring.

1940s flooding
In sharing photos with Dude’s extended family, we discovered pics from the 1940s, taken from the hills around the homestead. One showed a well-organized farm, Old Man Apple (younger then, but still well-established), Grandma’s house, and several ancient buildings. It was clear it was a younger farm at the time, with newish construction and a sense of order we don’t recognize in the disorder today. With it was another picture from that same timeframe; this one showed the lower yard flooded. It was flooded in a way we’ve never seen since (we know because the family was obsessed with taking pictures of big changes, while ignoring the every day – as we all do). It never made sense to us, since we knew there were animal pens in that area, and even the Red Shack, which pre-dated D.O. and Hattie buying this place. One weird, unexplainable picture. Not to mention the weird double image on the water surface, but only near the old military road building, but that’s not important now…
March 1

Then this spring sprung.

The lake eventually spread from the driveway, about two football fields to the north. Through the round pen  and lower yard, through the willow stand in the lower pasture, lapping at the wood foundations of the Red Shack, through the main garden gate, up past the ancient well, and across the fenceline into the neighbor’s valley. With the exception of the spring overflow of the Big Spring, this was the biggest body of water we’ve seen on the entire ranch. The lake seeped across the driveway and down through the horse pasture for over a mile.

March 8
The well complex below the house – I don’t know that I’ve adequately described it here before... There are two windmills, about 15 feet apart. Beside the northern one is a concrete access port to a well-cavern. Dude’s mother was once down in it in a drought year; like the others, it’s only about 10-feet deep, but of a different shape. Our driveway curves around it, and this year, we discovered that even in the middle of the driveway, the ground is only a foot or so thick. Standing akimbo, we could rock side to side, and the earth would move with us. Dude dug down only several inches and found muddy water. Terrifying when we considered the number of large and heavy vehicles we were driving across it.

March 10, lower pasture
So to protect the structural integrity of the driveway, and the continued success of our septic system, we began pumping the water from the lake, across the driveway and out into the pasture. It was nearly day and night for a couple months. We actually lost count, except for the count of how many motors we burnt up in the process.

The horses began to have hoof problems from standing in the water to find the nicer grass; the farrier had to reassure us that this is normal in other places, and our horses would be okay as the ground dried up. The chickens, on the other hand, loved it. Or should I say, the ducks and geese loved it. The old septic trench that stretched the entire valley beyond the house and through the horse pasture, now long dried and empty, suddenly came to life with a natural duck pond – some water pumped there, some flowing through old pathways under the driveway. They splashed and swam and played all spring. They may have been the only ones who appreciated the whole scene. There was this much to do, and no ability to do so.
March 10, supposed to be a garden

Elsewhere on the ranch, the Big Spring overflow merged with the seep lake opposite it, forming the largest lake, bigger than the one by the house that I thought couldn’t be surpassed. Creeks turned into streams, ponds turned into lakes, and water emerged everywhere, blocking all passage to anywhere. Swamp Man and Woman found this out one day, when they appeared without warning – both to us and to them. Even the four-wheeler was too heavy to travel into the undeveloped lands.

April, note tire escaping from tractor
So we watched every day for signs of receding waters. It was like Noah’s flood: the waters continued to flow day after day, drowning trees and equipment and projects left half-finished. Tires floated across the pasture, from the old tractor (now an island), into the lower yard. Frogs laid their eggs, raised their young, and sang to us every night. Wild ducks visited us, hiding behind the willows from our view. It seemed an eternity before we saw significant land reappear, and even longer before we could move any kind of vehicle into those areas; in July, we still had to turn the tractor around on the way to the main garden gate because it was still too wet. Neighbor farms were still reporting getting their equipment stuck in the mud in August, and one wife threatened a trophy for the one stuck most often (20 is the reigning number right now).
Still quite wet in May

“It was the spring of our discontent…” as Shakespeare would nearly say. We just hadn’t seen any sign of this summer he kept talking about.  Water, water everywhere….

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Crossing of the Guard

The rains finally came. The lake reappeared in the front yard. Sloppy dirt appeared in the house with every passage through the front door. White animals converted to black ones. The tops of every piece of junk was now clean, even while the bottoms were coated in splashed mud.

And that’s when we got busy outside.

We’re good at timing like that. But there was an element of strange weather: we went straight from summer highs to severe winter lows in a matter of a couple weeks. By the time the snakes hibernated, the snows were already on the ground.

Tearing it up
Apparently, our power company has the same idea of timing. While we were out in 20-degree snow putting up chicken wire on the chicken pasture, a convoy of vehicles show up to drill for The Parson’s new power poles. Clearly working on company time, they left 20 minutes later. Maybe they were cold. We definitely were.

As the weather warmed and the winter rains began, they visited a few more times. We were still out working on fence and cellar preparations and vehicle maintenance and putting in our own poles for various projects. Our backhoe was tearing up the road and the gate areas, so we started digging rock from a nearby hillside to firm things up. We have no idea what the power company’s puny little backhoe was doing up on the hill – we were too busy to go look. But the onslaught of huge vehicles was beginning to take a toll, not only on the road, but also on a more important feature – the cattleguard.

If you know nothing about farms with cattle and other stock, or you’ve never been out into rural America, let me explain this to you. Cows, horses and other large animals have a natural fear of holes (actually, that’s common with pretty near all creatures, including Dude). Those with tiny feet are especially jumpy when it looks like they can get across it, but the path is too narrow for solid footing – think of a skittish teenage girl on a rope bridge. Entertaining until someone gets their foot stuck and is hanging upside down. Not that we’ve ever seen that happen.
old railroad ties

A cattle guard is a hole, the width of the road, covered by a grate of some sort which is supported at either end and spanning between sections of fence. Bessie looks at those round bars (or whatever the farmer had on hand that day) and thinks about how much she weighs and whether her feminine little cloven hooves will support her, and chooses her own safety. She thus stays on her own side of the guard, where her farmer doesn’t have to chase her down across the countryside. We posted a pic here before where the cattle on our southern pasture stood on one side of the guard, chatting with the llamas on the northern side. “And never the twain shall meet…”

So another feature is the fence on one side of the cattleguard that opens to bypass the guard, for times when you want to ride your horse without trailering them just down the driveway. It’s also useful when the cattleguard fails and you need to allow power company equipment off your property.

They were out blasting holes in the basalt on this particular day. (That was like watching an episode of Mythbusters from a great distance. Fun, but not enough boom.) Just before the blast, Dude discovered the lowest support on one side of the cattleguard had cracked in several places and was falling in under all the heavy weight lately and the wet soil. Just after the blast, Dude and Swampman tore out the guard. Like I said, great timing.

putting in new(er) ties
The backhoe came out and dug out the grate, pulled out the wooden supports, and cleared the hole. Dude found a 1928 date nail in one of the bottom supports; who knows when it was put in, but it’s still yet another piece of history out here. His family was here in 1926, and this road put in around 1950, so it’s quite possible it was a recent reject from the local short line.

New (to this project – because very little here is new) beams were stacked on either side of the crevasse, the gravel replaced and the tall end pieces put back in and connected to the fence again. The old phone line that ran down the driveway in pre-cell-phone days was disconnected. It all seemed so beautiful.

Then came the idea that we needed a gate, one that kept out the looters and vagabonds running from the law (yes, we get those) and looking for some remote cattle trail that would take them out of the reach of law enforcement. We decided on eco-blocks, those giant concrete legos that make up driveway barriers and temporary roadblocks. That was it’s own adventure, since the local concrete companies (well, semi-local) are booked for the next generation helping the government reline canals and helping the big farmers build new potato sheds. Delivering eco-blocks to a remote location isn’t exactly high on their list (despite the fact that Red works at one). He managed to bring us about eight of them one time, and they were sitting and waiting for just such a moment as this.
guard back in place

The guys removed the bits of fence connecting the cattleguard sides to the fences, and placed a block on each side, just on the outside of the guard. Eventually, there will be a large bar at this location. Maybe then we’ll feel a bit more secure. Maybe stopping to get out and open the gate will end up just being a hassle none of us want. We’ll see. For now, it looks more substantial and less county-approved. Add to that the large “no trespassing” sign, and maybe people will realize they’re not on the county road anymore. Maybe.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Beginning Horseplay... er, Work

One of the great little tidbits we gleaned from our time at horse training was that we have great horses. Great bodies, built for work. Beautiful lines, faces and coloring. Intelligent. Read that in the alternative, though: high-strung, stubborn and independent, and needing to be worked every day. And not fully broke. “Do something with them every day, even if just for 15 minutes,” she said. “Don’t just go out and ride in the hills – get their respect first,” she said. “Good ground work will always make saddle time easier,” she said.
The Butt gets his turn in the round pen

Yeah. Every day doesn’t happen – too much to do, extreme weather conditions, exhaustion and frustration of riders, etc. When we do get good time in, it’s mostly effective. We get their respect, at least while we’re in the round pen. We do our best to practice ground work, allowing for areas of the round pen that aren’t solid and could twist their ankles. When we’re on their backs, Big Red is compliant in the pen, while Little Red is still belligerent and obnoxious. So Little Red gets more longe time. Big Red gets ridden outside the pen… where she wigs out.

Little Red and Munchkin
One hot day, Munchkin was babysitting Squirrel’s munchkins while she took her equine to horse camp. On her way home, she brought her mount out for an impromptu ride. We walked them first, up the north road to the Big Spring. All the girls were in heat and the wind was howling through the valleys, so there was an understandable amount of jittery-ness. But Big Red panicked at the thought of being away from her daughter, meaning I had to physically manhandle her several times on the one-mile walk. Squirrel was testing her horse too, but managed to ride her several times. I was entirely jealous.

We returned to the round pen, warmed them up, and threw on the saddles. Big Red was beautiful in the pen, but again started wigging out as we headed for the driveway. This time we headed south, past the lower cattleguard that neither horse was willing to traverse. Halfway up the hill, Big Red began to back up. Even when I halted her. Even when I spurred her on. Even when I turned her in circles. Squirrel was up at the top of the hill, and even her mount was wondering what all the fuss was about. So we took a side trip – up over the sagebrush hill and down a valley and around the corner to… a corner of the horse pasture where her daughter was waiting. Crap. Out we went to the road, and more backing up. So back over the hill because maybe she’d want to go that way and we could reinforce the “riding is fun” idea.
Big Red in the round pen with Mrs. Dude

Nope. Halfway down the valley, I lost a stirrup. I halted her so I could put my foot back in. She didn’t halt. She was angry that I was trying to keep her from her daughter. She took off at a gallop through the sagebrush. I lost the second stirrup. She continued running. I started to slip sideways off the saddle. She kept running. I clung to her mane and the saddle horn for dear life. She finally came to a halt at the fence. I stayed on her back until she mellowed, then slid off to solid unmoving ground. So bad. So much to unlearn now. We walked home and then stood tied for an hour. Argh.

Big Red outside the pen with Mrs. Dude
So these days, we’re redoing some basics. No calling to each other allowed while under halter or saddle. No riding for a bit. No bringing both girls to the round pen at the same time. Less round pen time and more longeing in open spaces. Big Red works on paying attention to me and not her daughter. Little Red works on quick obedience. Both go on long walks in new areas just under halter. I hope, I hope, I hope… but there are days I wonder why I’m spending so much time on them.

Today, the vet did their annual shots and wormers. The Butt pulled a rodeo over the wormer. So ridiculous, and three of us ladies trying to hold him in place. Little Red was jumpy, but did okay, after pulling out a solidly-buried railroad tie over fly spray near her head. Big Red was actually well-behaved after doing her best to avoid being haltered.

I love them. But sometimes I don’t like them. I hope someday I’ll like them again.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Never-Ending Winter

I don't have any idea why, but God didn't answer our January prayers for spring. Normally, we'd say it was to kill off all the bugs, or to kill off the weeds, or to teach us patience. This winter, though, was harsh and long, and patience soon ran out. The bugs and weeds are another post, but suffice it to say, they didn't die.

Front door? Where?
Winter 2016/2017 lasted from November to March. Brutal. The snow would stop falling, but the accumulation would remain. The cold would let up for a day or two here and there, but would plunge again and drive us back into hibernation. The animals survived by shielding themselves from the wind and hunkering together, except for the birds the coyotes killed. A fenceline was found pushed up from the ground out near the coop, and the turkeys and most of the chickens were missing -- not even feathers were left behind. Evil thieves, those coyotes, but clearly surviving well in the bitter cold.

The professionals were called out to butcher the remaining four pigs. It was just too cold to do it ourselves, and there wasn't enough space to cut up the now-huge pigs that would fill the freezers at three households. The pros were quick and efficient, and did all the hard work for us.Such a generous thing... We just couldn't get up the energy to put out the effort ourselves while huddling around the heaters.

Our pile of pork
Bones and Curmudgeon were able to get their system up and running sometime in February, I think it was. There were many lessons learned on insulation and heating crawl spaces, and then on how to thaw pipes and water tanks. Bones, not exactly the living-it-rough type, began proudly bragging that she had become a "prairie pooper," a huge accomplishment with the cold and wild conditions. Like us, they discovered that showering every day isn't a requirement out here, especially when getting wet equals getting cold, and you're just going to have to go back out into the cold in a while anyway.

boxing up the rest
The Parson and Willow Song only had one major well fail all winter, and that was easily corrected. More insulation does wonders, and sealing holes around the piping makes it all that much better. Good lesson to learn, and now we know that water source is safe in winter conditions. But clearly in all this weather, there was no major move toward actually moving out. Who'd want to?

A few things were accomplished amidst our misery, though. The cut pork came back, packaged all pretty in white butcher paper, and boxed like late Christmas presents. Curmudgeon spent an afternoon dividing the various cuts among piles for three different freezers, savoring the thought of what hot, steamy meals they would provide. Then we taught him and Bones how to can their own sausage -- quite the new thing for them. They were so proud of their meaty, greasy little jars!

Jars of joy!
We saw the birth of our first ranch-grown goat. His story will come separately, but for now, know that he was so terribly cold when we found him! February births are not desirable in this region; we must work to avoid repeating this situation.

I enjoyed a great deal of physical problems, besides the cold fingers and toes, and the hugging of the blazing hot heater, and the extra time on my feet in the kitchen. I had scheduled hand surgery for a tendonitis-type situation in my hands; this time, we did both a finger and my wrist. Of my dominant hand. Which makes life really hard. And then as soon as I could use it again, I couldn't use it again. The dog had been chasing the cats again, usually the wilder ones that she felt should be out in the barns and not on the porch. I banged on the window of the front door several times, just to distract her and let the cat get away, and my hand went right through it! At around 4am. Dude was gone, Munchkin had school soon, so I opted for the ever-exciting ambulance ride. Thankfully, Squirrel was on duty that night, and was part of the reason the hospital ended up not calling the psychotherapist in (apparently our town in known for drug- and alcohol-induced suicides). After some super glue and five million questions, I was free to go, now sporting new scars across the recent ones. I really don't need that much excitement during winter, despite begging to get out once in a while.

And then came the long thaw... but that's another post. Finally the long winter was over and we were hopeful for the lovely year to come! Or so we thought....