Still waiting on a chinook

In case you were wondering, we’re still waiting.

Yesterday, Easter morning, dawned a brisk 8°, and this morning there’s an inch of wet snow on the ground, with more snow predicted in the coming week.  Looking out the window here by my desk, I would describe today’s weather as “mild blizzard.”

It’s not that we haven’t lost any snow around here since I last wrote.  We have.  We were warm enough through the last couple weeks that great drifts of snow shriveled and disappeared.  But spring has not fully committed to us yet, and it was a slow disappearance.  We haven’t yet this year experienced that much-anticipated warm breeze that silently sweeps in, often in the dark, and changes winter to spring within hours.  They say the Indians called that breeze the Snow Eater; these days we call it a chinook, which is also an Indian word.

(As a side note, I often wonder how Indians managed to stay alive in this country.  Were they ever warm enough?  Did they ever have enough to eat?  How did they keep their babies alive?  How did they keep their toddlers from toddling into the fire?)

Anyhow, back to 2018:  This slow disappearance of the snow is, if you look at it in a certain light, a good thing.  It means all the moisture in the snow is seeping into the ground, replenishing springs and soil for what we might assume will be another 40 years of drought following this year.  And an added bonus:  So far there has been none of the destructive flooding we often experience in springtime as the normally-dry creek beds swell with melt-off and rush to the Yellowstone.

A week ago Beau drove the kids and I down gravel roads to check on Froze-to-Death Creek, to see if it was running.  (Froze-to-Death and most of the creeks on the PV are only intermittent streams; they don’t usually run with water — only in flash flood and springtime runoff situations.  In the spring, the creek running with water is usually a good indication that winter has officially released its grip on the land.)

A week ago Froze-to-Death wasn’t running yet:

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But Beau reports that Froze-to-Death and Muggins Creek did, indeed, both come down to some extent within the last week, rushing with icy waters bound for the river.

Today, I can only imagine, they’re frozen up solid again.

On that drive with Beau a week ago there were some sad sights to see which I chose not to photograph:  weak cows lingering on muddy bladed trails just off the county road; a few dead cows piled up at the edges of the bladed paths, as proof that man’s sleepless nights of toil and efforts born of compassion to save them all weren’t always enough this winter (they were neighbors’ cows, of course; insert wry grin here because the PV has lost a few too).  I witnessed, also, that day, our direct route to Ingomar, on a county road, blocked by an eight-foot-tall drift left behind by snow plows.

Instead of photographing those dismal sites, which Beau promised would be etched in our memories forever anyhow, I did take this photo of our nearest town — Hysham — from about three miles north of town and across the river:

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Folks are saying that a winter like this was likely what did in “The Last of 5000” — i.e., the last of the open range outfits.  Snow deep enough to prevent foraging, lingering month after month after month.  Good ol’ Charlie Russell provides us with a visual:

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To be sure, the ranching industry has made great strides since those days of which Russell told, and this year the PV and other ranches in the area will see the majority of the herd through to green grass… thanks to heavy equipment with heated cabs, and thanks to the ability to put up tons and tons of hay in good years, and thanks to good roads over which to bring extra hay in — from other states if necessary, and thanks to infrastructure and technology and all those good things.

But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy for the folks out there working in the weather this winter.  It only means that the end of this winter’s story won’t be near as devastating as it would’ve been — and was — 120 years ago.

Old cowmen will also tell you that if an old cow, or an old horse, or a worn-out cowboy can just make it through March — you know, maintain at least a semblance of a will to live to April 1 — then the critter will likely live to see another year.  This winter is putting that old wisdom to the test, as here we are past April Fools Day and the snow still a-flyin’.  Calving is just getting going here at the ol’ PV, the snow is still deep enough that the guys are leery to turn cows out and off of feed grounds, and because of the winter we’ve had and despite trainloads of hay fed daily, a lot of the cows are weak going into calving.

Though winter is overstaying its welcome, the calendar marches on, and it is indeed time to start calving here.  That includes 600 replacement heifers.  We range-calve heifers here at the PV, traditionally at the three closest cow camps.  This year there’s no room at those inns, though — the calving pastures are full of snow and old cows — so the replacement heifers are still here at headquarters.  They wintered in the feedlot to save on grass because of, ironically, last summer’s drought, and last week Beau fretted and fretted over what to do with the heifers as their due date approached.  He finally decided there was no choice but to break long-standing tradition and not take them out to the cow camps to calve.  Last week the guys trailed the replacement heifers out of the feedlot and just up the hill to a pasture very near ranch headquarters:

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*I like this picture of Cowboy Tucker and Feed Truck Driver Tawny having a quick confab as the heifers were marching out of their pens:

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Here at the PV we have none of the tools a lot of outfits employ in calving heifers.  No big lights, no sheds, no jugs for young pairs.  The green grass of April and big open pastures have always been the tricks of the trade for range-calving PV heifers.  But we don’t even have those at our disposal this year.  My dad says that John Grierson — my dad’s mentor, an heir to this ranch and manager until his death in the 1980s — didn’t worry so much about keeping calves alive, but always focused on saving the heifer or the cow.

This year we may have to regress to John Grierson’s calving philosophy.

What a year for Beau to be taking more and more responsibility for managerial decisions around here.  The costs associated with surviving this winter, the fears as we head into calving season unprepared, the necessary breaks from tradition — it’s enough to keep any guy awake at night.  But he’s actually holding up amazingly well.  He’s remained mostly calm, cool, and collected through all the reactionary, responsive, emergency choices he’s been faced with in recent months.  I happen to think the guy was born to manage, and I’m proud of him.  That doesn’t mean he hasn’t threatened to fly south a time or two in recent weeks.

Hope everyone had a good Easter — I hope to find the time to tell about ours in a future blog!  For today my main task is gathering my druthers and getting a handle on all the Easter candy that’s floating around our house… thereby putting an end to the free-choice candy-feeding.

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Seems like a good inside job for a blizzard-y kind of day.

© Tam Blake

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