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Distributed throughout the Greater Rockies Since 1993

 

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Copyright 2010 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

The Black-Baldy Cow

By Dan Pence

 

April 2010 Issue

 

     The black-baldy cow stood alone, head down and tail to the wind, apparently oblivious to the approaching storm.

    

     I hadn’t planned to make the ride. The Forest Service radio in my office on the Yankee Fork Ranger District had caught my attention the previous afternoon — “Major storm front, with three to four feet of wind-blown snow in the mountains, and over a foot in the valleys starting late tomorrow,” the National Weather Service predicted. “High winds with gusts exceeding 50 miles per hour. Night-time temperatures below zero with severe wind chill….”

     The fall of 1975 had been relatively open in the Idaho high country, but it was now late November, so the stormy forecast seemed reasonable. Still, the sudden arrival of a storm of that magnitude could create problems since big game hunting season was still open.

     I considered potential problems. The most-likely candidates involved a group of Oklahoma elk hunters who had stopped by the office several days earlier. Two members of the group had drawn bull tags on East Fork of the Salmon River ; the rest had deer tags. They had been an enthusiastic group who had hauled horses all of the way from Oklahoma . They had planned to pack into the back country with their horses and make a real hunt out of their venture.

     I had questioned them on equipment. Their sleeping bags had sounded a bit light and they only had individual backpack tents for cover. They would depend on an open fire for warmth and cooking. They had no tire chains for their vehicles.

     The ranger station was located in the middle of prime elk country. Hunters routinely tried to pry information from my staff and me about where precisely they should hunt. Like we could tell them exactly which tree an elk would be standing under?

     Our standard response was, “Hey, elk are where you find them.” That way they couldn’t blame us if they couldn’t find one.

     I shared more information than normal with the Oklahoma group. An ongoing study in their hunting unit indicated that both cow and calf elk, along with young bulls, leave the high country for lower sagebrush ranges to the east before major winter storms arrive. Trophy bulls did not follow the migration, but gathered in small bachelor bands of one to five animals to winter on windblown ridge tops in the high country.

     I suggested the hunters camp near the junction of East Pass and Herd Creeks, an area with good feed for the horses and reasonable cover from the wind.

 

     On the evening of the intimidating weather forecast, I weighed the options. There was more then enough paper work on my desk to keep me busy all winter… or… I could make a final sweep through the Herd Creek and Lake Basin areas to check on the Oklahomans and other hunters, plus anything else that might need attention ahead of the storm.

     Frosty, my half Arabian mare, and I left the trail head on Herd Creek at daylight the next morning.

     We found where the Oklahoma hunters had camped, but they were no longer there.

     I decided to ride on into lower Lake Basin during the remaining daylight hours. The owners of the Devil’s Bedstead Ranch occasionally guided hunters from a camp high up in the southwest corner of the basin. Limited radio reception—mostly California stations late at night— were all that could reach the camp area, so they might not be aware of the pending storm if they still had hunters in the area.

Time passes too fast on the trail and we were running out of options a few miles below their camp. Tracks in the snow showed significant elk and deer movement towards lower winter ranges and we encountered no tracks indicating hunters remained in the area. We had seen enough.

 

     Frosty and I rode across a ridge to the east so we could take a different route through the basin for the return trip. The wind was really screaming when we reached the ridge-top. A swirling mass of black clouds was overwhelming high peaks in the Boulder Mountains to the west, indicating the storm wasn’t far off. I looked to the east, scoping out the best route back through the basin to the main canyon below. That’s when I saw the cow.

     She was just a black spot against the snow, well above us and a couple of miles to the east. Field glasses showed she was what local vernacular references as a “black baldy”; that is she had a black body and a white face.

     Unstable air, ahead of the boiling caldron to the west, was spawning fast-moving storm cells of windblown ice crystals that served as outriders for the major storm that followed close behind.  Several of the cells had already swept over us. The weather was deteriorating fast and we’d be out of daylight well before we reached the truck without worrying about the cow. Yet I couldn’t leave an animal that had somehow missed the roundup some two months earlier.

 

     It took Frosty and me close to an hour to cover the topography to reach the cow. She stood in a small depression with her head down, tail to the wind. The depression offered some relief from the wind, but it was a drift area that would be under several feet of snow within a matter of hours; a snowbank that would last until mid-June.

     We needed to push her over the ridge onto the Lost River side where she would have an easy downhill route to the Trail Creek Road some miles to the south.

     As we rode in, I hollered, “Haw-yaw, get up there,” and other terms a person uses to address a cow that needs to be somewhere else. The old girl may have raised her head an inch or so, but offered no other sign to acknowledge our presence.

     Frosty moved in and bumped the cow with her chest. The animal staggered and almost fell. I backed Frosty off and looked the cow over. We were dealing with a pretty sick old girl. She had undoubtedly raised many calves in the summer range that lay below her, but her usefulness to the ranchers was over. She had a good view of that beautiful basin from where she stood. Had a cow in that condition made the roundup, she would have been reduced to a big box of hamburger bound for a fast food restaurant long before Frosty and I found her.

     I had a choice. I could save her some prolonged agony with the .357 revolver in my saddle bag; yet, there was something in those soft brown eyes that simply said, “Go away. I know what I’m doing.”

     I reined Frosty downhill for the cold ride that would end well after dark in a blizzard. I looked back once as we rode around a large, frozen beaver pond just before we dropped from the basin into the narrow canyon below. The storm cells opened enough for me to see the black dot that was the old cow; standing head down, tail to the wind.

     There was some solace in the sight. In reality, the old girl had chosen a pretty nice place to die.

     Freelance writer, Dan Pence, grew up in central Idaho and spent 35 years working for the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho , Nevada and Montana . His collection of colorful anecdotes, titled “Horses, Mules, Men & Mountains,” was recently released. For copies, contact your local bookstore, or the author at 406-683-4669; dlpence@bresnan.net.

 

Copyright 2010 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

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