Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Ode to Winter 2015

Wednesday January 23 2015

A snot-dripping, eye-watering wind hurls down from a tablecloth cloud hanging over the white Owyhee mountains. I'm leaning into the howling gale as it batters me off the ridge trail I'm hiking. The 'breeze' is 20 to 30 miles an hour, gusting to 40. Those little blasts are knocking me sideways. The wind chill is below 20*. But it's always fun braving the Owyhee winter wind on a hike (not a ride!).

The horses have been huddled behind the hay feeder all day as a windbreak, eating hay to stay warm.

I had just refused to believe the projected El NiƱo predictions of southwest Idaho being drier and warmer than normal. Not fair! It just had to snow and get cold this winter! And my denial has paid off: unexpectedly, the Owyhee mountains are currently at 140% of normal snowfall already. That's great news to a years-long drought that has parched the land in the summer, dried up cricks, and lowered the water table, among other less obvious things.

The latest winter storm we're in the middle of (lasting several days) dumped a load of wet stuff from the Pacific: big wet gloppy snowflakes in just-at-freezing temperatures. Much of it melted, then turned to sleet then rain which melted the snow into gloppy mud, then more wet snow. It's unlike the dry fluffy snow that comes with arctic blasts from the north that evaporates without contributing anything to the earth. This wet stuff means more groundwater soaking in. Not so great for horses standing in mud, but you take what you can get, when you can get it, in the desert.

I'll be gone down south at least a month, but I hope the cold and snow continues up here. But I also hope it saves some more cold, wet action for me for when I get back!

that's Stormy, wearing a snow blanket!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Snow Happy

Thursday December 17 2015

You can see by the picture above that I'm not the only one happy about the snow!

It came all of a sudden yesterday afternoon. One minute it was sunny, the next minute it was snowing, and in 30 minutes the ground was white. Yippee!

I've been turning Dudley out with the herd late mornings - leading them all up past the green gate so they can roam the 200 acres, and calling them back down in the evenings and locking them down at the house on the hay at nights (mostly because of cougar jitters - me, not them).

Some evenings, I can walk out and whistle-yell-whistle-yell, my voice echoing up the canyon if the wind is right, and they'll eventually come down on their own, sometimes sprinting, sometimes strolling. The other day I had to hike all the way up the canyon for them. They very bloody well heard me but gave me the hoof - totally ignored me, and I actually had to drive/chase them all the way back down. 

Yesterday evening in the snowstorm, I wondered if I'd even see the herd. I started hiking up the canyon, not even bothering to holler or whistle because the wind blew the sound right back down my throat.

But miraculously, the herd was already on their way back down. 

I barely caught a glimpse of movement in the sideways-whipping flakes, dark figures making a beeline back home to the hay. Dudley was in front, head down, Orlov trot turned on high, leading the herd on a mission (food!).

Stormy was the trailer. 

It was so snowy and windy, they never saw me, as I merged with sagebrush and rabbitbrush, watching them as they trotted on by.

More snow is supposed to be on the way today.

Dudley and I can only hope!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Big Cat, Big Luck

Friday December 11 2015

While away from Owyhee in Scottsdale, the neighbors emailed: "we came upon a cougar while hiking up the crick!" Their dogs surprised it on a hike and treed it. The cougar wasn't hungry for humans or dogs - though nor did he appear too terribly worried about them - and everybody eventually went their startled way.

I cannot begin to describe how jealous I was. I've had the privilege of seeing 4 cougars in my life - all happened to be within 6 weeks one summer in Washington, and all from a vehicle - but I am always on the lookout for these furtive, majestic animals. (And I did get incredibly lucky seeing both a leopard, and a cheetah in Africa.)

Mind you, I would not be so thrilled anymore if a cougar got one of our horses. Then all bets would be off. But deer are plentiful around here, and that's what they feed on. And cougars are fairly rare around here anyway, though some ranchers and hunters will tell you otherwise, and who knows when they are watching us out on a hike or ride? I once complained to my forest ranger friend in the Sierra Nevadas when he affirmed, yes, there were cougars around there. "But I've never seen any!" I whined. "Oh," he replied, "but they see you!"

Our horses give a pretty good indication when one is near (every couple of months, it seems); the whole herd acts rather nutso for a day or two. Every couple of winters in the snow I stumbled upon evidence of a deer kill, and one night a few years ago, I heard hideous noises that could only have been a cougar taking down a deer, not 30 yards from my doorstep.

So of course the first thing I do the afternoon I get back from Scottsdale is go looking up the crick for the cougar. What are the chances he's still there, 3 days later? Slim to none, likely; he probably left after the encounter with the neighbors and dogs. Almost all the big animals like cougars and black bears I've encountered in the wild have not wanted anything to do with humans, and they run away if they can.  

I creep as silently as possible up the south bank of Bates crick, wind in my favor, but the light, not so much: I'm squinting into the sun, the golden cheatgrass - the color of a cougar - glinting and waving as a roiling sea. I move slowly and carefully, staring into brush, peeking over the bank into the crick bed, searching for a cat lazing on a log or sprawled in the cougar-colored autumn leaves, watching for prints, watching for movement; prowling quietly along (as quietly as a clumsy human can), looking, listening, standing still, hoping… but I wander nearly a mile up-crick and see nothing. 

So I give up and cross the crick to the north bank to head back, still looking, but now looking more for owls. I find pellets and whitewash in a jumble of cottonwoods and vines in the crick, in a place where long-eared owls used to roost during the day, but now they're gone, and the occasional great horned owl will hole up during the day, though I see none today.

As I continue back down-crick, lamenting my luck at having missed a cougar by a couple of days - my eyes suddenly lock on a cougar staring at me, hiding 40 feet away under low branches of a tree right by the creek - oh. my. god.

It is a most unforgettable, thrilling, primal moment in life to unexpectedly come face to face and exchange gazes with such a wild, mysterious and near-mythical creature in nature (particularly one who is thankfully not hungry nor interested in me). It isn't any movement nor eye blinking nor anything from him that catches my eye; I just see him and focus in on him, though it takes a moment to pierce that wall of total disbelief, and though I seriously could have walked right by him had I not been looking for a cougar. (And how many other times might I have walked by one and not seen it!!!!!)

I am frozen, rooted to the earth, my jaw gaping, trying not to scream because I am so thrilled. A dozen words whirl and explode in my head like firecrackers: unreal, big, wild, beautiful, powerful, lucky, stunning, ohmigod. 

All my senses are on fire. Adrenaline rockets my blood to my ears, racing through my body, down to my toes - boom, BOOM, BOOM, shaking my body so hard he must feel the earth throbbing, because he tries to shrink further under the tree branches. He does not want to be noticed. He thinks I might be a threat. Even as he shifts so minutely further under cover and into deeper stillness, I can sense the utter litheness he possesses, and I am grateful he isn't interested in getting further acquainted with me.

I slip off my big jacket, to swing around and make myself big and make lots of noise if he does decide to come at me, but he remains motionless, staring at me with those mesmerizing, unblinking golden eyes, and I stand stock-still, not breathing, staring at him in utter awe, floored at the chance encounter with this creature. We just stare at each other, in wonder and wariness, two opposite worlds miraculously colliding for a magical moment. Nearby there is a deer's ribcage, a hide he's been feeding on.

I have a terrible urge to step closer, but I know he will bolt away. I feel I could stand and stare at him all day, but he does not want to be harassed, and I do not want to harass him. I slip my camera out and get a few pictures, thank Mother Nature for this fabulous gift, give him a gesture of deference, Thank you for this extraordinary encounter, and I move on, leave him alone, still trying not to scream because I am in shock, thrilled I got to see this big cat.
pretty camouflaged, yes?

Saturday, December 5, 2015

We're Not In Idaho Anymore

Saturday December 5 2015

Steph's in Heaven, I'm in Scottsdale. It's totally true for Steph, down south in the warm sunshine in the place of a cold Idaho winter.

Not complaining, mind you. Sure, I'd rather be wallerin' around in the snow and hoar frost, wearing 5 layers of clothes, but this is a nice road trip in a fascinating part of the country. And I'm sure glad I'm not here in the summer!

We got out on the horses today on a little corner of the 100,000 square mile Sonoran desert. Jose and I both enjoyed the scenery. He's spent a winter down here before. 

The Four Peaks of the rugged Mazatzal Mountains and wilderness line the eastern horizon, 

and the alluring Superstition Mountains and wilderness lie to the southeast, with Weaver's Needle poking up in the melee. Legends abound of lost gold (particularly the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine), and a hole that leads down to the lower world. 700-year-old cliff dwellings in the Tonto basin, between the Mazatzals and Superstitions, leave behind an intriguing mystery of a vanished ancient people.   

Jose and his desert reflection

Yep I like to hug trees, but I'm keeping my distance from this saguaro. 

Pretty much anything out here, you don't want to run into or touch, particularly the cholla!

this was a cool old monster. With the right conditions, they can live to be 150-200 years old.