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Monday, 16 May 2011

Riders of the Purple Sage - or green Sandhills

They arrived in convoy – the van, the truck and the trailer creeping cautiously down the dusty trail. Suddenly the yard was full of horses, nine of them, and hay, saddle-blankets, females – four or five college kids with a handful of adults. Plus the one with the beard, Joe, who seemed to be responsible for it all. He comes from over the border. Iowa, which he pronounces Ioway.

The Chainsaw and I stood well back as tack was sorted and horses were saddled up. These gals might have been up since three in the morning and driven six hours, but they wanted to be out in the hills right away. ‘We’ve already had one spillage,’ somebody said – which we took to mean that one of the horses had thrown its rider.

As we shifted our supplies into the spare fridge in the garage, one or two of the women loaded up the kitchen with enough grub to feed a small army.

It had been another cold start, but the cloud was higher and thinner and looked as though it might break. Perfect for a hike. And as we walked the mile and a half up to the ranch-house the sky started to clear from the east. I wanted to show Phil the draw I’d walked down a week or two ago, the one that leads through the pines to the river.

It’s always interesting going with someone new and seeing a familiar place through their eyes. Phil was immediately attracted to the steep sandy slopes to right and left of the gully, down on his knees picking up pieces of rock that were washed out of what he referred to as horizons. We found fossilised bone fragments in various shapes and sizes, one or two flinty pieces that looked as though they may have been worked, and agreed that it might be fun to spend a morning on the slopes looking for arrowheads. I know that Kitty found a couple of buffalo skulls along that same watercourse a few years ago.

With all the rain we’ve had the little creek was running well, seeping out from the sides of the ravine, snaking its way through fallen trees, dropping clean sand here, gravel there, and cascading over jutting rocks. More and more of the trees down there are coming into leaf now, and I was noticing what I’d failed to see last time I came this way, that there are a lot of silver birches. So that’s the nice bright green picture, looking up through the leaves of a tall betula pendula into a deep blue sky.

We followed the creek down to where it comes out into the river, and again I found myself spotting possible camping sites. The ground there is probably good for sleeping on but not even enough to pitch a tent. Well, I like to sleep ‘sous la belle etoile’ as the French say, and so does my partner, who’s due here in four weeks. She is one tough cookie, and would have been in that river before you could say knife. Not the Chainsaw. He frowns at the very idea of sleeping out, and walks on through the overhanging cedars.

We worked our way along the river, once more surprised by the amount of damage wrought by the beaver – which we have yet to see in the flesh, although we could clearly see where they had their runs from the water up the grassy bank. In places they’d simply nipped off young junipers, stripped the bark, and laid the leafy branches neatly on the ground. It looked a little like someone’s back garden at home, after they’d been trimming those awful leylandii hedges on a Saturday afternoon.  But the beaver have also attacked – and felled – some much bigger trees, trees with twelve- to fifteen-inch diameter trunks; and they’ve girdled eighty-year-old cottonwoods and killed them off.

We arrived back home hot, thirsty and picking ticks off our clothes. Matt, who’d called by to see whether the trail riders wanted to move some cattle for him next day, agreed that beaver were really quite a nuisance down there. Phil artfully shifted the conversation from gnawing trees to felling trees and pointed out that there’s a tall specimen growing right alongside the back of the house that’s probably damaging the foundations. In no time flat we’d agreed that he would borrow Matt’s chainsaw today, live up to his publicity and have it down.

After we’d eaten, and as the light faded, we lit a fire down by the river crossing, maybe a hundred yards from the back of the house. There’s a lot of fallen cedar down there: very old, very dry, and it burns very hot. Within half an hour we were sitting round a huge blaze, scalding our faces while the chill worked its way into our backs and the river ran silver under the light of an almost full moon.

Then came a certain familiar sound – both Phil and I have raised daughters and know it well – as the gals stumbled, shrieking, down the track clutching blankets, drinks, folding chairs and goodies. We graciously declined their offer of ‘smores’, the graham cracker, chocolate and marshmallow concoction beloved of girl scouts – and, I’d guess, dentists – but I accepted  an invitation to help myself to carrot cake when I went back to the house and made myself a bedtime cup of tea.

Today they will ride again – those that aren’t too sore after seven hours in the saddle yesterday. Phil and I will take that tree down, and around four this afternoon they’ll be off back east. Later in the week we have one last solitary turkey hunter and then I believe I can safely move back into the red house, and something akin to normality.

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