If you’ve read some of my other stories, you’ll know that I suspect Mother Nature delights in providing challenges for me. Some have even been fun. Others . . . not so much.
As a teenager, I lived on a large ranch – sixty-two square miles. The South Saskatchewan River flowed across the southern portion of the ranch so five miles of river separated the grazing land into two portions. The south contained the main headquarters and corrals but the majority was north of the river – fifty-five sections consisting of rolling prairie as far as the eye could see.
One year in mid-October, we had seven hundred cows still to be herded across the river when Mother Nature decided to drop a November snowstorm on us. We’d hoped to be done before the white stuff hit but, as it turned out, we were a day late.
My father, three brothers, a hired hand and I left the ranch headquarters before dawn. Riding my Arabian stallion, Sahib, I was hunched into my coat and had a hat pulled down to deflect a raw wind. It was two miles to the river which we had to cross before full daylight. We wound through badland canyons to the ford which I hoped my horse would manage without a panic attack. As we waded into the powerful current, I kept a short rein on him but Sahib merely flinched as stirrup-deep water splashed his sensitive underbelly.
Fording the South Saskatchewan River on horseback is an unsettling thing. The view from the middle of the river is as wide both ways as the entire river seems from the shore. It’s broad, deceivingly powerful, and deadly. And riding a horse that couldn’t swim made my ride that much more interesting. For some reason, Sahib was unique in that regard. In deep water, he’d leap-frog his way across the deep spots. Not fun. Something I kept in mind as we sloshed across the ford into a biting wind.
After an uneventful crossing, we wound up the hills onto rolling prairie that stretched into the distance. Without the protection of the river cliffs, our faces took on a rosy hue from a frigid north wind. But there was no chance of delaying the job. Tomorrow could bring snow and the river wouldn’t be any warmer.
With a sense of urgency, we separated and pushed our horses to a high lope to cover the nine square miles in record time. I headed to the far west, keeping to the tops of low hills as much as possible. At least with gentle terrain, it was easy to spot cattle grazing. In large areas, they collected into small bunches so the process wouldn’t be fast. Whenever I came across a few, I agitated them into heading east then galloped off to look for more. Each small group was added to the others and it wasn’t long before my growing herd merged with those of the others. By noon the small bunches had collected into one and we started moving towards the river. They didn't like the raw north wind any more than we did so walked along with little resistance.
I kept an uneasy eye on a heavy grey blanket descending from the sky. It’s hard enough to keep your directions on the open prairie on a clear day but low clouds make it especially easy to get turned around. Subtle landmarks disappear until everything looks the same. I began to doubt the weather forecast that claimed the snow would hold off for a few days.
I was collecting some strays when the first blast of next week’s snow arrived. As they joined the herd, I hunched deep into my saddle. Sahib’s ears swiveled towards me as I growled. “Thank you, Mother Nature! You couldn’t wait one more day!” Guess she thought we’d had it too easy.
I consoled myself with the knowledge that horses know where home is. Worst case scenario, if I got separated, I'd give Sahib his head and let him take me home . . . Then again, he couldn't swim, would carelessly walk off a cliff, and was afraid of cattle. On second thought, I wouldn't bet my life on his knowing where headquarters were.
I ducked my head into my collar and shoved cold hands into pockets that weren’t deep enough, wishing my gloves had been lined. I looped the reins over the saddle horn, knowing Sahib had done this job before and would walk alongside the herd, keeping them together and going the right direction. His fear of cattle would keep him from wandering too close.
The weather report had promised a clear day so I hadn’t dressed for a snowstorm. The frigid wind whipped through my coat and chilled me to the bone. One of the problems with riding a horse in cold weather is you don't move around enough to keep warm, and the first to get cold are your feet. I kept pulling them out of the stirrups and flexing my ankles in an effort to keep blood circulating. Dismounting to walk a ways would’ve been helpful but it’s a dangerous practice when working with range cattle. They respect horses but a person on foot is fair game. There’s always a cranky old cow ready to take you out and I’ve never met anyone fast enough to out-run a four-legged animal.
As thickening snow gathered in Sahib’s mane and dusted the backs of the cattle, I grumbled at what I saw as Mother Nature’s sense of humour.
Time passed as I meditated on my horse’s ears, flowed with the rhythmic motion of his footfalls, and visualized a warm fire. From out of nowhere, a realization burst upon me. With shocking clarity, I realized that I’d been gifted with a profound experience. How many others would have the opportunity to participate in such an adventure? I glanced at my surroundings, recognized the partnership, skills and commitment that made it even possible to perform such a task. In that instant, I straightened, shrugged off the cold, and made a commitment to remember every detail. Someday I was going to write about it.
The wind blew snow down my neck; the temperature dropped and snowfall thickened. Sharp arrows of ice stung my face each time I turned my head. As I looked around at our small bunch of riders, most of them family, I realized we were betting our lives on our skills. Long before cell phones, if we lost our directions, none of us would survive.
Stationed at strategic places around the herd, hunched against the wind, we trudged beside the animals. It was eerie in that it reminded me of a silent, black-and-white movie. Normally cattle are quite noisy while being handled, but this herd walked along in near silence, their backs already covered with a thin dusting of snow. Hooves on grass were quiet, the snow silent. Only the rising wind and squeak of saddle leather were audible.
After glancing again at the heavy clouds, I watched my father ease the leaders in the direction he wanted them to go. The wrong canyon would cause the herd to tumble over a vertical cliff more than two hundred feet onto rocks – and there was little to differentiate the shallow draws we rode past.
At long last, I saw him turn the front animals and was relieved to recognize the long sloping draw we’d ridden out of that morning. Bit by bit, the howling wind lessened as it was deflected by the rising slopes. As the cattle spilled out of the long canyon onto the flats, they gathered into a disgruntled mass, milling and shoving at each other. Respite was short-lived as we urged them towards the river where the wind renewed, howling through the wide river valley.
I gazed at the grey river through the driving snow and took small comfort in knowing I wasn’t the only one reluctant to start the crossing. If there were problems, they’d be big ones. The storm alone was dangerous. Combine that with the South Saskatchewan River and our risk level shot into the red. The powerful current was a living thing that reminded us it was not something with which to trifle. As far as I could see, Mother Nature was telling us to go home.
But the cattle depended on us doing our jobs. And none of the riders would leave an animal out in a storm for any reason, certainly not because of personal discomfort.
My stallion waited for instructions as I blew on my fingers to impart some warmth then turned him towards the herd. The next challenge was to convince the cattle that it was a good idea to go swimming in a frigid river in the middle of a snow storm. I didn't think it was a good idea either but there was no point in putting it off. The river was between us and a warm dinner.
Five of us cut out a dozen head and pushed them towards the water. When they realized where they were headed, the cattle dug in their heels and tried to turn back. Must’ve figured we were crazy. But our mounts had quick reflexes and the training needed to keep the cattle moving.
As we reached the shore, a few adventurous cows sloshed into the water, sniffed it with the suspicion that it might be cold. But there was no other option. The snow was already covering the sparse grass and there was no shelter on that side of the river.
Riding head-to-tail around the first bunch so they couldn’t dart past us, we pushed them into the flowing water. Even my stallion, nervous as he was of cattle, did his share. Once the first group was resigned to the crossing and stopped trying to escape, a couple of riders turned back and started another batch. The second would be easier as they’d follow the leaders. When those in front caught a glimpse of the other side, it would get easier still as they started looking ahead instead of back.
Another challenge of the river was to keep the cattle on the ford which followed an invisible ‘S’ curve beneath the water. We had to physically push against the leaders when they reached the mid-point and turn them against the powerful current for a hundred yards or so. Since there were no signs to identify the ford other than our knowledge of where it was, it was critical to remain aware of where we were in relation to the shore. The ford had a sharp drop-off along the down-river side where underwater waterfalls would suck fully-grown animals beneath the surface. The river could swallow a person in seconds in that area, especially someone dressed in heavy clothes and boots.
It was always a risk taking Sahib into the water but he was well trained and the toughest horse we owned. He could put in twice as many hours as any of the Quarter Horse stallions and I seldom saw him tired. The others knew about my mount’s water issues and would come to my rescue – hopefully in time.
Another of Sahib’s idiosyncrasies was that flowing water made him dizzy. If I stood him sideways in the water, he'd begin to watch the current, get dizzy, and fall over. Since he couldn't swim, this initiated a panic attack of massive proportions and he’d start leapfrogging which was difficult to ride – and wet! So every time we stopped, I was careful to point him either straight upstream or straight downstream so the water wasn’t crossing his field of vision. It was odd that none of the other horses had this problem.
Back and forth we worked. The herd stretched into a long, sinuous 'S' across the river. Time dragged and wind flung snow into our faces but the end was in sight. We'd leave the animals in a sheltered canyon for the night and return in the morning to bring them the final two miles to the corrals. Farmers would bring trucks to take them home, and the ranch would be empty of cattle until spring.
As we trudged across the wide river, we tried to keep our feet dry, a challenge as our stirrups could dip into the water if our horse stepped into a hole. Time ceased as I focused on the job, keeping Sahib calm and pushing cattle even though they scared him silly (His fear of cattle wasn’t his fault, but that’s another story).
As the tail end of the herd crunched onto the stones of the shore, we heaved a collective sigh and gathered them into a nearby ravine that would protect them from the storm.
It’d been hours since breakfast. Tired and wet, and riding wet, tired horses, we started for home. Bits of swirling ice still stung my face and my eyelashes were freezing together, but I experienced a sensation of euphoria as we climbed out of the badlands into the full force of the howling wind for the final trek to headquarters across the flat prairie.
Nature can be spectacular in her fury. She could’ve waited a day but what would’ve been the fun in that? A gentle ride in the sun; an easy river crossing. How boring was that? I envisioned her pushing pawns across a chess board and muttering, “Let’s make this interesting . . .”
As my horse’s hooves crunched on the stones, I felt a profound gratitude for the experience. Dangerous, cold, harsh it may have been, but it was tangible in a way that most people never get the opportunity to experience. Coping with life-threatening challenges; enduring physical discomfort in order to bring other beings safely home. Such events build strength, resilience, and self-reliance.
The others talked and joked as we rode along, the wind at our backs, our horses leaving hoof-prints in the fresh white. I listened and hung back to absorb and imprint the reality of it all. Experiences are fleeting; and harsh experiences can be every bit as wonderful as perfect ones. I knew as I rode along feeling the gentle strength of my mount beneath me and watching the swirling snow that, one day, I’d share this one.
It’s been a long time in coming, but here it is.