At the Wells Summit shipping corrals, the sun peeks lazily over the Dollarhide Mountains, spying on the morning’s bustling activity and illuminating the vibrant quaking aspen leaves. Silhouettes against the dawn sky, the cowboys have once again beat the sun out of bed as they gather cattle off the Sawtooth National Forest north of Fairfield, Idaho. Since September, the cowboys, cow dogs and horses have been able to see their breath in the morning air. It’s time to bring the cattle off the mountain for the winter.
The Sawtooth National Forest is shared by many. Usage varies from ATV’s, to hunters, to hikers, to all sorts of big game and predator inhabitants. “One day I’ll see ten elk, the next day I’ll see ten motorbikes,” laughs Boone Campbell, cowboy for the Bar 21 Ranch.
Campbell has been resident to a cow camp up the Rosetta drainage since the day cattle arrived on the forest in July. His camp is humble; a small living trailer and a large horse trailer rest quietly next to wandering Rosetta Creek. The cowboys have tended the herd all summer while cattle graze thousands of nutrient-rich mountain grasses. Cowboys make sure the riparian areas are maintained and cattle stay healthy. Forest range riders keep a close working relationship with public lands managers (USFS, BLM and Idaho Department of Lands) prearranging turn out dates, areas of use, AUM charges, and take out dates.
The conditions of the utilized grazing allotments are a direct reflection of a cowboy’s work. Many miles and countless hours in the saddle are devoted to the maintenance of the riparian areas. “My reputation is on the line,” explains Kelly Dennis, a rancher from Fairfield. It makes sense to take care of the land and grass, then it will grow back healthy for next year.
Running cattle on the forest is a challenging job, and takes place in some of Idaho’s most rugged, steep, unforgiving – yet spectacular – areas. The terrain is thick wilderness with some of the most beautiful vistas one could imagine. “Every day I get to see things that some people will only dream about,” Dennis says.
In the higher elevations, there really never is a “hot summer day,” and a jacket is usually worn in the evenings. In the fall, coats, chaps and scarves are worn all day.
Come October, the Bar 21 Ranch cowboy crew, hired day workers, and helpful neighboring cowboys convene at the shipping corrals to sort the gather. The beef cows have been turned out all summer, finding sweet grasses up narrow draws and on elevated ridge tops. Late in the summer, cattle will remain high on the ridges due to the warmer temperatures there and the grass holds a greater palatability. It’s a simple task to turn cattle out; however, gathering them back up can be a whole other story. Sometimes, the cattle will find their own way down to the corrals; other times they will remain in the thick pine trees and high meadows until discovered and escorted out. The days start early and several miles are covered before the cows rendezvous in the holding pasture. From distant ridges away, cowboys and their dogs can be seen working together bringing in the pairs.
Meanwhile, back at the shipping corrals, (also known as the “Warming Hut Corrals”) the rickety, aged gray pens enjoy a moment of silence before the action. The silty, fine dirt lies still, but not for long. The pairs are brought off the holding field, and quietly into the corrals. The cows keep track of their babies and push their way into the middle of the herd, as to avoid the humans and dogs guiding them. Once inside the network of pens, each cowboy ties or hobbles his horse, then grabs a gate and a sorting stick. Two hands on horseback bring a group of 25 or so into the alleyway while a few other cowboys calmly sort the cows from the calves. Calves to the left, cows to the right, one after the other, quietly and accurately. Everyone has a role. It’s like watching an engine run – this turns, that spins, I zig, you zag – and every move affects the next. With the right crew, like this one, smooth is an understatement. It is a form of telepathy joined with experience, and it shows in the display of teamwork. Each cowboy knows what the others are doing, which helps when the dust in the air is so thick you could cut it with a dull knife.
As the sorting carries on, and the cattle bawl through the fences at their calves, several semi-trucks slowly arrive after maneuvering narrow, windy forest roads. The familiar sound of hooves finding traction on aluminum trailer floors comes in shifts as the driver situates the calves onto the cattle wagon. Before noon, the bulk of the sorting work is finished, the trucks are loaded with calves headed south, and the cows are returned to the hillside. The calves will be vaccinated and are now being weaned, eventually to reside on a feedlot.
The cowboys re-ride the mountain draws and high meadows, looking for renegades, to make sure everyone’s (not just their own) cattle are gathered for the winter. Several Idaho ranches run their cattle on the Sawtooth National Forest, and it is a community effort to care for the cattle and land. Neighbors frequently help each other out, treating each animal as if it were their own. Camaraderie at it’s best, these men and women enjoy what they do for a living, and are often part of family-run operations. It is a tough, sometimes un-appreciated job. Cold, long days are anything but glamorous, but cowboys don’t do what they do for fame or recognition in the spotlight. It is a way of life, a chosen path.
“Cowboys could perform terrible labors and endure bone-grinding hardships and yet consider themselves the chosen of the Earth; and the grace that redeemed it all in their own estimation was the fact that they had gone a-horseback. They were riders, first and last.”
– Larry McMurtry
After fall shipping, as the last cow is brought off the mountain, cowboys can look retrospectively to the eventful summer and give a nod of satisfaction for a job well done. All their hard work has paid off; cows are healthy and returning home. When the semi-trucks have pulled away, the cows are back on grass, horses and dogs are loaded into trailers, the dust starts to lie back into rest, the cowboys drive away until tomorrow, and nobody hears the corrals creak as it releases its final exhale for the evening.