Thursday, April 23, 2015

Remembering Brenda and Mac

Thursday April 23 2015

This spring, with the Sunflowers exploding over the Owyhee desert in riotous glory, I remember Brenda and Mac.

I don't know much about mules. What I do know came from just two mules: training rides on Melissa and Robert Ribley's tough and smart little Murrtheblur (he has over 3700 AERC miles), and from Brenda the pack mule in my Forest Service Sierra Nevada pack string. Brenda was the best mule to teach a greenhorn packer (me) how to pack. She was terribly smart and patient and forgiving.

Brenda loved big sunflowers (appropriately named Mule's Ears: genus Wyethia, sunflower family). She'd be tied to the end of the pack string, sometimes carrying a 200+ pound load, dancing lightly on her dainty mule toes, darting off the trail to snatch a mouthful of the yellow flowers, never pulling the slack out of her lead rope tied to the horse ahead of her.

She was about 24 when I left the Forest Service 8 years ago. I lost touch with her; the FS was thinking about getting rid of their whole string. I like to think she's still out there around Bridgeport, California, with her aging herd, treating herself to the delicacies of her favorite flower in the springtime.

Rushcreek Mac came from the Rushcreek Ranch in Nebraska. Steph Teeter got him when he was around 8 years old. He came as a working cow horse - he didn't know anything about treats or horse hugs. He was mostly John T's mount, but I got to ride him some 265 endurance miles over the years. He was turning into an awesome endurance horse. Mac even got overall Best Condition when I got to ride him in the 3-day 2013 Owyhee Fandango.

Mac loved big sunflowers (Arrowleaf Balsamroot: Balsamrohiza sagittata, sunflower family). If you didn't let him stop to eat his fill out on the trail, he'd artfully snatch them up as he walked or trotted by, doing the Mule's Ear Dance just like Brenda did.

Some girls wear flowers in their hair? Mac often had them hanging out of his mouth.

And then one day that summer, Mac showed up with the herd dead lame. Steph took him to the clinic where they found he had broken his left elbow. How the hell…!? Running and fell down? Rolled over on something? Playing too hard with Jose? That pretty much was the beginning of the end. He had a few months to heal up, to see if he might at least make it as a trail horse one day. He did get better, but the lameness would come and go, and that shoulder atrophied from his compromised use. He didn't seem to be in pain, and he certainly wasn't unhappy. But last fall, he suddenly became very lame again. Uncomfortable enough on that left side, that at some point you'd have to worry about him foundering in the right front foot. Steph made the sad but wise decision to have him put down, before things got bad.

I had enough days left to hang out extra with Mac, and spoil him with lots of treats and horse hugs. He didn't mind at all.

Steph took him to the clinic to be put down, but I kept some of his tail hairs. When Steph planted two trees over Rhett's grave, we put a few tail hairs with each tree, so Mac and Rhett could hang out together Over the Rainbow Bridge, eating treats and Mule's Ears together.

Maybe they'll run into Brenda out there.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Tuesday April 21 2015

When it's been warm enough this spring to 'play' my banjo with my door open, my bumbling bum-dittying would thoroughly alarm Mufasa in the front pasture. His head would fly up, his ears pin-pricked in my direction, his nostrils flaring widely, and he'd snort that alarm call that some Arabians do so well, alerting the herd that something bad is brewing! Get ready to run away!

I'm embarrassed to say how long I've had my banjo and not learned to play it properly, so I won't say. This year, I decided, I am finally going to learn to really play it. I took my banjo out of its case and left it out, so I'd pick it up every time I walked past it. I started practicing (!!). I started chipping away at some of those songs in my many banjo music books that have piled up and collected dust over the years.

And then I stumbled across the first Old-Time Banjo Clawhammer Camp, in Weiser, Idaho, in April, on a weekend date I had open. You might have heard of Weiser as the home of the annual June National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest.

Why learn clawhammer banjo? Well, why not? I signed up for camp, fully prepared to be the worst player in class, and to enjoy the heck out of it anyway.

Ohmigod. It was one of the most amazing experiences, gathering with a group of around 15 banjo players of varying abilities and eclectic backgrounds for a weekend of learning from two extraordinary banjo (as well as several other instruments) players and instructors, Jason Homey and Scott Knickerbocker.

Music theory, hands-on drills, practice, evening concerts by musicians (one night joined by terrific fiddle player Dave Daley) exhibiting seemingly effortless virtuosity, followed by group jams - by Friday night, my brain had already exploded. And we went till Sunday! Sharing music with a group of like-minded people is magical. The great weekend ended with new friends, sore fingers and a load of material to work on.

Just to be on the safe side, though, and not scare the horse herd away, I'll continue to practice with my door closed.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Most Beautiful Horse On The Planet Turns 24

Monday April 13 2015

Who cares who's running for President (seriously, we have to start listening to this stuff already??), who cares if the globe is warming (I could've told you that years ago - I'm always hot), who cares what the market does today - this should be the 'round-the-world headlines for the day: The Most Beautiful Horse On The Planet Turns 24.

Beloved Stormy: former racehorse, pack string leader, dude ranch wrangler horse, lesson horse, local handyman, trail marker, lawn mower, model cover boy - he turns 24 years old today.

It's been 18 years since that first year he looked at me from his stall at Emerald Downs racetrack in Washington, 15 years since he first owned me; from Washington to the forests of the Sierra Nevadas and the Mojave Desert in California, to the wilds of Owyhee - we've had some good adventures.

He still hates being brushed; he still loves to stuff his mouth with carrots till they spill out the sides; he still enjoys a wicked sprint down the canyon at the head of the herd now and then; he still nickers at me when he sees me walking out in the pasture. And day-um - he's still just knock-out gorgeous.

I just love this Thoroughbred.

Happy Birthday Stormy!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Friends in High Places

Thursday April 9 2015

A short jog up Bates Crick, a pair of Ravens brood on their nest. I'm sure it's the same pair that raised 4-5 young in the same nest last year. Their young turned into rowdy raucous ruckus-raisin' gang-bangin' kestrel teasers.

The adult Ravens don't mind me getting close, particularly the male, and I'm almost certain he's The Raven I saved a couple of years ago (story still coming!). One of them will come strut about the horse pasture out front in the mornings, picking up goodies, and dodging wispy Audrey the Terrorist cat who thinks she can assassinate an adult Raven.

A half mile or so up Pickett Crick, the Great Horned Owl brood has already hatched. This year the owls took over last year's Red-Tailed Hawk nest - much to the angst of the hawks. Owls nest earlier, so they get first choice - in this case a nice protected nest that the red tails were hoping to claim again this year. I can see one owlet on the nest, though they usually lay 2-3 eggs. The adult on the nest is the top photo. This is the owlet - he looks cute-ugly fluffy-fierce at the same time.

Just 50 yards upstream from the owls are the red tails, in the second choice nest. I can only imagine it rankles, losing your home to your enemies. Here you can just see the female's head to the left, and her tail to the right, sitting low on her nest.

Again the kestrels have mixed in with this mob - they're noisy and obnoxious, and certainly don't like their neighbors, particularly when an owl is sitting in their nest tree. But they decided to re-settle in this racially charged neighborhood anyway.

And then there are the golden eagles. The Bates Crick pair hardly made appearances this winter. In the previous 3 years, I'd see them on the ridge above their nest in December and January and February, and occasionally fluffing up their nest before starting to incubate in March or so. They raised young in 2 of the last 4 years. Not this year. Last time anybody saw them was in January. And they don't have another nest in this territory (eagles often have several nests within their territory, and they often switch around every year). They just disappeared.

Then there's Hart Crick. I've hiked around here in previous years, once discovering a bunch of eagle nests on one of the cliff faces. Never seen an eagle on any of them - till this year, when I carelessly startled one. I climbed up to the edge of the cliffs here, counted some 4-5 old eagle nests, and admired the view. About to climb back down, I hiked around one more cliff and popped over the edge - and did a startled double take as the golden eagle below me did a startled double take up at me - and flew off nest where she was brooding an egg.

Damn! I didn't mean to scare her off her nest, and had I known she was down there, I'd have never approached so close. Rookie mistake! I quickly retreated as fast as I could, away from the edge and down the far side of the cliff.

It's awesome to have such cool friends in high places - I just hope the eagles and I are still friends!