Season Sparks an Urge
By Bill Phillips
At this time of year I get an urge to go walk in the woods.
It could be all the bears lurking about looking for easy pickings or that sense of impending winter and a guilty feeling about not getting out enough during the summer. It could be, but it isn’t.
There was a fall ritual that we went through every year called … getting the cows off the range.
It was always on a Sunday in late September or early October. Fall, of course, is a glorious time of year, so the trip into the backcountry was also glorious (or at least I like to think so).
The day started early, before dawn. We were rustled out of bed and my mother would make us a big pancake breakfast while my father patiently chomped at the bit for us hurry up. It was a big day and, once started, there was no turning back.
We would all cram into the 1958 Chevy car that we had and head up the range. The range, however, was basically the top of a mountain. Off the highway, it was five miles into the backcountry on a logging road … in a car. No quads, no four-wheel-drives, no horses (horses work well on the open range seen in movies, chasing cows through dense underbrush on a horse is a recipe for unceremoniously meeting the ground), no motorcycles, no way to get back except your feet.
How we ever got that car so far into the backcountry, and back, is beyond me. There were mudholes, raging creeks, and crusty critters to deal with. My dad was also prepared though with a chainsaw, come-along, chains, a full tool kit in the back.
Later, when we got a truck, it was only a two-wheel-drive so things didn’t really improve.
Getting the cows off the range entailed driving, basically, to the top of the mountain, dropping us stalwart cattle herders off, and then chasing all the cattle back … on foot. It was a big operation and our neighbours who ranged their cows with ours, joined in. Some of us would get a ride ahead to ensure that the cows went the right way, not up some obscure logging road or, as we got closer to civilization, onto someone’s lawn. Even the best horticulturalist in the world can’t save a lawn from 200 head of cattle.
Being that it was this glorious time of year, it was almost always wet. If it was a sunny day, it might not be too bad. But if it was raining, then it made for a long, long hike out of the woods. Also, if it was raining, we would likely be wearing our
gumboots. Try walking five miles in gumboots. And, if it was raining, by the time we were done each gumboot had what seemed like 50 pounds of mud attached. No matter how much you tried to scrape it off, it came back.
After our trek out of the bush, we would hold the herd in the neighbour’s laneway. The arduous task of separating our 100 head from theirs began. For us kids, who just walked five miles through the mud, a couple more hours of just
standing holding the line so the cows didn’t bolt off down the road, was pure agony.
Eventually we would take our cows down the road and home. It was a long, long day full of adventure and drudgery.
What I always remember the most, though, was the feel of the autumn day. Even when sunny, it was damp. There was always an earthy smell mixed with an almost sweet smell of large, golden poplar tree leaves that were making their way to the ground.
Go out in the woods and smell it. It’s wonderful. And, if you see me out there in your travels and I don’t say hello, don’t pay any attention; I’m just on another cattle drive with some people I haven’t seen in a long, long time.
Bill Phillips is a freelance columnist living in Prince George. He was the winner of the 2009 Best Editorial award at the British Columbia/Yukon Community Newspaper Association’s Ma Murray awards, in 2007 he won the association’s Best Columnist award. In 2004, he placed third in the Canadian Community Newspaper best columnist category and, in 2003, placed second. He can be reached at email@example.com