Growing up on the ranch


By Kate Mackenzie

Special to Okanogan Living

Late winter and early spring on the ranch were busy. Calving was the time the weather was capricious with snow, wind, or thaw and mud. On good days we got sunshine. The birthing kept on rain or shine, mud or frozen ground didn’t matter. Sometimes my dad could go to sleep standing up. They worked in shifts, always on the lookout for predators. Coyotes, cougar and other assorted opportunists were always lurking in the shadows. Needless to say, they were dispensed with quickly.


The cattle dogs were great helpers. They were well trained and knew their jobs. There were six families on the ranch and numerous cowboys living in the bunkhouse and no pet dogs. They were untrained and tended to mess with the training of the working dogs. I remember one special dog. His name was Danny. He was the boss and smartest of them all, a great teacher. He believed that all those calves were theirs to protect. Those calves were so cute and their mommas so protective. The season was tiring but so worth it!


Then there was branding day or days depending on the number of calves. The noise was deafening. The mamas and babies did not like to be separated. Branding was the first order of business. The cattle were turned out on range for the summer and had to be identifiable. The second order of business was vaccinations; then male calves were turned into steers. Not a fun time. Usually cold and muddy, not fit for neither man nor beast.


The cattle drive to take them to their summer range was an all hands on deck project. My mother insisted that I learned to swear chasing those ornery critters!! They had a long way to go and we tried to keep them all together, not leaving any behind. We had one old cow, named Bessie, who thought that horses and riders should be up a tree. Talk about mean, however she was a fierce mama and always raised a great calf. The meadow grass at the higher elevations was up to a horse’s belly. Perfect place for growing calves.


From late spring through summer the herdsman, Jerry, rode the range every day checking on the herd and looking for problems. I often went with him. It was an education that I still remember with fondness- something you could never learn from books. I learned to identify the different types of trees and plants and how to identify tracks and the most important always be aware of your surroundings. I also learned how to shoot.


I remember the day that Jerry went out alone. A bear spooked his horse. He fell off and broke his ankle. Danny the dog went after the bear and Jerry didn’t see him again. He finally caught his horse, got back to the truck he had used to get into the meadows. He loaded his horse and came home. I remember my dad taking him to the hospital, miles from the ranch to have his ankle set. All he was worried about was Danny.


The next day Jerry and my dad went looking for Danny. They rode into where the accident had happened and started searching. They found Danny at the base of a tree, keeping the bear up there. The tree was skinned down to where the dog could get at the bear and he would go back up the tree. Poor dog was totally done in. They shot the bear and loaded the dog on the horse with Jerry and took him home. Bears were a real problem. They liked the taste of calves and once those omnivores started they wouldn’t quit.


This was also the time when gardens were prepared for planting. My Aunt Rena was a master gardener. Every year she had a vegetable garden that was the envy of everyone. She said the trick was not to plant too soon. If you could sit on the ground and not freeze it was time to plant, usually not before May 24th.


We had a garden at home which was tended by my grandpa and me. We planted a wide variety of vegetables; after all they had to last us through the winter. In those days there was no chance to “just run to the store."


My maternal grandma also had a huge garden, so there was a lot of canning and there was a large freezer house, used by everyone. “Waste not, want not” was the motto for everyone. When I see the prices of vegetables in the stores I think we need to go back to gardening. I still remember the fresh taste of the vegetables. To tell the truth I still have a hankering for Grandma’s gooseberry pie, the fresh tomatoes and other veggies. Carrots have never tasted better than when you knocked the dirt of and ate them straight from the garden. We had a huge root cellar in which we kept root vegetables for the winter. I remember huge piles of potatoes and other root veggies. Don’t forget there were 6 families and there was a full bunkhouse and everyone had to eat so everyone had a garden.


Not everything was sunshine and rainbows. Spring brought flooding of the creeks. And this was in the days before close control. We all got our typhoid shot early on. The creeks overflowed and in some places over ran the banks into barnyards. I know, unthinkable nowadays, but back then things were different. I had cousins who had to take a boat from the house to the barn so they could milk the cows. Both places were on high ground and the creek flowed between. You did what you had to do. The animals had to be looked after.


Spring was a renewal of life, the snow had disappeared, ice melted away until the cycle began again. We planted, birthed babies, planned ahead and enjoyed the ability to be outdoors and look forward to new beginnings.

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