“I just castrated a one-nutted bull!” beamed my new boss and host, Caroline. So began my experience as a ranch hand in central British Columbia. I had crossed the river by ferry after a(nother) gruelling experience with Greyhound Bus Company, and walked on the farm where heifers and steers were being readied for shipment to market. The half-sacked steer with whom Caroline had just finished stared blankly at a fence, the inside of his back leg stained purple by blood and coagulant. “He doesn’t look too dismayed” Ben said, perhaps to me. “He doesn’t look thrilled, either” I responded. Perhaps I should have kept quiet. “Better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt”, Abraham Lincoln said that.
I set my alarm for what I considered to be a suitable time for life on a horse ranch. I wrapped up in layers of my hardiest clothing and ventured through the darkness of my loft room to the staircase. The main part of the ranch house was dark so I continued to the basement and lit the stove, filled it with the dry fir stacked against the wall, climbed back up the stairs to my room and into bed.
At my second attempt, I found the ranch coming to life a little more. The sun showed pink fingers above the eastern mountain ridge and Caroline and her mother were moving about, the smell of coffee competed with the smell of the milk formula being mixed for Delilah, the calf in the barn. Outside horses nickered and a pair of roosters crowed in competition with one another. “Coyote!” cried Caroline. Pronounced as two syllables rather than three. The binoculars my parents had given to me as a birthday/departure gift brought the scene up close. I glassed the ranch to the northeast and there in the middle distance two coyotes were approaching four horses, one of them a young colt. I watched them skulk up to the horses in cowardly fashion, their heads lower than their shoulders in mock reverence. Like wolves they have a knack for separating the weakest of a herd and the little colt was at risk. I heard the porch door slide open while I kept my eyes on the two wily predators. The sharp report of a rifle cracked and rang back and forth across the valley. Both coyotes scarpered fast, keeping low as if cowering from a second shot from the 30-06. At three hundred yards it would have been an fine shot; even though it was a miss it would keep the beasts away for a good while, I should think. All this before breakfast. I considered that I might still be asleep.
The first task after breakfast was, I think, designed to be humbling. I was to clean out Delilah’s barn, remove the muck to the dung heap, and then move the dung heap. I set to work shovelling the filth out of the barn door. Hercules was once employed in the same role, so I didn’t feel too bad about this otherwise menial task. I loaded the tractor bucket while Delilah watched me from the corner of her stall, large brown eyes unblinking in her little head. I drove to the dung heap and found that the previous incumbent had added to the front of the pile resulting in it creeping across the track. I dumped my load at the back and then lowered the bucket. I moved the heap as a snow plough clears roads in the winter. I finished and drove away, leaving the disturbed heap off the track and steaming in the cool morning, pleased I’d been allowed to make use of the tractor.
After my dung duties, I went to the shop (not a retail outfit, but a workshop) and collected what I’d need for work. I loaded the tractor bucket with chainsaw, splitting maul, axe, bucking chaps, and safety gear. I spent my first day adding to the wood pile. The ranch house is heated exclusively by a wood stove so the stacks of firewood need to be high and plenty. I quickly got to work bucking a big fir, felled by a “pro” a week prior. Once the log was cut into rounds, I got to work on splitting them. I felt joyously alive as I swung the heavy tool over and over, watching the rounds fall into regular sized pieces. I had difficulty lifting some of the 16 inch rounds onto my splitting log, but they split easily enough. The sky was blue above me and visible through the golden canopy of autumn leaves. I watched steam rise from my arms and torso when I stopped for a breather and inhaled the strong smell of sap. I have never been to Scandinavia (unless you generously include Estonia) but I’m sure the whole place smells like my workstation that morning. The tangy smell of fir sap rose from the split logs, in some cases it was frozen and crusted the grain. The light played on it, making it look like a seam of diamonds.
The afternoon was much like the morning, except I had to bring the tree down before I could buck it. It was a large, dead fir on a slope. It had a slight lean downhill, but I planned to drop it up the hill where a clear fall path existed and the bucking would be easier. I cut a good sized wedge on the fall side, removed it and prepared to make the back cut. I made the cut to the 10% line, leaving this as a hinge to prevent the butt kicking back. The tree didn’t move, but stood defiantly on its 10%. I tried to give it a push as my cousin had done when we were falling a dead maple last month. Nothing. Not even a creak. The tree began to lean slightly down the slope. I decided to cut from the wedge side, a little at a time, and eventually the brute groaned at me and fell down the hill. Thom Yorke may have been singing about fake breasts in “Fake Plastic Trees” rather than stubborn fir trees, but he was right that “gravity always wins”. I enjoyed the thump of the tree hitting the ground and then set about de-branching it and bucking it. So, things hadn’t gone quite to plan but there were no injuries sustained. I finished working in the forest for the day and loaded the tractor with some of the split logs as well as my tools and rumbled back up the driveway to the ranch house. The sun was behind me, warming my neck as a cool breeze blew into my face. The golden grass waved at me like a prairie, two horses frolicked in the high grass nearby. Beyond that house a backdrop of balding mountains, some deep green fir trees and a cloudless sky. One birch retained its leaves of yellow and orange on its silver boughs. Three of the four ranch hounds waited at the gate while the big orange cat stalked rodents in the grass. I turned off the noisy diesel engine, leaned back in the seat and took it in. The first day of the working week was finished. How different from my working weeks of the previous four years. I struggled against myself, the romantic arguing that I’d found perfection, or close to, and my calling in life, the rational telling me that one day of labouring was not enough to know, that the aches I’d feel tomorrow would teach me otherwise. Both sides agreed that my two weeks on the ranch would be a wonderful experience. I rumbled back to the house, put away the tools, parked the tractor, and walked into the warm.
It had snowed overnight. Outside my window a sugary dusting lay on everything and large flakes fell lazily all about. Yesterday was autumn, today was winter. As with yesterday I lit the fire and loaded it up, hoping it would heat the cool house quickly. The three of us ate breakfast and discussed the day’s tasks. I returned to my labours in the forest and finished bucking the tree I’d dropped yesterday. Then I spent a couple of hours moving the split logs from the forest to the roadside. I realised I should have only halved the big rounds and left the smaller ones; I would have had to make less journeys between the fall site and the road that way. “Oh well,” I thought, “so long as I only need this lesson once” and trudged back and forth. I split those logs I’d cut and left whole at the roadside while the others loaded the truck bed. Once loaded, it made an impressive load and I felt quite proud of the fruits of my labours. “This should keep us warm for a week” smiled the boss, and so saying thrust a pin into the balloon of my pride.
After lunch we stacked the firewood in the tractor shed. Stacked, split logs have a comforting appearance. Though wood is stacked quickly and without too much thought for tessellation, a good sized stack has a neatness to it, an organised chaos. This wood will remain until next winter, probably, when it will burn cleanly and easily. Caroline and I walked through the forest as she pointed out other trees to turn into stacks. There is plenty of standing deadwood around, and so plenty of work for me. We also kept our eyes open for dead standing young trees which make good fencing rails. I had enjoyed working in the timber and was glad to see that there were a great many hours left for me. All the while the snow had been falling gently, but not settling. Pushing fir branches aside while flakes landed about me added a fantasy element to the day. I wonder if C.S. Lewis spent any time as a lumberjack in the winter.
I look down at my hand and scarcely believe it is mine. The rolled back cuff of my jacket is sheep fleece lined, the gloved hand grips tight to a rope which is fastened around the young bulls hind leg. The rope is looped around a hook to enable me to keep the leg pulled back. The bull bucks a little but is fastened well. Next to me, Caroline and Pete crouch with a device prepped for fastening a very strong rubber band around the bulls testicles. He’ll soon become a steer. “They’re not going to fit,” Pete comments, “see, come and have a feel.” I join them and try to ease the purse through the band. Pete is absolutely right. We switch to the Burdizzo which is clamped above the testicles, severing the blood vessels and having the same effect. A couple of weeks later and the purse will drop off, Ben tells me.
After this we all move to the front end. Still I struggle to believe that it is my hand I look at. Now it holds the same rope, but is looped around the muzzle of the steer, pulling it to the side. Occasionally the steer pulls back and it takes all my strength to hold the big head still. Ben cuts off the horn facing him, a horrible crunch, and then Pete gets to work cauterizing the bleeding wound. Sometimes blood sprays out. My jacket has a spurt up the arm. Pete gets a good soaking, being at the front line. By the time lunch rolls around his face is spattered with crimson, as well as hands, chest, and back where the spurt went clear over his shoulder. The cauterizing stops the bleeding and Caroline applies a coagulant powder which also sanitizes. We worked through around twenty head of cattle. Earlier in their lives, a paste is applied to the buttons where the horns will grow, which is supposed to prevent horn growth resulting in this bloody work being unnecessary. Sometimes, however, other cows lick the paste off which is why we are here today. I didn’t like the work at all, it seemed to be too distressing for the animals, but it’s vital the horns are removed.
We went in for lunch but unsurprisingly I did not have much of an appetite. Ranchers must become desensitised to this kind of work, as for me I could still hear the horrid crunch of the cutters going through the horn and the low moan of the animal in the brace. The only part of the job I had enjoyed was opening the gate and ushering the animal back out to the field, they didn’t need much encouragement. The highlight of the morning had been when Pete had set fire to his coveralls with the cauterizing iron. Perhaps I shouldn’t make sport of an 80 year old hopping around with flaming clothes but it did provide some light relief. He was unharmed and didn’t seem to mind too much.
The work of the day was finished early, which meant Caroline and I had time to go riding. This was a major part of my reason for being here. This was the payment, the bonus. I took a halter rope from the trailer and walked down to where two geldings, Blue and Paris, stood grazing. Paris was to be my ride today and I approached slowly, never having caught a horse before. Paris is a fairly tall sorrel; I tried to remember if Captain Gus McCrae rode a sorrel. I’d have to check when possible. It felt good to consider my heroes, legends of the west, and walk down the gently sloping pasture, halter in hand, toward ‘my’ horse. I’m no John Grady Cole, no horse whisperer, but I did my best and Paris seemed calm. I talked to him gently and scratched his shoulders and mane. To begin with, he kept his head raised to avoid the rope but after a few minutes he lowered his head and nosed my outstretched hand. I stroked his face and slipped the rope over his head. A little coaxing and he followed me back toward the trailer with the tack inside. Caroline had decided to ride Tuque, a four year old stallion. He had not been off the property before and she was unsure how he’d be, so we decided to take it slow. No telling if Tuque would stop if he got to running. We rode at a walk through a gateway onto Crown land. Paris recognised my lack of experience and teased me a little, walked odd lines and through puddles, moved sideways, and tried to trot whenever possible. Behind my Tuque walked obediently. We let the horses trot up a slight incline into the forest. By now the sun was low in the trees and turning the last autumn leaves golden. Light shafted through the boughs and sparkled on the snow. The hounds ran with us, I especially like to watch Hank. He’s a mixed breed that includes husky and wolf, and it shows when he runs. I watched him gain a steady lope, he gave the languid appearance of moving slowly, effortlessly, but his long stride ate the ground hungrily. Koda, the big guardian dog stayed close, her nose telling her everything she needed to know while her eyes seemed to follow her pup, Nala, as she skipped through the trees. Tuque was doing well, Paris had calmed for me and we continued at a gentle pace. The ground levelled and I encouraged Paris a little. The horses I’ve ridden back in England and Wales are more like sheep than horses, they copy the horse ahead of them in route and speed. If the lead horse won’t do more than trot then there is scant hope of a canter, and no chance of a gallop. Not so here, a gentle squeeze from my heels and Paris moved from the up-and-down of a trot and into a rhythmic canter. I ducked some low branches and allowed the movement of the horse beneath me to dictate my own. We moved together in a wonderful circular motion as we tore through the trees. At a gallop I still feel an element of ‘hanging on’ but I feel in control at a canter and, with Tuque hot on our heels, Paris and I ran for a good distance. It is exhilarating to feel cool wind in one’s face, to hear the horse’s heavy breathing, to see the ground rush beneath the pounding hooves. I willed this moment to continue in perpetuity. The slightest tweak on the reins and Paris would make the desired adjustment; I felt he was starting to like me a little better now I was giving him rein. His breath misted ahead of us for a moment and then was gone as we hurtled between the trees. I felt free. There is no other word for it, the fluidity of movement, the grace of the horse, the beauty of my surroundings, there was no room in my mind for anything but the immediate. The word ‘contentment’ often conjures an image of static peacefulness, a resting heartbeat paced scene but it is not always so. At this dynamic moment, this moment of straining muscle and sinew, clattering hooves, heaving lungs, and powerful motion I felt the peace that comes with knowing that I was in the right place at the right time, that I’d found my way to this reality, and for its duration I continue to feel happiness. All things come to an end, but the best create a lasting memory from which one may draw on the happiness felt then. This was such a moment, and there was no sadness as we finally slowed in a clearing. So far from home, so far from any possible definition of ‘normal’ up to this point, and yet again, deliriously happy. I leant forward in my stirrups and pressed my face to Paris’ neck while the wonderful smell of horse filled my nostrils. Here was another moment to savour, an unforgettable sensory overload. Back at the ranch I brushed Paris down in the fiery death of the sun to the west then walked him back to his pasture, walking westward toward the golden halo above Bear Mountain.
I haven’t had an opportunity for routine in more than three months and found myself enjoying the more regular structure of my days here at Hidden Valley. Up before the sun, light the fire, make (strong) coffee, feed the animals, eat breakfast, tool up, go to work. Today I was fencing. The boss has a list on the fridge: The Cowboy List. It goes like this:
- Finish Barn
- Train Horse
- Ride bull (8 seconds or more)
- Rope a cow
- Light a fire
- Dance (2 step)
- Collect firewood (chainsaw skills)
- Build a cabin
- Play guitar/sing
I glanced at it when I arrived and my first thought at number 1 was of the Olympic sport, fencing, arguably the worst spectator sport of all time. There’s no argument, I’m an expert in 6, 7, and 8. I felt that I was quite capable already as regards 1 and 10; I could learn 2, 3, 4, 5, 11, 12, and 13; 14 will always be something I do when no one listens; and 9 was the most terrifying and impossible of the lot. It seemed I’d never be a complete cowboy.
Anyway, fencing. The perimeter fence required attention. Caroline’s mother and I were to start work on this, but it is a large project. I spent the morning working on cutting and building A-frames to support the posts there, the two of us worked on stretching and re-looping the barb wire. This felt like proper ranch work, I understood why it was top of the list. There’s no point in the other skills if you can’t even keep the herd where you want it. We worked through to lunch and I was exhausted by then.
I had the afternoon off to visit my Uncle down the valley at his farm. I was to look after it in his absence over the coming weekend and needed to run through my chores.
Caroline loaned me the Jeep Wrangler and I rattled down the 3km of dirt road, over the ferry, and onto the highway. I’ve never driven a vehicle with such sensitive steering. I moved from fourth to fifth and the slight change to the wheel as I did so caused the Jeep to lurch. I thought something was wrong with the gear so tried again. No, I would just have to be very gentle. I turned up the music and hooted down the highway, the road ahead and behind empty of traffic and snow on the hills all around. The Thompson Valley is a good place. I wondered about staying here a little longer than the two weeks planned.
More fencing today, more hard work. I looked back down the fence line, satisfied. There is much to be said for a job that so obviously displays one’s progress. More satisfaction was to be had this morning. I needed to cut down a number of trees, all fell easily and were already leaning into their fall path. One, however, was leaning downhill to the west and I wanted to drop it north. My co-worker stood well back, I checked my escape paths, and looked up for dead heads. My cousin, an eminent surveyor for the federal government, had provided wise instruction. I cut the wedge and checked the tree, all looked in order. I made the back cut, got to 10%, stepped out of the way and watched the tree fall exactly where I planned with a wonderful creak and thump. Excellent work, though I say so myself.
After lunch I dragged a dozen trees out of the brush into the open. They had all been cut earlier in the year and though they are not big trees they were sufficiently grown to add to the wood stack. Next week I’ll take off the branches and pile them up into a burn pile. Up until this week there has been a ban on fires around here, the land is too dry and forest fire risk has been rated as ‘extreme’. The logs will need to be split and hauled, or hauled and split (one must learn from one’s mistakes) and hopefully I can time the bonfire right to coincide with Guy Fawkes Night. A celebration of a bit of English barbarism on a Canadian Horse Ranch.
I found myself dragged to town Friday night for the Halloween dance. If I was a grumpy enough fellow to make lists of things I disliked, I know that Halloween, dancing, and dressing up would all feature. I added a hat to my work clothes, borrowed a pair of cowboy boots, and ‘dressed up’ as a cowboy. However, in this valley, I looked like I hadn’t bothered. The night wasn’t too bad, in the end. At one point I found myself leaning alone against the wall with a beer, watching a number of people dance to some terrible music, people dressed as all the ghouls, ghosts, horror movie characters imaginable gyrated around the floor. Also, a nun. It was very possible I was observing a nightmare, my own nightmare. A band started up and improved things considerably, I even danced a few numbers with the boss. It was no ‘two step’ but it was one step in the direction of item number 9 on The Cowboy List. I retreated after a time, back to being a wallflower. An old man in a carpentry outfit idled over to me and slurred, “I’ma stand with you since you dint bother dressin’ up neither.” I smiled, pleased to be convincing, and after we chatted a while he cocked his head at me, chicken-like, “never met an English cowhand afore now.” So, mistaken for a professional. I am pretty proud of that.
After a few more beers and a hotdog, we made for home. I fell asleep as we sped down the dark road. I woke to see a large white tail deer caught in the high beams, then again to open the gates of the ranch. I climbed the stairs to bed weary, warm, happy to be alive. It had been a fine first week. During the evening conversation with the boss I’d signed up for five more of the same.