Thursday, December 22, 2011

Winter Solstice

Since the windstorm of November, I have had this sense that, as stewards of this special place, we needed to find a way to begin the healing process. The evil force of the winds that had so ravaged the forests needed to be banished. I struggled for awhile trying to understand how to do this. Then, several weeks ago, it came to me - a healing ceremony on the Winter Solstice. To cultures around the world, this is a special moment and it would be for us too.

Over the last week we have selected and prepared the spot and collected the items we would need. We found the perfect rock to use as an altar, one that a bear had turned over several months ago searching for grubs underneath. On Sunday, following the trail left in the snow by a large herd of elk, we collected small pieces of all the trees and shrubs so affected by the winds. We moved from pine, spruce, fir and juniper to cottonwood, alder, birch, chokecherry and gooseberry, taking a piece from the broken bodies lying on the ground. From these pieces we prepared a bundle tied with string.

On Wednesday night, the night of the Solstice, we returned to the ceremonial spot. Using blue, yellow and white corn meal, and red chili powder, we marked the earthly directions then laid the bundle in the center. Over it we crossed the shed antlers of a deer and an elk. With just the sound of the creek flowing by we thought about what had been lost but also what would be renewed.

For us in the northern hemisphere, the Winter Solstice marks the longest night and the shortest day of the year. It also represents the point when we begin our journey back to the light. At this moment, on this spot, resting on an altar picked by a bear, with pieces of plants selected by the elk, the journey has begun.

From Fleur Creek Farm

Saturday, December 3, 2011

An Evil Wind

The Wet Mountain Valley is known for its powerful winds that explode over the Sangres and swoop down the eastern slopes, but what happened on Saturday night, the 12th of November, was more than anyone had ever experienced. The day started with persistent winds as the jet stream edged into the area and those winds increased in the twilight hours. By midnight the sounds of the wind were horrific and the earth trembled as huge trees crashed to the ground. We were plunged into darkness when the power went out shortly after midnight and only the waning full moon gave a glimpse of the destruction.

The scene at daybreak was unreal. Massive cottonwood trees surrounding the house and cabin were snapped off or uprooted, laying like matchsticks everywhere. Eighty foot spruce trees lining the creek were ripped from the ground, their huge root balls now standing perpendicular to the earth.

We dressed quickly and hurried to the barn to check on the horses and the situation there. Mandy and Cal were standing out in the pasture away from the buildings. They were nervous but quickly settled down as we passed out breakfast. Several large cottonwoods had fallen around the barn, crushing parts of the corral and one in particular blocked the horse's access to their water tank. That became our top priority of the day and with the help of our neighbors we chainsawed and cleared the mess away from the tank. Once that task was completed we spent the rest of the day helping others clear driveways and roads so that they could get in and out of their places.

Amazingly our house, cabin, sheds and barn were spared any serious damage though access to our front door required climbing over and under the broken trees. As we surveyed the forest destruction, we hardly knew where to start. We realized that the cleanup would not be a quick job but in reality would take months, even years. In fact some areas will never be restored. Mother Nature will have to reclaim those places in her own way.

We have hired several local young men to help us. They bring an energy and strength that we no longer possess. By picking small areas to concentrate on, we have started to bring order to a chaotic scene. Large trees have been blocked for future firewood, brush has been cleared and chipped. We will slowly expand as we make our way up and down the creek. Next year we will start on the pine forest area on the west side of the place.

I have heard various versions of the strength of the winds but the sheriff's office reported that the wind storm included sustained winds of 100mph for four hours, 112mph for 20 minutes and gusts to 135mph. Some private wind meters near Hillside at the north of the valley and another farther south reported 170 and 172 mph respectively before they were blown apart. Insurance adjusters who arrived on the scene in the days after the storm said they had not seen this level of wind damage from Katrina - a category 4 hurricane.

Some have called this a force of nature but it seems much more than that. To me it seems like an evil force that assaulted all of us residing here. On our place alone there are probably one hundred trees down. Magnificent cottonwoods and spruces and pines that have withstood so much over the last eighty to one hundred years were snapped like twigs. Trees with trunks thirty inches in diameter were splintered and thrown to the ground. There are places where forty foot ponderosa pine trees are laid flat like dominoes, one after another with their root balls ripped from the earth.

My hope is that we can find a way to heal this special place; to bring comfort and love back to a place that has given us so much. It will be the task that consumes the rest of my time here.

From Fleur Creek Farm

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The healing begins

There is no question that 2011 has been one of the more difficult years for us. It started with a serious lack of snow which progressed to an outright drought. In April we laid to rest three of our four beloved horses and felt a great loss to our family from their passing. In June a forest fire caused by an illegal campfire and drought conditions forced us from our home for a week and kept us on evacuation alert for another 10 days after we were allowed to return.

I am sure that anyone who has been through a trauma finds it hard to get back on track afterwards. That was certainly the case for us. July came and went and we just seemed to be going through the motions but not really getting back into our groove.

Then in August our neighbors and the owners of Trails End Ranch decided the neighborhood and other local friends needed a party so they threw a great barbeque and concert for all of us. Paul said it had been on his bucket list for years and this was the year to do it. More than a hundred folks enjoyed a wonderful evening and a great private concert by country music legend Charlie Pride and his band. To say it was amazing doesn’t go far enough. As I told Paul later in the evening, it was the medicine we needed. Our energy and focus have returned – we are moving forward again.

After staring at the results of the fire from our perspective for more than two months, last Saturday we decided it was time to take a closer look. We headed up to the last campground and trailhead winding through pockets of completely charred forest and other areas where only the vegetation on the ground was burned. Some pines were scorched on one side, others were reduced to blackened skeletons.

At the trailhead we ran into our local Forest Service ranger, Jeff. We spent over an hour talking with Jeff and learning about the varying effects of the fire and the ongoing restoration efforts. In these two short months since the fire, mother nature has already started her restoration work with new growth everywhere. The fire’s release of nutrients and the increase in sunlight in areas that were once shaded by pines has caused a burst of growth resulting in three foot tall aspen shoots with the biggest aspen leaves I have ever seen. In areas of heavy scrub oak thickets the fire either ran on the ground leaving the tops un-touched or completely burned the thicket and left a charred landscape. Even the areas burned the worst were already showing new growth with oak shoots over a foot tall and grasses and forbs popping up.

Depending on the weather conditions of the day, the fire skipped around and left some areas completely un-burned creating what the forest biologists call a mosaic. As the recovery continues in years to come, this mosaic will produce a vibrant forest of varying ages that is much healthier than what was there before the fire.

Jeff also described the human restoration efforts that had been underway even before the fire was contained and would continue this week. Fire lines that had been bull-dozed in an effort to manage the fire were being re-worked and in many cases closed to prevent future motorized use, grass and forb seeding was ongoing to help reduce erosion, new trail signage was up to replace what had burned, and hikers and campers were already using the area.

After four months of living alone, Mandy, our 26 year old mare has a new companion. Cal arrived on Monday, a loan from a wonderful neighbor who wanted to help out. Cal is a 36 year old gelding who has seen it all, spending 30 years on a dude ranch near Durango before his well deserved retirement. He is a kind, gentle horse who immediately palled up with Mandy. They have been inseparable since he arrived. Cal has brought so much comfort and contentment to all of us.

And so the healing has begun – to our psyche, to the forest, and to Mandy’s enjoyment of life.

From Fleur Creek Farm

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Six Million Dollar Campfire

Sunday, June 12th, started like most other Sundays with a more leisurely breakfast than our normal weekday ones as we discussed our plans for the day. Afterwards, I headed out for a morning of noxious weed work while Don spent some time in the orchard watering, fertilizing and mowing the grass. After lunch we worked around the house in the gardens and enjoyed a little time on the back porch with tea. Around 3:30 in the afternoon the phone rang with a recorded message from the Sheriff’s office that a fire had started in the Duckett Creek area about 3 miles northwest of our place. Due to the very dry conditions and strong winds, the fire was spreading quickly and the call advised us we were under an evacuation alert. We might have to evacuate with no more than 2 hours notice.

Due to the terrain and forest, we couldn’t initially see the fire so we headed down the road for a better view. The smoke was already rising into the sky and the fire was leaping from one tree to another (known as “crowning” in forest fire language). And the dry winds were blowing hard. We hadn’t had any lightning so speculation ran high that the fire was human caused. The Duckett Creek area is on National Forest Service land and in the vicinity of heavily used campgrounds.

Back at home we started thinking about what we might need to do if we had to evacuate. Most importantly we needed to plan how to get our animals out and what we would need if we were away from home for a while. We started gathering up pet carriers and supplies, rounded up feed and care supplies for Mandy, our 26 year old mare, and started organizing clothes and food for ourselves. Eighteen years ago a fire started in the same area but only consumed 500 acres before the weather conditions and fire fighters gained the upper hand and contained it. We figured the same would happen again. Before dark we drove over closer to the fire to get a better sense of what was going on and felt comfortable that it was not spreading too rapidly and was doing what most fires do in the evening – “laying down” for the night due to increased humidity and decreased winds.

Monday morning started back with strong winds and dry conditions and the fire ramped up as the day went along. A friend who lives about 3 miles away emailed that he was leaving for Argentina for a month and we were welcome at his ranch if we needed to evacuate. Even though I didn’t think it would be necessary it was reassuring to know that we had a place to go if necessary. We spent the day removing artwork from the walls, wrapping the paintings up in blankets and started loading one of our trucks with our treasured and important possessions. We continued to evaluate what else we might need and kept an eye on the growing fire.

I had a much more un-settling feeling on Tuesday. The smoke from the fire was laying heavily over the entire valley and new areas of the forest were exploding into flames. The winds were so erratic that the fire was spreading in every direction. The fire was upgraded to a Type II and 400 fire fighters were on the scene. Each of the three helicopters were dropping 600 gallons of water per run on major fire spots and 2 slurry bombers were laying down fire retardant along fire lines and ridges in an effort to contain the northern and southern boundaries of the fire. The southern boundary had advanced to within a mile of our place. At 4:30 Tuesday afternoon the fire over ran the southern containment line. We were at the barn taking care of our mare when our neighbor drove up and told us we were now under evacuation orders – it was time to get out. While we were hitching up our horse trailer, the owner of the heifers that graze on our pasture for the summer arrived with his trailer to evacuate his cattle. Suddenly the helicopters were flying directly over the barn at tree-top level, fire trucks were racing up the county road past our place and embers and charred leaves were landing in the grass around the barn. Our poor mare was so un-nerved by the chaos that she refused to get in the horse trailer. We made the quick decision that Don needed to walk her out to safety while I drove the truck and trailer out.

I left the big truck and trailer on the county road at the top of our house driveway and ran down the drive to the house to get the other truck. I needed to figure out how to get our kitties and the rest of our gear plus two trucks and the trailer out by myself. I realized there was a group of firefighters down the road about 3/4 of a mile so I drove the small truck down there and borrowed a fire fighter. Jessie came back up with me. I loaded kitties in their carriers and started moving everything out to the front porch. Jessie loaded all the kitties and gear while I closed down our two laptop computers and put them in the carrying cases. Since this is way we make our living, the computers needed to go too. In 10 minutes Jessie and I had everything loaded up and we headed out. It was a sickening sight in the rear view mirror to see the smoke and flames approaching.

In the meantime, Don and Mandy (our mare), made it 1 3/4 miles to a neighboring ranch corrals that seemed safe for the evening. I caught up with Don as he was getting a ride back. We headed over to our friend’s ranch to get the kitties settled in, then back to Mandy’s corral to make sure she was comfortable with food and water for the evening. We finally got something to eat around 10PM thanks to the Bonnie, the ranch manager and general super-nice person.

Wednesday was an antagonizing day as the winds continued and the fire advanced in all directions. The fire fighting crew was up to 600 people and the air assault continued from dawn to dusk. I tried to distract myself by getting our computers back up and running, using the wireless internet system at the ranch house. At least we could get back to work. Mid-morning we talked the local deputy manning the road block leading to our area to allow us to return for more items from the house and barn. We were escorted by a fire crew who spent the 15 minutes it took us to gather up what we needed, by clearing debris from around our house, sheds and old cabin.

Thursday’s winds from the southwest pushed the fire to the north, away from us and gave the fire fighters a chance to re-enforce the southern boundary. Another couple and their two large dogs arrived at the ranch house – evacuated from the northern end of the fire. Smoke continued to blanket the valley.

On Friday it seemed as though the tide was turning in our favor. The air and ground assault of the fire was working and the winds were moderating. Most of the fire growth was at the northern fire boundary. It was the first day I started to feel as though our home and place might survive.

After two weeks of “Red Flag Warnings” issued by the National Weather Service, the weekend weather conditions improved dramatically as the winds decreased and the humidity levels increased. It was so encouraging to see moisture on the windshields Saturday morning. It even snowed lightly on the high peaks Saturday night, though the snow did not reach down to the fire.

Sunday evening we received the news we had hoped for – we could return home Monday morning. We would remain on evacuation alert as the fire was only 65% contained but we could go home.

The following weekend, the hot dry winds returned and the fire grew on several fronts. Monday morning we received another recorded call from the sheriff’s office – dangerous fire conditions were occurring again and we needed to prepare to evacuate. We remained on evacuation alert, though home, for another week before the fire fighters aided by the weather, again gained control of the fire.

Even now, six weeks after it started, the fire is only 80% contained. The rugged terrain and high elevation on the western boundary makes it impossible to put it out completely. Not until we receive significant monsoonal rains or winter snow, will the fire end. For now, a small fire crew remains on site working on hot spots and starting the long process of rehabilitation.

Investigators have discovered that the fire began from an illegal campfire started and left on Forest Service land. At the time (and it continues today) we are under strict fire restrictions – no open fires, yet some self-centered person thought that didn’t apply to them. Not only did the restrictions not apply to them but they couldn’t be bothered to put out the fire when they were done with it. Instead they left a burning campfire in a tinder-dry forest that resulted in a 5000 acre fire that threatened 200 homes, burned hundreds of acres of privately-owned forest lands, displaced many people and to date, has cost nearly $6 million dollars to fight.

But as we look back on these past six weeks, we are reminded of how wonderful our little community truly is. So many people called us in the days leading up to our evacuation to check on us and to offer help. Friends rushed to hug us after we evacuated when they learned we were OK. And of course the wonderful friends who offered their home to us and our kitties – there are no words to describe our appreciation.

Since we moved to this place more than 10 years ago, I have always felt safe and protected. The fire changed that. I now realize that we can be threatened by circumstances outside of our control and that no place will ever be completely safe. But I still gain comfort from being here and in this community and that counts for a lot.

From Fleur Creek Farm

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

An April to Forget

I have not been able to write this post for a month; the pain has been too great. April started like most Aprils with the anticipation of spring. It ended after the loss of three of our four horses and the realization that our lives were truly changing.

I wrote about the loss of our gelding, Flash, in my last post in early April. Flash had suffered from arthritis for several years but the last few months were much worse for him. When we realized that he could no longer enjoy his life we euthanized him. We accepted the responsibility and the loss knowing that we had done the best we could for him and letting him go when his pain became too much.

Just 10 days later our stallion, C.B., suffered a severe bout of colic. Over the last 18 months it had become harder and harder to feed him due to the poor condition of his teeth. The major part of his diet was a palletized feed made especially for senior horses; not a natural way for a horse to eat. Last summer he could graze on green grass but we could not allow him to eat any hay. I worried all last winter that we were approaching a more difficult time with him because I would find globs of “chewed” dry grass that he had grazed in his pasture but was not able to chew completely or swallow. I kept hoping that when the fresh grass of spring arrived he would be able to chew it like he had done last year. But as spring arrived, the globs went from dry grass to green grass and I knew he was no longer able to chew fresh grass either and we were on borrowed time. Then came the colic early one morning. It was obvious that the colic was due to an irreversible situation and it was time to let him go. I was un-able to locate a veterinarian at 6:30 in the morning so instead a called a neighbor who came right over and ended C.B.’s suffering by shooting him. C.B. died on the day before his 31st birthday. He had been a part of our family for nearly 28 years and the emptiness of his stall and his pasture is sometimes more than I can take.

A week after the loss of C.B., we came home from our weekly short trip to town to find our other gelding, Duster, suffering a severe bout of colic. Again it was obvious that his condition was catastrophic and our only option was euthanasia. No vets were available so we called a friend who ended Duster’s suffering quickly. At 10AM that morning when we left for town, Duster had been out grazing in the pasture. He was gone just 4 hours later. We have struggled to understand how it could happen like that. Our horse’s environment is not prone to colic. They live a simple life with plenty to eat whenever they want and lots of relaxed exercise wandering about their irrigated pasture. Duster was only 22 years old and had spent every single one of those days with us. He and Flash were sons of C.B. and had been with us since their conception.

All three are buried on the farm. Only Mandy, our 26 year old mare and daughter of C.B., is left. We were making plans to bring in the yearling heifers from Allison Ranch within a few weeks but made a quick phone call the night of Duster’s death and asked if they could bring the heifers the next morning to keep Mandy company. Mandy has adapted quickly and seems content with the situation. In fact she is handling it better than we are.

I don’t know where we are headed in this life but our horse owning days are coming to an end. My parents gave me my first horse when I was 12 and horses have been a continuous part of my life for 48 years. I sense that something much different is on the horizon but I have no idea what it might be. For now we will care for and love Mandy and give her whatever she needs to be comfortable and content. And when the time comes, we will let her go, too.

From Fleur Creek Farm

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

From Beginning to End

In the 80s and early 90s, we were involved semi-professionally in the horse business. We had purchased a well-bred, gorgeous three year old stallion and started gathering really nice broodmares for him from around the U.S. During this time we showed horses around the West, sold offspring of our stallion, and stood our stallion to select mares owned by other breeders. In attempt to reduce the potential for injury to all of us (stallion, mare and us) we learned and used artificial insemination to breed our stallion to the mares. I always found it amazing that with a little scientific know how, we could produce a new horse (not to mention some semen and eggs).

We started reducing our horse herd around 1992 in anticipation of moving to the Valley and arrived in 1993 with only six horses. They included our stallion, our favorite broodmare who deserved retirement and four of our stallion’s offspring – two mares and two geldings.

Our intent was to continue riding the geldings but life (including trying to make a living and building a home) got in the way. We never really got back to riding and our horses ended up enjoying an easy life.

In 2000 a very bad bout of colic ended the life of our old broodmare. In 2009 our youngest mare developed a case of Cushings Syndrome that was resistant to treatment and we had to destroy her.

This year we are coming to the realization that the remaining horses were getting pretty old as they range in age from 21 to 31, the stallion being the oldest. Each has their own problems from missing all molars and not being able to eat hay (our stallion) to varying degrees of lameness in the remaining three.

This week our youngest gelding reached the point where his lameness was just too much for him. We had tried managing it with oral pain medication twice a day but we could tell we were losing the battle. At feeding time on Sunday the look in his eyes told us that he had grown weary of the pain and difficulty in getting around.

Monday morning we made the decision to put him down. Our vet arrived just before lunch and agreed with our decision. In a few moments it was over. As I knelt next to him on the ground I thought about how we had been with him from his very beginning when he was no more than a single cell until his very end.

There are only three left now and I suspect that before winter there will be fewer. I have had horses continuously since I was 12 years old (nearly 50 years) and I can’t imagine what it will be like when they are all gone. The pain of losing each one seems to grow and I think I prefer to end my horse owning days with the loss of the last one. It is just too hard to say goodbye.

From Fleur Creek Farm

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Best Oatmeal Ever!

Several folks have asked me for the oatmeal recipe after I mentioned it in one of my last blogs. This is by far the best oatmeal ever. The key to success is using a rice cooker. We use the Zojirushi Model NS-ZCC18 Ten cup with Neuro Fuzzy logic. I know that sounds like a mouthful but it makes perfect oatmeal (and all kinds of rice) effortlessly. We just put in the ingredients, set what time we what to eat, and it does the rest.

We started with a recipe from The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook and fine tuned it to our desires. This recipe makes 2 servings:

2/3 cup of steel cut oats (Bob’s Red Mill is great)

2 cups of almond milk (more about this shortly)

1 teaspoon of cinnamon

1 tablespoon of honey or maple syrup

Pinch of sea salt

1 good handful of raisins

I add all the components in the rice cooker and set the timer before heading to the barn for morning chores. When we return, the house smells like cinnamon and honey and the oatmeal is ready to eat when I have finished my shower. Perfect!

I throw one extra step in – I soak the oatmeal and almond milk overnight in the refrigerator. I don’t know if this absolutely necessary but it is simple to do when I am cleaning up from breakfast.

And now about the almond milk which we make ourselves. Not that I have a lot of experience milking but I have found that almonds are a lot easier to milk than say cows, goats or sheep. For one thing they don’t care when you milk them nor do you have to do it outside in the cold. All it takes is a 1/3 cup of almonds in 4 cups of cold water and a Vita Mix 500. I whiz them on high for 2 minutes, then strain and pour into a glass jar. The strained residue of almonds is added to the weekly whole wheat bread recipe or Saturday’s pancakes. ENJOY!

From Fleur Creek Farm

Friday, March 4, 2011

Free Range Turkey

Once nearly wiped out, the wild turkey has made a great comeback in Colorado and many other parts of America. When we first move the the Valley we rarely saw them. Now they are constant homestead visitors. It is not unusual to have 30 or more stop by. I think the main reason for this is our neighbor, Russell. For many winters, he and his wife have put corn out for the flock every morning. Russell recently told me he had nearly 100 birds coming to the hillside above his home to feed. Their place is only about 3/4 of a mile (as the turkey flies) from ours. As the winter receeds and the turkeys can move about easier, we start seeing the birds at our place.

It won't be long before the jakes (Toms) start gathering their flock together in anticipation of the breeding season. In late April and early May they will strut around in full display looking just like a Thanksgiving photo. It is a beautiful scene and one that reminds me we have survived another winter and spring has arrived.

There is a lot the talk of free range poultry these days, but our local wild turkeys take it to the next level.

From Fleur Creek Farm

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Winter Morning Chores

One of my favorite times of the day is early morning, just before the sun breaks over the Wet Mountains. Shortly after getting up, starting the fire in the cookstove, and programming the rice cooker to make the best oatmeal ever conceived (more about that in a future posting), we head to the barn for morning chores.

During the winter it’s just the horses that need attention and they are more than ready for breakfast. They are all getting old (ages 21 to 31) so their feed ration includes a special pelleted concentrate for old-timers with poor teeth and digestion and all the beautiful Wet Mountain Valley hay they can eat. Our oldest horse, CB, no longer has any molars so he is relegated to the pelleted feed only. He is unable to chew hay any more but otherwise he is healthy and happy. The other three horses have their own share of old-age problems and receive various supplements in an attempt to help them age gracefully.

The horses have their choice to eat inside the barn or outside as we fill the feeders in both locations. Most of the time they prefer outside unless the Valley winds are at their worst. They don’t seem to mind the cold or even snow on calm days.

We take this time to check each one for any injuries or other health problems and to clean the barn area of any manure deposited since the last feeding. If the ground is clear of snow we spread the manure out on the pasture; if not it goes to the manure pile for use when the weather improves. We repeat the whole process in the evening.

Only after the horses have received their breakfast do we head back to the house for a morning shower and our breakfast.

From Fleur Creek Farm