High Water Lines

by B. Frank on August 2, 2011

High Water Lines“You oughta go look down by the bridge — that ol’ boy got some equipment wet.”

“He don’t have much sense anyway … ”

The old-timer’s club had been at the town store, drinking coffee and waiting for the café to open, when I walked through their circle and heard these lines.

High Water

Now, at a breakfast table near mine, one asked another, “You gettin’ any work done these days?”

“No, just waitin’ for the river to drop outta my hay meadows. Gettin’ all my irrigation done though.”

“Irrigation and fertilizin’ too,” said another old man.

Sometimes, it’s best for a dirtbag writer/river rat to keep his head down and ears open for a little high-water wisdom from some long-time neighbors of the last free-flowing river in the Colorado River system.

Plates of eggs, potatoes and bacon arrived, the old men’s conversation drifted to other topics, and within hours I’m in a shuttle van cruising past the flooded property by the river bridge, marveling at the assortment of tractors, stock trailers and trucks half-submerged by the Yampa River at flood stage. I am eying the sacrifice and idly considering the decision process that led to this so-called “flood damage.”

Put it down to “don’t have much sense,” or to misplaced trust in past high-flow marks? No time for research, because (to misquote old John Muir) the river is calling, and some of us must go.

One thing about group river trips — you never know who you’re going to meet at a campfire, and I happen to be sitting by a guy named Geoff one night. He lives on a property that has river frontage in the Yampa Valley, and I make plans for a visit.

Lines

A week later, and I’m back in the valley, on a hill overlooking two ways of living with a river in flood. Describing a river’s path through the landscape, it’s natural to face downstream. River left, a mature grove of cottonwoods; river right, a few cottonwoods with their lower foliage browsed off at cow-reach. River left, no sign of erosion; river right, a desperate attempt to the river’s advance into a pasture that cattle have mown to lawn height. Left, a riverside fringe of young cottonwoods with water flowing between the trunks; right, a fleet of earth-moving equipment transports a pile of dirt to the undercut riverbank, adding to a new levee.

Right, a large sign advertising the ranch headquarters as an investment property. Left, a conservative mention that the property is owned by an organization whose mission is “to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth” — and about here I could turn this exploration into a self-righteous screed about right and left, with an I-told-you-so finger-shaking at the failings of the Old West land use model vs. the New West vision of land as “view shed” for a telecommuting populace of uplinked do-gooders. Luckily for all of us, as my new river pal Geoff showed me around the ranch on river left, the history of the Yampa Valley (and of ranching in the Interior West) cut through stereotypes of right and left, old and new ways.

The Yampa River leaves a canyon just upstream, meanders through the valley’s meadows, and picks up speed again farther west. Taking the path of least resistance, it adjusts course by testing the banks for weak spots. When high water pushes the river from its banks, old decisions pay off, or rise to haunt the current owners.

River left is the Carpenter Ranch, begun by a cattle baron from Texas and sold to the Republican scion of a shoe-factory owner from Chicago and points east. The young Republican became a homesteader, his town’s first attorney, a player in local and state politics and a lobbyist for Western ranchers’ interests during the Great Depression. This “new” Westerner eventually became the first manager of the Taylor Grazing Act, which attempted to codify the use and conservation of grazing lands managed by the federal government in the Interior West. (The Act’s successes and failures will be listed at another time.) In the decades that Ferry Carpenter owned the ranch, a decision to fence the river off from his prized cattle herd inadvertently created a home for river otters, an idyll for birdwatchers and a safety valve that allows the Yampa to renew the ranch’s bottomlands by spreading high-water flows through a healthy riverside grove of narrow-leaf cottonwoods, box elder and red-osier dogwood.

River right is a ranch that placed most of its holdings under a conservation easement, a decision that precludes the slice-and-dice hobby ranch cycle that has boomed and busted many mountain valleys of the New West. (Many readers may name a favorite valley as victim of this plague, while others will need to buy a grizzled mountain denizen a few beers for further diatribes on the subject.) Still, the river eats away at the owner’s investment, with only the newly built levee between river and pasture, in a holding pattern that sends the river’s cutting action to downstream neighbors. The few cottonwoods are aging, and no saplings crowd the riverbanks.

High Water Lines

When a river drops, it’s tempting to repair damages, congratulate winners, blame losers and ignore lessons that high water offers; but this tale of left and right riverbanks confounds sound-bite politics. The current owner of the Carpenter v on river left is the non-profit Nature Conservancy, with a stated mission to “conserve the natural and agricultural heritage of the Yampa River Valley.” The ranch on river right is run for profit, and has signed conservation easements that are monitored by the Nature Conservancy and the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. Both sides are still working cattle ranches, creating opportunities to apply lessons that may help keep the river and its valley healthy.

In this year of flooding in the Rockies, late summer is a good time to walk the high-water lines of your favorite river. You’ll see flotsam from past decisions, in the roots of doomed trees exposed by undercut banks and ruined machinery. Look closely, though, for cottonwoods and willows sprouting from the rich soil left by receding floods. If you get to the High Country, walk a creek to timberline. Notice here, too, that high water has fed lines of new life on the banks, while setting a fresh course to follow. Talk to some neighbors about what you found, and listen for the freely shared observations of old-timers over early-morning coffee. These may cut across political lines, and could help remind us how to live beside our last free-flowing rivers.

[Writer’s note: My tour guide of the ranch on river left was Geoff Blakeslee. As the Conservancy’s “Yampa River Project Director,” it is his job to measure the pulse of the river, the valley, its inhabitants, and to show a dirtbag writer around the Carpenter Ranch. I appreciate his patience. The Ranch hosts research projects, and is open to the public for bird-watching and education. For more on Ferry Carpenter, read his “Confessions of a Maverick,” State Historical Society of Colorado, ISBN 0-942576-27-6.]

Senior correspondent B. Frank’s last piece for the Gazette was “In the Zone,” which appeared in MG #180. Author of “Livin’ the Dream,” Frank splits his time between the Four Corners and the Borderlands.