Owyhee Field Notes: Part Two

7i9a6387There’s a game we love to play when the dogs are sleeping.  We choose a dog, place an article of food or a dog treat on the ground directly in front of that dog’s nose and wait and see if the scent permeates the dog’s dreams.

Today, Tater Tot hunted his heart out. He is curled up and passed out cold in the dirt beside the stove, breathing slow and heavy under the hot weight of a sagebrush fire.  Robert reaches out and places a conglomerate lump of granola in front of Tater’s supernatural little nose and we sit in silence, watching and waiting, snickering to ourselves, smiling with squinty eyes at each other across the conical dark of our little home.  Nothing happens.  Robert grows impatient and begins to whisper at Tater.  He says his name in a sing-song tone, he whispers all kinds of silly things, trying to pull Tater’s subconscious forth from the thick sand of sleep.  Nothing rouses the pup.  Finally I lean forward and I whisper gently, “Tater Tot, dead bird, fetch!”

Tater opens one eye, looks right at me, resembling a dragon on a hoarded bed of gold, he shifts once, catches a whiff of the granola nugget, reaches out, lips it up, crunches it once, swallows, immediately tucks his head under his rear feet and plunges back into sleep.

I slip out to pee before bed.  The milky way spills forth over the canyons.  The sage shudders in the wind.


Shepp Ranch

I was at Shepp Ranch, up the Main Salmon River of Idaho, in the middle of May and I fell unrepentantly in love with the place.  How I was lucky enough to get connected with this place is no mystery.  Idaho is like a really big small town and it shrinks down even smaller if you’re part of fire culture and then, if you’re related to smokejumping, it’s about the tiniest little universe you could imagine.  Long story short, I have a friends who are friends with the managers of this ranch and suddenly, I found myself headed up river in a jet boat to meet those lovely managers and photograph the ranch.

Shepp is remote and currently operates as a guest ranch, fishing destination and hunting outfitter.  It can be reached by jet boat or bush plane; one could also hike in or ride in with a pack string.  It’s located 30 air-miles from Riggins on the banks of the Main Salmon River, up in the Gospel Hump Wilderness which is attached to the Frank Church Wilderness.  We all know how I feel about the Frank so I won’t blather on about it until I cry in this post but in short, this is the heart of Idaho.  This is the untamed, roadless, fathomless heart of Idaho.  Go look at a map of Idaho.  The massive green patch of space in the center of the state that remains undivided by highways, that’s what I’m talking about — wilderness area, public land.  It’s for the animals, the trees and us.  With that said, let’s talk for a moment about Idaho’s Salmon River.  This river is designated as wild and scenic.  This river canyon is deeper than the Grand Canyon but slightly shallower than Hell’s Canyon.  The break country that rises up from the water is exquisitely rumpled, creek cut, steep and woolly with conifers.  This territory is owned by the elk, managed by the wolves, surveyed by the sheep and prowled by bobcats and lions.  It’s terrific.  You can feel it in your bones when you look up at the granitic towers that frame the waterway, a massive sense of paradise, the sharp edge of humility, true fairness — this wilderness treats everyone and everything the same.

Shepp Ranch is off the grid but isn’t self-sustained…but it’s pretty close and from what I understand the ranch owners are trying to switch the property over to solar power.  For the time being, all electricity pours forth from a generator which is turned on for a short while in the morning and again in the evening (and occasionally during the day).  It’s a quiet place.  Work begins before dawn and when the sun disappears, work winds down for the day.  There’s a lovely, natural life rhythm at Shepp, a rhythm I have always associated with living rurally, ranching and farming.

Christina keeps an enormous garden, various berry patches and an orchard.  She cans and preserves continuously throughout the summer.  They have a donkey stallion they are hoping to breed their own mules with as well as a couple horses (fabulous mountain horses) and a string of mules.  Hens free range and are regularly knocked up by the roosters so new born chicks free range too, whenever they happen to hatch and show up on the property.  Wes is always busy with something — preparing for the trapping season, cutting firewood, tinkering with whatever is broken, helping out neighbors.

One of my favorite things about the Main Salmon is the way ranches and farms are spread out over a big distance but there’s still an incredible sense of community.  People who live out don’t think twice about helping each other out.  The kind heart of humanity is very alive in this place and it’s beautiful to behold.

I think about Shepp all the time.  Shepp is basically my dream ranch.  It’s 104 acres and wilderness space rolls away in three directions giving the place a sense of infiniteness.  I’m headed in again, in a moment.  My summer season will be officially bookended with trips to this place and I’m completely delighted.  Tomorrow night, after journeying by truck, jet boat, horse and mule, I’ll find myself with my friends, sleeping in the wind and stars at their high hunting camp.  It’s going to be grand.

Until I return, I leave you with some of my favorite pictures from my last visit.


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7i9a2118 7i9a2126 7i9a2129 7i9a2130 7i9a2137 7i9a2149These early autumn days when the sky sits upon the earth like a bluebird on the back of a buckskin horse.



Fall Squall

7I9A1800 7I9A1850 7I9A1871 7I9A1902 7I9A19127I9A19367I9A1930I’m of the opinion that one of the best times to go walking is when everyone else is at home watching the storm, baking cookies and snuggling a cat — but I’ve always enjoyed the terrors of the elements.

And so a week came and went.

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A lot can happen in a week.  I said yes to a last minute shoot in Northern Washington two Fridays ago and buzzed all over Idaho, Montana and Washington on the way to and from the job.  I didn’t mind the driving because I was in a mood to see fresh country.  The shoot was beautiful, in a lovely location at a ranch on top of a mountain.  It was horse heaven.  The crew was good company.  It was a great time.  I was modeling on this job, not shooting, which is occasionally an uncomfortable thing for me.  I have to deal with some self-consciousness in front of a camera (which might come as a surprise to you since I use myself as a subject so often).  I think the best models tend to be vain — or aware of their physical beauty.  I just feel awkward, crooked and strange looking most of the time.  That said, my favorite thing about modeling these past two years has been how much I have learned from the photographers I am being photographed by!  There are so many tidbits to absorb.  It’s a great learning experience for me and I put into practice the trade secrets I have learned on a regular basis.  Being around great photographic talent tends to breed new skills in me, if I maintain awareness and ask questions (and I’m never afraid to ask questions).  Anyway, great crew, great location, stunning horses and a great all around time was had on that shoot.  I’m glad I said yes.

After we wrapped, I drove the Columbia to the Spokane to the Coeur d’Alene to the Clark Fork to the Bitterroot to the Lochsa to the Clearwater to the Salmon to the Little Salmon and then I was suddenly home in McCall.  It’s a marvelous thing to follow roads that bend in synchrony to the will of a river.  It’s one of the few times in life I allow myself to joyfully follow the path of least resistance.

I stopped here and there on the trip home: coffee with a girlfriend in Missoula, fishing pocket water here and there on the Lochsa and Clearwater, pausing to watch the salmon spawn (rotting and exhausted from the strain of their endeavor — dead and gone on the banks of the river, eyes in the bellies of birds), breakfast in a shabby diner or two, sleeping fitfully in my tent on the edge of a rapid (rain staccato on the fly of the tent, logging trucks grinding at high speeds through the black of night)…

I like to lallygag.  I like to forget about the destination and slowly make my way through the journey, exploring whenever I can.  My friends and family know to expect I’ll arrive in their homes or at our meeting places anywhere from two hours late to three days late and I’m unapologetic about it.  It’s how I stay in touch with everything around me.  It’s how I stay in touch with my curiosity.  It’s how I ask questions and find answers.  I arrive when I am good and ready and not a moment before.

I’m off to hunt for elderberries here in the beautiful, autumnal Payette region.  Robert comes off a fire this evening and I can’t wait to see him.  I’ll plan a nice dinner for two in the Airstream and maybe even pick up a tiny tub of ice cream and a nice bottle of gin for him.  We’ll probably stay up late dreaming about what do with the farm and ourselves in the next couple of days, months, years.  I love this time of year.   Autumn is for dreamers.

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