And now for the what of Ditch Camp.
In a previous post, “Where we’ve been,” I shared with you a bit about how the ditch came about, and what the purpose of it is. We’re just there to do the maintenance, to keep the water that belongs to others flowing from one side of the Divide to the other. It’s all about water rights and claims for them. Numbers and figures that are complicated and convoluted. It’s all about packing and digging and felling for us. Pretty clear and simple.
We’re there thanks to our horses, who pack us and our gear in up the two hours into the Wilderness from the trail head to our camp. Tools, food, tent, clothes…us… the horses carry it all in, up the often steep and rocky trail along the east side of the Divide.
A typical day, if there ever is such a thing, starts with waking dawn, which is now perhaps 5:30, and putting the horses out to graze. They’ve been on the high line all night long, and they are ready to eat. Then coffee is started on the single burner propane stove, while I head out on a quick early morning walk, perhaps to check on yesterdays accomplishments or consider what needs to be done today. It is frosty in the morning, and often a heavy layer of clouds or fog lies along the floor of the meadow before us. My boots get wet. I am grateful for my wool hat and mittens. The view is soft and secretive, and I feel like one of the moose, elk and deer that drift about silently in a protected world.
When I return, the coffee is ready. Cowboy coffee is easy. Just let it boil until you’re back, then give it a minute to settle those grounds. And don’t assume it really is “good to the last drop.” I build a small fire in our fire pit, enjoying its warmth along with the hot coffee in my hand as I sit and write and wait for the boys to wake. Breakfast is cooked over the fire, and water is collected from the little creek for washing up.
Now the sun is shining, and we lay out the damp clothes and sleeping bags to dry before the next round of rain arrives, which hopefully will not be until after we collect our dried garments.
The horses are checked, the draft horse is called upon and saddled up for work. We head out with horse, tools and a back pack stuffed with food and water, walking up the ditch bank to the next place work is needed.
The work usually involves moving dirt. The horse is far better at that than we are, effortlessly hauling a full slip, each load of the slip equivalent to perhaps 20 of our shovel loads. He makes light work of this heavy labor. But before he can move the dirt, we have to get the dirt. This involved picking and raking at the hillsides with hand tools to slough off rocks and soil, creating a bank with a smooth and gradual slope that the grass we reseed will be able to take, grow, and prevent further erosion.
Our muscles can only take so much pounding at the hillside, as so we alternate our digging with the horse pulling several loads, cleaning up the piles we have created, and bringing the needed fill to the down hill bank.
The ditch has been in use since the 1930’s, and yet, it is build of dirt and rock, and running water. The equation of erosion is guaranteed. Add to that the damage of the slush and ice running down there in the early season of each year, the tracks and debris sloughed off from the feet of the moose and elk who call that ditch their super highway, and the blockage from the falling trees from the beetle killed hillside through which the ditch runs, and you can see there is always something to do. Low spots that need to be raised. Damage that needs to be repaired. Blockage that needs to be removed. Slopes that need to be adjusted and altered.
When the water is flowing in the ditch, moving dirt and rock within the ditch are put on hold. Our focus turns to felling the dead trees that are guessed to be the next obstructions, those already leaning into or across the ditch, or blocking the trail along the down hill side of the bank.
We stop for a hot meal at lunch, checking the horses and putting up our dried clothes at that point. The afternoon is more of the same. We work as long as we can, which on most days brings us out there only till about five or six. Then we return to camp once again, tired and hopefully fulfilled from the days accomplishments. Horses are tended to, the fire is built up, a simple dinner is cooked, and water is heated for washing up. Perhaps a quick evening walk to inspect the days work, and sitting around with the horses, relaxing, writing, soaking in the view, the silence, the peace. Then crawling into the warm, dry tent, no matter what the weather brings, and being grateful for a well earned sleep…