Flashback Friday #13: Lay Lady, Lay…..

…Lay Across My Big Grass Bed.

Skeletal remains of Lady

My apologies to Bob Dylan, but how else could I introduce the gentle readers of this blog to Lady (or at least her remains)?

This ranch takes on it’s present form due to the labors of a family I shall call the Farmers.  The Farmers built the present day house and most of the outbuildings in 1980.  They lived here, working the land, raising cattle and operating a small dairy operation until 1996, when they sold the ranch to other owners.

There are three generations of the Farmer family that lived here.  The Farmer parents, the Farmer children, and the Farmer grandchildren.  In fact, a Farmer daughter gave birth to a Farmer grandchild right in the master bedroom of this house.

Eventually, we came to purchase this property in 2001.  In the course of moving our belongings into the house, I discovered an envelope taped to the underside of a desk drawer.  Naturally, curiosity took hold, and I opened the envelope to find a multi-page hand written letter within.  The letter was addressed to nobody in particular, and yet was written as if intended for everybody.  One of the Farmer grandchildren had penned this letter just prior to moving away from this ranch for good.

As I read this letter, I recall that tears began to well up in my eyes, as it soon became obvious how much this young woman loved both the property and the lifestyle that went along with living here.  It was apparent that she leaving the property out of necessity and not choice, which made me feel very bad for this unknown young woman.  Somewhere within the text of her open letter, she mentioned the names of various people that had enjoyed life on this ranch, and at one point the name Lady came up.  I did not think much of the reference at the time, other than to think that Lady was an unusual name (or nickname) for a person.  After sharing the letter that I had found with Retta, I filed it away in a safe place, for posterity’s sake.

Some time later, Retta and I happened to have the opportunity to meet the Farmer family.  At our gathering, when we mentioned the existence of the open letter we had found, one of the Farmers inquired as to whether we had discovered letter #2, written by another of the Farmer grandchildren.  When we replied that we had not yet found this second letter, they told us where it was located.  Just as they had indicated, the letter lay hidden behind the back wall studs of an under-stairs storage closet in the basement.  It was so well hidden that we would have never stumbled upon it, had we not been steered in the right direction by the Farmers.  The second letter had the same poignient tone as the first letter, and again I found a lump in my throat as I read it’s contents.  This second letter also contained a reference to someone named Lady, just as the first letter had.

So that sums up the two open letters that we discovered (with some help, I have to admit).  In the meanwhile, shortly after moving here we began an intense exploration of the hills and hollers of this ranch.  Along a fence line, in a very remote section of the property, we came upon the skeletal remains of a horse, which seemed to be in fairly good condition.  For reasons that I still cannot explain, I felt a desire to bring the horse’s skeletal head over to the house, where we set it among our collection of “yard art.”  And there it remained for quite a long time.

Fast forward a couple of years.  We received a telephone call from a Farmer grandson, who asked if he could come visit the property and reminisce.  We readily agreed, and soon he was hiking and exploring the property he knew so well as a child.  As I began to pick his brain for tidbits of information regarding the history of this ranch, I happened to ask him who this “Lady” was, that I had read about in the letters left by his sisters.  He explained that Lady was a gentle old nag that was ridden frequently by the Farmer grandchildren, and that when she died in 1994, they placed her carcass in a far corner of the property to decompose, which is where Retta and I found the remains.

Now that we knew the history behind the skeletal remains, and the attachment of the Farmer grandchildren to this nag named Lady, we felt that is was almost sacrilegious to leave her skeletal head among our yard art.  So I immediately took the remains out of our yard and returned them to where we had originally found them.  The picture above was taken where the bones now lay, in their former location.

What has surprised me is how the bones have been left undisturbed (except for the temporary relocation that we put them through) for such a long period of time.  It is twelve years since Lady died, and yet the bones remain in the location where first placed, unchewed and unmolested by the native wildlife.

Whenever we pass by Lady’s remains, we pay our respects, now that we know of her past connection to the originators of this ranch.  And I have vowed not to disturb her remains ever again!

Flashback Friday #11

The Most Effective Fence Ever Grown?

Fence post holes being enlarged

As you can see from the photograph above, we are in the midst of a multi-years long fencing project here at the ranch.  The reason for this undertaking is simple – much of the existing fencing on the property is in the neighborhood of 20-25 years old, and as a result of it’s age, maintenance and upkeep have become problematic for this middle-aged baby boomer with a recalcitrant back.

20 year old cedar fence posts

Although there are numerous potential problems with old farm fencing, we were primarily faced with deteriorating cedar fence posts, as shown above.  The posts still retained their structural integrity, however the outer layers of wood have degraded to the point that they will no longer hold a fencing staple or nail.  As a result, frequent maintenance has been required to shore up sagging woven field-fencing and lengthy runs of barbed wire.  A by-product of this fencing project is that we now have a new batch of clean and well seasoned firewood to burn this winter, after I cut and split the old posts this fall.

We have opted to convert our horse pasture fencing to a modern, polyvinyl 3-rail equestrian fencing.  The draw of this type of fencing is the promise of a long and maintenance-free useful working lifespan.  When the project is finished, we shall have erected approximately 3000-4000 feet of 3-rail fence, which will enclose the barn and paddock area, and three grazing pastures.  The picture below shows some of the fencing that has already been completed to date –

Polyvinyl 3-Rail Equestrian Fencing

Okay, so how does our current fencing project relate to a “Flashback in Time?”  Well, as I sat one day observing our new fencing, I began to think about all of the fencing systems I could remember seeing in the past.  There are many materials included in my mental fencing inventory, and many construction methods are represented.

Hand-hewn split-rail fencing

Perhaps the closest cousin to the polyvinyl 3-rail fencing that we are installing is the split rail fencing shown above.  Constructed of naturally occurring regional timber, this was a common type of fencing used around farms and homesteads throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  This style of fence is relatively strong, easy to build, and somewhat durable.  The main disadvantage of this type of fence is it’s susceptibility to rotting, as you can see in the upper left in the photograph above, and the fact that it will only contain a limited variety of livestock, due to the large gaps between the rails.  It will certainly not deter entry by human interlopers, nor will it keep small critters out of your garden.  A split-rail fence like the one shown above is low on the durability scale, and offers some of the least intrusion protection of any fencing construction styles.

If the split-rail fencing is among the least effective types of fencing that I have seen, then what type of fencing construction tops my list?  It is a type of fencing that few of you worthy and knowledgeable blog readers have probably encountered.  Some time ago, I had the good fortune to travel to the island of Bonaire, in the Dutch Antilles region of the Caribbean Sea.  This was a scuba diving trip to tropical waters, but the diving was done a little different than on most tropical islands.  Because of the topography of the island, the serenity of the waters on the leeward side, and the proximity of the fringing reefs to the shore, Bonaire is an ideal venue for beach diving (that is, entry from the shore rather than from a dive boat).  Because of this, I rented a vehicle to use for the purpose of transporting myself and my dive gear to the various dive sites.  This afforded me the opportunity to sight see as I traveled from reef to reef.  One day, as I was driving to a dive site at the southern end of the island, I came across the following sight –

Effective natural fencing

Along the roadside, and surrounding a small farm, was a row of cacti.  Having spent an appreciable amount of time in the deserts of the southwestern United States, I was familiar with many types of cacti, but I had never seen such a uniform and closely spaced row growing in the wild.  It sparked my curiosity, and I stopped to take a picture of this sight.  As luck would have it, the owner of this farm happened to be entering the property at the time, and he came over to talk with me.  I asked him about the cactus, and he explained what this was all about.  Many farmers on this desert island built their fences initially with barbed-wire.  Immediately, they plant small cacti along the fence line.  By the time the original barbed-wire fence has reached an age when maintenance would be required, the cactus will have grown to a point that it acts as an effective barrier.  The beauty of this type of fence construction is that the longer the fence exists, the better it is at fulfilling it’s intended purpose.  Not only does this fence resist deterioration with time, it provides perpetual intrusion protection and livestock containment.  Would you attempt to gain entry to this farm by penetrating the fence?  Do you think a cow, horse or hog would challenge this fence?  I think not.

Mature natural cactus fence

Here is a picture of the gated entryway to the farm I encountered.  The farmer explained that these gates were the only part of the fencing system that ever needed maintenance (not counting the time a drunk driver managed to plow his car through the cacti).

The cactus fencing on the island of Bonaire is the most effective and durable fencing that I have ever encountered, but I don’t think Retta will approve of it here on our ranch.  She detests skin-lacerating, flesh puncturing barbed wire enough as it is, and I am certain that she would approve of cactus spines even less.

Flashback Friday #10

 Channel Islands National Park

Pack your toothbrush and swimsuit, grab your camera, take your Dramamine (if necessary), and join us on multi-day voyage to the Channels Islands National Park, off the coast of southern California.

Setting off for Channel Islands National Park

There are eight islands off the coast of southern California.  The most famous, and most visited is Catalina Island, home of Avalon harbor.  The island of San Nicholas is owned by the U.S. Navy, which maintains a facility on the island, and is off limits for civilian visitation.  But there are five primitive, wonderful islands that comprise the Channel Islands National Park.  On this voyage, we shall visit the four northern islands of the Park; Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel Islands.  It is not easy to get to San Miguel Island.  Located at the far reaches of the Santa Barbara Channel, the weather and sea conditions dictate whether you will be able to reach the island without having to turn back.  Although the seas may be mild at times, they will often reach heights of 25-30 feet, accompanied by gale force winds.  The area around the northern Channel Islands is no place for novice mariners, but relax, you are in the company of a couple of seasoned veterans.

California Sea Lions frolic in the calm water off Anacapa Island

The first island we pass after departing from Channel Islands Harbor is Anacapa Island.  A small island hosting a lighthouse and small ranger station, this island is situated about 11 miles from Channel Islands Harbor.  We will cruise along the back side of this island, where we might be treated to a visit from curious California Sea Lions, who inhabit the rookery at Anacapa Island for part of the year.  After spending a little time with the sea lions, we will continue on our voyage, heading for Santa Cruz Island. Here we will spend the night at anchor at a lovely spot on the back side of the island known as Albert’s Anchorage, about 30 miles from CI Harbor.  After a nice dinner prepared on the deck BBQ grill, we relax and watch the sun set on the horizon.

Sunset at Albert's Anchorage

“A red sky at morning, sailors take warning.  A red sky at night, a sailor’s delight”.  According to this old mariners adage, we should be in for a pleasant days journey on the morrow, as we intend to head on over to the next island in the northern chain – Santa Rosa Island.  Santa Rosa Island has an interesting and unique history as a cattle ranch.  Prior to the purchase of the island by the U.S. government for inclusion into the National Park, the island was privately owned and operated as a large and productive cattle ranch.  Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) tended the herds, and the cattle were highly prized for their excellent quality beef.  The cattle transport vessel Vaquero, and later, the Vaquero II, was a common sight in the Santa Barbara Channel, as it shuttled the animals to the mainland from the island.  After the sale of the island, the ranching operation was permitted to continue for a period of time, after which operations ceased, and the cattle were removed from the island.  We intend to cruise to the south side of the island, where we will set our anchor at a spot called Johnson’s Lee, which is about a 60 mile journey from CI Harbor.

Paddling in the kelp at Johnson's Lee, Santa Rosa Island

Johnson’s Lee is a (sometimes) protected anchorage that contains abundant kelp (giant macrosistis) in beds to depths up to 100 feet.  It is a perfect spot to paddle a kayak, fish, or scuba dive.  Most days you will find that the anchorage belongs to you alone. Occasionally, a commercial dive or fishing boat will pass by, but Johnson’s Lee is generally a secluded spot.

Sunset at Johnson's Lee

As you can see in the photograph above, we seem to be blessed with red skies each night of this trip, and as we listen to the marine forecast on the VHF radio, it looks as if it will be a “go” for our last leg of the cruise to San Miguel Island in the morning.  This final segment of the trip will take us out of the comparative shelter of the islands and expose us to the full force of the prevailing wind, swell and seas of the Pacific Ocean.  Our goal is Cuyler Harbor on the northeast side of San Miguel Island.  Because we have been lucky with the weather, it turns out to be a pleasant and uneventful day of boating, and eventually we enter into, and drop anchor at Cuyler Harbor.

Cuyler Harbor anchorage, San Miguel Island

As usual, we are the only vessel in the harbor, although we may be joined by 1 or 2 small fishing boats in the evening, as they tuck in for the night.  We may be the only boat in the harbor, but we are not alone.  This is the time of the season when the Northern Elephant Seal females, young males, and weaners (weaned pups) haul out for molting along the sandy beaches of Cuyler Harbor.

Elephant Seal in Cuyler Harbor

Here, a young male elephant seal practices his guttural bellowing.  The low, rumbling sound of his calls can be heard for quite a distance, and provides an interesting diversion to the sounds of the sea lapping against the hull of the boat at night.

Elephant seals in play at Cuyler Harbor

These two young male elephant seals are playfully sparring with each other, practicing for the time when such posturing and bullying will determine mating opportunities with female elephant seals.  The games continue for hours at a time, and then the young males will haul themselves up onto the beach for some sunning and sleeping.

White sand beach of Cuyler Harbor, San Miguel Island

Using the Zodiac tender to land on the beach, we begin our land-based explorations of Cuyler Harbor.  The white sand beaches of the harbor are breathtaking, and the sense of remoteness and isolation permeates the air, along with the cool, salty breezes coming off the water.

Elephant seal pup sun bathing at Cuyler Harbor

As we begin our hiking, we must pass this weaner, who is quite content to lay on the beach for hours, if not days, on end.  Perhaps he is waiting for someone to help him launch his skiff leaning up against the rocks.  It must be his, as no one else was to be found on the island, and there were no other boats in the harbor.

Coreopsis on San Miguel Island

San Miguel Island is one of the few spots in the world that hosts the beautiful Giant Coreopsis.  We are lucky to be here at a time of year when they are in bloom, and the hillsides are bright yellow as far as the eye can see.  Mixed in among the coreopsis are numerous species of wildflowers, each more beautiful than the next.

Overlook of Cuyler Harbor, San Miguel Island

Hiking up the overlook trail, we can look back down upon Cuyler Harbor, as we catch sight of our vessel anchored off in the distance.  Eventually, our land based explorations come to an end (to be detailed in a future post), and we return to our vessel and bed down for the night.  We will spend several more days at anchor here in Cuyler Harbor, paddling kayaks, diving, and hiking on the island.  When the weather forecast suggests calm seas in the morning, we secure the vessel for the long cruise back to Channel Islands Harbor.  Our return route will take us along the front (weather) side of the northern Channel Islands, but the journey should be just fine, as the forecast is for “fair weather, and following seas”, just the words any mariner longs to hear.

Sunset at Channel Islands Harbor

It is evening before we pull into the slip at Channel Islands Harbor, and after securing and washing off the boat, we sit back on our deck chairs to watch another in the fortunate series of evening sunsets before us.  “Look, Retta – a red sky at night.  Do you want to head off to San Miguel in the morning?”