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Tony Vagneur: Putting a spring in your step

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

“In the pines, in the pines,

Where the sun never shines . . .” folk song

On a hot summer day, there’s nothing as welcoming as the coolness, and quiet, of a thick forest of pines. Trees so thick together it’s almost impossible to walk through and when viewed from a distance, the stand looks like a cohesive sheet of emerald, like maybe a meadow of green, rather than thousands of individual trees, each touching the other, but each living separate lives.

My dad and I had spent the morning wrestling a herd of reluctant white-face up a steep, brush-covered hillside, finally reaching a flat knoll covered in aspens and lush, early summer grass. After a breather, we left them there and continued up the trail a short distance, toward the pines mentioned above.

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As a helper on this cattle drive, but also as a young student, my attention was piqued for suddenly we were in an area I’d never seen before, and knowing the protocol, kept my mouth shut. Everything always seemed to be explained in due time.

The trail jogged left, off the main path, and almost immediately we were going around the side of a steep hillside, covered in old-growth lodgepole and spruce, big in diameter, impressive stalwarts of a previous age, guardians of a well-worn track.

The brightness of a cloudless day softened and the coolness slowly enveloped us, bringing a respite from our earlier, sweat-soaked day. The horses picked up their energy levels as we traveled in silence, my dad and I making chewing gum out of the sap from lodgepole pines.

And then, there it was, the object of our journey, a natural spring, flowing sparingly and gently from the guts of the mountain, positioned at the bottom of a shadowy draw that still showed remnants of a good winter; damp leaves under low-slung branches and mud in the narrowness above the spring.

A handcrafted water trough, built up by my dad and grandfather over the years, collected the water and held it to a depth of about a foot, with just enough room for two or three cows to drink at once. The lifeblood of survival in the mountains. The water (and scattered salt blocks) would keep the cattle here for as long as the grass held out, and then we’d move them across the mountains and on up higher, as the summer progressed.

This fount is undoubtedly the source of the Ute Spring, which exits near the Woody Creek valley floor and served as drinking and irrigation water for my family in the original homestead house, which served four generations of my family. My father had the spring adjudicated as a legal water right in the 1950s, now owned by the Diamond W Ranch. It still flows consistently.

On the side of the mountain, high above Woody Creek and located in the pine forest, sit two cabins, a reasonable but unexplained distance apart, built sometime around the beginning of the 20th century. They are in badly dilapidated condition, but still partially standing proud, a remembrance of the days when my great-grandfather and grandfather partnered on a sawmill on our ranch down below.

In those days, a crew of men would spend the summer in the woods, cutting trees for the sawmill and dragging them, with horses, to a central point. When winter snows came, the logs could then be sledded off of the mountain by teams of horses. The roads cut and built to aid in the removal of these solar energy-produced necessities of life in the valley can still be found on the mountain.

If you’ve ever run out of water on a hike through the mountains, you know how important water is, and how scarce it can be. The cabins and the men who inhabited them, including their horses, had to have a dependable water supply to have any longevity. Whenever you see an old lumberjack cabin such as these, you can bet there’s a water supply close by. Or at least there was, a hundred years ago or more.

After decades of neglect, the trail to the spring has been wiped out by deadfall, and it’s doubtful anyone knows it is even there. And maybe that is how it should remain.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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