Vagneur: Trail blazing |

Vagneur: Trail blazing

It was a year similar to this one, only the water-laden, heavy, deep snow came in June and wreaked total havoc on the aspen trees, not only in the high country but in town, as well. There’s nothing you can do about it except clean up the mess and deal with it, but it changes a lot of things.

We were running about 300 head of cattle on the Red Canyon range, between Sloane’s Peak and Mount Yeckel, when the storm hit, and suddenly we were paralyzed. It wasn’t unusual to see aspen trees of all sizes wrapped around one another like pretzels, blocking every avenue of travel. Fortunately, the cows were still at lower altitude, but getting them up to the high country would have been impossible without a lot of work.

My big bay horse, Willie, and I moved to cow camp for a couple of weeks, along with free-spirited Crackers for a pack horse. We had everything we needed, most particularly a chain saw, spare chains, sharpening files, a ton of food and a lot of youthful ambition. And yeah, some whiskey and beer, too.

Every morning, I’d grain the horses and head out, cutting my way to the west, one tree at a time. In many places, trees had fallen over already downed trees, creating an entangled web of scary proportions. A green, fully alive aspen tree bowed over ones below it by other fallen trees is a dangerous thing to behold when one comes at it with a chain saw. The tremendous weight on either or both ends will sometimes allow the stressed tree to snap in two when coaxed with a saw, and when that happens, one never precisely knows which direction the cut ends will travel. Standing on other slick aspens made footing a little shaky. I had a couple of near misses, but luck and all the care I could muster seemed to be on my side.

Safety takes on a different meaning when you’re in the middle of nowhere and there’s no one else around. I wasn’t expected back for days, so my absence wouldn’t be missed for at least that long. It’s a delicate balance, weighing security against the risks that must be taken to get the job done.

The worst incident occurred when Crackers, living up to his name, somehow became untied from his picket spot and took off through the woods, bucking and galloping over the downed trees, scattering essentials stored in his panniers with every jump. He finally ran out of steam about a half-mile down and acquiesced to my pleas to “Whoa, goddammit,” but yours truly spent the better part of the morning picking up fuel and oil canisters, saw wrenches, lunch, drinks and various other accoutrement necessary to a day in the woods. In the end, it was easier to cut the trail down to Crackers than it was to lead him back through the deadfall to where Willie waited with anticipatory snorts and cocked ears.

Aspen trees are somewhat like cottonwoods in that their root systems aren’t very deep, and once weakened by ferocious wind or heavy snow, they can become unreliable and dangerous. A breeze blowing the wrong way will sometimes be enough to knock seemingly live trees down without much warning.

For the rest of the summer, trees kept falling across the trails, and I found myself carrying a chain saw with me on almost every mission; otherwise there would sometimes be long and dangerous detours. That necessary habit seamlessly turned into a personal odyssey for the next 30 or so years.

After we quit running cows up there in the early 1990s and seeing my continued interest, the Forest Service gave me a key to the uniform shed, handed me a two-way radio and conferred its blessings upon me to continue clearing trails and attempting to educate the public about respect for the mountains and the reasons for the rules. I developed a nose for lost “mountaineers,” warned people about impending storms and generally did the job of a man in the field.

In addition, I provided information that gave more detail to existing maps, visited every hunting camp, every season, and thwarted a lot of illegal activity. Outfitter camps were checked and detailed over the years, and I made a lot of friends. Each summer and fall, if you count it up, I probably spent a good two months, maybe three, in the mountains, mostly working out of the cow camp. Every year, I produced a journal detailing my activities and presented it to the Forest Service.

We’re running cows on a different range now, and when I’m not packing salt to keep them dispersed, you can bet I’m packing a chain saw and ax, ready to make life easier for those who follow.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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