It is difficult to understand a thing until you know how and why it functions. This, I know from painstaking experience, can be said of technology (who really knows how their internet works?) and it may be claimed of people too. I also believe that places can be lumped into this axiom.
The Klamath River is one such place. I have always loved it, ever since I was a little kid sitting in the prow of my family’s inflatable yellow Sotar with my sister, both of us screaming out commands at Dad to “hit the hole, Daddy, hit the hole!” and my mom holding us by the nape of our life jackets. The river would gurgle undertow with a wet smack-flap and water would come surging in over our heads, stupid impish smiles creasing our faces. I have since replicated such experiences for many clients, youth groups and their counselors over the course of my storied five-year white water guide career.
However, even then, I had only seen the Klamath during summer. That is, until this year. At the tail end of summer 2015, I got the opportunity to guide for Marble Mountain Ranch and, liked it so much, I asked if I could stay on year round and help with the off-season care and maintenance of the ranch.
If you have never seen Marble Mountain Ranch, a description might be necessary. The mountains to the north and south shrug upwards, razorbacks bristling with pine and fir, red-barked madrone and gnarled ancient oak. The Klamath twines between, an emerald serpent in search of the Pacific. And the Ranch, stretched on a flat, green palm swath of land against the steep forested northern slope, looks out on it all.
In the summer, guests travel here to partake in the seemingly faultless jewel nature allowed to gestate in the heart of such rugged country. They come to ride horses along the creek and switchback trails, where one might become lost in the fern gullies and panoramic views. Some arrive with the inner cowboy or cowgirl and ply their hand at arena and barrel riding, and pretend to be Billy the Kid and gun-sling on the range (within reason, and supervision, of course). Others come for the Klamath’s indefatigable rapids, to kayak into the white maw of Dragon’s Tooth, or hike to hidden twin waterfall. Perhaps some simply come to forget the world of metal and cars and the incessant ping of technology and relax by the pool, horseshoe toss, go apple picking, lavender twining, and partake in Heidi’s infamous cooking. Summer truly is quite magical.
But, as I’ve said, I decided to stay in the off-season as well: fall and winter, two entirely different animals. It was during these two seasons, that I came to understand that this jewel of nature was not found as it was, but was carved, painstakingly and with great care. This is to say, nature is a bear. A great, foaming at the mouth, territorial momma grizzly that would like nothing else but to reclaim that cultivated portion of its domain and return it to that copacetic rugged form from which it came. And it will encroach, unless kept in check. Enter the intrepid caretakers. Yes, there is more than one, thank God!
It is hard to believe, especially if you’ve only seen it in summer, but the Klamath Forest is on the border of being a temperate rainforest. There were days when it would rain an inch or two in a few hours. This quantity of rain is problematic, as the Ranch runs off hydroelectric power in the winter. I know what you’re thinking, and no that much water is not exactly good, since the means of transporting that water to the hydro plant is an ancient, temperamental ditch dug by the Chinese during the gold rush…Needless to say, it requires constant “positive reinforcement” and maintenance. Left alone to its own devices, I suspect that it would wander off into the forest somewhere.
The rain doesn’t come alone either, storms bring it, storms with wind and cold that can freeze the water right in the core of trees. Sometimes, at night, I could hear the gigantic pines snapping, healthy, grain-spooled trunks exploding with the abrupt change and the aid of the gentlest breeze. Brock (the other intrepid caretaker) and I would often find the results the following morning, splayed out along the horse trails and in the aforementioned irrigation ditch, and would spend the better part of the next few days vigorously bucking up wood with chainsaws. The trees that fall often rip out portions of those well groomed riding trails as well, their submerged roots gouging ten foot gaps in the path. These do not simply fix themselves, but require the help of a mini excavator and, sometimes, a chainsaw detail to clear a way to the spot.
Less dramatic, but no less important, are the myriad of tasks that, when accomplished, simply keep the ranch a) functioning or b) looking presentable. The former category often falling under the purview of general maintenance of the cabins and the upkeep of the ever finicky fence lines that the horses absolutely lu-oove to find new ways to escape from. Yes, a herd of galloping horses is indeed a majestic sight, as long as it is not all over your front lawn.
The latter subset drapes over yard work like a wet blanket. Did I mention there were trees on the property? No, I mean a lot of trees. Picture a forest of trees. Now double that and switch out all the evergreens for deciduous trees. Good.
Now pretend those trees are the biggest team of luchadore wrestlers you have ever seen, and they’ve all come to beat you with sacks of leaves in the biggest tag-team event ever, and all you’ve got is a lonely rake, an ipod with shuffle on a loop, and a Kubota tractor that is seriously tired of hauling puny leaves and just wants to push dirt around. I dreamed of raking for longer than I thought possible.
This, of course, is not all we do here. There is a myriad of chores to accomplish as well, but I will not bore you with anecdotes about all of them. But I can attempt to list them*: gardening, pruning, painting, sanding, deck demolition, deck construction, bathroom demolition, bathroom renovation, door hanging, staining, fire abatement, lawn mowing, weed eating, lodge facelift, lodge salvage from fallen redwoods, lodge cleaning, dish washing, barn floor reinforcement, and the replacement of our water filtration systems. The last example may be viewed as a microcosm of the understated nature of this list, as the replacement took a good week and a half to accomplish with an additional week of prep beforehand.
Oh, also, we’ve been building a house for summer staff…
All this is done for summer, for a week of adventure and bliss, for you, really. So come, come enjoy the flowers and the trees, the trails and the whinny of horses on a husky summer draft of untainted air. Come and cast a line in the little pond behind the row of waiting cabins, hunkered beneath the arms of the walnut trees. Come on board the raft and hang on for dear life, unless I tell you to paddle! Come and test your skill on the range. Come enjoy Doug’s stories (proceed with caution, here there be dragons) and Heidi’s wonderful food. Come, because only then can you understand what I am talking about, truly, or at least a piece of it. Come, for then you will know why we work so hard, and why we love it here.
*Please note, not all of these tasks were done by myself, or even, in some cases, by me at all, but by Brock, our benevolent taskmaster and bosses—Heidi and Doug, and various friends, contractors, and volunteers or a combination of all of the above.
About the author: Mike Tomkiewicz is a recent college grad studying the language arts and has worked the past 5 summers as a river guide on the Klamath River. Currently he works as a river guide, range master, and caretaker for Marble Mountain Ranch. His wit, authentic spirit and caring soul make him a favorite for visiting guests of the ranch and ranch owners Doug and Heidi Cole claim him as an unofficially adopted son.