The changing of season always ushers in a sense of excitement. The start or end of a school year, a shift in the climate, the grandeur of nature as it blossoms and matures.
For most people, new seasons bring certain inevitable changes. We brace for the cold of winter, or relax into the cozy climate of Fall. For dude ranchers, changing seasons mean more than decorations or change of apparel. A changing season means transitioning into a different business model, or perhaps shutting down the business for a season of rest.
Geography is the largest factor in determining how severe seasonal changes can be on the land. California in particular is known for its beauty and geographical diversity. In the mountains of remote northern California, the weather boasts a balanced diet of four complete seasons. The start of the year is met by the cold, brisk winter, which leaves the mountaintops with a healthy layer of snow, and a soggy, rain-soaked valley.
For dude ranchers, the colder precipitous months of late fall to early spring bring a much needed break from the public eye, as well as a concurrent loss of cash flow and some serious concerns about surviving the brutally harsh weather patterns. In an especially wet year, northern Californians can expect landslides, flooding, swollen creeks and rivers, and saturated vegetation that pulls loose from soil. If the rains are warm, the snow-pack is melted and increases the runoff that drains into creeks and streams. Over time, all of these factors create road blockages and major damage on mountainsides. To a rancher in these parts, nothing is worse than heavy, warm rain after a substantial snowfall in early spring. The care and protection of equipment and livestock are difficult during times of cold and wet. Animals both young and old need secure shelters from the harsh elements and predatory wildlife. Large machinery needs to be kept safe from moisture and the cabins and ranch buildings need to be kept dry and protected. Our trips into town for supplies also need to be carefully timed and planned between storm pulses.
In mid April, when spring begins to unfurl in the mountains, the world shifts gears once more. For ranchers, this is a time of haste. What was left undone during the winter months must now be accomplished at a faster pace. Trees that have overgrown in a winter of arboreal neglect, begin to bear fruit prior to their appointed prunings. The pruning then picks up an even faster pace. Large tangled and brown piles of slash left in the gardens are suffocating infant seedlings trying to take root beneath them. Livestock that has been kept behind doors for months are restless. People who have been cooped up in their houses for months due to bad road conditions are typically going cross eyed with cabin fever. It’s not a very pretty sight as this time of Winter rest is transformed into a time of panicked Spring hustle.
By June, the blossoms have dispersed and the mountain range is awash in a fresh shade of green. The balmy days of spring are passed and have given way to the heat of summer. The river is lower and the foliage has matured to a darker, handsomer green. Tourists trickle down the winding mountain roads; eager for fresh mountain air and recreation. For ranchers, this is a time of work now in the eye of the public. The day is divided into three parts: morning, afternoon, and evening. The cooler air of morning and evening make them prime hours for performing outdoor chores. This means waking earlier, and going to bed later. The heat of the afternoon brings about a lull when manual labor becomes stressed under oppressing heat. The Summer “prime season” is the season of harvest as we execute our primary business model of a public dude ranch. We persist in the “dude ranch” business model from May to September unless we are interrupted by the start of wild fires in late July/ August.
In the year 2016, the amount of acres burned in the United States was 46% above normal. Sadly, the charm of things turning rose colored dissipates with the decline of air quality and news of home evacuations.
Wildfires have been known to last into the early part of October. For a guest ranch, this is sad news and can mean refunds on booking deposits with re-scheduled family holidays. Late September marks the beginning of the fishing season. The steady flow of city-crazed tourists has ebbed, replaced by fisherman and small groups of people seeking cozy lodging to enjoy the fall weather in.
For ranchers and landowners, coping with wildfire takes many forms. Assuming that evacuation orders have not been issued, the protection of property becomes a full-time position that rivals closely with the responsibility of guard duty at a super max. Eyes must always be keenly aware of the elements. Which way is the wind blowing? Is the smoke getting closer? Is the ash getting closer? Is there burning debris traveling with the wind? Is flame visible? How dry is the air? What is the mph of the wind? Are their sirens? Can I hear the falling of trees or the crackle of fire? It is a taxing position, one that landowners in Northern California have sadly become too familiar with.
Surviving in the mountains of northern California requires one to be fire smart. This means first of all that you have invested time and due diligence in reducing the fuel load around your property improvements. This is more than being especially observant, or being up to date with local announcements. All threatening vegetation should have been removed or reduced and available water sources, such as hoses and sprinklers, are placed near large structures for protection. If you have a hose, hook it up and pull it up to your house! And then repeat with additional hoses as many times as possible. Anything that is not fire safe needs to be secured and or relocated. Fuel tanks, flammable objects, dry debris, anything combustible, must be accounted for. All livestock should be moved to a safe location if not evacuated. All vehicles should be ready for emergency departure, with food, water, and first aid supplies as necessary.
These are the seasons of life in northern California. From an outdoor enthusiast perspective, it is a paradise of many wonders. In reality, living remotely ultimately requires more of people. It means greater emergency preparedness, increased self-reliance, a strong work ethic, and if you are lucky, an impressive stash of hot chocolate and great books. The wilderness is not just a playground, it is a living breathing force that is unpredictable and can be harsh. The only way to survive there is to be prepared, and with equal intensity, to meet the fickle demands of dear mother nature.
Cierra Sorensen is the youngest child and only daughter of Doug and Heidi Cole. She now lives in Salt Lake City with her husband Jason and their two boys while Jason pursues a doctorate at the University of Utah.