It’s time for us to leave the Red Desert, as we do every year in mid-April. One bunch a day crosses a day apart for three days. This year road construction started on the third day, which meant to sheep had to be escorted by the pilot car. Since the railroad overpass can be dangerous and difficult, we were glad for the assistance. The ewes only have to travel about a mile and a half on WY Hwy 789 before they enter Rodewald’s pasture. Our neighbors, the Rodewalds, let us cross their private land to get to the Badwater Pasture, Shearing starts soon! (Photo credits to Meghan Lally and Linda Fleming
We are heading south from the wintering grounds on the Red Desert. The first leg takes us to the Badwater Pasture. The shearing crew has assured us that they will be here in a couple of days, which means we can shear the pregnant ewes at Badwater. This is better for the ewes because they can trail the last 40 miles to the lambing grounds at Cottonwood without ten pounds of wool on their backs. It also means they are shorn well before they start lambing. Some years the shearers are late due to weather, equipment or misadventure, and we see lambs on the ground as we are trying to shear. With luck, all will go well. Stay tuned!
Seamus opening the gate
heading under I80
truck above, sheep below
passing through Creston Junction
between I80 and the railroad overpass
the orange flag alerts oncoming traffic
Joel bringing the ewes over the Union Pacific line (the trickiest part)
The ewes have made their annual trek north to the Red Desert, where we have wintering ground on the Cyclone Rim and Chain Lakes grazing allotments. These allotments are part of the vast Great Basin, home to Greater Sage Grouse, desert elk, riparian plants and amphibians, feral horses, many many antelope and, part of the year, cattle and sheep. The Great Basin is named because it is a closed basin. To the north, the Continental Divide splits and runs in separate ranges until it meets again about 15 miles south of Wamsutter near the Haystack Mountains. The country south of there–Church Butte, Adobe Town, Powder Rim–is likewise amazing landscape, but it is not part of the Great Basin, the Red Desert. It is always a relief when we safely cross the overpass over the Union Pacific line and the underpass beneath I80 and head out across the open country for winter pasture. We are a week later than usual on the trail north. We had to wait for snow, since there’s not much water on the trail. Like Goldilocks, we want it to be not too hot and not too cold!
We have started trailing from our wintering grounds to spring country where we have shearing and lambing in our future, and theirs.
The ewe lambs have spent the winter in the Powder Wash country. Yemerson has started them along the Powder Rim trail. In a few days, they will arrive at the Badwater Pasture, where they will hang out until early July.
In the meantime, the ewes who wintered on the Chain Lakes allotment on the Red Desert have started south. Their destination is the Cottonwood lambing grounds. In a few weeks, we’ll have wool in the bags, and lambs on the ground, God willing.
Every year at this time, we are almost there with the final leg of our 150 mile trek as the sheep trail from their summer country in the Medicine Bow and Routt National Forests to winter pasture in Wyoming’s Red Desert. Each way, spring and fall, we must cross the overpass across the Union Pacific line, and the underpass below Interstate 80–both coast to coast trails of a different sort. We make this part of the trail on WY Highway 789. For several miles, we share the highway with cars, pickup trucks and trailers, motor homes, and semi trucks hauling everything from livestock to oilfield supplies. We flag the road, ‘fore and aft, to warn traffic that the sheep are on the highway. We’ve only had a few near wrecks over the years, due mostly to inattentive or inexperienced drivers, and sometimes bad weather. Mostly we see our neighbors, who wait and wave, fellow travelers, and folks who stop and take photos and ask questions. I always send up a prayer of thanks when sheep, dogs, horses and humans have safely threaded the needle, and are on their way to the Red Desert. Then I pray for a good winter, good feed and a good living for all.
at Rodewald’s gate
Jean Carlos on the run
Filo on the railroad bridge
passing the Fireworks Stand
sharing the road
Prima Express–dos direciones
Ovcharka livestock guardian dog sees them through the gate
trailing crew–Rhen, Pepe, McCoy and Pat
more crew–Pepe, Tiarnan and Meghan
Tiarnan and Modesto headed north on adopted wild horse
It’s that time of year. Pat asked, “Are we going to post ‘Trailing over the UP line and under I80 ‘ pics again?”…because, except for the weather, it looks pretty much the same every year, and I am grateful for that. I have said on this blog before, and I say again, this stretch of our long trail from summer to winter country, and back again, is one of the most dangerous things we do all year. The scariest part is heading up the railroad overpass. Even though we are flagging, fore and aft, sometimes it is hard to convince folks to slow down, especially before they can see the sheep on the road. So when the sheep are safely through the gate north of Interstate 80, I breathe a sigh of relief, and send thanks to the Lord. We trail three bunches, a day apart, so the crossing takes place three consecutive mornings. A difference I see this year, with the sudden drop in oil and gas prices, is the reduction in oil field traffic through the sheep as they thread their way through this needle. Soon we will be settled on our wintering grounds on the Red Desert. Next we will pray for a “just right” winter–not too much snow, not too little–not too much cold, not too much wind, and lots of good grass.
heading for the gate, and the highway
We’re headed north. The truck is headed south.
My flag, through the windshield, bringing up the rear
Creston Junction, just ahead
Under Interstate 80
Dances with Border collies
As one motorist observed, “a Wyoming traffic jam!”
Once again, the sheep have crossed the UP line overpass and the I80 underpass at Creston Junction, Wyoming on their trek north to spend the winter months on the Red Desert on Cyclone Rim and Chain Lakes. We crossed three bunches one after the other. The first two bunches were one day apart. Fog and snow meant that bunch three had to hold up a day. Our neighbors, the Rodewalds, told us to hold up an extra day on their pasture. They had planned to ship calves that day, but had to cancel the trucks due to road and weather conditions. The next day dawned bright and clear, if bitter cold (-23 degrees) and we made the passage without incident. It is always nerve-wracking, due to heavy oil field traffic. We flag front and rear, and sometimes run into over-eager truck drivers. Luckily, this year, the truckers helped us and we crossed without any problems. On the same day, we got our first load of corn in. Corn is necessary to sustain the ewes through the cold cold weather, and to flush them since we plan to put the bucks in in a week or so. It is important that they are increasing their nutritional level just ahead of the breeding season, in order to increase the conception of twins.
Patrick and Sharon O'Toole are ranchers in the Little Snake River Valley on the Wyoming-Colorado border. They represent the fourth generation on the six-generation family ranch. The O'Tooles raise cattle, sheep, horses, dogs and children on their high country ranching operation. The transhumance operation stretches from north of Steamboat Springs, Colorado to Wyoming's Red Desert.
Pat has served in the Wyoming House of Representatives, the Western Water Policy Commission, and is currently President of the Family Farm Alliance, representing irrigators and water users in the western United States. He is active with several conservation and agricultural organizations.
Sharon is a writer and poet. She writes extensively on western issues, and the relationship between landscape, animals and people. She is widely published as an author, essayist and editorial commentator.
Pat and Sharon have three children. Their daughter, Meghan and her husband Brian Lally, live on the ranch with their children, Siobhán, Seamus, Maeve and Tiarnán. Meghan has also served on the Wyoming Board of Agriculture and the Environmental Quality Council, She and Brian are active in community service.
Daughter Bridget lives in Phoenix with her husband, Chris Abel, where she works in health care communications. Chris works in the food distribution business.
Son Eamon and his wife Megan live on the ranch with their sons, McCoy and Rhen. Eamon is a horseman and natural resource manager, and Megan is a flight nurse. Eamon is a member of the Wyoming Beef Council and is active in the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
The blog traces the activities and life on the ranch, from the mundane to the fabulous.