In early September the nights are getting cooler, with morning frost. The days have shortened and the meadow has taken a straw yellow color.
I begin to prepare my wintering. I bring in 4 tons of hay for my mustangs. Travis and Kelly, who delivered for me, have done a great job: a nice wheel on the platform I had prepared. Two days later, big problem. I had not seen cows around the past few days, but now a dozen were dragging around. I had not finished fixing the fence meant to protect my hay, and the cows were offered a sacred banquet.
In addition to the loss, I have work to put everything back in order.
By the 5th I hear elk call. Today something passes near the forest, a big beautiful male. Only bow hunting is open in September. The general season, open in October, will complicate things for them.
Aspens turn golden yellow, giving the landscape colors that illuminate the valleys. On the summits the first snow whitewashes the ridges of Ramshorn and Wiggins peaks. The bright red fruits of wild rose bushes shine like drops of blood. While I photograph these wonderful colors, a coyote observes me with interest.
For the antelope the season of love is not far. The males who spent the summer with good buddies will before long be bickering for the beautiful eyes of these ladies.
I’m going with Marie, a good jumper but not used to long-distance rides, for the last hike of the season, a beautiful ride of six days and about 140 kilometers.
For her debut, Marie is spoiled. We arrive at 3 o’clock in the afternoon at the entrance to the Wiggins River Valley, and as it is still early, we decide to push farther. Before committing myself to this track I did not know that a fire had ravaged the area three years earlier.
The end of the day approaching, we still do not find a proper place to camp. Everything is burned, and there is no grass for horses. Elk bugles ring in the valley as night begins to fall. Finally we find a place spared by fire, along the river. It is pitch black as we set up camp and take care of the horses. We have spent 11 hours on horseback and traveled nearly 45 kilometers. Marie begins to doubt her guide.
The following days are less painful, despite very high passes: Burwell Pass at 3,100 meters, Greybull Pass at 3,438 and Bear Pass at 3,215. The grandiose landscapes are linked together.
The good weather is with us at this time of the year, but there can be significant snowfall. As for the horses, I was a little worried about their unshod feet, but they do well. We close the loop on a beautiful autumn day with a nice present at breakfast: A grizzly female, followed by her three cubs, quickly spotted by the horses, passes 200 meters from the camp.
We find the Wiggins River running down a canyon at the foot of Spring Mountain, a last effort to get out of it and here we are back.
The next day, Honcho, Cap, Curly and Big are on vacation, and Marie leaves for Auvergne, in France. The foursome are returned to settle on the hills of Spring Mountain, amid the sparse grass of the end of the season and taste a well-deserved rest after our hikes around the Absaroka Mountains this summer.
For me it’s time to chop wood for winter. I also change the window of the west facade, which is not in good condition. I found one for $35 in perfect condition, with double glazing. Ritchie, a handyman friend, comes to help me install it. Tonight, in the company of the full moon, I fall asleep ready for the cooler weather.
I do not forget my work as a photographer. I spotted some mule deer along Charlie Creek. I return to that area one night, and I’m lucky: Two males fight for half dozen females. The brawl is much less violent than elk or bighorn.
After mid-September the first flakes fall, and cows begin to return from the northern areas of the Shoshone National Forest. Reg, the manager of the ranch, asks me to leave open two northern gates. In a few days 800 cows and their calves reclaim the meadow.
The weather is fine on Sept. 25, when at dawn I plan to saddle Cap. The sun peaks on the summits of Mountain Meadow when I see riders arrive — Reg and his cowboys, Bill, Harley, Mark and Blake. A neighbor who has come to lend a hand is also in the game.
Today cows and their calves must be pushed to Daniel’s Place to be sorted. We are spreading out in a fan, raking the 1,200 hectares (approximately 3,500 acres). In the morning the cows are grouped first by small herds, which are pushed toward each other, all through deafening calls from cows to calves.
Sometimes a recalcitrant beast tries to flee the herd, triggering a quarter horse and cowboy to perform feats. The escape does not last long. I have more trouble with Cap, who is not very familiar with the work of the cattle and does not really like to get away from his mustang counterparts.
Toward the middle of the day the whole herd is stuck in the southwest corner. Bill and Mark, counting the animals, are positioned on both sides of the door. Bill advances gently, so as not to frighten the cows. After a few minutes of hesitation, one of them crosses the opening, followed by another, and off we go.
At the back of the herd, Reg, Steve, Harley and I make sure no beast turns around. The horses wait for the order to advance. Sometimes a calf wanders astray, and one of the cowboys, helped by his dogs, returns it quickly to the herd. It takes nearly an hour to pass all the animals. Reg thanks me for helping and asks me to close the gate.
I resume my way to the cabin. Tomorrow it will be necessary to continue stocking wood. Winter is not far.
Snow makes an appearance the last weekend of the month. Saturday starts with rain and slush, then snow. I stay by the fire to read. Sunday at sunrise snowflakes fall heavy, tight, as big as quarters. Ten centimeters quickly accumulates. At the end of the morning I enjoy a break for my first cross-country ski outing.
And here I stand at the doors of Wyoming’s long winter.