Riding Among Giants
By Darrell Dodds
Since 1941, the Burk family has been moving cattle from their ranch in Squaw Valley, California, to their summer range in the Sequoia National Forest, an area that includes some of America’s oldest and largest trees. Last spring, I got to go along for the ride.
FOR AMERICANS OF MY GENERATION, family vacations invariably included road trips. Depending on where you grew up, you were almost certain to have seen Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, or perhaps the Great Smoky Mountains from the back seat of your father’s 1959 Pontiac Bonneville.
Although I experienced my share of family road trips, I was lucky to have grown up in the shadow of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, where summer vacations were spent at our mountain retreat—a 19-foot aluminum trailer on a small lot leased from the National Forest Service. Fortunately, we were within a stone’s throw of Wolverton Pack Station, a government-owned and -operated facility in Sequoia National Park. Boarding our family’s horses there was not only convenient and cheap, but it also offered us access to a vast trail system that traversed some of the most spectacular and pristine backcountry to be found anywhere.
While I moved away from the area after high school, my older brother Al remained in the San Joaquin Valley. There, he and his wife, Donna, established Silver D Bar Training Center, a race-training facility for Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds. While training racehorses has been his vocation for more than 40 years, a summer job during his youth, packing mules and wrangling dudes, gave him the passion for and skills necessary to pursue his real love—horse packing into the High Sierras. Al raised his son, Brett, to appreciate the outdoor lifestyle, and now his grandkids to love packing into the mountains as much as he does. They all look for any excuse to hit the high country.
Last May, Al called me, asking if I’d like to join him on a little trip into the mountains. Although the details were sketchy, I learned we were to ride with Tim Burk, an old friend of his, as Tim and his two sons, Jay and Ty, moved 150 cow-calf pairs to their USDA Forest Service summer grazing allotment in the Sequoia National Forest. Riding along with us would be my nephew Brett and his three boys, Bodi, 11, and 8-year-old twins Cobie and Cole.
I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do than take a little “family vacation” and revisit the country I’d ridden as a kid, so I soon found myself at my brother’s ranch, loading horses. It was shortly after sunrise and we were headed up the mountain, about an hour’s drive, to meet the Burks at Cabin Meadow, where two truck-and-trailer rigs were going to be unloading the stock into holding pens. Around mid-morning the cattle arrived, allowing us enough time to unpack our gear and grab lunch before saddling up for the afternoon’s work.
Shortly after noon, Tim, Jay and Ty split the herd in half; one group would be driven to Camp Six, an old logging site, that afternoon. The following day, we’d take the remaining pairs to Cabin Creek, where they’d spend the summer. Each day’s ride would be about five hours round-trip. In some spots, the cattle would have to travel through thick manzanita brush single-file, requiring extraordinary patience, especially from the 8-year-old twins, who’ve yet to acquire the skill.
Once on the trail, Jay rode point to keep the cattle from rushing down the trail, while others took up flank positions, especially when nearing large, open meadows. Still boggy in spots from recently melted snow, every effort was made to keep the cattle on dry ground, not an easy task considering they hadn’t seen knee-high meadow grass in months. If a few made a run for it, Tim’s McNab stockdogs remedied the problem in short order.
“My family has always had Herefords,” says Tim. “Over the years, I’ve added some Braford and some Angus breeding to our herd, but our cattle retain a lot of our original breeding. I like the calves that we produce, they’re well suited to our operation, they are marketable, docile and pretty easy to get along with.
“In this mountain country especially, you don’t want cattle that are too skittish. When we spot them on a grazing area, we’d like to find them there when we come back. A lot of our cows have been coming in here for years. I think they know the trails as well as we do.
“For many years, our family would drive our cattle all the way from the ranch, up to the Hume Lake District of the Sequoia National Forest, where we have our permit,” Tim continues. “I started going up with my mom and dad when I was pretty young. I don’t remember the first few summers because I was a baby, but I remember riding along with my dad on a big old draft horse when I was 4 or 5.
“When my boys were born, we started bringing them along when they were little, so this is something that has become part of our family tradition. As soon as the snow begins to melt in the high country, we start making plans. Taking the cattle to summer range is something that we look forward to.”
Today, the Burk’s grazing permit is one of the oldest of seven in the area. Originally obtained by Harry Burk, Tim’s grandfather, the summer allotment encompasses approximately 100 square miles of lush mountain meadows, as well as steep granite and brush-covered mountainsides. While the lush green meadow grasses would seem to be the cattle’s preferred diet, it is actually the deer brush and mountain whitethorn, growing in abundance in open areas and on the rocky slopes, that they seek and that provides the most nutrition.
Harry, who was born in 1880 on the ranch in Squaw Valley that was homesteaded by his father, Richard, in 1870, began working in this part of the Sierras as a teenager. While it was gold that brought thousands of people to California in search of fame and fortune in the middle of the 19th century, it was timber that promised enormous wealth at the beginning of the 20th century.
Ever a cowman, Harry had no intention of sawing or chopping down trees, preferring instead to raise and sell beef to the men who did.
“As a young man, my grandfather worked for a slaughterhouse in Millwood that had a contract with the lumber companies to deliver beef to the logging camps that were popping up everywhere in this part of the Sierras,” said Tim. “Eventually, Harry and a fellow by the name of Jack Kincaid put their own herd together in Converse Basin and opened their own slaughterhouse right in the middle of one of the largest logging operations in this country’s history.”
Some evidence of the logging era still remains, not just enormous redwood stumps, but logging skids, an occasional piece of cable and small piles of decaying logs that were apparently unfit for milling. But for the most part, you could easily assume that the landscape had always looked this way.
Today, meadows glow with an almost fluorescent green; stately redwoods and lofty pines reach for the sky, providing shade and a home for the region’s mule deer, black bear, chipmunks, birds and reptiles. Small streams flow with crystal clear water, home to trout and native invertebrates. Except for an occasional screech of a Steller’s Jay or the jackhammer tapping of a White-headed Woodpecker, this is one of the most tranquil spots on earth—a stark contrast to days gone by when lumber barons turned this area, home to one of the world’s rarest and oldest timber stands, into their private playground.
During their heyday between 1880 and World War I, it is estimated that the lumber companies built more than 500 miles of railroad track, 170 miles of lumber flumes, and operated 28 locomotives and 16 sawmills on a thin stretch of land that ran between what is now Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. Tens of thousands of lumberjacks were employed, all in the quest to remove as much timber as possible.
By World War I, however, federal regulators and a diminishing supply of accessible trees slowed down the logging industry and the unregulated boom was over, allowing the land to slowly recover. While there are opposing views, extensive research has shown that public land grazing programs in this part of the Sierras has played a role in that recovery by keeping a variety of shrubs in check and aiding the reforestation process.
A Rare Breed
Tim Burk may not be the last of a dying breed, but he certainly is becoming a rarity in Central California. Still living and working on the same 160-acre parcel that his great-grandfather homesteaded, Tim and his son Jay run their cattle operation not that differently from the way previous generations ran theirs. Over the years, they’ve bought out other ranchers in the area as property became available, and they lease grasslands as needed, usually keeping a little more than 4,000 acres in use.
While Ty has moved on to manage the cattle operation at River Island Ranch in Springville, California, he still finds time to help move cattle to summer range and during branding season.
For cattlemen like the Burks, who make their living grazing cattle on the western foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, having access to Forest Service forage not only makes economic sense, but the allotment affords them the ability to leave their foothill home ranch during the hot, dry summers and move their cattle to green feed.
In California, winter lowland range is generally valley and foothill grasslands, and oak savanna, while the summer uplands are usually mountain meadows. The Forest Service’s permit system allows the Burks and other ranchers in the area to range-feed their herds year-round, using the naturalized and native grasses and shrubs.
According to Paul Roach, the Hume Lake District’s range conservation specialist responsible for seeing that the land is managed properly, the Burk family and responsible cattlemen like them are what keeps the grazing permit program viable.
“There’s no doubt that there are people who would like to shut this program down,” said Roach. “The environmentalist movement has gained strength over the years, and I’m sure some would like to find evidence of misuse.
“I’ve been here since 1972 and have watched Tim’s family run cattle in this area for more than 35 years. They keep their drift fences in good order, they check on their stock regularly to make sure they don’t overgraze, and as far as I can tell, the land benefits from having their cattle in here.”
And while there are the financial incentives to following this program, the lifestyle associated with spending time in the mountains, checking cattle and riding horses, is no small benefit.
“In the beginning, I am sure it was a financial decision to bring the cattle up here for the summer,” says Tim. “It didn’t cost anything to drive them up here; all it took was time, and I think they had plenty of that.
“Today, transportation for the cattle is becoming expensive. The government charges $1.35 per AUM [animal unit per month, which includes a cow and a calf up to 600 pounds], which isn’t all that much, but when you factor transportation and all the time it takes to put up fences in the spring and take them down in the fall, set up camp, check on cattle, it isn’t a money-making proposition. It is more a family tradition than anything else.
“It is something we enjoy doing. We like working with the dogs, putting miles on the horses, and when it’s a hundred degrees or more in the valley, it can be 20 or 30 degrees cooler here, and this isn’t a bad place to be.”
The cabin that Tim’s father and grandfather built in 1941 at Cabin Meadow still serves as bunk house, cook shack and summer headquarters. Although the structure is in good repair, it hasn’t changed much during the ensuing years. Meals are still cooked on a wood stove, and evening chores are done by lantern light. An outhouse and an additional bunkhouse have been added for convenience, and a nearby spring provides a steady supply of ice-cold water year-round.
While the cattle don’t require constant attention, Tim and Jay make the trip once a week or so, perhaps to pack in salt or mineral supplements, to check fence, or just to put a few miles on a new colt. When September arrives, the visits become more frequent, in preparation for the fall gather. And if the Burks have their way, afterwards they’ll plan for another summer in the mountains just as they have for the past 68 years.
Darrell Dodds is the publisher of Western Horseman. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.