The Flying Cowgirl

I work with a couple of cowboys on a roundup.

The call came over the weekend. A local rancher wanted to know if he could hire me to take him and his son — the cow boss — to look for some stray cattle. I laid down the rules: I can help you look for them, but I can’t move them. No problem, I was assured. We set a date for Tuesday at 6 AM.

I got to the airport at 5:30. I’d left Zero-Mike-Lima out overnight so getting ready for the flight was easy. A quick preflight, remove the pilot door, stow the charts under a seat. The cowboys — Pat and his son Patrick — arrived ten minutes early, but I was ready for them. I gave them a preflight briefing and we decided who would sit where: Patrick beside me and Pat behind me. When I told them I’d stow their hats under the seats, they seemed to pale. “We’ll put them in the truck,” Pat said. Cowboys are very protective of their hats.

I got the whole story from them as I warmed up Zero-Mike-Lima. They’d spent the previous week working on a round up, moving the cattle over to some grazing land near ranch headquarters. This was the OX Ranch (pronounced oh-ex, not ox), which grazes north and south of the Date Creek Mountains, from the town of Congress to Date Creek. Headquarters is on Date Creek, accessible via the unpaved Hillside Road out of Congress. They’d counted up the cattle and thought they might be short some. They knew they were missing three bulls, one of which was crippled. (I think they had another cowboy working on him.) They figured that they could fly the 160,000+ acres of their range and see if they could spot any cattle they’d missed.

We left Wickenburg at about 5:55 AM and headed due north to Congress. Both men commented about the view and how much they could see from the windows. Then, as we flew over the west end of Congress, Patrick started directing me. We were about 200-300 feet up, cruising at around 70-80 knots. Patrick immediately spotted two black heads of cattle. He asked me to circle around so he could see what sex they were and both men agreed they were bulls. (I think it had something to do with the color of their ear tags more than anything dangling in the vicinity of the animals’ back legs.) I continued on a standard search pattern in the area between route 71 and the Date Creek Mountains. Patrick spotted another group of cattle and we circled to get a count: four cows and four calfs. The bulls were obviously doing a good job. A few minutes later, I spotted a bigger group of about a dozen cows and calfs.

Pat, sitting in the back, was thrilled. We’d already found more cattle than they thought they were missing — probably because of all those extra calves.

We kept flying. We saw some more cattle, but they were on the other side of a fence that separates the OX Ranch land from a neighbor’s. By this time, we’d pretty much finished combing the flat area and now needed to search the Date Creek Mountains themselves. It was the north side of the mountains that they were most interested in, and not quite all the way to the top. The Date Creek Mountains aren’t very tall — they rise perhaps 500-1000 feet above the desert floor — but they are very rugged, with huge boulders scattered all over them. We flew along the north side of the ridgeline, passing cattle tanks, windmills, and old mining trails. We didn’t see any more cattle, but we did see some javelina, frightened away by the sound of the helicopter. Then we searched the north slope of the mountains, all the way down to Date Creek. I could see the cattle they’d already rounded up, all penned inside a big field. But no more stray cattle.

Satisfied that we’d found all there was to find, Pat told me to head back to Wickenburg. They could now form a plan to retrieve the cattle we’d found. I imagined them saddling up horses and trailering them out to the Congress area, then mounting up and heading out with their dogs. All the cattle we’d seen were within a few miles of each other, so it probably wouldn’t take more than a day to get them all.

When we landed, Pat told me how pleased he was with what we’d done. In 1.1 hours, we’d accomplished what it would have taken over a week to do on horseback. He assured me that he’d call me again, and asked if I ever did work in Flagstaff, where they had a summer ranch. I told him I wouldn’t be far from there in July and August, at my place at Howard Mesa. I gave him a bunch of cards and told him to tell his friends.

I’d enjoyed the assignment and look forward to doing it again.

What do you think?