Walking the Fence

Part of ranch maintenance — even for our tiny “spread.”

About 10 years ago, interested in finding a summer place where we could go with our horses to escape the summer heat of the Phoenix area, we purchased 40 acres of ranch land in northern Arizona. Our lot at Howard Mesa Ranch is high desert land atop a mesa between Williams and Valle, AZ, about 40 miles south of the Grand Canyon.

Originally, we had high hopes of putting a vacation home up there. Our lot has 360° views that include Red Butte and the north rim of the Grand Canyon to the north, Mount Trumbull and its companion mountains on the Arizona strip to the west, Bill Williams Mountain to the south, and the snow-covered San Francisco Peaks to the east. We envisioned a 2-story home with a loft bedroom and big windows looking out over the views.

In preparation, we got a pair of water tanks, put in a septic system, and had the entire place fenced off with a 4-strand wire fence (smooth wire top and bottom, barbed wire in the middle per the CC&Rs). When we came up with our horses, they had 40 acres to wander and graze on.

But things change. We never built our vacation home. Maybe we will one day in the future, but I don’t know when that day will come. In the meantime, we camp out there on long weekends throughout the year. We’ve spent numerous July 4th weekends, several Christmases, and even one Thanksgiving at our off-the-grid retreat.

Like this weekend. We came up, mostly to check on the place and take care of some maintenance tasks. There’s a shed on the property that needs to be checked on regularly. And, of course, the fence.

Mike at Fence

Mike standing by the east side of our fence. That’s the San Francisco Peaks in the distance.

We walk the fence each time we’re up here. There’s over a mile of it, so it makes a nice walk. We’d put up the fence to keep our horses in, but now it worked primarily to keep the open range cattle out. I didn’t keep the elk out, though. They could — and did — jump the fence. Sometimes, their weight on that top strand of wire would shift the fence posts and bend the stays between them. Walking the fence meant repairing problems caused primarily by the elk.

In the old days, when we still had horses, Mike would ride the fence on horseback. He’d saddle up his horse and my horse would follow them. I’d busy myself with some other task, leaving them to get the job done without me. But with the horses gone, the walk would take longer. Jack the Dog wouldn’t be enough company for Mike. So I went along with them.

I carried a roll of wire, Mike carried the fencing tool. We walked the fence line, stopping occasionally to straighten stays, bang post deeper into the earth with a big rock, or tighten wires. It was easy to see where the elk had jumped the fence. It wasn’t just one or two elk, either. It was likely an entire herd. We didn’t mind the elk on our property. After all, they didn’t damage anything, like cows would.

Except the fence, of course.

Frost Heave

The southeast corner fence post. Over the years, frost heave has pushed the post up.

The fence had been professionally installed by a company based down near our Wickenburg home. They’d come up about a year after we’d brought the property and camped out until the job was done. The workers probably enjoyed being away from the low desert heat for a week or so. I wonder what they thought of the dark sky with its billions and billions of stars at night, or the coyotes that trot through the property as if they own it.

On the whole, the fence guys did a great job. Where they dropped the ball, however, is on the corners. Sure, they dug about three feet into the ground and secured those corner fence posts with concrete. But what they didn’t count on was frost heave, which is something you just don’t see down in the Phoenix area. Each winter, the ground freezes solid. As the soil freezes, it expands. It pushes up whatever it can to make room. Over the years, it has pushed the corner fence posts out of the ground. The fence is still sound, but the four corner posts no longer stand properly. One of these days, we’ll have to fix them.

Dead Animal

One of two partial skeletons we found while walking the fence.

Along the way, I caught sight of something odd about 200 feet from the fence. I went to investigate. It was the partial skeleton of a medium sized animal. Based on its size, skull, and the length of its neck, I think it may have been a young elk or perhaps a mule deer. There was no sign of antlers, so I don’t think it was an antelope. The bones had been picked clean, as you can see in this photo. The legs and entire hindquarters were missing. Mike found the lower jaw about 30 feet away. We think it may have been injured jumping the fence — or perhaps had starved when the ground was snow-covered — and the coyotes and birds had finished it off. Later, not far from the north side of the fence, we found another partial skeleton that also included the neck and part of the skull. Another unfortunate animal. I wonder how many others are within our 40 acres — or beyond it.

As we walked, it was clear that a lot of snow had laid upon the ground for a long time. The long, dried grasses were flattened out as if they’d borne the weight of deep, heavy snow for weeks on end. I could imagine animals jumping the fence, looking for food. I could imagine young or weak or injured ones dying, providing food for the carnivores and carrion eaters.

It took about 90 minutes to walk the fence and make the necessary repairs. By then, it had clouded up a bit and we were ready to take a break in the warmth of our camping shed. The job was done — until next time.

6 thoughts on “Walking the Fence

  1. A note on fence post.

    To avoid post pushed up, try making the fence post grout shape of a cone with the larger diameter at base and smaller at top. This would keep the post in its place and with the ground frost it would push it deeper and maintain the flush level.

    Now, the issue of making a conical shape cement concrete grout. I believe a hole in ground same diameter of the base with the post centered in it and a tin plate cone shape insereted in the hole, will do the job perfectly.Hope it helps.

    Good luck.

    • Siddharth: At this time, it would take a lot of time, effort, and equipment to fix the two or three posts that have this problem. Since we’re always on the verge of selling the place, we’ll likely wait until the fence actually fails before we fix it. Right now, it just looks weird. It works fine.

      A more common way to fix this problem in cold areas is to use a sturdier corner fence post — usually a 4×4 piece of treated wood — put it in the ground, affix the fence wires to it, and then build a column of rocks around it. They usually use wire panels — piece of “hog panel” usually work — to create an empty column. Then they put rocks in the column. Lots of rocks. Since neither the rocks nor the fence post are very far into the ground, frost heave does not push them out. A drive through ranchland in Montana, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming reveals many corner posts set up this way. And I’ve never seen any on a weird angle like it was pushing it out of the ground.

      Your suggestion might work, but this technique is tried and proven. Best of all, we wouldn’t have to dig much of a hole. And we have no shortage of rocks on the property.

  2. Hello Maria,

    I found your blog by searching for “Howard Mesa Ranch” and it was a great find. I was one of the “suckers” you mentioned in one of your post from 2006 but I didn’t find anything recent and I’m wondering…do you still own the property? We also have in common that we have a house in Washington State (mine is in Everett)! I’ve been living abroad for more than 10yrs and haven’t been at Howard Mesa since 2010 and I’d really appreciate finding out more about your experience with the Ranch. Thanks! Jackie

    • I still own it — or half of it — and it’s for sale, if you know anyone who wants a smoking deal on 40 acres of view property, fenced in, with an off-the-grid cabin on it. Since that post was written, my wasband and I have gone our separate ways. I do not keep in touch with the Howard Mesa folks and have not been to the property for about two years. At one time, I really loved it there, but at this point, it’s full of memories about a life with a man I’d rather forget. Make us an offer and it can be yours!

What do you think?