Tuesday, January 11, 2011


At 7 a.m. the temperature is zero and heading lower. As I drive through the pasture an inch or so of new snow crunches and squeals beneath the pickup tires. All around me the world is gray and white and just a little bit gloomy looking. The only real color I can see is the dark-green of juniper windbreaks and just a smudge of lightness on the southeast horizon where the sun is scheduled to make its tenth appearance of the new year.
Overhead the sky is fluffed with dirty cotton clouds, a nearly uniform overcast with a few bulging fat cloud bellies here and there on the horizon. I’m snug and dry in the pickup cab with the heater fan providing a welcome rush of warm air and holding the frost at bay as it fights for purchase on the windshield. The pickup thermometer tells me it’s now –2 F.

I pull up to a stock tank, abandon the warmth of the pickup cab and grab my trusty short axe from the back seat. I look at the thick, marbled ice adorning the surface of the tank, where on warmer days cool water would ripple. The ice is puffed up a bit in the center of the tank, like a dome of frosting on a cupcake. It’s slightly translucent, a light milky gray color, and on closer inspection looks to be shot through with millions of tiny bubbles. Nevertheless, it looks hard. A third of the way in from the north rim of the tank the cylindrical aluminum float is frozen fast at a crazy angle, one end up at about 45 degrees, the other frozen solid in the mass of ice.

Free at last, a stock tank float bobs on the ice-choked surface Monday on a ranch south of Kimball.
The tank stands alone on the prairie, at the high point of a 50 acre depression, surrounded by a ring of frozen, dusty dirt where hundreds of sharp cattle hooves tread daily. The ring of dirt is surrounded by a larger ring of snow-covered grass. There’s buffalo grass there, and blue grama, and wheatgrass and needlegrass and even some little bluestem. But the grasses are hidden beneath a thin blanket of fresh, clean snow. Little creature tracks meander across the new snow, vole tracks and mouse tracks and rabbit tracks and even the paw prints of a feral cat.

My immediate chore is to chop drinking holes in the ice so the cattle can water. Even in the depths of winter mature cows need eight or more gallons of water every day. But I pause for a moment to take in the cold but beautiful scene. The air is cold and bites at the exposed skin of my face. There’s only a light breeze from the north, for which I am profoundly grateful. With my back to the touch of breeze a sweatshirt hood provides enough protection to keep my ears from stinging. It’s a nearly silent morning, crisp and fresh and new. The only sounds are the ones I make – the crunch of snow beneath my feet, the ghostly inrush and outrush of air as I breathe, the clink of the axe head as I tap the ice to test its hardness.

I begin by carefully chopping the float free of the ice’s glacier grip. As the axe head opens a first hole, water flows out onto the surface of the ice. The thick layer of ice has gripped the rolled rim of the tank, expanding as it froze, pushing down on the liquid below. For a moment at least, the hole becomes an artesian well as pressure forces water up and out. With the float free, I begin chopping in earnest, opening and widening yesterday’s drinking holes. As I chop, newly freed liquid water splashes back into my face and onto my jacket and jeans, freezing instantly. The splashback is irritating, but only a little, and only part of the job.

As I chop away the ice, my muscles warm up and my heart sends warm blood coursing through veins and arteries, making the cold feel less cold. My breathing rate increases and clouds of vapor puff about my head with each exhalation. The sound of axe on ice carries south on the breeze, and from a half-mile away I can see ears flicker in the lightly bunched cow herd. Within moments a leader strikes off in my direction, suddenly thirsty. The rest of the cows string out behind her, and they soon become a dark line moving across the whitened plain.

Holes opened and chopping done, I take a minute to watch the cows approach. Near the back of the line a pair of bulls start a pushing match, heads low and pressed together, muscles straining, hooves splayed and searching for grip on snowy ground.

The sun finally makes an appearance, spilling over the southeast horizon in a brilliant, golden show of fusing hydrogen. I feel the warmth of the light on my face, marveling, as always, at the enormous power of the sun, able to warm me from 93 million miles on even the coldest morn.

The moment is fleeting, though, and the sun soon disappears behind a steel-gray overcast. The cold returns to my face as the cows near the tank to drink. The lead cow looks at me, pauses, then thrusts her nose into the frigid mixture of water and ice in a drinking hole. Slurping noisily, she drinks deeply, watching me all the while.

Time to go, time to get on with morning chores. Hungry calves and horses await their morning corn and hay, and there’ll be thick ice in their stock tanks as well. As I drive on through the arctic dawn, with heavy work ahead of me, I think about how lucky I am to see and do these things, how fortunate I am to be here, and not trapped in a city or town with only a desk and computer to look forward to.

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