Bringing Water Down From the Mountain

IN early summer, the north fork of Burnt River falls so low that the ranchers can't get enough water into their irrigation ditches, and they get together a crew of one or two men from each ranch and go up Greenhorn Mountain and bring water down the Pete Mann ditch to the river. Miners built the ditch with horse-drawn machinery, dynamite, and manpower, to bring water around the shoulder of the mountain to wash gold out of the rock and dirt.

The gold played out. Hydraulicking the mountainsides away was outlawed as concern for the mountains, forests, and streams gained a foothold in the country's legislative bodies. Local ranchers acquired the rights to the ditch to stretch out their irrigation season.

Early morning, John and Wayne stopped to pick me up. I put my shovel, chain saw, and lunch into the back of the pickup, and we headed up the road, followed by two other pickups, nine men in all.

Clear skies above us, no clouds anywhere, but Wayne said, ``We'll get hit by heavy rain before we finish today.''

``It doesn't look much like it.''

``It doesn't look like it now, but we always get a heavy rainstorm when we come up to work the ditch.''

And we did.

We divided into three crews. Gary and I started where the ditch turned into the river; we headed up, carrying a shovel, a hayfork, and a chainsaw, trading our loads back and forth as we went. We forked accumulations of conifer needles and alder leaves out of the ditch, shoveled out small dirt and rock slides, threw out limbs, cut up trees that had fallen in and threw out the pieces. We filled low spots in the downhill bank with dirt and rocks.

It was like no ditch I'd ever seen. In places, it lost 100 feet of elevation in 100 feet, down through gigantic granite boulders blasted from solid rock that kept plummeting water from washing out of the channel. In some places, alder bushes grew so densely along the lower bank that we couldn't walk through but had to stoop our way along the channel. We cut the lowest lying alders and dragged them to where there was room to throw them out of the ditch.

Clouds rolled down the mountain, and lightning danced from the sky, and thunder rumbled and roared all along the mountain. Gary and I got to the pickup, got our lunches out of the big tool box, climbed into the cab, and the downpour hit. Dry and warm, we ate our lunch while seven other men worked through the rainstorm. In an hour, it quit raining, and the rest of the crew started showing up. Nobody else had finished their section in time to avoid the rain. Some took clothes off and wrung out the water. Some had already done that and were only damp.

The ditch joins the river at about 4,500 feet elevation, but begins up the mountain above 7,500 feet. The slope along most of it is so steep, it has never been logged. The dense forest of pine, fir, western larch, and spruce includes bigger trees than are left almost anywhere in the West.

Each time I went up, I worked a different part of the ditch. I was in a magic forest, almost untouched by man with no one for miles around but we who cleared the ditch, with clear mountain air, golden sunshine, and in those few places clear enough to see out from, thousands of feet of green forest falling away below us, miles of green forests standing west across valleys and other mountains.

Each time I went up, just as Wayne said, we got hit by heavy rain. Every year but the last, I got to the pickup just before the rain started, except for the time two of us took shelter in an abandoned miner's cabin until the storm was over. I was getting a reputation of being a dry man.

When I made up my pack, my last year there, Wayne and Russell both watched me stuff in the tightly rolled nylon rain poncho.

``You'd better leave that in the pickup. It's just more to carry.''

``You're not afraid to get wet, are you?''

``You guys watch. Later in the day, you'll be offering me five times store price for it.''

Maybe the storm knew that I didn't know yet, that I would be moving on to another job and it was my last time working the ditch. Whatever the reason, it was spectacular. Halfway down our section of the ditch, in deep forest on some of the steepest slope, the sky turned dark, lightning and thunder shook the mountain, wind howled down through the trees. I took my backpack off, sat on the ditch bank, and got out my poncho.

``It isn't raining yet.''

My reply blew away in the wind. I put the poncho on, and the rain hit, pouring cold down the mountainside on the high wind. Lightning and thunder was so close around us, I thought of some of the ``safety in a lightning storm'' rules. Don't get under tall trees. A forest of tall trees was all around us and above us. Stay out of wet areas. Although the men above us hadn't yet turned Rattlesnake Creek and Lightning Creek into the channel, we walked in six inches of running water from springs along the mountain, and the downpour added to the run of water.

Since I couldn't be anywhere but where I was and trusted who made the storm to keep us safe, I gave myself up to the wild beauty of the storm. We walked and worked on down the ditch. Lightning and thunder rolled away down the mountain. Rain slowed, then quit. The wind calmed to a breeze. Clouds gave way to sunshine filtering down through the trees. Wayne and Russell wrung out their clothes and put them back on.

By late afternoon, water roared down the ditch to the river, laden with mud and conifer needles in its first run, and late the next day, water from the mountain spread out across the meadows I irrigated.

I have beautiful memories of that mountain. If I'm ever there at the right time, I'd be glad to be part of the crew, without pay. I'd be sure to take my poncho.

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