On safari in our own backyard

We cut and baled the hay from the ranch I took care of in the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon. A contractor hauled the hay down the graveled river road to the owner's home ranch and left the meadow clear except for stubble and the long grass along ditches and close to the river, where we couldn't cut with the swathers.

We put three bales of hay across the slip to sit on and took our jackets with us. Warm nights are only rumors in Whitney Valley. Progress toward a cold night starts early. Four of us set off on yet another late afternoon and evening slip ride across the meadow.

The grass stubble, grass roots, and soft dirt absorbed most of the sound of Terry's hooves as he trotted across the meadow, and the slip he pulled behind him glided over the shorn meadow as quietly as whispering.

Terry was a golden Belgian gelding, two years old. He boarded with us while his owners went to Arizona. Jim, my partner in woodcutting and friend of my family, trained and exercised Terry. Jim and I had built a slip of boards that put a smooth wooden surface 12 by 3 feet on the grass. Late afternoons or evenings, when the day's ranch work and wood cutting were done, we toured the cooling meadow, with Terry harnessed and hooked to the chain on the front of the slip.

Jim and I rode the slip along with my daughters, Amanda and Juniper, and sometimes my wife, Laura - and sometimes one or two other friends who came out and joined our explorations.

If we were quiet on the slip and breezes didn't carry human scents to them, wild animals reacted to us without fear, much as they would to a horse alone on the meadow. They didn't flee as readily as they would from humans on foot or in machines.

Juniper, Amanda, Jim, and I slipped up the meadow toward the west boundary, accompanied by the soft thuds of Terry's hooves and the whisper of the slip. The shadows of the western ridges reached far out onto the meadow. Twenty-four elk browsed their leisurely way across the meadow, our side of the western boundary fence.

We sat still on the hay bales, except for Jim's small motions with the reins to direct Terry to pass close to the elk. Ten does with young, three yearling bulls, and one older bull with widespread antlers looked up and watched us pass. Then they continued browsing toward the timbered ridge that rose from the edge of the meadow.

Jim turned and looked at Juniper, Amanda, and me, and we all shared smiles, delighted to be part of this quiet conspiracy to see wild animals up close. When we turned to look where we were going again, we saw two sandhill cranes standing at the edge of the timber, close to Aspen Spring, south of us. Horse, slip, and four quiet humans continued south at a fast horse walk until we were close to the cranes, among the most shy and unapproachable of all wildlife in the valley.

The cranes wouldn't allow even a horse to get very close to them and began walking away from us. Jim tweaked the reins and turned Terry aside. It was well to be polite. Again, we all smiled at each other.

The coyote was our prize of the day. A young male in fine fur (gray, russet, and white), he trotted toward us, as relaxed as we slipped toward him. The coyote turned away from us enough to not come too close to a walking horse, but trotted as if to pass us only three horse-lengths away.

Jim, always seeking a laugh, spoke to the coyote in his deepest voice, "How you doing this fine evening, Coyote, my friend?" The coyote suddenly realized he should have seen the humans behind the large horse, because coyotes never intentionally mix company with humans. He leapt in the air in his amazement, turned, and landed at a full gallop directly away from us, not returning the greeting and not lingering for any conversation. We all got a quiet laugh out of that. Jim said, "Coyotes learn fast. He's probably never going to trust a horse again."

Daylight faded. The waxing moon rose above Cottonwood Butte. We put on our jackets and slipped toward home, quite satisfied with our evening and ready to tell anyone who wanted to listen about the wild animals we had seen up close.

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