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Rod Childers gathers his herd on Table Mountain, part of a 40,000 U.S. Forest Service grazing allotment in northern Wallowa County. (Katy Nesbitt/The Observer)
Annual Wallowa County cattle gathering a week of hard work, fun
WALLOWA COUNTY — Fall cattle gathering has been a part of Wallowa County ranching for more than 100 years. This week, Rod Childers and a crew of friends pushed hundreds of cattle pairs from Joseph Creek thousands of feet up to Table Mountain.
Once gathered and sorted, the 550-pound calves will go to Southern Oregon to graze a few more months before being sent to a feedlot in the Midwest.
It takes at least a week for Childers and a handful of men and horses to push the cattle out of the canyons and “up on top” to Table Mountain, where the cow/calf pairs pasture until they are shipped.
The last day of the roundup the crew finished in the early afternoon, well ahead of a steak barbecue dinner prepared by Dan McCarthy, who takes a week off from his duties at Wallowa Memorial Hospital to run the camp kitchen each year.
After breakfast, Childers said the horses are driven in trailers to where the work starts each day. The men mount up and spend the day seeking out and moving cattle up to Table Mountain.
Mark McCarey of Tahachapi, Calif., first came to Wallowa County on a bear hunt in 2001 and Childers was his hunting guide. He returned two months later to elk hunt and he became friends with Childers and his wife, Linda.
Now, McCarey comes to help with the roundup and hasn’t elk hunted in years.
“I just love it up here,” McCarey said.
Roundups are not without their casualties.
One year McCarey’s horse, which he brought with him from California, had a stick tear through a tendon. McCarey was forced to lead the horse 3,000 feet up from the bottom of the canyon before he could drive him down to the valley and get care from a veterinarian.
Childers’ roundup is considered a vacation for not only McCarey, but his friend, Dave Hall, of Montague, Calif. Childers’ son-in-law, John Schnetzky, has taken time off from his work as a mechanic in Pendleton for 16 years to help Childers gather his cattle.
Schnetzky is a member of the Bacon family that has a century farm in Flora, a tiny village in northern Wallowa County. He lived in Enterprise as a kid, but grew up working on the family ranch. He’s helped Childers since he married Childers’ daughter, Cassidy. Their teenage children, Zane and Becca, spend a couple weeks in the summer helping their grandfather ride through cattle in the remote country.
“The roundup is six good days of riding,” Childers said. “We got to gather the whole country, everything west of Broady Creek.”
The riding is rough and this year Childers brought three horses. By 8 a.m. of the final day, he was already trading out Dexter for Gypsy, two new horses he acquired this year to complement Pepper, a horse used to the canyons.
“Dexter became a mountain horse today,” Childers said. “I took him to the bottom of a bad, bad hole and he brought me out alive.”
Childers has run cattle in this 40,000-acre allotment since 1977, minus a few years when he ran a feedlot in the Wallowa Valley. His cows calve in the valley and are turned out to Joseph Creek April 1.
By July 1 the ground has dried out enough for Childers to set up his cow camp, high above Joseph Creek, which he leaves up well into the fall. The roundup is completed each year by Oct. 25, per his U.S. Forest Service grazing agreement.
After the calves are shipped, the cows are trailed back to the canyon until some time between Christmas and New Year’s when they are trailed back to the Wallowa Valley, more than 40 miles away.
Back at camp, McCarthy hands out jalapeno, cream cheese and bacon poppers to the crew before dinner. Jeff Harmon and daughter, Becky Knapp, left their day jobs to come help the final day as did Dan and Ty Warnock who ranch along the Imnaha River.
The cows and calves were gathered Thursday from the mountaintop pasture into corrals, sorted and the calves loaded onto trucks. A few late calves, too small to ship, will stay with their mothers for a few more months.