CONFLUENCE OF BEAR CREEK, THE NIOBRARA, AND 2 of 3 COWBOYS
JANUARY 28, 1998
Written by Steve Moreland, January 14, 2018
My wife Carol’s diary confirms that the date was January 28th, 1998. Being January in Nebraska, the daylight hours were short. It was a fairly nice day for this time of year, with the temperature topping out at nearly 40 degrees. However a stiff west wind added a chill factor, and the temperature didn’t stay that high for very long.
John Fairhead, Forrest Stewart, and I had decided to go for another mile-eating horseback ride to see some new country. This was the third such outing we had made through the years. The first time we left from my place, rode north about six miles through the soapweed covered hills to where Elm Creek starts, and followed it to where it flows into LaCreek. We rode west, crossed Highway 61, and ended up at John Fairhead’s ranch at dark. There Carol picked us up and took us back to our Spearhead Ranch where John and Forrest got their pickups and trailers.
On our second ride, a couple years later in January of 1996, the three of us embarked from Forrest Stewart’s place southeast of Tuthill, South Dakota and rode east for many miles. We crossed Little White River and made a big circle across the Mustang Meadow Ranch, and ended up back at Forrest’s ranch where the vehicles were parked. We did find half a dozen cows that had inadvertently been left in a summer pasture on the Mustang Meadow. These cows had originated on the Deseret Ranch in Florida, had proven to not be real satisfactory for the Sandhills, and their herd-mates had found a new home in Nevada. These six cows and their calves would have also gone to Nevada had they been gathered with the others. They probably did get more hay the rest of the winter than they would have if we’d not spotted and reported them. We again had a good ride and saw some new country.
These little horseback excursions were our way of having a fun day seeing new sights before the rigors of calving came upon us. Since we all had cattle to feed before we commenced on this third trip, it was 10 a.m. before we started this ride south of the Eli turn-off. We left our pickups and trailers near the ranch of the John Wickman family, mounted our horses, and headed off to follow Bear Creek.
John was riding a big dependable Palomino gelding and Forrest was mounted on a young green-broke three-year-old sorrel gelding. My steed for the day was a tall reliable paint that I called Tomahawk. A couple years earlier I had traded two home-raised Angus yearling bulls to Clarence Allen from Martin, South Dakota for Tomahawk. I think we both felt we got a good deal.
The day seemed a bit chilly, but the wind was at our backs. There was no snow, but there was ice along the edges of Bear Creek. We clipped off the miles quite rapidly, and rode our horses to the top of one hill that was higher than the rest. A long distance panoramic view could be seen looking in all directions from this vantage point. Farther along, we stopped and checked out an old homestead site. There was a little junk laying around, and also the remains of foundations from a couple buildings. Some family had earlier lived there as they pursued their dreams of ranching. Now there were only distant memories and their stories had probably died with the participants.
We continued riding eastward and generally paralleled the winding creek. We were riding in some high hills, and needed to go down a major steep sandy incline to get to the location where Bear Creek merged with the Niobrara River. Forrest and I both dismounted from our horses, thinking it might be safer to walk and lead them. If a person was on a horse and for some reason the horse lost its footing, it would be a long roll end-over-end to the bottom of the hill. John elected to ride, and he successfully stayed on top of the sliding horse all the way to the valley below.
Upon arriving at the spot where Bear Creek adds its water to the Niobrara, we decided to eat our lunches, which were in brown paper sacks rolled up in our slickers, tied to the backs of our saddles. We sat cross-legged on the ground, enjoying the break of being out of the wind.
Our original plans were to get to the bottom of the river hill, and then stay on the north side of the Niobrara as we continued east for several more miles to where John’s pickup and trailer were parked at the Mogle Bridge. This was not going to be a possibility, because the steep cliff ended right in the river. There was no way to ride along the north side. We had two choices—again climb the steep hill to the north and ride eastward through the hills, or ford the river and ride through the trees that were along the river bottom.
We decided on the second choice. The mighty Niobrara didn’t look very inviting, as far as the upcoming fording project was concerned. The banks were slippery frozen mud, and the river had chunks of ice floating on the waves in the current. We decided to first ford Bear Creek, and then go upstream a ways to cross the river itself. Our logic was that the river would be easier to ford with less water before the water of Bear Creek joined the flow.
Bear Creek was easy to get across. Then John took the lead on his Palomino as he slipped down the icy bank into the rolling Niobrara. He was making steady progress, and I waited a little bit so we wouldn’t splash each other before urging Tomahawk to attempt the crossing. John and his big yellow horse were doing well, and so were Tomahawk and I. All was going according to plan until I looked back at Forrest on his three-year-old. They had not gotten very far into the river, until the horse thrashed around enough to fall down. Forrest was afoot in the frigid water. I turned Tomahawk around to go back to see if I could be of any help to Forrest. Evidently my big paint either hit some quicksand, or he got dizzy enough in the swirling water that he also fell down. Now I was also a pedestrian in water quite a bit over my belt.
This was not too much fun. I never did learn to swim, and have always been leery of water that was very deep. Both Forrest and I were wearing chaps. I was wearing high topped boots and spurs, and Forrest had some two-buckle rubber overshoes on over the top of his riding boots. We were both dressed appropriately for a dry cold winter day, with heavy coats, vests, and warm shirts. Neither of us were dressed satisfactorily to be wading in a cold river.
We both floundered through the deep water, mud, and quicksand, and eventually we both arrived on the south bank where John was watching us with an expression of extreme concern. Both Forrest and I still had hold of our horses, and we led them ashore. I was gasping from cold and exertion, and found a fallen tree to lean against while regaining my equilibrium. I unzipped my chaps, and proceeded to take off my boots to dump out the water that had collected. Forrest was doing the same. John suggested building a fire so we could get warmed up and dried off, but we declined. As I was propped against the leaning tree, my immediate thoughts were that I was about as close to having a heart attack as at any time in my life. This I never mentioned to my two companions until several years later.
Forrest and I both recovered enough to soon resume our trek. We both decided to walk for a while and lead our horses. John was hale and hearty, not to mention still dry, and he offered to lope on ahead and try to get his pickup and trailer closer. Forrest and I decided we could just keep on traveling, and suggested that John continue to stay with us.
In retrospect, I think the fact that both Forrest and I were wearing chaps probably made a lot of difference in keeping us warm enough to continue on. Even though our jeans and chaps were wet, the leather leggings broke a lot of wind and kept us warmer than we would have been otherwise. I took off my spurs to make walking easier, and Forrest ended up taking off his rubber half-overshoes. They retained the water that was still oozing out of his soaked boots. Soon we were both warmed up enough from walking that we remounted our horses and continued with our ride. About seven miles further along and a couple hours after our dunking, we managed to arrive at John’s pickup and trailer. It was a very welcome sight. We loaded the horses on the trailer, and climbed into the crew-cab pickup. With the heater on full blast, we rather enjoyed the warm trip back to our respective homes. All in all, our adventure was a ride to remember, and we suffered no lasting ill effects. We did get to see some new country, which was our main objective all along.