Monday, August 8, 2011

3,500 miles or more

Fortunate enough to go see my daughter, her husband, Caleb and her new baby in Montana this summer.

Of course we had a great time, got to hold, feed and change little baby Vesper a lot – crying, happy, wet, hungry – you get and take it all with babies and grandbabies!
This is not so much about the visit though as the journey, which involved driving more than 3,500 miles in a rental car (Kia Forte – not too bad) with a 10 and an 11 year-old.

So with TWO (they don’t always share or play nicely!) portable DVD players and a pile of DVDs, a cooler of somewhat healthy snacks and drinks we set out early one morning.

Our first wake-up call came in northern Missouri with a detour. Did you know big chunks of I-29 are closed, still, due to the flooding earlier this year? The water from the Missouri River is over the road in many places in Missouri and Iowa.

Looking out over cornfields and such, one image stands out: a blacktop road just ends at the waters edge. Parked at the end was a car. A couple of hundred yards away stood a farm-house surrounded by water. I’ve been to Joplin and seen the devastation there – homes that aren’t houses anymore. But this one – what do you do? Your house/home is there but you can’t live in it. Can’t get to it unless you use a boat. I’m sure there must be hundreds of these.

I saw acres and acres of farmland underwater. Struck by the harsh irony of farms in Texas that are going under financially because of the drought. Here the problem was too much water. Too bad there isn’t some way to balance that out.

I saw a picture on-line of a young man standing in a field with water up almost to his knees and the caption said these fields would be under water until late fall or beyond. I heard that in Joplin, the debris clean-up is almost done. Not that folks have homes or lives rebuilt yet, but they can see a starting point out there soon.

A 2nd image of Iowa was not the usual corn (although we did see plenty of that) nor water but wind turbines. When we got off of I29 for the detour, we ended up going through several small towns I’ve never heard of but for a few miles I saw dozens of those humongously tall wind-turbines.

Water seemed to play a prominent role in this trip.

Upon arrival in Montana, I found my son-in-law already in irrigation season. I tend to associate irrigation with row crops. But there they use it to water pastures that ultimately feed their cattle – either as grass or baled up as hay for later.

I helped once with what are called wheel lines (long sections of pipe with large metal wheels and sprinklers) that are moved across fields 20 or so feet at a time and then left to water for 12+ hours. You get to one side of the field and head back the other way. The process is simple yet complicated. Turn off water (or else you get sprayed big time!) – disconnect pipes – let water drain out – crank up engine and engage to move pipes – sometimes the very long pipes don’t all move in sync so you have to go and move some by hand to line them back up – reconnect pipe – turn on the water a little – wait for the pipes to re-fill – turn water on 16 & ½ turns (Caleb’s very specific instructions to me!) and watch and wait to see if all the heads eventually start spraying water again. Caleb performed one little trick to keep from getting soaked. Near the shut-off and connection point is a sprinkler head. He would put a small piece of straw in it so it wouldn’t keep circulating and spray him (us!) while working on the lines.

I also helped with what are called hand-lines. Similar concept to wheel-lines except these lines lay on the ground and – you guessed it – you move them by hand. Each morning and each night, Caleb goes out and disconnects a section from the main line, moves it 20 feet or so, gets another section, disconnects, moves – you get the picture. This involves a lot of bending and lifting and walking. I spent about 2 hours doing this one evening and it is a workout. While I was helping I may have also been slowing him down. There are little tricks and techniques that to him are 2nd nature whereas I had to stop and think and then hope I got it right. My daughter Sarah helps with this too when she can but of course with a newborn – times are limited.

They also have a couple of “center pivots.” These are those long and tall things that go in a circle around big fields and spray water too but we didn’t go to any of those while I was helping.

Their system of water is based on mostly snowmelt. The reservation (they live in the middle of the Flathead Indian reservation – which is odd since the tribes are Salish, Kootenai and one other I can’t spell) has reservoirs that holds most of the water which is then pumped all over the Flathead or parts of the Mission Valley area. I learned a little about this complex system but of course know only enough to be dangerous. But I’ll share some anyway.

Each rancher/farmer has to tell the tribe(s) how much water they want each year. Then they pay a water tax. At a certain point in the summer the water becomes available. There are a series of canals or ditches running all over. Scattered are pumps, diverters etc. that allow the water to move where it needs to go.

Water seemed to always flow in these ditches but they couldn’t always be used. I guess you have to order your water and on some days if another ranch up or down-stream was using a certain amount, then you might not be able to get your water on that day and have to wait. In one case Caleb had to wait almost three days for water for one pasture.

Ditch-riders move about and monitor the water and I guess make sure nobody is using more than they pay for.

Earlier in the week before travelling, I sat through a seminar on water for our City Council. One lady shared that while we can go without power (not happily of course) for a week or two, we last about two days without water.

When you have hundreds of
animals or fields of grass, alfalfa etc., you can’t wait on this water for too long.
And as noted, water is a lot of work. I’d guess Caleb spends 4-5 hours every day, 7-days a week during the prime season from July - September, doing his water chores.

Water figured once more in our recreation. We made it to Flathead Lake at least three times – once for boating and a picnic and a couple of other times for a swim. Did I mention that this lake also is mostly snowmelt? And that the average water temp is about 58 degrees in mid-June warming to a balmy 68 by mid-August?

I managed to make it into the water twice. Kids of course don’t seem to care. Never bothered them.

So these are my water memories from Montana 2011.

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