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Cattle drive turns heads, snarls traffic

About 200 head of cattle were driven through Kennedy Meadows Tuesday on their way into the Emigrant Wilderness. Amy Alonzo Rozak/The Union Democrat, copyright 2009
Willie Ritts and his crew woke up before sunrise Tuesday. They weren’t expected at home until near midnight.

They had a lot of work ahead of them.

Their mission? To get roughly 200 head of cattle 60 miles from Ritts’ ranch on Old Wards Ferry Road up the mountain and into the Emigrant Wilderness.

It’s a process that comes every spring, when ranchers with public land grazing allotments get their cows to the high country to feed. The cows don’t come back down until the fall.

In the past, the job would take several days. But not in today’s world, where the term “cattle drive” takes on two meanings.

Ritts and his cowboys did hit the trail on horseback to herd the cattle to Snow Lake, the ultimate destination, but first the cattle had to be shipped 21st-century-style in five big-rig trucks to the historic Bergstrom Corral along Highway 108 on the Stanislaus National Forest.

That part of the job may not conjure up images of the Old West, but Ritts and his crew agreed that trucking makes the work easier — and safer, considering the traffic on the highway.

Most of the cows were easily coaxed out of the double-decker trailers into the corral Tuesday afternoon, but some weren’t so fearless. That’s where another modern tool — the cattle prod — came in handy. Cowboys prodded — some used just sticks — from the outside of the ventilated trailers to clear them of bovine stragglers.

Once all the animals were secure in the corral, Ritts and his crew ate lunch and gave the cattle time to relax as the mothers reunited with their calves.

“As soon as you turn them loose, they smell the calves and find them,” said Audie Archer, who served as a cowboy for Ritts Tuesday. “Sometimes they’re not in the same truck.”

During lunch, a French couple, Francois Lelait and Sophie Loquet, parked in a turnout and walked around the corral with a camcorder.

Lelait described the scene as “very American” and “Western.”
    Not everybody was so pleased when the more traditional part of the job began about a half hour later. That’s when the cattle were driven, by horseback, along four miles of Highway 108 to the Kennedy Meadows pack station turnoff. The drive resulted in a traffic jam, as cars lined up quickly behind the slow-moving cattle.

Some motorists, though, perhaps pleased to see a relic of a bygone era, snapped pictures.

“Most people love it,” said Archer. “They’ve never seen this.”

Often, according to Ritts’ wife, Gayle Ritts, people watch the cattle go by from the side of the road. Some wave.

It’s a reaction her grandson, Clay Ritts, 10, enjoys. He was on the trip Tuesday, as well, and is somewhat of a veteran, having made the annual trip since he was 4. He was joined by his buddies Spencer Bloom, 10, and Clayton Smith, 9. In all, about 15 riders on horseback participated, including the boys.

“He likes to play to the crowd,” Gayle Ritts said of her grandson. “He’s a ham.”

Public opinion isn’t always on the side of ranchers. Some environmentalists say cattle grazing on public lands leads to erosion, wetland damage and the deterioration of fisheries. Some hikers blame the animals for ruining their wilderness experience.

But such people were not among those on the trail just outside of the Kennedy Meadows pack station as the cattle, followed by the riders, approached the beginning of the rugged Night Cap Trail.

Two of the handful of hikers at the scene said they followed the cattle drive from the pack station just to watch the action.

On the Stanislaus National Forest, there are 35 grazing allotments held by 25 permittees. Grazing allotments can also be found in wilderness areas, such as the Emigrant, but only if grazing was an established practice in the area before it was designated wilderness.

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