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HomeMemoirs StoriesGrowing Up Ranch Chapter 5 My Pool

Growing Up Ranch Chapter 5 My Pool

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Better than a cement pond

Growing Up Ranch Chapter 5    My Pool

Now most parks or playgrounds didn't have free pony rides, but I could understand that. What I didn't understand, or rather resented, was paying to go swimming. All I had to do was walk down to the creek, slip out of my shoes and a wading I would go. Swim trunks on I could splash and play all day and often did. My pool was more than just a pool it was a free flowing wild stream and was used year round. While I could do much more than swim here, swimming itself was a problem.

Horseshoe Creek was a small creek, in normal flow about fifteen feet wide at a shallow, and might be as narrow as five or six feet in a deeper rapid. There were lots of rocks and boulders, some house-sized, lining the bed of the creek. These created some deeper "holes" that got up to two or three feet deep but the average depth was no more than six or eight inches, just enough to get boots wet and muddy when I fell in.

Swimming was difficult since even in the deepest, biggest, hole, two strokes and you were across. In the summer, snow feed off the Peak stopped and the creek might even dry up in places. Since we depended on it for water a way had to be found to keep at least a water hole available and that was by building small rock dams. These performed the function of water hole building well, but they also created those nicer deeper pools that were so much fun to play in.

I had watched Dad build the small dam for our water hole and copying him was natural. Soon I had made the water hole dam several inches higher and there was a nice swimming hole. There was even a nice slanted rock that made a water slide! This was fine until I outgrew the small pool. The dam had to get higher or I had to find another place. It was a little of both. As a budding "contrapter" (contraption building engineer) I had a beaver's desire to build and just below the water hole was a potentially better spot for a dam.

Two or three large boulders already made somewhat of a dam I just needed to fill in the gaps. It was heavy work pulling big loose rocks, rolling them along the bottom and heaving them into place. The reward was a pool almost twenty feet long that would float a foam swim board in grand style. Still, you couldn't really swim here either.

The creek helped us out with a real swimming hole. Below Mom's garden was, "The Big Rock". Here a monster piece of granite forced the creek into a bend and the riffle along its base made a channel at least three feet deep and about fifteen feet long. With care and skill, a boy could swim a lick or two if he wanted. This hole too was enhanced by a simple rock dam but here the method was to toss hundreds of small fist-sized rocks into a gentle berm that only raised the level a few inches but every inch was precious. Big Rock also had a nice sandy beach to play on. I could catch minnows with a tea strainer and wade around without stepping on a sharp rock.

Now safety rules meant you didn't swim alone so when I say I did this or that; Paul was there too. Lots of water games involved splash battles, squirt bottles, and even bumper fights with our foam boards. Throwing rocks was ok but not toward each other. Here's why.

I had a new game in which a ship went charging up the channel while the shore batteries fired round after round trying to stop it. I made Paul do this a couple of times; he wasn't too happy, but I was careful not to hit him or come too close. Now I wanted to be the ship. I got Paul up on top of Big Rock with some small pebbles and went down to the big foam board. I started splashing and paddling upstream while Paul carefully splashed around me with pebbles. "Come on closer, throw 'em harder!" I called as the baby splashes didn't live up to my hopes.

Paul obliged and sure enough about the second rock he threw hit me square in the ankle hard enough to embed it into my foot. Paul was fully expecting my usual tirade of abuse and blame, but oddly enough I was only concerned with what to tell Mom so we wouldn't get in trouble.

One summer when I was around ten years old, an older friend of ours, Jimmy W., took a break from haying and joined in a splash war. The game was simple; one at a time we ran out the water hole plank to the rock, it rested on, turned around and raced back. Easy; right? Well, let's add two or three strong boys flinging rocks just under the plank to splash the dasher. Wet wood gets slippery; the splashes got better with practice, lots of fun!

It was Paul's turn to run and I had found a nice flat rock just over hand size and weighing about two or three pounds. Just as I reared back and fired full force, Jimmy stepped in front of me! I couldn't snatch the rock back and had to watch as it slammed into his head. I could even hear the sickening crunch as rock met bone. My first thought was "I just killed Jimmy!" Fortunately, Jimmy had as hard a skull as I did and he only suffered a black face, that's a black eye that covers your whole face!

By now you are getting the idea of how different my swimming pool might have been but let's look at the full picture. First, the creek was just that a running stream, not some chlorinated tub of stale water. Things grew here, fish of course but also mosses and algae. Dragon fly nymphs stalked other bugs in the sandy shallows and damselfly larva clung to rocks in the rapids. There was a particular species of garter snake that fed on fish and we called water snakes.

The water snakes were migratory up in the mountains, returning each year after high water and disappearing for the winter before ice invaded. I delighted in catching these small serpents, they were non-poisonous but you still had to be careful not to get a painful toothy bite. I wanted one for a pet, something I was strictly forbidden to have. Well, I was still allowed to catch them I just had to release them. It wasn't long before I figured if I could just get a way to keep it from wandering I could beg or plead or whatever to keep it.

Now this was a problem. You can't collar a snake, their necks are not made for it and there isn't a leg or anything else to tie onto. At last, I decided to tie a piece of string to its tail real tight and that did the trick. I now had snake-on-a-string and I showed off my prize. I was quickly advised that not only would I have to let it go but I was now in trouble for possibly hurting an innocent creature. I pouted; no good. I tried to get the string off and it was too tight. At last the tender tip of the poor snake's tail broke off and it shot off into the grass before I could even examine it to see if the wound was serious.
That was the last I saw of the snake that summer. It wisely avoided human contact and I assumed it had crawled off to die. Imagine my surprise when the next spring as I caught the year's first water snake it had the signature blunt tail of my temporary pet. I released it this time and was rewarded with return visits each spring for several years. Swimming pools in town didn't have water snakes to catch.
Another difference is that swimming pools don't have spring high water or floods. The snow melt and spring rains always brought the creek up to and often over its banks. When heavy snow pack over the winter met heavy spring rains the result was raging flood waters that crested ten, twenty, or even thirty feet high. These major floods happened twice while I lived on the ranch once in 1965 and again in 1970

Normal high water was mostly an inconvenience. It meant ponies had to cross very carefully and only at the shallow crossings. They might still have to swim across while the swift current tried to pull them down into the rapids below. My boots got wet of course but mostly it was scary for a boy to have to hang on and let Toby swim freely across. The other change was that my friendly creek was now a snarling, roaring beast threatening to pull me in and drown me. Safety meant not walking all the way to the edge since there could be undercuts and the cave in from my weight would dump me in the water.

For years this was the status quo but as I got older and Dad made new friends we encountered the Layborn family. They were avid whitewater canoeists and they had a unique watercraft called a Sport Yak. Hearing stories of Horseshoe Creek high water they brought the Yak up to the mountains to see if there was some fun to be had. To an extreme whitewater enthusiast, the creek was a little slice of heaven! Starting along the lower creek where there was enough water to float the Yak,

Layborn's introduced us to the joys of whitewater. Adding a life jacket for safety made such a difference. At last, I could play in my favorite element in the extremes of spring! The Yak was ok but what I really liked was inner tubing. This began a passionate pursuit of tubing each spring, waiting for the water to subside enough to safely navigate but still deep enough to keep the tube from grounding on rocks and shallows.
I could never wait to make that first tube!

One spring I knew the water was still pretty high but I just could not wait. I got my tube ready, donned my life jacket and walked up to the Beaver Dam. I waded out into the main current. Boy was that current fierce! I had some doubts but couldn't wait. I piled onto the tube and the current yanked me out into the mainstream. It was no time at all before I knew I had made a serious, possibly deadly mistake. As the tube hit the rapids the very first boulder collapsed the tube, dumped me off and the tube popped back into shape well out of my reach. My lifejacket kept me afloat and I wasn't panicked, but as soon as I hit the first boulder, I knew from the bruising rib hit that the water would pound me to death on the rocks if I didn't get out quickly.

I started clinging to the boulders, sliding around into the eddy and working my way along to minimize the damage I absorbed. At the same time, I quickly ran down the creek in my mind, remembered a large pool with a deep eddy that would let me escape if I could get into it. I began working my way across the current toward my chosen escape route. Whump! Slam! draggle, draggle, I clung to each helpful boulder and made progress toward the big boulder and it's promising eddy. I made the far channel, putting me in position. I shot into the deep pool and swam hard for shore. As I dragged myself out onto a sand bar, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. I was on the wrong side of the creek, my tube was long gone, but I was alive! I gained more respect for the water but it did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for tubing.

Besides all that, the water in spring was so different. Muddy, turbulent and there were many strange sights. In the backwaters foams of all sorts of colors, and textures would collect. In the curling waves where water flowed over large rocks, huge bubbles some as big as six inches across rode the waters and suddenly burst.

High water always rearranged the creek, channels would change, islands form, driftwood piles move or even disappear. As water subsided, I always waited anxiously to see if this year there would be a small sand bar sliver or a broad, deep sand bar at the Big Rock.

As the channels changed and sand shifted I began to understand the dynamics at work by intuition. I knew I could never force the water where I wanted it but I could encourage a trend which the water itself would turn into the powerful force needed to accomplish my bathing beach plan. I called the plan Rock Island after the main piece that would make a sand bar. I had observed that the underpinning of any sandbar was a solid layer of rocks and gravel spread out evenly which then captured the sand. I knew the sandbar would form over but mostly in the lee of the rock bar, like snow drifting over and behind brush. So I hauled rocks out and built an artificial rock bar or reef if you will.

This was days of work. I had to build an anchor ring of large rocks, then fill them in with smaller ones, and last, gather shovel full after shovel full of gravel to fill in the crevasses. No sand. The creek would provide that. Now that the sand bar former was in place, I needed to guide the current so it would deposit sand not wear it away. This is where the intuitive understanding came in. I could picture in my mind exactly how the water would twist and turn along the bottom or at a set depth where eddies would swirl.

 Starting at the incoming riffle above Big Rock I emphasized the main channel similar to dredging but I also built diversions in reverse to feed all water back into the main channel. I moved the larger boulders to aim the channel into a curl that would cause an undercurrent to push back upstream against the surface and mid-level currents. The turbulent meeting would create a plume of sand shooting up into the main current that would be overflowing Rock Island. There my sand catcher would grab it and anchor the sand down.

My project was completed the summer of 1974 just before I left the ranch. It was several years before I could return to assess the results. I looked, and Rock Island had disappeared under a beautiful bar of tan sand. Just behind this, a new strip of willows was growing in the rich dark silt that overshot the small beach. This formed an unexpected protection for the creek bank behind it. Looking upstream the main channel now ran deeper and true to plan. All this was exactly as I had envisioned it when I pictured the flows and forces in my mind.

This project sparked a second project related to tubing. I realized that the channeling part made tubing possible with much less water flow. Extending this idea to the rest of the creek I "collected" all the side channels into the mainstream but without deepening or straightening the main streambed. Worked like a champ! Tubing season was extended by nearly three weeks. The creek wasn't harmed in fact it was made healthier. That summer was unusually dry. Horseshoe Creek's flow slowed to a trickle. Most of the creek dried up, but my treated channel continued to flow, or at least trickle along.

As I got older and more skilled at building, I tried to help out the ranch by making the meadow irrigation system easier to use and more effective. I realized that the hardest part was rebuilding the rock diversion dam each spring. The dams were hard to keep in place and had to be rebuilt before high water ended. The labor of rebuilding was hard and dangerous. The rock dams had a serious limit to how high a head they could build. I knew we needed a portable solution that didn't rely on rock work for its base.

My contrapted idea was based on the drift fences we used in rough places where building a wire fence wasn't practical. I planned to make crossed X's out of junk lumber, as the upright supports. Junk boards would be added to hold the uprights together in a loose fence. Either rock or better yet ditch plastic would be used to make the actual water holder placed as a facing along the front side of the fence. In my mind, it was perfectly clear and I KNEW it would work.

I planned to try it on the Upper West Meadow where the diversion dam was most difficult to manage. I presented my idea to Granddad Art who listened patiently then vetoed the whole thing. Wouldn't work, can't be done, crazy idea, I won't have any part of it... And that was that. What I didn't know at the time and wasn't told was that there were legal issues involved. We lived on National Forest land and that put the creek under the jurisdiction of the Army Corp of Engineers. No one was allowed to actually dam up the creek, and what I described was too much like an actual dam.

Deeply distressed I fumed and muttered but knew better than to even ask again, that was a Granddad, NO. At last, I decided if he didn't want a dam for work, I could at least have one for play. There was a small pool where the beavers sometimes built a small dam, so the location was already ideal. I pulled old slabs and such from a nearby sawmill setting to build the X's and stringers out of. I got hold of a bucket of recovered junk nails. And set to building. In a couple of hours, I was ready to deploy. Soon the "fence" was up, with water pouring through the gaps.

Now I rolled up the ditch plastic, waded out, burying the bottom edge into the sand as I went. I then anchored it down with rocks so the pressure wouldn't just rip it out bottom first. All was ready. I waded out into the mainstream leaned down and got a firm grip on the upper edge of the plastic. This had to be done fast, the water would overpower me if I didn't hustle. I heaved the plastic up as high as it would go. Water instantly glued it to the fence face. I stepped over a few feet and grab heave pulled up another section. In less than 5 minutes I had a dam three feet tall and twenty-five feet long holding back the biggest pond the ranch had ever seen!

I had the foresight to not totally dam up the creek. I had left a three-foot wide spillway open in line with the mainstream bed. This meant that once the dam filled up the creek resumed it's normal business, burbling along merrily after its brief rest in my new swimming hole. Fish could even come and go as usual so my dam was able to gain grudging forgiveness so long as Granddad had no part in it. That summer for the first time I could really swim! It was so inviting a very special resident came to live here briefly.

Each summer as the river downstream heated up; the big Brown Trout began migrating up into our mountain creeks, seeking out cooler water. Typically these were fourteen inches long but sometimes there were larger ones. This year an especially big fish worked it's way up into my swimming hole and liked it so well it stayed. Evening fishing was relaxing and provided a tasty supper, so it wasn't long before this leviathan was discovered.

 In turn each of us Granddad, Paul, our hired hand all tried to catch it and failed. It wasn't a lack of taking the bait; it was the hard jaws and teeth of this critter. Light tackle was chewed through; hooks didn't set or whatever. In any case, no one had caught him. I finally took my turn determined not to be embarrassed by losing this prize. I took my favorite bait rod, caught the best juicy grasshoppers for bait, and snuck down to cast my line. Swoosh, gulp, that trout took my bait. I! I set the hook, and the fight was on.

Some of these big fish played out early all bone and no muscle but this one fought well. I worked it around to the shallow end and gently but firmly slid it up the bank toward me, no lift to break my line. Whoops! The hook wasn't set at all and as soon as I released pressure that big whopper was free and started flip-flopping its way back to the creek. Like a big brown bear, I leaped into the water and started hand shoveling it back up the bank until I could pounce on it! What a prize! Twenty-three inches and about five pounds, no record holder, but the biggest fish I ever saw taken on the ranch.

At last, summer drew to an end and as the cool weather came. I knew the time for dam removal had come. Still, I dawdled a little until one day Granddad made one of his typical broad hints that were really an order, "Bout too cold for swimming anymore this year eh!?". "Sure is, guess I'd better take down my dam." I gathered up a hammer and crowbar, then headed out to the swimming hole.

In about thirty minutes I had the dam down, boards pulled apart, plastic rolled up and no sign of that "illegal" construction project. Granddad just shook his head and said nothing. This was often a high compliment of grudging admiration and the only one you would likely receive from him.

As Fall turned rapidly into Winter, my pool froze over and became a skating rink. At first, only the fringes of the still waters froze but at last ice thick enough to walk and skate on covered all but the most energetic rapids. Now a new chore got added to the morning and evening list, chopping open the water holes.

At first, this was kind of fun, but soon as temperatures dropped below zero routinely, the ice became so thick it might take a full half an hour of vigorous chopping to get enough water to satisfy thirsty horses and cattle. In the very dead of winter, the creek froze as deep as twelve inches, all the way to the bottom. I often had to chop a hole four feet around to find a tiny one-inch hole through to the running water of the stream bed. The hardest mornings were the combo mornings after a deep snow. Before the water hole could be chopped I had to shovel a path through drifted and packed snow, then do the usual ax work to clear the ice out enough to water the stock.

Thick ice did bring one big benefit, our own private skating rink. The final reward for all that dam building was pools large enough to do some real skating. Of course, we had to be our own Zamboni, scooping off snow with shovels after heavy snow, and sweeping ice clear after snow blew in or small storms left only a light dusting.

We got the chance for a whole new adventure on the new frozen pool cover. Since the creek flowed downhill, the ice naturally had to have a downhill run as well. Once we had a deep cold snap or two even, the rapids had a least a thin edge of skate-ready ice. Now was the time before we had a storm come on and mess it all up with snow.

The start was the hard part. You had to skate upstream a good ways. Not easy to skate uphill let alone watching out for thin spots. Ah, now for the reward! Turn around, and away we went flying down the pool. The rapids were still the challenge. Steep and full of bumps but the reward was an effortless high-speed glide across the next flat section. The ultimate trip we made was a skate upstream to Grandma Ruth's and back. This was a two-mile trip. It took nearly all day, so ankles were burning by the time we got back home.

At last, winter released its death grip and the spring thaw made skating impossible. In just a few short weeks the spring high water was here, and we once again began the year-round cycle of my pool.


This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

Copyright © Copyright © 2016 by Vernon Fawcett

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the copyright owner, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.

Vern Fawcett
710 Charter Place
Charlotte NC. 28211

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