I walk double time through a year’s worth of accumulated tumbleweeds. A bottle of propane—the squat, white kind you see next to barbeques—drags my left hand down. At the end of a rubber hose and three feet of steel, the torch is whooshing, kicking out a gas flame too pale to see in the afternoon light. Pointing it backwards with my right hand, I swivel the torch in time with my steps. I make sure to lick the flame beneath the dry grass that overhangs the ditch banks. I fire each side in turn, trying to be thorough.
Looking over my shoulder I can see flames boiling up where the torch has been. They catch fast and burn faster, exploding upward with a rush that hoists still-flaming stalks and embers towards the blue sky. The fires expand like gasoline dripped on water.
Ten feet behind the business end of the torch, the ditch is completely obscured. Spot fires combine into a wall of smoke and flame that keeps pace with my awkward, hurried stride.
The ditch banks are chest-high. Ahead the dirt, grass and the sky lay stacked like pancakes. Looking back is like opening an oven door. There are only two sounds, the jet engine roar of the torch and the crackle of forage turning black. My impulse is to run, but I am setting this fire. There is no getting far away.
The ditch is punctuated by culverts. They are too small to go through so I lift the propane tank as high as I can on the bank, settle it in the soil, and climb. Getting out means stumbling, and I worry that the torch will swing around and burn the hose that feeds it.
I catch my breath on top of the first culvert. A breeze blows out of the southwest, crossing my skin like ice. I am surprised to find my shirt sweated through. Looking south I can see the ditch curving for a mile towards the Clark Fork River, smoking all the way.
To the north, the unburned ditch winds through high green grass. It dives under fences, crossing two ranches before reaching the south edge of our property.
The Helen Johnson Ditch is an old scratch in the ground, dug before the Johnson place was split into the medium-sized tracts of land we ranch on today. It is the highest point of diversion on the Clark Fork River, and one of the oldest. On the Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch we claim about 42 cubic feet per second of Clark Fork water during the irrigating season. Our water rights have a variety of dates, ranging from 1962 back to 1875. According to DNRC records, our 1875 claim is the most senior one on the main stem of the Clark Fork between Warm Springs and the Milltown reservoir.
Holding a 133 year old water right means that we get first crack at the Clark Fork and everything in it. When the time comes we’ll open the head gate and nab a fraction of the river’s flow. Water will run down this fresh-burned ditch, scouring out ashes. At the ranch we’ll turn it into smaller ditches and back it up with plastic tarp dams. The water will pool back against itself and rise. When high enough it will pour out through taps, little notches cut into the top of the ditch bank, to soak the roots of alfalfa and grass.
Flood irrigation is an old way to get plants wet. It isn’t terribly efficient—pipes, pivots and sprinklers can grow the same crop with less water—but there is something deeply satisfying about the process. Perhaps it is the simplicity, the fact that a shovel, a pole, a tarp and some stones are the height of appropriate technology. Perhaps it is the fact that these simple things, arranged correctly, can direct thousands of gallons of water. Maybe the feeling comes from being surrounded by such a leafy bonanza of growth. Maybe it’s just the gurgle of water through grass.
Enough daydreaming: The fire is here. Flames lick the end of the culvert. The torch hisses at them. I take two sliding steps into the bottom of the ditch, switch the propane to my right hand and the torch to my left and start walking. I swing the torch from side to side and when I look back it seems like my tracks are burning.
“On Rivers and Ranching” is a blog by a ranch hand working on the Clark Fork Coalition’s Cottonwood Creek Ranch to unite conservation and ranching practices in the middle of the nation’s largest Superfund complex — the upper Clark Fork River. Click here for more.