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  • Writer's picturehendomoab heroes have always been cowboys...

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

My heroes have always been cowboys

And they still are, it seems

Sadly, in search of, and one step in back of

Themselves and their slow-movin' dreams

Cowboys and cattle ranchers have been a part of my life forever. My grandfather ran a cow/calf operation - raising Hereford and Angus beef cattle and his oldest son Josh was a true cowboy. As my cousin once remarked - he was a cowboy way before it was a fashion statement and he truly was - he was an absolute idol of mine - both of them were.

One of the things I have always liked about living in mostly rural areas for the past 40+ years is that I’ve never been very far removed from the cattle business. I have had the great good fortune to know some damn good cowboys as well as some truly impressive cattlemen - and yes there is a difference.

A cowboy rides and ropes and tends to animals, repairs fences and may well live the life of a vagabond - moving from ranch to ranch often owning little more than a beat up pick-up that can pull his horse trailer, a damn good horse, a cattle dog or two and his kitchen set up. My friend Mike O’Neal from the Lost Rivers country in Idaho epitomized the cowboy of old - still making a living in the modern world but would have been thrilled to turn the clock back at least a century. He never owned his own ranch - never had a herd of his own cattle - rather he spent his life working for other ranchers. Riding the lines - helping to birth calves - mending fence - and moving cattle from one range to another. He never had much in the way of material goods - when he wasn’t living in a cow camp (which he vastly preferred) somewhere he had a rundown house one step up from a shack in the lower Big Lost River Valley where he would winter and make a few bucks breaking horses and teaching kids how to ride.

Mike did not have a fat bank account - he barely made ends meet - but in many respects he was one of the richest people I’ve ever known and he wouldn’t have traded his lifestyle for anything. He knew that Lost River and Copper Basin country better than anyone - he had ridden every draw in every canyon - he could forecast weather better than any of those guys on TV, and he never lost his enthusiasm for life or his optimism for the next range season. We lost Mike in 2017 - and I still miss our banter back and forth - he called his computer the Brain Wash Machine - shortened to BWM. He was a huge Trump supporter just because “he seems like a guy that is gonna break some rules and raise some hell.” He always forgave me for my liberal leanings and every piece of correspondence always ended with “and the ride goes on.” I miss Mike - the world was a better place with him in it.

Now a cattleman or cattle rancher - as the name implies - owns the home base that he works from. He’s got permanent roots on a piece of ground and more than likely his family has been there for a few generations. A cattleman can also be a superb cowboy - and usually is - but seldom does it work the other way around. I’ve know plenty of damn fine ranchers in my life - Dean Baker and Dave Eldridge in Nevada, Val Dalton or Heidi Redd (yes - there are some superb cattlewomen out there) in Utah - but without a doubt the most “cowboyest” of them all was my dear friend and neighbor Jack McClaran from the Wallowa County/Hell’s Canyon territory in the far northeast corner of Oregon.

Jack and his awesome wife Marge were some of the first people we met when we moved to Enterprise, Oregon in 1993. They lived next door in the house they had built “in town” so their kids could attend school a couple of decades earlier. When we arrived on the scene they had semi-retired from the ranch although Jack still managed to head to the canyons 3 or 4 times a week - had to check on his grasses and get in a little saddle time. Little did we know that we had moved in next door to people who would be spoken of in almost reverent tones in the community. There may be better people somewhere but I don’t know where.

Jack was a rancher’s rancher - as fine a man as I’ve ever known. His ranch encompasses some 3,000 acres of deeded land and he held grazing leases on an additional 44,000 acres all within what is now the Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area. It’s been in his family for four generations now, since his father Joe started ranching there in 1909. It’s rugged damn country - breathtaking but rugged - many parts accessible only by hooves or feet. On average they run about 1,000 head of cattle and about 100 head of horses that they have selectively bred for a life of chasing cattle in and out of canyons. The cattle have likewise been bred to survive and thrive in the challenging terrain - mostly a red/black Angus and Hereford cross. It is superb beef - grass-fed for their entire lives - no hormones, no finishing off on grains in a feedlot - long before such meat would become the darling of boutique beef suppliers it was the only thing that was produced on the McClaran Ranch. Many ranchers graze their animals for only part of the year and then bring them into feedlots during the winter months - not Jack - just as the Nez Perce did with their horses and cattle before being chased out of the Wallowa Country - Jack grazed on the high prairies in spring and summer and during fall and winter would keep driving the cattle further down into the canyons which experienced warmer weather than the uplands. It was more work - and sometimes under brutal weather conditions - but it was the right way to do things.

Jack grew up on the ranch - located in the Lightening Creek/Lower Imnaha area for those of you who know that part of the world. He remembered when the “road” ended at Fence Creek and everything from there was on horse-drawn wagons and required a change of horses before you made it to the ranch. For high school he would ride over to Dug Bar on the Snake River and catch a ride on the mail boat that came from Lewiston, Idaho once a week. At graduation he joined the Army which firmly secured his place in the Greatest Generation. He was a Commander in the tank corps and was there when the Buchenwald Camp was liberated. Like most heroes of those awful days - he seldom spoke of his war time experiences.

When he returned from World War II Jack enrolled in college at the University of Idaho in Moscow. It was there that he met his sweetheart for life - his beloved Margie. Marge was the daughter of a university professor and had been brought up in the life that often surrounds those in academia - a life filled with literature and theater and music and all of the arts - how she ended up with a cowboy from Hells Canyon is anyone’s guess but they would spend a magical 63 years together. The ranch was big enough that in addition to the main ranch house there were seven different cow camps - Marge loved recalling how she spent her honeymoon learning how to run the chuck wagon and bringing a bit of civilization to the cow camps - a job she maintained well into her 80s.

Jack was a fierce defender of private property rights - he was not in favor of the Hells Canyon NRA being established and he sure as hell didn’t want to see wilderness designation come to Hells Canyon. But for those of you who assume that cattle ranchers on public lands are just rapists at the trough you likely have no idea what you’re talking about and probably don’t know much about where that beef on your plate comes from other than in a plastic-wrapped package from the grocery store. Jack understood better than almost anyone what it took to keep “his” land healthy and in his mind there was no difference between what he held a deed on and the public lands that he grazed on. He understood that it was a privilege to use public lands - not a right - and he treated it as such. He also understood that after a while “you understand that you don’t own the land, the land owns you.”

While the Forest Service would have been fine with Annual Operating Plans for the grazing leases - he demanded Grazing Management Plans which instead of one year at a time they would articulate what range conditions must be maintained for up to ten years at a time. He would often ask how the Forest Service expected him to run a business with a one year plan. When you look at the annual reports of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest one of the few entries that has consistently met all desired range conditions is the McClaran Ranches. In fact - if you spent much time with Jack at all you would soon understand that what he was really doing was “taking care of my grasses” - the cattle in some respects were just a tool to take care of the range. And taking care of the range was not just about cattle - it was about wildlife habitat - it was about protecting the riparian for biological diversity - it was about protecting the stream beds when fish were preparing the redds to spawn - Jack felt that was all part of his job and he took it seriously. Shortly before we moved, I remember asking Jack about the reintroduction of wolves - they had not reached the Wallowa country yet and wouldn’t for some years to come, but everyone knew it was just a matter of time. Jack was pragmatic about it - didn’t want them coming back but figured he would just have to have a nighttime drover if there were issues - “we all gotta fit - there’s room for all of us.”

During his long life Jack won just about every award that a cattleman can - he had been Stockman of the Year, Grass Man of the Year, Cattleman of the Year and a few others. He and Margie had been Grand Marshalls of pretty much every parade in Northeast Oregon and he was inducted into several ranching Halls of Fame. In 1994, while being recognized for one of these honors the local newspaper remarked that he had travelled over 100,000 miles in a saddle and raised over 35 million pounds of beef in his career. Jack was only 68 then - it would be almost another 20 years before he took his last ride into the canyon so you could likely almost double those numbers.

Jack took that last ride in 2013 at the age of 87 and Margie followed seven months later at the age of 86. While McClaran Ranches will continue to thrive for years to come - both their son Scott and granddaughter Beth have seen to that - the world lost a bit of its magic when Jack and Marge moved on - it was a privilege to know them and to count them as friends.

My heroes have always been cowboys

And they still are, it seems

Sadly, in search of, and one step in back of

Themselves and their slow-movin' dreams

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