Crossing Rivers by Horseback - Part 1
The first time I can remember watching someone cross a river on a horse was up in Island Park, Idaho at Last Chance. The North Fork of the Snake River, sometimes called the Henry’s Fork meandered through a beautiful sagebrush flat-surrounded on all sides by a forest of tall lodge pole pine and Douglas fir and aspen. The sage flat was quite wide and also long-perhaps two or more miles wide at its widest point and double or more that for the length. Most of that flat was part of a very large cattle ranch called the Railroad Ranch owned by Avrell Harriman, who I believe was owner or part owner of the Union Pacific Railroad. My Dad and Ed Strobel, his partner in business, purchased part of the flat owned by Frank and John Kuck. They, the Kuck’s, owned a small gas station café and motel called “Last Chance”. I guess in the early days before my time it was the last place you could get gas before the town of West Yellowstone and entering the West entrance of Yellowstone National Park which was about 40 to 50 miles further north.
There was an old cowboy who rode the range for the Railroad Ranch. His name was Bill. He would appear two maybe three times a summer in the Last Chance area, always on his horse, wearing his brown batwing chaps boots and spurs, hat, red and black checkered shirt and Levi jacket. About as typical and iconic as a cowboy could be.
The first time I saw him he rode out of the timber on the west side of Henry’s Fork across from Frank Kuck’s Chevron gas station and guided his horse straight into the river. I watched spellbound. It wasn’t deep, maybe up to the horses’ chest in one or two places, otherwise only half that. The horse, you could tell was an experienced well broke cow horse who “knew his stuff”. It was a beautiful sunny day, fluffy white clouds here and there in the blue sky, the river was blue, reflecting the sky color. As the horse and rider proceeded across, the water reflected the image of the two and splashed white as the strong legs of the horse broke the surface of the current. It was a picture and image that FIRED up my imagination it was so beautiful, so “western”, it locked itself into my memory, and has been portrayed on canvas many times by my hand. The river at that point was perhaps 100 to 150 yards wide, so it allowed me to observe for some time this classic image of the west.
Bill and his horse reached the near shore, climbed out onto the bank, the horse shook off the wet and they proceeded to Franks Station where Bill dismounted, tied his horse to the gas pump, and strode in to the office, spurs, chaps, and all.
Frank had a little television set in there, with semi-good reception. Bill and Frank were old friends, I could see Bill sit down in a chair, he propped his legs up on an old wooden table spurs still on, Frank got a couple of “milk nickels” (ice cream bars) out of the cooler and they sat there talking, eating their ice cream and watching TV.
After a good visit and a program or two, Bill would say goodbye, mount up, and re-cross the river, disappear into the distance to do his job of working cattle, fixing fence, etc. He did this routine two or three times a summer. I have always remembered that image of watching that old cowboy cross the Snake River on his horse, I loved it.
Since that time (I was a young teenager) I have painted the subject of river crossings by horseback many times, people always love the subject and so do I. There’s something about it that’s so interesting, almost spell-binding, I really don’t know what it is exactly but it always grabs people’s attention. I like to paint the easy, non-threatening non-dangerous scenes, usually where the water isn’t too deep, the scenery is beautiful-like that first time I watched old cowboy Bill at Last Chance……but…….
To be continued...