These snowbell plants are ready to be planted. We have 1600 of them. It takes three years of careful nurturing to reach this size. 1600 is more than four times the known wild population. Photograph taken by J. David.
The plan was to leave by 7 a.m. and head out to the Devils River in Val Verde County. We left on time ~ I had planned well ~ the day was cold and a heavy fog followed us until we got to Sonora ~ The plan included taking food and gear for an overnight at Dolan Falls. Since we no longer had any financial support at all, Steven brought a big package of homemade sausage sticks – damn good – and I packed 3 dozen left over tamales from yesterday’s Trail Tamer Volunteer Day as well as left over chips, beans, picante sauce and 10 cans of Dr. Pepper – we also took bananas – cereal, milk, etc. . . . So where’s the record? This trip is always 700+ miles and requires overnight camping or housing. We have 36 snowbells to replace on three different ranches. – On I-10 Steven puts his foot to the gas pedal as the speed limit is 80 mph ~ usually we stop in Fredrericksburg for groceries, batteries, coffee and donuts, but not today. I just know we’ll break the record of 4 ½ hours to get to our 3 planting sites - Ruthie Russell’s is on the Devils River, The Nature Conservancy at Dolan Falls and Yellow Bluff on Dolan Creek. I never dreamed we could do all of this in one day and be home in bed that night.
Steven said our ranch gas tank was empty so we had to stop in Sonora to fill our tank . . . This was also my coffee and donut stop and for Steven another Dr. Pepper. We arrived here nonstop in 3 hours.
It required another 1½ hours down Route 277 and onto Dolan Falls Road to make our first stop – Ruthie Russell’s ranch on the Devils River. Before this, we have one combination locked gate to get through and CRAP, I can’t get the lock to open! Steven has to get out and do it. I believe it’s my eyesight that I’m unable to see the little tumbler numbers . . . Steven doesn’t miss the opportunity to chide me . . .
To get to Ruthie’s ranch you must drive a mile, or it seems like a mile, on a very narrow ledge between a very high cliff and the river. We have to drive through tree limbs, large potholes, fantastic springs and deep water. Brush scrapes the side of the truck making permanent scratches. This is an adventure to remember, one in which you must have four wheel drive. We finally get to another locked combo gate to Ruthie’s 8,000 acres and once again I try my hand at the combination only to fail again! “Getting old is hell,” I say to myself. And again, I have to hear those same words from Steven!
My records show that we have 14 snowbells to replace here. The drought and heat have taken a toll on our 2008 plantings. Ruthie is so enthused about the project that she has laid out hundreds of feet of garden hose. We learned from a guest there visitors are asked to water our plants as part of the privilege of being here. It is rugged beauty. The river here is wide, perhaps 100 yards. The water is shallow and crystal clear with a limestone bottom. Voluminous springs pour water into the river. Fish can be easily seen and ducks come and go. Dry brush covered mountains surround you in every direction. It’s a tough environment and yet, it’s beautiful.
It’s our policy and commitment to finish our project with four live plants in every corral (cage). Each corral is 6 foot in diameter. This is large enough to protect any seedling that may, at some point in the future, develop from a seed that one of our plants would drop. The corral is 5 foot high supported by 6 steel posts. It’s strong enough to protect our plants from all animals except mice and I believe the corral will easily have a 50 year lifespan. Most certainly long enough for our snowbell to grow and with this size corral, eliminate any browsing. Deer won’t jump in as they can see there isn’t enough space for them.
One plant was replaced here. We used the weed barrier to not only protect it from weeds, but more so the extreme heat. Originally, this corral had no weed barrier. We then cover the weed barrier with leaves and grass. Photograph taken by Mary Candee.
Steven and I work well together. He wants to protect me from the heaviest lifting, which is the carrying of water from the river. He lifts our recycled ladder over the corral and holds it firmly while I climb over and into the corral. We had placed flagging tape near the dead plants when we were here in October, but some have been pulled off. Steven has me break a small twig, a very small one, from each plant. He examines it closely to determine life. I begin digging the holes, while he goes to the river for water. Steven returns to hand me the plants, weed barrier and water. We have learned how much cooler the soil is when we use weed barrier . . . We’re so efficient that Steven calculates we can break the record today by getting all our plantings accomplished and return to the ranch by 9 p.m.! ~ I’m game for that as it’s rather cold to be overnighting in the summer cabins at Dolan Falls, our next stop . . . We elect to eat while driving, Steven’s venison sausages make this rather easy. So we’re eating, drinking the Dr. Peppers and talking excitedly for which we’ll pay for shortly. Read on –
Next stop is Dolan Falls, which is under the ownership of The Nature Conservancy. It’s here where all of our Devils River Val Verde County seed was collected. This is also one of the locations for Steven’s research equipment. I no longer know how many acres they still own as some has been sold off to conversation buyers. I’m pretty sure they still hold over 10,000 acres . . . To get in, we have another combination lock to open. As our new mission is to get the job done today, Steven jumps out to unlock the gate rather than have this old man fiddle around with it!
Steven checks his equipment which has been in place at Dolan Falls for over a year. It’s part of his research project toward his Master’s Degree at Texas State University. (Photograph taken by J. David.)
We go straight to our next planting site crossing Dolan Creek, but not the river. You must have 4 wheel drive for this. I’ve been unsuccessful every time I make this crossing in my personal truck even though it has a posi-traction rear end. Even with Steven’s big wheel Ford we churn, spin and falter over the smooth slippery water covered small stones. It’s another mile to our planting site, but we pull up, begin to unload only to discover that our vital recycled ladder is missing! A short bout of cussing and a plan ~ “Steven, get me into that big corral and I’ll dig and plant while you backtrack to find the ladder.” Steven grabs a pair of fence pliers and opens this largest corral we’ve ever built. It’s big, like 12’ long and 8 foot wide. There’s ten snowbells in there and my records show them all as dead. Steven backtracks saying, “I’ll be right back, it can’t be far.” ~ Oh, yeah ~ He’s gone forty-five minutes and found the ladder way back on that risky river trail to Ruthie Russell’s – where we excitedly ate sausage, drank Dr. Pepper and talked of getting home tonight and didn’t hear the ladder crash from the truck!
By the time he’s back, I’ve planted the ten snowbells, carried water to all corrals and distributed plants to each corral. So we lost very little time replanting here and moved onto Yellow Bluff, our last planting site for the day. Now time and daylight are working against us. We have only six plants to replace here. Yellow Bluff was where I met my Waterloo in December of 2008 - having fallen into a sharp boulder while carrying steel posts across Dolan Creek severely tearing my right shoulder rotator cuff. It required two surgical procedures and even with this, I am not the same and never will regain the full unimpaired use of my right arm . . . but Steven makes sure I don’t do a repeat of 2009 by driving across the creek and its tributary. We quickly replant the six snowbells and add three more plants protected by what we call “natural corrals” which are nothing more than piling brush over the plant. These locations are GPS’ed and noted by tying bright orange flagging tape over head.
What a day! There is still daylight and we’re on our way back home. I’m just hoping we get there alive! Steven pushes our truck to the limit. The first twenty miles are on a narrow gravel road where in the past we’ve lost some expensive wheel covers from off the truck. I pull my seat belt a little tighter . . . We’re back at the ranch by 10 p.m. 758 miles, 36 snowbells planted in a 15 hour day. Only my laundress will know how scared I was!!