In the 1950’s and 60’s when dairy farming was a major enterprise in the Matanuska Valley it became necessary to find a way to cheaply feed non-producing cattle during the summer. A plan was formed to use a box canyon in the Talkeetna mountains at the headwaters of the Little Susitna River. An old abandoned mining road followed the canyon floor terminating at a steep rock cliff that formed the upper end of the box canyon. The Little Susitna river flowed along the entrance forming an effective fourth side to the natural corral. A bridge was built across the river and a gate went across the bridge.
The advantage of the Susitna Range was that there was plenty of lush grass. The elevation, cool air, and light breezes meant there were no mosquitoes, a valuable consideration in Alaska. The cost was $1.00 per head along with proper veterinary inspection and shots.
A few days before taking the cattle to the range was branding time. Usually Harold Dinkel, an old former Nebraska cowboy and neighbor, came over to help. The livestock were wrestled to the ground and their feet tied together so they couldn’t resist. A red hot branding iron was taken out of the fire and applied to the right hip. The smell of burning hair and flesh wafted across the area followed by loud bellowing. After the animal was branded it was untied and released. It staggered over to the other side of the corral and just stood there. Dad was a small farmer and so usually never had more than three or four head of cattle to brand. Dad’s brand was Circle L. Simply the letter L with a circle around it. Properly registered it was the oldest brand in the state of Alaska at one time. Later ear tags and tattoos were used making branding obsolete.
Early in the morning we rose and prepared to truck the cattle to the range. We had early breakfast and packed a lunch. The old Studebaker had the oil and antifreeze checked and was topped off with gasoline. Dad backed the truck up to a dirt mound or other high spot. The cattle were driven to the loading area and lead onto the back of the truck. If they were not trained to lead it could be a problem to get them loaded. If pushing, pulling and gentle persuasion failed a rope hitched to the tractor usually did the trick.
With the cattle loaded we drove off, headed for the Susitna Range, about twenty miles away, with the cattle stumbling and swaying in the back of the truck. Fishhook Road was a dusty, narrow and winding. It became particularly narrow as it followed the Little Susitna river to the canyon. Often there were several trucks together headed north loaded with cattle. As we passed homestead houses the trees became more scarce. After Pinnacle Rock, a popular land mark next to the river, the forest transitioned from trees to brush. Dad had to shift to a lower gear as we slowly gained elevation. Finally we arrived at the turn off that led from Fishhook Road to the cattle range. It was a one lane rutted trail that wound for a couple of miles to the unloading point. The truck slowly made its way through the thick alders and across the bridge. Although a loading chute had been built to make unloading easier some of the farmer homesteaders just used a convenient hillside. After unloading it was time to do a little socializing. The farmers stood around in circles and talked. Lunches and snacks were unpacked. The cattle stood around for a time and then slowly started eating their way up the trail that lead to the upper part of the box canyon. The farmers finished lunch and drove home to attend to their summer work and await round up in the fall.
The short Alaska summer passed quickly and it was time to round up the cattle. Dad drove the old Studebaker truck back to the Susitna range along the same route taken in the spring. At the Little Susitna Lodge we again turned off the main road onto the old abandoned mining road and slowly wound our way to the loading area. It wasn’t cool and sunny like in the spring, but rather, damp and cold.
The farmers organized themselves to drive the cattle down to the loading area. They went in groups to the far end of the canyon. Some of them climbed higher up the sides of the mountain and they all proceeded to drive the cattle down to the road that followed the canyon floor. It only took a couple of hours.
Many of the cattle seemed to recognize their masters. They came running to their owners bellowing and shaking their heads in excitement to renew acquaintances and perhaps to beg for a ride home. Their appearance had changed. They were bigger and fatter from feeding all summer in the abundant grass and their hair had grown long and shaggy from the cool weather. They were not disturbed by clouds of mosquitoes found at lower elevations.
At the bottom of the canyon and next to the river was the corral and loading chute. The cattle were sorted and loaded onto the trucks. Brands were difficult to see because of the shaggy hair that had grown over the scars.
The ground was wet from melted snow and soon turned into a muddy mess from spinning truck tires. The air was cold and crisp. This could be a good time as well. Someone had usually built a good fire from old dry alder. The wood burned down to make a nice bed of hot coals. Slow moving smoke soon permeated everything. It didn’t matter. Warmth feels especially good in the wet, bitter cold.
Often there was a goodly supply of hot dogs. The farmers roasted them and enjoyed hot mugs of coffee and hot chocolate from the big pails set in the coals. Farmer talk followed. Prices and politics were discussed. The usual complaints about the government were bandied about. Everyone finally satisfied their grievances. Warmed bodies climbed into the old battered trucks and drove off to prepare for the long Alaska winter that would soon follow.
Many years after this time, the circle L brand was used once again to decorate shirts for a family reunion.
As a side note, our dairy farm was well known for the sign in front of the farm. Mom got the idea from listening to a politician who announced that 'everything was utter confusion down in Juneau'. A local friend painted the sign for us, changing utter to udder.