CHAPTER Twenty-seven: FENCE CHECK

   Monday was moving day for the Andersons. Chuck was in the office when Greg arrived, but was already preparing to leave. “I’ll be in and out all week, probably. We don’t have a lot to move - the house in town is furnished - but we’ll want to get all the personal things that Alice and the girls will want close at hand.”

   “Do you need any help?”

   “I don’t think so. I’ll have the three helpers. As I said, there isn’t a lot to do, but I’ll want to be in there with them for a while, just to make sure that all the utilities are working, the phone is hooked up, and such. I’ll use our car to begin with, but I’ll want to leave it for Alice as much as possible. I got Mac to approve my use of a government vehicle to go back and forth, and to park it in town on the weekends.”

   “I’ll get out all the banding supplies in the next day or so, and start pre-baiting the traps later this week. I’ll get Tim to help as I need him.”

   “That’s fine. I’ve told Tim that the roads are probably just soft enough now to take the grader over them one more time this year. It won’t do much good if they dry out too much. Also, although he and Rusty did a lot of fence work early, I asked him to kind of cruise the fence lines between now and hunting season, to check that everything is still okay, and that our signs are in good shape.”

    About then, the Anderson women appeared, climbed in the car, and were soon gone. Greg didn’t have a chance to talk to Vic. He hadn’t brought up the weekend question with Chuck. He figured that, no matter what he wanted, that had to stay a “family affair.” He hoped to see Vic Friday, but he had no idea how viable that hope was.

   He wandered over to the shop, where Tim was getting ready to change the oil in the trucks. They talked about road grading, and Tim agreed with Chuck that right now was the optimum time to do a last run over the roads. He planned to walk the entire boundary line over the next month, repairing fences and replacing boundary signs as needed. He and Greg agreed to start baiting the duck traps on Thursday or Friday.

   Back in the office, Greg located the bird bands and all the equipment and forms that went with them. Chuck (or possibly Tim) had built a convenient board to hold strings of the several sizes of bands. The position of each string had its size number, and also the names of the birds that got the different sizes. The biggest bands – number 8s – were for Canada geese. (He wouldn’t be trying to trap geese, but he’d band them if they went in the trap.) Mallards were about the only species he’d catch that required number 7s.  Number 6s were for pintail, baldpate, and gadwall; shovelers and the bigger teal took 5s; and the little green-winged teal would take size 4. As the bands – each with a distinct number -  were expected to be permanent identifiers as long as the birds lived, they were loose enough on the legs so they didn’t bind or cause injuries.

   Idly, he wondered how many birds had been banded over the years. Millions, probably, just in the United States. Ducks and geese were certainly in the majority, but probably every family of birds had some bands. Most of the bands put on little birds were probably never heard of, again, and – except for specific local studies – the banding was probably  more for fun, than science. It was different with the bigger species, particularly ones that were hunted. The return on those birds from being shot, found dead, or being re-trapped was substantial, and enough to identify when and where the different species migrated,  and how long they lived. Analyzing the returns was also useful for setting hunting regulations, when they suggested that some species were being killed at  a higher rate than expected, or were probably being killed excessively in certain areas.

    After he finished with the bands, he was feeling a little lost. He’d get ready for banding near the end of the week, but he didn’t have a lot he had to do before then. He’d make his wildlife count, and check the various water levels, but then what? There weren’t any outstanding reports, and Chuck would probably handle the little bit of routine paperwork. It was an odd refuge. There wasn’t that much that had to be done, but there was just enough that it was hard to do anything extra. He had thought about identifying refuge plants and starting an herbarium. Well, he wasn’t really ready in the spring when the plants were in full bloom. Maybe he could start that next spring, if he was still around. But he had also considered setting up a study of the refuge small mammal populations, or the amphibians and reptiles. He’d never do those things. There just wasn’t enough time. Just working on the bird list was almost more than he could handle, in addition to his “other duties as assigned.” It was kind of frustrating.

   Finally, he went home, made a sandwich, and went to the shop to have lunch with Tim. He asked about Rusty.

   “No change, still in boot camp in San Diego. He seems to like it fine, but he’s always been kind of an Army guy.”

   They changed the  subject to bird banding, and discussed that for a while. Tim had helped most years, so he was familiar with the procedures, and could identify most of the ducks. When they had exhausted that subject:

   “It’s going to be hard on you when Vic leaves for school, isn’t it?”

   Greg just looked at him, surprised at the question.

   “I don’t see you together much but, when I do, there’s no question that you two have become pretty close.”

    Greg laughed. “I guess it is getting a little hard to hide. And yes, I’m going to miss her terribly.”

   “What do Alice and Chuck think about you pairing up?”

   Greg couldn’t think of any reason not to talk about it. Tim was pretty much “family” to the Andersons. “Alice had predictable motherly concerns about her high school girl being with a college graduate. She’s pretty mellow about things now that she has thought about it, and got to know me. You do know that I’m only a couple years older than Vic, regardless of my education?”

   “No, I didn’t know that. Extra smart in school, were you?”

   “I guess, but I think in a lot of ways Vic is more mature than I am. And as you know, my academic smarts didn’t help me back up a tractor.”

   Tim laughed. “But you made a miraculous improvement. I still don’t understand that.”

   “I guess I had a good teacher.” He quickly changed the subject.  “Oh, about Chuck; he still doesn’t really understand us. I’m pretty sure he thinks Vic is with me just because I’ve been her only choice, and that we probably won’t last. Still, I don’t think he has the really strong concerns he had a month or so ago.”

   “Well, for what it’s worth, I think you make a pretty good pair, even if you are a rotten maintenance man.”

   “Thanks. I appreciate the support, I think.”

   Greg worked in the office the rest of the afternoon. Chuck came in close to quitting time. He didn’t have much to say. The move was “going well,” and they were “settling in.” He thought his schedule would be much the same for the next two days: in the office for a few hours, then to town to help out there. He asked Greg to charge his time card with 18 hours annual leave for the three days. They could figure out the rest, later.

   At quitting time, they each retired to their houses, and didn’t see each other again until morning.

   Tuesday morning, Chuck and Greg met briefly in the office, then Greg went on his wildlife inventory. There were still no signs of migrant ducks, and he wondered if starting banding next week would be too soon. Well, he could practice on the local birds until the northerners arrived. There was a substantial movement of shorebirds occurring. Also, what looked like several thousand gulls – mostly Franklin’s – were milling around and calling. That was a surprise to him. There was no gull nesting on the refuge – as they tried to explain to anxious fishermen who thought gulls were getting too much of the harvest -  and he seldom saw more than a few at a time. He assumed that these birds were flocking, preparatory to starting their southward migration. It was quite a sight, whatever the cause.

   He checked the water control structures as he came to them. Levels were holding pretty steady, but there was still plenty of freeboard on the weirs. It wasn’t likely they would get any additional flow this season, but it had been adequate. It seemed to him that it had been a pretty good duck production year.

   Chuck had gone by the time Greg returned to the office. He’d passed Tim out on the road grader, so he had lunch by himself. After, he wandered down in the woods for a while, but - as he expected – he saw few “dicky birds,” and there was almost no bird song. Back in the office, he settled down to some not very interesting paperwork.

   Chuck returned mid-afternoon, and settled down to check through the mail and make some phone calls. He didn’t seem in a mood to talk so, after a few pleasantries, Greg let him alone. At quitting time, they once again went to their separate homes.

   Later, making his own dinner, Greg thought about the current situation. He had no idea what was on Chuck’s mind, or if it had anything to do with him and Vic. He knew it was going to be a long, awkward winter if two ‘bachelors,” living across the compound from one another, didn’t get together for meals and talk, on occasion. How was that going to work out?

   On Wednesday, Chuck said that he would probably not go to town that day, but he would probably stay in with the women Thursday night, and not come back to the refuge until Friday morning. He asked what Greg had planned.

   “We’re not going to bait the duck traps until tomorrow or Friday. I thought maybe I’d work with Tim on the boundary check. It might speed things up a bit.”

   “Good idea. Maybe Tim could start one direction from the entrance, and you could start the other way. Maybe take one truck out close to where Tim thinks you might get the first day, then both come back to the beginning.”

   Greg went over to the shop, and made plans with Tim. Each would take a backpack with a dozen signs, enough fencing wire to fix small problems, some tools, orange surveyor’s tape, lunch, and water. Tim would start up the north side of the refuge, and Greg the south.

   “Rusty and I walked the entire boundary two years ago – and, of course, we did some new fencing this year. I don’t expect that there will be a lot of problems, so we’re likely going to be able to move pretty fast. If you see a sign that’s beat up, replace it. Most old signs should come loose with a wrench and a little penetrating oil. I forget how far apart signs are supposed to be placed. Pace off the distances between a few; if you find any gaps much greater than the average, put up a sign if you have a good spot and the tools to do it. If not, flag the location with a big streamer of orange tape, and we’ll go back, later. Similarly with fence repairs: if it’s a one-man job to fix the problem, do it. If not, flag the spot, and mark the approximate location on a map.

   “We’ll be walking the fence line, so most of the time we won’t know exactly where we are in relation to each other and to other refuge features. When we leave the one truck, I’ll pick a place near where I think we should be about one o’clock. As you know, there are lots of little trails and tracks that lead from the boundary to the main road. About one o’clock, find one and come over to the truck. We can have our lunch, then decide if we want to do another leg today, or wait until later.”

   It didn’t take them long to get organized. At the last minute, Greg remembered he had a half-dozen shots left on the roll of film from the Salt Lake trip. He ran over to the house, and got his camera. They left the one truck part way out on the refuge, returned to the entrance gate in the other, and each started to walk their route.

   Greg found easy walking along the fence line. There were a few patches of sagebrush that were a little thick, but they didn’t keep him from being able to check the fence. He found two spots that needed a little work, and one area in which a sign had apparently gone missing. Both required work  he wasn’t able to do by himself, so he flagged the spots with surveyor’s tape, and moved on.

   One thing he had been interested in knowing was if the “forest” was all on the refuge, or extended onto adjacent land. He quickly learned that the fence also marked the limits of the woods, except for a few straggler saplings attempting to escape the confines of their original habitat. Greg looked around for any evidence of when or why the grove had been planted, but the fence was the only obvious sign of human activity. He thought some of this area looked pretty interesting from botanical and ornithological perspectives, and wondered if any trails from headquarters came this far south. If not, he probably should make some, so he could extend his bird survey area.

   Near the eastern limit of the trees, he scared up two mule deer. They were the first he’d seen on the refuge, but Vic had said they saw them regularly, particularly in winter. Beyond, the fence ran mainly through open cheatgrass flats, with just occasional areas of sagebrush. He saw Brewer’s sparrows and sage thrashers in that area, not unexpected in that habitat. Several of the refuge marshes came close to the boundary, but none extended onto adjacent lands, and probably wouldn’t even in extremely wet periods. He observed quite a few ducks, but still no migrant flocks. One large colony of yellow-headed blackbirds – all unmelodiously squawking at once – was fun. He loved those birds, and that sound.

   All the fencing along that stretch was in good shape, and he only replaced one damaged sign. Noting that it was almost one o’clock, he found a dry crossing between two ponds, and came out on the road not far from the truck. Tim was there, already. He asked Greg what he had found.

   “There were two areas not far from the west gate that had some pretty loose wire – probably need a wire stretcher, so I flagged them. Also, it looked like one sign was missing. I flagged that spot. I replaced one damaged sign, after that. How about you?”

   “I replaced two signs. There was one stretch missing a strand of wire, but I was able to fix that by myself. So, a pretty easy morning for both of us.”

  Greg mentioned the deer, and Tim verified that a few were around all year, with some buildup in winter. “The woods are good cover for them when the weather gets bad, especially if the snow gets deep.” Greg couldn’t remember if he’d already talked to Greg about the origins of the forest, so he asked for information. Tim didn’t have any, but said he’d always thought the CCC boys had planted it. Greg mentioned that some of the trees looked considerably older than CCC plantings would be. Tim acknowledged he hadn’t considered that, but didn’t know anything about who owned the property before the refuge was established.

    During lunch, Tim asked if Greg was up for another hour or so of fence walking. Greg agreed. “This next stretch should be easy for both of us. It’s mostly nice and flat, and runs along the pond edges for some distance. Shall we say that we’ll work until 3:30, then come out to the road from wherever we are at that point? I think it’s just as easy to leave the truck here, and just walk back down the road from where we quit.”

   As Tim had predicted, Greg’s next stretch was pretty easy walking, most of it close to the edges of ponds and marshes. He found two more colonies of yellow-headed blackbirds, and quite a few small shorebirds (dowitchers, and “peeps” – Western and least sandpipers) probing in the shallows and on exposed mud flats. In a raised area of lava rock, he saw two marmots, and got a quick glimpse of what might have been a bobcat (but possibly a coyote). It was a fun walk, and he used up the rest of the film in his camera with scenery shots for the narrative reports. He replaced three signs that were rusted, due to having shotgun pellet holes in them. All the fence looked good.

   He arrived on the road at about the same time as Tim, who reported similar findings. “Some of my walking was a little harder than yours, because the boundary line goes back into the rimrock area. On the other hand, I was starting into the area that Rusty and I fenced earlier this year, so that part went quickly.”

   “How much did we get done?” Greg asked.

    “Well, let’s see. The refuge includes about 20,000 acres. That’s, what? About 40 square miles. The boundary line is irregular, so the actual walking distance is probably more than one would think. However, I’d say we each walked maybe three, or three and a half, miles, so maybe we’re about a third done. Pretty good for a short day.”

   They drove back to headquarters, retrieved the other truck, and Tim went back to the shop to complete a few chores before quitting time. Greg found Chuck in the office. They chatted about the fence walk and other business for a while. Chuck seemed more relaxed than earlier in the week. As they were getting ready to leave the office, Chuck asked what Greg was doing that evening.

   “Nothing planned; just back to the old homestead.”

   “I’ve got some nice steaks ready to cook, and a six-pack of beer. Come back in a while, and we’ll share.”

   That partially answered some of Greg’s questions about how things were going to be that fall and winter.

***

   The steaks were good, and the beer welcome in the still warm evening. After eating, Chuck was expansive about the week and the move to town.

   “I’m not looking forward to ‘baching’ it during the work week, but I know this is the right thing for Alice and Mandy. It’ll make things a lot easier for them, and I’ll survive. I’m still pretty happy with my decision to stay here until the girls got through high school, although it put my career on hold. Mac was pretty upset with me wanting to stay here thIs long, but he’s a family man, so he could understand my motivation. He did warn me that it would be pretty hard for me to keep interested here, and he was right about that. Well, you’ve seen it yourself, already. It’s a great little refuge, but – after about six years – it’s not much of a challenge. I’ll be more than ready to move on when Mandy is graduated.”

   “You were on a refuge in North Dakota before coming here, right?”

   “Actually, two. Alice and I got married in 1944, but we still had a year of college left. In 1946, I was lucky enough to get an assistant manager job on a refuge not far from our home town. Vic was born there later that year.”

   “I didn’t realize that Vic was born on a refuge. She said that, on your vacation trip, she saw the  place where she was born, but I was picturing it in town, or on your parents’ farm.”

   “Actually, she was born in the hospital in town, but we were living on the refuge at the time. Same with Mandy a year and a half later. We stayed there for a couple more years, then I got a promotion to an assistant manager on a refuge a little farther west. We were there until 1958, when I got my first project leader job here.

   “We had been in refuge housing at both stations prior to coming here, but we were a lot closer to town. It was easier for the girls to participate in school activities, and for Alice and me to get involved in community affairs. Alice and I are North Dakotans through and through, so those years were great. People we understood; lots of pheasant and duck hunting; tough weather, but weather we know. If I had realized ahead of time just how different this area was, and how isolated this refuge is, I might not have come. It was pretty hard on all of us before we figured out boarding the girls in town. Then, it was hard in other ways, but manageable. My only real regret is that I didn’t realize how cut off and marooned Alice has been feeling these last few years. That was a real mistake.”

   Greg took a moment to consider what he’d heard. “So, what are you thinking of, next? Another refuge?”

   “Certainly my hope. Two or three years ago, I was one of Mac’s fair-haired boys, and I probably would have had a chance at any spot I wanted in Region One. After this much time in place, I’m just one of the pack, and will have to take my chances about being selected. The bad part is that there aren’t that many project leader jobs available at any given time. One thing in my favor is that I’m not tied to this region. I’ve enjoyed working with Mac and the Pacific office, but I wouldn’t mind transferring back to the Dakotas, or maybe Nebraska or Minnesota. I know that would be fine with Alice.

   “I’ve tried thinking about the girls in whatever move we make, but I guess it’s not too relevant. They’re both going to be pretty much on their own, soon. It would be nice to have them close, but... Well, I suspect Victoria will stay at Idaho State once she gets started. Mandy has talked about going there, too, and they could be roommates and support each other. That could probably change, depending on where we ended up – she might pick someplace closer to us – but I don’t think that will be a big factor in our decision. We’ll just see what happens.”

   That seemed to be the end of that conversation. “On another subject, you know that I want to leave our personal car with Alice, and use a government vehicle for my transport. I’ve been wondering how to juggle the vehicles, and I think I know a good way.

   “I think I told you that I plan to stay in town tomorrow night, then come back out here to work Friday. Would it fit into your plans to drive into town Friday morning, and pick me up? Then, my car would be in town, and I’d use a government pickup to go back Friday night.”

   “That sounds fine to me. I was planning to go to town sometime soon, to drop off some film to be developed. I could do that as soon as the camera store opens, then come to the house to get you.”

   “Okay, let’s plan it that way.”

  

   Thinking about their conversation later, Greg was encouraged that he could just sit and chat with Chuck about things. It certainly made the prospects of surviving the winter together seem more hopeful.

   Of course, what hadn’t come up in the conversation were Vic and their hope for the weekend.  It now seemed pretty unlikely that he would be picking her up Friday evening, and bringing her back to the refuge with him. He would get a chance to see her in town, but he wondered if that would make the failed weekend plans even more disappointing.

***

   Thursday, Chuck worked in the office, while Greg and Tim continued their fence inspection. Tim was in the area that he and Rusty had worked on earlier, so he was able to cover a considerable distance. Greg’s route was fairly straightforward. He replaced several damaged signs, fixed a couple of loose wires, and marked two spots for more serious repair. When they met for lunch, they decided that they’d make a long day of it, and finish up.

   It was late when they met back at the truck, but in the two days they had walked probably close to twenty miles between them, and had most of the work done. Tim thought he could probably do most of the finishing up by himself, maybe tomorrow. “If any of it turns out to be a two-man job, I’ll get you or Chuck to help.”

   Chuck had left for town before they returned to headquarters. Tim did a few last minute chores, then headed home for the weekend. Greg went home to an empty house, with little prospect of it being any different for the next week. He was discouraged, and more than a little sorry for himself.

***

    In the morning, Greg told Tim what he was doing, then left for town. He dropped off the film, then drove to the rental house. He chatted a few minutes with Alice and Mandy, but Vic was not present. He hoped she wasn’t so upset about things that she couldn’t even talk to him. Thoroughly defeated, he walked back to the truck. He didn’t even look up when the passenger door opened.

   “Daddy has appointed me acting refuge manager while he is in town,” said a very welcome and familiar voice. “You’ll be reporting to me until Sunday.”

   He couldn’t think of anything he wanted to say with Chuck then climbing into the truck. He settled for a happy grin.



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