The River Crossing

Today we concluded the final stage of my husband and I following the sheep. While I have been on the trail many times I never regret the time I get to spend watching a part of the Arizona history that has taken place over the last one hundred years. The Auza’s have been part of this history since the mid 1910s with Frank Auza came to the United States as a young boy and went into the sheep business during the Spanish flu pandemic. I have written about the Auza’s history in an earlier blog so I will not repeat it here.

The Auza’s, other family members and friends begin to arrive at the park about noon.  An area on the grass under the trees was hastily made into a picnic area. Tables were set up, tablecloths graced the tables and food: fried chicken, cooked beans, a variety of salads, vegetables, potato chips, and dessert. Water and soft drinks were already chilling in coolers. The herders arrived with three donkeys and removed the boxes that they carried. Supplies for the next few days was unloaded from the owners’ trucks and piled on the ground. Eggs, potatoes, fruit, ramen noodles, etc., were then loaded in the boxes and fastened back on the donkeys once again.   Any supplies that could not be put in these boxes was carried down to the river by the men and would be loaded on the other donkeys. The herders were not gone long as they were the guest of honor at the picnic and went through first to be feed.  Then everyone else helped themselves. It was during this time that I gave Jose the pictures from Friday’s adventures and he seemed pleased that I remembered to make copies for him.  I promise that when I saw them the next time, I would have more pictures for them.

Supplies for the herders.
Family, friends and herders enjoy a picnic lunch. The herders are in the background next to the tree.

After eating, two of the herders left and headed back to the river along with some of the family members and friends. Jose stayed and grabbed chicken and other items that they could take with them on the trail. Tonight, the camp tender would not have to cook! The family worked together and picked up food that needed to be kept cold. Then the rest of us headed to the river. Margaret accompanied Carmen and me.

Other onlookers had started to gather at the designated time of 1 PM and were watching for the family to head to the river. Others had already gone down to where the sheep were. One family had two small children, one in a stroller!  The men headed to help the herders as two donkeys were not cooperative and did not want to stand still while the boxes were loaded on them. With the donkeys loaded, a herder set out with them to take them across the river.

Donkeys heading to the river.
Three generations of Auza’s

I am sure that anyone who was watching from above in a plane or flew a drone over the scene would think pandemonium had set in. But there is a process to move the sheep and the herders and those who have done this before knew what needed to be accomplished to get the sheep across the river. The family and friends began to move around the flank of the sheep.

Family and friends head to the river behind the donkeys.

The herders moved toward the water pushing the sheep that direction. Dust began to be kicked up by the hooves of the sheep. The sound of sheep bells and bleating were heard. Onlookers were everywhere. Joseph Auza held some onlookers back as herders, the family and dogs began to push the sheep more and more to the river. The path to the river now went through wet gullies. The sheep were wet from crossing these gullies. It was now time for the onlookers to cross these. Some of us helped each other. After one obstacle was crossed there was the second to cross; it was much wider. Everyone was in a hurry to get to the river’s edge to see the sheep crossing. I moved around to the right flank when I could not penetrate through the sheep or the onlookers to get my pictures on the left flank. Even as the official photographer for the Auza’s, I tried to be courteous and let others get to the front and take pictures. Being short usually means I can be in the front and others take their pictures over me!

Moving toward the river is a slow process in the beginning.
Sheep begin to kick up the dust.

Margaret, who had been near me as we started down to the river, was soon caught up in the action of the day and moved mostly where she could get a good glimpse of the crossing. Lila had known to flank to the right to be down river of the crossing. Herders and some of the young family members were in the water keeping the sheep moving. In about fifteen minutes the sheep were across the river. It was now just to get the last of the dogs to cross over with a little help from a herder. And this portion of the trailing was in the history books!

Why are you pushing us toward the water? I don’t want a bath!
Being at the right location to get that picture!
Herder, family and friends help move the sheep.
A Great Pyrenees helped across the river.

Sheep in the Canyon by Lila Wright

Barbara Jaquay and I hurried up the ridge trail, even though it was only 7:00 a.m.  The lead sheep herder told us the sheep were coming at 7:00 a.m.  Amazing that he was so precise in timing.  Two spectators across the deep canyon were waiting.  We paused to listen for the bells: hearing none, we climbed higher. 

All was quiet, beautiful morning, slight breeze.  Then we heard the pack animals’ bells before we saw them.  One herdsman came with 5 donkeys, laden with all the camp supplies needed for the 3 herdsmen, 5 herd dogs and 2 Pyrenees guardian dogs.   They briskly walked on down the canyon to the Verde River to set up the midday rest spot.  This would be a highlight for them; a meal with the owner’s family and a visit.

After a quiet space of time, we heard a gentler chorus of tinkly bells.  I learned that about one out of one hundred sheep have a bell.   The flock of 2,000 flowed down the sandy bottom, some spilling out over the sides of the canyon.  Catching a few sprigs here and there, the sheep kept moving with the herd dogs holding the fringes from straying too far.  Occasionally, we could hear the whistle signals to the dogs from the herdsmen at the rear.  From this distance, the white Pyrenees blended in with the flock and limestone rocks.  A little haze of dust rose over them.

As the first sheep came even with us, we descended the ridge so we would be able to observe them going to their resting spot by the river.  A few other spectators were there.  One of the Pyrenees came between the flock and the people, calmly marked a boundary spot and then moved on with the sheep.  Later we would watch the family, friends, herdsmen and dogs herd the sheep across the river and on their way to the mountain meadows for the summer.

The sheep begin their trek to the Verde River.

The Run to the River

Knowing the sheep were heading our way, a crowd grew to watch at different advantage points along their route. At 7 AM, the donkeys and sheep were on the move.  A few residents were watching high up on the hill facing eastward and were the first to see as the donkeys appeared and made their way into the canyon and continued down the wash onto the floodplain of the Verde River. Then, all eyes were focused on being the first to catch a glimpse of the sheep. First to spot the sheep were the people on the hill facing eastward as the sheep came around the foot of the hill before descending all the way into the canyon following in the footpaths of the donkeys.

On the opposite side of the canyon, the east side, Lila Wright, and I were watching from a path that climbed up to an overlook where we could see southward into the canyon. Once again, Lila and I had picked a good place to watch most of the action and could still descend the hill quickly enough to see the sheep as they came out of the wash and headed to the river. Bells were heard and the donkeys came into view. Lila had not seen this aspect of moving the sheep and even though I had, I never get tired of watching the herders with the aid of their dogs moving 2,000 sheep!  A herder followed behind the donkeys keeping them moving in the wash and heading toward the river. Then he made his way back up into the canyon to help the other two herders. The donkeys got short changed here as no pictures were taken of them! I don’t know why I didn’t take any pictures of the donkeys as they are very important to the operation of the outfit, carrying everything needed for man, dog, and sheep.

The first sheep are sighted.

It was several minutes before the sheep could be seen at our location. At first, it looked like rocks were just moving until more of the sheep made their appearance. Sheep bells could be heard as well as their bleating as they moved. The sheep dogs were hard at work moving around the sheep flanks trying to keep them moving forward. One herder was on the east side and another herder was slightly behind the sheep. The first few sheep stopped to graze on the trees and shrubs in the wash and a bottle neck was formed. With so many sheep moving at once, dust rose from the wash. The first sheep were in no hurry to move with such good food offered for them to partake of. The sheep behind tried to move around them, but in the narrow space only two options were available – go up the steep embankment on one side or the other or just stay were they were. Some of the sheep climbed on the backs of those in front of them not moving, but the sheep in the front were to busy eating to care to move. The herder in the back moved along the west side of the wash and signaled for the dogs to move the sheep. Slowly forward progress was made. One herder was now just slightly in front and off to one side of the sheep.

A bottle neck occurs as the front sheep stop to nibble on the trees and shrubs!

All this time while trying to observe the operation and to photograph the sheep movement through the canyon I was trying to direct my husband and our friend, Margaret Hangan, who joined us this morning to head up the hill to where Lila and I were. But before they got far up the hill, they had seen the donkeys and decided to go back to the road to watch from there.

But the next hurdle was now upon the sheep as they moved further down the wash toward the river – people. I hurried down the trail to get to the road crossing within the park. Lila was behind me a short distance. Those who had watched this active many times who lived in the park, said the sheep would just go around them, the people could “pet” the sheep and the sheep would not be affected by the crowd. Even with warnings from my husband and I telling people to move, they would not listen and the sheep were now impeded to move across the road and down into the floodplain. Sheep were now going every which way, but the way the herders needed them to go. Some sheep became confused as campers came out of the campsite and flanked their right side. The sheep began to move on the road to their left instead of heading straight.

Moving away from the crowd along the road.

My husband got caught in their path and stayed where he was. A herder observing the sheep heading away from the path to the river, moved in to flank them and push them to the floodplain and then down the river to the crossing area. People were told to move back, but they would not; their pictures was more important. It is easy to understand the people wanting to see a part of this historic event that has been a part of Arizona’s history for over a hundred years. But it was also obvious that the people were keeping the flock from moving in the direction that the herders needed them to move and they became frustrated with the crowd. Finally, the herder with the help of his trusted sheep dogs, got the sheep moving to the river. As more sheep came out onto the road, the sheep in front had paved the way for those behind and a smooth flow finally occurred as they crossed the road and headed toward the river.

Some of us, who knew the next procedure, directed people to watch out of the way for the sheep to run along the floodplain and to their goal for the morning, a place that they could feed by the river until the crossing later in the afternoon. But too many people would not stay out of the way and the sheep once again were running on the wrong side of a fence that separated the park from the floodplain. Margaret and I stood in an area to force the sheep back to around the fence and to the path they should have naturally taken. We watched for a time as all the sheep passed in front of the camp area and then were out of sight.  It would be after lunch before the next event would take place, the crossing of the river.

To their resting place for the day.