Margaret Hangan – Guest Writer

Participating in the sheep crossing at the Verde River, a tradition that has been going on for over 100 years, was truly an experience of a life time.  I am the Forest Archaeologist on the Kaibab National Forest.  For years the Kaibab Archaeologists were identifying and recording these small “U” and “C” shaped hearths and vaguely knew they were associated with sheep grazing, but that was all that was known about these sites.  Also there were no “old timers” left on the forest who knew the history of them.  In 2010, the forest contracted a company to conduct an archaeological survey of a large area west of Parks, AZ.  The archaeologists found over 30 of these hearths and that led me to one question.  Why were they there and in such quantities?   I decided to find out. 

After much research, I found that the Kaibab played an important role in one of Arizona’s earliest industries and that until the 1950s, sheep were annually driven along an established stock driveway known as Bear Springs.  The Bear Springs driveway, according to hand drawn maps I found in old map atlases in our forest files, was about a half mile wide;  it started east of Williams, went south through the Williams Ranger District, roughly parallel to the Perkinsville Road, and crossed the Verde River just before entering Chino Valley around Avenue 4.  Then they crossed the valley to Tonto Canyon located west of Prescott and down to Wickenburg where the sheep were grazed for the winter.   I also learned that the Auza and Monterola families, who still have permits to graze sheep on the Kaibab, were the last in the state that still carried on the tradition of driving sheep up a historic driveway known as the Beaver Springs/Grief Hill.  This driveway, which roughly parallels Interstate 17, was traditionally used to drive sheep from Phoenix to the Coconino National Forest.

Over the years, I had heard stories from people who happened upon the sheep during the drive and every spring I passed trucks full of rams driving up Interstate 17 (apparently only the ewes are driven up the driveway).  When Barbara Jaquay invited me to attend the crossing, I jumped at that chance.   I have seen photos showing sheep being driven across the Verde River and knew that the crossing was an important part of the drive.  What I did not know was that the crossing was an Auza Family event.

I drove down to Cottonwood from Williams on an early Saturday morning.  On my way to meet up with Barbara Jaquay and her husband Dick, I could see the dust in the distance and presumed it was the location of the herd being driven towards the river.  According to Barbara, a herd of 2,000 sheep were trucked up to Cortes, AZ which historically was an important way station along the driveway, and dropped off there along with the donkeys, dogs and Peruvian herders.  By the time they reached the Verde River, the herd had traversed roughly 20 miles in about a week.   I arrived in time to see and hear pannier laden donkeys (pots lashed to the panniers made a banging noise), followed a few minutes later by a huge herd of sheep swarming like bees down a narrow drainage toward a staging area along the river. 

Soon members of the Auza Family, including their venerable matriarch and patriarch, Carmon and Joe, arrived.  They brought supplies for the Peruvian herders to last them for the next several days on the drive, and food enough for an army to feed the family and friends who gathered.   The herders were the first to be asked to fix their plates from the impromptu buffet under the trees, followed by the guests and family.  After all had eaten and visited with each other, the family and friends got up and headed down a path to the river crossing.  As a group which included Joe Auza making his way using his tall walking stick, we walked talking and joking. 

Joe Auza, One of the Last Patriarchs of the Arizona Sheep Industry.

Some carried dried palm frowns and other tools they could use to encourage the sheep to cross the river.  We all milled around with the sheep herd as the panniers were filled and placed back on the donkeys.  A few of the herders changed into shorts and shirts with their favorite Peruvian sports team printed along their shoulders, then waded into the river followed by a few of the younger family members.  They created a sort of human line across the narrow river crossing.  Then the family and friends lined up behind the huge herd and it started.  Like a ballet that had clearly been performed many times, the whole family in mass started making noise and waving their palm frowns to move the large herd and keep them moving forward across the river.  All the while, tall Joe Auza stood in the middle of the herd leaning on his walking stick and the sheep parted around him kind of like Moses parting the Red Sea.  Within about 15 minutes the whole herd was across and milling on the north side of the river.  Next came some of the dogs, who also had to be “encouraged” to cross.   Once it was done, the group once again walked back to the lunch spot and cleaned up the remains of the gathering. 

In preparation for this write up I reviewed the photos and video I captured that day.  It only reinforced how important these traditions are and how grateful I am that the Auza Family still practices them.  It was a very special experience for me and I can only hope that the next generations of the Auza family continue to value this tradition.

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.

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.