By Jenny Neyman
Some amount of unusual is to be expected these days along Kalifornsky Beach Road between Kenai and Soldotna — the orange signs, cones and flagging of the ongoing road resurfacing project, the bright yellow trash bags awaiting pickup from the annual spring cleanup week, and the sudden proliferation of walkers, runners and bike riders along the paved pedestrian Unity Trail, now that it’s finally free of snow and mud.
But on Sunday there was an oddity that still caused heads to turn, speeds to slow and notice to be taken:
As in mooing, grazing, milk-producing, beef-steak-generating bovines flanked by cowboys and cowgirls mounted on horseback, being herded along the road like a scene from “Bonanza,” only with motor vehicles, rather than tumbleweeds, passing by.
Even this unusual scene is becoming a traditional one for those who happen to be on K-Beach during the annual Soldotna Equestrian Association cattle drive, held since 2011 to kick off the rodeo season.
“It’s kind of fun because there’s lots of people that stop and take pictures and honk, and there’s a lot of people that are interested in watching it along K-Beach because it’s not something you see every day. In fact, you only see it once a year. It’s a fun event for the riders, and I hope it’s a fun event for the community that gets to see it. And it hopefully raises some awareness for what SEA is and does, and for our rodeo,” said Mike Ashwell, vice president of SEA.
There are five rodeo events held on the Kenai Peninsula during the spring and summer, three at the Soldotna Rodeo Grounds behind the ball fields by the Soldotna Sports Center, and two in Ninilchik, with the first rodeo set to begin at 2 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday in Soldotna. The kickoff has felt like it’s come sooner than usual this year, because winter has taken longer than usual to melt into spring.
“This spring has been such a problem for everybody, and for us, as well. We’re two to three weeks behind on arena projects,” Ashwell said, as workers hurry to hook up water and electricity, complete dirt work and get the riding arena in shape for practices and events. “There’s all sorts of things — getting the arena prepared and cleaned up and in the condition we want it to be so that everybody can get in there and be safe while riding and doing their events. Ordinarily right now we would just be prepping for rodeo, so we’re a little behind the eight ball because of the weather.”
Despite the last-minute hurry to finish spring chores, SEA is set to swing into its usual busy schedule — with bucking on Mondays, roping on Tuesdays, barrel racing and pole bending on Wednesdays, team penning on Thursdays, and jackpot events on Fridays before the weekend rodeos, as well as other organizations holding events, including a pony club and dog herding practice. Information and schedules can be found at www.soldotnaequestrianassociation.com.
For the last three years, SEA has begun rodeo season with the cattle drive, herding cows from Diamond M Ranch near Bridge Access Road to the rodeo grounds by the Sports Center. Riders met at 1 p.m. Sunday at the rodeo grounds, rode to Diamond M Ranch, collected the cows then drove them back to the rodeo ground — along K-Beach to K-B Drive behind Save-U-More, down Poppy Lane and around College Road, and the rest of the way down K-Beach.
“We tried to keep them off the bike path as much as possible because most people walking and biking are not fans of the organic matter that may be deposited,” Ashwell said.
Just in case, they had a shovel-ready truck on poop patrol following the herd to clean up anything left on the path.
They also had plenty of just-in-case help, including Carrol Martin of Diamond M following in his truck, and several rodeo volunteers and family members stationing themselves along the route to wave flags at intersections and warn approaching vehicles of the slow-moving, and mooing, obstacles they were about to encounter.
“There’s quite a bit of gawking at us — people who had never seen it before, people would slow down their cars and stare at us as they went by. As we were going down College Loop there were a number of people who stopped and got out of their cars to watch and take pictures,” said 18-year-old Bill Ashwell, Mike’s son.
Many of the horses and riders were green in one regard or another — meaning they are novice riders, or experienced riders who haven’t dealt much with cows, or the horses haven’t ever been around cows before.
“That’s always quite interesting,” said Corey Wilkinson, of Lucky Horse Ranch, who brought a crew of 11 riders to participate in the cattle drive.
But it’s a great learning experience, she said.
“The rodeo’s been really awesome in trying to do these different things, not just being inside the rodeo grounds, but trying to broaden the spectrum for everybody. So it’s really cool to get people out of the arena and getting them involved in doing something like this,” she said.
The drive is a bonding experience, both for riders to their horses and for the group as a whole. It takes a lot of coordination to get and keep a herd of sometimes-obstinate cows moving from the comfort of their pasture.
“Teamwork. You have to have people that want to take a certain job. You have to have people pushing the cattle from the rear, and you have to have people who are comfortable being on the sides so if the cows turn they can take control of putting the cow back into the herd. Because as soon as you have one cow split, the others will try to follow, so you try to keep them grouped,” Wilkinson said.
The drive got off to a bit of a bumpy start, with the cows getting agitated when leaving Diamond M Ranch.
“Starting off when we first got them out of the pasture onto the bike path we had a hard time getting everything going in a set pace. The cattle were riled up and they kept ducking into the trees. People’s horses that weren’t used to cows were a little skittish of them,” Bill Ashwell said. “We would see them start getting a little bit antsy, they would look back and forth, they’d be looking back into the trees and looking around for a rider and then they would just dash into the trees real quick.”
Riders would go after them and “push” the cows by riding a little behind and to the side of them, steering until they rejoined the herd. Once those first few strays were corralled and the cows were pushed into a walk, the herd stayed much more cohesive.
“There were some minor problems, as you might expect moving cattle through a construction area with fences and bottlenecks and paving projects and roads and traffic and all of that stuff. They were probably most excitable when they first came out of the pen. But once the cattle started moving and got a little of the piss and vinegar out of them the riders got things figured out and they settled right in. It didn’t take too long and they started to walk along as a group. And we had plenty of riders for the cattle that we had,” Mike Ashwell said.
For the most part the herd was low-maintenance, plodding at a steady walk, only occasionally needing a rest and a sip from a puddle — what with their still-shaggy winter coats causing them to heat up if moving too fast.
The troublemakers were also the biggest attention getters of the day — a cow and her merely weeks-old bull calf. Martin, of Diamond M, would occasionally spell the calf from walking, putting him in the back seat of his truck to rest, gazing out the windshield at its mom. But the cow cared more about keeping an eye on her calf than she did keeping in step with the herd.
“He was just a little guy trying to keep up with his mama. And he wasn’t a problem, it was the mama cow trying to turn around and find him all the time,” Mike Ashwell said.
All told, the drive took a little under five hours to get the cows secured in the pen at the rodeo grounds.
“We had a lot of sore butts. I’ve had quite a few phone calls (Monday) saying, ‘I think a semi might have ran me over yesterday.’ It was a very long day, but it was good,” Wilkinson said.
“My favorite part of the day was probably getting off my horse after so many hours riding, that’s always a good feeling,” Bill Ashwell concurred. “But it was a really good experience for everyone.”
Bill and his older sister, Kendra, who is attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks, grew up riding horses, but didn’t get into rodeo until their mother suggested it. Already horse enthusiasts, they took to the competitive outlet, and also appreciated the rodeo community they became part of.
“It’s just a lot of fun. There’s a lot of camaraderie and friendship among everyone there. We all just like to have a good time and we enjoy each other,” Bill Ashwell said.
“You’re part of a family in rodeo. You’ve got your family outside of rodeo and your rodeo family. It’s a community that’s really, really supportive,” Kendra Ashwell said.
Mike Ashwell likewise said that he appreciates how rodeo is a full-family affair.
“Rodeo is not just something where you drop off your kids and are spectators. A lot of the parents are involved and help out and volunteer. That’s really what our fun family rodeos are focused on. It’s like the old saying, ‘If you hunt with your kids you don’t have to hunt for your kids.’ If you rodeo with your kids you know where they are,” he said.
The SEA would like to see its rodeo family expand, both in competitors in its many events, and also just spectators in the stands, Ashwell said. Perhaps some of those turning their heads to watch the cattle drive Sunday will soon turn in to the rodeo grounds to watch the events this spring and summer.
“We would love to see them coming through our gate and into our stands,” Ashwell said.
For more information, visit www.soldotnaequestianassociation.com.