Men battle ice to drag dead cattle to shore

Farm Forum

No manual exists to guide the removal of the 40 or so cattle carcasses stuck in the ice at the White Clay Reservoir.

So, for the dozen men shivering on Jan. 13 at the northeast corner of the iced-over reservoir on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, everything is improvisation.

That approach worked on Jan. 12, when the men dragged out a dozen of the cattle, many of which were prized 2-year-old bred heifers in the herd owned by Mike Carlow, a Pine Ridge rancher.

A week earlier, a rambunctious wind pushed about 100 of the cattle, most owned by Mike but some by his brother, Pat, onto the ice.

White Clay ice isn’t Saran Wrap; it’s more the thickness of a loaf of bread. But 100 multiplied by a cow’s weight, about 1,100 pounds, is going to tax any midwinter ice.

When the ice cracked, the estimated 100 head of cattle crashed through and died. The young ones, he says, went onto the ice; older cattle in the herd instinctively knew not to venture there. They survived. They are grazing nearby.

Just after 10 a.m. on Jan. 13, although the herd’s plunge has cost Mike Carlow hundreds of thousands of dollars, he clearly is dealing less with financial loss and more with their death. He speaks in a quiet, quaking voice of what is constantly on his mind: “What these cows went through to die.”

10:14 a.m. Forty-some dark mounds, looking from a distance like giant black olives, are gathered in a box-like formation starting about 25 yards from the shoreline. Eerily, two of the cattle made it another 25 feet toward the middle of the reservoir; for reasons unknown they became separated from the herd.

Carlow, Chuck Janis and Bob Pille are restarting the recovery, which went so well on Jan. 12, mostly because the dozen cows pulled from the ice had their heads positioned so that a simple chain lasso around their necks made pulling them to shore relatively easy.

This morning will be different.

Pille, the Oglala Sioux Tribe solid waste director, pushes a small aluminum duck boat to within three feet of the carcass closest to shore. He sits in the boat and, wielding a steel pry tool, chops rhythmically against the six inches of ice, trying to clear away enough that the men can somehow wrap a heavy, clanking chain around the cow’s head.

For a long time, there is only the crashing and crunching of ice, no talk. Carlow and Janis join in, using axes and shovels.

10:22 a.m.: They have broken through the ice. The carcass moves slightly, but so slightly that there can be no celebration. They pry, chop. They move the boat closer.

The tactic is to slip a chain around the cow’s neck and drag the carcass out with a winch attached to the front of a pick-up truck. There is the occasional groan of effort, but few words. From the previous day’s experience, they know what to do.

They have a makeshift metal hook, a rust-brown rebar rod twisted into a shape to help them string the chain around the cow’s head.

Using the hook, they reach beneath the cow and slip the chain in what appears to be a noose, if only they could actually see the cow’s head.

10:28: “OK, go!” one of them hollers, and the winch starts its “Whirrrrr!” Less that two minutes later, the chain slips off the carcass. Through superhuman willpower, no one curses, aloud anyway.

10:30: Now Pille, who leads by example, shifts the duck boat to the other side of the same carcass. He chops at the ice and clears the way to pass the chain beneath the carcass.

Up comes the cry of, “There it is!”

This time, the wrapping of the chain has taken only three minutes, but it is no more successful. The “Whirrrrr!” no sooner starts than the inert cow sheds its collar.

10:37: Another try. The head, they realize, actually is under the ice. In fact, Carlow is kneeling at the ice’s edge and trying to chop away enough to make the head accessible.

But Carlow has two problems. First, he cannot chop too much or he will plunge into the water. Pille says, “Mike, you be careful.” Second, the air is so piercingly cold that ice forms shortly after Carlow uncovers water. The ice is like poison ivy: whenever Carlow scratches, it spreads.

His knees must be howling from both the cold and the hard surface, but he doesn’t talk. Carlow will not surrender. It is his herd that have brought the men here, and he will push himself, even if his knees disintegrate.

10:44: “Whirrrrr!” But the hook pops off the carcass. Pille, standing and watching, leans way back and tosses his hands in the air.

10:48: The men are heroes here, but so is the boat, a puny little thing that once had a hull of green. On this day, however, it saves lives. None of the men could do what they are doing unless that thin strip of aluminum insulated them from the ice and freezing water.

The boat is back at the edge of the water. One last attempt to raise the cow’s head and lasso it ends in frustration.

10:53: The men confer, not in sentences, but in grunts and emotionless single words. They try a different tactic, this time, from behind the cow’s left flank.

Then: “We got around the hind leg!”

“Whirrrrr!” and another slip, but quickly they regroup and again tether the hind leg.

“Whirrrrr!” The cow rises, resurrecting spirits. The winch drags the mangled carcass, missing one leg, to shore, where a front-end loader lifts it, takes it up the snowy, slippery hill and deposits it in the impromptu cemetery, in which cow carcasses are lined up like oddly shaped headstones.

Carlow smiles and tries to find a sliver of humor, saying, “That’s one an hour.”

Pille, a large man who once tried to play football for the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, stretches. It is his second day of working this sad ritual. He needs, he says, to “Coffee up.” As he lumbers up the hill, he turns slightly and says: “Yesterday, I realized my shoulders were awful old.”