Story & Photos by Larry Turner
There is an elegance in Gerda Hydes face, along with a vitality and spunkiness that belies her age, which is somewhere north of 70, but you would never know it. She wears her long, salt-and-pepper hair in a thick braid. In certain light, her green eyes turn to gray. She is a kind, matronly lady, soft-spoken and direct, her mannerism tinged with a subtle yet lively sense of humor.
She walks, these days, with a very slight slump, indicative of many years of the kind of hard, physical work demanded by the life she chose for herself long ago. Gerda Hyde is the very embodiment of the modern-day pioneer lady, and her style of walking shows it.
Ive been bucked off many a horse, she says, adding with a smile, I had planned to ride until 70, and here I am still occasionally horseback, but my riding days are about over and none too soon.
Like pretty much everything associated with ranch life, bucking horses is a subject that Hyde does not take lightly. Her 22-year-old daughter Marsha was killed in a freak horse accident when Gerda was nearby. She knows the truth of what it takes to make a living on a ranch. With her son John, Gerda Hyde runs the fabled Yamsi Ranch along the wild Williamson Rivers headwaters near Chiloquin, Ore.
Yamsi is a Klamath Indian word of the north wind, and at the unique ranch (established by Gerdas husbands uncle Buck Williams not long after World War I), Gerda, John and the hands raise cattle, operate a fly-fishing business and oversee, as its founders, Operation Stronghold for wildlife.
We generate our own electricity, live as self-sufficiently as we can, and we have been blessed by and large with happy lives, Gerda says. When making ends meet with cattle became tougher, we had to diversify. Fly fishing was perfect for us because of the rich trout population in the river.
The Hydes own the first seven miles of the Williamson, including one of the headwaters. The main headwaters they lost to the feds in a court battle. Something to do with a law against private ownership of the main headwaters of a river, says Gerda. The family also owns a 300-acre private lake (called Hyde Lake), which they built in 1967. Stocked with trophy trout, the lake can be fished year-round, except when iced over.
The Williamson Rivers season is May through October. To accommodate fishermen and women, a fishing bunkhouse was built next to the main ranch house with timber cut and milled from their own property. At $225 per person per day, fishermen get room and board and blue-ribbon catch-and-release rainbow and brook trout fishing.
John is the trout expert, Gerda the cook, and bothalong with Johns wife Jerrimanage the cattle operation. Theirs is a holistic approach to ranching, which includes hands-on assistance by eight of her 17 grandchildren, and help when needed from her other two sons. Gerdas youngest son, Taylor, occasionally acts as the familys personal veterinarian, though he has his own practice and ranch near Beatty, Ore. Gerdas eldest son, Dayton, Jr., manages Red Feather Lake Resort in Colorado.
Gerda Hyde (right) and son, John, gather the herd with the help of their dogs.
Gerda and John are innovative cattle ranchers. They are members of Oregon Country Beef, a group of 40 ranchers dedicated to a program of national land stewardship, producing natural, chemical-free beef. The Hydes are practitioners of many of wildlife biologist Allan Savorys grazing methods, including grazing rotation, which allows grasslands rest and rejuvenation.
Savory found out that the more they got rid of the big animals, the more land turned to desert, explains Gerda. Herding is important. Hooves break up manure and soil which allows aeration and permeation of moisture and nutrients. She also believes that healthy cattle deter predators. Cattle should be gentle. Its important to breed good mothers and cull out the wild cattle. Coyotes will not attack good, protective mothers.
The Hydes use electric fences to keep cattle off riverbeds. Every once in a while though, Gerda says, you still need to graze in order to reduce a mat of riverbank grass.
Gerda and John pretty much see eye-to-eye on ranching practices.
My differences with Ma depend on the day and how much sleep shes had, deadpans John.
Well, my differences depend on whether hes wearing dark glasses or not, retorts Gerda. If the next generation wants to hold onto the ranch, they need to have new ideas and be innovative. The Hydes graze and then rest the land 45 days per unit. Theyve developed new wetlands on their property. Mom alone has planted thousands of trees, says John. Shes a tree-planting fool.
The cattle industry has always had tunnel vision, says Gerda. If were not learning, were dying, so we must keep learning. She suggests that members of the cattle community research Bud Williams innovative cattle handling practices along with Savorys and others ideas. A good start would be by subscribing to Holistic Resource Management by calling 505-842-5252.
Gerda Hyde is obviously a lady who knows the value of work, family and friends. She honors both the private and public life. Once she served as president of the National Cattlewomens Association. She is an active patron of the arts, host to many cookoué functions, and an avid supporter of her grandchildrens activities. Operation Stronghold, which the Hydes established, is a voluntary, nonprofit organization that encourages the development of wildlife potential on private lands.
According to Gerdas husband, Dayton, It is led by the private sector, which helps farmers, ranchers, timber producers, and other landowners create vital reservoirs of wildlife and plants on their own land. There are 300 active members worldwide. The Hydes still sell Operation Stronghold signs ($7 each) but they are not nearly as active with the program as they used to be. Weve let it fizzle, Gerda says, because weve just not had the time to tend to it properly.
Time clearly doesnt hang heavy on Gerda Hydes hands; she always seems to be busy. But when she winds down, youre most likely to find her in the spacious ranch house living roombuilt with native rock and timbers by Buck Williams in 1928. Shell be playing classical music on the old Victrola or reading a good book. Among those are the ones her husband wrote about life at the Yamsi Ranch. Dayton O. Hyde now lives in Rapid City, S.D., where he manages the Wildhorse Sanctuary, which he founded after he left the home of the north wind. Gerdas still there, though, with no plans to leave anytime soon.
Ive had a great life on this ranch, she says, her green-gray eyes twinkling, though it has had its ups and downs. Sort of like what Churchill said about brandy: In the end, I got more out of it than it got out of me.
Larry Turner, a regular contributor to RANGE, lives in Malin, Ore.
Spring 2004 Contents