Crossing river with cattle was hazardous

From our January 2014 issue

By Abe Funk – Swift Current, Sask.

This time of year, when the days get shorter and the temperature keeps getting cooler, brings back memories of the days when we had to trail our cattle back home to our farm northeast of Gouldtown from the community pasture. This was an annual event.

We always took the cattle that we didn’t have pasture for at home to the Matador Community Pasture, which, if memory serves me correctly, was roughly 30 miles one way. This wouldn’t have been too bad, if we didn’t have to cross the South Saskatchewan River.

This was in the years before it was turned into Lake Diefenbaker when it was still a lazy, meandering river. The river might have been lazy normally, but it was also very unpredictable.

We never knew when we went down to the Herbert ferry if we’d be able to cross with one ferry, or if the sandbar in the middle of the river would make it necessary to use two ferries, one on either side of the sandbar – or worse yet, if we’d be able to cross at all because the river was just too low.

This made crossing the river very unpredictable, even with a vehicle, never mind with a herd of cattle.
On this particular year, my two brothers, Henry and Corny, and I, had teamed up with our Uncle David Wiebe as well, so we had a sizeable herd.

When we came to the river, the ferry operator, Jacob Harder, informed us that the river was so low that he’d only be able to take one vehicle at a time and that crossing the cattle by ferry would be difficult because he’d only be able to take a few animals at a time.

He informed us though, that about a half-mile upstream, we’d be able to cross through without getting wet because the water was that low in this particular spot.

He took us to the spot he had mentioned and pointed out a landmark on the far side. My nephew was on a horse that was familiar with the water so he rode point. The cattle followed willingly enough and my uncle and I brought up the rear on our horses.

It was a cold fall day with a fairly strong wind blowing right down the river so we were all wearing heavy clothing. For some reason, the horse that I was riding tried to lift his feet right out of the water at every step, which always sent water flying into my face and over my head. This was very irritating, as the water was not at all warm.

I don’t know why, but somehow I had gotten a horse length or so ahead of Uncle Dave, and about halfway across, there was suddenly a big commotion behind me.

Upon looking back, I saw to my dismay, that both horse and rider were on their side in the water, desperately trying to get up. Although the water was only about knee deep or so, we were in the middle of the river. This was where the current was the strongest, which made getting their feet under them all the more difficult.

As uncle tried to get up, he hung onto the horse, which hindered it from getting up. When he did get up, he knocked his rider on the head, sending him back into the water again.
Again, Uncle Dave hung onto the reins to get up, pulling the horse down again. This way they went up and down several times, before they both were able to stay standing.

At this point something happened that I still don’t quite understand how it was possible.

After all this struggling in the running water, my uncle realized that he was bareheaded, so he just reached down and picked up his cap and slapped it on his head, water and all. That cap should have been way downstream by then.

Although the situation was anything but funny, it was actually quite comical. How the water was running down his face and neck! He didn’t try to mount up again, but rather walked the rest of the way through.

After that, I was thankful that my horse was high stepping, even if he was splashing cold water in my face. At least he had stepped over whatever the other horse had tripped on. But we were most thankful that nothing tragic had come of this mishap in the middle of the river.