Tom Ross: Pioneer life in Hell’s Canyon along the Yampa River in Moffat County
Steamboat Springs — One of the highlights of my recent float trip down Yampa Canyon with OARS rafting outfitters, American Rivers and Friends of the Yampa was an invitation to stop at the historic Mantle Ranch deep in the canyon wilderness about 11 miles upstream from the confluence of the Yampa and the Green rivers.
The ranch was the home of Charley and Evelyn Mantle, who were married in Vernal, Utah, in 1926 and raised a family there. In the early days, the only way to get supplies into the remote ranch bordering the Yampa was by pack horses.
Tim Mantle sold the ranch, which is a private inholding in the Dinosaur National Monument with extensive federal grazing permits, in 2004.
It was only because a participant on our trip in early June has a longtime relationship with the ranch manager, that we were able to visit the property and view the impressive Fremont petroglyphs on Castle Rock and set up our lunch table in the shade of a fruit tree in the ranch’s well-kept orchard in Castle Park.
The ranch is a unique oasis in the midst of an otherwise uninhabited desert canyon, and the story of the family that overcame much hardship to create a home there is best told by Charley and Evelyn’s daughter Queeda Mantle Walker in her 2004 book, “The Mantle Ranch: A Family’s Joys and Sorrows in the Beautiful, Remote Yampa River Canyon.”
Because the Mantles essentially were living a pioneer existence in relatively modern times, her book is one of the most detailed and clearly written accounts of life on the frontier.
The book also gives Steamboat residents who knew Mantle Walker’s late brother, Pat Mantle, insights into his rugged upbringing. He was a legendary horse wrangler here who ran Sombrero Stables with the help of his sister and influenced a lot of young horseback riding guides in the region with his tough love balanced with his generosity and cowboy humor.
Mantle once told me, “When I was a little boy, if my brothers and I told our daddy we were hungry, he would hand us a stick and say, ‘There’s a jackrabbit right over there.’”
The rock art on the ranch is tangible evidence of people who might have lived in the canyon about 800 years ago. And Mantle Walker provides insights into the lives of the Fremont people by telling how her mother shared private Indian relics with some archaeologists from the University of Colorado, Charles Scoggin and Ed Lohr. They were welcomed at the ranch and explored caves and sketched petroglyphs. She showed them a cedar bark bag, reed mat and a horn from a desert bighorn sheep that had a hole drilled in it to allow for scraping arrow shafts.
Mantle Walker’s book is based on her own memories as well as 300 letters exchanged between her mother and her mother’s cousin. Those letters are made all the more precious by the fact that, in the early days, the ranch family did not receive mail in the winter except at Christmas, when they made a trek out of Hell’s Canyon.
The book describes in detail how the family carefully planted and irrigated 50 apple, pear, plum, peach, apricot and cherry trees in 1936 or 1937. Another significant passage in this centennial summer for Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp is how 12 girls from the camp visited in 1939 or 1940 for a multiday trail ride that included swimming their horses down the river from one park to the next.
Mantle Walker doesn’t pull many punches in the book — along with the happy days, her family faced many trials and tribulations while living their rugged existence — but her family history, published by Fred Pruett Books, is a treasure that has a rating of four stars on Goodreads. And there also is the 2009 book “The Last Ranch in Hell’s Canyon” to explore.
The books are easy to track down at a variety of retailers and promise to enrich your appreciation for the history of Northwest Colorado.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com
Sharing thanks, enjoying some laughs, and shedding a few tears are an indicator of the emotional levels that always seem to come with Moffat County High School graduation.