Old Dad Guzzler:
Out With the Bad, In With the Good
By Debbie Miller Marschke
Steve and I have been MIA missing in action from DE trips this year. We don’t like it but it is just the way things are right now. Our day jobs are big time and energy vampires; both of us have been working extended hours and it’s limited our choices when it comes to “free time.” Steve is the President of the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep. A lot of our personal time that we have available is spent volunteering for wildlife habitat work, and it takes priority over everything else. The bright side of that is that we get out to enjoy the desert while doing a lot of good works. I guess most people would agree that if you had to choose between having fun verses having fun while doing work for a good cause, the latter would prevail.
We hear a lot about climate change and global warming. One side will argue that climate change is simply a natural cycle of the earth’s life. Others emphatically champion green energy, declaring that humans have created a huge carbon imprint that has unnaturally tipped the scales. It really does not matter which camp you pitch your tent in, the results for the animals are the same. There is less water available and less acreage to forage upon.
The United States was once populated by Native Americans who had a better understanding of our lands and the importance of stewardship. We can still find their petroglyphs pecked into the rocks, especially around water sources. They were there. Native Americans were servicing the natural springs and keeping them flowing by clearing the brush and burning it back if necessary. Now, this is considered environmental vandalism and punishable by Federal Law. Now “protected” by the government, many springs simply get choked out and stop flowing.
Another unnatural change occurred when the West was settled. The first lands that were staked out and fenced were the lands at or near springs. Settlers and Native Americans clashed over the access to the choice lands and water. Now that we’ve tamed the West, we’ve changed everything. Fences have been placed and roads have been paved, permanently changing the environment. The vast open lands are now fragmented; mountains are islands above the fray of “civilization.” The wildlife has had no choice but to adapt, but their potential resources continue to dwindle.
As a wildlife volunteer, I can do something about this. There are ways to mitigate the damage and change. Projects with SCBS facilitate real solutions in a world of problems. I used to donate money to other pro-wildlife organizations, but I had no idea if my money made a difference, or where it went. Now I donate my time, and without a doubt, I am certain my time spent made a real difference because of my efforts. It is always a bonus getting out there in the desert because I am invariably rewarded with something special; albeit discovering a new bug, a rare bird sighting
or a fantastic starry night. I often think about the guzzlers that I have helped install, and the fact that these wildlife drinkers will probably still be supplying life giving water to the critters I love when I die. That’s something to be happy about, so I’m just going to keep doing it. If you are interested in joining SCBS, contact Steve or myself. There is also the website sheepsociety.com. You don’t have to be a member to be placed on the volunteer list for projects. Each project we do is different. Some folks have commented to me that they are not physically fit enough to do these projects; but that is not necessarily true. If you can move a rock, you can make a difference. I want to give a shout out to Mignon Slentz, Glenn Shaw, Jim Watson, and Chris Ervin because these DE members have already attended important projects in the past. Thanks you guys!
SCBS had a recent project that was a really big deal, so I am proud to report on what transpired. After many years of controversy and angst, the stars have aligned. On the weekend of October 4 - 6, 2019, the Old Dad Big Game Guzzler, located in the peaks of the Old Dad Mountains in the Mojave National Preserve, was rehabilitated. This was achieved with the cooperative efforts of the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the National Park Service. This was a complicated endeavor, not just because of all the parties involved, but also due to the elevation and terrain of this very important water source. Everyone had agreed that the guzzler’s equipment had reached the end of its useful life, but how to replace the tanks? There was only one way: A helicopter.
The Old Dad guzzler was first installed in 1975 and has been in continual service since then. A tragedy occurred in August of 1995 in the heat of the summer. The resident herd of bighorn sheep could smell residual water in the tanks, but they could not get to it. Eventually the sheep climbed on top of the tanks, got the access lid off, and several sheep fell into the tanks and died, mostly lambs. The decomposing animals contaminated the water which resulted in botulism. Meanwhile, the agencies involved argued about a solution to replace the damaged tanks, ignorant of the disaster that was occurring. While the arguments continued, sheep died on the mountain and received a lot of bad press which has been a stain on the reputations of all the agencies involved. It was a hard lesson to learn, circumstances that should never be repeated. The Old Dad guzzler has continued to be one of the most important guzzlers in the program. Historically, the DFW has harvested sheep from this herd and translocated them to other mountain ranges. This was done either to seed a new herd and reestablish historical ranges, or to strengthen the gene pools for isolated herds. During the last few years, a deadly disease outbreak of pneumonia has infected the herd and there was a significant die off. The Old Dad herd remains a crucially important wildlife unit and therefore remains a priority and the focus of attention. The Department of Fish and Wildlife has finally found another organization to replace Landells Aviation (who had provided helicopter support, but is no longer in business) and a pilot that has the skills and guts to do this dangerous work. Shasta Air, of Redding, California, has been contracted to assist the DFW with their annual wildlife surveys and capture work. This fall, the DFW coordinated with SCBS to use some of their budgeted flight hours working in Southern California to tackle the Old Dad project. A lot of luck was needed as well, because even if the project was approved and scheduled, the East Mojave can experience intense high winds in the fall. Although the project had a “green light”, there were a lot of things that could have occurred to prevent the project from happening.
It was a beautiful fall weekend and the weather was terrific. Scott, Gibson, the project coordinator, had rallied a team of hard working individuals who could handle the difficult hike to the guzzler, and those team players needed to be willing to experience the hike up to four days in a row. The Old Dad Mountains are notoriously rugged. Terrific sheep country, but not so much for humans. It’s one of the most difficult and least visited man made guzzlers to hike to, and not for those who are afraid of heights. The trail up the canyons to the guzzler is steep, rugged, and lined with jagged rock. I came to know the “carnivorous limestone” personally as evidenced upon on every limb of my body when the project was finished. My right calf looked as though I had leaned into a cheese grater. In some areas, was difficult to find the trail, so Steve Marschke accented the route when he hiked up with marking flags which was greatly appreciated by the volunteers. The guzzler is tucked high and deep on the mountain, so as the trail ascends, false hopes of rounding the last bend can leave the hiker wondering just how much farther one must go. It’s only a 1.5 mile hike, but it gains over 1000 of elevation and the route is not maintained. Some of the trail is essentially a “game trail” and some of it is rock scrambling. It traverses narrow ledges and rocky chutes with large drop offs. Once the guzzler is reached near the mountain tops, the system is constructed in an open bowl and there is plenty of room to work. Depending on your hiking aptitude and the amount of weight you are carrying, the hike can take anywhere from 50 minutes to 2 hours. It is a challenging hike and requires your full attention; it takes your breath away not just because of the terrain, but because the scenery is amazing.
SCBS Board Member Scott Gibson and crew backpacked in a lot of heavy equipment ahead of time, which included a generator and tools. The advance crew deserves a lot of credit for preparing the work site. This is not a fun trail to be backpacking a generator on. Friday morning, we had many new SCBS volunteers join in and trek up the mountain. At the work site there were many crews tasked for different parts of the project: the old drinker box needed to be removed, the water in the three old tanks needed to be pumped out of the tanks, the old tanks needed to be prepared for removal, the old check dam needed to be partially broken out, and new pipes needed to be plumbed.
Saturday was a big day because this was when Shasta Air was to arrive on scene. The three new tanks were staged and waiting at camp near Kelbaker Road. Shasta Air airlifted the aluminum pipes to the guzzler, but the real excitement came when the old tanks were removed. The volunteer crew was briefed by the DFW employees and given safety instructions for working around the helicopter. Basically, when the helicopter approached, all the work crews stopped what they were doing and scrambled back a safe distance. The DFW crew attached cables to the old 2200 gallon tank, and everyone watched intently as the old tank slowly lifted off the ground, and then was swept away to the heavens, disappearing over the mountain top. Shasta Air then returned to the site with a brand new 3000 gallon tank, and with amazing precision set it down in the same spot the former tank had occupied. Because there were canyon walls all around, the presence of the helicopter created gusts of dusty wind and turbulence. This not only challenged the ground crews but created tricky conditions for the pilot, Dave Everson. Everyone present was very impressed with the skills of the pilot, who was easily visible hanging out of the side door of the cockpit. It reminded me of watching a cowboy riding a prize bull, it takes a lot of skill and grit to handle a bucking airship in a narrow canyon while trying to “thread a needle” by using a drop cable to handle the heaviest loads with accuracy. Each old tank was plucked form its platform and then the new tank was gingerly slid into it’s former location. The last old tank was harder to remove than the first two. There were some tense minutes when the airship attempted to lift the last tank out. Everyone present knew something was wrong, the line grew taut and the airship strained, but the tank did not move. The pilot radioed that it was too heavy to move; perhaps there was still too much water leftover in the bottom of the tank. Someone grabbed a saws-all and punched a hole in the side of the tank at the bottom – mud ! This was tank #1 in the line up, so 40 years of silt had deposited on the bottom and it was a gloppy mess. Steve cut out a trap door and attacked the mud by raking out as much as he could scrape. The airship returned and gave it a second try, which was successful and the tank sailed off into the sunset.
Meanwhile, higher up in the canyon, progress continued in reconfiguring the old check dam and resetting the intake pipes. The guzzler collects water in a natural rocky drainage chute. Cloudbursts that dump measurable rain send “gully washers” of water down to a concrete dam with a screened collection pipe that funnels the water into a length of pipe that feeds into the guzzler tanks. The Old Dad Mountain proved to be a grizzled old man indeed; this rock was so hard that it took the work crew a lot longer than anticipated to make headway. The generator was constantly running, charging cordless batteries for the
tools that were needed. This crew’s job was akin to hard rock mining, involving digging, breaking up concrete, mixing cement, building something out of nothing using what was packed in or what was available from the surrounding environment. The intake pipe was reconfigured, having a design change from a 2 inch galvanized pipe system that wound its way down the canyon sides to a straight line four inch aluminum pipe to the tanks. The supports for the collection pipe were repurposed from the old system. In typical SCBS style, everyone displayed a terrific attitude and worked their butts off.
After the new tanks had been successfully delivered, there was yet still more helicopter work to be done. The new tanks were empty, so the helicopter crew switched to water delivery. First, a large temporary catch basin was airlifted to the guzzler site to collect the air dropped water. Meanwhile, back at camp, the National Park Service had sent a water tank truck for us. A soft sided “pumpkin” was staged, and water was pumped into the pumpkin which looked almost like a kiddie pool. Then the airship came in with a basket that was dipped into to reservoir and filled. The airship lifted off with its bucket of water, delivering it to the top of Old Dad. The DFW crew worked with the airship to drop the bucket of water into the staged temporary tank. Then a gas powered high pressure water pump was used with hose to pump the water to the guzzler. There was always someone posted atop the tanks, manning the hose, until we had filled all three tanks to a total of 7000 gallons!
To sum it up, I witnessed an impressive group achieve monumental things. It is remarkable how much work can be accomplished when the people involved are focused on the same goal, stubborn as mules, and giving of themselves 110%. This
team accomplished amazing things in a harsh environment. We also enjoyed top notch support at camp. The Preserve delivered a porta-potty for us to use. Bob Keeran and his son-in-law John Maley set up an elaborate camp kitchen and cooked for the entire crew for 4 days. The food was excellent which made “home-base” truly a home for the weary volunteers. We were not able to completely finish the project, so another crew will need to return to the guzzler to complete the installation of the collection pipe. I am proud to say that the guzzler was in working order when we walked away on Sunday afternoon. With the water that was airlifted in, there should be an abundant supply available while we finish up the collection system. As utility companies say, “there was no interruption of service” to the animals that depend on this system. It is important to finish the job as soon as practicable this winter, so if you can help out please contact Scott Gibson.
The volunteer crew: Scott Gibson, Shawn Alger, Fernando Diaz, Michael Graeber (videographer), Monte Hammer, David Hawxhurst, Robert Keeran, George Kerr, John Maley, Steve Marschke, Debbie Miller Marschke, Jamez Miura, Jaron Miura, David M’Greene, Saul Opie, Andres Reutman, Philip Spinks, Zach Thomas, Don Uhler, John Voght. (If I missed anyone, I apologize! A lot was going on that weekend!) Also NPS Matt Bristol, and from DFW: Paige Prentice, Rick Ianniello, Ashley Evans, & Lily Harrison. ~ Debbie