Looking up toward Box Elder Peak in the middle of January on a clear, bright winter day you can see a thin wisp of snow curl off the edge of a cornice into the brilliant blue sky. It looks so incidental. But it isn't, for even on the fairest days of mid-summer a constant stiff breeze skiffs over the peak. In winter it can attain hurricane force, while here in the valley it could be calm enough to have a picnic.
Thick clouds of snow, picked up somewhere in a distant corner of Earth, is dumped in the mountains in winter fusillades. Skiers from all over the country come to celebrate their arrival. After such storms the skiers talk about the "powder." Generations of farmers, however, saw it from a different perspective. They talked of the snow as one would talk of lifeblood.And this is the season when lifeblood begins to flow.
I went up to the big headgates the other day. It used to be a secluded spot. You could sit for hours without interruption. Now the stillness is broken from time to time by the sounds of an occasional motorbike or four-wheeler. The pock-pock-pock of nail guns on the roof of a house being built not far away detracts from the chorus of water coming down from the mountains.
The water from Dry Creek tumbles into the headgate pool over granite boulders and used to boom and rumble constantly through April, May and June. The large pool at the headgate was like a calming mother saying, "Just a minute now, hold your horses, let's think about this rumbling for a minute, you've got chores to do."
And the water, anxious and giddy to be off to the lake, held back by the massive concrete abutments, would swirl and glide into tiny whirlpools, restless like a horse on the end of the tight line. Only hours ago it had been the snow, laid down in winter chaos and then held dormant for months as snowpack.
Loosed by the miracle of spring sun, it has seeped through caverns of ice. It has oozed through high clefts of sandy loam that hold nourishment for hardy wildflowers and grass. It has seeped along the roots of quaking aspens and gathered into trickles that collect into the small streams that ply the bottoms of steep canyons, building its ego until by the time it reaches the bottom of Dry Creek Canyon the water is full of itself in an elated celebration of power.
Local farmers built the big headgates that calm the water from its downward flow. When I was young I had only the barest inkling of what it meant to harness it. To me, the big headgates were only a curious fortress of concrete snuggled against a grove of cottonwoods.
We would walk in careful balance across a wood beam that topped the spillway on the north, then climb up three iron rungs to the top of the main headgate where two big cast-iron wheels with augers lifted the heavy sliding gates below us. Under the gates, the pressure of anxious water squeaked out through thin cracks at the bottom, shooting narrow knife edges of mist across a mossy spillway into rocky pools where big fish hid under concrete overhangs in deep recesses.
The mysterious keepers of the gate (probably people we knew and saw every day) had chains and padlocks around the wheels. They must have known we would try to turn them. Somewhere, someone had the power over the wheels, and, at will, could come and open the gates, and shift the water wherever they wanted.
They might throw the water to the south, into the trough that scooted it into a narrow concrete channel that shot across the lower creek and dropped it skittering into a ditch that carried it somewhere westward. Or they might let it go into the High Bench and East Field ditches, which I knew better, that carried it south along the fields and orchards that clung to the deltas of East Mountain.
Wherever it went, the water became something different after the big headgates. Its stallion quality suddenly became domestic, its booming voice a ripple dancing through oak brush shadows. Wherever it went, the water now had a bridle and harness. And though we only saw it as water to play in, our fathers saw it as life and treated it with care.
As I sat by the big headgates and listened to the raw spring runoff, I realized that much of that pure honor for the water had changed. Slowly, its nude power has been jammed into pipes and culverts, stripped from its irrigation title and classified as "culinary" - an ignoble transition - and that with its subtle demise, a proud and intriguing aspect of our heritage is slowly passing into the musty annals of distant awarenesses.