What’s a rockjack?

At some point, someone’s gonna ask… What, exactly, is a rockjack? It never occurred to me until quite recently that someone would ask that… Doesn’t everyone know what a rockjack is?  Hmm… some explaining is in order.

I was raised in the very northeast corner of Oregon, a large area known as The Wallowas (now Wallowa County) — you say “wuh-LOW-a”, with the accent on the middle syllable, which rhymes with “ow!” (as in “ouch!”).  The entire eastern half of Oregon (please, say “OR-ee-gun”, not “or-EE-gone”!), together with that half of Washington, most of Idaho and well into the Yellowstone, has seen a very violent and extensive volcanic history in its ancient past, and the Wallowa country is a fascinating geologic layer-cake. 

This is the ancestral land of the Nez Perce (Nimíipuu, or “The People”), whose last pre-reservation leaders included Looking Glass, Lawyer, White Bird, and of course, the Chiefs Joseph (father and son), Tu-e-ka-kas and Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt of the Wallowa Band.  The story of the Nez Perce is itself quite incredible and tragic, especially the bands’ remarkable retreat from the Wallowas, pursued by General Oliver Otis Howard and 2,000 Army cavalry troops.  The Nez Perce, primarily the Wallowa band, which included women, children and elderly, successfully fought and eluded Howard’s command in a running set of battles that covered over 1,600 miles through the most formidable country, including the Imnaha and Hells Canyons, northern Idaho, the Yellowstone, and finally north across most of Montana, before finally being forced to surrender within 6 miles of the Canadian border and the promise of escape to freedom.  Their history and incredible journey is documented in several great books, including: Alvin M. Josephy’s comprehensive and seminal The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest (Boston: Mariner Books, 1997; ISBN 978-0395850114);  Jerome A. Greene’s “Nez Perce Summer, 1877: The U.S. Army and the Nee-Me-Poo Crisis (Montana Historical Society Press, 2001; ISBN 978-0917298820); and my favorite, Elliott West’s The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (Oxford University Press, 2009; ISBN 978-0195136753).

I mention the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce because they ranged across and thrived on the entirety of this rugged, volcanic country, which consists of stupendously beautiful mountains, topping out with several peaks at just under 10,000 feet, surrounding a valley and glacial-carved lake, and which ultimately gives way to the north and east by falling into the wild, untamed Imnaha and Hells Canyon region.  This whole area, which is comparable in scope to the Grand Canyon, actually comprises the deepest canyon in the North American continent, from the rim at or near Hat Point to the Snake River flowing below it — yes, deeper than the Grand Canyon itself, and just as spectacular.  At any point in this entire complex, it’s going to take some real serious effort, and determination, to either walk down into, or hike back up out of, one of these canyons.

Even more notable is the fact that you can “fall” (or fly in a helicopter) from the highest of the Wallowa Mountains, Sacajawea at an elevation of 9,838 feet, to the lowest point of the Hells Canyon, elevation 1,017 feet — a change in altitude of 8,821 feet — all within a horizontal distance of (as I recall) less than 20 miles or so!  Spectacular geography!

All this recollecting about my home terrain is simply to put into context the canyons, rimrocks, and mountains that I grew up in.  The Imnaha River and Canyon and its myriad of tributaries, like Bear Creek, Lightning Creek, Devil’s Gulch, Little and Big Sheep Creeks, and Buckhorn, are the places where I learned to ride — first an old mule named Peanuts, later on canyon-smart horses — and to tend to small herds of sheep and cattle. Learned how to castrate buck lambs Basque-style (don’t ask, you won’t like the answer).  Learned how to avoid rattlesnakes (they still scare the daylights out of me).  Learned not to sit, or fall, on prickly-pear cactus.  Learned to pack enough water, and something to eat.  Learned to shoot.  Learned how to scale the canyon-side trails, chasing after livestock and hunting deer, and later, elk.  Learned how to stay warm, or cool, and not get lost.  Learned that it’d be bad to fall off of a canyon rim.  And learned how to climb over and through barbed-wire fences, the rancher’s stock control and landmarking necessity after the Nez Perce were removed from the country.

Those barbed-wire fences… I took ’em for granted as a kid, and even in my memories as a grown-up.  But having traveled around other parts of the country, and having helped friends and colleagues build fence in easy places like Colorado, Kentucky and Indiana, it finally dawns on me that there is and was one feature of fence-building in the Wallowas that makes it unique from nearly every other place in the USA that’s ever been fenced:  Rockjacks.

You see, you simply cannot drill a hole in the dirt for a fence-post in the Imnaha and Hells Canyon country.  It’s all a complex, unyielding volcanic layer cake, which was deposited sometime between 300 million and 17 million years ago, and then eroded over the geologic eras since then into the complex of canyons there today.  Much of that erosion happened as little as 15,000 years ago, during the enormous post-Ice Age floods released from ancestral Glacial Lake Bonneville (Utah) and likely some backwash from the Missoula Floods from ancestral Lake Missoula (Montana & Canada) which swept through eastern Oregon and Washington, and which together are responsible for the Columbia River Gorge (between central & western Oregon and Washington) itself.  Those floods left little — almost no — topsoil at all in the canyons complex.

What you walk on, and build fence on, is volcanic bedrock, at any elevation up or down canyon.  You can’t pound a post-hole by hand.  You can’t get a tractor with an auger anywhere close to where your fence is gonna go.  So what holds a canyon rancher’s fence up?

A rockjack in the Wallowa country

A rockjack.  Basically, it’s a rough and open box, square or triangular in shape, filled with rocks, of which there are usually plenty about wherever you decide to build a rockjack.  Properly constructed and filled with local granite rock, the rockjack weighs in at anything between a few hundred pounds to maybe a quarter of a ton or more — certainly adequate to tie four or five strands of barbed wire to, and to take the tension of tightening those wires between it and the next rockjack.  Between ’em, you simply set up rough posts or rails (hand-split from tamarack), and hammer in staples to fix the wire to each post at, say, 20-foot distances, supporting the fence until the next rockjack — it could be a hundred, or several hundred, feet between ‘jacks, depending on terrain.

What you end up with is an incredibly durable, if ugly, makeshift and labor-intensive, livestock fence.  There are no doubt hundreds of miles of such fencing throughout the Imnaha canyons and up into the Wallowa Valley country, all of it built and maintained by simple physical labor, most of it before there was any mechanized means of hauling the materials (posts or rails, spools of barbed wire, staples, fence pliers, wire-stretcher, etc.) to the site — which means that all materials, plus grub and drink, were hauled in by manpower, on foot, or possibly on mule- or horse-back.  In later years, any assist from a 4-wheel-drive pickup would be confined to the rim-tops or canyon bottoms — the vehicle-inaccessible bits, miles of it, are reached by hiking in.  And all built by-hand, back-breaking labor.

Much of the still-existing canyon fencing would have been constructed in the last decade of the 1800s and throughout the first several decades of the 1900s… but I know from experience that ranchers are still building fencing, using hand-built rockjacks at the corners and along the stretch, to this day.  There’s simply no other way…

In the Wallowas, rockjacks are:  anchors (they hold your fence up in the face of extremely harsh elements, weather and livestock stampede);  bulwarks (to withstand multi-wire tensions of hundreds of pounds-force);  portals (as in the barbed wire gate between two rockjacks);  separators (as in “your ranch on your side, mine on my side” and “good fences make good neighbors”);  landmarks and meeting places (as in “I’ll meet you at the third rockjack from the top of Cow Creek Canyon”).

That’s a rockjack.  Seems to me like a good enough name for a blog.

Some other places to see, and read about, rockjacks:

  • Home on the Range with Bunchgrass Beef — One of my favorite bloggers, Sara Miller Hale, who runs the Magpie Ranch with her husband Mike and family, on the Zumwalt Prairie and down into the Hells Canyon country.  She is simply eloquent in describing their ranch life.  See in particular her article “Rock Jack King,” which partly inspires my own ideas here.  Thank you, Sara!
  • And for more photos of this awesome Wallowa/Imnaha/Hells Canyon country, see Sara & Mike’s Picasa Gallery.  Brings back wonderful memories for me, makes me want to “go home.”  I hope to meet the Hales someday!
  • A local online newspaper article, “Wallowa County cowboys race to build rockjacks…” — yup, they manage to turn this into a competition sport.  The photo features an old high-school buddy of mine, Casey Tippett.
This entry was posted in rockjack, Wallowa and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to What’s a rockjack?

  1. Jason says:

    Great read.. as I am from Wallowa county and roots are with the first settlers of the valley.. they settled and thrived with the Nez Perce. And yes there are some rock jacks still in use from the good old days. I just replaced a fence that my great grandfather built in the bogs of Wallowa at the mouth of the minam canyon.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I hiked out of hell”s canyon in 1973 with a chainsaw over my shoulder. airlifted out by helicopter after a mamouth fire swept through the country. thanks for the memory.

  3. Pingback: Portfolio | The Rockjack

  4. I loved this muse. Never knew anything about RockJacks…very ingeneous. Our ancestors were all about results. That is why we are the great nation that we are. Will definitely be back to read more of your posts!

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