sheep guzzler

Seasonal roads snake across the playa

Seasonal roads snake across the playa

A man came in to the Black Rock visitor center asking to buy a map. He was headed to the northwestern corner of the state, near the Nevadan cartographical point of Vya, whose named presence on maps suggests a town, or at least an active settlement, but no such presence exists anymore. In the 1900s it was a way station of sorts, with a post office and library. Those buildings have stood derelict for more than 70 years. Vya now is little more than an intersection, a point passed by with passing interest at best. Perhaps it is an early settler’s joke: Vya is not a place, but a means of getting from one area to another, traveling via Vya to California or Oregon or some such thing.

The BLM sells a series of topographic maps covering the Winnemucca District, divided into 14 quadrants; one of these, in the top left corner, corresponds to Vya. I suggested that he give it a look. I asked him what he was planning to do out there. “Oh, I’m going up into the mountains to help put in a sheep guzzler. I work with NDOW [Nevada’s Department of Wildlife],” he said. His name was John Reid. A sheep guzzler, apparently, is a watering trough for game, installed at remote and mountainous locations to supply animals with water throughout the summer. The Department of Wildlife manages hunting throughout the state, selling licenses and distributing “tags,” essentially lottery tickets that permit the killing of rare, coveted, closely monitored species. Hunters talk of pulling an elk tag, or an antelope tag, or a mountain goat tag. It is a noteworthy event: some people wait years, decades even, to pull a so-called rare tag, and bagging their trophy is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. NDOW’s best interests, then, lie in ensuring a plenitude of game come hunting season in the fall, for without game there would be no licenses and tags to sell, and without licensing the agency would go broke.

John Reid explained that guzzlers weren’t used just for antelope, sheep and other hunted mammals. NDOW also furnished lifesaving water to the numerous montane game birds: chukar, California and Gambel’s quail, Himalayan snowcock, ruffed grouse, blue grouse and turkey. But the two guzzlers he was to install later that day were for California bighorn sheep. Combined, they would hold 70,000 gallons of water. “We have to build fences around them, to keep out the range cattle and wild horses,” he said. He pointed to where he was headed on the Vya map, and suggested that I go visit sometime. He suggested a half-dozen other spots, all wild and remote and nigh-inaccessible without a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. “This is the best part of the West, right here,” he said, not pridefully but with a touch of wonderment. “People always go to Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada when they want to get away, but I don’t understand why you’d want to drive so far out, when there’s so much to see here. Granted, you really need to know what you’re doing when you explore these mountains, but there’s nothing better out there, if you ask me.”

He thanked me for the map and wished me luck with my adventuring. “Remember,” he said over his shoulder, imparting advice that I would hear and read again and again, and often dispense myself, “always bring a spare tire and lots of water.”

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