RSS Feed

She Always Knows

Posted by Sharon Labels: ,

In the last post, I tried to put into words how I felt about moving to my new property in Alberta. The best I could do was to say I just didn't feel like starting over. I had been in B.C. 30 years and was living the dream on my own property - I would miss the mountains, the people.

I may not have been the only one with those feelings.

I knew long before I moved I didn't feel the joy I should have to be re-locating. When someone congratulated me on the sale of my property, I had to hold back tears. As I went about daily chores on my property, it hurt to know I had to leave it. As the time approached though, I was too busy to think  much. There was a job to do, a big job, and that took all of my energy. The animals, of course, (or so I thought) were oblivious to pending changes. Mischa happily hopped into the truck thinking we were going on an adventure and the horses loaded into the trailer thinking clinic, trail ride?? For sure they all thought we would be returning.

On the property in Alberta, Mischa was not happy. She didn't eat for a few days and did not want me to leave her in the house even for a few minutes. Finally, she accepted what she couldn't change.

It took Silk longer. When I turned her and Mistral into the pen under the trees, she spent a lot of time gazing off in the distance, like she was thinking deep thoughts, which I'm pretty sure she was. At eighteen years, she apparently did not take change that well. Although Mistral seemed only a little displaced, Silk was sad.


Since she is so connected with me, I had assumed she would be fine with the new property as long as I was with her. But she was longing for something that I couldn't provide. I didn't get it.

Or did I? Wait a minute. Connected to me. Of course. That was the answer.  She mirrored my mood as she always had - the pensiveness, the lethargy! It was like looking at myself... And is it a coincidence she stood looking west? No, I think not.

It was not the first time or will it be the last that Silk will pick up on feelings I think I have hidden, like another time she tuned in to me in She Breathes on my Heart. As a friend of mine said to me after watching Silk in a Working Cowhorse competition, "What a mare!"

And so this post is for Silk, my little warrior and my heart. She never lets me down, even when I do. Although she is truly a talented mare athletically, it is her intelligence, grit and telepathic abilities I love. She picks up more from one meeting with a person than a psychiatrist could in ten! And she ALWAYS knows what I am thinking. Every horse person should have one like her.
Silk (left) with Mistral looking happier today.

Hug your horse and have a great day!

A Mighty Move

Posted by Sharon Labels: ,

A month has passed since my move to Alberta. What a month it has been!

It all started a year or more ago. As most of you know, I was living on 93 acres in the Chilcotin area of British Columbia and loving it. I had bought the property in 2006 and proceeded in the ensuing years to develop it. Although a beautiful setting, it was not horse-friendly at all when I purchased it. I immediately had all the perimeter fencing done and water bowls and hydrants installed. Next on the list was a barn, which I designed myself. I called these projects "The Big Three".

I never stopped improving my property - a log gate (peeled the logs myself), pens for the horses, a bigger arena (cut rose bushes and pulled roots for a year), a river stone fire pit, perennials, a vegetable garden. I created endless work but I loved what I created. I bred, raised and trained horses and coached students in the peaceful setting. I did not think I would ever leave.

As the years passed, however, (and with some pressure from others), I began to think I should re-locate to a not-so-remote place. I advertised the property and in October 2016, it sold.

I didn't even know where I would or should go! Initially I thought the Okanagan would be a good choice but a property hunting trip there underlined what I knew already - I could not afford to move the horses and I there.

Next I started checking out Alberta since two of my children are in Calgary. That quest led me to purchasing a 4 acre property between Sundre and Olds.

Now comes the hard part. I was moving because I felt it was what I had to do, not what I wanted to do. I had put real roots down on my little paradise. It was mine, what I had made it to be, and it was hard to leave. I could not lose an overwhelming feeling of there being no place for me if I left but, as I have done all my life, I put one foot in front of the other (and my mind) into preparing for the move. I had done this before - first from Saskatchewan to Armstrong BC, then from Armstrong to Hanceville - both times by myself.

I knew it would be a daunting job and it was. Fortunately, I had a few months to pack up but as the days passed, tension mounted. So many details besides packing - cancel utilities, sign up for utilities, organizing the move. And accommodating the new owners of my property, who moved a lot of belongings in before I was out. I started lists - one for me and one for the new owners with as many contact numbers and notes that I could think of. I even used up the stain on the deck to give it a new look and painted shelves and walls in the basement with leftover paint. Never let it be said that I left a mess!

Before the movers arrived, I considered which boxes, etc would go with me and the horses (why pay movers if I could take with me?) and when they arrived February 21, I was ready. I had been worried all winter about the road out and had stockpiled sand and salt to help if needed but the weather cooperated. It was a long day but my belongings left as planned.
Now the final push began. Friends from Alberta were going to arrive February 23 and would haul some of my five horses back. We planned to leave about noon on the 24th but since I did not have to vacate until the 28th, that date allowed for a weather delay. Until then, my time would be used in the final packing and cleaning up. My young friend Sarah helped and we scrubbed cupboards (slow tedious job) and walls. I either overestimated how much we could get done or underestimated the work to be done because we could not get it completed to my satisfaction.

My flat deck (loaded with feed tubs, water troughs, hay and barn paraphernalia) I parked at Chilco Ranch to pick up later.

On the 24th, a snowfall gave me cause to re-think the departure. I certainly was not going to put my horses in danger on the road. However, we (my Alberta friends and I) washed ourselves out the door and left at 2:30, packed to the gills - horse trailer, living quarters, back and front of the truck.


After the hectic departure (loading the mares was the easy part!), it was almost pleasant to be on the road. I knew that, although I would sometime visit friends in the Chilcotin, I had driven away from my little paradise for the last time.

I had arranged an overnight in Clearwater at a friend's place, an easy drive that first day. I phoned Lorene that we would be late but that I was still bringing lasagna and she said they would wait dinner. After the mares were tucked away in stalls, Bill, Marion, Jim, Lorene and I sat around the table exchanging horse stories for a bit before we all retired to bed. The next day would be a long one, we knew (I didn't guess how long...)


The first part of the drive the next day went fairly well. My horses all rode well and no mechanical problems either. We passed through several snow squalls but nothing serious until we left the mountains. As we drove east towards Edmonton, the storm worsened and, although I knew the other outfit was somewhere in front of me, we had become separated. When I pulled over to close a window on the trailer that had dropped open, I called Marion on the cell to let her know I was still on the road.

The already poor visibility became even worse when I turned on to highway 22 to head south - and it was dark! After sliding through a couple of red lights in Drayton Valley, I started looking for a place to get off the road. I didn't know where Bill and Marion were but assumed they were ahead of me since they had long ago disappeared into the snow. I would phone when I was stopped. I didn't want to just pull over for fear of being hit on the highway and eventually I saw a chain link fenced area off the road with a building and a car parked in front. I drove in, dug my fur parka from behind the seat and braved the weather - snow swirling in a strong northerly wind - to walk to the building and ask questions. It turned out I could not park there because the gate would be closed right away. The man told me however, that there was a gravel pit just down the road and he would lead me to it. I pulled in there and parked on the leeward side of a semi trailer to break the wind. The cell service was terrible though so I could not get word to Marion.

 I thought I would spend the rest of the night there but in a couple of hours the snow let up and I hoped I could creep along at least to Rocky Mountain House. (36 km) As soon as I got on the highway I knew I should not have moved but I did make it to Rocky. I parked the outfit for the night and phoned Bill and Marion, who were home in bed, to tell them I would continue in the morning.


I felt sorry for Cameo and Sapphire, already in the trailer for too many hours but they were so good - no tromping around or fussing at all. Mischa, behind the seat, was good too. I didn't get much sleep though because it was cold. I couldn't sleep when the truck was running and it didn't take long to cool off when it wasn't. At 5:00 A.M.  I walked to a 7/11 for coffee, took Mischa out for a bit, crawled into the trailer with hay for the mares (because the windows were frozen shut) and carefully started down the highway again. I arrived at the Brown's at 7:30 AM. I think my animals were in better shape than I was!

After unloading Cameo and Sapphire and tea with Marion, I headed to my new property. Home, even if it didn't feel like it.


Later that day, Bill and Marion brought their outfit over and we unpacked the two trucks, trailers and living quarters, including deep freeze which had travelled in the front stall of a trailer. It was a tight squeeze to get it in the utility room but we did it. And that night I spent the first night in my house - on the sectional I had bought from the previous owners because I did not have my furniture yet.

Without a chance to take a deep breath, the furniture arrived next morning at 8:30 AM. To say I was exhausted at the end of that day would be an understatement.


A visit from the Telus and Bell technicians and several phone calls took up some time in the next two days and then back to BC I went for the flat deck. More snowy highways on the way back but finally, on March 4, all my earthly belongings were in Alberta.

All the horses were still at Bill and Marion's since I knew I had to make another trip but the first thing I did was get Silk and Mistral. It felt a little more like home with horses here!


And then came the real work. Little by little I unpacked boxes. Most afternoons I drove to Bill and Marion's where Cameo, Sapphire and Perfect still were, to ride in their indoor arena.



And now, again, I can start over. I do not have a barn but hope to be able to afford a shelter for the horses. I have been removing and repairing barb wire fences (it was deja vous rolling the barbed wire exactly how I did the first days in the Chilcotin) and will be putting in posts (more deja vous...) when the ground unfreezes. I am planning a garden and will have to kill and otherwise remove grass (like I did in the Chilcotin) to make it. I hope to make a fire pit and leisure area as well and there's lots of painting to be done. The list goes on...

And how do I feel about all this? To be honest, it's not the same as when I moved to Hanceville ten years ago. I was excited and eager to dive into projects then. This time I'm having a tough time making the transition.There's a sadness with this move that I can't lose. Possibly I'm tired; maybe I'm just overwhelmed, a new feeling for me. (Statistics do say moving is way up there on the stress meter...) I'm working on it. More about that next post.

The Road Not Taken

Posted by Sharon Labels: , ,

 
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
~Robert Frost from The Road Not Taken
 
 

Sometimes it's impossible to know what will evoke emotion, especially in yourself. It all started with a phone call from my son.

Shayne called from Tisdale, Saskatchewan, where he was on a work assignment. Only a few kilometers from where he grew up and went to school over 30 years ago, he had embarked on a nostalgic journey of Bjorkdale School and the two properties where he had resided with the family. One of those was an acreage we had owned and lived on for 10 years.  

 "Did you take photos?" I asked. He told me did and would send them to me.

 I had not been back to the Crooked River property since 1988. I knew no one was living there and the mobile home was gone. I assumed the yard, barn and fences were in disrepair. I was not sure I wanted to see the old place rundown and empty, but Shayne told me it was "pretty cool" to go back and memories he had long forgotten had surfaced. I waited for the photos, interested and curious but in no way prepared for the jolt they would give me.

 My husband and I bought the Crooked River acreage – bare land – in 1977. We moved there in July with our three children, a few cattle, a bunch of horses and six Samoyed dogs. We had pastures for the stock but quickly built a dog pen and a hip-roofed, two sided shelter for the two stallions. If I remember correctly, one had to stay tied to the trailer for a few nights. Since hydro and water were not yet to the property, we hauled water and cooked on a Coleman stove. Arrangements were made to put in a well, get the hydro in and build a barn. We didn't think there would be any problem getting everything up and running before fall until... an accident in the "rescue race" at Nipawin Fair sidelined my husband with broken ribs and internal surgery. He was on crutches and useless. I said later that we probably got things done faster with him laid up because friends and neighbours pitched in, putting up fences, roofing the barn and helping us in any way they could.

 This was home, mortgage and all, and it was ours.  I did not foresee any changes in the near future. One year later, my husband and I separated.
 
The separation rocked my world, but, by mutual agreement, I stayed on the property with the children, assumed the mortgage and began life as a single mother. Of course I needed income and so I opened my doors for business – horse training! I took any horse I was asked to and I rode. At least spring to fall I rode; in the winter I raised Samoyed puppies. As well, I stood a stallion and raised some foals. In between the horse work, I got my kids off to school and ran them to various activities, planted, tended, and harvested a large garden and landscaped the yard – with the help of my children. We planted rows of trees and kept them hoed, seeded a big lawn, fenced the lawn with a wagon wheel fence that was my pride and joy, planted shrubs, fruit trees, perennials and lots of annuals. Even now, so many years and several homes later, I believe my Crooked River yard was the nicest of them all.


Fast forward to 1987. Shayne and Cindy had graduated and Lana was starting grade 11 in the fall. My mother and father had both passed away. Other than friends, there was not anything holding me to Saskatchewan and it was becoming increasingly difficult to make a living with only the summer months to ride. I had always loved B.C. and had a friend there. Should I stay with the familiar or embark on a new trail? Another road beckoned. In October 1987, Lana and I moved to Armstrong B.C. with two Samoyeds and six horses.

****
 Shayne's photos were on my email the next morning. As I looked through them, nostalgia changed to something else. After years of never looking back, I found myself lost in the past. I did love that property and was proud of what I had done with it. Unbidded, the memories flooded back – parties, barbecues, hours riding in the arena, picking bushel baskets of peas, a bouquet of cut flowers… At that moment I wished I had not left, had chosen the other path. Yes, it is run down but good vibes are still there. The mobile home is gone but the porch still stands housing the water tank in the basement beneath it and the sump pump I had to keep running because the water level was so high. So is the tree that shaded the deck (can't remember what kind it was) and the beautiful weeping birch that stood at the corner of the home.
 
2016 - Only the porch that was attached to the mobile home is here now.
1983 - porch and deck are behind tree at left
Separating the lawn from the vegetable garden was a long lilac hedge. Multiple photos were taken with the hedge as a background! The lilac hedge is still there – untrimmed for many years now but I'm quite sure faithfully blooming every spring.


Lilac hedge in 2016 - Photo above was taken to the extreme right with hedge behind
2016 - Lilac hedge from garden side. Porch is behind hedge.
Lana, Cindy and Shayne June 1982 in front of the lilac hedge.
Shayne's photos show the barn still stands, in poor shape but standing. The granary, shed, hip roofed shelter and round pen are not there but the pens are, with a few minor changes. I used to mow the entire barn area so it always looked neat and tidy.

2016 - The barn as it is now.

1983 - The barn, granary, and hip-roofed horse shelter.

More of Shayne's photos of the barn in 2016.
The front of the barn facing the house. I went in and out of this door with training horses every day.
Side of barn next to trees.
2016 - Back of barn.
My beautiful pens have taken a beating over the years but they're still there.
 
2016 - view of the pens from the what would have been the deck in front of the house.

1987 - View of pens from the back lawn looking east.
1987 - Shadow in one of the pens.
"Your arena is grown over," Shayne said. I expected that.
 
2016 - My arena was the other side of power pole (photo looking west).
1983 - Working a horse in the arena (across from the barn)
1983 - The power pole in the 2016 photo is seen here but looking east. Our "beef" is tethered in the background.
And so the Crooked River property is the "road not taken" when I considered two paths in 1987. I live in the present so never thought much about my old home place after I left. But now, almost thirty years later, looking at the photos, I feel more than a little twinge of regret. Maybe I should have stayed on this property... What would my life be like if I had stayed? Would there have been another path to tempt me? And most of all, why do I feel such a draw back now?

For two days I have been thinking about the effect these photos had on me. It's difficult to name the emotion that washed over me as I flipped through them. A friend said, "It's heartbreaking to see all the landscaping gone." Heartbreaking - yes - but they brought back warm feelings too. My children and I lived, loved and worked here. My business started here. Some tough times but so many happy occasions. A peaceful, pretty place to live. And it still is...


2016 - A wide view of the property taken from the road in.

2016 - Shayne standing on the road (now a trail) to the property. Behind him at the corner, he boarded the school bus every school day morning with his siblings. It doesn't take any effort at all for me to 'see' the bus there as I did so many mornings.
It may be a few days until I settle back into the present, a few days until I don't have a overwhelming urge to stand in the yard as Shayne did. But I chose another path long ago and, in the words of Robert Frost: 
 
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 
~Robert Frost from The Road Not Taken


"I Would Have Thought They Would Have Been Lined Up!"

Posted by Sharon Labels: , , , , ,


     I first started planning a trail ride in the Rainbow Mountains of Tweedsmuir Park in 2009. I asked two couples to go with me but several weeks before departure date in August, one couple backed out and the second couple was waffling. Plans went sideways anyway when wildfires closed the park. In 2010, wildfires again closed the park and I shelved the whole idea until last winter, when a young man I had given riding lessons to contacted me. He asked if I would be trail riding in the summer and if he could go with me. I told him about the Rainbows. "We'll do it," I said.

     After our conversation I brought up all the information I had on my computer – notes, maps, photos – and started making plans for a ride in August. Some time in the winter a second person approached me about riding with me. I thought I had a plan B but she soon decided it would be too much for her.

     As the months passed and still no one confirmed that he/she wanted to ride with me, I branched out. I asked two or three friends but due to commitments, costs or lack of interest, no one took me up on the offer. A Facebook post hinting at a once-in-a-lifetime trail ride adventure yielded a couple of "I would love to go with you's" that fizzled out. If I was going to see the Rainbows on horseback, I would be riding alone. Determined, I proceeded with my plans. I studied maps carefully and decided on a route but since I had not ridden these trails, I could not be sure my timeline would be accurate. I had originally planned a four day ride when I thought there would be two or three of us but I decided three days would be enough by myself. For safety reasons, I bought a DeLorme InReach so I could stay in touch with family and friends. I watched the weather forecast for the best possible three or four consecutive days and finally settled on August 19-21. I would be riding Mistral, a 6 year old mare who had been on only one trail ride (Where she was lost in the wilderness for five days. See Lost in the Potatoes) and Legacy would be the pack horse.

     I drove to the trailhead on the afternoon of the 18th, settled Mistral and Legacy for the night with hay bags and myself in the camper of my horse trailer. The next morning, I saddled and packed up (sounds fast but in fact took me quite a while by myself), slung a back pack on me with emergency items (in case I got separated from the horses) and my camera and headed into "unknown-to-me" territory.

 

     A sign at the trailhead warned of bears – no kidding! I had belled Mistral hoping the steady clanging would ward them off and, for the first time in my life, I had bear spray but I knew it would be a wreck if we came across a grizzly. Mistral, especially, was on looking for something to happen. I will never know what she saw on her five days lost in the wilderness last year but it's safe to say she saw grizzly. The experience changed her. I knew she was having déjà vous moments.

     I followed a rocky trail along what might be East Branch Creek with no difficulty though light forest sprinkled with fireweed with very little change in elevation. Mistral was fresh but the day was warm and sunny and I was relaxed and eager with anticipation. I woke from my reverie with a jolt when Mistral leaped into the air. (This was the first of a few times on the ride that a lifetime of riding saved a serious wreck – I stayed in the middle of the horse!) At first I thought Legacy's lead rope had slipped under Mistral's tail but that was not the problem. A stumpy tree had scratched her belly and apparently she thought something had bit her! I might thank her for the wake up call though because I discovered my oilskin coat, tied behind the saddle, had fallen off. I had to back track and pick it up (almost back at the trailhead).

     A sign (almost missed it because it was laying flat on the ground) indicated the junction of Octopus and Crystal Lake trails. I turned right to Crystal Lake.The unmarked trail wound around through the trees and over small streams for a few kilometers. I was tracking the trail on my GPS but was very conscious of not losing it in the bush. A few times I had to look closely as there had not been any recent horse traffic. I also worried about the bogs and once I stepped Mistral into one. Fortunately, she came right out and I found a drier way through. According to the GPS, we gained about 700 feet to a semi open area and, a short while later, a small lake where I stopped for lunch.

     The weather was perfect – sunny but not too hot – and, since I had skipped breakfast, I wolfed down a sandwich and coffee from the thermos. It was here, for the first time of several that I wished I could share this moment with someone. Instead, I sent a message on InReach that I was okay.
 
Lunch break
 After lunch the mares and I followed a sometimes faint but reasonably easy to follow trail with ever amazing vistas opening up all around us. The semi-open terrain was much more to my liking than the trees and I was beginning to see where I was going and what was ahead. A few cairns marked the hard-to-read trail and once in a while an orange ribbon was tied to a tree. I felt like I had a better chance of avoiding a grizzly encounter when I could see more around me.


I knew I should reach Lester's camp before long and had no problem recognizing it when we did. It would have been a great place to camp had the timing been right as it is sheltered and boasts a bear locker and a toilet (open air kind), water and grass near for horses. I tied Mistral and Legacy, finished my coffee, checked the InReach and took a few photos.

 
     I am going to try to describe this experience now but words will no doubt fall short. First, it is rather humbling to be so insignificant in such vast wilderness, which could be unsettling but in fact for me is deeply peaceful. To be surrounded by nature, indeed, wrapped in it, is therapeutic in a way that multiple visits to a psychiatrist is not. The stress is simply washes off.   Combined with that, though, is vulnerability -  I am at the mercy of the elements I so love and admire. I am never more aware that my horses are my legs and how much I need them.
     It is the responsibility when I ride alone that eventually exhausts me mentally – I am 100% responsible for 100% of the elements of the ride 100% of the time. That means I must find the trail, stay on the trail, keep a keen eye out for possible problems and/or wildlife, keep the horses safe day and night and take great care to not be thrown for any reason. That being said, seeing that pristine lake, that sparkling stream or that snow-capped peak for the first time is a feeling like no other. It is a privilege.



     I stopped for the night at a little lake that had grazing for the mares. I would have liked to ride farther but according to information I could glean from internet sources there would not be a place to camp for several kilometers. I saw that horses had been tied at a small clump of trees so I tied Mistral and Legacy and put my little tent up. Although I have in the past hobbled my horses to self graze, in light of the problem last year and the fact that I was alone, I did not. Thank goodness the flies were not too bad at the edge of that lake where the grass was! I gave them a half hour, ate, and took them back for more before tying them up for the night. Both were belled to scare away bears. This is when the trouble began – the mares would not settle down!


 
     I cannot say how many times I got up in the night to check horses. Finally, I hobbled both. I knew there was more chance of them escaping if they were agitated and that truly worried me. Mistral had been on high alert all day, no doubt remembering her "lost" time in the bear country last year. And they were probably cold and not completely satisfied with their dinner. For whatever reason, they trashed my sleep. (I did appreciate an awesome night sky, though. The stars really are brighter when you are closer to them!)
 
And I was cold even with long underwear, sweats and my oilskin coat on top of the sleeping bag. Then I remembered the foil "emergency blanket" that had been in my back pack for years. (I don't think I ever believed it would work!) What did I have to lose? I opened it and wrapped it around me. Gradually I felt heat - wonderful! Around 5:00 AM, I slept for an hour or so, comfortably warm for the first time in the long night.

I woke to a cloudy sky, quiet horses in their hobbles and ice on the water in the basin. I needed coffee! I downed a couple of cups, then grazed Mistral and Legacy. Then came the arduous job of breaking camp and packing up – by myself. My aching shoulder didn't help – lifting the boxes on Legacy especially – but I got it done.
 
I had had lots of time to think in the long hours of wakefulness. I had planned a circle ride going to Crystal Lake, then Rainbow cabin on this day and back via Octopus Lakes. I knew now that I might not be able to get back to the trailhead in one day from Rainbow cabin, in good part because it took me so long to pack up in the morning. I could take an extra day though if I let my people know at home with an InReach message.  But my shoulder was getting progressively worse. What if I could not pack up? And the weather was changing. It worried me that the horses were so ready to leave me too. If they ever got loose… A bear walking in to camp would mean a wreck that could result in me being horseless and I was pretty sure there was even more possibility of bears where I was headed – down in to the MacKenzie Valley. I decided the sensible thing to do was to be happy with what I had done and try to stay safe. I would head back the second day.

Not before I had seen Crystal Lake though. I calculated that I could go forward to Crystal Lake and still make it back to the trailhead. It would be a long day but if I didn't stop much...

It was cold and windy. Whereas the first day I rode in a tank top, this day I rode in underwear and my oilskin. As we climbed to the barren highlands, the wind blew harder. The sky was threatening rain but thank goodness we did not get wet! Of course the cold wind jazzed up the mares and they wanted to keep moving. I didn't want to get off because I didn't want to have to mount multiple times with backpack, camera and my damaged shoulder. Once my cap blew off, necessitating a dismount I had not planned. I jammed it in my pocket and went bare headed so I wouldn't have to get it again.

The scenery was incredible but all photos I took from Mistral's back. What I would give for a photo of the mares and I with this beautiful back drop, impossible of course by myself. There was not a tree to tie to so I could handle the camera without the horses. I regret that I could not take advantage of such wonderful photo opportunity but thankful for those I did get. Another time? Maybe.
 

    
     The trail across the highlands was really not there at all. If it had not been for the many cairns (thank you, hikers!), I would have been lost. I swear even Mistral started looking for the next cairn! I did find Crystal Lake and, for a moment, considered continuing on through Boyd Pass and down to Rainbow cabin. I really wanted to see that cabin. However, for all the reasons aforementioned, I knew I should turn back. I was incredibly tired and two more days with unknown problems….

 
Crystal Lake
     Mistral was a handful when I turned around! Apparently she thought we should "get out of Dodge" as fast as we could! For almost all the way back to the trailhead, I could not ride her on a loose rein. Poor Legacy, trying to keep up.
 
     I stopped where we had spent the night for lunch, then headed down the trail again. I had tracked our trail with GPS but I didn't need it. I was reminded once again how well a horse remembers the trail. Mistral knew exactly where we had travelled the day before, even on which side of a tree we had gone. We arrived back at the trailer around 6:00 PM - tired, a little sore but healthy. The mares thought it looked like home.
 
     As I untacked and unpacked, I thought about the ride and what all those that I had asked to go had missed. Again, I wished I could have shared the experience with a friend or two. And I thought about the short-but-to-the-point statement of a man whose business it is to take groups into the Rainbows when I told him I was alone because I couldn't find anyone to go with me.
 
     "I would have thought they would have been lined up!", he said.
 
     Indeed. But we both have to remind ourselves that priorities are not the same for everyone. For me, this is the ultimate experience but for others, it is not. Or is it just not worth the risk?

Lost in the Potatoes

Posted by Sharon Labels: , , , , , ,

          Not a leaf stirred. Not a bird chirped. Not a cone dropped in the forest in those moments we rested on the steep, rocky trail. But for the steady rhythm of Legacy's heart against my leg, the soft expanding and contracting of her rib cage and the occasional licking as she moistened her mouth on the bit, the stillness would have been absolute. Grateful for the presence and strength of my little bay mare, I waited for her to air up so we might continue climbing.

      The adventure had started well. On August 8, 2014, Lynne and I happily tacked up at Tatlayoko Lake for a 3 ½ day pack trip into the Potato Range. Lynne rode her good gelding, Free. I rode Mistral, my 5 year old mare and led Legacy, packed. All three are well-bred, trained reining horses.
 
Tatlayoko Lake
We planned only to ride to the top and overnight in a rancher's cabin. The three-hour plus ride, an elevation gain of over 3000 feet, would test the condition of our horses but the weather was perfect, the horses healthy and Lynne and I eager and excited. By nightfall we had grazed the horses, feasted on Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes and tucked ourselves in our sleeping bags on the wood benches. The comforting soft clang of the bells on my horses assured us all was well with our companions.
 
August 8 - Mistral and Legacy when just after we arrived at cabin
 
August 8 - Free (at back), Mistral and Legacy grazing at the cabin
     The next day, under warm sunny skies, we rode the historic Potato Trail to the south end of the Potato Range, taking in ever-changing, spectacular scenery and stopping for a late lunch above Fish Lake, our destination for the night.

Mistral and I leading Legacy with our supplies

Lynn and Free in Gopher Basin

August 9 - Above Fish Lake
 We set up our little tent beside the lake, grazed the horses, and then tied them to trees since there were not any tall enough to high line. We shared the meadows with a few cattle on their summer range but, thankfully, the grizzly, cougar and wolves that inhabit the area didn't make an appearance.

 
August 9 - Horses grazing as we set up camp at Fish Lake.
 
"Super Moon" rising over Fish Lake
       Lynne went to bed early but I stayed up to watch the moon rise, one day shy of full "Super Moon". I was not disappointed although the photos I took don't live up to what I witnessed. Once, during the night, wild clanking of the bells woke us and we leaped out of the tent to see the horses, obviously startled but still tied, staring into the bush. At 6:00 a bellow from a bull woke me again. Apparently we were camped on a trail he wanted to take. I shooshed the cattle back but, awake now, grabbed the camera and took a few photos of steam rising from the lake while I waited for Lynne to get up. After an hour or so, I decided to graze the cold and hungry horses. Since Free would not have been happy if I left him tied, I turned him loose with the shank dragging as Lynne had done the night before (because his hobbles were soring him), hobbled and belled Mistral and lead Legacy away from camp.
August 10 - I wonder if that's the cow that started all of this?
The horses had grazed a half hour or so when it happened. A lone Charolais cow skirted the trees above the grazing horses, distraught and looking for her calf. I saw her only a few seconds before Free who, for reasons known only to him, trotted briskly to the cow.
 
I just had time to think "That isn't a very good idea," when the cow burst out of the trees. Free turned and bolted. Mistral, in her hobbles, lunged after him. Lynne, now up, could only watch as they raced through the trees above our camp and over the hill. I made my way back with Legacy, now agitated that the others had left, quickly saddled her (and yes, I was plenty upset because I know how bad this scenario can be...) and rode down the back trail. When I didn't see tracks, I returned and searched areas around the lake.  Failing to find any trace of the pair, I packed for a longer ride. I suspected Mistral had broken her hobbles but Free's dangling lead shank, sure to get tangled in brush, worried me.
 
August 10 - Lynne took this photo of Legacy and I returning from our first searches. We now know Mistral and Free did run into the trees, then bushwhacked until they got on the trail a few km north.

This shows the vastness of the area Mistral and Free were lost in.

"I'll have to ride down the back trail," I told Lynne." If I don't find them down the trail a bit, I won't be back tonight." Lynne had an InReach, a satellite communicator, and after a crash course in using it, she gave it to me since I was tracking the horses. I told her there was a cabin a short distance away and how to get there but she said she would stay at camp in case the horses returned.
 
"I hope I see you in a couple of hours," Lynne said. She didn't see me for more than two days.
 
I picked up Free and Mistral's tracks (and the mark of the dragging lead shank) about three kilometers down the trail and all the way to the open meadow west of the cabin where we had spent the first night. I felt hopeful – obviously they were headed back to the trailers. I checked the cabin and when they were not there, started down, about a two-hour ride. My optimism evaporated. I didn't see another track.
 
When I got to the trailers, I immediately looked up a phone and made some calls. That's how I met Len and Joanna Knight, who live at Tatlayoko Lake. Then, and in the following days, they provided a base contact, a phone and a lifeline to local connections.
 
I was convinced Free and Mistral had turned toward the lake (and the trailers) when they came off the trail into the meadow at the top but somehow had missed the trail down and tried bushwhacking. If they did that, Free's halter shank could easily tangle in the brush and stop them. I hoped, though, that they would find their way back to the trailers during the night. When they were not there in the morning, I saddled Legacy and headed up to the top again. Much of the trail wound through heavily forested terrain, grizzly habitat. Once Legacy abruptly halted, alert, ears forward, and I yelled. A loud crashing in the bush confirmed what I suspected – a bear was close by. After that, I sang "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" for a kilometer or so
 
Legacy, not in condition for this much riding, was tired. I stopped several times to let her blow. Those tender, bonding moments alone in the bush encouraged me to "dig deeper" for strength – if Legacy could do this, so could I.
As I came out of the trees at the top, I eagerly looked for two sorrels grazing the meadow where I had lost tracks the day before. Nothing. I knew I must rest Legacy for a few hours so I continued on to the cabin and unsaddled. There, I communicated with the Knights and friends from home on InReach to coordinate search efforts. My first priority was rescuing Lynne, who had already spent one night in a tent in grizzly country. I had been told before I left the trailer that Alex Bracewell (Bracewell Alpine Wilderness Adventures), who took guided tours into the Potatoes from the other end, would pick her up (a huge relief) and was waiting for confirmation of that. Again with the help of the satellite communicator, I learned Jordan Grier and Pat Jasper would arrive the next day to assist us in our efforts to find our horses.
 
August 11 - I took this photo when I searched the slope to the crest above Tatlayoko Lake
 
August 11 - I took this photo from the cabin the night I stayed there.
I searched several places in the area in the afternoon and evening, still convinced the missing pair were close since they had not taken the trail down. Then I grazed and watered Legacy and tied her to a tree by the cabin. Even though I had not found Mistral and Free I felt somehow close to them on the mountain. I hoped they would come to Legacy in the night. 

August 11 - Legacy tied by the cabin.
My strength was starting to wane a bit now. I forced myself to eat and drink but I didn't have much food and wasn't sleeping well. After a fitful few hours on a wood bench in the cabin, I made the worst coffee ever on the wood stove and rode the area again – still no clues and no response from Legacy either, who I counted on to alert me if they were near.
 
Jordan and Pat arrived around noon with extra horses. This is when I found out Lynne had not been picked up – now two days in the wilderness alone! With this information, we quickly ate the lunch they brought and continued down the Potato Trail to Lynne's camp by Fish Lake.
 
August 12 - Jordan and Pat arriving with extra horses.
 Lynne was not at the camp when we got there but a note confirmed that Alex Bracewell had taken her to the wilderness cabin I had told her about. We packed up the camp on Legacy and I rode one of Jordan's horses to the cabin.
 
My reunion with Lynne was bathed in relief. She assured me she was fine but had been worried about me.

"I thought you were laying along the trail somewhere," she said.
"You had the hardest job," I told her, "Just waiting with no information."
Lynne said the cows comforted her. They were around the tent the first morning but there was not a cow in sight when she woke up the second day.
When Alex picked her up, he cleared that up for her. "Did you see the big grizzly?" he asked.
"No," Lynne said, "But I guess that explains why the cows disappeared!"
 
Lynne had handled her time alone very well. She told me she kept up a camp routine to keep busy; she studied the little cow herd and their habits; she watched the fish jump in the lake and counted tadpoles (Thousands…). I know she would have much rather been searching with me but she knew how to survive.  Still, the situation was dangerous and one of many times luck was on our side in those trying days.
 
 From Bracewell's cabin we descended to the lake again – at the south end this time, a two hour ride, loaded all five horses in Jordan's trailer and arrived back the north end at 10:00 PM. After unloading Legacy, out rescuers drove home to Hanceville.
 
Lynne, Sharon, Legacy and tack were now back where we started – without Mistral and Free. The next morning we re-grouped.  Get the word out – posters, contacts up and down the road, phone calls in case the horses came down somewhere else – and keep searching. We tried to hire a small helicopter to fly the area but most were out fighting wildfires. Mike King was flying over every day and he checked the Potato Range every time. We talked to a Clifford Schuk, a local rancher, about tracking and he agreed to help. One thing we knew for sure – we were not going to quit! Legacy, however, needed to rest. I had a commitment at home so we decided I would take Legacy home and Lynne would stay with Len and Joanna at the lake. And this is when the full force of the last few days hit me – when I was going to leave the lake without Mistral. Backing the rig out of a tight spot with well-intentioned people yelling directions triggered a melt-down. – everything from "I can't do anything right!" to "I know she's dead!". I cried all the way to Tatla Lake, the only time I cried during the entire ordeal.

On the 14th, Lynne and I talked several times on the phone. I organized things at home with the plan to return on the 15th. Clifford took his quad part way up the trail, then walked. He told us Mistral and Free were trying to return to the lake (and our trailers) but were probably stopped by grizzlies foraging on the slope. This was the area I had stayed in for 1 ½ days with no sign of them but I suspect Free's lead shank was tangled until he broke it, which may account for the fact they didn't come to Legacy when we were there. Lynne and I agreed we had to get back up to the area as soon as possible! Lynne was trying to rent/borrow a horse in the area and said she would start up in the morning if I was not there. With that information, I packed up as soon as I could, loaded Legacy, and drove back to Tatlayoko Lake, arriving at 1:00 AM so I would be there when Lynne was ready to leave in the morning.
 
I rose early and packed up Legacy to go up the mountain again but there was no sign of Lynne. I had no means of communicating with her so I left a note and pointed Legacy up that mountain for the third time. This time I buckled the cow bell around her neck. It would serve dual purpose – to ward off grizzlies and to alert Mistral and Free, who were familiar with the sound. I was prepared to stay on the mountain two days to search and just be there for them to come to. The long term plan was to organize a group to go for a week if that did not work. (Later, on Facebook, a friend commented "I knew you would never give up.", which is how I felt but I suppose the time could have come when we would have to...)
 
I stopped several times on the ascent to listen and even veered off the trail to search for tracks in the trees on the slope. When I reached the open meadow where I had lost their tracks before, Legacy showed no sign of interest in anything besides putting one foot in front of the other, the bell clanging in time with her footfalls. Then, to my right, I sensed movement. I turned my head and what I saw I did not believe – two chromed-up sorrels racing through the brush to Legacy and I! Heads high, manes flying, they tore down the long incline with abandon, with joy and, I think, with much relief. I knew as they ran toward me that they were all right. My chest swelled, my heart pounded and all I could say was, "Oh, my God!" over and over. It is vision that will be forever etched in my memory.
 
I took this photo on the 11th from almost the exact spot Mistral and Free ran from when they came to me on the 15th. Where were they? In the bush with Free's shank hopelessly tangled in trees?
 Mistral and Free were a little buzzed. They milled around Legacy as if they couldn't stand still. Free no longer dragged his long black shank and Mistral's hobbles were gone. The bell was still around her neck though and they both still wore their halters. Free had some marks on his face from the halter, testimony to his struggle with the dragging lead shank and both had scratch marks from trees on their sides but they were okay other than being super alert. I snapped the shank on Mistral's halter and, with Free following, started down the mountain. About half way down I met Lynne (on Sabina Harris' nice little mare) and Clifford.
 
"They're okay, Lynne," I hollered when I saw them ahead of me on the trail.
 
The inner strength Lynne had called on for the preceding five days weakened as she dismounted and approached Free. On Legacy, with Mistral in hand, I watched her attempting to keep emotion in check. I lived that moment with her, a moment we had prayed for for five days.
 
We are acutely aware of how lucky we are to have these special horses back unharmed and are grateful for the many people who helped us achieve that - kind, caring Chilcotin people who put their own lives on hold to help us. I am also grateful to my patient, gutsy mare for carrying me close to 100 km searching for Mistral and Free in unforgiving terrain. Legacy has always been special to me since she is the fifth generation of a strong maternal line of Wildwood horses but the connection is deeper now. If I close my eyes, I am on her back on the Potato Range again. I can feel her muscles under me. I can smell the sweat. I can hear the clacking of her shoes on the rocks. And I can see her head bobbing, ears flicking. It's a memory I cherish.