"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?