Although the negatives of this back country experience are somewhat numerous, and I could go on for too long, like my previous entry, on the woes of sharing tight quarters in a seemingly endless timeframe with people with less than likable character attributes. However, this next blurb I must dedicate to the bountiful enjoyable aspects of being the Doctor of Rage in the rugged wilderness learning useful and interesting skills from knowledgeable individuals.
One of the biggest events in our monthlong venture is a 28 mile round trip pack mission on horseback, some trailing mules, as we help the wrangler staff bring hay bales up the mountain. The trail to the upper camp, which is over 4,000 feet above the Swan Valley, consists of several steep and rocky switch backs and old avalanche slides, and the staff had to wait until July 9th for the snow to melt low enough to set up camp. We have been periodically going on short trail rides in order to prepare for the journey, and I think everyone was looking forward to the change of scenery and challenge of the journey.
The thursday morning we woke up around 5 am and began saddling the horses and packing the mules for the journey. We started off without incident directly after breakfast further into the mountain range than we have ever traveled before. Given the choice of hauling a mule behind you or not, I chose to manage my horse only in order to be free to take pictures on the way up. After the first steep climb and quick decent over a small ridge we entered an old growth western cedar grove with some trees as big as 5 feet in diameter. I was lost in thought, pondering how these trees survived hundreds and hundreds of years through the harsh conditions of the mountains, and then the acid began to take effect.
Yes… after a long decision process I hastily dripped two drops of the potent potable onto my tongue as I ventured out of my tent to my horse named Skipper who was fed and saddled, waiting patiently. Despite the obvious hazards involved with being second to last on 24 animal pack string I was comfortable with the stuff at this point and felt I could act in the case of calamity. One thing I learned about this job is that it is extremely dangerous, as horses spook like no other creature I have seen. I have tremendous respect for their athleticism, power and grit but I much prefer the company of mules. They are much smarter and surefooted, and as long as you are nice to them and do not cause them pain mules will for the most part be very patient and sturdy beasts of burden.
As we rode along the well worn trail I was very cautious to keep all I have learned at the ready, but Skipper was a well behaved and friendly horse, so quickly I took time to gaze at the mountains thousands of feet up all around. “We’ll be over that far mountain there, yet,” said the wrangler who was riding directly behind me as he pointed to a mass of earth and stone about 10 miles away. He was a wildlife graduate from a small school in Kansas, and we talked for the first time all month for the first 20 minutes of the trip. I liked him, but his presence made me a bit uneasy after I began feeling the grip of the drops. When I was peaking, and felt too high to hold a steady conversation, I would take out my camera if the trail was smooth enough. At the valleys of the trip I would converse further with him about different studies we have taken and different outdoor experiences, and I found a nice groove and felt extremely comfortable on the horse.
As the trip continued we gained elevation, although no one was as high as me. The sun began to become warmer and the trail rougher. As the stock powered us up steep and rocky faces I would have to lean forward all the way to stay on the saddle, occasionally grabbing Skippers mane to ease my weight off his withers. When the trail would hit the switch backs I would look up and see multiple thousand pound creatures (guided by amateurs mind you) who were just moments earlier ahead of me in the string kicking pebbles and dust down at me from above as we wound up the mountainside. I felt trapped against a wall and a cliff. A rider in front, behind and above, there was nothing to do but keep it moving and enjoy the ride. The sheer power of the horses was exhilarating and I found myself smiling widely as Skipper jumped up the inclines into the horse’s posterior in front of me. I felt like shouting out with excitement and laughing hysterically as we approached the raging Lion Creek 25 feet below our narrow trail. The “crick” splashed cool snow melt on us as we trucked on around another pin point switch back. The leaves and branches were pulsating and swaying, the colors vibrant and bright as the sun shone through the cracks in the canopy. All was well until we stopped… suddenly…
Not being able to see ahead I assumed someone was fixing a cinch on a saddle or adjusting a load of hay on a mule, a common occurrence on a pack string. But then, horribly, I heard a panicked “Woa!!” and other inaudible shouts from up above me that sent a terrible shock through my body. Dust flew over the ledge overhead and me and the rider ahead of me glance at each other with the same sort of desperate look. Something was terribly wrong, and the voices only increased with disparity and volume from over the edge twenty feet above my head as the crucial seconds went by slowly, their exact words drowned by the volume of the raging water. Instinctively I hopped off my horse to assist, running past riders who were frozen, either with fear or confusion. As I turned the sharp curve I could finally see what was wrong. I was looking at Butch Mule facing the wrong direction as fellow students and wranglers were frantically adjusting the hay load that had slipped from the mule’s saddle. As I approached the scene I knew there was little I could do to help besides hold the Mules head and talk to him calmly as they unhitched the twisted saddle and removed the load, walking on the edge of an impressive drop off. I felt the situation was under control, and remembered I was tripping balls as the mule’s face wrinkled and waved in space. “Any other mule and we would of had a real problem. This is where we lost one over the edge last year,” the wrangler told us after the load was corrected. I personally have seen much less happen to other mules resulting in way more violent reactions, and in way less dangerous and hectic settings. I gave ol’ Butch a good boy! and returned to Skipper waiting below, avoiding eye contact with everyone. It was a real close call that almost killed me… and my high.
I wonder if any guide student in the history of big game hunting schools had ever done what I had done, and I highly doubt it. Surrounded in awe by the Rocky Mountains on a 24 animal pack string, tripping rocky mountains oysters, I was convinced, without a doubt, that I was the luckiest man on earth. I had successfully fused both aspects of my double life in a spectacular and mind blowing experience, and only wish all of my friends and family that I love and miss could have been there to enjoy it with me. After tomorrow my month of training will be complete, and I will be off to pick up my girl in Missoula as we began part two of my mission in the mountains and head for Shambhala music festival north of the Canadian border. This has been an interesting experience to say the least, and more than anything I have learned a lot about myself and how lucky I am to live in Humboldt County around such positive and beautiful people.