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There was a time in my life when I looked down from my lofty horseback perch upon humans carrying their houses on their backs. I hmpfed that backpacking looked like a miserable way to get into the back country. Eventually though, I found myself stuck in a horseless, urban lifestyle with a hankering for the solitude of big mountains.  I explored every nook and cranny I could by car. But my range wasn’t good enough.  My need to go deeper into the back country forced me to surrender my haughty ideals.  I became one of those poor bent figures struggling to lug my house, kitchen, mattress, and dinner up steep, rocky trails and across raging streams that threatened to topple me and my precarious load. 

Backpackers are minimalists. Lighter is better; clothing and gear is rip-stop, lightweight, quick-drying nylon. Cook wear consists of a titanium pot in which to heat water, a Lexar spork, a pocket knife, and dry meals in resealable pouches. When you’re trudging along, minding  your feet, the view constricts. Oh how I’ve longed for the simple serenity of rocking along on the back of a horse, free to gaze in wonder while those four hooves steadily climb higher and higher. 

Enter my friend Janine—a recent retiree with a gentlewoman’s spread and too many horses for one person to use. I’ve been riding with her for a couple of years, now. Last year she suggested I join the Squaw Butte Back Country Horsemen (SBBCH). It’s a service organization dedicated to perpetuating the common sense use and enjoyment of horses in America’s back country and wilderness. Back Country Horesmen is a non-profit that assists government and private agencies in the maintenance of trails and facilities throughout the United States. They lug signs to summits, transport materials for trail drainage and repair, and saw deadfall from hiking

SBBCH's vintage cross cut saw

trails. In wilderness areas, they trade their chain saws for hand saws and cross cut saws. The Squaw Butte Chapter, to which Janine and I belong, is based in Emmett, Idaho.

I’ve attended several rides with the group, the first of which turned into a bit of a rodeo. I’m happy to say, I wasn’t a contestant, merely a spectator in said bronc busting. They don’t seem to mind that I don’t own my own horse. As long as I bring food and a pair of work gloves, I’m welcome.  Funny thing, though—until last weekend, I’d never used those well-traveled gloves. I’d show up at Janine’s just as she’d loaded the last horse in the trailer. She’d say hop in, and off we’d go. I’m not used to being treated like a princess, but what the hay…er hey?

Janine has it all, the big diesel truck, overhead camper with the luxuries of home, three-horse trailer with full range of tack, and even a canoe to top it all off. However, she’s also interested in multi-day pack trips, so on our most recent outing, she was planning to test less elaborate technology…like tent and sleeping bag.  I was thrilled. As nice as it is to crawl into a soft, already-made bed after a long day in the saddle, I do get claustrophobic in the camper. I miss sleeping on the ground with nothing between me and the stars.

So, last weekend Janine and I and two of her horses and a mule headed for, Grandjean, Idaho, which I lazily refer to as the backside of the Sawtooth Mountains. It’s a marvelous area with a large, flat horse camp bounded by the South Fork of the Payette River—perfect for the SBBCH.My backpacker sentiments marvel at the city on wheels that arrives for these shindigs. Diesels hooked to massive horse trailers circle  a communal fire pit, much like the covered wagons did 150 years ago. Happy-go-lucky barking dogs spill from the rigs as children did from the wagon trains. Out come the cast iron Dutch Ovens,  the gas-burning stoves, shelves, tables, chairs, and coolers of beer. Not that I’m complaining, mind you! The food is second only to Ms. Martha. The white-guy fires warm the cockles of a cold camper’s heart.

But at 11:30, when I snuck off to my simple sleeping bag atop a ground cloth, five feet from the horse’s high line, I was aware of the incongruity of my small footprint. My rewards were many: A star-studded sky welcomed each peek of my  eye, then between 6 and 6:30, the conversation of a pair of wolves—mournful and haunting—brought immense satisfaction and a grin to my cheeks. No sooner had the wolves moved on than a symphony of birds began an euphoric overture to the sunrise. Campers began stirring, which brought quiet nickers from the horses. As the sun rose, the nickers became more persistent and the mules began chuckling. Apparently I’d snuck in so quietly during the night, that the horses were quite mystified by the sight of my sleeping bag rising at the waist. As soon as they were assured it was me, not a predator, their demands for breakfast increased. Janine, by the way, chickened out and slept in her camper. She missed the wolves and a whole lot more.

Good morning, Sunshine!

The early risers downed a fabulous breakfast of hearty sausage, bacon, eggs, and hash browned spuds, and were saddled and ready to hit the trail by 8 AM. The first two hours of our ride were a delectable stroll through morning shade on a smooth forest trail. But after a wicked stream crossing, our trail headed for the sky and the shade disappeared. Before long, our trail was impeded by the first of 15 logs, downed by a fire that tore through the area several years ago. Between the logs, the trail disappeared under a blanket of shrubbery which we Scissorhanded with long-handled loppers, while a crew of sawyers took turns on the crosscut saw. I developed a fine appreciation for Lewis and Clark’s painfully slow journey through Lolo Pass. If the shrubbery could get this out of hand in our dry, southern clime, I can only imagine the exponential density of the northern forest.

Finally, our progress was halted by another river crossing. This one was so washed out from record breaking spring runoff, that we could not have safely crossed. We paused for lunch in a shady meadow before heading back for camp, a sooty, sweaty, tired, troup of riders and horses. 

The fireside chat only lasted till about 9 AM that night. We were too pooped to party. The north fork of Baron Creek trail is now passable up to the second crossing, which the Forest Service will need to reengineer after last spring’s torrential runoff blew it apart. Maybe some day, when the plans are drawn and the funding comes in for a new crossing, SBBCH will work on that too. And, finally I got my gloves dirty!