Horse Trek

Sorry it’s been a few days since I posted – life just seems to have that way of interceding on these things sometimes though, doesn’t it? Anyway I hope my readers (all 7 of you from my last count – heh – c’mon, spread the word people!) haven’t missed me too much, I’ll try to keep this up a little better. And as always, thanks for reading!

So, yesterday (Saturday, Sept 8, 2012) was the 46th anniversary of Star Trek. Not too many shows go back almost half a century and have such a huge following today, especially when the show that started it all only ran for four seasons. Anyway, that sort of gave me the idea for the title of today’s post.

The other day, a friend of mine who still lives in my hometown in Northern Wyoming texted me a picture from East Tensleep Lake. I remember East Tensleep Lake well, because I once rode a horse across it.

East Tensleep Lake is the sister lake to the much larger West Tensleep Lake, which is at the main trailhead and parking area for most of the Bighorn Mountain Range and Bighorn National Forest. If you want to hike in the Bighorns, you more or less have to go to West Tensleep Lake. So West Tensleep Lake is a hugely popular spot in the Bighorn Mountains, people camp at the lake, the trailhead to all hiking destinations is right there, and for the faint of heart that require a room instead of a tent, Deer Haven Lodge is 8 miles down the bumpy gravel road back to the main highway.

East Tensleep Lake is about 15 miles away from its sister lake. It doesn’t get a fraction of  the visitors its sister lake does. Which makes it kind of a nice, a sort of halfway kept local secret. The lakes are named for Tensleep – the little stop in the road of a town at the base of the Bighorns before you start up through the winding Big Horn Canyon and the switchbacks. But make no mistake – Tensleep has been there for a long time, since the days of the old west. It was once a Native American camp that settlers and mountain men were allowed to use as a stopover and a waypoint, ten nights (or “sleeps” in Native American translation) from Fort Laramie by horseback. (Today, that’s about a 6 hour drive.)

The photograph my friend sent me brought back those memories from the Horse Trek, and the time I rode a horse across a lake.

Spring, 1983. I was in 8th grade, my last year of Junior High. I had been in Boy Scouts for two years by this time. Remember that semi-sadistic scoutmaster from previous posts? Same scoutmaster. But I kid – while his methods may have been a little off-kilter and leaning into The Twilight Zone, I am actually being facetious – we all loved our scoutmaster, and that was mostly because Dennis had turned Boy Scouts into a place where he transformed boys into men. He did that by challenging the scouts to push their limits. In short, Dennis made scouts what it was always meant to be.

In my two years thus far in scouts, we had gone on countless campouts, where Dennis’ ghost stories always had a way of getting out of control (stay tuned – I’ll talk more about that this Halloween).  Heh. The campouts were always a blast. Dennis once led an Escape From Boy Scout Summer Camp near Yellowstone National Park by piling 17 scouts in his Bronco and taking us all to Yellowstone. He loved kids, he loved being a scoutmaster, and it showed. He also had a way of breaking the rules – but only a little.

So I come to our weekly scout meeting one evening (I still remember that they were on Tuesday nights!) and Dennis tells us that he has planned a trip that only veteran scouts (yay me!) would be allowed to go on. The trip was strictly volunteer, would cost money to go, and had the potential to put us in harm’s way, thus requiring full waivers from our parents. In other words, the kind of trip today that most parents would go, “You want to take my kid where?  To do what?  ARE YOU INSANE???”

Maybe a small part of him actually was, I don’t know. But if so, it was in a good way, and we loved him for it. I have come to refer to the trip that followed as the Horse Trek. The plan was this: leave by horseback from West Tensleep Lake, and head up though the alpine lakes up there to cross the timberline and on up to the Three Sisters Lakes, Bomber Mountain (the site of a WWII test airplane crash – the plane is still there) and on to the spine of the Rocky Mountains on the Continental Divide, and finally to the base of 13,167 foot Cloud Peak. And then back down. It was a proposition that would leave most grown men with serious reservations, and he was asking Junior High kids to do this. It was a trip that should only be attempted by a seasoned horseman who has handled horses in steep, rugged terrain and is familiar with mountain survival techniques and dealing with wildlife encounters. These things I was not. For these reasons, Dennis stated that any scout who completed the trip would automatically receive their Horsemanship and Mountaineering merit badges – two really hard ones to fulfill the requirements for.

The trip was set for the third week of June. So, I went home and sold it to my mom, who thought the trip was a great idea. (Mom understood something that most do not – if you let your kids put themselves in harm’s way just a little – they might grow up to be responsible, dynamic adults. )  And so, out of a troop of 17 scouts, two of us accepted the challenge, myself and Harry. Harry lived on a small ranch with horses, mules, pigs, and other livestock, so he had a bit of an advantage over me, but I loved horseback riding – what little of it I had done – and was only 14 and thus invincible, and so it was set for the third week of June – just Dennis, myself, Harry, and two horses and a mule.

No, the mule wasn’t for packing supplies as I first thought, this was Harry’s noble steed, King Arthur, a good foot or more shorter than the two quarter horses. Joe was Dennis’ steed – a retired race stallion. My steed was Sox – named for her white Clydesdale – like tufts around her feet. My mom rented Sox for me from Dennis for the trip. Sox was a strong quarter horse mare with a bit of an attitude. She and I got along famously, but she didn’t seem to like Dennis much, as evidenced by the fact that she nipped him on the shoulder one morning. This did not go over well.

The trip was set to last 5 days – a record for scout campouts except for summer camp. We would be responsible for the care, saddling, and feeding of our own horses. As luck would have it, my mom and dad actually had a western saddle from our own short foray into horse ownership years earlier, so I used that.

We got up to West Tensleep Lake at about 9 am the first day, and started unloading the horses (and mule) from the trailer. Did I mention that I was the only one on this trip with minimal horseback riding experience?  I want you to remember that. And we had to get it right the first time – mistakes like a loose saddle on a steep and rugged trail up the side of a mountain are not funny and could spell disaster. Dennis showed me what to do once – then I was expected to do it without complaint. We set out for the first stop – the picturesque Lake Helen, about 7 miles up. This would be our late lunch break if all went well. Our camp for the night if it did not. As it turned out, things did not go well, and the trip was almost over before it had barely begun.

At 7,500 feet (Lake Helen is at 9,900) we ran into trouble – snow – and lots of it. More than we expected for late June. Summer in the Bighorns is basically July and August. The first snow falls in September at those altitudes. A little snow never hurt anybody, but by the time we made it to Lake Helen – which was still mostly iced in – the horses were bucking to avoid getting stuck in the six foot snow drifts, and I was pretty danged proud of myself for not getting thrown from a bucking horse. I could almost  hear the Theme From Rawhide playing in my head as the horses demolished the snow drifts with strong kicks of their rear legs and I held on for dear life, moving with the horse the way Dennis had taught me. And dear God – poor King Arthur just had to fumble his way through the snow trail blazed by Joe (lead horse) and Sox. Did you ever see a mule at a snow camp or a ski area? There’s a good reason for that.

So, we had a decision to make. Pressing on was out of the question – on the other side of the lake the drifts were ten feet in places – we had to turn back. So rather than cancel the remainder of the trip, we decided that we would head back to trailhead and set up camp at West Tensleep lake. From there we would day trip to different destinations throughout the Big Horns, a plan that Harry and I were both all for.

That was a long but kind of neat day. We all settled around the campfire for goulash and smores. Dennis sent Harry back to to the Bronco (it was parked across the meadow about a third of a mile away) to get the axe for chopping firewood. Harry, who was a cool guy and capable enough with King Arthur but was otherwise a bit on the clumsy side, came back with the axe but not the truck keys. He was careful to lock the truck, so the keys were somewhere in a two square mile meadow. Great. After some after-dinner flashlight hunting as the sun set on our first night of the Horse Trek, we found the keys, miraculously, and Harry got a harsh and to be honest well-deserved chewing out from Dennis – mistakes like that in the Rockies sometimes just don’t cut it.

The Rocky Mountains are home to unbelievable wilderness and scenery, but they are intolerant of mistakes. It has to be right the first time in the Rockies, Dennis always said. My dad once told me the difference between the Rockies and other mountain ranges in the United States is that in other mountain ranges when you are not prepared you could get inconvenienced. When you go to the Rockies ill-prepared, you could get dead. I tend to think there’s some truth in that. Still, losing your keys isn’t really the end of the world, and we ended up finding them anyway. Harry went into his tent and cried the rest of the night. I know Dennis felt bad about that, as he and I stayed up talking for hours that night.

Second Day. The Boy Scouts of America strictly forbids firearms on scout activities, but Dennis broke that rule and had a Winchester repeating .44 – .40 rifle with him. There are times when prudence supersedes the rules, and this was one of those times. No one, parents included, had a problem with that. So the first order of the day was for Dennis to check the rifle and load it up on Joe with his saddle (the horses were tied up with us at camp).

We saddled up and set out for East Tensleep Lake. By the time we got there around 11 am, it had started to rain lightly. When you are in the mountains on a horse and it starts to rain, you suddenly understand why cowboys had cowboy hats. If memory serves, my folks bought me a cowboy hat just for this trip, and now I was glad to have it. The trail around the lake was super slick and muddy, and we wanted  to keep going. East Tensleep lake is a pretty small lake, and since most of the snow pack higher up had not yet melted, it had not yet received its seasonal allowance of spring runoff. For this reason, the lake was exceedingly low. To my amazement, Dennis guided Joe out into the middle of the lake and started across. It turned out that the lake was so low that we could see the bottom, and the water only came up to the horses’ thighs. We lifted our boots out of the water and rode our horses across the middle of a lake. The Rawhide Theme started in my head again.

SPLASH!!!!!!!
I looked behind me and saw Harry wading in the lake and four hooves sticking out of the water. Oh, for the love of…….

I circled Sox back and threw Harry a rope from my saddle. Harry got the rope around King Arthur’s head and managed to get him upright. The Rawhide music in my head was pretty loud now. Thankfully, mouth to mouth resuscitation was not necessary. The mule belched out a throat full of lake water and let out a clearly unamused “EEEEEE – AWWWWW!”  To Harry’s credit, he pulled that mule, splashing and dog paddling (both of them) across the lake.  They were soaked to the bone by the time we got to the other side, but only my boots got wet.

We built a fire to get Harry dry, and after a long delay, continued the day’s ride up into the Bighorn National Forest Primitive area. It was here that Dennis demonstrated another important rule of horsemanship – when you dismount and leave the reins in the saddle, the horse might still think it’s “go” time and trot off without you. After watching Dennis run after Joe going  “Joe!  No! Come back here you stupid son of a…!” for a second, I urged Sox on, headed Joe off, and grabbed his reins. Just seemed like the thing to do at the time. Dennis thanked me. The Rawhide music was really loud now. We finally headed back, and Harry decided to brave the muddy trail rather than going for another swim. We had a pleasant camp dinner, cooled down and brushed the horses, nobody lost the keys, and Day 2 of the Horse Trek ended under a sleepy Wyoming mountain sunset.

Day 3. Water re-stocking trip back to Deer Haven Lodge. 8 miles of gravel road, which meant reshoe-ing the horses. There was absolutely no reason we couldn’t have just taken the Bronco and made an hour roundtrip affair of this, except that Dennis didn’t want to lose the parking place he had the Bronco and trailer in. Fair enough. So we set out for the main highway on the gravel road via horseback.  We got to the lodge uneventfully, but the foot bridge across the large stream on the trail just before the lodge was closed for repair. Dennis didn’t want to take the horses on the highway, so we splashed the horses across the stream and the Rawhide music started again – softly.

SPLASH!!!!!

I looked behind me and saw Harry’s head and shoulders bobbing in the stream like a buoy, behind a trail of bubbles and a pair of mule ears sticking out of the water. Oh for the love of…………

But it was a warm and sunny day in the canyon, so we just decided to let the horses graze for a bit while Harry dried out again. Joe and Sox each bent down for a mouthful of grass. King Arthur bent down for a mouthful of grass, pulling Harry in a very neat forward somersault over the top of his head. Harry landed on his back in the meadow. Dennis had forgotten to mention to let go of the reins when the animal bends down to graze. I sort of figured this one out for myself, but you know, different strokes….. Dennis and I started laughing hysterically, pausing long enough to make sure Harry was all right. I almost fell out of the saddle myself, I was laughing so hard. Harry was quickly becoming the comic relief on the trip, albeit unintentionally. I thought he ought to have gotten a merit badge for that.

Apparently the day’s activities tuckered the old mule out too, because about halfway back to camp, the mule stopped and would go no further. He was just done. And there wasn’t even any water ahead.  He just planted his feet and refused to budge. Now you know where the phrase “stubborn as a mule” comes from. It was finally decided that Dennis and I would ride on ahead, and Harry would lead King Arthur back on foot. I stayed behind with Harry at first, but I just couldn’t make Sox walk that slow. I finally went on ahead, and we didn’t see Harry for another four hours, by which time Dennis and I had the grilled cheese sandwiches and coffee ready.

After dinner, I asked Dennis about Joe’s days as a race horse. He told me that Joe had been raced around the country on the semi-professional circuit, then ended up in Northern Wyoming, at which point Dennis had purchased him. Dennis added that I would likely never ride a more powerful horse, if I cared to give him a try. I asked if he was serious, and Dennis then said, “I’ll tell you what, cowboy. You think you can handle him, you take Joe a mile or so back on the road and tell him ‘Full Up.’ Say it loud. And you’ll see. But don’t blame me if you fall off – you’ll be going a darn sight faster than you ever have on a horse.”

So, being stupid and invincible, I grabbed Joe’s saddle. I did as instructed, then got Joe stopped and turned around on the road. I gave him a good solid nudge with my boots and said sternly, “Joe – FULL UP!”  If you’ve never ridden a stallion at full gallop, you should try it sometime. Joe’s gallop delivered as promised, and I had to fully concentrate on moving with him to avoid being bounced right out of the saddle. One problem – he wasn’t responding to my signals to slow down as we quickly approached the trailhead. There was a car at the end of the trailhead that I became convinced Joe was going to jump. He instead just jumped the wooden foot-high parking barrier between cars, thundering into the meadow and jumping a ditch I didn’t even see. I FINALLY got him under control, and brought him back to camp to cool him down and brush him. And I learned something else about horses that evening – a horse that senses that you are not fully in control will often stop listening to you.

Day 4: We headed back into the Bighorn National Forest Primitive Area. We were only about an hour in on a new trail when we came to a fallen tree blocking the trail. Dennis and Joe took a short gallop at it and jumped the obstacle gracefully. Sox and I were next. No problem. (Rawhide……..)  Then King Arthur took a run at it.  (Have you ever seen a mule gallop?  There’s a reason for that.) He landed squarely on his face and threw Harry directly into the bushes. Luckily, the mule was basically unhurt, seeming to have a resistance to his own folly. I really think that King Arthur gave Harry his best effort, the problem was just that this was seldom good enough.  Harry stood up, brushed himself off, unzipped his fly, and urinated in the bushes. This threw Dennis and I into complete hysterics again, with the observation from Dennis that King Arthur had scared the piss out of Harry. Poor Harry.

We pressed on – and most of the wildlife we saw on that trip, we saw all on that day. A black bear stomped quickly away from us. Mule deer are everywhere up there, of course. We ran into a moose, which also tried to quickly  get away from us. In the late afternoon we came to a quiet high alpine clearing. The horses stopped at the edge of the clearing and brayed – their signal to us that there was something in the clearing they didn’t like. (One of many things I learned on that trip – horses are very intelligent – more so than I think they get credit for sometimes. Mules on the other hand…….. well, I must really give King Arthur an E for Effort.) As Dennis and I scanned the ground for possibly a rattlesnake or badger (horses hate both of these) a large grey and white timber wolf, larger than a Saint Bernard, walked out into the clearing from the other side, lowered its head, and glared at us. The wolf was about 50 feet from us. Dennis unbuckled the rifle case on his saddle and retrieved the Winchester. For what seemed like a long time, we stared at this lone wolf, and it at us. It then turned around and trotted off into the woods it had come from. We sat at the edge of the clearing for a moment, both to give the wolf some space, and I think to contemplate the majesty and rarity of what we had just seen. We pressed on, not seeing any further sign of the wolf or any other large animal except for deer, until we reached the high timber line, at which point we decided to head back for camp. The day ended uneventfully.

On the final day of the Horse Trek, we took a short ride around West Tensleep Lake, then broke camp and loaded the horses into the trailer. When I got home, I had 5 days of dirt, mud, and general scruff on me. My mother ordered me to proceed directly to the bathroom. She talked a bit with Dennis, who said that I had been a quick study with the horses and had acted beyond my years a couple of times (like when I retrieved his horse for him, but this went unmentioned). He also said Sox and I had gotten along like old pals, which we had, but then mom always said I have a way with animals anyway. (With the exception of cats, this is actually pretty true of me.)

Mom asked me if I’d had a good time, and I said that I did. But where to start…… well, I’d tell them all about it after a nice long, hot shower.

But what I couldn’t really articulate, to her or anyone else, was an overwhelming sense that something had changed inside of me. Something big. Like I had just done a lot of growing up in the last 5 days because I’d had to. And I knew Dennis well enough to know that this was probably intentional. To me, that’s what the Horse Trek will really always be about – a right of passage into adulthood, into becoming a man. I like to think so, anyway.

The next Tuesday, Dennis had Harry’s and mine Horsemanship and Mountaineering merit badges ready, and presented them to us in a ceremony in front of the troop. We left out, officially at least, Harry’s trip status as the comic relief.  I left scouts a year later as I moved into high school and started that awful Freshman year when I wrecked my leg.

But I had done some growing up, and so I just dealt with it.

Years later, in college, I actually took a basic horsemanship class at the University of Wyoming at an off-campus ranch, a semester before permanently moving to California. The instructor asked me why I hadn’t asked to be allowed to take the intermediate or advanced class – she said my skills with a horse left me with little to learn in the beginner’s class.

Rawhide.

One comment on “Horse Trek

  1. Susan says:

    Amazing experience! Well told.

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